Friday, October 16, 2015

Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Review

Were you readers sick of me constantly rambling about out-of-date relics? Well that’s about to change! As the enormous logo above this text indicates, I recently played through the latest Legend of Zelda game: A Link Between Worlds. So now I’m finally going to review a current and up-to-date...wait, what’s that? A Link Between Worlds came out when? November 2013?!

Wow, that must be almost as recent as the moon landing, huh? Why are you looking at that?

Okay, I’m pulling your leg on this one. There are many things I fail to keep up to date on, but the Legend of Zelda is not one of them. I played A Link Between Worlds back when it came out two years ago and had a fantastic time. I didn’t write about it then, but a couple things pushed me to play through it again recently. Having just completed Phantom Hourglass, I had a Zelda-shaped opening in my games backlog. A Link Between Worlds has a type of new game+ called Hero Mode, where all the enemies hit harder, and I’d never gotten around to trying it. A let’s play channel I watch called Game Grumps was also starting a playthrough of the game. Last but not least, exactly one week from this post marks the release of the newest Zelda game, Triforce Heroes.

As with any recent, popular game, there’s not much I can say about A Link Between Worlds that hasn’t been said before. But even though it’s easier to discuss things I dislike, I want to get a little positivity in here. So instead of rambling about my least favorite Zelda games, let’s talk about an awesome one. A Link Between Worlds is one of my favorites in the series, and therefore among the greatest games I’ve ever played. I think it’s outright the best in 2D Zelda (and consequently, handheld Zelda). It is a wonderfully crafted gaming experience and I’m going to do my best to describe why.

A Link Between Games

A Link Between Worlds is a spiritual successor to the famous third entry in the series, A Link to the Past. In Japan, it’s literally referred to as a numeric sequel. This is a huge legacy to live up to. I’m sure I’ll talk more about it at a later date, but A Link to the Past is one of the most praised video games in existence. After the weird divergence that was Zelda 2, it went back to the style of the first game while improving almost everything to a massive degree. It set the formula for all future Zelda games and is considered by many to be the best in the series. As far as I’m concerned, A Link Between the World doesn’t just live up to those expectations, it surpasses them. Funnily enough, most of my complaints on the game are the things that are too similar to A Link to the Past.

Although for better or worse, they’ve ditched the bright pink hair.

A Link Between Worlds shares the same overworld (that is, everything not in a cave, house or dungeon) as A Link to the Past. Every major landmark, and even most of the basic scenery such as individual trees and statues, is placed in the exact same location. Many of the dungeons are named the same and plenty of the bosses are reused, albeit with new mechanics. Most of the items you can acquire are the same. A fair amount of music is remixed pieces from A Link to the Past and other Zelda games. Coupled with various other easter eggs and nods to the past, this game recycles an awful lot of content.

You may recognize this as one of my biggest frustrations with Four Swords Adventures. There, it drove me up the wall. Here, it...bothers me, but not near as much. Make no mistake, reusing all this does harm A Link Between Worlds in my eyes. It doesn’t stop it from being an excellent game, but it does diminish the impact it leaves. When you think of your favorite stories, there’s a reason you rarely pick a direct sequel. By so heavily basing itself on A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds will never have the same impact. It’s hard to form the strongest connection with a derivative work, because the ideas it presents are always partially lifted from the original. They have to be in order for it to be a sequel.

And you have to strike a balance and change the right things for a sequel or else you could end up with something that misses out on what people liked in the first place.
...what, this box? I don’t know what you’re talking about, I pulled this image up at random.

The Legend of Zelda typically bypasses this by keeping only basic elements and a general style of gameplay. It changes all the particulars, keeping the same sub-genre but presenting a new world to explore with new game mechanics to compliment the old. In addition to lacking an original setting, A Link Between Worlds also brought in some annoying quirks from its predecessor. Knowing all this, it really is remarkable just how much I appreciate it. The reason for this is that A Link Between Worlds, for all its similarities, changes the most important aspects of the game and nails their execution. So let’s get to that already.

Gameplay that Falls Flat, in a Good Way

There are a couple big changes that A Link Between Worlds made to 2D Zelda. The first of these is a special ability you get early on. Our hero gains the power to merge into walls, walking alongside them as a picture before popping out again. Like all great game mechanics, this isn’t just a fun novelty. It’s actually a brilliant way to add a new dimension to the game, pun definitely intended. A Link to the Past introduced differing levels of elevation. It was artificial and clunky, taking the form of staircases you could walk up or down to “ascend” to a higher level in the room. It was more a neat visual trick than anything they actually made use of mechanically.

Meanwhile, A Link Between Worlds is constantly using merging and elevation levels in new and interesting ways. The ability becomes a natural part of how you play, and fits into the multi-level dungeon design of Link to the Past. You start seeing paths along this or that wall in the same way that say, playing enough Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater will make you notice objects to grind along everywhere. The ability isn’t just for transport either. It’s used to avoid attacks, pop out behind people, and more. 

Why go through a dungeon if you can just waltz around the side? It’ll help if you’re PRESSED for time!

The second big change was item rentals. The typical formula in Zelda games since A Link to the Past is as follows:

Explore the overworld, talking to people and figuring out where to go next;
Find the next dungeon, possibly with some side quests along the way;
Go through first half of dungeon fighting enemies and solving puzzles;
Get new item like a bow and arrow which is applicable for solving the rest of the puzzles in the dungeon, as well as defeating the boss;
 Exit dungeon and explore overworld with new item.

To be clear, I don’t have a problem with this formula. I think it’s a great way to structure a game, so long as the game using it is well designed. But Zelda can stick to it a little too closely at times, and it’s refreshing to see such a long-established series trying something so different.

In A Link Between Worlds, you don’t find items in dungeons anymore. Instead, you rent them from a shop. If you die and get a game over, you have to pay to rent the item again. You can later buy items for a much steeper price, and a side quest allows you to upgrade items you own. One reason I like this change is because money suddenly becomes much more valuable. Though other Zelda games have places to spend cash, they were never tied to anything as desirable as the key items you use. So when Link Between Worlds proceeds to fill in the world with all sorts of extra ways to make money, it’s welcome instead of a needless distraction.

Aha, I’ve plundered this ancient temple for riches! I can’t wait to leave those in my bag all game. 

Another great part of this system is that items no longer cost ammunition or magic power. Instead, everything is tied to a single regenerating stamina meter. The lack of long-term resource management is a shame, but Zelda has never done much with that anyway. If you need extra arrows or bombs, they’ll provide them, and I rarely ran low on anything. But having them as a set resource in the first place meant I didn’t want to waste them, so I shied away from using them in regular combat. In A Link Between Worlds, every item but one has some combat utility. Several of them are very useful, and the ability to use them freely is one of the reasons this game has more engaging combat than any other 2D Zelda.

It’s not the only reason though. An important change this game made from other 2D Zeldas is the ability to walk and slice in any direction. Being locked to 4-directional movement can work for some games, but it’s ill-suited to action combat like Zelda’s. I went back and played A Link to the Past after Between Worlds and it felt clunky by comparison. A Link Between Worlds also has some fantastic bosses. With the exception of one I found them engaging and memorable. They have unique and interesting gimmicks when fighting them, but they didn’t feel too straightforward either. At some point in every fight you can do variable amounts of damage, changing the pace based on how risky you play. Typically you choose between a freeform fight and one with interesting mechanics, but Link Between Worlds consistently struck a balance between the two.

A lot of bosses make returns from A Link to the Past, but I think every one of them is better executed than the original.

Another interesting note about item rentals is that it means you can do the dungeons in any order you choose. In the second portion of the game you have up to 6 different dungeons you could choose to tackle whenever you please. For number of dungeons, it’s more freedom than any Zelda game. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’re not limited by any artificial barriers, and that you have the tools to explore anywhere. But as lovely as that is and as much as I appreciate it, there is a downside. A Link Between Worlds is an easy game, at least for familiar players. The freedom it provides exaggerates this problem, because those 6 bosses need to be beatable in any order. This means that even in Hero mode where enemies do four times the damage, the penultimate dungeons are pushovers.

But I can’t stress enough that this game is still super fun to play. The content is all well-crafted, from fights to puzzles to exploration. I’ve got my complaints, but it’s solid at worst and excellent at best. Of course, there’s more to a game than its mechanics. Let’s see how it fares in terms of story.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Get it? Because this is a game where people get turned into paintings? And we’re talking about the story now? Eh? Eeeeeeh?

Zelda stories vary in tone, quality and quantity, but I think it’s fair to say that they’re all pretty basic. Knowing this, and also the fact that this was a successor to Link to the Past (a bland story by all means, though I’ll get into that another day), I wasn’t expecting much from Link Between Worlds. I ended up pleasantly surprised. Link Between Worlds doesn’t have as much story as a typical 3D Zelda. It lacks as many memorable characters, arcs or a unique setting. Despite that, it tells a basic story well, and there are two reasons why.

The first is that the tale is more character-based, something my brain can’t seem to shut up about since I examined the story in Final Fantasy 6. The biggest example of this is the seven sages. In A Link to the Past, you had to rescue seven sages. Those sages are an exercise in how not to write characters. I’ll grumble about them another day, but they had absolutely no personality or even names to speak of. You feel nothing saving them because they only exist to be saved. A Link Between Worlds takes a cue from more recent games and makes all of the sages people you know. Then when you rescue them they say something related to their role and personality, rather than reheating exposition for you.

The second thing to note about the story is that it has a satisfying ending. There are a couple twists I won’t spoil, which have varying degrees of foreshadowing but are actually rather clever. You know what makes them work more than anything? They’re both based on characters and their motivations. They don’t just make sense on a technical basis, they make sense as the actions of specific people with personalities and arcs. There’s not much else to say about it without spoilers, so let’s get to our traditional end section.

The Part Where I Just Rant About Music

The only thing holding back Link Between Worlds from having an astounding soundtrack is the same thing that held it back elsewhere: It’s obligation to A Link to the Past. Many songs are just remixes of Link to the Past as opposed to original pieces. They’re decent remixes but they’ll never have quite the impact of an original. Fortunately, Link Between Worlds has new music as well, and most of it sounds fantastic. Credit to composer Ryo Nagamatsu, who I didn’t even know existed before this game but is now someone I’ll definitely watch for.

His only previous work where he was the main composer was the Wii U launch game NintendoLand. Though most of it is also remixes, the game has some good tunes.

Beginning Field is a fitting place to start. Playing when you first step out to start your adventure, it has a lovely early morning feel to it. I’ve always suspected that I’m biased towards string instruments, having played both guitar and viola in the past. This song certainly scratches that itch, with a crisp backing guitar and staccato (sharp and separate) strings with just the right amount of vibrato (vibration of pitch).

The Minigame music to this game is another piece where upbeat strings get some spotlight. In combination with the flute, percussion and clapping it hits an energetic, Celtic sort of sound. It’s like something you would hear in a river dance competition, in a good way.

Eastern Palace is the music for the first three dungeons of the game. You may recognize it as a remix of the same theme in A Link to the Past. I’m mentioning it to show that even the unoriginal music in this game can stand out. The original version is a nice song, but I prefer the new one. It has a grander orchestral set-up and a wider range of sound. It starts off very soft and subdued, even as it gets into the main loop. There’s a great anticipation to the softly plucking strings and wood block as the song builds to its peak with a majestic brass lead. Though obviously part of this is based on sound limitations of the day, the newer version sounds so much more authentic. Despite the fact that it’s all synthesized, the composer of this game did a great job in getting instruments to sound like live performances.

Thieves’ Hideout is one of the seven dungeon themes in the latter section of the game. An interesting thing to note is that all seven of these dungeons are based on the same melody. However, unlike A Link to the Past, the music to each sounds wildly different. Thieves’ Hideout is where the melody is strongest and easiest to identify, so it’s a good one to start. Again, those strings sound great, with the low ones getting a great full sound not often heard in digital music. The melody is memorable and fits the mood of this sneaky, adventurous dungeon well.

Ice Ruins still has that recognizable melody, but it sounds completely different. The new tone fits the giant ice fortress hanging precariously above an underground shaft. The pace is slower, with high-pitched oscillating whines, reverberating chimes and piano that lend themselves toward carefully navigating above a precipitous drop.

You could say the composer really kept their cool with that one. They did a nICE job. The tune really melts my heart.

Desert Palace took some deliberation to present, as every dungeon has an interesting theme. But I wanted to show this one not because it’s my favorite, but to showcase how different they can be. It’s very hard to tell that this is the same melody as the other dungeons, and it shows some serious contrast in terms of instrumentation. A single droning low note and subdued drum beat are all that back the echoing choir. I don’t know that I’d call it the catchiest tune, but certainly a memorable one.

Yuga Battle showcases the main villain’s theme in its strongest form. The song is a bit strange, with the chanting and warbling wails in the second half. But I admire the commitment to it, and there is certainly a grand feel to the blaring brass and vivid voices, the pace kept up with sharp strings and snare drum. For all that it’s strange, it’s enjoyable to listen to.

Lorule Castle. Where to start on this one...This is my absolute favorite song in the game, and it put a great capstone on the final dungeon. The dungeon has you slowly working to unlock the final door, and as you get closer the music changes. It starts off with simple strings and winds that have a soft tension to them, like you’re performing a stealthy infiltration. There’s an adventurous sense to them, and that stays as the second loop comes in with firmer low strings and full but restrained brass. The base melody is memorable as ever and you can feel it rising, but it hasn’t hit its peak yet. Then the third loop hits, the sounds grow fuller and sharp trumpets punctuate each beat. The end of the loop this time transitions into a soft, menacing version of Ganon’s Theme.  The simple rising pressure of the original tune is well incorporated here, and it lends an anticipatory tension to the end of the loop. That could easily be the end of the song. It would be perfectly satisfactory. But it isn’t.

The fourth loop starts by dialing things back a bit. It uses an almost silly sounding reinterpretation of the melody, bringing the mood down just long enough to heighten it as it comes back in full force. It gives way to the strong brass from before, now accompanied by ringing, reverberating bells. The choir starts up and the song has truly hit its stride, building into my favorite part of the song (about 3:50 in the linked video). They raise their voices upward alongside booming bangs and clangs of percussion and metal, pulling back with high sustained notes before hammering it home yet again. The end of the loop features another rendition of Ganon’s Theme, this time with the choir lending a fuller, grandiose severity to the slowly rising notes. This is it: the final escalating climax of the dungeon, the song, and your entire adventure.

In simpler terms: It’s good.

And that’s A Link Between Worlds. If you enjoy Zelda games at all, you’ve probably already picked it up. But if you haven’t, do so! It’s a fantastic experience and I can recommend it even to people who aren’t fans. It has some flaws that keep it from being the best game of all time, but that’s the harshest thing I can say about it.

Also dude, did you even hear Lorule Castle?

Cause damn.

I like Lorule Castle.

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