Monday, September 29, 2014

GOT 'IM - The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Continuing my trend of blogging about games I've beaten a month prior, let's get into my 3DS library, shall we?  Here's a review of the latest Zelda, which is also my favorite Zelda title in twenty years.  Not a joke. 


I've talked about my Zelda experience several times on this blog, but here's the short version: I love Zelda games, especially A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening.  I avoided the "new" 3D-styled Zelda games until 2011, in which I beat Ocarina of Time for the first time and went on to finish Wind Waker and Twilight Princess in my 2012 gaming menu.  I liked them, but the old 2D ones are still my favorites.  Then fast-forward to late July, 2014; I bought a 3DS and four games, one of which was 2013's The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I beat it in six days. 

Story and Characters

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (henceforth: ALBW) starts out innocently enough, with Link as a young apprentice to the local blacksmith out delivering a sword to a soldier visiting the nearby church (called The Sanctuary). When you arrive, a mysterious sorcerer turns the soldier and the Sanctuary's priestess into paintings (!?), leaving the soldier on the Sanctuary wall and taking the priestess with him.  Link takes the sword he was supposed to deliver and sets out, determined to get to the bottom of this. 

Shortly after beginning the game we encounter the first of ALBW's gameplay gimmicks: Ravio.  Ravio (who is my favorite new Zelda character in several years) is a man wearing a bunny hood of sorts that moves into Link's house while Link is off adventuring, and offers to lend Link a number of items.  I'll talk more about those items later, but Ravio is a consistently entertaining presence in the game with an entertaining character arc of sorts. 

I'll avoid most story spoilers (especially since ALBW is so recent), but a few things are important to mention.  Eventually, Link gets the power to travel along walls as a wall painting.  As far as gimmicks go, it's pretty neat.  Lots of puzzles and items incorporate the wall-walking smartly, and it's even a viable strategy in some boss encounters.  That was a cool thing.  Later on, Link visits a world parallel to Hyrule (appropriately named "Lorule") that is a twisted, dark version of Link's home world. 

Now, if you think this Hyrule-Lorule nonsense sounds kind of like A Link to the Past, then you're more accurate than you could imagine.  ALBW is a direct sequel to ALTTP, set an indeterminate number of generations later.  The map geography is nearly exactly the same.  Most of the dungeons and major landmarks are in exactly the same places as they were in 1991.  Hell, I think there's only one brand-new dungeon in a new location; I got pretty excited when I saw it.  Two other ALTTP dungeons return, but switch locations with each other!  I'm such a ALTTP fanboy that I probably got a little TOO excited when I discovered that. 

So anyway, Link meets several colorful characters in Hyrule while trying to foil the plans of this evil painter-sorcerer (that's Yuga, by the way), and eventually needs to do the same exact think that different Links did in ALTTP and Ocarina of Time: rescue seven sages and then defeat some form of Ganon.  The way they go about doing it is pretty neat - in Hyrule, a few NPCs that Link has encountered over the course of the game disappear one by one.  It's a little eerie, actually.  Anyhow, those end up being Yuga's targets and Link has to rescue them in Lorule's seven dungeons.  It's a pretty cool setup. 

And again, I won't get into major story specifics, but ALBW is refreshingly respectful to its characters.  They make references to many Zelda character archetypes, but get a fair amount of screen time and are appealing in basic design.  Characters that seem like forgettable one-offs or unimportant merchants (like the blacksmith, the witch, or the mermaid queen) receive story callbacks that I really appreciated. 

At the risk of going on too long about ALBW's characters, I really appreciated how the story wraps so elegantly.  Nearly every named character has some kind of story payoff (which I alluded to last paragraph), with the characters involved in ALBW's endgame in particular resolving their arcs in an impressive manner (avoiding spoilers, but they include Link and Zelda, natch).  It is the most impressed I've ever been by a Zelda game's ending.  It creates a positive resolution, ties up every loose end, and (in me at least) elicits an emotional response.  Yeah, I was moved. 

Playing the Game

So I really liked the story setup, the characters, the setting, and the narrative for ALBW.  A lot.  And I liked the gameplay a lot too, because, well, it takes my favorite Zelda game's gameplay (ALTTP) and makes a few medium-sized improvements.  Still that basic 4-button arrangement, but you can also organize your items in a touchscreen, switch items on the fly, and even directly use item shortcuts on the right side of the touchscreen.  You can probably get away without ever using touch controls, but they work great and there's present if you want to use them. 

Now remember when I mentioned Ravio the item-renting rabbit-man several paragraphs ago?  Well he is one of ALBW's three defining gimmicks (along with transforming into a painting and traveling between Hyrule and Lorule).  Ravio owns nine special items that are available for Link to rent, and they are a collection of Link's traditional Zelda arsenal with a few new items mixed in: boomerang, bow, bombs, hookshot, hammer, fire rod, ice rod, tornado rod, and sand rod.  Link can rent them for a small amound of rupees and buy a rented item permanently for a larger number of rupees.  Buying a rented item is around 10x the rental cost, but I don't remember the exact numbers. 

Now, those nine Ravio items I mentioned seem like important items, right?  Well, they are.  Every dungeon in the game will require at least one of them to navigate, and all of them are certainly helpful and versatile items; they're the best combat items in the game other than Link's sword.  If Link falls in battle, then Ravio's bird buddy Sheerow will loot Link's corpse (!?) of all rented items.  If Link buys those items, he has them forever and there's nothing Sheerow can do. 

So, is it a viable strategy to just rent all of his items right at the beginning of the game?  Hell yes it is!  Well, one item is missing until a specific story moment, but those other eight, sure.  Link can explore Hyrule at leisure, packing an inventory of bombs, hookshot, hammer, and three magic rods before even entering the second dungeon.  This allows for a TREMENDOUS amount of freedom to explore Hyrule (and eventually Lorule) at your leisure.  When Lorule opens up and the seven dungeons are marked on your map, you can complete them in nearly any order due to Link having 8 of the 9 key items by then.  It's not pure, total, Skyrim-esque nonlinearity, but it's a step in that direction and it's really cool. 

So that's how rental items work, so let's- BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!  There's a giant mama snail named Mother Maiamai that lives in a cave near Link's home.  After talking to her, you can help her locate her snail babies scattered all over Hyrule and Lorule (100 total).  For every ten baby snails you find, the Maiamai will upgrade one of those nine rentable items, but ONLY after you've bought it.  And these upgrades are significant: bigger bomb damage and radius, the bow firing three arrows at once, and extended range on all of the ranged items.  And interestingly, all of those items use Link's stamina meter for use.  No more collecting arrows, bombs, or magic pots.  Everything's stamina, which refills quickly after Link takes a break from using any items. 

So you're collecting those baby snails to upgrade those weapons, but renting and buying them?  That'll cost a lot of rupees.  ALBW has more rupees lying around its world than just about any other Zelda game in my memory.  Lots and lots of rupee chests in the field, in dungeons, and available as prizes.  There are also randomly-scattered puzzle rooms (usually centered on a specific item) that typically have 200 or 300 rupees as a reward.  Yeah.  Lots of rupees and 100 baby snails.  Plus the usual Zelda collectibles of bottles and heart pieces.

The new feature of walking around as a wall painting is introduced early on and is persistently featured throughout the game.  Link can slip through tiny cracks in walls, travel between balconies, and even temporarily avoid danger as long as his stamina meter holds.  It's a solid feature that is probably ALBW's defining gimmick, so much so that I'm surprised the game wasn't called The Legend of Zelda: Wall Walker or something.  But hey, it works. 

And now, the dungeons.  I judge Zelda games by their dungeons.  They comprise the biggest set pieces, the best puzzles, and the most variety within any Zelda game.  Sure, some people value story, exploration, or combat more, but I need several good, memorable dungeons to characterize my Zelda experiences.  Short version: ALBW's dungeons are on the short side, but very good.

Long version: maybe I'm too Zelda-savvy.  ALBW has twelve dungeons, and I found the first eight or nine easier than just about any mid-game dungeon from Wind Waker or Twilight Princess.  Sure, they're all basically solved by exploring and re-visiting rooms with new items and new approaches (each dungeon will provide a sign showing what rented items are required for navigating it), but... they felt brief.  Maybe it's because they are trying to make the dungeons a little more manageable with fewer items (in case players don't have a full rented arsenal), but they seemed shorter and simpler than usual. 

But hey, those dungeons are still pretty great! Each one wears its distinct theme and atmosphere well, and the last few are quite tricky and involved.  The classic Zelda vibe of feeling SUPER GREAT when all the Rube Goldberg mechanics fall into place is 100% there, and each dungeon is a beautiful little self-contained puzzle room.  Although I wish each dungeon had a few more... rooms. 

Visuals and Audio

Gorgeous.  The game looks really nice for a 3DS title, absolutely holding up to the best sprite work on any handheld game I've ever played.  No, I haven't played any Vita games other than in-store demos. The art style doesn't seem pastel or cel-shaded, but nearly as expressive as the models from Wind Waker.  The team really went all-out in trying to bring ALTTP's look to the 21st century.  The entire game feels like a 2013 overhaul to the graphics of the SNES's famous Zelda title.

The music is another highlight.  Many of the tracks are remixes from the Zelda series, ALTTP in particular, but the music is overall pleasant and occasionally downright masterful.  The Lorule map theme is a new strings-heavy arrangement of the Dark World theme from ALTTP, and it's so great that I am going to stop writing for a few minutes to download it.  Music's good. 

OK, now I'm back. Here's that Lorule map theme I alluded to a second ago: Lorule Field

The Final Word

So A Link Between Worlds is a beautiful Zelda game with perhaps my favorite narrative and characters in any Zelda game, with a world map chock-full of rupees and secrets and baby snails, and TWELVE neatly-made dungeons that are each a treat to explore.  ALBW is not a very challenging game, and even less so for veterans of the series.  Hey, it's a hell of a Zelda game, and I give it my heartiest of recommendations.  But play A Link to the Past first. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition

1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
11. Sonny
12. Sonny 2
13. Dragon Age: Origins
14. Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening
15. Retro Game Challenge
16. Batman: Arkham City
17. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
18. Bravely Default

Targets: 8/14


Yeesh.  Falling further behind, mostly because I'm spending my free time watching movies and playing stupid mobile phone card games instead of playing XenoBlade Chronicles or Persona 2.  Well, I'll try and have Persona 2 finished in the next few days and see what happens.  XC is definitely the longest game of my remaining six targets, but... ugh.  Four big RPGs to beat before the end of the year.  I also have to write a Bravely Default review for the blog.  We'll see how it goes. 

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