Despite being a great game, our most recent outing with Link in The Legend of Zelda : Wind Waker HD was painfully slow from the start, something that his first adventure - created from scratch for the Nintendo 3DS - avoids. We had access to the first hours of the game during a recent playtest and we're happy to report the pacing is far more pleasing.
During the first hour you will learn a little more about the world and the characters that are central to the new story, but there is little context given. Mostly you will be making your way through the first dungeon and, depending on how much time you want to spend exploring and talking with other characters, you will soon face the first boss of the game.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves and offer a little context for those unfamiliar with the lineage of this title. A Link Between Worlds takes place in the same universe as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, one of the most beloved games on Super Nintendo. It should be noted that this isn't a remake or a touched up HD release. These are two entirely different games, although they share many features and a common universe. As the story is set several generations after the events of A Link to the Past, the characters are new. Here Link begins the adventure as a young blacksmith.
One of the shared features is the classic top-down view. However, the game employs three dimensional graphics, unlike the original's two dimensions. Visually it's a delight, with charming animations and an art style that fits perfectly with the game.
Even more impressive is the fact that the 3D function of the 3DS works wonders, offering excellent depth without ever causing unease. In part this is due to the simplicity of the graphics, the fixed perspective and the fact that there isn't much movement on the screen. Regardless of reasons, the fact is that A Link Between Worlds is fantastic in 3D.
Given this it's interesting to find that one of the biggest new features is associated to a 2D technique. For reasons we cannot reveal here, Link will gain the ability to become a two dimensional painting, sticking to walls. In this form, Link can move horizontally, gaining access to places previously unavailable, since he can get passed small cracks and other obstacles using this skill.
It appears natural that this will be a recurring mechanic throughout the game, a means to solve puzzles and find secrets. We also found that there are other similar paintings around the world, not only in the form of items, but also creatures and soldiers. In the palace (the same as in A Link to the Past ), we found several guards trying to clean up walls that were painted with armed warriors. During our session we could not interact with these warriors or other painted items, but they clearly have a role to play later on in the game.
In the all too brief time we spent with A Link Between Worlds, it was possible to explore some of the new features the Nintendo 3DS affords. The touch screen lets you check the map and organise your inventory. A particularly useful feature is the option of setting waypoints on the map and marking points of interest. So, when you find a treasure that's currently inaccessible, you can mark it on the map and return for it later, when you've unlocked the ability needed to access it. There are other game options designed for the peculiar features of the 3DS that we sadly cannot detail at this point.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds reminds us of the classic role playing games of the 16-bit era, even if it's not really an RPG. You can freely explore the villages and the world and talk to various characters. It was in one of these moments that we discovered the renewed importance of Rupees, the monetary system of Zelda games. Items in A Link Between Worlds are expensive. Very expensive. To counterbalance that, there is a new mechanic that allows you to rent items instead of buying them.
The rented items can be used for a limited time only (though we didn't find it too restrictive, since we used the bow we rented for an entire dungeon) and if you die, you will lose the item and will need to rent it again. Upon hearing this you may ask "if I can only rent an item, why bother with buying it?". The difference is that if you buy an item instead of renting it, you can improve it over time and unlock superior versions, but it's an expensive process.
We also noticed that some items work differently than we're used to. The bow, for example, now has a bar that empties with every arrow fired. However, if it goes unused for a while it will regenerate automatically. Perhaps this will help with game balance without making it feel like a frustrating limitation.
The hour or so we spent with the game is not nearly enough time to hand down any sort of judgement, but the two dungeons that we explored had the usual high design quality of Nintendo. The second dungeon in particular seemed to have the perfect number of secret passages, puzzles and enemies to be challenging and interesting without being frustrating or boring. Also, it seems clear that Nintendo is really pushing the 3D features of the console to explore different levels of depth, with several passages and platforms highlighted by the 3D effect.
We're dying to see what else this game has to offer as it's easy to spot that The Legend of Zelda : A Link Between Worlds has the potential to be something very special. The game is genuinely charming, the 3D effects are fantastic, the pace seems perfect and we've seen evidence of great dungeon design. If the rest of the game is up to scratch this could very well be the most compelling reason to ask for a 3DS for Christmas, preferably one of The Legend of Zelda limited editions.