Alongside Nintendo's staples of Mario and Pokemon, standing ever so slightly behind them in the popularity stakes, there's The Legend of Zelda. The much-loved series may be approaching it's 28th year, but exploring a magical fantasy world as a boy dressed in green will seemingly never get old. The basic premise of each game may be the same - find yourself a sword and a shield, trudge through murky dungeons and collect certain items with which to save the Princess, and eventually, the world, but for the first time in its history, this time, you won't be venturing into a completely new world. With an immensely convoluted and confusing timeline that links the seemingly unrelated games together, Nintendo's latest - The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS - is apparently a direct sequel to a much older game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past for the SNES, which is widely regarded as one of the series' best. Making a sequel to a fan favourite is certainly risky, while making a sequel to a game that's twenty years old is even harder. Fortunately, it seems Nintendo have pulled it off.
The story here is suitably epic. Picking up where the first game left off, with ultimate bad guy Ganon having had his dastardly plans thwarted, before being sealed away by the power of the Seven Sages (with the help of a familiar green-clad hero), things seem quiet in the green and pleasant land of Hyrule. Almost too quiet, in fact. When the art-obsessed hooligan Yuga manages to create a rift between the worlds of Hyrule and its distant, backwards cousin Lorule, however, things quickly take a turn for the worse. Somehow transforming the descendants of the Seven Sages into paintings and whisking them away to Lorule, he manages to awaken the banished Ganon, and merge with him, to create a powerful being capable of ending the world. With sword and shield in hand, it's up to little Link - the hero of time - to round up the pictures, defeat the bad guys and seal Ganon away once more, saving both worlds in one fell swoop.
Essentially an adventure game, the bulk of your time is spent exploring the land of Hyrule (and in this case, the parallel world of Lorule too), tracking down pieces of a legendary artefact known as the Triforce. Littered with multi-floor dungeons, each of which is packed full of puzzles, enemies and locked doors, your brain is as big an asset as your brawn, as you work your way to the big bad boss on the final floor. Each dungeon has it's own theme, and generally requires the use of a specific piece of equipment to get through - whether it's simply a bow and arrow, bombs to blow holes in fragile walls or a magical wind-summoning rod. Between treks through the dungeons, there's fields, seas and forests to explore with tons of hidden secrets to find, people to help and quests to do, as the little elven Link saves the both the princess and the world once again.
This time round Link has another new move up his sleeve - after a run-in with A Link Between Worlds' bad guy Yuga, he finds himself capable of transforming into a 2D crayon-like drawing of himself with a press of a button. Able to glue himself to walls, this leads to all sorts of new puzzling possibilities to screw with your head - where other games would have had you take the long way round to get across a gorge, you can now simply merge with the wall and stroll across the gap instead. Where barred windows would stop podgy 3D Link, you can switch to the 2D version to squeeze past instead, or perhaps take a trip on the side of a moving block. There's a little bit of a learning curve when it comes to getting the hang of it, as the game doesn't telegraph where you're suppose to use his new wall-merge, but it's nice to have dungeons that stretch your brain a bit more. After you've worked your way through the first few dungeons, the parallel world of Lorule opens up, ready to be explored, and can be accessed via rainbow cracks on walls. A land left to rack and ruin, exploring it's dank, dark forests, creepy caves and scraggy mountains becomes a puzzle in itself, with hidden compartments within compartments, secret levers to find and chests of useful stuff to claim. You'll need to make proper use of Link's arsenal of items and wall-merging power if you want to work your way through each of the world's seven or so dungeons, hopping between the two worlds to work your way around Lorule's many crumbling gorges to liberate all the paintings (and in turn, the sages).
In the majority of previous Zelda games, you've always usually acquired new pieces of equipment as you go along, each new-found skill being used over and over to solve the puzzles in the next dungeon on your adventure. A Link Between Worlds takes a slightly different approach, and instead lets you get your hands on any of the tools right from the outset, renting them from your rabbit-y friend/shopkeeper, Ravio for a small fee. There is a small catch though, in that if you die in a dungeon, you'll lose all your rented equipment, meaning you'll have to stop by his shop and pay all over again. Fortunately, Ravio also offers you the option to purchase items outright, but it's fair to say his goods don't exactly come cheap. By letting you have everything at once like this rather than drip-feeding you stuff as the game unfolds, it means you can tackle the dungeons of the game in whatever order you like - which is different, to say the least.
While it's nice to have a bit more freedom, this open-ended-ness can also be A Link Between Worlds' downfall. When you first start playing, it's not immediately clear where you're supposed to be going next or what stuff you need, leading to lots of aimless wondering around - once you know what to look for though, it gets a heck of a lot easier. When you first begin the game, you have a choice of two potential dungeons to search - and somewhat coincidentally, Ravio happens to have two particular items on sale, which just happen to be the hammer and tornado rod, the key pieces of equipment you'll need for the Tower of Hera and House of Gales dungeons respectively. After a while, you'll notice that each dungeon has a couple of stone pedestals with the picture of the equipment you need sketched on them - but without so much as a mention, these little hints could well go unnoticed, as you curse your lack of hookshot for the umpteenth time.
Once you cross over into Lorule, it also comes as a bit of a surprise just how much harder the enemies are. There's cyclopses, fire-breathing minotaurs and mythical beasts galore, most of which will knock multiple hearts-worth of health off with a single hit - when you're used to Hyrule's fairly easy bad guys, the sudden jump in difficulty does seem a bit jarring, especially when you lose all your rented equipment when you die. That being said, they're not unbeatable if you make clever use of your weapons - just make sure to pack some healing items and a shield before you pass over the threshold to Lorule.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds may be a bit tricky in places, but it's still a winning handheld adventure that's well worth a buy for series veterans and newcomers alike. With some cleverly designed dungeons to puzzle your way through, tons of secrets to uncover and two sprawling worlds to explore, it's the sort of game you can easily lose yourself in for hours.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS