NA Release Date: November 22, 2013 (3DS)
Playthrough: c. April – May, 2021 (2DS)
Around 2013 when ALBW was getting close to release I remember hearing vague little bits of information about it: it was a remake of LTTP, but also a direct sequel… but also both? It was so directly tied to LTTP that in markets where the original title Triforce of the Gods had been used, this one would simply be Triforce of the Gods 2. Plus, it was for the 3DS, a system I did not own (having only recently invested in a used DS). Deep in the throes of my graduate work, this release came and went without myself taking much notice.
More curious still is that I ended up owning this game for quite some time before playing it, having bought the ‘Hylian Shield’ edition of the infuriatingly named New Nintendo 2DS XL, pre-loaded with ALBW, back in 2019 to play the OOT remaster. Flat Link sat there on the little console screen, waiting patiently for me to grind through five other games before firing it up. Once I did though, wow.
For having basically no expectations, this game astounded me with what a joy it was to play. Much of my playthrough occurred over a span of two days I took off work to recover from my second COVID-19 vaccination dose, during one of which I managed to complete three different dungeons in a single session; likely not that impressive of a feat, but a breakneck pace compared to my usual plodding pace. Part of this was I didn’t feel well enough to do much else, but I was almost grateful to be stuck in bed since it meant I got to mainline a surprisingly enjoyable Zelda game I had never experienced before.
Imagine If LTTP Was More… Fun
I have somewhat mixed feelings about LTTP, so the notion of going back- to that Hyrule, wasn’t one I was overly excited about. Most of my positive top-down Zelda experiences came with the handheld games, and LTTP has always loomed large as this little-bit-too-challenging vestige of the series’ NES heritage. And yet, even as ALBW occupies the exact same space, both in the lore and in its world design, it makes that Hyrule fun in a way I never experienced with the prior outing.
The incessant combat demands have been alleviated by a faster Link who can dodge and slice more proficiently; the lack of signposting regarding the next correct plot progression is no longer relevant, as there largely is no correct plot progression anymore. While we’ll elaborate on the latter point in a subsequent section, what once felt like a stifling demand to brute-force your way through the right scenario sequence is now simply left up to the player to accomplish as they see fit.
In many places the connective tissue is purposefully showcased, in an effort to bring the games together, constantly poking the character, as if to say, “Hey! Listen! Remember this… from A Link to the Past?” Sahasrahla, is back, or at least someone serving in a nearly identical capacity with his same name. Flute Boy also makes a return, playing songs for you at the Milk Bar in exchange for a few Rupees. As in LTTP, the early game plays as a type of tutorial, asking you to gather the Pendants of Virtue in order to gain access to the Master Sword and start the story in earnest.
Of course, many of the prior structures (Eastern Palace, Tower of Hera, etc.) remain where you’d expect to find them, though their function is altered in service to the new plot. I find this in particular elevates the story of ALBW as a direct sequel. It helps you believe that this Hyrule might actually be a ‘real’ place, where things continued to happen after the Link of 100s of years prior dropped the Master Sword back into its pedestal in the Lost Woods. The world kept turning, and people kept hiding objects of mystical power in imposing structures which come complete with their own labyrinth full of unfriendly critters of all stripes.
I was worried that ALBW would feel too derivative with its identical overworld design, but as with LTTP Hyrule-proper is only half the equation. While there’s plenty to explore there, it’s only the preamble to the true meat of the game which happens in the mirror realms of the Dark World, and in the case here, Lorule. This was more than sufficient, along with the updated visuals and gameplay mechanics, to set the new entry off on its own distinct path. Lorule proves to be a fascinating place to explore, and its lore gives the game’s story some real hooks in a way that few other dual-world Zelda entries achieve.
I’ll Be Your Foil
The back-story of Lorule is such a fascinating exercise: like Hyrule, selfish individuals participated in an unending conflict over the Triforce. Tiring of this, the Lorulean monarchy destroyed their Triforce to end the cycle of conflict. In doing so however, they inadvertently pulled at a thread which caused the very fabric of Lorule to begin to unravel. By the time Link arrives, significant portions of the countryside have given way, dissolving into some unseen abyss as the earth itself begins to disintegrate.
It’s hard not to empathize with Hilda, who gets left holding the bag- a kingdom literally coming apart at the seams. Certainly, the player is presumably supposed to ask if Zelda would do anything different in the same position. That Hilda results to such drastic measures albeit for arguably noble reasons makes her possibly the most interesting and humanized antagonist the series has ever seen. There are tinges of something similar to this with the Twili of TP, but there Ganondorf again plays puppet-master. Here, Hilda here is acting on fundamentally egalitarian motives, albeit in a zero-sum game.
Almost as interesting as Hilda is Ravio. At first he seems like just another quirky character passing through Hyrule, but he proves to be much more than a pretty purple face. I have in my notes “why did he have that weird bracelet” in reference to the trinket he gifts Link early in the game which conveniently seems to counteract some of Yuga’s magic to bind people into paintings. As it turns out, this is no accident- Ravio too hails from Lorule. With his kingdom in dire need of a hero, he searches elsewhere, finding Link and aiding him in the hopes that he might be equal to the task of saving Lorule.
That Ravio, clearly indicated to be Link’s counterpart, proves too cowardly to take up the mantle of ‘hero’ himself is interesting- he lacks the courage. Just as Hilda seems to lack the wisdom to understand that saving her world at the cost of destroying another is too high of a price to pay. I like the narrative idea that these characters are flawed, reflecting the broken and incomplete nature of their world after the loss of the all-important Triforce.
Continuing in a long tradition of alternate/mirror realms, Lorule does not disappoint. As soon as you arrive, the enemies are instantly more punishing, and the locals less hospitable. I found myself legitimately offended by the comments of the Lorule Blacksmith, who quips about our newly acquired Sacred Blade of Evil’s Bane That Seals the Darkness: “folks still just battle with whatever they find lying around…” Tough crowd… though he redeemed himself by helping Link craft the L2 Master Sword near the end of the game.
The method of traversing from between Hyrule and Lorule, via wall-merge and the fissures which suddenly appear in the wake of Link’s confrontation with Yuga is an interesting technique to encourage the player to more thoroughly explore both dimensions. Finding a new portal makes for quicker travel in many cases, and in a few serves as a puzzle-solving mechanic to access terrain that would normally not be reachable.
When Is a Gimmick Not a Gimmick?
It makes sense here to segue into a more involved discussion about the actual mechanics of gameplay, where ALBW truly shines. The story is certainly a worthy evolution and improvement on the classic Light/Dark World dichotomy, but the most radical adjustments to the series’ formula come in how one plays the game. Those will be detailed below, but it’s worth stating outright this game is just fun.
The difficulty is quite reasonable, with relatively forgiving combat interspersed with some of the most creative puzzle-design we’ve seen from a 2D Zelda. Prior I’d mentioned that OOA was the paragon of top-down dungeon design, and find myself needing to amend that. Within the confines of that particular engine, certainly OOA made the most of the limitations, leveraging them into some rich and complex environmental puzzles- but ALBW shatters through that ceiling. The puzzle-solving here utilizes vertical depth to a surprising degree, alongside numerous other 3D spatial concepts so deftly that we can’t in good conscious label this a ‘2D’ Zelda (‘top-down’ it seems is the most correct classifier, if we want to include ALBW with the past 2D entries).
It goes without saying that the wall-merge mechanic is the most distinguishing aspect of gameplay in ALBW. Before I actually got into the game and played it, I thought this looked silly, but it turns out it’s incredibly fun. The merge mechanic is deeply integrated into the game: firstly, it is the means by which you traverse between Lorule and Hyrule, but this is also utilized with some environmental puzzles where hidden areas can only accessed through exploring both the traditional overworlds and their associated ‘flatworlds’ as well. A nice touch I noticed as well is that whatever background music is playing becomes ‘tinny’ when you are merged in the wall, akin to using your finger to dampen out the lower frequencies of a speaker. This helps with the immersion, as does the decision to render Link’s avatar in a more abstract style.
Plenty of times in the various dungeons the merge mechanic is utilized for some truly unique puzzles. My personal favorite were the tiles which allow 3D Link to hookshot-fly across a chasm to the opposite wall, and then (quickly!) merge into the wall to explore otherwise inaccessible areas. Combining these tools makes for a richer exploration experience. A strong runner up is the bit at the end when Ganon/Yuga hides from Link in the wall. Link needs to use the Light Arrows as a painting to shoot Yuganon in the back, as he can deflect the attack from the front. The player needs to recall that the room is circular, so counterintuitively firing away from the enemy results in the arrow circumnavigating the entire perimeter of the room and landing the shot. It’s simple enough once you realize it, but does serve as another example of a thoughtful use of geometry and space, specifically in the context of wall-merged Link.
Lest the game be accused as a type of one-trick pony, though, ALBW instead proves to be more of a prophet. Perhaps the most radical departure from the firmly entrenched Zelda formula is the item rental system. Instead of a linear dungeon progression, gate-kept by a predetermined sequence of key items, Ravio just lets you go for it. Rent what you want, when you want, and see how far you make it. There’s a natural compulsion to rent everything you can afford so you’re not caught out missing some key tool, but since all the items are lost should you run out of hearts, there is a reasonably compelling risk/reward scenario to contend with.
As mentioned, ALBW is not too difficult. Only a few brief times was I ever in danger of exhausting my hearts, which never came to pass, though admittedly I did play more cautiously, knowing the financial penalty a misstep would incur. The game doesn’t completely commit to this idea: eventually Ravio will let you purchase the items for unrestricted use at a premium price, so thorough players opening every chest and dutifully cutting grass will have this minor inconvenience relieved by the mid-game. There was some edification from actually “owning” the items, but the main advantage is it allows them to be upgraded by Mother Maiamai, assuming you’ve been helping to track down her offspring.
Still, allowing the user the flexibility to forge their own path in rescuing the sages was a harbinger of the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure that was BOTW. It’s fun to see the germ that idea; there’s a clear through-line from this game to a series entry whose very mission seemed to be dispensing with the series’ defining tropes.
Continually Innovating Dungeon Design
Another, smaller similarity between ALBW and BOTW is that both lack dungeon maps. I’m somewhat split on the decision to remove them here, though. I certainly appreciate the fact that I don’t have to march around the dungeon to find it, but it bugs me from a lore perspective that the player simply gets the same functionality for free. What in-universe reason would explain Links preternatural ability to find his way around these dark labyrinths…? In the end it was likely the right call; having the map makes the spaces easier to navigate, and the compass is still mostly required to aid in tracking down ever last chest.
The dungeons were another place where the design team clearly made an effort to innovate. I found my expectations often subverted by new yet intuitive mechanics, with an excellent example occurring near the end of the game in Lorule Castle. In a room infested in Wallmasters, normally these guys just give me the creeps as their growing shadow on the floor signals the immanent attempt to snatch Link and deposit him back at the entrance. Here though, again by clever use of 3D puzzle design in a top-down environment, Link actually uses the action of the Wallmaster dropping down to actuate otherwise inaccessible switches above him, granting access to the next area.
Forcing the player to leverage their knowledge of enemy movement patterns not just for combat but to solve a puzzle, while not unheard of, is somewhat rare, and it’s nicely executed here. Lorule Castle also features some trickery hiding one of the game’s very rare pieces of ‘master ore’. Certainly hitting switches to flip walls is nothing new, but in the castle’s Sanctuary the relief-indicated ‘flip walls’ are somewhat subtle- they can easily be mistaken for an ordinary wall.
The revolving wall which grants access to the hidden chamber is so far from the switch that when it’s actuated simply with the sword, it’s off screen, so the player never sees it revolve, and if I recall the switch also has a secondary function. To gain access to the room with the final ore the player must instead lay a bomb at this seemingly unrelated switch, then book it to the revolving wall in time before the bomb detonates. If done right, this remote trigger of the switch allows Link into the secret room with the final ore piece needed to fully upgrade the master sword (back with that grumpy Lorulean blacksmith).
Using the compass, I knew there had to be a secret entrance, but it took me a long time to make the leap that maybe there was a rotating wall I mistook for an ordinary one. Simply by spacing the elements of this very basic puzzle out spatially, the player is required to call on a lot of prior knowledge and experience with the game’s puzzle methods to intuit their way into the secret space.
Winner: Mama Turtle. When it was time to head to ALBW’s Turtle Rock, and I saw this big turtle swimming in the lake, I started having flashbacks to Trinexx– but instead she’s super nice and just needed help to find her babies! Turns out there’s still Grinexx to contend with, but Mama Turtle remains one of the nicer Lorulean inhabitants you run into.
Loser: Yuga’s Backstory. I love the idea of Yuga as a kindof demented aestheticist driven to beautify the world according to some bizarre standard. His dialog during the various early-game encounters alludes to as much, as well as his makeup and ornamentation- but we never get any more of his story. It would have been great to know a bit more about he arrived at the point where Link first encounters him. Even then, he’s one of the more memorable antagonists of the series, and is still more dimensional than your average Ganon Stooge.
Winner: Mother Maiamai. On paper, it seems a little silly that the collectible for this game is a clan of squeaky baby octopuses (squids? snails…?!) with a penchant for becoming stuck on walls in remote locales. Still, I like the sound design aspect that provides an auditory clue to find them, making it more practical to seek them out rather than just getting lucky through rote exploration of every last nook and cranny. The reward of weapon upgrades is an excellent incentive, plus: when you find them all, they leave for another dimension. Hopefully they turn up in another entry in the series somewhere down the line!
Loser: Osfala. I can’t decide if I like this guy or not. While certainly not as much of a blowhard as Revali, he does a bring some of that attitude to the table. He rushes headfirst into a confrontation with Yuga, believing himself to be the ‘Hero of the Age’. The player (Link) acts exactly the same way, but it just happens to work out that we actually are the Hero- so can we judge Osfala that harshly for doing essentially the same thing? He is gracious about it all after the fact, but that had to be a rude awakening to find out that your are Not The Guy.
Winner: Masked Elder + Followers. Another excellent world-building embellishment in Lorule. The very fabric of their reality is starting to split at the seems, so of course you’re going to wind up with the occasional doomsday cult. While the monster masks give off a sinister vibe, the Elder preaches a message about resisting the temptation to steal, which is oddly moralizing given the circumstances. The icing on top is the Elder’s housekeeper starring as the most apathetic cult member.
Loser: Irene. Or should we say… Maple?! Maple was one of the few stand-out characters from OOA/OOS, so I find it a little disappointing that ALBW doesn’t simply call a spade a spade. I suppose we have been down this road before with Marin/Malon/Romani, but those characters were reasonably well differentiated in their personalities. Irene is such a carbon copy of Maple, down to the defining characteristics of a flying mechanic and vaguely antagonistic dialog lines, that it seems disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Reportedly Irene’s game file assets internally even refer to her as ‘Maple’- gotta wonder why it was changed so late in the development process.
What a surprise winner we have in ALBW. The mechanics feel new and fresh, and revisiting the Hyrule of LTTP astoundingly feels like an inspired twist instead of a nostalgia crutch. The game is well balanced to present the player with real challenges, but nothing that too seriously impedes progression; this is key to properly experience such a well-developed story. Many of the less-heralded entries of the series I feel satisfied to complete, but also content to set down for a while; instead here I find myself eagerly looking forward to starting up a new file in ALBW in the not too distant future.
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