The new game for the 3DS isn't just a link between two worlds, but the best of both of them. The citizens of Hyrule have, in games past, been a verbose lot, dragging the action to a grinding halt as they waxed philosophic on everything from destiny to history to the restorative qualities of a really good glass of milk. A Link Between Worlds ditches these long-winded speeches, instead cutting right to the heart of the matter: Zelda's been kidnapped (again) by the nefarious Yuga and it's up to Link to go and fetch her back. No sooner is Link shoved out the door and told to save the day than he's hit by Yuga's trademark whammy and turned into a 2D painting. Fortunately, Link's new bracelet – a gift from a merchant named Ravio – allows Link to move between 2D and 3D with ease, letting him follow Yuga to Lorule, the shadowy sister land to Hyrule.
The ability to flatten yourself onto a wall opens up entirely new avenues of puzzle design. Link can become a painting and slap himself onto almost any wall, bypassing gaps in the floor, enemies, and other hazards. The catch is that his bracelet has limited power, so Link can only stay flat for a set period of time. Longtime Zelda fans may actually have a little trouble getting used to this ability, as we've long since been programmed to reach out-of-the-way ledges by using the hookshot or maybe flipping a switch. Once you've made the necessary mental adjustments, Link's new move becomes an invaluable tool for navigating A Link Between World's many dungeons and a fresh way to explore your environment.
Moving back and forth between Hyrule and Lorule by shimmying through cracks in the walls, Link's mission is to bring Yuga's evil plans to an end by rescuing the descendants of the original Seven Sages, all of whom have been similarly painting-ified. To do this, he must visit seven dungeons, which is about what you'd expect, but in a twist that completely changes the tempo of the game, the dungeons are all available immediately. Ravio offers to rent you every piece of equipment you might need – fire rod, bow and arrow, hammer, boomerang, whatever – for a nominal fee, letting you choose your path as you see fit. The catch is that if you die, Ravio takes all his gear back, so you might have to shlep all the way back to his shop to pick it up again. There, you can either rent it again or spend a heftier sum to hang on to it permanently.
The equipment uses the same recharging magic system as your bracelet, so your quiver will always refill with arrows and your bomb bag will never be empty for long – a welcome relief from situations when your lousy aim would normally have left you stuck. Each dungeon relies on at least one specific piece of equipment, which is clearly marked at the entrance, but whether you use it at any other time is entirely up to you. I never once used the boomerang in the entire game (none of the main dungeons required it), instead favoring the wind-producing tornado rod and bombs.
The freedom to visit dungeons in whatever order you like gives A Link Between Worlds a briskness that other Zelda games have lacked thanks to their forced series of progression. If you find yourself stuck or frustrated in a particular dungeon, no problem – you can move on to a different one. If you happen to stumble upon the entrance to a dungeon as you're out exploring Lorule looking for secrets, you can feel free to pop inside and take a look around. Ultimately, you're doing what you do in every Zelda game, but the ability to polish off dungeons in a way that suits your mood is exhilarating. A Link Between Worlds could easily have felt like a slightly modified retread of A Link to the Past, the game that forms its foundation, but instead it has its own unique identity.
You'll have to do a fair amount of traveling between both Hyrule and Lorule to reach everywhere you have to go, but the portals are plentiful and in some cases the only way to reach seemingly out-of-reach treasures. You don't have to spend the time obtaining series mainstays like the Pegasus Boots or heart containers if you don't want to, though, as simply working your way thoroughly through the game's dungeons will give you all the hearts and cash you need to complete the game. You'll get helpful upgrades that will make your quest a bit easier if you take the time to search both worlds for things like extra bottles and Mother Maimai's lost children, but you're not punished for wanting to just get with the princess-rescuing, already. Even if you are in a hurry, you might want to seek out the many treasure rooms scattered around the two kingdoms, because they teach you new techniques for your equipment, like hookshotting onto a wall, then quickly going 2D and shimmying along it before gravity can catch up. It's like a prep course for navigating the dungeons that rewards you with cash.
Still, even the most experienced visitor to Hyrule is probably going to get stuck at least once, and A Link Between Worlds' hint system is genuinely helpful and, more importantly, unobtrusive. Donning a pair of special glasses lets Link see ghosts in dungeons; pay them a Play Coin – earned by walking around with your 3DS – and they'll give you a nudge in the right direction. If you never want help, you'll never even know the ghosts are there – the perfect compromise for players of different experience and patience levels.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a perfect handheld Zelda experience, offering the classic gameplay you cherish at a snappier pace. Link's new 2D ability, combined with the nonlinear progression, provide a flexibility that makes exploring the land – both Hy and Lo – exciting all over again.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, provided by Nintendo.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.