The Disembodied Soul of Ground Zeroes

METAL GEAR SOLID V- GROUND ZEROES

*Spoilers

On my third infiltration into Ground Zeroes Camp Omega, I found an electrical panel that allowed me to cut the power to the surrounding facility, disabling all the lights and the several security cameras so I could quietly rescue the prisoner at its belly. It was the latest in dozens of exploitable gameplay options built into Omega that proved it was a dynamic, multi-faceted place that enabled and rewarded a variety of playstyles. The first game powered by the Fox Engine, GZ introduces players to the new levels of agency offered in the second part of the Metal Gear Solid V saga, The Phantom Pain; ideas that evolve the classic Metal Gear design.

Ground Zeroes continues days after the events of its immediate predecessor Peace Walker. By the end of that story, Big Boss (aka Naked Snake (aka David Hayter)) together with Kazuhiro Miller had assembled a private military company at their offshore Mother Base and come into possession of his very own Metal Gear.

16 March 1975. Torrential rain strikes the sign outside the prison base. A trench-coated man walks through occupied cells of the detention section. He stops at a cage and tosses a Walkman ™ to the small blonde boy shivering inside. Those who’ve played Peace Walker will recognize Chico, member of the Cuban Sandonista army Snake had allied with. The man identified as Skull Face then takes a jeep to a waiting helicopter, removes all identifying marks from it and his squad of soldiers and climbs aboard his ‘Trojan Horse’. The scene contains VO between Kaz and Naked Snake (aka John (aka Keifer Sutherland)) telling us that Peace Walker’s pacifist-turned-spy Paz is also being held hostage and our Hero has to get her back before she reveals the secrets of his Militaires Sans Frontiers. They reason there’s a connection between Paz’s detainment and an upcoming UN inspection. Snake appears climbing up the cliff side outside the base, entering Omega as the departing choppers pass overhead.

The first real evidence of Ground Zeroes changing design is found in this sequence: it’s one long take. Before this, Metal Gear’s legendarily long cinematics were comprised of half a dozen scenes each, bouncing from real time in-engine graphics to illustrative graphs to live action historical footage to talking-head Codec exchanges and more. Unfortunately here, the VO isn’t grounded enough to establish a timeframe, leaving you to assume that parts of the conversation are referring to events that will transpire at some point down the line.

METAL GEAR SOLID V- GROUND ZEROES SKULL FACEWhile the CODEC device has been mercifully retired, its practical application has been smartly reworked. Rather than dialing up support through a menu only to be accosted by a long-winded explanation about Lord-Knows-What framed as a treatise on Godzilla as a metaphor for digital societies being given status as Life in the eyes of The Law, juicy camp deets and objective reminders are a quick L1 pull away. It’s so easy it must have been a mistake (oh God, it’ll be an L1 activated rolodex in TPP). On one hand, the constant companionship breaks the feeling of isolation; on the other, it maintains a sense of time and flow. For what it’s worth, I’ll take the latter.

Since MGS3, the Metal Gear progression has consisted of a linear path of small densely packed maps with a single entry and an exit. Because of that linearity, gameplay options had relied on an ever increasing backpack of items. Ground Zeroes sandbox radically improves the ideas from MGS2’s Big Shell, giving you flexibility in your preferred direction of attack. Reducing Snake’s arsenal met it from the other side, streamlining the mechanical burden to a few key moves that easily take advantage of those options organically built into the environment. The two elements are better able to complement each other.

The tighter design retains the traditional Metal Gear experience- including adapting old frustrations and creating new ones. Even with the changes, it’s all too easy to get spotted and not understand why. The new indicators are informative but not nearly as informative as you need, especially for guards range of sight, so the majority of the lessons you’ll learn still come from trial and error rather than applying practical skills. The new reflex slow-mo is problematic if you’re spotted at the edge of a piece of cover you’re running for, making you try to sluggishly maneuver out from behind the obstruction to get your shot in before your presence is radioed in. Even the new checkpoint system feels arbitrary, resetting you to places you hadn’t been and conditions that weren’t that way even if you had. The many facets of the Snake/Enemy feedback loop still don’t cohere satisfyingly.

Metal Gear desperately needs a stop and pop cover system. Sons of Liberty kinda had one and definitely had a better wall cling, it just needed a button like in Guns of the Patriots (that that game’s responsible for taking out the jump out shot is just one more strike against it). If there were better options to utilize and transition between cover here, things would interlock better- you’d be better equipped to survey your surroundings and traverse the environment. Uncharted had better sneaking without working so hard for it and that’s not even the point of that franchise.

You’ll probably find Chico in the old prison first. When you do, you’ll probably be surprised that he fights back and has to be choked and assume he’d been brainwashed during his obvious torture. Carry him to the closest evac point and you can call in your own chopper. Some thirty seconds later, Morpho will descend and whisk the boy away, leaving behind his Walkman and the first of his many tapes.

METAL GEAR SOLID V- GROUND ZEROES ILLUSTRATION

Metal Gear Solid V’s new open-world trappings put it in an awkward place. Tasked with finding these two prisoners and without any friendly NPC’s to route you, it’s hard to direct the player to their objective. Chico’s first tape is meant to offer a helping hand. Utilizing Kojima’s penchant for requiring lateral thinking, the tape provides distinct audio cues meant to drive the player in the right direction. But because he couldn’t rely on the player finding the source of those cues, other devices were implemented to help get them there, including a truck near the first evac point that’ll take Snake directly to the facility that houses Paz. If for some reason you missed that- guilty!- you can deduce her location by the thick swarm of guards outside it. Spend enough time searching and you’ll get there eventually.

That’s Ground Zeroes mission: two phases repeated twice: infiltration and extraction. Go out. Come back. Do it again. Why? Peace Walker. It’s one of the weakest, calmest narrative sequences I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life, made limper by the ill-defined connection between the immediate plot and the cinematic that opened the game. Deep, complex gameplay can’t make up for a lack of momentum. Executed directly with no attempts to collect Chico’s tapes, it’s hard to see how Skull Face was even important for the task at hand.

Snake returns to find Mother Base burning and his men dying. The narrative ends on a cliffhanger.

Ground Zeroes mission is ultimately lackluster, free of even a single instance of the series famously ingenious boss fights. That its end is supposed to be gut-wrenching, a moment that will establish the entire setup of The Phantom Pain and convince you to invest another 60$ on top of the 30 you paid for this, makes its flaccidity all the more confounding.

If you happen to be the type to pour over the mission briefings before starting a new game, you’ll be privy to the distress call that sent Snake after Chico and the nature of the UN inspection, key to the finale. If you didn’t, well, you’ll be given little in way of an explanation other than vague allusions that don’t sustain motive. The first Metal Gear Solid used the same technique on the PSX but to much greater success, as Campbell pointedly summed everything up within minutes of Snake’s arrival at Shadow Moses. Considering those details were relayed via Codec, maybe Kojima should have stayed with those talking heads.

METAL GEAR SOLID V- GROUND ZEROES 02Chico’s tapes bridge the gap between the opening and end. Yeah, it’s disappointing that the narrative relies so heavily on audio logs but at least they’re contextually relevant. The tapes reveal Skull Faces sadistic abuse on his two prisoners, twisting them, turning each on the other and on their home. It also has logical consistency within the larger narrative, explaining Chico’s resistance to Snake’s rescue. If nothing else, it’s an interesting narrative experiment that can be pieced together.

But the onus is on the opening to provide the context we need, not on the player to go looking for it. That’s one of story-telling’s irredeemable sins: hiding information crucial to your plot outside of that plot’s narrative. Without an explicitly stated, immediately recognizable initiating force, you automatically handicap your audience’s potential investment, prohibiting the story from being as emotionally powerful as it could be.

Where Ground Zeroes story and scripting falls flat, its art direction remain strong. Long time series composer Harry Gregson-Williams provides a soundtrack that recalls 80’s sci-fi with subtle orchestration suitable to his work since Sons of Liberty and recalls a tone that would seem appropriate in either Mass Effect or John Carpenter’s The Thing. With the cinematics real time rendering, Camp Omega has been built with diverse colors and lighting, letting the environment itself frame the events within. That one orange light in Paz’s cell really drives home what the direction could be.

Beating GZ opens Side Ops, extra missions that have you tackling new objectives and going further to demonstrate the options the gameplay design affords. Setting aside the fictional inconsistency of proposing that Snake has infiltrated this same complex half a dozen times, the side missions should be integrated directly into the main mission to showcase the gameplay possibilities and flesh out the dynamics of the facility. They’re already being made voluntary, make them important.

Unfortunately, from top to bottom, the rewards for taking advantage of those options don’t come close to compensating the effort involved. You could interrogate every guard and claim every weapon cache or you could tranq the handful in your path and be on your way. You could clear the area of patrols and destroy the anti-air emplacement to call your chopper into the center of the base or you could just spend the minute and a half running to the coast and call it safely there. You really have to want to take advantage of your options; the fact that I didn’t find the electrical panel until my third playthrough is testament to the variety at its core, the way I stumbled accidentally onto it is sadly telling of its ability to inform.

So what is Ground Zeroes, exactly? It seems like it’s mostly a prologue, roughly equivalent to MGS2’s Tanker Chapter, but even that’s not entirely analogous since it acts as a direct continuation of Peace Walker. Yet it typifies what Metal Gear has always been: a super complicated franchise with a lot of depth and a lot of problems that asks for a lot of investment from its audience. It’s noble to try to smooth out the gameplay wrinkles that have long existed in the series but those choices manage to leave a large, iron-shaped burn on the fabric. As a game, as a story and as a taste of what The Phantom Pain will be, Ground Zeroes is disconnected from itself and leaves you feeling that something’s there, even when you can’t see it. It’s a lingering itch you can never scratch.

METAL GEAR SOLID; GROUND ZEROES

DEVELOPER: Kojima Productions
PLATFORMS: PS4, XBoxOne, PS3, XBox360
2014

The Firemen: Into the Fire

The fact that The Firemen exists is a weird thing. An action game about battling rampaging fires, it shows developer Human Entertainment’s love of the seemingly never-ending onslaught of B-grade action movies that Hollywood farted out in the 80’s. Think Die Hard minus all the cowboy stuff (so not really Die Hard at all, I guess). What’s tragic is that this super American gem never made it State-side. It’s a product that on paper shouldn’t be half as great as it is, and on your SNES shouldn’t have really even ever come out.

It opens with a courteously short introduction to New York on Christmas Eve, circa 2010. As spelled out in the opening sequence, the world hasn’t progressed much in the decade-and-a-half between games release and stories setting, a touch that feels uniquely bold compared to the future trend in 90′s gaming . What should be an evening drowned in alcohol is interrupted as fire engulfs an office building, trapping its employees inside and setting in motion what becomes the games events. It’s a simple premise that places emphasis on solid gameplay and doesn’t try to be more than it is. What it is, is engaging.

Mere seconds after the introduction, you taken control of Pete: our gruff, mustached hero unlucky enough to be first responder on the scene, armed solely with his water hose and a compact list of abilities. Alongside axe wielding, totally forgettable companion Danny, you begin making your way through room after scorching room, fighting fires and rescuing the people trapped inside.

Human really got creative with the variety of enemies coming at you, each with their own behaviors that keep the firefighting fresh. Combine this with the “futuristic” robots that run amuck within the building, and you get some seriously challenging levels and boss fights. As limited as your tools may be, the variety of ways in which they can be implemented, and the degree to which they can be mastered, keeps what could have been a standard top-down action game from becoming as stale as last weeks bar nuts still clinging to Petes’ massive cookie duster.

Despite the whole ‘being a firefighter’ thing, your primary objective quickly changes from putting out the fires, to getting to the next area before the whole building goes down, adding to the sense of  “brace for impact” urgency the timer in the corner already drops on you However, the combination of  quality enemies, well-planned environments and to-the-point dialogue between your fire-bros work to keep the gameplay frantic yet focued, pushing you ever forward in the right direction.

With The Firemen, the now-defunct Human Entertainment was able to leave its mark on the gaming industry outside of Fire Pro Wrestling or the cult following they garnered with the Clock Tower series.  But what is there is entirely fun. And really, it couldn’t have been released at a better time. On the eve of the Playstation’s, release (where its only sequel would appear) when focus would shift from fun to progressive, and decades before todays burgeoning indie-sphere when a buddy firefighting game could easily find a home (or at least a few Kickstarter backers), had The Firemen not come out when it did, it probably never would have at all.

While the game never lets up and stays constantly nerve-inducing, it is insanely short. Difficulty and replay-ability don’t always make up for length, and The Firemen does ultimately suffer for it, especially with it’s lack of 2-player option. I mean, how could they not give you the option to let a buddy join up and control what’s-his-name doing God-knows-what next to you?

Even 20 years later, The Firemen is a strange game. It serves as a reminder, as a representation of the explosive action culture that grasped the world at the time of its release. Not necessarily impactful, but important nonetheless.

Asura’s Wrath: The New Anime

ASURA'S WRATH 06

Asura’s Wrath contains one of the most brilliant player-directed narrative sequences in videogames; a fist fight. The two brawlers dance about the screen, one trying desperately to explain his actions to the other among a flurry of attacks. To evade them, the player must nail the timing for the increasingly frequent on-screen button prompts as any mistake is punished with a fist to the face, interrupting the dialogue and completely ending the conversation.

It’s a very specific kind of narrative device: it’s author-controlled, player-oriented and since that dialogue offered important characterization, each player experiences their own variation on a defined story. It’s completely scripted yet wholly natural. Above all, it’s simple. And just one of a dozen reasons why CyberConnect2’s game is so remarkable. They have succeeded at making a narratively-based game by coming at it from a different angle; making a game isn’t their priority. Through videogames, Asura’s Wrath redefines anime.

Asura, one of the Eight Guardian General’s that protect Shinkoku, is angry.  The first time we see him, he stands arms folded at the edge of one of the countless battle cruisers blanketing the sky, gazing down at the planet Gaea, his toes at the edge of an oncoming war. Then the title card pops. As if to make sure we’re ready for his adventure, we’re invited to Press Start. Hit it and Asura leaps from the ship and charges into the void below.

After a short-lived reprieve, Gaea has been overrun with Gohma, corrupted beasts that threaten to overtake the planet. The other seven Guardian Generals enter as the battle wages on, among them Asura’s solemn brother-in-law Yasha and their arrogant sensei Augus. Fueled by the prayers collected by Asura’s daughter Mithra, the cybernetic Guardian Generals tear through the Gohma and ignite the heavens under the command of Deus, the powerful Lord weary of the endless battles. As the warriors breach the battle lines, Vlitra, the manifestation of the Gohma’s hatred, nearly cracks the planet in half and reveals itself after a millennium. Then the game cuts to a mid-episode bumper.

The commercial-free commercial break makes sense given the opening credits and sets up the expectation for ‘to be continued…” and next episode preview ten minutes later. There are probably a number of reasons why CyberConnect2 chose a traditional anime series structure for their hybrid anime-game, from an attempt to honor the forebearers that inspired it to acting as a mechanism to regulate the games pacing. The name Seiji Shimoda will appear as Director in every episode but other names will be attached to individual ones. It allowed development to be divided without making the seams in the fabric jarring to the audience. Every episode has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The Eight Guardian Generals prove a challenge for Vlitra’s horde, but none of them can match Asura’s bottomless pit of rage, a deep seated fury that allows him to destroy the abomination in a single, multi-armed punch. In the renewed respite, the demi-gods return home to the promise of peace. And then Asura finds his wife murdered and he framed for assassinating the Emperor. Lord Deus’ secret coup is put into motion and the lightning god casts the disgraced father down into Naraka and kidnaps Mithra. Falling to Gaea like a meteor, Asura proclaims his vengeance. When he finally claws out of the underworld, 12,000 years have passed, the Generals have deified themselves and set out to collect the prayers of their people in preparation for the inevitable resurrection of Vlitra.

When a story is as rigorously defined as it is in Asura’s Wrath, the player becomes an actor in its play, performing the actions that reveal the unfolding spectacle. With Quick Time Events as cues, they’re given direction for actions that fit the context of their incredibly engaging scenes. Where the QTE’s are Asura’s Wrath’s primary means of storytelling, the combat between them is built on two types of player-directed action.

The first is a simple beat ‘em up with a move set consisting of little more than an attack, heavy attack and ranged firing mode. Despite its simplicity, the combat has depth; the attack button can be used to catch enemies into combo strings, charges or air juggles. The gameplay certainly doesn’t have the richness of Bayonetta or Devil May Cry but you have a rounded set of options. The second comes as a Sin & Punishment or Space Harrier-style rail shooter that has the character speeding through scripted sequences unleashing a volley at enemies while evading their attacks.

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This is what you need to notice about these two types of gameplay- one builds fight scenes, the other builds chase scenes. The mechanical simplicity is meant to provide an efficient versatility over a range of gameplay scenarios. But given that each button is consistent across modes, playing the games cinematics reinforce your understanding of the fighting mechanics and vice versa. Little about Asura’s Wrath is wasteful.

Actions build up Asura’s Burst Gauge.  When it’s filled, a giant flaming R2 prompt like a brand from Satan flares on screen and activates Burst, a mode that rockets Asura into an explosive rage and initiates a timing-based QTE. In practical terms, Burst is a narrative device that effectively resolves that scenes tension and ends the story beat. They’re micro goals used to create a rhythmic pace. Bursts build scenes which move the story forward.

If you accept the acting metaphor, consider your performance in the two action modes as improv dance among the other actors on stage. As such, there is something almost beautiful about a battle completed quickly and cleanly, where you’ve jumped in and decimated your opponent with skill and nailed that satisfying pull of the burst button in one easy, error-free take that seamlessly transitions into QTE. Successes like that make up for the frustrating moments that don’t go as you’d like.

CyberConnect2 deserves to be applauded for what they were able to accomplish with their character designs. While the Gohma admittedly look like amorphous red and black globs, the main cast is intricately detailed and capable of a wide variety of facial expressions. Watch the cutscenes to find incredibly nuanced and subtle animations, from the movement of their eyes to the articulation in their fingers. They sell these generated models as living characters and direction that was crafted rather than captured. The story would absolutely be less without them.

From top to bottom, Asura’s Wrath is expertly produced. It’s choreographed with fight scenes that manage to clearly portray the action and doesn’t use the same tricks in the same ways. It has a quick, visceral visual vocabulary appropriate for its content. Even the power struggles are designed to test your endurance; they fight back and always make you feel like you’re one slipped button press away from defeat, even if you understand that they cheat to do it. If there’s a problem, it’s in one or two flashbacks too many that slow down the pacing. The sound design hits hard, the silence impacts and (especially in the case of Yasha’s Theme) the music energizes.

The contrast between Shinkoku’s opulence and the people of Gaea is noticeable from the moment Asura falls. Typical of a totalitarian regime, the Seven Deities have commoditized their people, making each life disposable in relation to some nebulously defined social whole opposed to a centralized threat and purely to the benefit of themselves. Scenes where they slaughter entire villages rather than let them succumb to impurity are predictably cynical for their self-righteousness. Individually, the deities are well-defined archetypes for the amount of screen time they’re given but all constructing a complemented unit. Easily the most interesting is the melancholic Yasha, the cool blue to Asura’s burning red, cut to his smash, wind to his rock. Does Yasha wear his mask out of vanity or out of shame?

The narrative is packed to the brim with classic anime themes and concepts right down to its cabal of gods that seems straight out of a Yoshiaki Kawajiri flick minus those blinking background shots, but it’s in how it upends those elements and videogame mechanics that it comes into its own. There’s a scene where Yasha talks to Deus in soliloquy, staring in the direction of the lord on his distant throne in the sky. Irritated at the empty gesture, Asura orders him to ‘Stop talking to yourself.’ Yasha is visibly perturbed, as if Asura had broken some sacred edict. I love it. Asura’s Wrath is a reconstruction of its genre; a martial arts version of Gurren Lagann (right down do the galactic changes in scale and shifts between planes of reality) that remodels the house DBZ built like Lagann rebuilt the mecha that Neon Genesis Evangelion tried burning to the ground. Asura’s act is put in the players hand in many of the scenes with the Seven Deities, providing them with a ‘Shut <Name> up’ prompt that only forces them to listen until they can’t take it anymore. Asura is tired of the endless self-aggrandizing.

By the end of his quest, you know exactly what sort of man Asura is: one that believes in justice and individual liberty, a man uncomfortable with the worship his acts receive and whose only fear is reserved for the welfare of his daughter. Yet it’s harder for him to extend his open hand to her as she cries than it is to throw it clenched at the cause. There’s psychology under the rage that not even he understands. He ends up being the most complex character in the story, just straight forward and direct. He always does what he knows is right, even if he doesn’t always know why.

Where videogames have long tried to implement cinematic techniques onto a mechanical world, every element in Asura’s Wrath’s design was made to construct mechanics onto a cinematic foundation. At face value, that seems a semantic difference but it’s really very important and, for my money, far more honest. Everything in Asura’s Wrath is story-centric- even its title. Read those two words again: they are a statement of fact, imply an analysis of the root cause and promise a journey to quench it. It’s a wrath directed at the policies, the ideologies and the people that aggressively fight others from living the life they want. His game is about pushing forward and letting nothing stand in your way.

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DEVELOPER: CyberConnect2
PLATFORMS: PS3, XBox360
2012

Soul Blazer: Blazin’ The Trail

 

The early-to-mid 90’s set the stage for one of the most beautiful production company and development studio relationships to exist in video games with the pairing of Japanese companies Quintet and Enix. While their first game, ActRaiser, a mesh between classic platforming and Sim City style urban planning, was an insanely fresh, original idea that would lead to their eventual ‘Quintology’ it wasn’t until the release of their next title that the duo would really show their true genius.

Though ultimately not as impactful as it’s predecessor or subsequent spiritual sequel Illusion of Gaia, Soul Blazer for the SNES is a rare gem in the sense that it just feels right by taking the basic framework of ActRaiser and tweaking it in a few simple-yet-effective ways. Instead of side scrolling platformer, this new game would be top down in the vein of Zelda: Link to the Past, while the Sim City-esque city planning of the first game would be simplified in a way that makes the whole thing feel more fluid.

In the game you are an angel sent down by ‘The Master” (real subtle) to free the world from the demon Deathtoll, a being who feeds off the souls of the subjects of the King, who in return is granted great wealth for his treachery. A simple setup that leads to a story arch that is ultimately throwaway but with some actually fun, silly moments.Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.43.52 PM

After the initial exposition, the game opens with your character standing in a green, lush yet empty plot of land overlooking a cave mouth that acts as an entrance into the game’s first dungeon. Upon entering said dungeon, you are immediately attacked by monsters that all issue our from a certain point. Defeating all the monsters turns the spawn point into a switch that the player can step on to interact with and where the games’ primary mechanic enters the picture.

Stepping on said switches will have 1 of 2 possible effects; they will either allow you to progress within the dungeon by opening a pathway or will restore life to that area’s town in the form of NPC’s or buildings that Deathtoll had previously destroyed. The combat is based around simple swordplay not unlike that of the Zelda games and you will receive more powerful swords throughout, which admittedly do nothing to raise the level of fun to be had while monster hunting. However, being granted the ability to cast various spells does provide combat with some variety. Taken in short sessions, the combat can stay relatively enjoyable with some fun bosses, but can get repetitive over long stretches but there are enough dialogue based character interactions to keep the monotony in check.

Whereas ActRaiser split the 2 primary mechanics in a way that made you feel like you were switching off between two seperate games, Blazer sets up a symbiotic relationship between the two, effectively causing them both to be more rewarding. Progressing through a dungeon (the gameplay) leads to story progress in the town (the narrative) to form what is ultimately the games overall experience. And although your character’s actions have a huge impact on the game’s world through what could be a confusing system, the developers don’t waste time spelling it out for you. You act, the world reacts, you learn and you progress.

While there are some memorable story beats, and a few characters that positively add to the story, one of the most impressive aspects of the game is how little of an emphasis it places on narrative. Some would consider this a weakness, but when later games in the series like Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma put a heavier emphasis on story, each with a few moments that work, they ultimately suffer by being overly drawn out. Soul Blazer knows just what it wants to be. It drops you onto a field with one way to go, and you go. Progress occurs within your character, and in world in which you exist, and all at a rate that keeps the areas and supporting characters refreshing.

While the possying up of Enix and Quintet that took place in the 90’s resulted in an outpour of quality SNES titles, Soul Blazer wasn’t exactly the game every kid stared at through the window as they hurried through their Saturday morning list of chores. But, in 2014, with the return of hardcore gaming in successful titles like Dark Souls and the rise of action packed indie titles that focus on fun gameplay over all else, the qualities that make Soul Blazer a truly singular experience have never been more relevant.

Zelda’s Missing Link

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA- A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS

Early on in A Link Between Worlds, the travelling merchant Ravio takes up shop in your house, lines it with the franchises complement of items and offers to rent Link each and every one. This event single-handedly eradicates the suffocatingly linear item-based progression that had reached its logical conclusion even before Twilight Princess put its staggering deficiencies on display. A Link Between Worlds is in many ways an alternate take on an old story, one that reveals its true ambitions at the beginning of the second act as Link squeezes through a tear in the fabric of Hyrule and discovers that every inch of the world and its seven palaces are accessible with the right tool in hand.

The series changed dramatically with A Link to the Past. What originated as a tough, tightly-paced open-world quest in a mysterious land where you could enter the eighth dungeon before you found the first evolved into a narratively-driven hike along a narrow trail that offered regular rest stops but few forks. Then the series transitioned to 3D and extrapolated those concepts out onto increasingly larger scales, maintaining the limited structure while increasing the world’s geography. Nintendo tried to recapture LttP’s magic by recasting the same spells. Zelda became an adventure at odds with itself and desperately in need of rethinking. It’s inspired then that A Link Between Worlds chose that divergence as the point to draft ideas that remain fresh despite their age onto a fully explored landscape. It brings Zelda back to the Hero’s journey it once was.

And by placing him in LttP’s familiar territory, Link’s kick into action is really a soft pat on the fanny. LBW’s got the fireball spewing Death Mountain, the sleepy Kakariko Village and the hydrated Lake Hylia. It’s got the item-based dungeons. It’s got the three act structure. It’s got the duality of universe. But rather than revisiting Hyrule’s corrupted Sacred Realm, the punticularly-named Lorule is the twisted reflection of the great kingdom right down to its dark haired Princess Hilda. This time, the powerful Yuga is the force seeking to resurrect Ganon once again and steal the Triforce. You know what comes next, seven sages and all that jazz.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA- A LINK BETWEEN WORLD'S PAINTED LINKYou’ve seen villains like Yuga before, the snobbish, almost aristocratic type so obsessed with perfection that he captures beauty and seals it away under glass and inside frame. The archetype is functional here, helping LBW’s new gameplay mechanic integrate into the fabric of the narrative. By flattening himself against sheer surfaces, Link has new ways of moving across known geometry. Essentially defined as on-rails sequences, the paint mechanic provides a new perspective on the series brand of traversal, one that prioritizes spatial puzzles over manual dexterity. As interesting as the painting concept is, for how well it’s applied, for how it mixes up the flow, it never quite coheres with the foundational gameplay. The two textures in the same bite just feel a little off.

But that’s not the case for the art design. The stained glass motif has been used elsewhere in the series, first appearing as the aesthetic treatment for the Hero of Time prologue in Wind Waker. As there, it has a cathedral tone that contrasts the straight forward style of the game world and is appropriate for the aura of Divinity that the series has adopted over its run. Considering how much love music gets from Zelda, it’s nice to see some of the other Arts shown reverence.

The mechanic is exaggerated by the modulating sound design, causing the music to distort and recede, making the great, complex compositions become as one-dimensional as the visuals. It’s cool. So too is how the paint mechanic is introduced, given to you after beating the game’s first dungeon and its use subtly explained as you make your escape.

That moment you see those seven ‘x’ marks scribbled across the Lorule map on your 3DS touch screen and realize you’re responsible for cutting your own path is impressively profound. Even if you hadn’t played A Link to the Past, you had come to know the sunlit Hyrule pretty well by the time you slipped through the panes of reality. Now you’re in this destroyed mess armed with a few weapons and a lot of options. It’s strangely beautiful and disquieting.

Between Worlds may feature the typical set of dungeons, but all nine are compact enough to complete in a snap but complex enough to explore a full concept. Though few of the items are unique to this game and only one has a limited use, the complete set is more versatile than has been the case in some of the past Zelda’s and can cater to your preferred play style whether that’s melee or ranged attacks or enemy management. Since every item eats a chunk of the shared stamina pool, combat is about precision of action rather than freneticism. The series deserves more sequences like the frantic sand battle.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA- A LINK BETWEEN WORLD'S ITEMThough you can eventually just buy everything, renting imbues the gameplay with a great sense of risk up front. Get knocked out, and Ravio’s little blue-winged thug will swoop down and swipe the goods from your unconscious heap of green elf boy. That’s a great idea, an almost Dark Soulsian design philosophy applied to a staid Zelda system. It turns the death counter into a practical gameplay mechanic where it had only been a badge of shame and finally gives you something to blow all those stacks of rupees on. Praise Nayru.

The unfortunate irony is that for all the advantages to the elegantly simple open world design, the times when it doesn’t offer direction blatantly stand out. Whether it’s missing an item or the game’s main side quest, it can be supremely frustrating to miss that one villager you needed to talk to or that one cave you needed to enter and not realize it until the end of the game. Trust me. Yet here’s a secret: neither of those cases matters in the long run. This is easily the breeziest entry in the franchise.

Zelda has always been at its best when it’s simple and quick. Though 2D visuals are hardly novel for the series, Between Worlds benefits from its use, the most obvious of which is that it keeps the world tight and concise. The economy of space means that you’re never more than 15 seconds from something interesting so unlike the larger 3D titles, world traversal is rarely tedious. To make it faster, not only is there the robust fast travel system a button away but there are dozens of tears spread out so Link can easily slip through the cracks. The game gets you moving and never brakes until you find yourself at the final boss. It’s magical.

A Link Between Worlds gives us a peek at a parallel universe version of one of videogames most important series. It’s intriguing to ask what great adventures Link could have embarked on if The Legend of Zelda had made a different choice in it’s Past. Perhaps that’s a question not worth answering, but maybe this one is: what does Link do with all those items after he’s saved Hyrule? He probably sells them.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA- A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS 02

DEVELOPER: Nintendo EAD
PLATFORMS: 3DS
2013