This game… I almost don’t recognize it as a Zelda game. Or rather I do, but not a recent Zelda. The best way I can describe it is as this being to Zelda as New Super Mario Bros is to Mario. There’s no giant tutorial, oh sure, every once in a while someone will give you a line of text saying what button to press, but no having to show off your moves to kids or anything. The prologue is incredibly brief. Hell, the exposition is barely there.
The interesting thing about this game is that very, very little content seems really gated. You’re more or less on rails until the first dungeon, and there’s at least one other major milestone (that opens up the alternate world from the title), but other than that you’re fairly free.
Even to get to the first dungeon, there’s no cutscene telling you what to do, you wander around until you hit a dead end and all there is is a symbol of a bow and arrow, and a sign about a new shop opening signed by the guy who rescued you. The game trusts you’re smart enough to go back and find the guy.
Speaking of that… there’s a shop now. And your money has real value. You see, they moved the items out of dungeons. Now this guy in a bunny suit that lives in your house sells items. And when I say “sells” I mean “rents out”. For a relatively small fee (about 50-100 rupees depending on the item) he will give you any item in the game… until you die. If you die he loots all your rented items off your corpse and brings you back to your house. Want another go? Rent the items you need again.
After the third dungeon (I think) you can buy items, which is… expensive. About 800-1200 rupees. Buying them does nothing except prevent you from having to rent them if you die. Its cost effectiveness is dependent on how bad you are at the game. I bought a couple sort of “on principle”, but for me personally it doesn’t seem worth it. I doubt I’ll die the 12 times needed to make the rods worth purchase, for instance. Especially since both main story and sidequest items sometimes need money to buy so I like to maintain some cast on hand (that said, if you’re reasonably thorough and like to explore, you do rack up good amounts of money). Also, not all items are rented/from that shop. There’s an item shop in Kakariko with the shield, for instance, and it’s fairly cheap. The game is perfectly okay with you never finding that shop, or deciding you don’t need a shield, though.
Even so, death is a real danger. I died at least once because I didn’t realize a monster was hitting really hard (about 3 hearts worth of damage, and a very real risk of getting locked in its attack). I’d say I don’t think I was supposed to be there yet, but once you get to the other world, pretty much everything hits for several hearts worth of damage and many of them take a lot of hits too, so I think the statement is closer to “I probably shouldn’t actually engage that enemy in combat yet”. I died another time to a boss, fair and square. Two fairies and 8 heart containers and I got mulched. It was close, though, he was on his last phase.
Due to the new item system, though, you can do dungeons in whatever order you want (within each milestone). The wizard/mentor guy (Sahasrahla, I have no idea what his relation is to ALTTP’s Sahasrahla other than they seem to fulfill the same role) basically just says “we need these two items, do what you can to get them, have fun. Bye!” I got the one I got first because I happened to stumble upon and figure out the quest chain to get to one dungeon before I figured out the way to get to the other one.
As for the “dungeon formula”, there still pretty much is a “dungeon item”. For the first three dungeons the game puts its symbol outside the dungeon and you need it to get in, and that item is exclusively used to solve the puzzles and the boss is vulnerable to it. As far as I can tell, for the other world dungeons they don’t put the symbol outside, but it’s really not rocket science. You’re on a snowy mountain with ice everywhere, there’s a giant ice statue blocking your path. Needless to say, there’s a fire item in the shop. WHAT DO I DO!? It’s not hard to figure out, and certainly not as obtuse as, say, the goddamn chain chomp in Link’s Awakening, but it’s nice that they trust you to figure it out.
That said… there are some, well, I wouldn’t call them “sequence breaks”, but there are some deliberate speedrunning tricks they put in. More than once I’ve been able to bypass sections of a room due to having the right item. They’re not huge boosts, but because I was renting a bow I was able to hit a switch early, or because I had the boomerang I was able to grab a key without solving a puzzle. So your alternate items don’t go completely to waste in the “wrong” dungeon, and of course you can always use them on enemies if you want.
The experience is amazing. It’s great accidentally stumbling on the right item to lift rocks, or swim. It’s nice accidentally finding a guy who gives you a bottle. It’s cool that they mark all the dungeons on your map and expect you to figure out how to get to them, get into them, and decide which order you’ll do them in. Want to give up and work on a different place? Go ahead. Right now there’s a bunch of giant rocks I can’t lift. It’s really cool not knowing if I have to free a certain sage or pass a certain game stage, or if I just haven’t completed the right sidequest or explored the right area to get the item for it yet. Hell, I didn’t find the boots until well after they were available because I warped somewhere instead of walked. There’s a real death penalty, and a real danger of dying. I don’t know what happened to this game, but it’s awesome. This is basically an old school Zelda game with a bunch of modern-day polish added.
Also, it’s totally cool that all the nice people who gave you items and stuff were sages… and the game never plays them up, or mentions it. You just see the paintings that Yaga has when he resurrects/fuses with Ganon and realize “oh shit… the Zora queen? The cool power gauntlet dude? THEY HELPED ME GIVE THEM BACK ASSHOLE”