Reviewed: January 9, 2007
Released: December 11, 2006
A hero clad in green... a kingdom in distress... a princess held captive by a dark power. Sounds like another installment of the venerable Legend of Zelda series to me! The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess marks the series' return to true 3D graphics, and promises a grander, darker and more exhilarating adventure than ever before.
Improved and wholly new aspects of gameplay combine with an unforgettable cast of characters and a massive world to explore in what is sure to be one of the best-loved games on any system. Twilight Princess is as close to being a perfect game as it can be. It's an experience no gamer should miss, so if you weren't lucky enough to get a Wii, then you'll definitely want to check out the GameCube version.
Twilight Princess puts gamers, as with every Zelda title, in control of Link. He will eventually become a hero, but at the outset of the game, he is just a young man who leads an idyllic life in a small village and often helps to herd goats from the back of his trusty horse, Epona. (Both Link and Epona can be renamed at the outset of the story, if you'd rather play as the heroic Frank astride the mighty steed Gidget). Link is well liked by his elders and adored by the other children of the village, and his life, though quiet, is good. However, when danger looms, Link is quick to take up the call to action, first riding into the woods to save a kidnapped child, but soon getting swept up into a rich tapestry of fateful events.
The game's control scheme will feel familiar to anyone who has played a console Zelda title made in the last eight years. As was the case with the gap between the N64's seminal Ocarina of Time and the 'Cube's enchanting Wind Waker, the controls are even more refined this time around. Link still locks on to targets with a shoulder button and performs actions with the A button, but everything is fantastically smooth and steady. Aiming an arrow without the help of a locked target used to be an exercise in futility, but at this point, the series has mastered its own inner workings, and the result is a game that is delightful to play.
As Link begins to venture farther and farther in his endeavors, it becomes evident that the Hyrule of Twilight Princess, while still possessing roughly the same layout as the Hyrule of Ocarina of Time, is much larger and more fully realized. This allows for the feeling of discovering new places and secrets to carry through much longer into the game's story progression than in any past Zelda title. Personally, being always able to find new things just around the corner is one of the biggest reasons I enjoy the Zelda games so much, and Twilight Princess does not disappoint.
As with many past titles, Twilight Princess has a gameplay mechanic that allows parts of the world to be visited in different incarnations. This time, however, even Link finds himself in a new incarnation of sorts, as a mystical gray wolf. Early in the game, a horrifying and dark creature carts Link off through a portal into a miserable world of shadows, where he finds that he is unable to keep his normal shape and is instead transformed into wolf form. This is better than the alternative, though: as it turns out, most of the other denizens of the "Twilight Realm" exist only as ethereal spirits, unaware of the reality of their surroundings and unable to significantly change or alter anything about their existences.
What makes Link different? Well, now, that's why the game follows him and not a palace guard, isn't it? Fans of the series will know that the mystical Triforce has something to do with it, but I'll leave the details for self-discovery. Suffice to say that parts of Link's quest involve clearing shadows from various parts of Hyrule by venturing through them in wolf form, and other parts require him to revisit the same regions once they are cleansed of Twilight, achieving different objectives in human form.
Immediately upon regaining consciousness in the Twilight World, Link meets Midna, a strange, impish (and oddly adorable) creature of the Twilight who seems to want to help him for some reason. Although Midna is condescending and goads Link along, and although she seems to have her own reasons for helping him, she holds no love for Link's enemies and seems committed to really helping him achieve his objectives.
Midna effectively becomes Link's Navi (a fairy guide from Ocarina of Time), but instead of an obnoxious pixie under his hat, she is a clever, complex and fully realized character who hides herself in Link's shadow when he is in human form, and rides on his back when he is a wolf. In fact, personally speaking, Midna is my favorite character in any Zelda game released thus far. She also takes a more active role in Link's adventure than Navi did, lending her powers to him on many occasions both in and outside of combat.
In wolf form, Link can use a wolf "sixth sense" to see and interact with things that are invisible in the normal world, and he can dig under fences and into buried treasures. His reflexes and combat abilities are also increased, so that although he cannot use weapons or items, he is just as capable of defending himself as when in human form, if not more so. The wolf mechanics are the one truly new thing in Twilight Princess, and they shine. It is a blast to play as wolf Link, dispatching enemies with a lightning-fast snap of his jaws or lunging for the throat of a more dangerous foe and latching on like a hell-hound. He can dash like the wind, knocking back and damaging enemies in his way. The sixth sense and digging skills are intuitive to use.
And for those of you who miss the musical/rhythmic element more fully featured in the past few Zelda titles, fear not: at certain times, you can even control Link's tune as he howls songs under the moon. Perhaps best of all, after certain conditions are met, Link can warp into and out of the regular world while remaining in wolf form, allowing him to investigate and interact with things he usually cannot.
As far as I am concerned, Twilight Princess has all the makings of a perfect game. A compelling story with interesting characters (even Zelda herself is actually a noble and powerful presence, for a change), finely honed gameplay that never gets old, tons of side quests and mini-games (including the much-vaunted fishing mini game, while fun, seems like it is probably even better in the Wii version of the game) and a massive world to explore.
I also appreciate the darker tone -- Twilight Princess is the first Zelda game to earn a 'T' rating from the ESRB, thereby allowing the game to possess a mature tone and a sense of real urgency and danger that was missing from some previous titles. The only caveat I have is that, even eight years after Ocarina of Time redefined the action-RPG, Twilight Princess is essentially the same core with a different overlay. I'm not saying they could have done it better, just that the series has become more refined rather than really growing very much. Although I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I can't help but think that a more drastic redesign of the basic way these games are played would have made the experience of Twilight Princess so much more exciting for longtime fans of the series.
Twilight Princess has some of the finest, smoothest graphics yet seen on the GameCube, comparable to the likes of Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Certainly, the game's return to true 3D (after the delightful yet very different Wind Waker) is an impressive one. However, it is also quite clear that Nintendo is not as concerned with the graphics of this game as they are with its story and gameplay.
Nintendo's first-party titles have long valued substance over style, which is part of why Nintendo's fans are so rabid. That isn't to say that they don't put a lot of effort into making their games look good; they do. It's just that, as opposed to many flagship titles these days, graphics come second. There is a tiny bit of roughness around the edges of even the cleanest CG cut scene in Twilight Princess, and the characters' faces seem to somehow look less realistic than they do during regular gameplay, despite having an increased polygon count.
That being said, the game still blows most other 'Cube titles out of the water, particularly during live play. Like Square Enix's recent opus Final Fantasy XII, Twilight Princess blurs the line between CG and in-game graphics to such a degree that it is often difficult to tell which is which at first glance. This means that, even if Twilight Princess' CG isn't as finely crafted as a handful of other games', the whole game almost looks as though it was pre-rendered.
Draw distance across the open expanses of Hyrule Field are superb, putting every PlayStation 2 game I've ever played to shame, and most GameCube titles as well. Pop-in is virtually nonexistent. Lines are almost always smooth, and textures are amazingly lifelike, right down to the fabric of Link's clothing. The physics are fairly well rendered, except for the fact that the tip of Link's floppy hat inexplicably stays pointed towards his feet even when he is walking upside-down. Speaking of that, most of the in-game special effects (like electro-magnetized boots) have really cool graphic effects.
Character design is a bit of a mixed bag, but it's great where it counts. On the downside are a lot of the incidental NPCs, including some forgettable townsfolk and a moderately disturbing mailman. On the upside are the really important main characters. Link, as almost everyone knows, looks much older and more handsome here than he did as a cute little kid in The Wind Waker. His trademark gold hoop earring makes a return, as do his elfin Hylian features and big blue eyes. (He's even cooler looking in wolf form, incidentally.)
Princess Zelda is also very well realized. She is a figure who is at once imposing and receptive, royal and down-to-earth, extremely powerful yet gentle and forgiving, and her costume design and body language suggest all of this. I've said previously that Midna, the odd darkling creature that helps Link on his journey, is possibly my all-time favorite NPC from this game series, and her character design is a big part of that. Though at first I wasn't sure about the odd proportions (she wears a massive, ornate helm and has a stubby little Kirby-esque body beneath it), the clever use of color in her design, her evocative facial expressions and the numerous cool special effects that illustrate her powers and weaknesses combine to make her as memorable a character in her appearance as she is in her personality.
From the very beginning, the music of Twilight Princess will sweep you away to another time and place. It's befitting of an epic saga like this one, and (in a pleasant deviation from the last couple of Zelda games) the original music outweighs the recycled stuff by a wide margin this time around. Though there are familiar tunes to be heard, often in variations on their original forms, they seem more like nostalgic parts of the game world than cop-outs. A vast array of dynamic sound effects adds to the feeling of immersion in another world.
As ever, there are no speaking voices in Twilight Princess. Nintendo instead has continued with their tradition of assigning small vocal cues to the text dialogue of various characters. The closest anything comes to being an exception to this is Midna, who burbles and babbles constantly in an intriguing, complex foreign tongue. If it weren't for the fact that it is obviously gibberish, it would seem as though she were really saying things, albeit in another language. It is a fun touch nonetheless. I find that the lack of voices in this game does not bother me in the slightest, either way. Nintendo seems to be pursuing a policy of not fixing things that aren't broken, and I'm not about to start gainsaying them on this point.
I've managed to put in a large amount of time adventuring in the world of Twilight Princess, and it's not hard to tell that I'm nowhere close to seeing the end of the game. Seventy hours is a conservative estimate for the amount of time it should take most people to find their way through every dungeon, defeat every boss and collect every heart piece hidden across the vast expanses of Hyrule. For the completionist, eighty hours probably comes closer to the mark. Considering that most action RPGs top out around twenty or twenty-five hours, this is already one of the best deals on the market today.
Additionally, this game is fun--an instant classic. It's arguably the best Legend of Zelda title ever to grace any system, although it's difficult to compare titans to titans. It's certainly the most polished of the series, in terms of visual quality and gameplay alike. The puzzles are devious and the dungeons are massive and multi-tiered.
It also has the most memorable stable of characters so far, although I'll be lucky if I ever forget what I'm supposed to be doing without immediately hearing a fey voice squeaking "Hey! Listen!" in the back of my mind. All in all, unless you're picking up the Wii version of this game instead, there's no reason why you should not purchase the GameCube version and immerse yourself in gaming bliss for many hours to come.
There's nothing wrong with Twilight Princess--and maybe that's the only thing wrong with it. Everything about it is a little familiar, the result of decades of refinement, tweaked gameplay and an ever more fully realized game universe. Although I was sometimes amazed or delighted by a new trick or character, I never felt really, truly surprised by anything in this game.
For better or worse, Twilight Princess is the video game equivalent of comfort food--the perfect comfort food, true (no fat! low calories!), but something warm, fuzzy and familiar nonetheless. It's plenty difficult, and even seasoned veterans of the series can expect to die plenty of times on the path towards Hyrule's salvation. But at the same time it ratchets up the challenges for fans, it doesn't really break any of the borders set by previous titles.
Gameplay, story, characters, sound, graphics and value for your gaming dollar: Twilight Princess has the best of all of these things, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good video game and a vibrant, fully realized fantasy world. However, I can't quite give it the perfect 10 that it seems to deserve. I doubt anybody will be disappointed by this game at all. It's just that it doesn't push its own boundaries the way other installments seemed to.