Few series in gaming evoke as much nostalgia and emotion as The Legend of Zelda. A courageous young hero in a green tunic and cap, a beautiful and enigmatic princess wise beyond her years, a dark force seeking to claim ultimate power of the goddesses - the series has spanned generations of gamers as it has generations of consoles. The first Zelda game to be a console launch title, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess has quite a reputation to live up to. Does this latest installment in the chronicles of Hyrule measure up to its predecessors?
Link starts out as a young pointy-eared man who lives in his quiet, peaceful village, happily herding. Of course, that changes within an hour or so (what did you expect?) and Link is thrust onto the stage of history to battle (quite literally) a tide of darkness spreading over Hyrule. From there on, it's almost what you'd expect from a Zelda title - not going to name specifics, but you can probably bet that there's going to be the Master Sword, the golden power of the Triforce, and lots and lots of nifty dungeons and puzzles.
Unlike most of the previous games in the series, Twilight Princess is surprisingly story-driven. Link is realized as a character in his own right for the first time, rather than merely a vessel for the player. From his playful interactions with the children and people of his village, to his relationship with the impish shadow-being Midna, to his encounters with the Princess of Hyrule, Link feels much more real than he has in any prior installment. The story, too, is more than the standard "get Master Sword, beat up Ganon, make sweet love to Zelda" fare of the series, and it features some interesting twists in an already-compelling narrative.
Make no mistake, this is a much darker game than previous entries in the series, and it occasionally deals with serious issues that other games just skirted over or simply didn't bring up. This is definitely a more "adult" Zelda than anything that's come before.
While Twilight Princess would easily be one of the most gorgeous games in the previous console generation, pushing the Gamecube's hardware to its limits, it doesn't hold a candle to what we've seen on the 360 and PS3. This may be due to the fact that it spent most of its development as a Gamecube title or the Wii's inherent lack of power (or both), but there are some shoddy textures that would have been considered low-res on the 'cube, and many lines are incredibly jaggy. While the music is well-composed for the most part (featuring some great remixes of past LoZ songs) it maintains the same MIDI quality it had on the N64, and one wonders why the developers didn't take advantage of the increased space available on Wii disks.
Though technically the graphics aren't quite up to the high standards set by games like Gears of War, Twilight Princess is absolutely phenomenal from an artistic standpoint, particularly in the eponymous twilight world. The world of the game is significantly larger than any world we've seen in a Zelda thus far, and in many ways feels inspired by games like Shadow of the Colossus. While you have the standard locations like the Lost Woods, Lake Hylia, Death Mountain and Hyrule Castle/Field, there's plenty more to see in this adventure. While in the Twilight, everything is sepia-toned and slightly blurry, and the lighting is just absolutely gorgeous. The art brilliance really does make up for the technical flaws, but to not mention them would be an oversight.
But that's not why we play Zelda, is it?
It's surprising how natural the Wii controls feel in a Zelda game. A flick of the wrist attacks, while the B trigger is mapped to your primary item (you can set three additional items to the D-Pad and swap them in and out on the fly). While the Wiimote functionality is clearly an addition, it does work very well.
One of the most discussed features of Twilight Princess is Link's wolf alter-ego. While you'll control Wolf-Link for predetermined segments in the beginning, you later get the ability to change forms on the fly, and later dungeons/fights/puzzles require you to do just that. While the wolf is slightly faster and has heightened animal senses allowing him to see spirits and track scents, he also can't use the impressive array of items and weaponry Link has available to him. The wolf segments in the beginning aren't very fun and mainly have a "hurry up so we can be Link again" feel to them; but after you get the ability to change at any point, it feels much less tedious.
Link comes equipped with his standard gear: Boomerang, Bow, Slingshot, Hookshot (Clawshot in this one), his trusty sword/shield ... there are some new items that are very fun to use, though, so if you're despairing about having seen it all, despair not!
I mentioned earlier that the world is the biggest one yet. The dungeons follow suit - not only are there quite a few of them (a welcome change after Wind Waker), but they're all gigantic and very well done. The puzzles never get so hard that you can't figure out what to do, but some manage to be tricky while still staying simple (I've found myself cursing my stupidity after finally figuring out that the key to the puzzle was right in front of me). You'll generally get a spankin' new item in the dungeon, which will then be the key to defeating the dungeon's boss; nothing new there. While neither the boss fights nor the mini-boss fights are particularly hard, they're epic in scope and feel more challenging (or exhausting) than they really are.
Some may criticize Twilight Princess for not changing the standards and traditions of the Zelda series more, a la Resident Evil 4. That never quite bothered me, and I feel that Link's latest adventure strikes an excellent blend between traditional and new - there's just something about walking out into a completely unfamiliar Kakariko Village and hearing the first few strains of the familiar theme before the music changes that makes me smile.
The story does start off slow, and the presence of an older Link with a more mature art style (in addition to several other factors) may make the game feel like a simple retelling of Ocarina of Time at first. However, around the third dungeon it starts to noticeably pick up and take its own course, and it really just keeps on getting better from there. It's good for the first hour, great for the next five, and for the rest of the game it's Twilight Princess. Despite the technical dings, it's easily the best entry in the Zelda series to date, by far the best Wii launch title, and definitely in the running for Game of the Year.
The Legend of Zelda has all grown up, and what a beautiful thing it is.