Review by Mariner
"Caught between darkness and light"
[Warning: this review isn't exactly meant to be a stand alone review for someone who's never played the game before. If you're looking for descriptions of the game or basic overviews, get out, as you'll find none of that here. This review's long enough already.]
Twilight. The brief, ephemeral moment in the morning when the darkness turns to light, or the light to darkness in the evening. It's rather fitting that Nintendo chose this as their theme for their latest Zelda game, considering the unprecedented lows this franchise has sunk to over the past 6 years, with rehashed, uninspired games like Wind Waker and the Oracle series. Games that have turned an innovative, epic series into a mundane, predictable one. But Twilight Princess was supposed to be different. All through its development, Nintendo talked about surpassing Ocarina of Time (apparently, even Nintendo knew that the series had been spiraling downward). A noble goal, to be sure. But they still can't break out of some of the bad habits they've acquired over the years. The end result? Flashes of brilliance, flashes of dullness. Twilight.
Heck, the game certainly didn't take very long to get on the right foot. The title sequence was absolutely gorgeous, and the opening music was enough to put me in heaven. For the first week or two after getting the game, I didn't even bother cutting the title sequence short; I just wanted to listen to the music. What a wonderful way to get me all excited about playing a brand new, epic Zelda game.
And then the game wasted no time killing all of that enthusiasm. See, the first few hours are downright terrible. You start in Ordon Town, the most boring place in existence. There is absolutely nothing to do, no one to talk to, that is not required to advance the game. It's there for the tutorial and nothing else. Remember Kokiri Forest? There were strange patches of dirt, strange rocks, and an entire lost woods that you could explore and wonder about before even entering the Deku Tree. Even Windfall Island had more character than Ordon. Don't think that this will change as soon as you're done with the boring tutorial part. You continue to be shuttled along on a linear course, with absolutely nothing interesting that can divert you. Honestly, if it was set up as a series of level based missions rather than as an interconnected overworld, you wouldn't notice any difference. Exploration, the heart and soul of Zelda, is not only neutered, but nonexistent in the first couple hours prior to entering your first level. And it made those critical hours extremely frustrating. In fact, the thought of having to play those first two hours is the single largest factor keeping me from playing this game again.
Fortunately, the game opens up. Sadly, this still takes a while, as only bits and pieces become interesting over the next several hours. Sure, there will be a heart container or two that you can go grab, but most areas are still off limits. Most sidequests can't be started, and the towns are still extraordinarily dull. But at least you can start to appreciate the beauty of the wonderful environment Nintendo created. You can take the fullest of the limited freedom Nintendo gives you. Eventually, about a third of the way through the game, you'll get nearly unlimited freedom. That's when it hit me. The same feeling I first got way back when I was a kid playing the original game the first time, or when I first stepped onto Hyrule Field in OoT. I'm playing a Zelda game. The overwhelming feeling of freedom, of anticipation for what is to come. The sense that the world is infinite, that you can spend days simply gazing out at its beauty and still not see everything. When it first hit me (after a whole lot of major plot elements, so those who've played the game should know when I'm talking about), I couldn't help but smile. I didn't feel pressured to move along, I didn't feel like I was playing a mere videogame. I was experiencing something larger than life, something that beckoned me to lose itself in its world yet again. It was an experience.
I feel it's important to point out that wave of euphoria I felt once I was no longer being strung along, because it and moments like it are why I still like this game despite the beginning, despite its many faults. The game does feel like the true successor to Ocarina of Time, with its giant world, beautiful scenery, and varied locales. I would often spend my time simply riding around Hyrule Field, gazing at the land around me. I would take different routes than I did earlier in the game, just to see some of the beautiful architecture, or to peer out across Hyrule from a different perspective. The sheer size of this game is its greatest strength, sacrificing detailed graphics for a truly expansive world. And after the boring sea of Wind Waker, it was a welcome relief. Indeed, most of my fondest memories of the game comes from random exploring - not necessarily for items, but simply to see what was out there. In that sense, this game is a truly wonderful experience, the game I've been waiting for for years now. But when it comes time to abandon the experience and actually play the game, that's when I'd start to get upset again, as Nintendo seemed to constantly fall back on their bad habits.
For instance, the game's simply too darn predictable. Dare to guess how many temples you'll go through before you can get the Master Sword? Could it possibly be the same number as in LttP, OoT, and WW? Is this such an integral, necessary part of Zelda's design that the game would be ruined if it happened to be two or four temples? For that matter, care to guess what elemental themes the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd levels are? Is it the same order it always is? Being equal to OoT doesn't mean copying these details to a tee, it means replicating the experience. Sadly, Nintendo didn't get the memo, and at times it felt like I was playing an OoT remake. I was predicting when events would occur, or when I would get certain items. And every single time, I was correct. This predictability, sadly, extended to the temple designs themselves. It's always the same: go through half the temple, fight miniboss, get item, use item for the second half of temple, get the boss key, fight the boss using your new item. Repeat 9 times.
That doesn't just affect how surprising the game can be, but it also limits the level design. I wouldn't mind if a few of the levels were set out like I described above, or even if most were. But every single one? What happened to variety? Rather than Nintendo letting loose and coming up with some crazy fun levels, we're stuck with the same routine over and over again. Yes, this has been a staple of the Zelda series all the way back to the beginning (and indeed, a staple for videogames in general), but it was only a guideline rather than an unbreakable code. In OoT, the feather boots were placed at the very beginning of the Shadow Temple, and were only used sparingly and often in conjunction with other items throughout the rest of the temple, for example. Here, it's the same routine. You know you'll be getting an item halfway through (and you'll often know what item that is). You know that it has to be something that can be used to solve puzzles (unlike, say, getting the Blue Mail in the Ice Palace in LttP). You know that every room afterwards will have a puzzle that requires this item. You know what you need to do to beat the boss. Talk about a lack of spontaneity. It's rote. It's uninspired. It's, dare I say it, boring.
That's not to say everything in the temples is boring and uninspired, far from it. While the overall design of each may have been too formulaic, there were still a few with some truly great ideas. The Water Temple, for example. Like the temples of OoT, this one seemed as if the gameplay elements were structured around the architecture, rather than the other way around. You had the large central chamber, surrounded by a current of swirling water that you could enter, but that seemingly had no point. To the east and west, you find giant waterwheels, waiting to be powered. Events that happened in one room would affect the neighboring rooms, changing the way they look and the way they play. Your goal, rather than just move throughout the temple one room at a time, is to get both of those wheels moving. It meant a lot of backtracking, a lot of thinking, and a lot of exploring. It was a blast. The Yeti House was unique too. Sure, it didn't look that much like a house, but it definitely had a unique feel to it. Enough to give that level more imperative to look around, a better reason to pay attention to it. And then there is the wonderfully designed final level. Sure, gameplay-wise, it wasn't overly special. But the massive size and beauty more than made up for it. It felt like the epic showdown was at hand, it in itself was an ample reward for getting that far. Yes, this is only three levels. But it's at least unique to this game, and thus enough to draw me deeper into its world.
And there were other moments that brought me even closer and kept me going. Shortly after entering the Arbiter's Grounds, for instance, you find some flowing sand. No big deal. Suddenly, a horde of beetles comes crawling out of the sand towards you. Did that completely freak anyone else, or was it just me? The fact that it did freak me out, and I ran out of that room long before they could reach me, is a testament to the game's ability to draw me in. I didn't want anything to do with those beetles; they were creepy. Or what about the long and winding caves scattered throughout Hyrule Field? Sure, it's a standard way to hide pieces of heart or lotsa money, but it was still a different experience. Having only your lantern to guide you through the long passageways, fighting whatever enemies may block your path, desperately hoping you'll reach the end before your oil runs out, it really harkens back to the feel of the original Zelda. And what about the golden bugs? Agatha's castle was absolutely beautiful, and searching for them all required looking all around the vast landscape. The entire concept felt like a welcome relief from the drudgery of saving the world (far better than poe collecting, that's for sure). They're little moments, yes, but these are the reasons I kept playing.
Well, that and the swordfighting. Who needs a Wii controller when combat's already awesome on its own? Unlike the pathetically stupid "press A now to win" school of swordfighting that Wind Waker used, we actually have depth to the combat system. Your normal stabs and strikes do only minimal damage yet can be performed quickly, but you will also learn several special techniques that can add some depth to your dueling skills. Smash an enemy with your shield to stun him, then go for his head. Or sidestep around him and perform a quick spin attack. Or just sit defenseless, daring him to come closer before quickly whipping out your sword at the last minute to deliver a devastating blow. Needless to say, it's all good. Rarely do you find enemies that must be killed in only one way; instead you can experiment and try your own techniques against all the baddies. Use your favorites over and over, or try out some new ones. Come up with your own optimal way to kill those pesky darknuts or other duelists. In a sense, it makes the combat aspect of Zelda almost as fresh as the exploration aspect, something that had fallen by the wayside since Zelda II. The ability to actually think and plan through a battle (even if it's just for fun as opposed to actually needing it) rather than simply going through the motions makes this one aspect of Zelda that is thoroughly improved with this installment.
In fact, about the only disappointment combat-wise were the bosses. Remember when I talked about how formulaic the temples were? Yeah, the bosses are even worse. It's the same setup as it's been since OoT: use your new item to stun the boss, stab it a few times, repeat as necessary. Yawn. Don't get me wrong, Nintendo tried to make them interesting. But they're only interesting to watch, not to actually play. See, the boss fights are extremely epic. Imagine yourself hundreds of yards above the ground dueling with a fire-breathing dragon. Hookshot onto its back and, as you're hanging on for dear life, stab it in the back. Ride the dragon down all the way to the ground, jumping off just before it hits. Sounds cool, right? It sure looks like it, but in reality it's nothing more than targeting a bunch of floating blobs in succession until the dragon stops moving, then targeting its back. Yeah, real exciting... They're all like that. The giant spider scuttling around the ceiling. The massive eel swimming around the water. The floating head of doom. Cool to watch, boring to play. Couldn't we have both instead of just one?
Seems it's going back to that same theme: plenty of wonderful, innovative, refreshing, awe-inspiring moments, but beneath them is the same dull, rehashed experience that I saw in Wind Waker. Dueling darknuts is awesome, dueling bosses is boring (albeit a cool looking boring). Collecting golden bugs is a delightful diversion, collecting poe souls is not. Why the difference? With darknuts, you can experiment. You have to try to goad your opponent into making a mistake. One tactic won't always work every time, and battles are always intense. Boss fights are done by rote, with you simply following the formula Nintendo expects you to use, with no deviation. Golden bugs simply require you to look around an already beautiful landscape. And since they're organized in a systematic manner, it's not a chore to hunt down that one final bug you're missing. Poes only come out at a certain time (and, unlike OoT, there's no way to manipulate time), and can only be killed when in wolf form (so forget about it for the first 1/3 of the game). There's only two reward levels, so you either only need to kill a few or you need to kill them all. Which is an annoying task, since there's no way to know where the few remaining poes are hiding (unlike OoT's skulltulas, for example). Allowing one to experiment, allowing one to explore without frustration, this is where the game shines. So why are both the good and the bad here? Did no one notice the difference?
How about another example of having both the good and the bad: references to past games. Twilight Princess almost feels like it's the Legend of Zelda: Greatest Hits version. And when it's done well, it's great, but when it's not, it deserves an eye-rolling. The key here is to be subtle and not gameplay related. The Master Sword sequence is a perfect example of both kinds. When I first entered the clearing, my jaw dropped. It was absolutely beautiful, a stunning scene reminiscent of the artwork at the front of the instruction manual, and reminding me of it brought a smile to my face. Subtle. Effective. Good. And then I pulled the Master Sword. And the haze gave way to a bright sunny day. Oh puhleeze. Talk about a blatant copy of LttP. Fortunately, it seems like there's more of the former than the latter. The howling stone songs. The photo of the fisherman with the loach. One of the statues of the goddesses back near the beginning of the game. I like that sort of stuff. But then there's the four poes you have to kill in the Arbiter's Grounds, otherwise known as the most blatant OoT ripoff since the race with the Deku Butler in MM. Keep it subtle and it enhances the game, connecting it with the past while still being a fresh, new experience. Throw it in our faces like this poe business, and it feels like we're simply playing a cheap facsimile of the past, hoping that no one will notice. And stuff like that really takes me out of the game, leading to a lesser experience overall.
Speaking of taking one out of the game, I feel the need to gripe about one particularly horrid offender. The puzzle right before the Master Sword was the most mind bogglingly stupid thing they could have done. Let's face it, Zelda relies on a certain amount of immersion, and finally reaching the Sword of Evil's Bane is one of the defining moments in the game. Consider what happens immediately before and after you grab it in Ocarina of Time if you don't know what I'm talking about. Or Wind Waker for that matter, where even haters like me think it's an absolutely stunning part of the game. And here, the buildup is great. You get that wonderful cut scene just after the Water Temple, and another one after meeting Zelda. You reach a previously inaccessible area. You go through a somewhat eerie romp through the woods. You see the ruins of a statue. And then you... have a stupid puzzle? What?!? Talk about taking you out of rhythm. It's as if Nintendo's daring you to consider this as nothing more than a videogame, as opposed to a true immersive experience. It makes no sense plotwise and doesn't fit gameplay wise. It's just out there, absurdly placed, completely breaking the mood. I couldn't believe it. Sure, it doesn't affect the rest of the game, but it's still stupid.
Sure, some of these things may seem minor to you, and maybe you won't notice them. But all of these points, both positive and negative, add up to one clear picture: sparks of brilliance alone can't make this game live up to its potential. Make no mistake, I enjoyed this game. And there are moments where I feel like I did in the past, transcending mere enjoyment to a sort of awe-inspiring experience. But every one of these negative points cuts away from that. How can I become immersed in the world when I can't help but notice the lazy level design? How can I happily explore the surroundings when I'm forced on a certain path? The joy, the awe, it comes and goes, flittering away from you before you can truly appreciate it. It makes the few shining moments poignant, as you know they won't last. You know this game isn't a true continuation of the Zelda/LttP/OoT wonders that continually enhanced and changed the way you played. Instead, it's just a rehashed Zelda with a few highlights and a new gimmick. The Legend of Zelda: Now With Wolf Action. I didn't spend my entire 40+ hours of playing in a state of awe like with some of the older games. I wasn't totally immersed. Thus, except for a few blissful highs and some dramatic lows (especially those first couple hours...), it was simply pleasant Rather low praise for what was once a great series, I would think.
It's kinda sad that I end this review on a negative note, since it is still a good game. Most people will undoubtedly come away from it feeling as if they got their money's worth (even I did, and this is the most negative 8/10 review you'll ever read). If all you're looking for is a satisfying adventure game, then you have nothing to lose. Sadly, however, if you were expecting one of the greatest games ever, it isn't here. And while that may be an unfair way to judge a game, it is something I can say about several Zelda games in the past. But Twilight Princess is easily the best Zelda game to come out in the past 6 years, and that has to count for something. It doesn't make me cringe like all the other recent games, and I was mostly satisfied with my play time. As a last desperate gasp of breath, it was pretty good. But perhaps it is the twilight of the Zelda series. Still light, yes, but with the darkness creeping in. Still enjoyable, but still frustrating. And likely the last decent Zelda game we'll have for awhile. For if Nintendo couldn't quite reach their glory years when they're consciously trying to for 3 years, what makes you think they ever will in the future?
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/14/07
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