During the drought of games shortly after the release of the Nintendo Wii, I found myself with a lot of free time and only Wii Sports to occupy it with. Sure, I could play GameCube games and those are always fun, but I wasn’t really sure what kind of next-gen games I even really wanted. Faced with this teenage crisis, I opted to try a Zelda game, a series I had briefly played in my youth and was never any good at. Little did I know this would rekindle my love for the franchise and unleash in me a passion for fantasy games in general.
Light, darkness, and something in the middle
The plot of Twilight Princess sees us return to the fantasy land of Hyrule, where a new boy named Link must rise from his humble origins to save his country. Link is a farmer in the rural province of Ordonia, until one day a horde of monsters assaults his village and kidnaps all the children. Giving chase, Link passes through a black void and faints, whereupon he wakes up in a jail cell in the form of a wolf. Imprisoned and confused, he is then approached by Midna, a girl that looks kind of like a little demon. She mocks his new, beast-like form before offering to free our hero, though her help does come at a cost.
While Link was living his idyllic village life a war erupted between the land of Hyrule and beings from an otherworldly dimension known as “The Twilight”, a place where no light shines. These creatures won and all the provinces of Hyrule are now clouded in Twilight, allowing monsters to roam the land while the people are caught in a sort of ghost-like state. To resolve this Link and Midna must journey the land, restore light to each province, and gather the equipment needed to fight the mysterious Zant, who leads the Twilight invasion.
From a story perspective, Twilight Princess has the most weight of any Zelda game, with lots of characters that have their own arcs, tons of dialogue, and many story scenes. Unlike previous games where most of the story came from the environments and dialogue, Twilight Princess indulges in a lot of scripted moments and cutscenes where significant things happen that advance the story, which I honestly found effective. A quest between dungeons no longer just involves unlocking the means to reach the next part; instead it might have you escort a coach through monster-infested lands or play along with the devilish games of a Skull Kid, or even just watch a well-directed scene advancing the arc of a side-character.
Besides Link and Zelda, the main character this time around is definitely Midna. Compared to previous navigator characters that were perfectly helpful, Midna is very much different. It’s no surprise that she is a creature from the Twilight and has no particular love for Link or his world. She only helps out because Link shares her goal of defeating Zant and she puts her well-being before his. At the same time she also comes off as rude or even manipulative, but as the story proceeds this begins to shift. By the end of the quest she is a totally different person than before and the concept of a navigator character starting off hostile and gradually developing into a friend really worked out, turning Midna into one of the most popular characters in the franchise.
Story score: 9/10
Motion controls or buttons?
Twilight Princess‘ gameplay will feel immediately familiar to fans of the previous games, unless they opted for the Wii version which has motions controls instead of traditional buttons. Even so, Link still controls much the same as he did in earlier games and the setup of the adventure follows the formula found in Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. I.e. you journey across Hyrule to gather some mystical items at three temples, causing a plot twist to happen that necessitates you go to some more temples to gather pieces of a different mystical object.
The reactive combat from Wind Waker has been removed in favor of a more elaborate system. At first you only have some basic moves at your disposal, like the various swings and a jump attack, but through a tutor Link slowly unlocks new moves that work great in 3D and add more depth than the timed button-presses of Wind Waker did. These new techniques make combat more varied and foes easier to deal with. It’s impressive how well Nintendo succeeded at integrating these into the existing controls, the inputs needed are easy to remember and you’ll find yourself using them quite often.
Link also has plenty of tools to help out in combat or aid him in puzzle solving. Some of these are old friends like the bow, boomerang, and bombs, but plenty of new items are also found here, all of which are kind of hard to explain. While exotic and kind of cool, their use tends to vary outside of the dungeon where you get them, unlike the recurring tools that have a much wider use. The quality of the temples is great, though. While a bit on the linear side, the puzzles and presentation found in these places is excellent and I always look forward to reaching the next one.
On the downside, I find that Twilight Princess has too many gimmicks. While I found the story between temples praiseworthy, what you end up doing is often a bit obnoxious and involves entire sets of mechanics you’ll use just a few times. The game has a fully functional sumo-wrestling game that you do twice, just like the infuriatingly hard jousting that you also do just twice (though the second time you can cheat) or the entire business with returning light to a province, which involves you having to hunt down tiny monsters hidden across the map.
And the biggest gimmick of them all is the wolf form I briefly mentioned before, and which I honestly tend to forget about a lot of the time. When in the Twilight Link takes on the shape of a wolf, allowing him to use his superior senses to detect treasure and see ghosts, or employ Midna to help deal with tricky platforming and crowded combat. The controls remain remarkably similar to Link’s regular form, which may just be the issue: the wolf form doesn’t really feel that significant. Uses for money is sparse, so treasure is unnecessary, and the wolf form is really underpowered since you can’t use any of the techniques you learned. Any use it has is overshadowed by things you could always do already: Link has Epona to travel quickly (or can just warp around), platforming could be resolved with items, and people in the Twilight could just not be invisible to begin with. It’s cool to see this wolf hopping around with Midna on its back, but as a gameplay mechanic it is really unexciting.
Bundled together, Twilight Princess is a game that I enjoy about… 70% of the time. The temples are great and take up most of your time and not all of the in-between questing is necessarily bad. Wolf Link might not be great, but after the turning point in the plot it becomes more tolerable. The gimmicks too become less dense later down the line, with some like the segment in Snowpeak being actually kind of fun. While its flaws are easy to point out, they are layered over fundamentally strong gameplay that controls well and comes with a new, improved combat system. Great stuff.
Gameplay score: 7/10
The vengeance of Celda
Following the hostile reception to Wind Waker‘s cartoon art-style, a proposed sequel to the critically acclaimed and utterly beautiful GameCube game was cancelled in favor of of a “realistic” take on the series. Twilight Princess was meant to be a gothic, dark fantasy title, or at least you get the impression that was the strategy at some point. The Twilight elements in the game look fantastic, featuring deformed creatures that move erratically and screech insane sounds, the presence of Twilight clouds the world in dark colors, and later in the game you even get a peek at the bizarre architecture found in the homeland of the Twilight creatures.
It’s just that once the Twilight fades and light returns to a province, you are left looking around confused. Hyrule has rarely looked this drab and boring, the realistic art-style taking out much of the magic that it is usually known for. While realism is an admirable goal and some games pulled it off well, even in fantasy or medieval settings, Zelda has all the downsides with none of the benefits.
The HD remake for the Wii U has done little good and helps highlight how many of the character models are ugly or just otherwise bizarre. The realistic style mixed with characters that sometimes seem overly realistic and sometimes exaggerated for comedy’s sake creates this strange mixture I couldn’t appreciate and which gave me very little drive to keep playing. The fantastic soundtrack by Asuka Hayazaki and Toru Minegishi, featuring many fantastic new songs, is very much wasted on this presentation, even if it lends a powerful touch the emotional scenes of the story.
Presentation score: 4/10
The good kind of bugs
There are plenty of side-quests to be found in Twilight Princess, from the mini-games you can play to score a heart piece to long, ongoing collections to be completed. In the latter category we find golden bugs, which can be brought to Princess Agitha in Hyrule City in exchange for insane amounts of gold. A little useless, though you also get wallet upgrades that may prove more useful if you want to invest cash into some of the game’s more pricey ventures.
You can also hunt down Poes to help lift a curse, do various odd things to find heart pieces, or tackle the challenging “savage labyrinth”. The side-quests are nice, but it’s the various mini-games that really shine. Snowboarding is cool, fishing works great, these simple games are just really well done, even though they are stuffed away in corners of the world and easy to miss.
Extras score: 8/10
Twilight Princess rekindled my passion for Zelda and fantasy in general, but that was in my teenage years and after not playing such games for a long time. Replaying it now I can appreciate the high quality of the puzzles, the fantastic music, and the strong setup for the story, but also mourn how it fails to deliver on that promise of being a gothic-styled Zelda game. The lack of imaginative visuals and ugly character designs really hold the game back.