Sunday, September 16, 2012

GOT 'IM - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

It's been five short months since my last Zelda experience, but it's been a Zelda kind of year, I guess. My latest completed target game is none other than The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

In my earlier reviews for Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker I go into plenty of detail about my Zelda-playing history, so I'll spare you an extra two or three paragraphs (those two reviews are here and here, respectively). Bottom line: I avoided 3D Zelda games for a long time, but not anymore. Twilight Princess is the eighth Zelda game I've beaten.

Twilight Princess is an obvious change in tone from its GameCube predecessor, Wind Waker. Wind Waker was extremely successful, but many fans complained about its bright, colorful world and sea exploration - my guess is that it wasn't similar enough to Ocarina of Time. Well, they got what they wanted, because Twilight Princess is a LOT like Ocarina of Time. Twilight Princess features an older, teenaged link in lieu of the Young Link / Toon Link character design, and has plenty of darkness and shadow in both its atmosphere and in its overall themes: for the first half of the game Link collaborates with Zelda and a sarcastic imp named Midna to restore light to Hyrule, which has been swallowed by darkness thanks to an evil sorcerer named Zant. In the game's second half, Link and Midna attempt to restore an ancient artifact called the Mirror of Twilight, which will allow them to enter Zant's Twilight Realm and finally defeat Zant. Of course, Ganon and the Sages and other traditional Zelda bits feature throughout.

If it sounds like I used the words dark, shadow, or twilight a lot, that's because all three feature heavily in Twilight Princess. Twilight Princess uses a light vs. dark theme very prominently, and I'm not sure if the Twilight Realm is the same as the Golden Land / Dark World / Sacred Realm from earlier Zelda games or not (if it isn't, then it functions quite similarly). In the game's first half, Link takes the form of a wolf whenever he enters the shadow-infested Hyrule (not unlike Link being forced to take the form of a pink rabbit when he enters the Dark World in A Link to the Past), and in the second half, when the shadows have dispersed, Link can transform between man and beast at will.

So yeah, if Twilight Princess has one game-defining gimmick, it's Wolf Link. In wolf form, Link can't use any items or sword attacks, but is a little bit faster on land and has a four-hit combo just like Link's sword. More importantly, Wolf Link can burrow in hidden dig spots or dig up items from the dirt AND has a "sense mode" that allows Wolf Link to detect hidden items, ghosts, invisible shadow beings, and specific smells. It's like Arkham Asylum's "Detective Mode" right down to always having it on even when it doesn't make sense.

Wolf Link isn't that bad, EXCEPT that A) human Link is more powerful and fun to use in almost every respect; B) a number of Wolf Link "puzzles" amount to finding the right spot to stand and then clicking Z a bunch of times, basically a Quick-Time Event (and does anyone really like QTEs anymore?); and C) the mandatory Wolf Link sections in the first half of the game are awful, tedious treasure hunts that are totally forced and unnecessary and I hate them. I'll get to C) in more detail later, but the bottom line is that Wolf Link is okay as a peripheral ability in Link's assortment of items, spells, and skills, but when it takes center stage Wolf Link is a lot less fun than the rest of Twilight Princess.

Human Link is a lot more fun to work with - Link's regular arsenal is here, plus a few interesting additions like the Ball and Chain (enemies-only for so many years!) and a Double Clawshot that both improves upon the traditional hookshot and gives you a second one for even screwier puzzles! Yes, most of the items are basically keys-but-not-keys that are useful in extremely obvious and specific situations, but that's true of a good 70% of the items in every Zelda game. Link's swordplay is about as good as ever - Twilight Princess refined the sword combos from Wind Waker with a few interesting additions like a leaping Helm Splitter and an iaido-esque Mortal Draw. I liked Mortal Draw so much that I would use it even when it wasn't a good idea at the time. Seven of the more advanced sword techniques are found by locating wolf spirits throughout the world - of the several sidequests in Twilight Princess, the secret sword techniques are my favorite because the rewards are great, they aren't *that* obnoxiously difficult to find, and there are only seven of them (a reasonable number indeed).

So Link's swordplay is great, items are quite good, and wolf form is mostly good. How about those other sidequests? Well, in addition to those seven sword techniques, Link can hunt for 24 golden bugs, 60 Poe ghosts, 45 Pieces of Heart, and 7 or 8 types of fish; in addition, there are a ton of minigames to play scattered throughout the world, and probably a few other things I'm forgetting. Pieces of Heart were five to a container instead of the normal four, which was puzzling but not so bad. There is a LOT of side stuff to do in Twilight Princess and I probably did maybe half. I got all the bugs and sword scrolls, but only around 30 pieces of heart (some of them with help from a guide) and maybe 15 Poes.

I mentioned earlier that Twilight Princess is really similar to Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past in both its overall framework and in several surface details. Well, part of that framework is a series of dungeons stretched over two narrative halves, and Twilight Princess matches those two predecessors with three early dungeons (i.e. Ocarina's three jewels or ALttP's three medallions), four midgame dungeons (i.e. Ocarina's six sages or ALttP's seven maidens), and two endgame dungeons (i.e. Ocarina's Ganon's Castle or ALttP's Tower of Hera). That's 9-plus dungeons total (seven traditional ones, two endgame short dungeons), which is comparable to Ocarina's 10-plus or A Link to the Past's 12-plus, and more than Wind Waker's 7-plus. When I say 9-plus, that means 9 dungeons, with the "plus" signifying small in-between dungeons that lack normal dungeon things like keys and a boss.

Now that those numbers are out of the way, I should explain: dungeons are my favorite part of any Zelda game, and Twilight Princess's dungeons are awesome. The last two are a little lacking, but awesome in scope and presentation (the same could be said of Ganon's Castle in Ocarina of Time), but the other seven are better than Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker's dungeon selection. That's right - these dungeons are as good or better in quantity AND quality of just about every other Zelda game except for A Link to the Past, which happens to be my favorite Zelda game overall. My favorite Twilight Princess dungeon was the Snowpeak Ruins, a large manor house inhabited by a pair of Yeti and predicated on a fetch-quest of sorts; Arbiter's Grounds wins second place. My least favorite was probably the Lakebed Temple, but ALL of these are good and, like I said, some of the best in the entire series.

Of particular note are the dungeon bosses in Twilight Princess. Sure, it's like other Zelda games in that they always feature the dungeon item heavily, but these boss fights seemed particularly... epic. A few of them were MASSIVE in scale, with dragons and sea serpents large enough for Link to ride and one boss resulting in a Ratchet-esque wall ride jumping from track to track. Even the minibosses seemed to take it up a notch. The final two confrontations (which are against Zant and Ganon, too obvious to be a spoiler) were appropriately multi-tiered and awesome.

So let's get to the bad stuff. Musically and visually, Twilight Princess is perfectly adequate. Its visuals look pretty good for the GameCube, maybe a little boxy on a large HD screen but not busted or anything. Still, I miss the gorgeous cel-shading of Wind Waker. Wind Waker was bold, colorful, and smooth. The combat in TP is a little better than in WW, but WW's looks like a living, moving cartoon while TP's looks more like wooden dolls in motion. Musically, TP relies heavily on atmospheric background audio and remixes of Ocarina and ALttP tracks. Wind Waker also had good innocuous background music, but also more original standalone tracks that were MUCH more memorable than anything in Twilight Princess.

Speaking of music, Twilight Princess technically has a "music system" like in Ocarina or Wind Waker, except it takes the form of a wolf-howling minigame of sorts that you must do every time you find one of the spirit wolves that can teach Link a new sword technique. It's a dumb and not fun repetition game like... the old Simon toy or something, and the best thing about it is that it's optional and can be done a maximum of seven times. Not cool.

My big beef with Twilight Princess seems like a positive, but around 30% of the way through the game is definitely a negative. Twilight Princess has a very nice world map - it's big, has a wide variety of areas, and it's segmented Hyrule Field is bigger and more textured than Ocarina of Time's. Several standbys from older games (mostly Ocarina) return, like Kakariko Village, Lake Hylia, Death Mountain, and others, and they're mostly pretty interesting (Kakariko is now an old west town?). You also have Epona from the get-go to make travel easy, and throughout the game Link and Midna unlock warp points to make travel even easier. There are also several towns with a number of interesting NPCs. So far, so good. But for the three early-game dungeons, Link needs to traverse across large portions of the map as Wolf Link and seek out 16 Shadow Insects to lift the shadowy curse that's covering that part of Hyrule. Sometimes they're pretty fucking well-hidden. You need to do this three times for three of the four light spirits that reside in Hyrule, and before you're halfway it feels like pulling teeth.

But that's not all! Almost every dungeon has some fetch-questing and traveling that needs to be done before you can access it, which should be okay. But Twilight Princess has more NPCs, dialog, and inter-dungeon bullshit than just about every other game in the series, and it gets annoying. The shadow insects are the worst of it, but between rescuing orphans, escorting carriages, and hunting for owl statues I was longing for the bygone days of NES Zelda and its zero-plot-between-dungeons way earlier than I thought I would. It's admirable that Twilight Princess has bigger narrative element than its predecessors, but I wish it was more bare-bones and player-guided. While I did like a few NPCs (Yeta and Yeto, Telma the barkeeper, and Malo come to mind), I didn't give two shits about all of those children that needed rescuing over and over (except Malo, whose business acumen is both impressive and hilarious) and somehow cared even less about Link's amnesiac girlfriend. There was so much dialog and inter-dungeon bullshit that it was frustrating instead of enriching.

One final gripe: this is a Zelda game with all the strengths and weaknesses thereof. I went into detail about this in my Ocarina of Time blog entry, but it's still true. Twilight Princess's items may as well be funny-shaped keys, because that's how they're used. The basic framework of the game is so similar to that of Ocarina of Time, that Wind Waker seems more impressive in comparison because of the sheer BALLS of making such a different Zelda. I really enjoyed Twilight Princess (it might be better than Wind Waker, but it's a tough call), but it's very, very Zelda. If you're looking for a great Zelda game, then look no further. If you're looking for a new, innovative, game-changing Zelda experience, then sorry, that doesn't exist. Unless you travel back in time to 1998.

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
9. Journey
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
11. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
12. Star Ocean: Second Evolution
13. Red Dead Redemption
14. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
15. Persona 3 FES
16. Final Fantasy XII
17. DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue
18. Super Mario Galaxy
19. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Targets: 7/12


I'm so far behind in my 2012 goals that I'm starting to doubt my ability to do it, but I must press on. Currently in the final stages of a playthrough of Fire Emblem: Sword of Seals and very much anticipating the September 20th release of Torchlight II. After those two round out my September, I'll pick a new target game to run through, probably one of the PS2 RPGs.

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