Twilight Princess also won’t be the game to make the whole Zelda timeline fall into logical focus. Its ending does not have the feeling of closure that Ocarina did; it is touchingly bittersweet and more than a little contemplative. It reminds me of Half-Life 2’s ending, in that it raises as many questions as it answers. It also leaves the audience craving more, which, again like Gordon Freeman’s second adventure, we probably won’t get for a while. Twilight Princess’s story is the richest in the series so far, but it might not be the archetypal epic you were expecting.
Regardless of the nature of the story, it would not evoke such emotion without a canvas to paint it on. Like all good virtual artists, Miyamoto and his collaborator Eiji Onouma have pushed the boundaries of Zelda’s visual and aural presentation to their final limits on the current hardware. I’m not speaking in terms of advanced pixel shaders or polygon counts in the ten-thousands. The Wii is in its infancy, and its graphical potential has yet to be explored. In addition Twilight Princess is, at its core, a GameCube game, sometimes noticeably so. There have been no substantial visual upgrades to the Wii build that differentiate it from its GameCube. Imagination, experience and clever technical tricks are the meat of this game’s presentation, and in the end they create a genuinely beautiful world.
From the instant I walked out onto Hyrule Field, I was genuinely astonished at what had been accomplished. A rolling expanse of green hills, dotted with patches of trees stretched out before me. It was a smart move by Nintendo to deprive Link of his horse for this first excursion, as it punctuates the sheer scale of the world they’ve created. I later learned that this area was but one of many that made up Hyrule, and each field section is easily bigger than the hub field of Ocarina.
Each area has its own distinguishing features as well. One is lightly forested and holds a small pond; another lies in the shadow of craggy mountains and has a river running through it; a third is open, dusty, connected to a majestic bridge and lends itself well to mounted combat. Traveling across these living believable expanses as day turned to ominous night, and the sun then finally crested over the glowing horizon made me remember why I like the Zelda series so much, even after the relatively bland sea in Wind Waker.
These fields serve to connect the game’s other, equally awe-inspiring locations. Again, many have been borrowed from previous Zelda entries but updated and expanded upon. The climb up Death Mountain to meet the proud, noble Gorons is a rugged ordeal fraught with jetting steam and perilous heights. Lake Hylia is actually the size of a real lake now, with a hidden sanctuary off to the side and mysteries in its depths. The domain of the mysterious Zora tribe is nearby, at the top of a roaring waterfall. Arid Garudo Desert shimmers with blistering heat and contains the brutal cave of ordeals. Hyrule Castle Town is the crowning location of the kingdom and bustles with daily activity. Shops, houses and a few side quests await within its hewn-granite walls, and the monumental castle itself is the site of the final showdown.
A word of warning to those who were charmed by the cel-shaded Wind Waker—Twilight Princess’s graphical style is by far the darkest, most serious of the Zelda games. At times it is more unnerving and murky than Majora’s Mask, which in and of itself was Miyamoto and Onouma’s surrealist phase. Enemies do not possess the exaggerated, comical appearance of their cel-shaded predecessors. There are no bumbling, bug-eyed pig guards, effeminate pirates and, thank god, no Tingle. In their place are arachnophobia-inducing skulltulas, shambling Redead corpses and shadow creatures ripped right out of a Lovecraft novel. You won’t be giggling very often when you play this game, and while there is no explicit gore or blood, combat is more violent, the visual themes are overtly sinister and the environments truly forbidding. I’d almost suspect that Hideo Kojima had a hand in a few of the cutscenes.
This visual sense of dark intimidation and its pervasive presence in the many locales sets the stage for the quest and give the game its cohesiveness. The real gameplay however, still lies in the bread and butter of any Zelda game: the dungeons. Twilight Princess has nine core dungeons and a collection of smaller “lantern caves,” and each one embodies its surrounding environment. The Gorons hold dominion over lava-scorched mines, a monkey-infested temple dominates the forest, haunted ruins overlook the barren deserts, and the Temple of Time…well, you’ll have to experience that one for yourself. I don’t want to give away some of the more exotic dungeons, but I can safely say that any Zelda fan will be more than satisfied. The puzzles are clever in their execution, taking bits and pieces from older games and mixing them with new ideas based on the dungeons’ environmental themes.
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