"I liked the game, darn it! It is majestic, captivating, engrossing, and above all, fun. So what's my problem?!"
Digging Deep For A Bone
I wanted a real sequel to Ocarina of Time. As much as sailing through cel-shaded waters tickles my need for fanciful pleasures, I never cared much for Wind Waker. I longed for adventure in classic Hyrule, a familiar world of green waiting for an elven-eared hero to remove the customary blanket of evil and actually meet Zelda, for hopefully more than a minute - and a one-night stand we obviously aren't informed about. Link, the ever gracious (destined) slave of the Goddesses, deserves at least that much.
Twilight Princess is everything I expected it to be, a respectful expansion on Ocarina of Time that tries to distinguish itself by doing something different. Even the Triforce, in all its wisdom, knows that Zelda games are alike. But if history foretells us anything, it is that we like the Zelda template a lot - the epic, the bouncy green hood, the dungeons that are by and large more twisted and dangerous than the bosses are, the Pieces of Heart idly spinning in the craziest nooks and Cucco crannies, and the fabled Master Sword we can't wait to stick up evil's laughing arses. Of course, we're not supposed to like repetitious things, so we patiently meander the shelves of games until we hear about a Zelda what's-its-name that offers an obligatory twist, making it acceptable to play the template one more sword-swingin' time.
Something, however, is amiss in this iteration of the Hyrulian canon. Grumbling beneath the desire to lavish anything Link is in with (healing) hearts is an abnormal sense that Twilight Princess doesn't have all its rupees together. It's the unsettling feeling that makes me ponder whether my standards as a critic, a gamer that has seen and played too much, are exorbitantly high. I liked the game, darn it! It is majestic, captivating, engrossing, and above all, fun. So what's my problem?!
After putting down my Wii-mote for more than fourteen and a half hours (I'm not counting), following a week-long vacation in keese-infested landscapes, I finally realized that Twilight Princess could have been better - tighter, fuller, and more unified - and less… odd. Nintendo's "delaytful" struggle to showcase the title for the Wii's launch shows instantly in the sequence on the title screen. What is supposed to provoke "ooos" and "aahhs" crumbles upon fugly grass textures, as the camera pans across the magnificence of Hyrule Field in a high action shot, and upon one glob of a mountain that looks like something I modeled in the first week of "Introduction to Maya" class - before I learned how to smooth edges.
Another oddity stems from how storytelling through dialogue has never been the winning edge for the Zelda franchise, though that has never been a problem. In fact, if there ever was an argument for storyplay - the general game concept that actions speak louder than words - this series is all we need. So, it is a wonder that within the first three hours of gameplay, there's enough dialogue to fill three Zelda games. This time around, Link is a strapping lad at the peak of puberty from the quaint woodland Ordon Village. His plans on wooing the love interest Ilia (that's what Zelda gets for her Sheik stunt...) are ruined when the land is blighted by twilight. Apparently, it's more dangerous than good ol'-fashioned dusk, because Link reacts by Animorphing into a wolf, and is subsequently knocked unconscious by a pot-bellied ogre and dragged to the dingy prisons beneath Hyrule Castle. Midna, an eerie twilight inhabitant with mystic powers, soon forces her help on him, as long as he remembers to return a (entire game long) favor. And with Midna either on his lupine back or as a part of his human shadow all day and all night, how can he forget?
Unfortunately, this newfound attention on the storyline leaves an unwelcome chink in the armor. After freeing the light world from the last of the twilight, hardly anyone in Hyrule Town, aside from a ragtag group of rebels (of exactly five members - foreigners, I might add), seems to care that their gigantic castle is encapsulated in an opaque, yellow, impenetrable barrier. The townsfolk jauntily skip from alleyway to alleyway, frolicking over where they should eat, shop, and sit. The guards don't even seem to mind standing, protecting the castle entrance that no can get through anyway. Maybe they think they can't do anything about it, like Hyrulian warming. And once Link finally collects enough power by the end of the game to break the darn barrier, there's no fanfare! Hellooo... excitement, peoples?! Apparently, they're too busy path-planning to notice that the big yellow thing is gone. The only saving grace for this lack of gratitude is dashing into town as a wolf and scaring the living daylights out of the petty humans, basking in their screams and general panic. Evil never gets old for Link.
Now, I don't know whether Okami stole from Twilight Princess or the other way around (woof!), but even if either is true, canine Link needs some help over a stile. Besides a hint that wolves have something to do with ancient heroic beasts, why Link turns into one on contact with the twilight goes largely unexplained. Wolf Link can dig, sniff, leap, pounce, and rip a monster's neck to ribbons, but these special abilities are mostly grounded to specific instances, whether it's following a scent trail or killing spectral foes.
Having to turn into a wolf and then back into a human for common things such as warping or slaughtering poes or talking in English is more irritating than exciting. It also doesn't help that due to Midna's screen-clearing attack when she's on your back, making mincemeat out of monsters becomes a monotonous affair. Moreover, the power to howl Ocarina of Time-like melodies is hardly used at all, especially since it can only be done when wolf Link is next to a Howling Stone or a patch of Epona-calling horse grass - if you ever forget that you can warp. Since poes only materialize at night, it would have been nice to be able to howl the Sun's Song or something that moves time, instead of having to sit and roll over for a while (…or fish). Ultimately, wolf Link just gets in the way of human Link rather than being an equally likable part of his wide arsenal of moves.
Much of this actually comes from Howling Stones, which only offer human Link the opportunity to learn badass techniques. Nothing beyond the time-honored spin attack or jump attack is necessary, but why pass up the chance to make our adolescent swashbuckler a real swordsman? There's nothing quite like picking up a Wii-mote and slashing the neck of a mindless troll with a Back Slice, stunning skeletons with Shield Attacks, ripping a line of charging lizards with a Jump Strike, slicing the helmet off an armored knight in mid-air with a Helm Splitter, and soaring through the bloody wind to finish a foe with an Ending Blow. Regrettably, there aren't many places to showcase Link's spanking-new skills, apart from the optional fifty-level Cave of Ordeals, as most monsters and bosses are easily disposed of. In fact, the most difficult obstacle is not falling into lava, a bottomless pit, or an underground room that has already been cleared. Damn it!
Still, this lack of difficulty is partially alleviated by the weapons - be it the arrow-and-bomb combination, the Hawkeye which turns the bow into a sniper, the Dominion Rod which animates dormant statues, and especially one devilish contraption lurking in one of the final dungeons: Double Clawshots! Mounting against a wall, slinking down from the ceiling, and soaring through the air on a chain is all a green-hooded hero really needs.
Stealthy like ninja.
With Wind Waker labeled as an out-of-the-box Zelda title, it's not surprising that the more classical Twilight Princess takes a lot of cues from Ocarina of Time, if not a bit too many. Aside from a few muddy textures and a comparably under-utilized soundtrack, the renowned graphical and musical detail have been enhanced and recreated on par with a late Gamecube title. The waters in Lake Hylia actually look cleaner (is that even possible?), and the theme for Hyrule Field has an easily hummable melody ringing with trumpets and flutes.
Less encouraging, however, is that the first third of the game is familiar - too familiar. It's probably not much of a coincidence that the first dungeon takes place in the woodlands, though the dungeon treasure is a boomerang. However, it's far from coincidence that the second dungeon rests in the red-stone mountains of the Gorons; and that the third dungeon waits submerged underwater, guarded by the Zoras; and that the fourth dungeon, albeit flooded with sand, can only be completed by expelling four mischievous poes. If that wasn't bad enough, the final boss (do I even have to say who?) is even easier than that of Ocarina of Time. Just whip out the fishing rod during the final duel and things just get ridiculous. That's right, follow the pretty, pretty lure!
I wanted a real sequel to Ocarina of Time, and maybe I wanted it too badly. That's what happens when I expect perfection, and though I know I'm setting myself up for disappointment, a new Zelda title is more than privileged to have that expectation. Perhaps it's a problem that I took Twilight Princess too seriously, looking for flaws even when I'm caught up converting evil into bloody meat and a bowl of chow. Of course, when I'm having so much fun, I just have to dig it.
Staff review by Nicholas Tan (July 27, 2007)
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