Version tested: Wii
Like many desirable things in life, it's not the size, it's what you do with it that counts. After so many years in development, we all expected the new Zelda to be an absolute monster of a game. Sure enough, Nintendo proudly proclaims on the back of the box that Twilight Princess is "the biggest Zelda adventure of all time".
It's no idle boast - but is that enough of a selling point on its own? Zelda games are usually of such inspirational quality you don't even need a review. You've already made your mind up, right? You pre-ordered it months ago and will spend the entire weekend nailed to your sofa. Sleep isn't even on the menu.
But what about the floating voters out there? The millions of PlayStation faithful and Xbox devotees who've never bothered buying a Nintendo home system, but have a DS and like the idea of the Wii. What about those of you who keep hearing about how good the Zelda games are, but fear the 50, 60 hours of hard slog required to get through it? It's a fair point. We've said it many times: we'd rather play a consistently entertaining eight to ten-hour game than a sprawling 60-hour epic that's an endlessly padded-out slog.
Thankfully, Twilight Princess fires a bomb arrow at that theory. Sure, it's a massive game. A behemoth. Even if you rush through it and never get stuck, it's easily four to five times the size of most mainstream games currently topping the charts, and comes as a bit of a shock to the system as a result. Every time you think you're 'nearly finished', a whole new portion of the game reveals itself, but does so in such a way that you never feel exhausted or overwhelmed by the task at hand. Chances are, you'll have had such a great time that you'll only ever be grateful to Nintendo for not only packing in so much gameplay, but making it so consistent all the way through.
But Twilight Princess isn't simply consistent. Consistency can get boring if you're just slogging through doing the same thing over and over - no matter how good that piece of entertainment is. The real delight about the latest addition to the Zelda series is how skilfully the game's been broken down into delicious chunks - like discreet episodes that unfold, embellish the storyline, increase your abilities and keep twisting the gameplay into new shapes that make the progression exciting and enticing. There's always an incentive to keep going. There are always new things to discover.
On so many levels that matter Twilight Princess is an absolute masterpiece. No wonder it took so long to make.
In terms of where it fits into the Zelda lineage, we're very much back in Ocarina of Time territory, and, for many, Twilight Princess will represent a spiritual sequel that's completely faithful to what fans expect from the series. In many ways, its determination to stay true to the legacy of the past holds it back to a degree, but we'll come back to that.
Link to the past
At the start, Twilight Princess stays true to the principle of young-unassuming -boy-saves-world -from-destruction, but manages to stick to the familiar Zelda formula without ever being tired or too predictable. To summarise, the Kingdom of Hyrule is suddenly shrouded in darkness, leaving the shocked population little more than confused spirits that cower from the monsters that glower in the twilight. After a fairly innocuous goat-herding, horse-riding introduction, Link finds himself caught up in the chaos, transformed into a Wolf and locked in a dungeon. But a kindly big-headed, small bodied shadow dweller called Midna helps you escape, and from then on you embark on a epic quest to free the land from the cursed twilight that infects the kingdom.
For a large chunk of the game Link's on an elaborate clean-up mission, freeing each section of the game world from the darkness that enslaves its people. Doing this follows a familiar pattern each time, ensuring you switch back and forth from your Wolf form and back again whenever you encounter a new section of the twilight-ravaged kingdom.
The first major section of each 'clean-up' process tasks you with collecting all the 'Tears of Light', which take the form of invisible dark insects that lurk in the darkest corners. Seeking them out involves switching into the wolf's 'sense' mode, which is effectively like a sort of night vision that enables you to detect things otherwise invisible to the naked eye - like scent and places you can dig down into. Acting as a subtle introduction to the plight of the characters that inhabit these darkened alternate dimensions, they can't see you, but switching to sense mode lets you listen to their fearful mutterings - once you've rounded up all the tears, light returns to the land and the characters give further information on what else is going wrong nearby.
Might as well jump
At that point, you become Link again, and venture further into the kingdom to engage in what usually amounts to really engaging platform puzzling with a hefty dose of (ridiculously easy) combat thrown into the mix. Reminiscent of the crafted, cunningly designed early Tomb Raider games, the widescreen vision of Shadow of the Colossus and the masterfully devious Metroid Prime titles, you find yourself slowly chipping away at the task in hand by activating switches, performing timed jumps, collecting essential artefacts, freeing unfortunates and, eventually, meeting fearful, screen-filling bosses. Well, they look fearful to begin with, at least, but are all pretty easy to dispatch thanks to the game's continuation of its rather forgiving (but nevertheless fairly entertaining) combat mechanics.
To begin with you might not be all that impressed with the way Twilight Princess utilises the controller. A lot of the time it feels like the game's 'grunt combat' has been shaped around the Wii controller's novelty value ahead of genuine innovation. For example, you essentially shake the nunchuck to pull off a spin attack, and wobble the Wii remote left and right to pull off a slice - and neither require any real skill or timing whatsoever, which is a bit of a wasted opportunity and will only add weight to the argument that most games simply don't benefit from novelty controllers. It's not made any more impressive as a technical demonstration by the fact that the game allows you to Z-lock-on, flail indiscriminately and still succeed - something that could have been adequately mapped to two buttons on the Wii remote. Making people look like they're having some sort of seizure in front of their screens isn't the way to grow the videogames market, and might make the Cube version more fun in one small respect.
Having said that, Nintendo does make excellent use of the Wii remote's motion sensing ability elsewhere. For example, weapons that require you to aim, such as the slingshot, bow and arrow, the wind-powered Gale boomerang and the claw chain grapple require you physically aim the Wii remote at the screen and target objects and enemies yourself. The sensitivity of such actions means that it does take a bit of getting used to, but it's a novelty that doesn't wear off. To start with it gives you a simple means of firing your slingshot at enemies, but throughout the game new items get added to your arsenal that not only help you solve certain puzzles, but show off the new controller in a better light.
Being able to target boss monsters' weak spots is a fairly predictable use of the fledgling technology (and might explain why most of the early ones are so damned easy), but the learning curve is well judged. As you progress, you'll be entrusted with all manner of ways of manipulating your environment, which not only makes some of the level design absolutely fiendish, but makes progressing through each section enormously satisfying. Spotting that switch in the ceiling or that suspiciously fragile bit of scenery encourages you to get to know where and when to use your equipment - and when you're also faced with enemies that can only be taken down with certain weapons, it becomes a lot more interesting in the process. And once you're in the position of having to multitask, it becomes apparent how solid the control system actually is. For example, one section tasks you with not only riding a horse and attacking a set of enemies on the move, but ensuring someone's safe passage. Having to aim your weapon, steer your horse, keep its speed high and toggle between two different bits of equipment would normally be a nightmare, and to begin with you might curse the game for asking rather too much of you. But somehow - with a little bit of practice - the process suddenly clicks and feels surprisingly fluid, and finally proves that high speed chases don't have to be played on rails.
Occasionally, though, your admiration for the game will dip slightly. Decisions like taking the camera control away from the player only half work and directly result in unnecessary frustration on a few notable occasions when you need it most. Most of the time you won't even notice, and the effective Z-lock approach helps enormously when you're in combat. But when you're negotiating platforms, the tendency for the game to unhelpfully place the camera at a slight angle results in misdirected jumps and frustrating backtracking (the lava level, I'm looking at you). Repeat failure results in having to try and force the camera behind you so you can see the angle of your leap - but sometimes the camera just has a complete fit or wrestles control back like a disobedient child. Fortunately problems here don't pop up enough to detract from the game to any significant degree, but, nevertheless, they do pop up.
Save my soul
What is unquestionably annoying is the knackered old save system. Again, in most circumstances you won't even notice, but when you're playing through one of the platform/puzzling sections any save will always put you back at the beginning of that section no matter how far you've come. Sure, your progress in terms of puzzles and enemies defeated is recorded, but it still forces you to traverse through often tricky sections when it really shouldn't be necessary in this day and age.
Also somewhat bothersome is the way the game is often vague about where you're supposed to go next. Quite often, a long section of narrative after the end of a section will make reference to a place or task you're supposed to do next, but then fails to reinforce that with something as simple as a marker on your map. Your helper, Midna, is often plain sarcastic when asked for help, telling you to "hurry up" and go to find someone who could be literally anywhere on the map. Even when you know where to go and what to do, it's not always clear how to do it when you get there. The maddening fishing task right at the beginning part of the game is a classic example of the game making daft assumptions that leave the player high and dry and wandering around (often for ages) with no idea what they did wrong. And when you do find out, you feel pretty dumb for not realising, but also justifiably mad at the designers for not tapping you on the shoulder for being an idiot. Some players won't ever encounter such situations and put this down to player incompetence, but trust us, it's quite frustrating when you hit a cul-de-sac like this.
One thing that's being hotly debated about Twilight Princess is whether it really cuts it technically in the modern next gen age. Arguably it's a GameCube game in essence, so perhaps it's not really fair to even think of it as a true example of what the Wii can do. But even with that taken into account, it's an undeniably beautiful game that outshines most games purely through the levels of artistry on show. Fair enough, the texture detail's not great, and the 480p resolutions ensure that jaggies are in evidence - especially for the big screen owners among us, but you'll stop noticing the more nitpicky technical elements after about an hour. After that, it serves as a reminder that it's the quality of the gameplay and the overall experience of the game that's by far the most pertinent part of playing a videogame - and in that respect it's a game that ticks pretty much every box going.
Sure, the synthesized audio's also pretty old school, but it feels deliberately so - as if the designers are playing as much on people's associations with past Zeldas as anything. Likewise, the absence of voiceovers will probably come as a relief to those used to the text-based narrative. Admittedly it flies in the face of modern videogame storytelling, and it does feel a curiously old-fashioned approach, but very endearing with it. It certainly doesn't detract from the game's ability to tell a fascinating yarn, and one that Zelda fans old and new will love every minute of.
As we mentioned before, it's an awesomely long game, and will take a big investment of your time to really get the most out of. We haven't even discussed the numerous mini-games, like fishing, flying, clawshot shooting, and the numerous collectibles that litter the game world (like bugs and Poe souls), or the challenge-based tasks that exist on the periphery of the main quest. It's a game that, all-told, could conceivably consume months of your life if you let it. But the best thing is to reinforce the notion that that Nintendo has somehow managed to create a sprawling, epic adventure of such a consistently high quality - yet is one of most easily digestible epics we've ever come across.
Twilight Princess is an incredible game on the whole, with so many peaks, so many magic moments that will live long in the minds of millions of gamers. Sure, there are times in the game when you want to shake Miyamoto and co by the lapels for including elements of the game which remain dogged by old-school convention, but they represent a flea bite on what is just a stunning and relentlessly enjoyable game. Regardless of whether you're a hardened series veteran or a wide-eyed newcomer, Twilight Princess is undoubtedly the best action adventure game for some time.
9 / 10
Ask someone to define videogames - to explain what makes games tick, what the genetic code is that makes them distinct from any other pastime or medium - and at some point in the explanation, most people will probably mention Zelda. Quite rightly so; along with a handful of other games, the Zelda series boasts a history of design decisions and inspired moments which redefined how we play with broad, sweeping brushstrokes. From its simple yet perfectly balanced mechanism for upgrading your abilities as you play, opening up new possibilities in old areas as it does so, to its stoic and silent - yet eminently sympathetic - hero, Link, countless aspects of Zelda's design have influenced the very basis of hundreds if not thousands of other games.
Like its stablemate Mario, Zelda evolves in a slow and measured fashion. Key aspects of the franchise which simply work well are retained from game to game,and new gameplay mechanics or elements are often treated as experimental. However, also like Mario, Zelda underwent a revolution with the introduction of 3D; along with the groundbreaking Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time set a bar for adventure and action in a free-roaming 3D world which remarkably few rival games have managed to vault, even now.
Once again mimicking Mario's strategy, Zelda took a controversial side-trip on the GameCube - although while Super Mario Sunshine is widely considered to have simply been a weak title, The Wind Waker provokes more debate. A divisive graphical style and some slightly disappointing padding later in the game are enough to render it deeply unpopular in some quarters; others, myself included, consider it to be different but nonetheless brilliant, standing proudly alongside Ocarina of Time (and its darker sibling, Majora's Mask), albeit wearing funnier clothes.
And so, to the Wii. For the first time ever, Nintendo is launching a Zelda game alongside the release of a new console - its most risky and innovative console ever, at that. So then, the most risky and innovative Zelda ever, too?
Key of the Twilight
At first glance... No. In fact, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess seems a little disappointing on that front, at least initially. The game was designed for the GameCube - and will be launched on that platform a week after the Wii version emerges - and it shows, not only graphically, but also in terms of the gameplay. The Wiimote is used, essentially, as a targeting pointer - you fire arrows, pellets from your slingshot and so on with it, or use it to spin the view around in free look mode. In combat, you swing your sword by slashing with the Wiimote, and perform a spin attack by shaking the nunchuck - it feels good, but it's quickly apparent that you're not actually controlling the sword; instead, the slashing movement is interpreted as a button press, and Link swings his sword just how he would if you'd pressed a button, regardless of how you held or moved the Wiimote.
In effect, then, the Wiimote isn't used for anything that you couldn't do with a control pad - but it's arguable that that doesn't actually detract from the game in the long run. The simple fact is that pointing at the thing you want to grapple is more fun than moving around a cursor with an analogue stick, and thrusting forward the nunchuck to bash an enemy with your shield is more fun than pressing a button. The final effect is the same, of course, and some have argued that it makes combat more imprecise, but in a game where precision combat is hardly the order of the day in the first place, that's not going to be a concern for the majority of players - who will instead find that replacing button presses with gestures is at best, something of a plus point, and at worst, merely no better than the old system.
However, for those seeking a new game which fully exploits the potential of the motion sensing controller and puts the player into Link's leather boots in a more immersive way than ever before; sorry. This isn't the Zelda you're looking for.
And once you get a few hours into it, I challenge you to give a damn about any of that.
Everything Changes, But Nothing is Lost
Just because Twilight Princess doesn't innovate in terms of control doesn't mean that it doesn't innovate, you see - and more importantly, and more obviously, it doesn't mean that the game doesn't evolve. It does both of those things, taking the firm foundations established by Ocarina of Time and - crucially - the darker, sadder world of Majora's Mask, and building upon them a game which is beautiful and finely balanced, both intriguing and rewarding in equal measure.
Link, this time, is a young man on the cusp of adulthood - a humble goat-herder in a remote but friendly village, where unlike the troubled or isolated Link of previous games, he is widely liked and cared for. Many key story elements return from earlier games - but nothing remains quite the same. The kingdom of Hyrule is still here, but it has grown and matured, and bears the scars of that maturity as well as being enriched by it; Princess Zelda, too, is older, a sad figure who is nonetheless a brave and passionate leader of her besieged people.
As the game begins, Link's relatively humble adventures around his home town - somewhat menial but wonderfully designed introductions to your various abilities, and to the game's fantastically balanced chains of cause and effect - gradually bring him into contact with a lurking darkness beneath the surface of the world. This darkness forces its way into his life when some of the children of the village are kidnapped, and the nearby woods descend into an artificial and haunting twilight - an eternal twilight which has settled over the entire kingdom of Hyrule, and which Link must save it from.
Along the way, players familiar with Zelda will find that many things have changed under the skin of the game. Link, while still a silent figure, is a more endearing character than ever before, driven initially by his desire to find his kidnapped friends and far more expressive and affected by some of the terrible things he encounters along the way. The animation of his facial expressions is relatively simple but used in a perfect and understated manner - through a combination of this, and the reaction of other characters to him, he develops a sympathetic and complex character without ever uttering a word, while simultaneously allowing enough of a blank slate for players to project themselves into the game.
This updated, adult Link, no longer the lonely outsider he was in previous games, is offset by his second physical form - that of a dark-furred, blue-eyed wolf, which he takes on when he enters the twilight world. In this form, even his friends don't recognise him - and moving through the spooky, discordant twilight, humans appear only as small floating lights, whose thoughts Link can discover using his heightened animal sense, but who cannot perceive his presence. Strange, sad moments when he stands next to his closest friends but cannot be seen by them, or is recognised only as a beast, abound in the game, and the overriding theme is one of loss and rejection, as Link's adventures and heroic feats perversely seem to make him more distant from those he cares for, not closer.
All of which is beautiful, stirring narrative stuff, and represents a truly wonderful leap forward for Zelda and its protagonist. While sticking firmly with the it-ain't-broken game structure of having Link move through a world divided into overworld areas and challenging, intricate temples with bosses at the end, Twilight Princess manages to deepen the experience and the emotional connection at each point, building a richer and more compelling chronicle to tie together the locations and puzzles and keep driving the player forward.
Indy Eat Your Heart Out
At the core of any Zelda game lie those locations and puzzles, though, and ultimately no matter how interesting and mature its narrative and characters may be, Twilight Princess would fall on its face if it couldn't deliver solid, interesting temples to explore and ultimately solve. Your adventures on Hyrule Field are more interesting than ever before, certainly - including as they do some new horseback combat sequences, and areas where you play as a wolf and therefore have no access to items, but can instead use heightened animal senses, track scents and follow your sarcastic but ultimately hugely likeable twilight world companion, Midna, through sequences of tricky jumps to reach new areas. However, as compelling as these experiences are, it's the temples which make or break Zelda.
Thankfully, by and large, it's more make than break. While the temples are familiar in theme, they are filled with new and interesting puzzles which strike a balance between challenge and frustration that few other games can manage. Solving a puzzle in Twilight Princess - and each temple is essentially one massive chaining puzzle, with cause and effect leading you from start to finish - is a satisfying experience, giving the player enough hints to make the solution logical rather than a leap of faith, and making it just tricky enough that working out what you need to do provides a genuine sense of achievement.
Where there are exceptions to this rule - and sadly, those exceptions do exist in the game - they are all the more apparent because they represent a bump in an otherwise perfectly balanced difficulty curve. It is to the game's credit that after over thirty hours of play, I can only think of a few minor instances of puzzles which I felt were difficult for the wrong reasons; any other puzzle which I was stuck on for a while was due to user error, and the final solution was both satisfying and a little embarrassing, in a "how didn't I see that one..." sense. It is however worth noting that the game takes a few liberties in terms of how much prior knowledge of the Zelda series it assumes - and while new players probably won't be stuck for long, not least because the game offers optional hints at solutions at the first sign of you being genuinely in trouble, it might take them a little longer to get into the mindset required for puzzle solving.
The game bosses, too, are fantastic - requiring a heady combination of lateral thinking and quick reactions to defeat, but never lapsing into frustration due to twitchy controls or difficult timings. At their best, some of the boss battles are reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, with Link facing off against gigantic creatures whose weak points must be exploited using a clever combination of the tools and weapons at your disposal, and each boss battle progresses through various different stages, never asking you to repeat the same manoeuvre more than a couple of times and challenging you afresh at each stage. The boss battle is, in effect, a worthy payoff at the end of the dungeon, and it's great to have a game in which the boss is something you're excited about reaching, rather than dreading as a hurdle to be overcome.
Regress to Progress
One hangover from Zelda's earlier iterations that I could have done without, though, is the save system - which does allow you to save anywhere, but when you save inside a dungeon, merely saves the state of the dungeon itself and dumps you back at the beginning of it next time you load the game. In many instances, this can leave you on the wrong side of a complex set of jumps or timed runs (the early fire-themed dungeon is particularly bad on this front) to get back to your original position - a frustration which makes it more appealing to try and finish each dungeon in one sitting, which isn't always exactly an ideal situation.
The save system isn't the only aspect of Twilight Princess that feels a little dated, either. Graphically, the game is initially disappointing - it shows its GameCube origins clearly, and even at that it doesn't rival titles like Resident Evil 4 for graphical quality. However, this is more than compensated for by the artwork of the game, which is of a consistently high quality; all too often, we consider game art and game graphics to be the same thing, and nowhere is the distinction more clear than in Twilight Princess. The graphics are dated but functional - the art, however, is wonderful, and combined with superb animation and a rich, detailed world which focuses more in providing interaction and setting than on modelling individual blades of grass, it makes for a game which is absolutely great to look at, once you get past the distinctly last-gen visual quality.
In terms of music and audio, too, the traditional heritage of the game is apparent - but I can't say that I agree with critics who have complained about the lack of spoken dialogue, a touch which could have been nice, but could equally have spoiled the game, and whose absence certainly doesn't break the experience in any way. The music, too, is certainly guilty of a certain synth quality - and having heard an orchestral composition of Zelda's music in London only weeks ago, it is tempting to wonder how much better it would have sounded with a full orchestral score. This criticism, I feel, is more valid - for a game of this scale, a synth is no substitute for an orchestra, and after focusing so much on the production values of the rest of the game, Nintendo have dropped the ball slightly by relegating the excellent score to being somewhat tinny and hollow in this fashion.
Heroes made; Legends born
After spending so much time ruminating over Zelda's triumphs and its flaws, actually deciding on a final score for the game - a single number to plonk on the end of the review like a line in the sand - feels utterly arbitrary. Twilight Princess is a game which I believe anyone with an open mind can have fantastic enjoyment from; it is a triumph of narrative, of game design, and of production values, a consistent and beautiful benchmark for quality within its genre. It's a better game than Ocarina of Time - a better game than any 3D Zelda, in fact - and is one of the few games which I honestly believe everyone should try out, at least. All of which makes me lean heavily towards a ten.
On the other hand, Eurogamer has an unspoken but nonetheless clear agenda of rewarding innovation, and a game has to be not only a pinnacle, but a pretty damn astonishing pinnacle, for it to achieve a ten by simply doing old things exceptionally well. Twilight Princess does innovate in places, but most of the time it evolves instead - which is welcome, and positive, but perhaps not as worthy of reward, to my mind. Equally, I must take into account that the game is flawed; just as Hyrule bears the scars of history in this game, so too the game itself bears the scars of its own history, with some questionable gameplay mechanics (such as the crippled dungeon save system) that owe more to tradition than to genuinely well-planned design.
All of which stays my hand, and leaves me with too many misgivings to award a ten. I still believe that Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is one of the finest games ever made, and is the pinnacle of a truly legendary series - but a little more risk taking, and a little more regard for the evolving conventions of gaming, would have elevated this even further. There is room for improvement, and the score reflects that - but it's by no means a suggestion that there's any real reason not to play one of the best games of the last five years.
9 / 10