The most expressive Zelda yet. This review contains spoilers.
If you've ever played a Zelda game, you need to play Twilight Princess. There is no reason not to, and you'd be depriving yourself of one of the best games Nintendo has ever made.
For those of you looking for a purchase recommendation, that was it – I don't think there's a respectable gamer out there who will regret buying it, and in a bang for buck stress test Twilight Princess holds up better than most games in the past year. Now that the recommendation is out of the way, I want to actually discuss this Zelda game in detail, which will mean minor spoilers for those who haven't played it (and to reiterate, if you haven't played it yet, go buy it immediately).
Twilight Princess, like all 3-D Zelda games, is a frustrating dichotomy of tradition and innovation. The game flits between states of compelling originality and fan-service nostalgia, a strategy that keeps the player anticipating either the next in-joke or surprise. Part-cause of this dichotomy is the status of Zelda as an ever-evolving formula. The last two console Zelda games (Majora's Mask and The Wind Waker) moved the series towards stronger story and characterization and away from the dungeon-crawling focus that defined the series in the 2-D era. Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, was nothing without its dungeons, and since Nintendo has deliberately made Twilight Princess an homage (and sequel) to Ocarina of Time it is fitting that dungeons are its strong suit.
This was not, however, my initial impression of the game. During its first half, Twilight Princess is the least predictable Zelda yet while still providing the token Forest, Death Mountain, and Zora dungeons. The weight of the characters in the still developing plot (not least of which is your yet uncontrollable wolf-form) is what compels you to complete these dungeons, along with the exciting gameplay interludes that pepper the space between them. Right on cue, it is in the second half of the game that the story takes a backseat and the dungeons, which ironically get far more unique and exciting, become rote day-job obligations that are counterbalanced by optional overworld excursions and side-quests. The cause of this lull? The Zelda tradition of collecting X Number of Special Items before story progress can continue.
This does not take away from the power of these later dungeons – in fact some of them are reminiscent of Link to the Past, the true Holy Grail for Zelda fans. This is Twilight Princess's real achievement. In the same way that Ocarina of Time transmuted the emotional effectiveness of the two dimensional Zelda dungeons, so too does Twilight Princess recall the isolated nature of Link's previous underground puzzle solving. The presence of Ooccoo to bail you out of dungeons does a disservice (as handy as she is) to their claustrophobic nature.
The first half of Twilight Princess stands on its strong story and character relationships so much that when the game resolves we expect more conclusion to the individual narratives. The game is fantastically expressive during cinema scenes, even if the story gets a bit convoluted halfway through. When the game focuses on the relationship between Link and his fellow Hylians (especially Ilia), the story is gripping. When it comes to the dynamics of the Twilight and the villains, the plot falters from inconsistency. Far too much game and story time is spent on the sorceror Zant and nearly none with Ganon – for being the true villain, it seems we're supposed to rely on our previous experiences with Ganon to understand his evil power. Likewise, the discussion of the Triforce is limited, and to a Zelda newcomer, inscrutable. Nonetheless, the cinema scenes that flesh out the oddly thin story are robust and perfect, proving Nintendo's cinematic ability is and always has been sharp.
Another reason this second half of the game stays somewhat less compelling is the absence of the Twilight, which at first seemed to promise a Dark World/Light World depth that never occurred. Although its presence is limited, when the Twilight does show up it is like stepping out of Zelda and into an abstraction that was supposedly beyond Nintendo's classical capabilities. The Twilight really does impress us graphically, in the same way Wind Waker's cel-shading impressed. Both forced us to imagine Hyrule in a new way, and both add to the mystery of the Zelda universe.
And Hyrule is what Zelda has always been about, never Link or Ganon or even Zelda herself – Link is an avatar for the player, and we play as him to explore the world. Although I dislike the bare field philosophy from Ocarina of Time, it is improved here by excessive overworld objectives and beautiful landscaping. The transition from day to night is extremely realistic, and all times and colors of the day are represented. Most of all, this overworld's ruins, bridges, rock formations, and bodies of water are all of the size and shape a Link to the Past zealot would expect – the bridge over Lake Hylia really represents a Hyrule I've always known, and I'm sure other players have similar emotions about different locations.
It is odd that a nostalgia-ride would introduce so many new features to the Zelda universe, and it is furthermore against all logic that Nintendo would decide to use this memory-trip to do away with a vast majority of the classic items that have been around since before control sticks. It may sadden your heart that there is no Mirror Shield, and that magically powered arrows appear in a limited form only, but it was time for some of these items to go and new ones to take their place. Unfortunately, these new items are amazingly fun in the dungeons they are found in, and after that never again; most of them are not well integrated into the overworld or future dungeons, making them one-hit wonders that impress and then quickly fade away. A couple of them have the potential to become Zelda staples in the future, but I don't think that will happen. Similarly, Link's transformation into a wolf appears to be underused, but Nintendo is preventing a potential abuse of the feature by making the wolf-persona a new way of looking at the normal Hyrule, not necessarily a Dark World version of himself. As a result, playing as Wolf Link is always fresh. Not quite so fresh, in fact quite unwelcome is the ever-present heart piece reward system. The only way to take the joy out of solving difficult secret dungeons is by giving the player a mere heart piece for all his work. Even worse, some secret areas in both the temples and overworld yield only rupees, which are never in short supply. Nintendo needs to be more creative in rewarding players for going out of their way, as collecting all the poes and bugs is simply not worth the effort.
If there’s one thing holding Twilight Princess back it is the Wii Remote. This game will be the first Wii experience for most gamers, which is both good and bad. Firstly, it must be said that it is far more comfortable to hold a Remote and Nunchuk than a regular gamepad, and even split in half the majority of the game’s actions are performed identically as in previous 3-D Zelda games. To handle the lack of buttons, certain features are mapped to the motion sensing on the controller, and only a few of them work. Aiming is nearly perfect if you can get your cursor to feel right, and that only takes a few seconds spent with the in-game pointer settings. Most of the sword maneuvers, however, are not as intuitive as they should be. Sword swinging requires you to excessively wiggle the controller and doesn't feel like swinging a sword at all. Nunchuk sword and shield attacks only seem to work half the time, though the concept is appreciated. Having all of these functions mapped to motion sensitivity saves buttons for item management, which is handled by a swap-to-B method that really improves the Zelda experience. Although the control scheme proves that the Wii can handle a traditional adventure game, hopefully Nintendo will re-examine their control philosophy with the next Zelda. Perhaps they will also rethink the usage of the Remote's speaker, which really does sound terrible at every volume level.
Aside from the control complaints, Twilight Princess is what you want, no matter what it is that you want. For a Zelda fan, there is no better game to get; the more Zelda games you've played the more you will understand and appreciate its majesty. Although it at times focuses too much on nostalgia and too little on advancing the formula, Twilight Princess moves Link into a world that can be understood in the context of its two-dimensional forebears. With exciting cinemas, a manly but compassionate Link, and the best Hyrule yet, Nintendo has made Twilight Princess almost definitely the game of the year, no matter which system you play it on.