What's left to say about Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess? The upcoming epic is the latest installment in the beloved RPG franchise that started out as a modest but addictive collection of sprites being pumped out of the original NES. Originally slated to hit the GameCube--until Nintendo decided to share the love with the Wii--the game stands as one of the most hotly anticipated releases for both platforms. The leap to the Wii has seen the game expanded and tweaked for the upcoming system, resulting in a new control scheme for this promising title.
In the months since we first saw the game running on the Wii at this year's E3, we've had the opportunity to try out various sections of the game to get a feel for how you'll use the Wii remote to control Link on his latest adventure. But these brief looks at the game didn't really sate our curiosity about Zelda's control or its mysterious story, so we've been left nursing a hefty number of questions. With its ship date fast approaching, Nintendo invited fortunate members of the media up to check out a nearly final version of the game at their Redmond, Washington headquarters and spend a good chunk of time playing from the start. The play session let us finally get a proper feel for what the experience is going to be like on the Wii and also get a good taste of the game's epic story.
Before we dive in, we should cover the basics for anyone who's not been following this anticipated game. Twilight Princess is the seventh console adventure in the Zelda series (or eighth if you count the multiplayer Four Swords Adventures on the GameCube). The game marks a departure from the stunning cel-shaded art style seen in The Wind Waker and offers up a more realistic aesthetic that evolved from the more traditional style used in the Nintendo 64 games. More significantly, Twilight Princess' story is a darker, more mature tale that promises surprises for seasoned players of the series and a very cool "in" for newcomers to the franchise. Despite all this new business, the game's core remains the same as it's always been--a green tunic-wearing hero gets sucked up into an epic adventure to save the land of Hyrule and its princess, Zelda, from certain doom.
Our last bit of housekeeping is a disclaimer/explanation about our impressions. The time we spent with the game included a look at a fair amount of content that could be defined as spoilers, ranging from major to minor. We'll confine that stuff to the third page of the preview, allowing those of you trying to stay pure for the final game to hang on to your unspoiled state.
Now to the first order of business: control. Twilight Princess' now-mandatory use of the Wii remote has been the subject of much "love it/hate it" talk online, and we'll admit to mixed emotions ourselves after having played it the first times, but after spending a longer period with it, we have to say that we're still on the fence but leaning towards being cool with it--with some reservations. As you've read and seen, you'll use the Wii remote and nunchuk to control Link. The basic controls have been split up logically, so you'll move Link with the analog attachment and rely on the buttons on the Wii remote to use items, access your inventory, and check out your map. The d-pad offers you three slots to assign items from your inventory, left, right and down. Pushing up on the d-pad will bring out a new helper character named Midna, who'll offer words of wisdom, if she's got 'em to share.
The pointer comes into play when making menu selections--if you're so inclined to use it--or you can rely on the d-pad to highlight your menu selections. Jumping is automatic, as it has been in the previous games. Attacking gets you into the literal swing of things as your attacks are all tied to the Wii remote's movement. Z-targeting is, as always, the order of the day. When you start the game you'll rely mainly on the remote to perform single and combo slashes with your sword. The analog attachment will let you perform Link's patented radial power slash by either shaking it side to side or moving it in a circular motion. As you progress through the game you'll pick up other abilities that will require you to use the shoulder buttons on the analog attachment in conjunction with movement. For example, the boomerang will let you lock on to several targets at once by hitting the Z button. The other aspect of attacking that relies on the Wii remote is shooting projectiles, which will rely on using the pointer to target your foes and the B button to fire. If you're not a fan of manually targeting you can use the Z-target system to lock on and then use B to automatically shoot whatever you've targeted.
The above system is modified a bit when Link is wolfed out. You'll obviously be limited when it comes to your abilities, but there are some nice tradeoffs. The d-pad functionality changes up some. You'll still be able to talk to Midna by press up, but left or right switches to your view to take advantage of your enhanced senses while in wolf form (allowing you to see beyond the normal visual spectrum and chat with spirits). Pushing down will let you dig in certain patches of earth and either dig up items such as rupees or squeeze under fences. Additionally, we came across a segment where we picked up someone's scent and were then able to follow the trail by using our enhanced senses.
Attacking in wolf form relies on your actions with the Wii remote. You'll essentially have pooch-style attacks that can be combined in sequence like your sword attacks in human form. This includes a radial attack. One funny bit is the audio cue to let you know you can perform the spin attack. With the sword equipped, when the ability is ready to use again, you'll notice a subtle glow work its way to the end of your sword and give off a metallic "ching" when it's ready. This same system is in place when playing as the wolf, but the audio and visual cues are centered around your tail. When you face specific types of twilight enemies, you'll need to use a special attack that radiates an energy field around you by holding down the B button. You'll want to make sure they're caught as when you release the button you'll take out anything in the field in a flurry of teeth and paws. This is an essential tactic, as certain enemies will revive their fallen comrades if given a chance. Another non-combat related perk to being a wolf is the ability to talk to animals, which comes in handy for obvious reasons.
The system works well for the most part, and, most significantly, the game features a decent amount of options to tweak stuff by letting you calibrate the pointer movement, clean up the HUD by removing the pointing cursor, and invert your look. One thing that stood out was how you'll adjust your play style. Once you get over the natural inclination to overcompensate with your motions with the remote, you'll likely loosen your grip. The setup where we were playing wasn't quite the average living room setup--we basically sat in front of a large flat screen TV on a high chair carefully positioned a set distance from the sensor bar--but when we started messing around with our positioning and movement intensity, the game handled well. As far as the exhaustion factor goes, if you grip the remote like a real sword and go about your business like you're actually performing the actions in real life, then yes, you're going to be winded and maybe a little sore. However, like any new system's controller, once you get the hang of it, figure out the nuances of how it handles, how the sensor bar reads your inputs and whatnot, it all seems very manageable.
With control out of the way, let's tread gingerly around Twilight Princess' story, which has all the earmarks of being one of the series' richest yarns. As always, you'll set out to save Hyrule from trouble--in this case, discovering the nature of the unsettling twilight that's warping the land. As with all the Zelda games that have come before, young Link has no clue what's in store for him. The game starts out with a somewhat melancholic chat between Link and an elder in the village that, now that we've spent some time with the game, serves as a good tone-setter for what's to come in the adventure.
The action starts out slowly enough in the town of Ordona. You'll follow Link on his daily activities, which are tailor-made to familiarize you with the different gameplay mechanics, like using grass to summon different animals to help you (such as Epona and a hawk), fishing, and the basics of combat. One of the first items you'll spend your rupees on is your trusty slingshot. The early part of the game also introduces you to a variety of different villagers, ranging in age. The ones that stand out are several different children and a girl your age who's protective of your trusty steed and has all the earmarks of a love interest.
Trouble kicks off fairly quickly once the game gets going, and you'll find Link sucked up into an escalating series of events that send him on his date with destiny. These events soon lead him to the forest temple and the first steps to becoming a green tunic-wearing adventurer. This time out, matters are complicated by Link's reaction to the twilight. Turns out that this bizarre force is showing up and blanketing chunks of the land in darkness. When he's caught in it, Link goes all wolfy. Though lycanthropy isn't the most convenient thing for a prospective hero, it beats the alternative, as all normal humans caught in the twilight are reduced to ghostly forms that are unaware of your presence and are more concerned with the darkness around them that impairs their senses.
When Link is in the twilight, you'll meet Midna, essentially Twilight Princess' version of Ocarina of Time's Navi. The twist here is that Midna's kind of a punk, and though she does help you, she's more about her own agenda than any real altruism. As such, she packs some 'tude that's edgier than any helper you've had in a previous Zelda game. Though she'll ride you when you're in wolf form in the twilight, Midna will also be available to dispense advice when you're adventuring in twilight-free locales in human form. What stands out about the diminutive character is that she obviously knows a lot more than she's telling--she coughs up just enough info to get you to do what she needs. She also has a relationship of some kind with Zelda, but what that is remains one of the game's mysteries.
Mystery plays a large part in Twilight Princess. You do start to go through the traditional Legend of Zelda motions of saving the world, by performing all manner of tasks to collect the items needed to restore order. But you're still not entirely clear on the twilight's origin or who the mysterious ruler of it all is. You get bits and pieces but not the whole story in this early part, which is a change of pace from previous games, which for the most part gave you a pretty clear goal to work towards even if you've had to take some side trips along the way. The centerpiece to the early part of the game we played revolved around the monkey-filled Forest Temple, which we've played before. As such, we're not going into too much detail on that one. Given the plot's pacing and the interesting twists it's taken, we've got to say this is definitely a game whose story will grab and hold your attention.
NOTE: If you're looking for spoilers, hop on over to the next page. If not, stay away.
Achtung! Spoilers follow!
Twilight Princess's story plays with the standard Zelda conventions, though it appears all the expected pieces and players are back. The biggie so far is the revelation that Zelda hasn't been kidnapped, per se, but is rather hanging out in a tower in Hyrule which is currently engulfed in twilight. She wound up in her current situation when she actually surrendered to the leader of the twilight forces rather than risk the death of all her subjects. As anyone who's tried to deal with dark forces can tell you, once you let those people in, they're just going to set up shop and be all kinds of trouble. Link discovers the hard way that while he's in the twilight-covered areas his birthmark goes all funny and he turns into a wolf (as opposed to the other Hyrulians, who go all spectral).
Wait, what birthmark? In keeping with what was laid out in The Wind Waker, the Link in the game is actually another seemingly random kid the gods have chosen to essentially draft into the battle against evil. This Link stands out from his predecessors as he sports a Tri-Force shaped birthmark on the top of this right hand.
Link doesn't wind up in his trademark tunic until a good ways into the game after he's wolfed out and made his way back from the twilight. You start out with quite a few hunt and fetch quests as you'll have to kill specific bugs that have leeched the energy from spirit guardians who have kept their respective 'hoods twilight-free. At this point in the game, what you're doing has you running around a very tiny portion of what appears to be a large map that has yet to open up to us.
* The Wii version won't support a GameCube controller.
* Though containing identical content, the GameCube version of the game is actually a mirrored version of the Wii, minus 16:9 support. This means right turns are left turns on the GameCube.
* There's a lot to do when you're not fighting and puzzle-solving, thanks to needy NPCs in and out of town. What's stood out has been how dense the game is. The downside to our play session was that we had to power through the game to see everything, as we could tell we were missing out on going through at a slightly more mellow pace to interact with everyone in town and just explore. The game seems to be pretty dense when it comes to content outside of the main quest.
* Of course, you'll find all the Zelda staples such as your trusty sword, shield, and magical items you'll collect on your adventures. There's some all-new stuff as well, such as a friendly bird-like creature who'll port you out of dungeons if you need a breather. She apparently has a son who'll also figure into your later dungeon crawling.
* Dispatching specific twilight enemies will let Midna create warps to those locations which will let you hop around as needed.
Here ends the spoilers. Read on for final thoughts on the game's presentation.
A lot has been said about Twilight Princess' visuals since it first appeared on the scene. In some respects, there isn't a lot to add, as the game we played was in line with the level of quality seen in past media released on the game. The art direction has more edge to it and reimagines Hyrule in a richly detailed fashion that plays with light and color warmth to set the ambience for each locale.
There isn't much in the way of dramatic visual upgrades from the GameCube game, aside from the 16:9 presentation, so anyone expecting a crazy photorealistic experience with bump mapping and all the crazy next-gen bells and whistles should manage their expectations. That said, the game purrs along perfectly fine at 480p, and looks gorgeous doing it. While the Wii may not be taking the graphical steroids its peers are on, Twilight Princess makes a strong case for the virtues of style and gameplay holding up against superior technology.
Twilight Princess' audio is kind of in the same camp as it visuals but for slightly different reasons. Though we've heard some pretty fantastic music tracks in our time with the game, it's also walking a fine line between nostalgia and recycling. There are a number of old school effects in Twilight Princess which do a fine job of summoning that familiar Zelda vibe, and there are obviously a ton of new ones as well. The bummer is that the game still follows the sparse approach to audio we've seen in the last few games in the series. So far, we've just heard the usual run of sound samples when you interact with people and the traditional roars and screeches from enemies, especially bosses. There's also a host of interactive audio cues as you go about your business. What we played so far painted a solid portrait for the game's sound offerings, but nothing's jumped out and grabbed us yet.
So there you have it: our experience with Twilight Princess up through the first dungeon. Our initial impression of this first section of the game is a very good one. The control has come to feel pretty natural, though we'll admit it still trips us up on occasion, and we could see ourselves hunkering down and playing through the game like we would any other Zelda title for several hours on end. Anyone sweating how their arms are going to hold up should just make sure to stretch up and watch how they hold the Wii remote. But otherwise, just suck it up people, it's a Zelda so it's worth some muscle tone. In the next week, we'll follow up with what happens after the Forest Temple, and then finally end it all with our final review of the game for the Wii launch.