Friday, May 13, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD (Wii U) Review *Moderate Spoilers*

I really enjoyed my time with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD in a way that makes me regret frequently bashing on the original Twilight Princess for so many years. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely still have notable criticisms of the core game, but Twilight Princess is undeniably a great adventure. Besides some questionable bug-hunting scenarios in the game’s first half, its main quest is near perfectly-paced and is simply one compelling venture after another, full of atmospheric dungeons to explore and monstrous bosses to take down. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the game peels back a new layer and hidden pockets of the world reveal themselves. Its music, its varied bestiary, its quirky characters, and its large yet focused world all have a high level of special care and attention paid to them, and its mechanics and feel of play is snappy and satisfying. It’s not one of my favorite Zelda games, fairly far from it in fact, and to me it’s not one of the more special or stand-out games in the series, but it’s a grand quest that has been carefully crafted, and one that I always enjoy undertaking.

My biggest criticism of Twilight Princess used to be how derivative and redundant it feels. Right from the get go, it was conceived as a “true successor” to Ocarina of Time and a service to fans displeased with The Wind Waker, and therefore the game has always had a bit of a sour aftertaste for me, given just how much I admire the series’ daring creativity in following up Ocarina with Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker and how brilliant I feel those games are. While the game’s legacy in this regard is still a sore subject for me, I’ve gained a better appreciation for the familiar world and callback nature of Twilight Princess over the years, and in my recent playthrough of TPHD, I openly embraced this side of the game more than I ever have before. The game makes it clear that this is the same world that we adventured through in OoT, but great attention has been made to show how it has developed and changed. Magic is a thing of the past and Hyrule has largely embraced technology. This is fitting with the narrative actually, which deals with dastardly magic-wielders who were imprisoned ages ago for misusing their power, and I get the impression that, either figuratively or literally, magic is outlawed in this particular incarnation of Hyrule. Link’s own arsenal reflects this: instead of using magical fire and ice arrows, he constructs more pragmatic “bomb arrows”, and instead of magic spells and wands, he uses a high-tech gear to glide across walls, a no-nonsense ball and chain, and a more realistic-looking Hookshot than ever before. The game’s most “magical” item is probably the Dominion Rod, but even this is some sort of ambiguous mix of science and magic.

Basically, although they largely contain the same locations, TP’s world actually feels much different than OoT’s, and it’s neat to see how that world has evolved. Kakariko Village is now straight out of the American Wild West and has a decidedly industrial feel to it; the Gorons now wear clothing, have a culture centered around sumo wrestling, and use gigantic magnets to mine ore; Castle Town has grown into a bustling city, complete with a medical clinic and a ritzy shop reserved for the upper class. As one further ventures into Hyrule’s historic landscape, echoes of the past begin to reveal themselves. The most magical area in the whole game is hidden deep within the forest and that is exactly what it feels like: an echo, a distant memory of a more enchanted past. It was in this area where it particularly hit me that Twilight Princess is a cleverer Ocarina follow-up than I’d previously thought, and the “magic” that I’ve long felt the game was lacking in comparison to that N64 classic might be quite intentionally absent…and that’s actually quite brilliant in its own way. While I still don’t exactly want to be paying Kakariko Village and Zora’s Domain a visit in every new Zelda game, I’ve grown to appreciate what Twilight Princess accomplishes, and my initial disappointment in the world’s overt familiarity has long since worn off and been replaced with an admiration for how this artfully-crafted world has been constructed.

My biggest criticism with Twilight Princess these days is actually its central narrative, which is unfortunately plagued with examples of poor storytelling and shallow attempts to be something “dark” and “deep”. Whereas many previous Zelda games contained a fairly straightforward and simple plot on the surface with deeper themes embedded in the details, Twilight Princess goes about things a bit less subtly and attempts a more overtly complex tale, utterly tripping all over itself in the process. The situation is dire in the game’s compelling early sections, but the whole intriguing premise of an eerie otherworldly force slowly turning Hyrule into a netherworld full of bizarre monsters and its citizens into spirits terrified to leave their homes completely falls apart as soon as Link enters Hyrule Castle Town for the first time and finds that its citizens are simply living out their lives as normal, with the only hardship being a water shortage that people are only marginally concerned about. One guard standing in a corner exclaims “I’m so bored…” when you listen to him as Wolf Link. Dissipating the Twilight from this area literally changes nothing except for the fact that Castle Town’s citizens are no longer ghosts. This is very poor storytelling and it all but shatters the game’s eerie atmosphere in the early bits. A compelling series of events at the mid-game notwithstanding, the central narrative all but falls off a cliff in the game’s second half when the game’s antagonist decides to take a vacation until the finale, but not before supposedly encasing Hyrule Castle in a giant golden diamond that’s supposed to be threatening I guess? There’s just no narrative impetus at this point, and the game turns into an adventure for the sake of an adventure.

Perhaps that’s not the worst thing in the world though, as these later bits contain some of the best scenarios in the game and one tends to forget why they’re doing any of it simply because they just can’t wait to see where the game will take them next, from making soup with Yetis far off in the snowy mountains to absconding to a City in the Sky ruled by nightmarish chicken people. Though the whole affair largely lacks the narrative cohesion and context of many other Zelda games, by the time the credits role after an epic finale, one really feels as though they’ve been on a satisfying adventure. The narrative isn’t all bad as well and certainly has its strengths. While I wish there was a bit more to it, the Twili have a fairly compelling backstory and Midna has a decently compelling character arc (plus, her and Wolf Link are just really cute together). Besides this, the many subplots are often what shine brightest in terms of TP’s storytelling, from touching moments with the timid Colin, to the notably emotional story of Rutela and her son, to Link’s adventures with the aforementioned Yetis, one of my favorite sections in any Zelda game. This is to say nothing of the Hero’s Shade character, a facet that I’ve always loved, as well as a memorably subtle narrative moment during the endgame involving a certain resilient enemy that has hounded Link the whole game. If nothing else, Twilight Princess has heart, but on the whole its main narrative is the kind that is entertaining the first time through the game, but simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny or subsequent playthroughs, and lacks the depth and lasting appeal of previous titles like Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. Having lots of flashy cutscenes, copious amounts of dialogue, and being “cinematic” doesn’t necessarily equal good storytelling in a video game, and Twilight Princess, for me, serves as a sterling example of this compared to its predecessors. There’s much more I could say here, like how laughable and silly the game’s frequent attempts to be “cool” and “edgy” are, but suffice to say Twilight Princess has an ambitious narrative with some high points and some very low points, but is unfortunately too sloppily-delivered to reach true greatness.

All of this is praise and criticism I could apply to the GameCube and Wii Versions of Twilight Princess, but we are talking about Twilight Princess HD here, so let’s talk about what’s new, and whether or not this is a worthy remaster. The most obvious and strongest aspect of TPHD is…well…the HD. More specifically, the developers did some fine texture work here, and this crisp new look shines a new light on the game’s detailed world, illuminating every moss-covered stone and Hylian letter. This remaster proves that TP deserved an HD remaster just as much as The Wind Waker, if not even more so since the original didn’t age as gracefully on a technical level. I have always loved the art direction in Twilight Princess: that strange otherworldly glow at night, the bizarre creature and character designs, and its bright green fields under perfect blue skies. Taking a walk through Castle Town really demonstrates how much more vibrant the world feels in TPHD, and this game’s artfully-crafted world deserved to be appreciated on modern televisions. If nothing else, this remaster makes a decently compelling case for that “realistic” Zelda game that many pine for. My qualms with the game’s visual makeover are few, but I do have some: some textures could have been a little more cleaned up and some graphics were oddly taken out, like distant bluffs in Kakariko Village. Also, the lighting seems a little off in some sections and the game’s signature “atmospheric glow” (aka bloom) has been muted somewhat, which I found fine for most of the game but this does take away some of the surreality of the Twilight sections and especially the late-game Palace of Twilight area, which has lost a lot of its visual luster in this version. While I’ve yet to go back and directly compare to the original, I found the look of the game to be mostly faithful on the whole though. Overall the texture and resolution work cleans up and polishes Twilight Princess’s Hyrule and lets the game’s creative and beautiful art direction truly shine.

Besides the visual makeover (which the game’s screenshots and trailers really don’t do justice), several smart tweaks have greatly improved the overall play experience here, each in their own small way, with only a few questionable outliers. Many animations have been made faster or streamlined somehow, alleviating some of the most tedious aspects of the original: Link no longer takes a decade to climb up vines and transforming into a wolf and back is now only a tap on the touchscreen away. The game’s infamous rupee problem has been thankfully copiously addressed: no more rupee reminders every time one turns the game on (thank the goddesses), rupees no longer get thrown back into an unopened chest when they don’t fit in Link’s wallet, and all of the wallet upgrades have grown in size (though perhaps still not as much as they should have). In addition, fifty new collectible “stamps” for use in Miiverse posts have been scattered throughout the world, giving the player something new to find instead of another purple rupee, though I do wish more effort was put into integrating them into the game’s world. It can be quite jarring to be exploring an ancient crypt only to open a chest and stumble upon the “Surprised Midna” stamp. The reward for collecting all of the stamps is also a big spoiler for those who have never finished Twilight Princess before. What is neat though is that there is a stamp for every letter in this game’s Hylian alphabet, making it easier than ever to read the Hylian liberally featured throughout the world on signs, in dungeons, on monuments, and so on. There is also a new “Ghost Lantern” item that makes the Poe Soul-collecting quest easier to manage, and the game even adds Poe counters to each area and to dungeons, just like Ocarina of Time had with the Golden Skulltulas.

Of course, the game makes use of the GamePad in a similar way to The Wind Waker HD as well, though not quite as adeptly as that game did due to some unfortunately awkward interface issues. Having all of Link’s many gadgets and items always at the ready between one’s hands is as convenient as ever, but I found myself almost never using the map on the GamePad’s screen in TPHD. This is partly due to the fact that the world map in Twilight Princess is a lot less important than the one in The Wind Waker, but is also simply because I’d rather view the maps on my big TV screen rather than squint down at the GamePad. Unfortunately and frustratingly, however, the map can not be scrolled on the TV screen with the right analog stick (which uselessly copies the function of the left stick) and the designers force the player to use the touchscreen to scroll the map. Switching to bomb arrows also probably could have been less awkward, as in order to do so one needs to pause the game, tap on the bombs on the GamePad, hit a button to combine them with the bow and arrows, and then unpause, which totally breaks the flow of the experience and defeats the whole purpose of having the items readily available on the touchscreen in the first place. Similar to Wolf Link, why couldn’t there just be a quick “combine” button somewhere on the touchscreen?

Besides this, there are some other additions and tweaks that I’m mostly indifferent to. I appreciate the ability to use gyro motion control for aiming and some other functions, as well as the option to aim either in first or third person, and in my opinion this includes basically the only worthwhile unique feature of the Wii Version of Twilight Princess compared to the GameCube version in this package. Still, I almost always played with the motion controls off as these days I more and more appreciate the consistent accuracy of sticks and buttons. It should be noted that in order to walk around freely in first-person, the player needs to hold down the “ZL” trigger, unlike in Skyward Sword and The Wind Waker HD, which is odd. There are less Tears of Light to collect in the first half’s Twilight sections, though this ultimately doesn’t change too much since one still has to traverse basically the same ground; there are just a few less bugs to squash along the way. Still, if someone wants to just blow through these sections (which are easily the weakest in the game in my eyes, despite an interesting atmosphere and some good narrative moments) as quickly as possible, this will shave some time. Finally, there is the Wolf Link amiibo included with the physical version of the game (the other Legend of Zelda amiibo can also be used, but as I don’t own any of them, I won’t be talking about their functionality…it’s pretty shallow anyway). Wolf Link basically serves two purposes: it can be used as a “quick start” at the title screen to immediately jump into a save file, and it can transport Link and Midna to the new “Cave of Shadows” mini-dungeon. Similar to the new stamps, I’m disappointed that zero effort was put into organically integrating this new area into the world, but nevertheless it’s a decently challenging and decently well-designed new bonus, even if the way it is set up is a bit annoying. It contains three sections that unlock at certain milestones over the course of the main game and previous sections need to be redone to get through the whole thing. The ultimate reward is a new “Colossal Wallet” that holds 9,999 rupees, which I found to be laughably useless considering how late it is that the game first lets you acquire it. While I was iffy at first about locking a section of the game behind an amiibo, ultimately the Cave of Shadows is basically just a Wolf Link-exclusive “Cave of Ordeals” aka enemy gauntlet, and is something completely extraneous that can be easily ignored without missing out on too much.

Twilight Princess HD is overall a very solid remaster, but while amiibos can be ignored, several notable shortcomings cannot. The only tweak that I really have a big issue with is the change made to horseback riding control, which feels notably stiffer and more awkward. Riding Epona across the vast fields of Hyrule is one of my favorite aspects of the Twilight Princess experience, and I almost always prefer galloping to my destination and taking in the breadth of the world over instantly warping. While I eventually more or less adjusted to the new controls, getting there was a trial as I struggled to make turns effectively and frequently bashed straight into walls. I still mostly enjoyed this aspect of the game, but even up until the end something just felt off. This change brings to mind the tweaks that were made to the Zora swimming in Majora’s Mask 3D, and while those were far more detrimental to that experience than the horse controls are here, I really just have to scratch my head and truly believe that Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma and the people who work on these remakes and remasters really need to take the old adage of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to heart. It’s quite frustrating to me that what I feel to be two of the most fluid and enjoyable mechanics in the whole Zelda series have now been mucked up in both of their games’ respective remakes. I’ve also heard that the swimming controls were altered in TPHD as well, but hardly noticed and luckily had no issues with them.

My biggest issue with Twilight Princess HD though is actually probably its omissions and several things that weren’t tweaked. It’s irritating that fluid mechanics like the horseback riding that needed no altering were messed with, while some areas of control that really could have used some tweaks, like the wonky flying and snowboarding mechanics as well as Wolf Link’s slow and clunky-feeling movement, were left unaltered (as far as I can tell anyway). Likewise, I’m a bit disappointed that the music seems to be mostly untouched after The Wind Waker HD at least got a few remastered songs. If any of the music was remastered or altered, I didn’t notice, except for maybe the ending credits theme. While on the subject of music, it’s a shame that the enemy battle theme still drowns out Midna’s Lament, which really kills the mood during that pivotal scene. I have some other minor quibbles, like the terrible Magic Armor item being exactly the same piece of garbage as it was before, and also the weird fact that they got rid of the great cinematic that used to play after the title screen, but my personal biggest peeve and what I feel is a really glaring omission is the inability to remove most or all of the heads-up display elements on the game’s main screen. An uncluttered HUD has been an option or simply the default in every Zelda game since 2011’s Skyward Sword, including The Wind Waker HD, and I find it odd and worrisome that it was forgotten here, especially since I almost always appreciate such a feature in games.

Besides these issues, Twilight Princess HD is notably unpolished for a Nintendo title. There’s nothing game-breaking or anything, but I consistently encountered glitches and examples of poor coding throughout my experience with the game. Grass glitching out, a totally immobile enemy, a frequently stuttering camera, movement control occasionally getting wonky, and the “ZR” button randomly and very annoyingly sword slicing instead of shield bashing on a quite frequent basis are some of the issues I encountered. In addition, I happened to notice enemies floating in the sky over the places where they were set to spawn in a few instances and perhaps most glaringly of all was when I turned the camera while looking out a window in a certain dungeon, only to find that I could see the entire next section of the dungeon floating in a white void outside the window, a particularly sloppy and inexcusable flaw that I can’t imagine someone missed. I also noticed some framerate stuttering that I don’t remember being present in the original in a few sections, such as in Zora’s Domain. Granted, I happened upon a few technical issues (including slowdown) in The Wind Waker HD as well, but not nearly as many as I encountered here. Perhaps some of these issues were present in the GameCube and Wii versions of the game, but I have never noticed any of them or any other glitches or bugs in my countless playthroughs of the GameCube version and one playthrough of the Wii version.

Due to these technical issues, some strange omissions, and overall perhaps not as many alterations as there could have been (and one notably negative alteration), Twilight Princess HD is overall an inferior remaster job to The Wind Waker HD, but it’s still very solid and I’m glad it exists, mainly for the new visual polish it brings to the game. Simply playing through TP this particular time has made me find a new appreciation for the game and in this playthrough more than ever I’ve focused on what I really love about this experience, and this is perhaps in no small part due to the remastered visuals and the handful of smart tweaks that streamline the game and fix some of its annoying little quirks. Despite my qualms with the narrative and some other factors, there’s a lot I love about this game. I’ve replayed Twilight Princess many times in part because I am always looking to find some new epiphany with the game; to see something in it that I haven’t before. While I’ve gradually grown to appreciate the game more and more over the years (and admittedly have also just found more to criticize), I feel as though with this most recent playthrough of Twilight Princess HD, I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for. I’ll always have somewhat of a love/hate relationship with the game, but as I’ve run out of things to criticize over time, I’ve only noticed more and more the strengths of this flawed masterpiece, like its atmosphere, its well-constructed main quest, its excellent dungeons, its beautiful world, its strong art direction, its varied monsters and characters, its more unique and creative elements, its crisp mechanics, and even the comforting pleasures of a traditional Zelda adventure that doesn’t break the mold too much. I don’t much like the term “definitive”, but even despite the bugs and some other small gripes, Twilight Princess HD makes enough smart design tweaks and effectively polishes the visuals enough that I’d at least call this the best version of the game, and the one I’m likely to default to playing in the future.

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