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The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Preview

Russ_Fischer By:
GENRE Action / RPG 
T Contains Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence

What do these ratings mean?

Has Link grown old all over again?

How hardcore is a GR freelancer? Try this: while most people kicked off E3 on Wednesday and some started as early as Monday, I was hard at work on Sunday. That's right, the day of rest, as far as my ancestors are concerned. Instead of reflecting upon mysteries of the spirit, I hiked to a swank Hollywood hotel, ate odd finger sandwiches and mused upon a much more important question. Specifically, if Zelda is indeed the best game property on the planet, why isn't Nintendo showing more compelling stuff?

I'd seen the trailer and was intrigued. There's still the corny cap and standby sword, but how about that horse, and what the hell was that wolf doing? Scenes in a bleached or snowy landscape showed promise, and anything that even looks like Tron gets me excited. (Watch the trailer, seriously.)

But my time with the game has proved less enthralling. Welcome to the first honest account of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Once again we see Link, the eternal hero - like Elric, Dr. Who or The Pope - reborn. This time, he's a shepherd, the better to deliver combat on horseback. His home is a small village outside Hyrule. Don't worry, the story soon takes him into that now-darkened realm. Somewhere along the way, Link turns into a wolf and acquires a friend/rider named Midna.

Four playable areas comprised Nintendo's E3 demo. The first introduced the new equine mechanics and Link's village; the second presented a fast-paced battle astride Link's horse; number three offered a bit of dungeon exploration and some helper monkeys; the final encounter was a boss battle against Audrey's stunt double from Little Shop of Horrors.

I was thrilled that the horseback battle wasn't on rails and further encouraged by Link's basic abilities. I could spur Link's mount to charge, attack with a few means, and block oncoming attacks with my shield. Getting knocked from horseback wasn't a huge deal, but added a little extra danger. Soon, however, I learned when to charge and when to hold back, and the battle quickly became academic. Ultimately, this was a limited action showpiece, not something on which to base an entire game.

The dungeon crawl and boss battle demonstrated classic Zelda stuff with a few new twists. Link bears a movement and action style familiar to fans and still easy to learn. Jumping is context-sensitive and targeting enemies is a snap. One-button combos slice and dice with some cool animations. The new boomerang is handy and easy to use, and looks to provide fuel for both combat and puzzles when Link isn't lupine.

These are good mechanics, which definitely serve Nintendo's aim to make games broadly approachable. But when taken outside the context of a great story, it all felt far too much like the innumerable action titles that have tried to swim in Zelda's wake. A door and key puzzle, even with vaguely amusing monkeys, is still just a door and key puzzle.

I'll admit that some of my misgivings hinge on the visual style. Wind Waker haters will gloat that Miyamoto and friends have returned to an older, proven vision of Zelda. Indeed, the graphics in Twilight Princess strongly recall the wonderful Ocarina of Time, only with the polygon count you've always wanted.

But "return to form" can also be read as "a step back." Miyamoto's last game had a subtle, unique expressiveness that, for many, truly separated it from other games in the genre. Though these characters are solidly rendered and full of detail, their ability to emote seems diminished. Wandering the town, reading dialogue bubbles, I was reminded of the routines of a simple RPG, when Zelda should be much, much more.

Obviously, this is merely a small sample of what Twilight Princess will ultimately contain. But Miyamoto and Nintendo are so protective of their creation that they wouldn't arbitrarily pick bits of the game to show tens of thousands of fans. Will playing as LinkWolf be as fantastic as we all might imagine, or will it just play out like another version of horseback riding?

Memory and conventional wisdom dictate that Zelda is something to get wildly excited about, and yet the E3 gameplay was a bit stiff, a bit flat, and frequently uninspired. Still, many are falling back on Zelda as E3 2005's game of show, an award that just isn't merited by what we've seen so far. However, the trailer shows off some crazy moments and, based upon twenty solid years of this franchise, I'm willing to believe they'll play out. We won't know for certain until Link once again dominates store shelves this holiday.

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