Nintendo takes a much needed break from shorter, simpler games to deliver one of the greatest, most epic adventures ever played. No spoilers!
I love Wind Waker as much as anyone, but it's hard to deny that the game, for all its greatness, feels like something different from a true Zelda game. With Twilight Princess, the series has gone back to its roots… but not without a lot of unpredictable twists. It is nearly as daring as Eiji Aonuma's first game as Zelda director, Majora's Mask, which walked the fine line between feeling like a true Zelda game and yet upending nearly every convention of the series. Twilight Princess is clearly a sequel to Ocarina of Time, and it sometimes appears to mimic the structure and mood of that masterpiece. But just when you try to predict what will happen next based on precedent, Twilight Princess brings another surprise; the game plays upon your expectations and uses them to astound you even more. As you get deeper into the game, it becomes even less predictable, including (finally!) some new items that are completely original, as well as dungeon designs like nothing you've seen before. Overall, the game provides a perfect mixture of familiar and brand new elements.
In place of a "dark world" or time travel is the Twilight, which is seeping out of the Twilight Realm and taking over Hyrule. The affected areas are filled with an eerie dimness and truly disturbing music. As you already know, the power of the Twilight turns Link into a large wolf, and in this form he can run faster, dig into the ground and under walls, and use his heightened senses for a number of tasks. Wolf Link is ridden by Midna, a benevolent citizen of the Twilight Realm who has her own reasons for helping to restore Hyrule to its natural state. While in the Twilight, Midna helps you jump to distant platforms, and she also enables a special attack that can take out several enemies at once. She also advises Link and eventually provides additional functions. Midna is the analogue to Navi from Ocarina of Time, but unlike Navi, she has an actual personality and an ambiguous sense of morality, and she is never annoying.
Twilight Princess is generally a dark and serious game, but it's not constantly foreboding as the trailers may insinuate. There are cheerful sequences and whimsical characters; the game occasionally even shows a sense of humor. Likewise, the aesthetics are not limited to greens, browns, and epic battle music. The visuals can be brightly colorful at times, while everything in the Twilight (including Wolf Link) has a vaguely cartoonish style that takes nothing away from the ethereal creepiness of the realm. Although Link is blank as ever, the characters around him are more developed than in previous Zelda games, and some narrative scenes are even touching in their compassion for these people.
More important is the gameplay, which is a further refinement in a series well known for carefully inching forward with each game. In other words, Twilight Princess still plays like a Zelda game. There are modest advances in swordplay, including some hidden techniques and the ability to fight on horseback. Some of the old items are used in completely new ways. Dungeon designs are as tight as ever, and a couple of these labyrinths belong in the hall of fame. The bosses still rely on patterns and are still fairly easy, but they do get harder and more complex later in the game. Where Twilight Princess branches out is in the Twilight segments, but even these depend on a transformed Link, which has already been done in Majora's Mask. Of course, the timeless Zelda gameplay is virtually unmatched in all of gaming, so even the status quo would be an admirable goal, and Twilight Princess does better than that.
The game is impressively long without feeling drawn out, and there are no major fetch quests or anything else to slow down the quest (as did the Triforce scavenger hunt in Wind Waker). Hyrule Field is incredibly large, with four or five sections as large as the one in Ocarina of Time, but each one of these sections is separated and connected to others via multiple paths. You have access to Link's horse from the beginning of the game, and the game is designed so that you rarely need to traverse more than one area of the map, thus leaving Hyrule Field for the enjoyment of exploration. Merely traveling from one place to another is certainly never boring or drawn out, as it could be in Wind Waker, but the game world is also not as centralized and simplistic as in Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Hyrule is always a mysterious, even intimidating kingdom, and there are times when you can tell that the game was influenced by Sony's Shadow of the Colossus, which is a very, very good thing.
The controls in Twilight Princess definitely merit some discussion. The sword gesturing is the most controversial element, and deservedly so. Slashing with the Wii Remote arguably does add an immersive feel to swordplay, but the reduced responsiveness is not a valid tradeoff. The problem is that it takes too much force to activate sword attacks, and this setting cannot be adjusted. I'm not complaining out of laziness; there were instances when I had to make the sword motion two or three times before it would register. This lack of dependability screws up your timing in combat and absolutely leads to some damage being taken that otherwise would not be. It's not a critical issue because the game is usually forgiving in combat situations, but when I try to draw my sword and it doesn't happen, that has the reverse effect of destroying my immersion in the game and forcing me to think about the controls and why they aren't working. In contrast, the aiming function works extremely well and is used more than you would expect. The item management controls also deserve praise, as this game has found a way to combine the primary sub-item assignment of the very first Legend of Zelda with the at-ready inventory style of Ocarina of Time and later games. Having four items at your command means fewer trips to the pause menu, which is always a good thing. Since I have not played the GameCube version of Twilight Princess in well over a year, I have no idea how it handles item management or whether it feels less immersive than the Wii version. What I can say is that, despite my annoyance with the sword controls (which could be fixed in future games), the Wii version generally controls well, and any problems you do encounter with the control scheme can be overcome or ignored over time.
Though it is still a GameCube title at heart, the Wii version is excellent and may in fact be the definitive version after all the votes are counted. Twilight Princess tells an original and compelling story, complete with a surprisingly cohesive expression of art and sound not so far removed from the self-contained world that characterized Wind Waker. Rather than drastically reworking the series, Twilight Princess refines and expands almost everything you already love about Zelda, and it looks damn good doing it. Fans will forever argue over which game in this series is the best, but Twilight Princess makes a very strong bid for that title, and in my opinion, it deserves to be called the greatest Zelda game yet. Logically, that makes it one of the best games of all time.