Hands-on info from all four demo levels!
The E3 playable demo for Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is broken up into four levels: Toaru Village, Horse Battle, Forest Temple, and Forest Temple Boss.
This level takes place very early in the game. It starts with "Cowboy Link" (more like a shepherd) needing to round up some goats on a farm. You walk over to a special plant with horseshoe-shaped leaves and blow "Epona’s Song" from Ocarina of Time to call the horse (which can be named whatever you like in the final game, but is called Epona in the demo). Then a mini-game follows, in which you steer the goats back into the barn by riding around and "whooping" to motivate them forwards. I found this task to be oddly frustrating, because the goats will often turn to the side instead of running directly away from you.
After the goats are rounded up, you learn that Link is getting ready for a journey into neighboring Hyrule to attend a friendship ceremony that helps keep the peace between the village and the kingdom. From there, you are given free reign to roam around the village. Talking to various people leads to tasks such as rescuing a drifting baby basket for a pregnant woman and snatching the sword off an old soldier, which is how you earn your first weapon. Eventually, you meet Colin, whose sister Ilia has run away into the forest with her horse (which you were riding earlier). The search for Ilia leads to the start of Link’s adventure.
The village area is a bit story-intensive for an E3 demo, but it shows off the game’s impressive graphics engine, which does a fantastic job with the complex environment and extended draw distance. The village also gives you an idea of the sweeping art style of the game, as some characters are slightly deformed (like Wind Waker), especially if they are meant to be humorous characters. Other villagers are rendered in the same "realistic" style as Link, with normal face proportions. Several events in the village show off the game’s sense of humor, which doesn’t seem to have taken any hits in the move to a more realistic style.
This level can be beaten quickly, but it is really fun and is a glimpse into a style of gameplay that we’ve never seen in the Zelda series. The goal is to defeat a large boss character who is riding around Hyrule Field, but there are many henchmen trying to distract Link with fire arrows and melee attacks. You can press A to get a speed boost on the horse, up to six before the meter has to refill with time. One thing about mounted fighting that I found surprising, though it shouldn’t be, is that Link’s left-handedness has a significant effect on his combat abilities. When approaching an enemy from behind, it’s much easier to land a hit if you ride up on the enemy’s right side, so Link won’t have to swing over himself to reach the bad guy.
The gameplay is fast and at times chaotic, as the lesser enemies approach from all sides, and the boss character rides erratically all over the field. After hitting him several times, the boss escapes into a nearby castle’s walls, and Link chases afterwards. They meet on a narrow stone bridge, with the sun setting in the background and the opponents left with no choice but to joust. This boss battle is very easy if you ride straight and juke to the right at the last second, swinging your sword in the process. Just a couple of hits will send the boss flying off the bridge, and then Link and his horse pose for the camera.
The only dungeon on display at E3 is probably quite large, but the demo times out after fifteen minutes, so it’s hard to say. I did make it as far as the mini-boss, which traditionally happens half-way through a Zelda dungeon. The dungeon is obviously based on a botanical theme, and in fact certain rooms look extremely similar to the forest dungeon in Wind Waker. One big difference is the presence of monkeys, who are locked up in certain rooms and can help Link once freed. Monkeys can hang onto ropes strung across chasms; if you jump across the pit, the monkey will grab Link’s hands and swing him across the rest of the way.
The dungeon item is the Gale Boomerang, which is found near the entrance and is used in a variety of ways to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. The boomerang can be charged to generate a small tornado, which runs turbines among other things. Yeah, just like the leaf in Wind Waker. The boomerang function is improved, because you have to press R to acquire a lock-on after passing the aiming cursor over a potential target. That means you can set up more specific target sequences. In the dungeon (and the subsequent boss battle), the ability is used to pick up a far-off bomb and then carry it to hit the boss.
Forest Temple Boss
The boss for the dungeon is separately selectable, since the dungeon takes more than fifteen minutes to complete. The boss is a giant, three-headed plant monster that emerges out of a pond. Plant bombs grow in various places in the room, and you defeat the boss by using the boomerang to target a bomb and then the boss. The boss’s side heads slam into the ground at Link, while the boss spews toxic liquids all over the place (but they can be avoided if you’re quick). Once a bomb hits the middle head, it falls forward onto the ground, and Link can slash it a few times with his sword.
After a while, bombs stop growing out of the ground, but a monkey comes out who is holding his own bomb. He starts to swing from one side of the room to the other, so now you have to acquire a moving target for the boomerang. Much of the challenge of the boss battle comes from the fact that the side heads will come down and smash Link if you take too long to aim the boomerang.
Overall, Twilight Princess lives up to my expectations in terms of graphics, control, and gameplay. The game feels more aggressive and fast paced, as Link has some new sword moves. For instance, you can be running and slash the sword and keep running…Link never even slows down. It’s a lot like fighting on horseback, since you get the feeling of moving and fighting at the same time. Graphically, the game seems to excel with large, complex environments. The modeling generally outshines the textures, which tend to be sort of low-resolution and grainy looking. However, the large flat screens Nintendo uses in its E3 booth may be making the textures look worse than they would on a normal TV, as is often the case with these demos. In terms of game design, this Zelda game feels just like all the others…but some of what I learned yesterday indicates that Twilight Princess will have some very interesting features that are not being shown in the E3 demo. Look for preview updates with all of that information!