The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD review

The elements that made The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess so exciting when it launched alongside the Wii in 2006 haven’t aged very well, and that’s not entirely a bad thing.

The experience of playing through Twilight Princess with Wiimote in hand —€” assuming you didn’t hold out for the GameCube version — was a powerful way for Nintendo to introduce its new motion-sensing hardware. Firing an arrow out of the tip of your controller was exhilarating. Its simulated swordplay was rudimentary, but satisfying. Even its darker, more “adult” (for lack of a better term) world assured me that Twilight Princess was the deep, polished Zelda game I’d wanted for so long, and persuaded me to ignore the many reasons that it was not.

More than nine years later, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD doesn’t have the distracting zeitgeist of a hardware launch to accompany it, and absent that, its flaws are a bit more pronounced. Twilight Princess HD lays bare the decade-old original, but in doing so, gives it an identity beyond gimmicks.

Twilight Princess HD isn’t just dark, it’s bizarre

Structurally speaking, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess doesn’t stray too far from the franchise’s time-honored path. The usual routine of dungeon diving, Pieces of Heart collecting and princess rescuing remains intact, but with a twist: Link is able to transform into a wolf when he interacts with the Twilight Realm, a parallel world to Hyrule that plays host to cryptic, shadowy beings. One such Twilight inhabitant is Midna, Link’s constant, smart-ass companion throughout his journey.

Twilight Princess is unique among Zelda titles because of its pervasive darkness, a theme that informs the aesthetic, character design and general feel of the entire game. That aesthetic is at its extreme in the Twilight Realm, but even regular old Hyrule looks half-alive and ominous, and the events that transpire there are equally unsettling.

This art direction isn’t always successful. When exploring a village illuminated by glaring sunset light, or a dungeon where abstract neon lines cut through shifting black fog, Twilight Princess can be a lovely game. But while its subdued palette makes it unique in the Zelda series, many of its environments resemble the lifeless, unsaturated worlds that characterized most of the previous console generation.

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The visual enhancements of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD are impressive, where present. A lot of textures — particularly those on important character models —€” have been fully replaced, making Link and the cast he comes in contact with as vibrant as they deserve to be. The more essential change is to the screen itself: Twilight Princess HD‘s UI is pared down —” the original’s Wiimote-shaped interface, which took up nearly one-quarter of your TV’s real estate, has been removed.

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Twilight Princess HD‘s graphical improvements drive home what’s truly unique about the game’s aesthetic: It isn’t just dark, it’s bizarre. Across the various Hylian races, character proportions differ wildly from person to person. Faces drift between realistic and cartoonish, from clown-like to monstrous. Inhabitants of the Twilight Realm aren’t just evil versions of franchise mainstays; they’re tentacled mutants sporting ornate, gigantic black masks. Many enemies, and even some friends —” here’s looking at you, Ooccoo —€” are downright uncomfortable to look at, making them all the more striking and memorable.

That distinction really shines through in the Twilight Realm, which despite what its name suggests, doesn’t feel oppressive or scary as much as it feels completely alien. The game’s soundtrack, which is solid throughout, is at its absolute best here, where every combat encounter features eerie atonal horns that shout over frantic synth arpeggios. It all comes together to give the Twilight Realm a strange, cohesive sense of place.

If only Twilight Princess allowed you to spend more time exploring the Twilight Realm. The game limits you to just a few visits to the parallel version of Hyrule, during which you’re usually performing repetitive fetch quests, like collecting Tears of Light. (Mercifully, Twilight Princess HD only requires you to hunt down 12 Tears in each province, down from the original’s 16.)

The Twilight Realm’s scarcity is a waste: Twilight Princess, like most modern Zelda games, doesn’t always know what to do with you when you’re not exploring a dungeon. Just a few interludes introduce new mechanics and characters —€” snowboarding with the yeti of Snowpeak is a particular high point. But most involve a mind-numbing amount of backtracking, which was time I would have much rather spent exploring the Twilight Realm in greater detail.

Twilight Princess HD‘s transitional sequences can occasionally get pretty clumsy, but unfortunately, the main offender comes right at the very top of the game. The introduction to Twilight Princess is the series’ absolute worst. It’s a laborious, repetitive slog that sticks you with some chores —€” like goat herding, a terrible minigame that you have to perform twice in the first hour —€” and sends you through the same path of the same patch of woods three consecutive times. The HD remake trims a task or two off the original’s checklist, but no amount of scene-setting or tutorial-distributing is worth the two hours of effort that Twilight Princess HD makes you crawl through before the fun can begin.

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Its campaign is uneven, but Twilight Princess HD‘s high points are exceedingly high. Nearly all of its dungeons are stellar: The aforementioned yeti’s ice-carved mansion is probably the most ingenious location in the whole series. The statue-centric puzzle solving of the Temple of Time forces you to think about the same dungeon in two different, clever ways.

The stars of the show are the tools you’ll find in those dungeons, which pretty wildly diverge from the series’ tried and true catalog. Later dungeons introduce the Ball and Chain, the Spinner, and the Dual Clawshots, which set the stage for some of the best puzzles and most exciting boss fights this franchise has ever seen. The Spinner, and its corresponding boss fight, is nothing less than a stroke of genius.

The Cave of Shadows, the new “dungeon” that’s unlocked with Twilight Princess HD‘s Wolf Link amiibo, cannot (and doesn’t really try to) live up to the standard of the classic game’s dungeons. It’s simply a reimagined version of the Cave of Ordeals, Twilight Princess‘ combat-centric, wave-based endurance challenge — but the Cave of Shadows restricts you to Link’s Wolf form for all 40 floors of the cave.

It’s kind of a drag, largely because combat isn’t really satisfying when playing as Wolf Link. Swordplay in Twilight Princess is top-notch —€” sparring against the colossal, armored Darknuts is exciting, and requires reflexes and mastery of your different sword maneuvers. As a wolf, Link’s combat options are too limited to be remotely satisfying 40 times in a row. Not only that, you have to complete the Cave of Shadows over the course of three dives, and trips two and three will require you to beat the floors you just finished all over again.

Twilight Princess HD‘s best new feature is the addition of Hero Mode difficulty, which is nothing new for the series, but is a perfect fit for this particular game. Hero Mode doubles the damage Link takes and prevents recovery hearts from dropping in the wild. With those two simple changes, the systems of Twilight Princess HD click together more tightly.

Hero Mode forces you to thoughtfully utilize Link’s different offensive and defensive sword maneuvers to avoid taking damage carelessly. It makes you consider your healing potions and inventory before setting foot into new territories. It gives you a good reason to hunt down every Heart Piece you can get your hands on. It fits thematically, too: In Hero Mode, Twilight Princess HD can finally be as dangerous as it looks.