Twilight Princess. There's something in that name. Indeed, a vague subtitle may not be anything new to the Zelda series, but the hook of the latest in the canon is less apparent than others in recent memory. Previous examples of music makers and masks have given way to downright obscurity in this latest offering, piquing curiosity around what is undoubtedly to be the GameCube's parting gift.
That all-important hook, however, was nowhere to be seen in our first hands-on with the game, though we did witness what is to be one of the main themes. Interaction with animals would appear to be at the very least a core puzzle component, while Link's new status as a cowboy should see the organic ethos as prevalent throughout the game.
The demo comes in two flavours: Outside and Inside. Sat playing Zelda indoors on one of the hottest days of the year, we choose the game's Outside area first. Perhaps to torture ourselves, who knows. Within seconds, however, we're pleased with our decision. Deprived of sunlight, the visual impact of Link's new home, Toaru Village, is rendered even more profound. Twilight Princess is, in a word, beautiful.
'... rich textures and beautiful vistas increase the visual flair.'
Characters are most obviously impressive; detailed, expressive and realistic in the same manga-esque manner adopted by the series' first 3D outings. Eyes wide and face filled with emotion, Link himself (dressed in village gear, not his traditional green) holds more charm in subtle details than most videogame protagonists, while the environment's rich textures and beautiful vistas increase the visual flair. This, at last, is the aesthetic progression fans have longed for.
Beginning in a fenced-off field, our fist task is to herd goat-like cattle into a nearby barn. As advised by what we take to be the village mayor, we pick up some grass from a nearby outgrowing clump and, with the familiar context-sensitive action prompt on screen, press the A button to blow down the grass like a wispy green flute. This triggers the first bout of nostalgia that ties this Zelda to its series heritage, and to the N64 titles its visual style so obviously reveres: Epona's Theme, whistling carefree through the breeze.
Riding Epona proves an equally familiar feeling. Steering with the analogue stick, the A-button once again momentarily accelerates, useful in herding our quarry to its goal but also in angering the beasts with too much aggression. On several occasions one turns red - Ocarina of Time chicken revenge squad style - and lunges at Link, sending us sprawling from our mount. Finally, we shepherd the last cow-goat (Gow? Coat?) in to the stable and then we're challenged to jump the perimeter fence on Epona, obviously not a problem for steely Zelda stalwarts.
After this, we are treated to a cutscene for our troubles: the mayor's daughter Llia, it seems, is none too happy about Epona's fence-jumping antics, or Link's impending journey to represent Toaru Village at the forthcoming Hyrule Summit. Link and the mayor share a comical stereo-rolleyes before one of the cattle suddenly bolts from the stable. Required to position Link in front of the goat and press A to stop it, we instead miss it and are trampled. Some cowboy we are.
Toaru Village at large now lies before us, waiting to be explored, replete with familiar character-filled Zelda side-quests. First, we answer the plea of a mother missing her baby, jumping in a canoe to paddle down the nearby stream in pursuit of a floating cradle. The water's surface shimmers and sways, light refracting a glittering silvery blue-grey as we splash our way to the end of the pool. Finally catching up to the infant, we raise it from the water and traverse the grassy humps and wooden huts of the village before returning it to its mother.
In another part of the village, a cutscene shows a man throwing rocks at a beehive, only to be chased by bees. Plucking another outcrop of grass we blow with A to trigger another cutscene; the camera pans out to reveal a hawk arcing its way from air to arm, where Link can launch the bird like a projectile. Doing so in the direction of the beehive topples it to the ground, revealing some nice shiny rupees and triggering the all-familiar solved puzzle sound clip - not to mention a disgruntled look on the face of the rock-tossing villager, who insists the rupees should be his. All in all it's a puzzle largely irrelevant, but that perfectly demonstrates the level of animal interaction new to Twilight Princess.
'... lit by a naked flame that bounces majestically across the walls...'
We continue exploring - from climbing a tree to the highest point of the village and taking in the breathtaking view, to roaming through the village in search of stray rupees. Eventually, we make our way to the next area, where some kids are bullying a small boy. Seeing Link, their attention turns as they implore him to bash the hell out of a scarecrow with a wooden stick. Deeply disturbed by one small girl's over-excited shrieks of delight at every hit, we quickly make for a nearby hut where a downstairs room is off-limits until we buy a lantern. A quick trip back to the village shop with our collected rupees soon fixes that, and we're soon walking about in an underground cellar, lit by a naked flame that bounces majestically across the walls, shaping shadows with every sway.
The next area is the last playable one of the Toaru Village sequence, and involves Link following the bullied boy from earlier on. Initially in a dense darkened forest area, Link is shown a secret entrance to a pool of water more than reminiscent of the Fairy Fountains from Ocarina of Time. Here he finds Llia nursing Epona's wounds and the two have time for a brief dialogue before all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, a warrior on a wild boar crashes through the oasis gate, shooting Llia with an arrow, attacking Link and rendering him unconscious. We see the boy and Llia being taken by the rider, who opens a dark portal with a blow of what, in Zelda logic, can only be a mystical horn, and soon after waking Link can do nothing but follow - a mutated hand reaching from the portal and pulling our startled hero into the blackness beyond.