Just one month left until there's a copy of Twilight Princess in your own two shaking, cold-sweating hands. That's a fact. We recently got our final sit down with the game (the real game, not the E3 demo) before our full review next month. And it's fair to say - we're stunned.
It starts in Ordon Village. Link is sent on a - you can probably guess where this is going -
sword-and-shield delivery mission. Trying to save two children from a Moblin attack, he's then pulled into the Twilight Realm, where he's introduced to the sarcastic sprite Midna
- and transformed into a wolf.
It's a shocking turnaround. In Twilight Princess, Link doesn't start this game as any kind of predestined saver of princesses. He's just a regular teenage farmhand, and the game's initial tutorial section gives a taste of his wholesome country-boy lifestyle. He herds goats and jumps fences on his trusty steed Epona, shows the local kids how to fight with a wooden sword, indulges in a spot of angling with a very simple fishing rod, retrieves a baby basket for a pregnant lady, deals with a bee problem, feeds a cat, and buys a slingshot.
It's all quite charming; Ordon is full of lively characters and there's already a surprising amount going at this point - more so than in previous Zelda games. This means that even Zelda veterans are going to have some learning to do: some of the Wii controls feel familiar but some - especially taking aim with the slingshot using the Wii remote - take a little getting used to. Swinging the sword about with remote gestures is a touch of genius, and if you're fearing for your muscles, don't worry, because very small movements will do. Fishing with a flick of the wrist is a treat, too. Although it just made us twice as eager to get further on and have our hands on the proper reel-equipped rod featured in the E3 demo.
There's only so much of the quiet life we can take though - so it's a relief when you get some proper action. A quick expedition into the nearby Faron Woods to bring a couple of boys home for their tea serves up a few bats and moblins to fight and introduces the lantern (a vintage Zelda item, used to light the way in the dark and set fires). Then the Twilight Incident happens, and things get really interesting.
Link wakes up in his wolf form in the dungeons of a ruined Hyrule Castle, overrun by Twilight. Once transformed into a wolf, Link can reveal another world by using his new sense ability. Pressing left or right on the D-Pad will, in a nod to Ocarina of Time's Lens of Truth, reveal secrets - digging spots, glowing scent-trails and ghostly citizens of Hyrule. These spirits are all that's left of the country's population in the Twilight, and though they'll talk if you go up to them (and dispense clues), they don't seem to realise you're there. It's not too far from Hyrule Castle's appearance, frozen in time in Wind Waker, only much, much creepier.
It's in this section that you really start to get goosebumps - the terrified, spectral Palace guards, the weird muddy gloom that
pervades everything in Twilight, the shapeless shadow creatures that prowl around all give the game an unforgettable, haunting atmosphere. And if that doesn't give you a lump in your throat, then an unexpected and melancholy meeting with a certain hooded young lady - you can guess her name, right? - definitely will.
Link's Sense ability comes into its own once you leave the castle and return to the village, still in wolf form. In order to clear the woods of the Twilight and gain access to the first dungeon, you need to use your Sense to track down shadow insects. Then you collect the light they've consumed and give it to one of the Light Spirits, the first of which is a massive goat - we kid you not. And we also don't kid when we say the appearance of these utterly bizarre, glowing beings is so electrifying it will make your hair stand on end. Animals will help you out through much of Twilight Princess. In Hyrule, Link will be able to summon beasts, like any annoying person with a bit of long grass, by blowing on reeds. A horseshoe reed will summon Epona (who despite being a much bigger, heavier animal than in the N64 games, is probably a bit easier to control, and even faster), and a bird-shaped reed will bring a hawk to your side, ready to be flung at a suitable target.