My apologies for the delay in writing this review, but now I can finally cover Arbiter’s Grounds. Scary dungeons are common in the Zelda series, starting with Ocarina of Time’s Shadow Temple. The Zelda games have often had a single dungeon ripe with scary elements, and Arbiter’s Grounds continues this trend but combines it with multiple other elements, particularly those of a desert dungeon. But how does it stack up to other dungeons in general, scary or otherwise?
Arbiter’s Grounds is an iconic location. It serves as the main landmark of the Gerudo Desert, representing it in scenes like when the wolf songs are being played. It’s something you see a lot throughout the game, but it finally takes on more sinister connotations when Auru speaks of its purpose and nature. When revealed to be a cursed, demonic prison, the familiar landmark becomes ominous. This feeling gets more intense when you enter the desert, approach Arbiter’s Grounds in the distance, and finally reach the prison just as night falls.
Atmospherically, Arbiter’s Grounds measures up to that anticipation. Thematically, it’s a bit of a different story. The dungeon has terrific atmosphere. Being dungeon equal parts horror dungeon and desert dungeon, it winds up feeling very much like a tomb or pyramid. The place has a sense of dread, supported heavily by its soundtrack. This theme communicates an unseen evil; the thudding and the eerie vocals and high-pitched sounds communicate something twisted and dark behind the scenes, but as of yet it’s currently unknown. The strings used give the dungeon a sense of the regal, supporting the tomb feel. This is a pyramid, a burial ground, and it is guarded — or guards — something very dark. The ruined pathways, quicksand, trapdoors, and hieroglyphs all over the walls all support this theme.
But as I said, the dungeon doesn’t work out as well thematically. After all, wasn’t this supposed to be a prison? Arbiter’s Grounds never felt like a prison to me. It’s built up as and sold like a pyramid, a tomb, where you must overcome curses and evil to acquire some valuable treasure. The theme that the player anticipates, the story and explanation for the area as established by the game, never really comes into play except maybe in the dungeon’s miniboss. And that’s unfortunate.
Still, the dungeon executes the horror theme well, so while the theme isn’t consistent with the area’s story, it’s still very memorable. More than most horror dungeons, Arbiter’s Grounds goes out of its way to set up spooky moments. Particularly in its first half, the dungeon’s gory enemies are set against you one at a time in unique situations that milk their unveiling for all it’s worth. The large Poes steal the flames and must be tracked and then found hiding amongst the lanterns in their chambers. The first ReDead Knight is found hiding within a trap wall, and the “enemy near” music confirms that it’s there even before you have any idea what it is. A similar audio cue warns you that your first Stalfos is about to reanimate, but then goes away to trick you into thinking you’ve killed it before it reanimates once more. Opening a chest only for the room to go dark and a horde of Ghoul Rats to appear is another harrowing moment. Most importantly, the dungeon takes enough breaks from the horror to have you trek through brighter, quicksand-filled rooms, that the tension and dread are paced and never really get old. Arbiter’s Grounds is much scarier in atmosphere than any other current spooky dungeon in the series.
I did however feel that the dungeon’s navigation was pivotal to this feeling; a large part of what made the tomb elements believable was that you were trekking through the fearsome hallways yourself as a lowly human. I felt the wolf sections broke this up. Trotting or running down the claustrophobic corridors and easily revealing the ghosts with your senses lacked the impact that you had when trudging through them as a human. It’s hard to feel scared of a tomb when you’re playing as a wild animal, something that doesn’t even make sense in the setting normally. Perhaps other people don’t get this sense from the dungeon, but for me it was unfortunate, and as a result I use wolf form as little as possible in Arbiter’s Grounds.
Gameplay-wise, there’s actually a lot less to say about Arbiter’s Grounds. There are no particularly creative gameplay ideas here, save for ones that are underused. The entire dungeon is very traditional, without any standout new mechanics or mechanisms, and most of its puzzles are taken directly from Ocarina of Time, particularly its Forest Temple; hunting down the Poes to light the flames comes from there, as does rotating the walls of the rooms. Even positioning yourself in the holes in the falling chandeliers is reminiscent of the falling ceiling from the Forest Temple. Arbiter’s Grounds isn’t badly designed by any means, but it’s not fresh in any way either. Certainly it puts its own spin on those concepts, particularly with the atmosphere and scent-tracking involved with the Poes, but it’s not enough to make them feel new. However, if an abundance of old ideas doesn’t bother you, then you should enjoy the dungeon. As it stands, the puzzle design is solid, and most of the ideas complement the pyramid theme very well.
Arbiter’s Grounds is also very long, and its latter half is built less like a brooding, undead-filled burial area and more like a trap-filled tomb. Rooms feel like obstacle courses, and fast navigation through quicksand and around spikes is crucial. This area is less horror-themed, but still works well with the pyramid theme. The dungeon item, the Spinner, is acquired unfortunately late in the dungeon, and is only used for a few brief obstacle portions — though in those it is used gloriously — where it’s needed to navigate intricate track systems on the walls and dodge obstacles. This item is very gimmicky and will bother some people as a result, but I found it fun and unique, forming one of the dungeon’s only original aspects. It is, however, extremely underused, and never used to the same capacity in any other moment of the game.
The only other complaints I have are mostly nitpicks. The wolf sections were creative (I especially enjoyed tracking the Poes by their scent), but the wolf transformation mechanics are more tedious than the infamous Iron Boots to me. In Ocarina of Time, switching to the Iron Boots required opening the menu and was annoying, but you could still navigate those menus at your own speed and they opened instantly in the first place. In Twilight Princess, animation, menu, and text lag turn the wolf transformations into monotonous chores, and while this is a broader design issue in Twilight Princess, it becomes especially noticeable in Arbiter’s Grounds where it must be done frequently.
The other issue is the lack of good use of the lantern. Again a design issue in Twilight Princess overall, the lantern is never really needed except for lighting torches; the dark rooms you supposedly need to light are not actually so dark that you need to do so, making the darkness a weirdly useless gesture. Some actual total darkness would have made these areas even scarier and the light mechanic very compelling. It feels like a major missed opportunity, considering how much more tense the dungeon would have been while afraid of something as basic as the lantern going out. Nothing that brings the dungeon down too far and makes it bad, but combined with the generally uninspired level design and underused new elements, it makes the dungeon decidedly disappointing design-wise. It’s still solid, though.
This dungeon is actually fairly combat-heavy, having a multitude of somewhat tricky enemies. The Stalfos require actual sword fighting and their remains must be bombed to kill (making them my favorite Stalfos of the series), the Bubbles and Moldorms can harass the player and give them trouble, and the ReDead Knights and Stalkin can become major problems if you face them in the wrong situations (and you often do). None of these foes will provide any challenge whatsoever if you know their tricks, so more analytical gamers will find these foes a breeze. The miniboss, Death Sword, is even more pathetically easy, providing, unfortunately, one of the least-interesting gameplay experiences of all the minibosses in the game. That said, it is awesome, with killer atmosphere that is the height of horror and dread and mystery even when compared to the rest of the dungeon, and it’s one of my favorite fights in the series because of that. The battle music for the Death Sword, which is only used for one other miniboss in the game, is also awesome with its progression of tones, and it fits the battle so well. I’ve written about the Death Sword alone and as part of a list of my favorite Zelda monsters, so needless to say I’ve written enough about him in the past. It’s enough here to say that the Death Sword sports killer atmosphere and concept — not to mention he’s one of the only elements of the dungeon that actually communicates the prison theme — but is disgustingly effortless to defeat. Being so atmosphere-centric, he is much like the rest of the dungeon.
The boss of Arbiter’s Grounds, Stallord, is also basically exactly like the rest of the dungeon. Stallord appears as a motionless pile of bones before Zant comes and revives it by lodging a black sword in its forehead. The setup is quite nice, and it’s cool seeing a boss that was directly placed in your path by the enemy. It’s also nice that such a traditional boss (a giant skeletal monster) has such an unconventional weakpoint; during its second form, Stallord is damaged by striking the sword. So the boss is strong in terms of everything except the gameplay, but that is where it falls short.
Both phases of the fight focus on the Spinner, but like it is in the rest of the dungeon, it ends up being underused because these battles are very short. These are overly simple fights with minimal challenge. The first simply involved rotating around the arena on Spinner tracks and then flinging yourself into Stallord’s spine. He raises Staltroops to block you, and it becomes a unique and interesting game of sorts trying to damage him, but it’s still not terribly difficult and you probably won’t take much damage accomplishing the three hits necessary to defeat this form. The second is even worse, having you merely jump between two totally linear tracks, with minimal obstacles, to reach Stallord’s floating head and knock him to the ground below. Both these fights needed more variation, length, and of course challenge. They were a bit creative, but in the end, overly simply, uninspired, and their mechanics underused. The first phase recycles Diababa’s first battle theme, and the second remixes the fire boss battle theme from Ocarina of Time for no definite reason, so their songs, while fitting and nice, are generally uninspired as well. The boss is epic in style and scope, but very underwhelming.
I previously said that the Forest Temple is among the best first dungeons of the series and possibly my personal favorite one, while the Lakebed Temple is my favorite 3D water dungeon and extremely well-designed besides. Arbiter’s Grounds however, while not being as well-designed as either of those two dungeons, is my personal favorite dungeon of Twilight Princess, and one of the better scary dungeons of the series. The only thing it excels at is its atmosphere, but it’s enough to carry the dungeon and, being a fan of creepy things, it really made me enjoy the place. The level design isn’t creative and doesn’t stand out in any way, but it’s unoffensive and for the most part allows the dungeon’s atmosphere to function without interruption. Add in two at least thematically and atmospherically impressive battles, and you’ve got a fun time. Arbiter’s Grounds is not creative or great, but it is memorable and if you like what it has to offer, you’ll enjoy it quite a bit.
So what did you think of Arbiter’s Grounds? Did you think its atmosphere was good? Was it scary? Did it fit the prison theme it was set up with? How about the gameplay and battles? Tell me in the comments, and look forward to next week when I review Snowpeak Ruins!