I’m going to give a heads-up on this one: Unlike all of my other dungeon reviews, the subject of this one is the only dungeon in the entire Zelda series I think I truly hate. I wrote once before that I’ve never had fun with it at any point, so while I will try my hardest to look for good things in the City in the Sky, this review is going to be virtually entirely negative. This dungeon represents nothing for me but broken dreams, and as such, this will be more rant than review. You’ve been warned!
There’s so little to say about the City in the Sky when it comes to its visuals, audio, and overall themes. It’s a city — er, well, place of some kind — in the sky. There is very little done with the architecture to make it interesting, though. Other locations in Twilight Princess very uniquely make themselves out to be believable locations in the world; the Goron Mines look and feel like mines, and Snowpeak Ruins looks and feels like a frozen-over mansion. The City in the Sky is a city populated by the Oocca, but the only recognizable dwelling is at the beginning, and otherwise the dungeon looks like a nondescript industrial facility. There isn’t really any theme coherence here. That might be fine if the dungeon was cool anyway, but really, the City in the Sky is primarily filled with a massive misuse of the concept. At no point does this dungeon really capture the romance or mystery of being in a settlement that high in the sky. As a result, it fails in capturing the epic qualities that the final main dungeon of the game should have, and even if it didn’t have that lofty goal to rise up to, it’s still thematically boring and just dull to look at.
The closest it ever comes at attempting to feel mysterious or intriguing is in its music, but that theme is also boring and frankly annoying, with weird and irritating noises that manage to only feel appropriate for the Oocca… which would explain why it’s boring and annoying. Aside from those headache inducing sounds, the theme is simply the same recurring tune over and over without any variation. The dungeon only comes alive thematically when the song halts as you enter the boss room, which is actually the top of a tower, with a set of ruined stairs leading to its zenith. Climbing your way around a pillar and reaching the top was actually pretty cool, and helped accomplish some of the feelings I think this entire dungeon should have had.
I think the key word for me with this dungeon is simply “Why?”. Video games are made as entertainment and are supposed to be fun; every element should contribute to or at least not interfere with that fun. Looking at almost every single element in this dungeon just makes me wonder why it’s there in the first place. What about it was supposed to be fun? Why wasn’t it fun? To be more specific:
Why do I have to put on the Iron Boots and stop every few seconds on the major walkways? Why do the upward drafts start and stop instead of being available all the time? Why do the Peahats move so slowly if I need to ride them to progress? Why am I walking over these narrow bridges which I’ll fall off if I don’t already know to shoot the Keese ahead of time? Why do I have to spend so much time waiting for contraptions to move into place in general? WHY ARE THERE DINOSAURS IN THE SKY?
These all accomplish nothing but slowing you down. There isn’t significant health-loss to worry about, and there aren’t any real navigational puzzles… it’s simply a bunch of time-consuming chores designed not to challenge the player, but to simply slow them down for no reason. How was I supposed to have fun stopping and starting on the bridges with the Iron Boots just so I could get past the wind? Navigational stops like these can actually be fun if they are stimulating in some way, or at least are brief and are more a matter of timing than anything else. But timing never really comes into play here in the City in the Sky. It’s all just annoying.
It’s also hugely irritating to have to reset entire rooms if you fall. To be fair, the City in the Sky faced the unique challenge of being a dungeon built around huge heights, so the game resetting the room when you fall was always going to provide its own design challenges. That said, why didn’t they change it or design around it? Why couldn’t you start nearer to the platform you fell off? Or, alternatively, why couldn’t the rooms have been designed to be shorter yet more numerous so that each fall didn’t set you back as much? It’s funny, because in a better game, I’d be happy to play through an area where I fell a lot. But in Twilight Princess, here in the City in the Sky, platforming is not an enjoyable challenge; it’s an obnoxious grind.
Most of the dungeon’s regular enemies provide the same annoyance. Fights in this dungeon are not interesting combat most of the time; they’re excuses to have things push you off the sides. Most of the enemies are either basic foes you fought at the beginning of the game and will have no trouble with, or are specifically placed to knock you off in precarious locations, like Keese and Helmasaurs. Actual fights are few and far between (and mostly against familiar foes anyway), so enemy presence mostly just extends the same frustrations found in the platforming.
The dungeon layout is also really confusing, which is so weird because the player’s path through it is so straightforward. You go North a little bit, then briefly West, then all the way East, then back West along the only available path, and then again East, and pretty much the whole time there is only one available path that you haven’t yet explored. So why was it so difficult for me to tell where I was supposed to go? Simple, the room layouts defy reason; pathways and Clawshot targets jut out of the walls at random. It’s a simple matter of going from Point A to Point B, but it functions more like trying to play Connect the Dots where the dots are black and the background is also black. Now, given that the dungeon is based on a painting by M.C. Escher — which is actually pretty awesome — you’d think that a degree of confusion of this kind would be acceptable. And maybe it would, but not like it’s presented in the City in the Sky, in an uninspired straight line with an uninteresting setting and no real logic guidelines to follow at all. The Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time also accomplished the feel of Escher’s work, and I consider it the best-designed dungeon of the series; the City in the Sky can’t use its inspiration as an excuse.
At the very least, the Double Clawshot is a cool item, and while it’s not really used for puzzle-solving, the ‘shot items rarely are, and the navigational opportunities it provides are actually pretty cool. Generally speaking, this dungeon’s best (read: only good) moments are when you simply find yourself Clawshotting around from target to target.
The miniboss, the Aeralfos, is actually a fairly neat original enemy idea for the game, but not really an interestingly-executed design, particularly for a miniboss. It feels underwhelming to come to the end of the game and find nothing more than a Lizalfos with wings, and once again the only interesting part of the fight involves waiting for it to stop and attack as it flies around; he’s just a time-waster, like the rest of the dungeon’s elements. Aeralfos definitely feels like something they threw in at the end because they couldn’t think of anything else, and it should have just been a normal enemy. Ironically like other minibosses — such as the Darknut — they do appear as normal enemies later, but ridiculously, they do so within the same dungeon. And Argorok? What can I say? He’s a dragon fought at the top of a tower that looks over an entire airborn city, with one of the dungeon’s only impressive thematic moments leading up to him; he should have been epic. But, between the sluggishness of the battle as it’s spent waiting for him to attack, gradually Clawshotting your way around, and the fight’s recycled music from Morpheel, I can’t feel even the slightest bit gripped during this fight. I blame a large part of this on the music — it’s hard to feel you’re in an epic fight like this when the music is so low and ominous, and I once fought the boss to Castlevania music and I actually found it fun — but it’s also inherently laid-back in design, and that was just the wrong way to go with a fight like this.
I will admit that I’m not sure I’m able to be objective about this dungeon at all. When I first played it I had at least some expectations given my time with the rest of the game, and I came to the dungeon after a hard day of work, for which a nice long session of Twilight Princess was my reward to myself. And I was greeted with the single most underwhelming dungeon of the series. It’s safe to say that this experience helped paint my feelings about the dungeon, but every time I play it again I try hard to like it and my opinion of it just gets worse and worse; I think it’s safe to say there’s something wrong with it.
The City in the Sky is the only dungeon out of the entire series I feel comfortable saying that I “hate”, and while that’s still probably an exaggeration, it comes the closest to describing my feelings about the place. I simply do not have fun with the City in the Sky, and I never have. The briefest moments of enjoyment — using the Double Clawshot, navigating up to the battle with Argorok — are so brief they mean nothing for the dungeon overall. It’s just a mess, and Nintendo should have done so much better; they have in the past, even within the same game. It is, to me, Zelda’s worst dungeon of all-time.
But… what about you? Do you agree with me, or did you actually like it? Share your stories of frustration and enjoyment alike in the comments, and look forward to next week when I review the Palace of Twilight!