The Wind Waker Dungeons: Forsaken Fortress

Sorry for the two-week hiatus, but it’s finally time for me to review the Forsaken Fortress. This dungeon is easily The Wind Waker’s most iconic. Dragon Roost Cavern was shown a lot in trailers, but the Forsaken Fortress featured in numerous pieces of the game’s artwork, is home to most of the game’s most significant enemies, and is visited twice due to its great story importance.

The Forsaken Fortress is an odd case. While there are a few other dungeons in the series that must be visited multiple times as part of the story — which probably follow the Forsaken Fortress’ example — this one is the first and it also deviates a particularly large amount from traditional dungeon structure and, more importantly, the defined structure within its own game. Unlike in other dungeons in The Wind Waker, you won’t spend time solving puzzles and fighting enemies as you navigate through many rooms, locating a Dungeon Map, Compass, new weapon, and Big Key on your way to a boss. You do locate most of these items — barring the Big Key — but in odder ways. Little focus is placed on the Map or Compass because the dungeon’s layout is simple and not meant to challenge your navigation skills, the Skull Hammer is awarded to you almost immediately after returning on the second visit, and the way to the end is blocked only by searchlights and barricades designed for the Skull Hammer. So the dungeon is unusual. How, then, does this odd dungeon perform in terms of quality?

Speaking first of the dungeon’s art and sound direction as always, I’d say it performs extremely well. The Forsaken Fortress is one of those funny areas where it’s always night — and traveling there during the day will cause a rapid sunset — and that goes a long way towards giving it a great atmosphere. The island and fortress’ actual design is iconic and striking, and putting it to the backdrop of the night while lighting it up with daunting yellow searchlights and window lights gives the dungeon’s appearance itself a lot of personality that is noticeable whether you’re sailing to it, watching it in a cutscene, or exploring it firsthand. These visuals are present any time you’re outside, whereas within the dungeon’s halls all of the rooms resemble the corridors and facilities of an actual fortress; there’s a kitchen, a barracks, a boathouse, and a jail. It feels like a real place but does so within the dungeon’s aesthetic and atmosphere — due to Moblin interior decorating — and as a result feels extremely realistic and believable without sacrificing style. It also has an excellent sense of scale, with the outdoor areas giving an extremely clear picture of the shape and nature of the place, while the interior areas mesh well and feel like actual parts of the same building.

The dungeon’s music is simple and repetitive, but it’s an extremely fitting song that helps define the tone of Link’s journey through the dungeon, synergizing with the dungeon’s theme to deliver a pretty powerful atmosphere. And, while it’s silly, what I especially love is how the music’s beat is completely in-tune with the footsteps of the Moblin guards. This isn’t noticeable in other areas of the game or on the revisit, but the first time through, while sneaking through, it was impossible for me not to notice how the Moblins step in perfect timing to the music. While this may be unintentional, I think it goes a long way towards anchoring the individual elements of the dungeon — its music and its foes — together while befitting the entire game’s cartoon style; it reminds me of actual cartoons where silly but intimidating music will play when some badguy appears, and distinct physical actions will have musical accompaniment. Accidental or otherwise, I think this was a cool aspect. The music can get repetitive after sneaking around for a long time, but I would blame that more on the gameplay rather than the music itself.

Speaking of its gameplay… well, yeah this is basically where the dungeon falters. The art-design of the Forsaken Fortress is fantastic and it brings all of its themes together extremely well, but the core gameplay underneath that is extremely bare-bones, uninspired, and tedious.

The main idea during the first visit to this forsaken place is that Link has lost his sword — due to being shot from a catapult in a barrel and colliding into a wall, of course — and must sneak past the dungeon’s foes in order to retrieve the sword and then save his sister. Stealth gameplay occurs often in the series these days, and isn’t really any kind of surprise here in The Wind Waker after so many games prior included such sections. However, if you’re going to implement moments like these into a game that is otherwise not a stealth game, you basically have two options: Either you flesh these moments out really well and give them something at least sorta close to the elements used to provide thrills in full-on stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell, and Deus Ex, or you make these sections short and unintrusive. It doesn’t really matter if the special sections you put into your game for a change of pace are really amazing in their own right as long as they’re short; brief sections of alternate gameplay, so long as they’re not completely terrible, still inject variety into the experience and give the player new ways to experience the game world. The problem is when you give these sections length without also giving them suitable means to entertain at length.

Sneaking through the Forsaken Fortress involves literally nothing more than creeping around under barrels when Moblins aren’t looking, and doing the same around searchlights when outside. Again, sneaking around such simple obstacles wouldn’t be anything to complain about and would have been really good fun if not for the fact that it lasts the entire duration of your stay in the dungeon your first time through. This is also right at the beginning of the game, before the player gets to do any serious puzzle-solving or fighting. This is all extremely unrewarding. You get nothing out of it except basic progression; the experience of simply waiting for a slow-moving Moblin to walk by is not exciting in and of itself. Beyond that, it’s repetitive and tedious. This section should have been trimmed to be extremely brief, or fleshed out so that the gameplay here alone created exciting and stimulating moments with enough variety or room for experimentation to entertain the player during its length.

On the bright side, the rest of the navigation is a little interesting. There is nothing here in the way of puzzles, really, but navigating through the halls and walls to find the searchlight operators so you can sneak along the outer walls of the tower and finish the dungeon is kinda fun, as is dodging away from swarms of miniblins. You can also avoid a lot of the sneaking simply by platforming over them on the second floor. This is especially easy to do on subsequent playthroughs when you already know the dungeon’s layout. It’s not an excuse for having tedious stealth, nor is it exciting in itself, but at least it’s a means of bypassing repetitive gameplay. The dungeon definitely doesn’t feel like a dungeon; it plays more like a normal area.

The second visit removes the stealth but offers little in return. Immediately upon docking, Phantom Ganon is fought in a brief but pretty cool battle with awesome music. After that, however, you’re immediately awarded the Skull Hammer, which is basically it as you blast your way through now-easy fights against a few Moblins and some, admittedly cool, swarms of Miniblins, and make your way back to the tower by smashing away pegs and switches with the Skull Hammer. Not exactly an enthralling set of challenges… although for whatever reason, every time I go through them it takes me forever to think of using the Deku Leaf to glide across the now rope-devoid gaps on the way to the tower; not my proudest moments. The revisit would have been much more exciting if either there had been a new section — perhaps an underground basement — to explore in order to, say, find a Big Key, or instead the dungeon was basically now militarized against Link and provided a succession of tough battles and perhaps new music. The only examples of any increase in the forces against Link are the swarms of Miniblins, and again, they’re cool but not hard to fight by any means. The ultimate fight against the Helmaroc King is awesome in terms of presentation — actually, nearly unbeatable in that area — but it’s not in any way challenging. Most of his attacks miss easily, he spends most of the fight flying around passively, and when he does land to attack and expose his weakpoint, he’s easy to dodge and his weakness easily struck. I also feel that the unveiling of his real face was lame and underwhelming; he’s basically a glorified demonic chicken — theories about Cucco evolution, anyone? — but that’s a complaint for another day.

Bottom line is that for all of his buildup and cinematic presentation, the eventual battle against the Helmaroc King is way too underwhelming. It’s much more offensive here than it is with other bosses because of how significant and iconic the foe is throughout the game, and it creates a big disconnect between the epic battle theme and the floundering chicken you fight to it.

But, regardless of the dungeon’s follies — whether they be in repetitive and unrewarding navigation or underwhelming battles — it definitely succeeds in style, and also in another area: Cinematic presentation. Some of The Wind Waker’s coolest moments happen in the Forsaken Fortress, and there’s a lot of cool scenes during both visits, so no matter how you feel about the dungeon itself, you’re sure to enjoy your time there on some level as you experience its awesome story moments. A clear case of style over substance? Maybe. But it’s certainly not a horrific experience where the gameplay is completely torturous; is just doesn’t offer much. I enjoy visiting the place because of the story and its overall style and presentation, even if I feel its gameplay is sorely lacking. The dungeon should have been designed much better, but there’s still plenty to enjoy here if you know how to look at its high points, because those high points are about as high up as they can get. All in all, the dungeon is a good one. Not great, not terrible. Just good.

How do you feel about the Forsaken Fortress during both of its visits? Do you think its stealth gameplay is uninspired like I do? Do you think its presentation is top-notch? And do you think the Helmaroc King is an underwhelming boss? Or do you think something different? Tell me your thoughts on this dungeon in the comments, and look forward to next week when I review the Earth Temple!