I’m finally kicking off this series with, of course, the first dungeon of Twilight Princess: The Forest Temple. Like the Woodfall Temple from Majora’s Mask, this dungeon is very basic in theme and has some challenging puzzle design instead of being a tutorial session. It’s not overly difficult, of course, but it definitely doesn’t waste time teaching you the game. And, unlike most first dungeons of the series, it manages to establish its own identity and style, forming its own unique experience within the whole of Twilight Princess.

This dungeon, like a lot throughout the recent Zelda games, has an iconic appearance from a distance. It’s basically the hollow of a giant tree. Bringing to mind the Great Deku Tree to some (though there isn’t any concrete connection between the two), the dungeon’s interior definitely brings to mind that of Inside the Deku Tree from Ocarina of Time: Inside it is woody, with walls made of wood, floors made of wood, and just generally a lot of wood. Walls covered in vines and other growths, plant enemies, and additional, artificial structures built within are other similarities. Arguably the structures make more sense in the Forest Temple, because this place is no longer a living tree.

It’s an interesting concept for a dungeon, a sacred building built out of a dead tree and the forest around and within it. It really does feel like a building that wasn’t really lost to nature, but rather designed with nature in mind. The music echoes this theme, feeling mysterious but wild, even feral. It’s a great deviation from the calm but melancholy tune of Faron Woods; the woods were calm and mysterious, and while the Forest Temple is also mysterious, it is dangerous and wild. Thematically, the dungeon excels. The rooms are virtually all visually distinct, with their own unique ideas on the core theme; different structures built out of the nature around them in different ways, with lots of differing lighting and great visuals. I won’t say it makes perfect sense, and I often wonder how the structures even got there or how they could work, but it’s a fantastic setting that was executed very well.

Any and all problems I have with the Forest Temple’s thematic design are based more on my general dislike of the game’s dull artstyle and color scheme; I think the dungeon could have been a bit more colorful and flashy considering that it was supposed to be in the middle of the wild, but this is a broader issue I have with Twilight Princess as a whole, and the Forest Temple is one of the best areas in the game, visually.

Gameplay-wise, as I’ve said, the dungeon manages to be challenging, not wasting your time with tutorials and instead throwing you right into the game. This is still the easiest dungeon of the game, mind you, but it doesn’t shy away from challenging new players. There are plenty of enemies — several of which are brand-new by this point — plentiful if easy battles, and some clever puzzles, most of which make use of the Gale Boomerang, the main item of the dungeon and a unique spin on the classic Boomerang. I love seeing fresh spins on old items like this, and while the Gale Boomerang is still pretty close to the old Boomerang and probably wasn’t used interestingly or often enough to reach its maximum potential, it was a fresh and cool dungeon item with some unique uses throughout the dungeon. Some of these uses include blowing debris off the ground to reveal clues and enemies, and grabbing objects to transport them somewhere else in the room with its wind. Again, there’s not enough creative use of this item — especially after the Forest Temple is completed — but it’s still a good item and I’m glad it was in the game.

More unique about the Forest Temple than its dungeon item are the partners you spend the entire dungeon navigating with: The monkeys. These little critters must be rescued throughout the dungeon so that they may help you navigate through it. The storyline with the monkeys is extremely simplistic, but it’s charming, and these characters add a unique element to the dungeon and a distinct gimmick that no other in Twilight Princess or even the series has exactly mimicked. It’s refreshing and smart to implement something this unique into the first dungeon of the game, and it helps it to excel and stand out.

Each room of the dungeon is as distinct design-wise as it is visually; every room has its own flavor for both its navigation and its challenges (whether they’re battles or puzzles). No two rooms feel alike to traverse or conquer, and the experience rarely grows stale. The dungeon is sizable but also short; you will spend a decent amount of time here but leave at just the right time, before it gets too old. Like all dungeons in Twilight Princess, there’s an abundance of well-hidden chests containing rupees and other goodies, making treasure-hunting in the Forest Temple very enjoyable and rewarding.

The single — though sizable — real problem with the Forest Temple is in part a bigger problem with the game itself; certain actions, which you will be forced to perform quite frequently (in this dungeon in particular), are unintuitive and frustrating due to their frequency; they slow down the experience with no benefit. Stopping to toss out your Boomerang just to rotate platforms along pathways you need to traverse multiple times is one such issue, as is being forced to wait through short cutscenes every time a monkey jumps up above to help you swing across gaps. But the single biggest and most frequent of these annoyances is simply climbing; it takes far too long to simply climb up and down vines or other climbable surfaces, and it seems far too easy to register moving in the wrong direction. There are many vines that must be climbed in the Forest Temple — particularly towards the end — and having their controls be so unintuitive and slow while having so many is a design problem. It is, however, only an annoyance, not a major pitfall, so annoying or not, the dungeon is still great overall.

Finally, that brings us to the battles. The Forest Temple establishes the trends that the rest of the game generally follows: Twilight Princess is, generally speaking, a combat-focused game, so you’ll be spending a fair amount of time fighting monsters, though doing so is not typically hard. The challenge is light here, but that’s fitting in the Forest Temple’s case, as it is the game’s first dungeon.

Also like the other dungeons in the game, the miniboss is a prominent and distinct creature with its own buildup and song. Ook is the leader of the monkeys who has been corrupted by an evil bug. Initially seen early in the dungeon, hindering your progress with the Gale Boomerang (which is later your reward for beating him), he’s fought midway through. His battle theme is funky and one of my favorites in the game; it’s an energetic, odd battle theme that fits the wild area and the unusual monkey you’re up against. It fits the battle perfectly. My only disappointment with this fight is not that it’s easy — which it ought to be — but that it’s too short. The song is too great and the battle too fun for it to be easily finished in seconds like it is.

The same applies to the dungeon’s main boss, Diababa. This disturbing and fearsome giant plant has some cool buildup, as its main body is initially submerged in poisonous water while you fight its secondary heads, and the fight only gets cooler as Ook joins in to help Link during its second phase. But unfortunately, the fight is ridiculously easy and short. Having an easy fight is one thing, but on my first run through, I got hit by every single attack and I still was able to beat Diababa; dodging is optional if you just collect the extra hearts found at the edges of the battle room. The fight is over so quick that the boss truly poses no threat whatsoever. Diababa’s two fight songs are not as cool as Ook’s, but it’s still unfortunate not getting to hear them for very long.

I can forgive this, since it is the first boss, but it could have been harder without being too challenging. This deadly plant and this feral dungeon deserved better, but it wasn’t terrible. Overall the Forest Temple’s fights are very good.

All in all? The Forest Temple is a very well-designed dungeon in terms of both gameplay and themes. It plays great, and it looks great. It suffers in both areas from a handful of Twilight Princess’ broader problems, but more so than any other dungeon in the game, the Forest Temple takes those problems in stride and makes the best of them. Running through this dungeon and conquering its foes is one of the best experiences in Twilight Princess. It’s pretty thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s a great start for the game. More first dungeons need to be like this. I might even like it better than Majora’s Mask’s Woodfall Temple.

What do you think of the Forest Temple? Does it have what you like to see in a game’s opening dungeon? How do you feel about its visual design, its music, and its gameplay? How about the battles with Ook and Diababa? Tell me in the comments, and look forward to next week when I review the Goron Mines!