Okay, this one’s a bit weird for me to review. The Palace of Twilight is the second to last dungeon of Twilight Princess, and like the true final dungeon, it’s a bit shorter and less impressive than you’d think; both of the game’s final dungeons dial it down a bit and are on the shorter, more straightforward side. On paper this is a lame move and normally it would be something I’d criticize the dungeon for more than I do, but I think at least in this case I can’t really say the dungeon is bad because there is something it does pretty well at: Level design. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

First off, let’s discuss the dungeon’s themes. This is where I feel the dungeon is the most disappointing, but in a way it’s not exactly the fault of the dungeon on its own. The Twilight Realm is discussed throughout the game; it’s ultimately a major part of the story and discussed pretty frequently throughout the game, never more specifically than by Midna just before entering it:

Some call our realm a world of shadows, but that makes it sound unpleasant…

The twilight there holds a serene beauty… You have seen it yourself as the sun sets on this world.

Bathed in that light, all people were pure and gentle…

This quote, on top of the place’s frequent mentions throughout the game, give players a pretty hefty set of expectations about what to expect from the Twilight Realm. A realm of shadow, but of the serene and surreal beauty of twilight. But as it turns out, the actual Twilight Realm we see while journeying through the outdoor sections of the Palace of Twilight doesn’t really look particularly serene or beautiful. Perhaps that’s a matter of personal interpretation, but I honestly found the Twilight Realm to be a little plain and, when not, just a little eerie. I wouldn’t have described it as serene, beautiful, or even all that interesting. It was simply a mess of shifting black clouds and shining reddish light in an abyss over which floated a few nondescript rocks in the distance and, of course, the palace the player is set to explore.

So I think the Palace of Twilight, in terms of properly portraying the Twilight Realm in its outdoor areas, fails pretty significantly. But as I said, I don’t think that’s entirely the dungeon’s fault alone, and what I mean by that is… Well, think about it: Can you really expect a game to showcase and properly expand on an entire world and do its lore justice within one area, a gameplay-focused dungeon no less? I don’t think so. So, yeah, certainly the Palace of Twilight fails at portraying the Twilight Realm as a whole, but there’s no way it could have succeeded at doing that alone; there should have been more to this area than just the single dungeon. Perhaps an overworld area the size of Gerudo Desert or Snowpeak would have sufficed.

So how did the rest of the dungeon — the parts that purely depict the palace itself and not the broader Twilight Realm — fare?

Well, to be honest they’re mostly a series of relatively unimpressive dark rooms. They did go through some effort, though. The architecture of this dungeon is very distinct and honestly completely unlike any other dungeon in the game. Several elements of the dungeon, from the black openings in the ceiling, to the creepy red grates use as Clawshot targets, to the glowing patterns on the walls, come together to give it a fairly unsettling feel, which fits a dungeon set in the Twilight Realm. I would say that all of the right ideas were here, and were even put together in the right way. The dark colors mixed with bright and unsettling lights, the weird almost cyberspace-esque energy effects, the Twilight monsters and strange, surreal Zant-themed foes… everything was in place for this to be a perfect dungeon for its themes. But I can’t bring myself to congratulate the dungeon in the visual department; I just think a little something was missing. Like several dungeons in the game, I think the Palace of Twilight lacks flair, and fails to have the creative touch needed to make it utterly impressive and memorable.

In terms of its soundtrack… I dunno. It’s passable, I suppose. Its theme has two parts, the first being a lighter theme that plays in the outdoor sections, first in the courtyard and then on the balcony, while the other is a darker theme that plays in the interior sections that make up the rest of the dungeon. The former is a pretty fitting theme, and I might say it’s the only part of the outdoor sections that actually starts to fit Midna’s description of the Twilight Realm. That said, it’s not exactly creative or long, and it’s actually pretty repetitive. I guess that’s alright considering these sections are short, but I would have preferred them be longer and have a better tune. The latter part, which plays in the indoor sections, is actually an arrangement of the theme heard during the Twilight portions of the early game, where you played as Wolf Link. It’s got more sounds, most of which are heard at different points in the original Twilight theme but are heard more constantly here, along with the new semi-vocal effects heard in the outdoor theme as well. I’d say this song is pretty fitting overall and certainly helps to connect the area to the Twilight the player has already been through (the familiar enemies help too), but I also think its a little too familiar and not very fresh, and while that doesn’t make it bad, it does make it not stand out. That’s the key thing with both songs that play in the Palace of Twilight: They’re both passable, but neither stand out. On a more unusual note, I will say that the pseudo-vocal sounds are very reminiscent of the Ganon’s Tower theme from The Wind Waker, and while that helps contribute to the fairly powerful and unneeded sense of the familiar, on at least a subliminal level it might help those who’ve played that game and do not know that there’s one final dungeon after this one to think it is, indeed, the final dungeon. I dunno what that counts for, but it’s worth noting.

So how about its gameplay? Surely, if I criticize this unusual dungeon’s art design, I must also have problems with its gameplay and level design, right? Well… yes and no. I mean, it’s certainly no creative powerhouse in that department; the Palace of Twilight doesn’t really excel in creativity overall anyway. It does have a number of things you don’t find in other dungeons in the game, ranging from “kill all the enemies” puzzles centered around the elusive Zant Mask enemies, to puzzles designed around transporting a Sol — a sphere of light — through rooms while trying to keep it away from the alarming Zant’s Hand.

And I actually like those sections, they’re just not overly interesting. Particularly taking out the Wizzrobe-like Zant Masks in order to reveal chests — that’s just incredibly basic for a Zelda game. So the Palace of Twilight, again, succeeds at distinguishing itself from the rest of the areas in the game, but doesn’t really do anything that flashy or new, although escaping Zant’s Hand is certainly memorable.

However, I think that I actually enjoy the gameplay of the Palace of Twilight for one main reason: It’s driven purely by level design. This isn’t a dungeon where you’re supposed to gawk at the scenery; it’s mostly black walls. This isn’t a dungeon where you’re supposed to encounter progressive, mind-bending new gameplay ideas; all of the puzzles are familiar in their own ways. It’s also too easy, particularly for an end-game dungeon, and some more difficulty would have made it better. But what the dungeon does do is put you through a series of entertaining gameplay challenges without bogging you down with excess thematic elements or overly creative gameplay. Normally I enjoy those things, but sometimes I like to play a game or an area in a game that discards these, and rather than try to put the player through some entire overdone experience, just gives you a simple romp through a well-designed level. The Palace of Twilight is tight and pretty well-designed, and while it can get a bit boring as you do a lot of the same things, it’s always over quick enough, before things can get too old. This turns its shortness into a strength. In this way, the Palace of Twilight reminds me of most of the dungeons in Phantom Hourglass, as I’m sure I’ll get to whenever I review that game’s dungeons; all of the dungeons in Phantom Hourglass are driven by level design, and indeed, so is the rest of the game. That’s the case here in the Palace of Twilight, and I think that’s okay.

One thing I really do hate about the gameplay here, though, is the Dark Fog that forces you to turn into wolf form. This was an alright idea on paper that in practice just became annoying and exposed you to the menu lag of trying to change forms way too often. It didn’t need to be here and should have been replaced by a need for Wolf Link for some creative puzzles and gameplay sections, like perhaps utilizing his super jump thing to cross some gaps in this already vertical dungeon.

I’d say the dungeon’s single biggest fault is its difficulty. It’s way too easy, even more so than other dungeons in the game. Its puzzles are generally overly easy and simple — especially with the Zant Masks, as I’ve said — but its enemies are even more so. While it does have the sense to throw them at you in numbers, the fact is that every foe you face is one of the same foes you fought in the Twilight sections throughout the early game and got used to with a minimum of changes (the only significant one being Shadow Baba Serpents, and Baba Serpents are also basic enemies you got used to a long time ago). For an end-game dungeon, and especially one so pivotal to the story and supposedly the home of a major villain, this dungeon should have been a lot more challenging. More Zant-themed enemies that could have been like extensions of his will, as well as bigger and more frequent enemy swarms or just new and more challenging shadow monsters, would have all been welcome.

In terms of bosses, the Palace of Twilight mainly pits us against Zant. The miniboss, Phantom Zant, is a clever play on the classic Phantom Ganon, and I say clever because they simply made him into a hologram, in keeping with the almost science-fiction look of the Twilight Realm. It’s not a big deal, but I dunno, I laugh every time at Phantom Zant. Something about it just gets me, and I love the concept. The fight itself is mostly a copy of the Wizzrobe miniboss from The Wind Waker, which may very well be my favorite Zelda miniboss; like the Zant Masks throughout the dungeon, Phantom Zant mimics a Wizzrobe by teleporting around. Instead of simply blasting you, however, it summons hordes of foes like that other miniboss did, pitting you against swarms of shadow creatures. This is a great idea that makes actually effective use of the recycled foes, and should have been followed by the rest of the dungeon more closely; perhaps Phantom Zant could have constantly appeared and sent swarms after you as you explored the Palace of Twilight? In terms of the fight, it’s entertaining, if still too easy; Phantom Zant should have teleported more and summoned faster so he was harder to hit, and should have summoned his swarms more frequently and sometimes on top of each other. Otherwise it’s excellent, and its neat in that it’s the only miniboss that reuses the Death Sword’s battle theme, and that’s good because it’s an epic yet slightly eerie theme that fits an end-game fight against a foe like Phantom Zant. It’s also fun to think that, perhaps, Zant is the one truly controlling the hologram. What if he controls the Zant Masks and Zant’s Hand directly, too? Fun to think about, anyway.

As for the fight against Zant himself… well, a lot of people criticize his change of heart and suddenly whiny and insane attitude, and certainly, I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that such an aspect of his character couldn’t have been handled far better. But at the same time… honestly, when it happened I just laughed out loud. And as a result of his overpowering weirdness, the entire fight against Zant kept me laughing. From the bizarre, virtually hip-hop remixes of previous battle themes that make up his fight theme as he swaps between familiar battlegrounds (and I think this song has excellent progression as it first seems typical and epic, then just gets weird, and finally intense before the final round), to his hilarious animations and sounds when hit or having his weakpoint exposed, the fight is just strange. It’s far too easy, and I think it could have benefited from its own scenery instead of recycled battlegrounds (perhaps he could have created weird Twilight-based reconstructions of them instead?), but like with the dungeon’s level design… I just find it fun. I enjoy the confrontation with Zant because it’s simply entertaining. It could have been better designed and definitely should have been for such an important character and such a late boss, just as his character development should have been handled better… but I still enjoy it a lot.

Ultimately, it’s pretty clear that they rushed the Palace of Twilight and just slapped it together out of existing or easily-implemented elements, and designed a mostly unimpressive set of scenery on top of it. The dungeon doesn’t impress or inspire, either thematically or in terms of gameplay, and it’s mostly filler; an area put into the game just to lengthen it rather than provide the player with a meaningful experience, which is a sad thing to see in the site of the climactic encounter against a villain you saw for most of the game. The multitudes of recycled enemies and Zant’s reused battlegrounds are the most obvious examples of them simply slapping the dungeon together. But I do still manage to enjoy it every time I play it because its gameplay-driven and while it’s not impressive or new, it’s at least entertaining in that area. Maybe it’s a bit mind-numbing, but it never lasts too long and it’s simple fun, and sometimes I’m okay with a plain gameplay experience like this. After all, the main reason I play video games is simply to play them.

So I think the Palace of Twilight isn’t special by any means, and certainly should have been bigger and better, but I still have fun with it; it’s not terrible, or even bad.

How about you guys? What did you think of the Palace of Twilight? Did it do the Twilight Realm justice? Was it impressive on its own? How about the battle against Zant? Tell me in the comments, and look forward to next week when I review the final dungeon of the game, Hyrule Castle!