GAME NAME: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
GENRE(S): Action Adventure
RELEASE DATE(S): November 20. 2011
As I write this, I am listening to the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Soundtrack, which came included in the case for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I find it rather fitting background noise, as I write the review for not only one of the best games in The Legend of Zelda series, but also a celebration of the series’ 25 year-long history.
It’s funny then, that although Skyward Sword celebrates 25 years of Zelda, and also provides the origin for the entire Zelda mythology, it arguably strays the furthest from series convention since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. While certain things start off familiar enough, Skyward Sword quickly turns your expectations of the franchise on its head, delivering one of best and most innovative games in the franchise’s storied history.
Like most Zelda games, Skyward Sword starts off with Link waking up in his hometown, unaware of the adventure that lies ahead. The difference here, though is that his hometown is Skyloft, a floating island amongst a skyward sea of other floating islands hovering thousands of feet over the land of Hyrule. The next difference you’ll notice is that the titular Zelda is not a princess, but a longtime childhood friend of Link. After a well executed (if slowly paced) opening that establishes Link’s relationship with Zelda and the rest of the citizens of Skyloft, unknown forces cause Zelda to fall to the land below, leaving it up to Link to rescue her.
This brings us to the next change in the established formula. With the exception of Wind Waker, every Zelda game thus far has taken place on a huge open world, where Link must walk (or ride horseback) to the various towns and dungeons. While Skyward Sword certainly has its fair share of on foot traveling, there is no traditional “overworld” in this game. Instead, the world below the clouds is broken up into three main areas: A forest, a volcano, and a desert. To get to each area, you take to the sky on Link’s trusty Loftwing, a giant bird (which bears a striking resemblance to Wind Waker’s King of Red Lions), which Link rides between the various locales.
On one hand, flying in Skyward Sword is breathtaking. The sun-drenched blue sky, the way that all the clouds look as if they were painted with watercolor, and the sweeping score, flying just “feels” epic, especially with the Wii Motion Plus controls. Unfortunately, much like sailing in Wind Waker, flying soon becomes redundant, as not a whole lot happens in flight. Wind Waker eventually quelled the boredom with sailing by introducing a quick-travel mechanic, which Skwyard Sword sadly lacks.
The biggest change Skyward Sword brings is the core gameplay itself, with the Wii Motion Plus. Unlike Twilight Princess, which had all of its motion controls tacked on as basic waggling of the Wii Remote, virtually EVERY action in Skyward Sword is controlled with motion controls, be it by throwing bombs or rolling them like bowling balls, pulling back with the nunchuck to simulate pulling on a bow’s string, and of course, swinging Link’s legendary sword. With the Wii Motion Plus, every angle from which you hold and swing the Wii Remote is directly translated to how Link handles his sword. While this is somewhat less impressive considering Red Steel 2 already accomplished this a year and a half ago, it’s still great finally feeling like we are in control of swordplay in a Zelda game.
Link also has a few other new abilities as well, most noticeably the “dash” feature. Taking a cue from recent first-person shooters (go figure) Link can now sprint over short distances, which is limited by a meter that appears whenever he does so. This dash is also required to run up steep hills and climb taller obstacles, adding a whole new verticality to the classic Zelda gameplay. The meter recharges at a fairly quick rate, but should the meter ever completely run out, Link is then left exhausted, unable to perform any moves until it completely recharges.
Link also has a new shield bash, which is used to counter-enemy attacks (necessary to beat most of the enemies in the game). However, time your shield bash wrong, and your shield will take damage, forcing you to get it repaired. If your shield gets hit enough, it can actually break, requiring you to purchase a whole new shield. I found this new feature didn’t add a whole lot to the game, especially since fairly early on you can get a shield that repairs itself automatically, which pretty much negates having a breakable shield in the first place. There is also an upgrade system that applies to Link’s shield and most of the weapons he finds in the game, but the upgrades are mostly trivial and also don’t add a whole lot.
What I do like the most about this entry in the Zelda lore is that dungeons are no longer constrained to generic “elemental” themes (i.e. Forest Temple, Water Temple, Fire Temple, etc.). Instead, the dungeons are built around much broader themes, with one dungeon approaching the duality between heaven and hell, and another taking place entirely on a time-traveling pirate ship. In this way, Skyward Sword completely flips your expectations around.
Dungeon design is also much more linear compared to previous games. Unlike past Zelda entries, you’ll spend much less time trying to figure out where to go, since there is usually only one way to go in any given situation. However, virtually every room has its own unique puzzle to it that you must solve before you proceed, and they remain exceptionally well designed throughout the whole experience. Even the boss keys are puzzles in themselves, requiring you to orient them in just the correct position to unlock the door to each dungeon’s boss. These little brainteasers were some of the most fun I had with the game. So while Skyward Sword is definitely more linear than past installments, there is absolutely no depth sacrificed because of it.
This also holds true for the exceptionally well designed boss fights. Rather than being glorified puzzle fights that are easily solved by using the item you just happened to find in that dungeon, most of the boss fights in the game rely on the precise movement of your sword. This results in some of the most challenging fights in the series. Less often than not, though, the Motion Plus is sometimes unresponsive, with sword swipes feeling delayed, or not even registered. It doesn’t happen enough to break the game, but it sure happens enough to be frustrating.
Graphically, the game is like an amalgam of the last two console Zelda games, combining the cartoon-like, brightly colored aesthetic of Wind Waker with Twilight Princess’ realistically proportioned characters and surprisingly dark designs. What results is probably the most artistically representative game of the franchise. Whenever I played the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, or A Link to the Past on the SNES, I always imagined the pixels and sprites looking something like what Skyward Sword ended up looking like. The bright color palette heavily benefits from an inspired art-style that makes the game look like a moving watercolor painting, which both looks great and easily masks the Wii’s technical shortcomings.
The biggest issue the game has is its incessant padding. Since there are only three main areas in the game, Skyward Sword will often send you backtracking through each of them, usually demanding you “find X amount of items before you can proceed”. Not only are these sections pointless, but some of them are actually kind of difficult, and will make you restart them if you fail. The backtracking gets so bad that at one point the game has you go through an entire dungeon you’ve already beaten for some MacGuffin that has no direct relation to the story. The game’s length is extended so artificially that you could tell the developers were aiming for a quota of at least 30-hours (which my save file just barely clocked in at when the credits rolled).
After beating Skyward Sword it wasn’t it’s faults that remained in my psyche, nor was it the expertly designed dungeons and boss fights, or the genius implementation of the motion controls. Ultimately, it was how Nintendo actually makes you care about the characters. The defining moment of Skyward Sword comes towards the end where, without spoiling anything, the game puts everything that Link and by extension, the player, has been working for in an emotional context, and sums up the emotional journey of the entire series. It’s moments like these that I play games for, and it’s this moment most of all that makes Skyward Sword worth playing. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is an incredible experience, and makes me hopeful for another 25 years of Zelda.
A copy of the game was provided to us by Nintendo for reviewing purposes.
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