Review Shooter: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
“You’ve come so far” is a line uttered by a character in the latter half of the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, but it is also a reflective statement of a series that is celebrating its 25th anniversary with the release of this game. The Legend of Zelda has come a long way from its debut on the NES back in 1986, but just because you have ventured far from the original doesn’t mean you are a better experience for it. Does the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword carry on the series’ acclaimed history or does it flail due to motion controls?
At its core, The Legend of Zelda franchise has always been a coming of age tale. Starring a young boy named Link, who is often times portrayed as being lazy or a layabout, who has destiny thrust upon him and must rise to the occasion to save the girl and the kingdom. Skyward Sword offers similar beats. We are first introduced to Link when he oversleeps for the Wing Ceremony, there’s a girl (Zelda, of course) and there is a great destiny awaiting him under the skies. Some may criticize the game for sticking close to the format, but its not what story you tell, but how you tell it that sometimes matters.
And this is where Skyward Sword excels at with its fantastic characterization, not only of the main characters, but the world in which they inhabitant. Some may point out that the game starts out a little slow (there’s like 2-3 hours before you hit the first dungeon), but the game does such a great job of introducing the main players, their world and the eventual threat to that world that you get loss in the fact that it is really a prolonged tutorial.
Not since The Wind Waker have Zelda and Link been put at the forefront of the story like this, and it really pays off. The game does a terrific job of building their relationship/budding romance during the first 3 hours that you really do want them to work out. Throughout the game you never stop to question Link’s motivations because you know how he feels about Zelda. Many men claim they would go to the end of the world for the girl they love, Link does just that.
As fascinating as Link and Zelda’s relationship is, a game can only go so far with two compelling characters, and Nintendo knows that. The residents of Skyloft are some of the most bizarre, but interesting characters yet in a Zelda game. By the end of your 40 hour adventure, you’ll have a pretty good idea of who almost everyone is in town. From Fledge, the weakling who thrives to be like Link to Pipit who has a dark side, and of course Groose, who perhaps has the most interesting character arc in the game.
If there is one stumbling block with the characters is that not all of them are aware of the world around them. Meaning they suffer from the RPG clichÃ© of only telling you the same thing until you move further in the plot when they learn new dialog. So yeah, it got tiresome having the same characters wonder where Zelda is after she’s been missing for 30 hours in the game!
On the other side of the coin because so much emphasis and focus was put on developing Skyloft, the rest of the world suffers to a degree. Flying around the sky with your Loftwing is an awesome experience, but you’ll soon find that there isn’t a whole lot to do. Aside from Skyloft, there are really only 4 other major locations in the sky. 3 of them are related to side quests/mini-games and the final one is story related, and you’ll return there often.
Having a barren overworld is a bit of a disappointment, but I do like how exploration is tied into the underworld with Goddess Cubes on the surface unlike treasure chests in the sky. This adds a little bit of charm to the overworld as you get to explore these tiny masses of land, and some feature their own little puzzle/task to get the chest. While I craved something along the sea from Wind Waker in the sky, I don’t really have issues with what we got.
Especially since such a novel approach was taken with the under world. Unlike traditional Zelda games, Skyward Sword doesn’t feature a connected world instead you have 3 distinct areas that can only be accessed by the sky portals. And each of these 3 regions are re-used quite often during the course of the game. As a matter of fact, you’ll return to each like 3-4 times when its all said and done.
On paper, that sounds like a terrible idea, who wants to revisit the same 3 areas over and over again, but the developers were smart with it. Each time you return to an area, aside from having a different task challenges your familiarity with the environment. Most of these come in the form of the Silent Realms, which are specialized versions of each of the major locations in the game. They focus less on combat (Link is unarmed during these segments) and more on your knowledge of the land’s layout and stealth. They offer a refreshing change of pace for the game, and in their own right can be downright exhilarating.
Other times, its akin to the Metroid series, where you return to old locations with new items and they allow you to explore newer sections of the map. Sometimes with vastly different layouts then your previous visits. All in all, I enjoyed revisiting the 3 major regions as I was never quite sure what to expect each time I descended. And the designers were smart enough to include a fast-travel when you dropped in so wouldn’t have to trek through the same exact areas all three times.
While this isn’t directly tied into the exploration, the game does stumble twice when revsiting these areas. The first time has you re-scaling Eldin Volcano in an escort mission. I’ve been a gamer for a long time, and I can count on one hand the number of times an escort mission has been fun. This game, sadly, isn’t the exception to that rule. The other time is when a region gets flooded and you are forced to swim around to collect objects. Much like escort missions, there are very few times when water-based stages are fun for gamers.
Not only do these two areas suffer from being poor game design choices, but the story set-up for them are so contrived that its a bit maddening. The first one can kind of get a pass, but the second one just seemed like a case of padding for padding sake.
Great characters are fine, an interesting approach to exploration is novel, but neither are important if the basic game play isn’t in place. The creators of the game promised big changes were in store for The Legend of Zelda’s first true outing on the Wii (Twilight Princess was a GameCube game ported over for launch), and their approach to motion controls were perhaps the biggest deviation from the Zelda format yet.
Over the course of the Wii’s lifetime, we have seen various levels of success with motion controls. We’ve seen it used to enhance games such as Super Mario Galaxy Â½, we’ve seen it used to re-fine popular mechanics like in Metroid Prime 3 Corruption (and most FPSes), and we’ve seen it used to craft brand new experiences like Wii Sports or Boom Blox. But before Zelda, only one other game has ever really used motion control in a meaningful way for melee and that was Red Steel 2. While a solid game, it suffered from its own set of problems.
Skyward Sword enters the fray with 5 years of experience and experimentation behind it, and it shows for the most part. While the game offers 1:1 sword play, it wisely does away with Red Steel 2’s strength based combat, while interesting can tire a person out during prolonged periods of play. Instead the sword play allows the gamer to feel in better control of their sword, and Nintendo designed enemy encounters around that. In prior Zelda games, combat was fun, but maybe not the most engaging thing in the world. In Skyward Sword, I was kept engaged from hour one to hour 40 because you were always kept on your toes with enemy encounters.
While it is great for the enemies on display, one of the downsides to this approach to combat is that Nintendo was forced to limit the variations of enemies you encounter during the game. So throughout the course of the game, you’ll come across the same dozen or so enemies in different variations. It doesn’t take away from the game, but you’ll notice it when you’ll still fighting Deku Baba’s in the final dungeon.
Sword play wasn’t the only thing that benefited from Wii Motion Plus. All the classic weapons were given new life in this game. The bomb is now used as both an overhand and underhand weapon as certain encounters/puzzles force you to bowl the bombs like in Wii Sports. The controls for bowling are a bit hit or miss since most will play this sitting down and it forces you to point directly at the floor. This is only an issue during the early portion of the game before you get the bomb bag. The bow and arrow, another trademark, doesn’t control too differently than Twilight Princess though instead of using IR pointing it uses the gyro for aiming, but works just as well and a bit more quickly at times.
New items such as the Beetle, simply become instant classics with the controls, and is perhaps one of my favorite items in the entire franchise now. Steering it with the controller was never a problem, and even navigating it through tiny spaces proved to be a breeze. The Gust Bellow is another fine new addition to the series, which actually gets fair mileage for such an odd little device. While it isn’t really motion controlled, it is a blast to use.
Unlike traditional controls though, motion controls seems to vary per the individual using them. So I can tell you in my personal experience, in the 40 hours I’ve spent with the game, I’ve only encountered 4 problems with the motion controls. Not 4 problems that kept rearing its head, but 4 instances in which the controller went out of sync on me or wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. Two times were in non-combat scenarios when my bow and arrow and beetle were aimed at the ground for whatever reason, that’s a simple fix with down on the D-Pad. The next time was during a late-game segment when I engaged dozens of enemies, after a bit of sword play, the controller went out of wack so did the manual re-calibration in the menus. Finally, and this has always been a motion I hated because most games only recognize it like 50% of the time is the forward stab. This was a motion that was a repeated problem but all in the same instance. That was it for the entire time, maybe 2 minutes of fighting the controller in total for me.
Another fun and interesting addition to the franchise is the stamina meter. This is tied into almost any physically exerting movements that Link does, running, swinging on vines, climbing structures, and certain sword moves like the spin attack (both horizontal and vertical). It is such a simple addition, but it adds so much to the experience. First, you don’t spend half the time making Link roll so that he can move faster. Second, it makes for some interesting puzzle designs especially when it comes to quick sand. Third, it makes sure that the player doesn’t spam their power moves when in combat, once more keeping you engaged in the combat. It adds a lot to the game without ever being overbearing or a pain to manage. If you have a lot of ground to cover, there are usually stamina fruits along your path to keep the momentum going. I hope to see it included in future games.
Speaking of the future, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword serves as a prequel to the entire franchise so Nintendo had to be on the top of its game when it came to story. Skyward Sword is a mixed bag when it comes to story, as I noted at the beginning of the review, it does a terrific job with characters, but the plot is a bit of a hit or miss endeavor. The beginning starts out strong, again when it focuses on Link and Zelda’s romance. The introduction of Ghirahim, the main villain of the game is also handled well, and unlike in previous Zelda games he is a presence throughout the entire adventure not just random plot points.
Those elements line up well, and there are some truly heart-breaking moments along the line. One in particular after the 2nd dungeon when Link was just a little too late in rescuing Zelda, genuinely made me feel bad for the character and for me as a player. As the person who assists Zelda points out, that you have failed twice in protecting her thus far, but she doesn’t say it as nicely.
The plot hits a twist after the 3rd dungeon, which is kind of a Zelda staple, and this is when it kind of falls apart. For the most part, the plot progress disappears for the next 3 dungeons as you accomplish your task. Granted, it is all driven by the plot, but nothing really happens during those moments to move it forward much.
Then comes the end game, and once more the plot is thrust into the forefront of the experience, and the game is the better for it. So yeah, great beginning, really non-existent middle and then a phenomenal end-game sequence.
I didn’t know where else to put this, but wanted to talk about Fi for a little bit. There’s really not much to say about her. She is a less developed companion than Midna from Twilight Princess, but a lot less annoying than Navi from Ocarina of Time. She is kind of an un-interesting middle ground though she has her moments especially when she sings and dances, and a cute side plot with a robot.
Finally, the sights and sounds of Skyward Sword. The art style used in Skyward Sword is really impressive. I hate to sound like PR, but it really does look like a painting come to life at times especially when you are in the Eldin region. Between the draw distance, and hazy emitting from the heat it crafts a lovely design. That said, it leaves a lot to be desired when viewing structures up close as they come off as muddy and blurry. It doesn’t take away from the overall experience, but you’ll notice it.
Also, Skyward Sword is the first Zelda soundtrack to use fully orchestrated music, and it shows at times. Some catchy tunes in the game, but there were also a lot of pretty bald and forgettable one. I want to give special notice to some. First and most impressively, is the theme of the game. I imagined after hearing the same piece of music trailer after trailer that I would be sick of the song by the time the game came out, but from its use on the Wii menu to the various ways it sneaks into other tracks in the game, it never gets old. If anything, I gained a new appreciation for it because of how well it was used in the game. Second, big thumbs up to the Sky/Loftwing theme song, fantastic piece of music that really gives you that sense of adventure. Finally, and can’t spoil too much but the music you gather during the second half of the game ESPECIALLY the final song were terrific treats to the ear.
Recommendation: BUY IT! The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword isn’t a perfect game, it has its flaws, and a lot of elements that gamers simply won’t agree on. Motion controls can be hit or miss based on the individual, but based on my experience with the game, it is one of Nintendo’s finest games to date. One of the best Wii games released, and desires to sit alongside the other games in this storied franchise. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend fully that you go out and experience this gem.