The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Review
The Legend of Zelda. Just the name alone brings back some of my fondest video gaming memories, spanning back 20 years to when I first played the original NES classics. Few gaming icons have survived the test of time with such critical acclaim as the Zelda series, often each major release is immediately dubbed ‘the greatest game ever’ and each Nintendo console generation always gets its full-fledged title at some point. Twenty five years after the first Zelda game was released and almost exactly five years into the Wii’s life cycle, here we have it, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Whilst some would argue that this is the second Zelda game on the Wii (or third if you count the barebones Link’s Crossbow Training that was bundled with the Wii Zapper), the more astute of us know that the Twilight Princess was designed as a Gamecube game that was ported onto the Wii near the final stages in its development to drum up interest in Nintendo’s next hardware update. This time around, the flexibility of the Wiimote has been utilised to such a large degree that the majority of Link’s weapons are tied into the often precise motion sensor, with the added degree of accuracy made affordable by the required Motion Plus peripheral. This refreshingly new incarnation of the classic Zelda saga feels perfectly right this time around both in terms of visuals and control, making Skyward Sword a must play for any Zelda fan or newcomer alike, issues aside.
Skyward Sword attempts to do what all Zelda fans have been yearning for since it became readily apparent that the Zelda games do not follow-on from each other in chronological order, and tries to tell the official origin story. Though this will not help in any particular way to help understand the timeline in which the previous games took place, it does at least explain the very first time that incarnations of Link and Zelda met and together started this timeless quest – learning of the Triforce, its creation and the roots of the evil power that seeks it. The story is told with far more cinematic panache than earlier games thanks to great visuals (as far as the Wii is concerned) and finally sports a fully orchestral soundtrack which combines to great effect to tell a sometimes emotional story that befits the series superbly. Considering that there is still no spoken dialogue in any of these scenes, a large amount of character and emotion is portrayed through excellent animations and gestures often accompanied by the series’ staple and often comedic vocal grunts and wailing sounds.
Whilst I refuse to get into the plot of the game, some parts of it must be addressed, especially how they have an effect on how you traverse the yet unnamed land of Hyrule. Upon starting the game you will find yourself in a region called Skyloft, situated high above the thick clouds obscuring the land below. As the clouds are so thick and apparently perilous no one in Skyloft has dared venture below them, though as this wouldn’t be a Zelda game without some serious high adventure, obviously Link will be heading down there very often. The game takes a very slow start, occupying around two whole hours before your adventure really begins, whilst this does seem like a long time I truly did not notice how much time had passed, surely testament to how enrapturing Skyward Sword can be?
Link can only descend on three separate main areas throughout the whole game however, and whilst these areas do grow larger as you acquire new items and are able to reach new places, I was slightly annoyed that there was no large over world to fully traverse. In Windwaker I couldn’t help but feel the same way, and I feel like this is one of my biggest gripes about these two games, instead of having a large world to explore you end up just having these small outcroppings that lead to dungeons/objectives. Skyward Sword’s areas are much larger however, and have a much larger sense of exploration rather than linear paths. Unfortunately it is by far the opposite up in the Skyloft region, as it is basically an empty wasteland of open sky littered with a handful of small bland floating rocks, which serve the only purpose of harbouring pointless rock firing enemies that never even come within range to attack you. At least in Windwaker things would happen at sea; storms would stir up the ocean and cause nastier enemies to attack, you would come across Moblin controlled watch towers that would fire cannons at you and random rupee collecting barrel jumping minigames would pop up to keep the long voyages from becoming tedious mind numbing trips. Here you get none of that. Other than the odd island you can actually land on and open a chest (upon hitting the appropriate Goddess Cube below in Hyrule) there really isn’t much to talk about other than it feeling like a waste of time, compounded by the fact you must flap your arm constantly to make Link’s bird transport gain height. At least the area is quite small so you can get from A to B in a few minutes, though geographically it doesn’t make much sense.
What Skyward Sword does best is create the essential sense of Zelda familiarity without resorting to using too many of the series’ old habits. Partly due to this are the items and weapons collected are not always the usual suspects. Sure you will get the traditional bow, bombs and hookshot which are used to the usual effects – but a few new entries include a fully controllable flying scarab beetle (used to trigger hidden switches and carry bombs over long distances) the whip (used to manipulate out of reach levers and swing across gaps) and the Gust Bellows (a giant vase that can spew a constant gale of wind used to shift sand around). All these weapons and items, new and old, are constantly required to progress through the three regions and to make your way through the games’ many dungeons. Speaking of dungeons, Skyward Sword possibly has my favourite collection, none feeling too long or too confusing to complete in one sitting. It has its fair share to brain busting moments, but the solutions are always simple and usually just require that you use the correct item in a certain way. After abusing the logic and puzzle solving portions of my brain for so long playing so many FPS and fighting games, it was an extremely stimulating experience sitting still and pondering for a few moment on how to solve a puzzle or traverse a tricky area in Skyward Sword – thinking is fun!
Boss fights are also a major highlight, though not very challenging until the very last couple, each battle is like a small puzzle in itself and requires you to deduce the enemy’s weakness and how to exploit it. Whilst it is usually obvious which item you need to use as a general rule of Zelda boss defeatery is its always the new weapon collected from the same dungeon, it’s how and when to strike, each of the bosses are visually imposing and satisfying to defeat. The last few boss encounters actually offer a serious challenge at first, though that is only mainly due to the fact that they deal more damage and give you less time to figure out how to take them down. It is a shame that the main villain – Ghirahim (possibly an ancestor of Agahnim from A Link to the Past?) never comes across as a legitimate threat as he prances and minces about, acting like some kind of poncey pantomime stereotype, talking trash until the fight starts where he is the easiest boss in the game to defeat.
Swordplay makes up the bulk of combat, and most enemies tend to defend themselves from random waggling of the Wiimote as they need to be struck in a specific way. Thanks to the 1:1 speed and accuracy of the added Motion Plus peripheral the way Link swings his sword is usually exactly how you actually swung your arm. An even slight change in the angle of which the Wiimote is held reflects onscreen in the way Link holds his sword, a very nice feature which lends a sense of direct contact when in combat. For example some enemies carry large swords that they hold a way that will block your current trajectory of attack, so by quickly attacking from the other side you will hit them in an unguarded area. Blocking is handled by jutting forwards with the Nunchuk, this puts link into a defensive stance that will automatically block most attacks until either your shield wears out and breaks or you swing your sword, putting you back into offensive mode. By triggering a block just as an enemy attacks you can stun them, opening them up to a swift despatching aided by a diving killing blow. By shaking both Wiimote and Nunchuk you can perform either a vertical or horizontal spin attack, and finally by holding the sword vertically you can charge up a Skyward Strike which adds a projectile to the attack. Z-Targeting makes a happy return and is as useful as ever to keep Link facing his opponent, though it can be irritating trying to target a specific enemy in cluttered scenarios.
A constantly reoccurring problem however is the way the controls become un-synchronised and require frequent recalibration. Now it is extremely quick and easy to restore them, simply by pressing ‘down’ on the D-Pad whilst on any menu screen with a cursor or when you have a weapon out like the bow with a aiming reticule, but when you just have the sword out in normal combat pressing ‘down’ will bring up the Navi style helper Fi, which creates an unwanted moment of trying to back out of the unwanted conversation she starts. A problem associated with the Wii depending on how far away you are sat from the TV can be that the Wii sensor bar, used to track the onscreen pointer at times, fails to pick up movements. Luckily with Motion Plus this problem is negated as the pointer is no longer tracked by the sensor bar but is calculated by the Wiimote itself, this makes aiming with the reticules far better for people like me as I don’t have to worry about being too far away from the screen. I tip my red plumber’s hat to Nintendo for fixing this problem, as it would have completely broken Skyward Sword for me, and damaged my living room’s feng shui in the process.
Graphically Skyward Sword is a joy to look at, I was a little apprehensive to dust my Wii off after being treated for so long to shiny HD visuals on other current gen-consoles, but was reasonably surprised with just how nice most things look. Link has never looked better sporting his iconic green tunic, sword and shield, and a lot of effort has gone into animating him and everything else for that matter. The world in which he moves through is full of vibrant colours and interesting scenery, a style that sits somewhere between The Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past, making this one of the nicest looking games on the Wii. Small birds hop around together in the forests, schools of fish swim happily by underwater and all manner of collectible insects inhabit the land (the bug catching net returns!). Hardware limitations are covered up by intelligent level design and some excellent use of focus blur in the distance making far off places look like they’ve been painted into the background, effortlessly hiding any low detail objects that have been scaled down to keep the frame rate consistently smooth. Loading times also are infrequent and very short, it only takes half a minute to boot the game up and start playing and the game is also incredibly stable and bug free – something a lot of game developers seem unable to insure on release.
Unfortunately for me however, I found Skyward Sword to be far too repetitive in its objectives throughout the story. The game relies way too much on making the player perform the same routines in each of the three locations and after a while I found myself really not looking forward to moving into the next section. An example of this are the three trials you need to complete before attaining the three Sacred Flames, in these trials you have to explore the same area you just explored only now the colours had dimmed and you have to collect 15 objects without being touched by an enemy. So not only are you just running around the same area, but you are against the clock collecting pickups, it just feels like an excuse to lengthen the time it takes to progress the actual story. This is only one example of how Nintendo has artificially extended this game; you do similar things to this all the time in each area more than once. One of the more frustrating bosses has to be defeated three times also, each time becoming more irritating with its stomping shockwave attacks and was responsible for some serious harsh language to be expelled.
It’s a good job there are numerous side-quests and requests from people all over the main town and scant surrounding islands in Skyloft to break up the monotony or I’d have been tempted to hang up my Wiimote. The townsfolk are all colourful and memorable characters, and make up some of my favourite Zelda acquaintances. There is the Item shop owner who chases you around his store nervously grinning at point blank, the potion shops’ wife’s husband who has a baby on his back whom he makes some of the funniest recorded sounds effects ever to when it starts crying and the fortune teller with his hilariously giant eyes and strangely feminine wiles. Throughout the course of the story you are given completely optional requests that can range from buying a weakling a stamina potion so he can quickly buff up by exercising at night, haphazardly dusting a dirty house for a lazy lady – Ghostbusters style – to retrieving a lost rattle from a birds nest hidden high. Which reward you with either money, items or even Gratitude Crystals – the gold Skulltulas quest of Skyward Sword.
Another point that must be made is the amount of aid and handholding you are constantly given. Either from a simple camera panning when entering a dungeon room showing too clearly what needs to be interacted with, or through the droves of dialogue spouted from Link’s ever present assistant Fi. Fi is a sentient intelligence that was imbued into Goddess Sword to aid him on his quest, she more than frequently pops up to inform Link of things he has already worked out and acts as more of a tutorial dispenser more than anything else – awkwardly though she treats the whole story as a tutorial. Every time a new objective is given or you speak to someone of importance she will pop up and tell you again what needs to be done, often saying the same lines of dialogue as you repeat the same tasks in different locations over and over. She does provide a little humour to the proceedings however, with her cold GLaDOS-like style of conversation, and adds a computerised calculation and probability edge to discussions that weirdly seem not out of place in Skyward Sword. Comparing this to the original Zelda where you could completely miss collecting the sword on the first screen without warning shows how hard Nintendo tries these days to make its games Granny friendly.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a great modern gaming achievement that manages to balance the old themes and gameplay which made the Zelda franchise a worldwide phenomenon, spicing them up just enough to please newcomers and revitalise a series that had started to show serious signs of stagnation. For me personally it is by no means ‘THE BEST ZELDA EVER!’ but considering I’ve sunk over 45 hours into it in just over a week there has to be something to be said about how addictive and engrossing it was. What brought it down for me was the amount of repetition I felt the game was throwing my way, constant handholding and hints, and also the fact that the game lacks a decent over world model. There is a still a large amount of things I still need to find, like all the heart containers and gratitude crystals, plus the option to play the whole game again in ‘hero mode’ at twice the difficulty – though a little research has shown there is nothing much different or any special secret ending so I doubt I’ll ever bother with that. Skyward Sword is by far one of the best games on the Wii and truly a happy sign that The Legend of Zelda will still be with us for many years to come.