Review – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Will Have You Looking Skyward

The Legend of Zelda – those four words bring in a flood of memories in this seasoned gamer, as it probably does for many of you. Why do we like Zelda? Is it the dungeon puzzles, bosses, interesting use of items, or the battle system? Is it the often bar-setting high quality that the series has maintained for over two decades? Whatever the case, Zelda has stuck around for one reason: we like it. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has been promised to be a slight departure from the series in terms of structure, and the motion controls have been touted as game-changing. Without further ado, let’s see how this latest iteration holds up to the lofty expectations of its fans.

After hearing about the awesome new motion controls that prove just how great Wii can be regarding “real” video games, you want to get right into the action, right? Well, not so fast. Skyward Sword has a story to tell.

Moments like this are what motivates heroes to go out and save the world.

Link, along with an assortment of other characters, lives on a floating Island called Skyloft. Its citizens only know of their world in the clouds, and fear the unknown that lurks below their safe haven. As it is with any grand tale, something terrible occurs, which propels the protagonist, Link, to do the unthinkable: explore the mysterious, feared world below. In the first hour or so of Skyward Sword, you will be introduced to its various characters. Enough quality time is spent with them to make you care about what will happen as the story unfolds. There’s even a little bit of visual humor thrown in, which is something Nintendo doesn’t do often enough. The only downside here is that this first section is quite long and almost exclusively focused on interacting with characters and not on solving puzzles and beating (presumably) evil things into oblivion. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that after this initial sequence, the main story is mostly placed on the back burner until players are near the end of their 35 to 45-hour quest. Between the beginning and the end, players are strung along with almost nothing new happening in the plot. However, the payoff is one of the best in the series and explains elements fans will be glad to finally know.

The flight in Skyward Sword is so natural, fluid and effortless that using a joystick would just ruin the experience.

The Wii Motion Plus, the little addition to the Wii remote, does wonders for the gameplay. When you do a horizontal slash in real life, Link does it too. Players will be capable of a forward thrust, and slashes performed horizontally, diagonally and vertically in either direction. Link also retains his jumping slash move from previous games. By flicking the Wii remote and nun-chuck left or right at the same time, Link will do a spin attack. Flicking the Wii remote and nun-chuck upwards or downwards will result in a new flip attack. By now you may be wondering why Link can attack in all of these different directions.

Do a barrel roll! I mean, do a horizontal slash!

One of the most drastic changes in Skyward Sword is regarding the combat. Whereas most games ask players to time their strikes, and maybe choose between one of two or three types of attacks, Skyward Sword demands that players strike in the right direction, at the right time. There are a few times when the special spin and flip attacks are required too. This means that at any moment, players will be choosing one of twelve different sword attacks to take their foes down. Enemies will block in certain directions and patterns, and players must often quickly discern the temporary weak point, striking without delay. Early enemies won’t punish players much for accidentally using the wrong strike, and often they only take one hit to kill, or the first strike will open them up for repeated attacks. Later enemies, however, will counter-attack players for performing the wrong move. So, unlike Twilight Princess, whose combat often only required the random flailing of a limb, Skyward Sword will engage and challenge players.

Nintendo's Wii Sports Resort experience pays off. Bowling bombs actually works well!

Although most of the time the sword is used to send enemies to their graves, Link has a small arsenal of items that must be mastered as well. The bow is back, and players can simply point at enemies and shoot, or hold the “A” button for a charged attack. It’s great that the developers have also allowed players to hold “C” and pull back the nun-chuck as if they were using a real bow. Bombs can be tossed via a flick of the wrist, or bowled along the ground with a bowling or scooping motion. Though sometimes the aiming controls (bow etc.) have to be reset by pressing down on the d-pad, they are otherwise almost flawless. From now on, they are the bar which every motion-controlled game will aspire to be.

Players have always been able to use the bow, sword, and a few other items to attack enemies, but Skyward Sword’s items increase the ways in which you interact with them. For example, the whip can be used to spin Bokoblins (little, pig-like creatures) around to make them dizzy, causing them to fall to the ground, at which point a special downward sword strike attack will take them out. Spiders who hang from a thread of webbing can be hit with the sword, spinning them around and opening them up for a stab attack. If they’re too high up, players can use a powered-up bow shot, or the remote-controlled flying beetle to cut their thread and bring them down to the ground for a fight. Piranha plants can be destroyed with the correct slice of the sword, or toss a bomb into their overly eager mouths. It’s the fact that enemies will often have some sort of special reaction to various attacks that will have players trying out different strategies, and remain interested in the combat. The motion controls in this game make me feel more connected to the action, a great feeling indeed.

These sections that precede the dugeons may be part of the overworld, but they feel like a dungeon to me.

Getting away from the action for a moment, let’s talk about the game structure of Skyward Sword. Usually in a Zelda game, you’ll start out in a town setting, traverse the overworld, and eventually find your way to the dungeon. While Skyward Sword does technically have an overworld, which is the sky itself, it’s very bare, and it’s main purpose is to get you into the next dungeon area. You’ll drop from the sky to the ground, and maybe it can be argued that this ground section before the dungeon is part of the overworld. However, even these pre-dungeon sections feel like dungeons – there are puzzles to solve and enemies to defeat. One thing that is really lacking, though, is a sense of discovery. In past Zelda games you could wander around and happen upon a ghostly elf playing a flute, and a witch who concocts potions. Not only are there hardly any interesting secrets to find in these pre-dungeon areas, but most of the time you can see too much of them at any one time. They are visually laid out for you so that you can see what you’re going to be doing for the next 30 minutes or so. Skyward Sword feels like there are two main types of locations in it: dungeons and the one town, Skyloft. While some people may like how accessible and straightforward the game feels, I really missed the exploration.

Link takes a well-earned stretch in the colorful Bazaar.

Having said that, Skyloft is one of the liveliest towns in a Zelda game. The Bazaar, where you’ll find most everything for your adventuring needs, is simply a joy to behold. The music is upbeat, and it even subtly and smoothly transitions to suit the personality of different shop owners when they’re approached. The shopkeeper who sells arrows, bombs and the like, will annoyingly follow you around his shop, a little too eager to get a sale. If you turn your back on him and walk away, he will dejectedly hang his head and slowly walk away, disappointed. Some shop owners may even slowly reveal their affinity for the hero, though I won’t spoil that for you. There are sub-stories to be found, and town folk to help. Compared to the rest of the series, Skyloft has some of the most animated and likeable characters. In fact, most games out there could stand to jot some notes down to make their own characters feel more alive.

Skyward Sword seems to have a tiny inconsistency issue regarding its graphics. Every single character in the game is well animated and detailed; they’re not the problem; it’s some of the environments. Most of them are lush and full of color. Blades of grass and tree leaves sway in the wind. The effects for lava and water are very nicely done too. In one particular section, Link rides in a boat that changes the desert-like present to an oceanic past as he sails. Around the ship, with a radius of about 30 feet, there is an ocean. Just beyond the ocean, everything appears to be a desert. It’s probably the most beautiful site to behold in the game. For the most part, the environments look great.

However, there are some sections that just look very bland. Certain parts of a desert dungeon are almost completely devoid of color and anything interesting at all. They’re drab and ugly, and while I know this dungeon is there to juxtapose the present with the past, these parts feel lazily done because they’re lacking in details (not having statues or murals, for example). There was also an area that aesthetically seemed to be a better fit for a Sonic or Mario game. Some areas seem to have less polish than others, but it should be noted that on the whole, the game looks great.

It's on fire and has multiple legs. Appropriate action? Run like hell.

You can’t have a Zelda game without bosses, and this one has one of the best sets thus far. Like any good Zelda boss, each one of Skyward Sword’s will require the mastery of Link’s items, and more particularly the item which was found in each respective boss’ area. Some of the bosses, such as the main protagonist, Ghirahim, require precise sword strikes. He sets up a row of bats which will be launched at the player, requiring the right sword strike (horizontal etc.) and good timing. Another boss will unexpectedly hide from you. I won’t spoil how to beat any of the bosses, but I will say that there is a great amount of variety amongst them. There are even some amazing set pieces that will leave your jaw dropped for at least a solid 20 seconds. The last few boss battles are the pinnacle of the bunch, and a great way to end the game.

Zelda has always had amazing music, and this one is no different. Well, except for the fact that Nintendo has finally improved the quality of the music by having some of it orchestrated. What is great about the music is that it all feels so appropriate for the situation. The desert’s tunes are somber, and even if you should listen to them without accompanying visuals, you’d think to yourself that they do sound like music made for a desert. Fights with enemies will bring on a nice transition of slightly more intense music, while remaining in the theme of the area. I don’t have any complaints about the soundtrack and I would gladly listen to it apart from the game.

I have to redo three different areas? Maaan...wait, this one isn't so bad.

Possibly one of the biggest gripes one can have of Skyward Sword is that just when you know you’re near the end, ready to face-off with the last hellions who haven’t been demolished, you’re thrust into some fetch quests. Really? Were these necessary? You will be going back to each of the three main areas for important items. The forest area is flooded, and you have to swim around and collect some music notes. I didn’t mind this one too much. I actually thought it was kind of fun. The desert section was brand new, but it felt very unnecessary. The volcano’s section could have been deleted from the game, improving it. At this point you’re just reluctantly slogging through, hoping that you’ll soon be back on track to saving the world.

The legend lives on.

The Legend of Zelda series has long been an event. When a new Zelda comes about, there is much to cheer about. The series has maintained an almost unimaginable high quality over the years, and some iterations have even changed the video game industry with innovations such as Ocarina’s “Z-targeting”. Skyward Sword should be considered yet another addition, as its motion controls will be studied for years by other developers and become the industry standard. The music is a delight, and while there aren’t hardly any tunes that will be as memorable as some of the series’ past, they do play their part in helping to develop an atmosphere. The bosses of the game are all very memorable, vary in the approach required to beat them, and are just plain fun to do battle against. Skyward Sword gives us just enough story to start our adventure, and to its detriment, things don’t start getting interesting again until the end. It’s also unfortunate that the game feels very plainly laid out, almost completely taking out interesting exploratory elements – here’s your dungeon, here’s your town. The fetch quests right at the end, that yank players away from the last epic battle sequences that they know are just around the corner, are very annoying. However, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a triumph in most respects. It’s easily one of the best games of this generation, and the legend lives on.


Grade: A


Pros:
Great motion controls, music and boss fights.
Good visuals and level design.

Cons:
Fetch quests right at the end of your fantastic adventure.
Not enough story interwoven with the gameplay.
Where’s the interesting exploration (i.e. secrets)?


Developer: Nintendo
System: Wii
Release Date: November 20th, 2011
Rating: T for Teen
Players: One


 
 

Ryan Southard

Ryan Southard is a video game enthusiast, dissecting games down to their tiniest details. Whether it’s new or it’s old, as long as it’s awesome, he’ll play it. Follow him on Twitter at @Ryan_Southard

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