The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword Review
Finally getting motion controls right, the franchise’s gripping origin story is at last told.
Skyward Sword is as near to perfect as a game on the Wii can likely get. It grabs all of the staples of the Zelda franchise—exploration, interesting enemy combat, exotic dungeons and terrifying boss battles—and makes them even better by supporting motion controls that actually work. It's refreshing to see it done well, and the game only benefits from it. Aside from some exponentially frustrating mini-games and a few gimmicky control sequences, it's a delight to play.
Skyward Sword is, first and foremost, an adventure game. You'll be traveling through different sections of the world with Skyloft, your home, as the hub connecting them all. Since the main plot is relatively linear, the universe of the game isn't exactly an open world or sandbox, but rather a fairly straightforward path with some branches that you can explore if you so desire. Your objective may be to make it to the other side of the map to unlock a gate and access a new dungeon, but on the way you can bomb open walls to look for heart pieces, climb up vines to find an elusive Goddess Cube, or just putter around cutting down plants and killing enemies in a search for treasures to upgrade your items.
There's also quite a bit of backtracking, but it's mostly story-related. If you get a new item that opens up sections in areas you've already visited, more likely than not you'll have to go back there to collect the next quest item, so you don't have to ever really worry about missing things. The world is engaging and entertaining, so wandering around and exploring is certainly a viable option for having fun. The downside of having the hub world set up in the clouds, though, is that it takes longer to get from section to section.
Unlike Ocarina of Time, where you could just whistle for Epona and break off at a gallop, moving from one area to another involves finding a Bird Statue to get back into the sky, flying across the perhaps too large Skyloft hub, falling into the next area, and choosing where to land if you've been there before. It's a bit convoluted and doesn't exactly encourage wandering, but the different realms are all so gorgeous that we didn't mind too much. With the game lacking any sort of load screen, the small transitional bits are thankfully short.
One other slight nuisance is the inclusion of a stamina meter. Link can only run for so long before it depletes. We frequently found ourselves trying to maximize our running ability by getting to doors just before we ran out, since entering a new area also recharges the meter. If you run out, you'll be helpless until it fills again: Link can't swing a sword if he's clutching his knees and catching his breath.
There's a clear gap between the tacked-on motion controls of Twilight Princess and the one-to-one sword swinging of Skyward Sword. Not only do you control when you strike with the Master Sword, you also control what direction it moves: up, down, left, right, and even diagonally. Combat is a bit more sword heavy than in some of the more recent entries; you won't be whipping out the claw shot to stun a small enemy or coming up with other creative uses for non-combat-centric items on the fly. Using the Wii-Mote to swing the sword and the nunchuk to brace your shield almost hits that perfect mark of making you feel like you're actually in combat. It looks great and feels great, and the only flaw lies with the player; it's easy to get so excited that you start flailing around on your way to a quick and embarrassing demise. Not that we know anything about that.
Side Quests and Collectibles
Skyward Sword has its fair share of side quests, just as we've experienced in previous Zelda games. Many are gratifying, some are are frustrating, and a few are just down-right bizarre. What they all have in common are rewards that make your gameplay experience either richer, easier, or more entertaining.
As always, heart pieces are the biggest draw, offering you a means to increase your durability and make the harder, end-game dungeons that much more manageable. Some you can find just by breaking down a fragile wall and opening the chest that lies behind it. Some require you to complete tasks for minor NPC's, such as helping the owner of the Lumpy Pumpkin harvest some of his crops out back. Others involve hitting a certain score in a minigame. These all range from about as simple as it gets to mind-numbingly difficult. Sky diving onto Dodoh's Fun Fun Island resulted in lots of cursing and more time wasted than we would have liked, just trying to hit his blasted roulette wheel. A few tasks, like that one, were more based on luck than we prefer, but others offer a genuine challenge that feels satisfying to complete.
Another major collectible follows in the tradition of the Gold Skulltulas in Ocarina of Time. There's a character in Skyloft—whose nature we won't spoil—that needs your help and wants you to bring him small glowing objects called Gratitude Crystals. These can be found floating around Skyloft at night, or can be collected by completing tasks that help other NPC's. When you collect a certain amount, you'll receive a prize, such as a larger wallet or a substantial amount of rupees.
You'll frequently see large cubes sitting in the various realms of this game with the sign of the Goddess on its side. These are the famed Goddess Cubes which, when struck, unlock a chest located somewhere in Skyloft. These, like the other side quests, can contain the aforementioned heart pieces, rupees, or a third collectible item: badges. These badges can be placed in your inventory pack, and can cause items to appear more frequently, such as hearts, bugs, or treasures. If you want to barrel through the game with the smallest life bar, the Heart Badge can cause enemies to drop the much-needed health replenishing hearts more often. If you want to buy the best items or stock up on potions, equip the Rupee Badge. These offer an added layer of depth that allows each player a small degree of customization.
Dungeons and Bosses
A major part of Zelda is always high-quality dungeons and epic boss battles, and in this regard Skyward Sword doesn't disappoint. Admittedly, it isn't the best array of dungeons in the series; may of the dungeons were quite linear, and none came close to the level of difficulty found in Ocarina of Time's Water Temple, or had such deep atmospheric shifts as the more exotic settings in Twilight Princess. This could arguably be blamed on the lighter artistic and musical touches, as the dungeons in Skyward Sword lacked the much darker tone that made the dungeons of earlier games so imposing.
That said, they were still a huge blast to play, and all of them were gloriously different from each other. Challenging puzzles that would make even veteran Zelda fans scratch their heads abounded, but nothing was so hard as to be unfairly frustrating. Typically, each dungeon emphasizes the new gadget you find in there—the Sandship used distance and angles to take advantage of the recently acquired bow, while the Ancient Cistern is based off of your ability to swim after acquiring the Water Dragon Scale—but they come across as less obviously specialized than they have in past games. Tools and weapons are useful even late in the game, including items that you might think would be used in one dungeon and then forgotten.
Some boss battles were terrifying, some were hugely entertaining, other were a bit frustrating... but none of them were ever boring. From giant spiders to pirate duels, from animated flaming boulders to possessed samurai-esque statues, bosses were always interesting and, in a change from some easier Zelda games, a satisfying challenge. Link never feels overpowered, and destroying these bosses will always make you really feel like the predecessor to the Hero of Time: an everyman destined for greatness.
Perishable Items and Upgrades
In a move that's similar to earlier Zelda games, Skyward Sword incorporates the concept of perishable items, but also includes the other end of that spectrum: upgrading them. Rupees, the traditional currency of the Zelda universe, can be found more or less everywhere. In a surprisingly complex bartering system for a Zelda game, you can purchase everything from shields and ammo to more slots in your pouch in order to allow you to carry more items. All shields except the final one are breakable, adding a new twist to combat now that you can't simply hold a button to block and wait for your opening. Some special items like heart pieces and certain badges are also available to buy, as well as a slew of potions that can restore health, shield life, and stamina—but there's also nothing that you're required to purchase, except in a tutorial at the beginning of the game.
In a twist, many items including bow, slingshot, and the assorted shields can be upgraded. These involve bringing rupees and treasures to a specific shop in Skyloft, and the results offer effects like greater damage, range, or durability. The treasures, such as lizard tails and golden skulls, can be found in chests or dropped randomly from defeated enemies. Upgrading everything to its full capacity may require a bit of grinding, but it gives the completionists yet another thing to do beyond the main story and side quests.
You can also upgrade your potions, making them more effective. To do so, you'll need to purchase a bug net and turn Link into a bit of a nature enthusiast. Bugs roam the areas of this game freely and randomly, so there's no telling what you'll find or when you'll find it. One final shop in the Bazaar, Skyloft's central trading post, houses a fortune teller. He's a comic little man who can give you advice on where to go in exchange for some rupees, but he's very much a non-essential part of the game, added for color and entertainment.
Unlike previous Zelda games, in which the only inventory limitation was the number of bottles you owned determining how much stuff you could scoop up, Skyward Sword brings in the concept of an Adventure Pouch. While all the main items are always with you after you find them, such as your slingshot or whip, there is a limit on how many supplemental pieces you can bring along with you. These include larger storage containers to increase your bomb or arrow capacity, badges, and bottles. If you want to stock up on tons of health potions and nothing else, you can. If you want to bring an extra shield in case one of them breaks, you're absolutely free to do so. This item limit can create a very different style of gameplay depending on what you want to bring with you, and can allow each player to alter his/her load-out to suit individual strengths and weaknesses. If you have a full pack and find something new, it will automatically be sent to an item storage shop in Skyloft, where you can swap out items at your leisure between dungeons.
Another change to the inventory system is the necessity to equip items in real time. Main equipment is selected by holding down the B button on the Wii-Mote and then tilting the controller in the direction of the item you want to use. If you want to bring up the item you already have equipped, just hit the B button once and Link will deploy it. It's a more realistic approach to combat and exploration, but folks who were used to the relaxing pace of sorting through a menu may need time to adjust.
The Wii Motion Plus is required for Skyward Sword, and for good reason. We cannot express just how awe inspiring it was to actually shove the controller straight down to make Link bury his sword in a Tri-Force pedestal imbued with magical power, or lift it to the heavens for our first Skyward Strike. Movements are nearly one-to-one with respect to sword combat, swinging a bug net, or looking around with your bow's reticule. It really is some of the best implementation of the Wii's sensor bar that we've ever seen. That said, it's not quite perfect.
Occasionally, when using an item that involves a reticule, such as aiming with the bow or setting a way point on your map, the controller will get a bit skewed. You can easily realign it by pressing down on the controller's D-pad. That, however, is the only hassle that can be easily fixed.
There are some tasks that, thankfully, don't occur all that often. Underwater swimming or sky diving, for instance, is controlled by changing the direction you tilt the Wii-Mote. Want to swim to the surface? Pull up. Want to dive down to that island off to the left? Tilt your controller in that direction. It can get a little awkward if you're trying to make faster movements, and you'll find yourself tipping your wrist in strange ways. You don't have to swim or sky dive all that much, but getting from one realm to another requires a lot of time flying in the hub world, and it's done in the same way. As novel as it is to use the controller in this manner, it would have been nice to have the ability to change direction using the joystick.
Skyward Sword utilizes something called Hero Mode, which you have the option of entering after you beat the game. This mode lets you play the story again, with a few changes. You take twice as much damage, for instance, and enemies never drop hearts, making it much harder. Also, treasure and other collectibles carry over, but you have to find all of your main equipment again. It's not exactly a game+ option, and only has a few perks that make it worth playing for folks who are tired of the story, but the option is there for players that would like a greater challenge.
Since the Wii lacks an online marketplace that allows you to update games with downloadable content, there's really nothing to add to the game. However, if you go into the Wii Shop channel, you'll find a patch for Skyward Sword. Apparently, there's a game-breaking glitch that can arise about mid-way through. We didn't encounter it, but if you do, this patch is available, along with instruction for what you need to do in order to get your adventure back on track.
Pacing & Flow
As with many Zelda games, there is a bit of hand-holding involved. You'll never be able to go to sections of the world until you're ready and equipped with the correct items. That said, the linear progression is still gripping. Every section of the game has the same attention to detail, and while it doesn't necessarily ramp up in difficulty other than giving you more durable enemies, it does require you to think outside the box in order to figure out what combination of tools will get you through to the next area. If you spend a lot of time doing side quests or mini-games, however, you may start to glaze over. None of them are so entertaining as to merit hours of uninterrupted participation, but they're available for whenever you'd need or like a break.
Enemies in Skyward Sword can be remarkably clever, and even seasoned veterans will have to take a moment to assess each new enemy type before diving in. The use of directional combat as a result of the motion controls means certain enemy types can only be hit certain ways, and others will actively block attacks coming from a particular direction. Throwing bombs at enemies from a distance used to be a viable option for tricky encounters, but now certain mobile foes will actually back away or shield themselves from the blast, forcing you to get more creative. You won't have to worry about groups of Bokoblins pulling a surprise flanking sneak attack as though they were an enemy army unit in Modern Warfare, but this varied approach to enemy combat will keep gamers of every skill level on their toes in an effort to come up with the best approach to every situation.
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