The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword Review
Finally getting motion controls right, the franchise’s gripping origin story is at last told.
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Nintendo is consistently setting the bar higher for itself with the Legend of Zelda franchise. Each entry isn't necessarily better than the last, but they can be counted on to be exciting and different, almost always living up to the expectation of loyal fans and bipartisan gamers alike. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is no different. For the first time in a Zelda game, Nintendo has built an experience that fully utilizes its Wii Motion Plus technology, and it does so to great effect.
While embracing all the tried-and-true elements that make this series great, such as engaging exploration, varied and eccentric dungeons, and a compelling story, Skyward Sword also takes the prize for delivering responsive and exciting motion controls that add a new layer to combat and the interaction between protagonist and gamer. Add to that a world designed in the style of some of history's great impressionist artists and possessing the first fully-orchestrated Zelda sound track, and you have a video game experience that can only be described as glorious.
This entry was released to coincide with Zelda's 25th anniversary, and it is essentially a tribute—to the franchise, to the devoted developers and staff, and to the gamers who have expressed their love for Hyrule in all its iterations. That said, it's still not a perfect game. Despite a compelling narrative, the game doesn't have quite the urgency evoked by the dire plights experienced by Link in some earlier entries. Motion controls finally work, even though some of their implementations can be awkward and frustrating.
The drawbacks are few and far between, other than the issues we had with flight controls, and the game as a whole offers an experience that is engaging and entertaining on many levels.
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.
Over the years, we've grown to expect colorful characters, gentle humor, and a compelling narrative from Zelda games. Skyward Sword manages to deliver perfectly on almost all of these points. With the series' distinctive sense of humor and beautifully realized supporting characters, it delivers a story whose only flaw is that it just doesn't feel as dire or epic as the other large-scale games that have come before.
The story has historically been one of the most important elements of a Legend of Zelda game, and Skyward Sword is certainly no exception. It's no secret now that Nintendo has confirmed Skyward Sword is the first of all Legend of Zelda games, chronologically speaking, and setting up the basis for all those stories is no small task. Allusions to the "later" games, such as the presence of Impa, or the creation of some of the more iconic items and weapons, are peppered throughout the entire game. They both add to the stand-alone story of Skyward Sword and serve as exciting moments of recognition for long-time gamers that have been playing Zelda for years. Like all good works in a series, it stands both on its own and as a supporting part of the whole canon—full of adventure, mystery, and the tongue-in-cheek humor so often seen in Zelda games.
That said, it's hard not to compare this to its large predecessors—especially Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time. Both of those games struck a balance between the comfort and safety of friendly areas with the fear and trepidation felt when exploring a new dungeon or a corrupted portion of the overworld. In Skyward Sword, however, we never really felt the grand sense of purpose that permeated the writing in those earlier titles. It never felt as dire as it has in the past, primarily as a result of the nature of Skyloft.
This safe, secure, tranquil hub world is so free from the troubles of the surface that, as long as you're up there flying around on your Loftwing and harvesting pumpkins or collecting heart pieces, you never feel any real sense of urgency. At Hyrule Castle in Ocarina of Time, once Ganondorf took over and ReDeads roamed the city streets, the side-quests became related to weaponry or money and could make you feel like you were part of some sort of underground resistance. People in Skyloft, on the other hand, are concerned when Zelda falls below the clouds, but after the first time Link flies down and makes it back up safely, dialogue becomes more of the "Oh, Link, now that you're looking for her, I know she'll be alright" vein, and folks just carry on with their daily lives. It makes sense—Skyloft itself is never actually threatened—but it also detracts from any sense of danger that the epic opening prologue instills regarding the surface world, which sets it up as a place of mystery and terror to the people of Skyloft.
Plot & Player Choices
As is the case with Legend of Zelda games, the plot is very much a Point A to Point B endeavor. There are no branching paths, no alternate endings; it's a linear adventure, plain and simple. There are still tons of things to do, but the side quests only increase your strength; better weapons and more hearts may allow you to tackle harder dungeons with ease, but having an upgraded bow has nothing to do with the final act of the game. In a pleasant little nod to player choice, though, Nintendo has included some dialogue options which allow Link to respond to questions posed by NPC's, usually with two or three options. These are mostly included for potential comic effect, and have little to no impact on the resulting conversation after the next immediate line of text.
In today's gaming environment, which places a great deal of emphasis on hyper-realism and breaching the uncanny valley, it can be difficult to adequately gauge the "acting" in a Nintendo game like this. Except for some voice sound effects, all the dialogue comes in text format. Characters aren't necessarily designed to be life-like—some of them aren't even human! That said, the characters in Skyward Sword essentially fall into three categories: main characters, secondary characters, and outlandish characters.
The main characters, such as Zelda and the demon Ghirarim, are very carefully written and have real personalities. Zelda exhibits genuine concern for Link, and an affection that grows without feeling forced or stilted. Ghirarim came off initially as being over-the-top and unimpressive as an antagonist, particularly after the terrifying Zant from Twilight Princess. As the story progresses and you have more interactions with him, however, the writing really does make him seem quite threatening, with his power and lunacy bubbling to the surface through the use of subtle facial expressions and vocal sound effects. Like Kabuki-style Japanese theater or any sort of puppetry, the majority of the "acting" done by the main characters is movement-based—hand gestures, postures, and the like—and all of it is done exceptionally well.
Minor characters, like Zelda's father or the mysterious old woman that sets Link on his journey, are all unique and have interesting personality quirks. Even some of the lesser characters that you only find through optional detours feel unique and full of life, with families and personal problems that Link may or may not be able to help with. Characters that border on the ridiculous never cross the border into being annoying or creepy (unlike the infamous Tingle), and are a testament to the effort Nintendo has made in crafting a thriving, bustling world to explore.
The in-game cinematics are really limited to two types, and both of them occur quite infrequently. First, every time you enter a new area, the camera takes you on a panoramic, bird's eye view of the land below. It serves two purposes: it gives you a handle on the area's layout, and it gives you a chance to appreciate the new gorgeous vista which you'll then have to explore. It can excite, amaze, or impose, depending on the nature of the land.
The second set of cinematics are story-based. These essentially involve losing control of Link for a moment while he talks to another character. The ensuing scene is then set up, as is the case with any character-driven narrative, to create some sort of emotional response in the viewer, whether it be fear, concern, or affection. There's no voice over and it's all done with the in-game engine. Some of these scenes employ interesting camera work, which can, for instance, make the main villain seem more unhinged. His ability to pose a real threat is exemplified when he magically appears behind Link without him knowing it, using the classic horror cinema technique of revealing something to the audience before the protagonist in order to build suspense.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Prepare to be blown away. These graphics show just what the Wii can do, and for once it genuinely does impress.
The world of Skyloft and the surface world beneath it offer some of the most compelling artistic direction we've seen not only in a Wii game, but in video games as a whole. With a beautiful score and graphics that take their inspiration from impressionistic painters like Cezanne, Skyward Sword truly is a feast for the eyes and ears.
Nintendo found a balance for Skyward Sword that should appeal to both classes of Zelda camps: the folks with the preference for the highly stylized cell-shading of Wind Waker, and those who fell in love with the realism of Twilight Princess. We're presented with an older Link, perhaps a bit less realistically defined than he was in his first outing on the Wii, but still very much an anthropomorphic, fully realized human. The world he lives in is bright, vivid, and full of life. Clouds floating in the distance have a blurred quality to them similar to what you would find in a watercolor painting. It's a stark contrast to the out-of-focus, dark quality of the reality-bending Twilight Princess, and it may take some getting used to for fans of the earlier game. While Skyward Sword is unquestionably gorgeous, it's not nearly as dark as its predecessor, and at times we found that it detracted from the grand sense of purpose that fills the game's storyline.
At last, we have a game that takes advantage of the Wii's graphic capabilities. Skyward Sword looks gorgeous. There simply is no other word for it. Enemy design is creative and thoroughly detailed, the worlds are full of life and vibrancy, and clipping errors are essentially non-existent. Of course, you can't expect the hyper-realism of a game like Mass Effect: you won't be able to see what direction the grain is going in the metal on the Master Sword, or every tail feather coming off the back of your mount. Rather, it's much more like a cartoon, with all the suspension of disbelief that such a thing entails. That said, it's one of the best looking cartoons we've ever seen on a video game system. The only time you might be disappointed is if you have a large, high-definition television set. Since the Wii isn't equipped for high-def viewing, all those gorgeous visuals may look a bit fuzzy.
As is appropriate to all Legend of Zelda games, the music is fittingly epic. It's very much in style with the overall art design. Unlike Twilight Princess, for instance, which was a much darker game and had a darker score, the music here is lighter, warmer, but still imposing for appropriately dangerous environments. We did find ourselves wishing for a bit more grandeur, though—the score for Skyward Sword never quite embraced the bravura quality we've come to expect. The fact that it was the first Zelda title to have a fully orchestrated score, though, means it is subtler and deeper than those that came before it. Compared to other Zelda games, it's not quite as strong in reflecting the weighty narrative, but that's sort of like saying the Venus de Milo isn't quite as good as Winged Victory.
Nintendo did an excellent job with the sound effects in Skyward Sword. From the thunk of an arrow to the rattle of chains coming off of a locked door, everything is vivid and unmistakable. You'll learn to recognize enemies by the sound of their movement, traps will give themselves away before you turn a corner, and all of your tools sound as different from one another as they look.
Sounds relating to other characters were also very well done. One example is Dodoh's trumpet out on Fun Fun Island. In earlier video games, bit-part effects would sound like a bad keyboard synthesizer. Dodoh's trumpet, however, actually sounds like it could have been recorded by a real instrument. Enemy hits are, of course, stylized—the sound of a sword actually hitting someone wouldn't make for a very family-friendly game—but they're consistent and rewarding.
Some people are bothered by the tinny little speaker that's built in to the Wii-Mote, but we found that it really did enhance the experience in subtle ways. Most sounds will be coming through your main speakers, but certain noises will emit from the controller from time to time. It occurs often enough that it doesn't feel tacked on or random. For instance, hearing your sword come out of its sheathe for the first time made us pause to really appreciate the journey we were about to undertake. Having the sound of your robotic bug tool decrescendo as it flew off made it feel as though we really were sending this little device out into the world to do our bidding.
Link, Zelda, and the lands they inhabit have all grown and changed for over five generations of video game consoles, and the leaps and bounds taken with almost every game are impressive. With a story line that offers many hours of engaging gameplay, Skyward Sword can be enjoyed both by narrative-driven gamers and completionists that typically go for larger games such as Skyrim.
This game is humorous, challenging, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring...and no, we're not being hyperbolic. Lifting the Master Sword using excellent motion controls for the first time reinvigorates even the most seasoned fan of the franchise. With all the praise we can muster, though, we just can't quite call it a perfect game. It has some issues with the motion controls in the more gimmicky sections. Some minigames are more frustrating than fun. The art and story manage to strike a balance between the cell-shaded Wind Waker and the realistic Twilight Princess, but loses something along the way; it doesn't quite grasp the child-like visual joy of the former, nor does it hit the dark tonal qualities of the latter.
If you can look past the small negative points —and they are small—_The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword_ offers an experience that veteran and new gamers alike will remember with great fondness, and it's a joy sharing it both with other gamers who have journeyed with Link over the years, and for new members of the fold. The shortcomings of the game leave room for yet more improvement, and we look forward to seeing what Nintendo will come up with next.