The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword review
A Soaring Success
More often than not pre-game hype results in sighs, groans and a lot of post-game hang-ups. For Skyward Sword, there is no denying that this game received its fair share of hype before hitting our shelves. We marvelled at the sound of the MotionPlus controls scheme (and the worry of another Other M crept upon me) and wondered just how great the game could be after spending no less than five years in development, including a good several months of polishing. Skyward Sword marks a celebration of a big 25 years for the Zelda series, so did being in development for the life of the console do the development team and the Wii justice, or did hype kill the Loftwing?
This story mixes things up a little bit: Princess Zelda is not royalty. That’s right, she’s actually Link’s childhood best friend and instead of living in Hyrule, we’re up in a city in the clouds called Skyloft. A boy like any other studying at the Knight Academy, Link alongside his unique red Loftwing dreams of becoming a senior knight of Skyloft. Yet everything goes Kikwi-shaped when Zelda is lost to the clouds, and the task to save her befalls Link. Acquiring the legendary Goddess Sword and a new companion named Fi who resides in said blade, Link sets off below the clouds to the surface world to begin his adventure and discover his true destiny.
In another world ravaged by evil, Link’s exploration of the unknown surface world sees him piece history and legendary powers together in the search for Zelda, as he and those around him come to discover their parts in an epic story of heroism spanning space and time. Twists and turns abound within the story of Skyward Sword, which is closely intertwined with other aspects of the game (explained below). It’s a charming story with a lot of character and beautiful settings to boot. It never feels dragged out or bulked out for the sake of it, and you’ll find yourself completely engrossed in the world of Skyward Sword from beginning to end.
The characters contribute a lot to the game, to put it simply. Skyward Sword sees a rejection of the minor and major character split; instead, all characters have their own part to play with their fifteen minutes of fame. This sense of inclusion works fantastically, removing the feeling of characters being added in for game padding as has been the case previously. The personalities are distinctive and they all add to that charming value Skyward Sword prides itself on, which also works well in tandem with the style of graphics. As well as this, interaction with said characters has been improved through the introduction of a choice-based answer system for us the player, allowing for different character responses and a greater sense of inclusion than has previously been seen with the player mashing A to read through the text wall thanks to our voiceless hero.
To explore said world and interactions, we have a control scheme based heavily upon the use of the MotionPlus feature which, despite being a great addition for the Wii, has been little used or to any great effect previously. Yet Skyward Sword takes motion controls by the horns, providing a highly enjoyable experience of direct player interaction. If you move your hand to the right while holding your sword, then so will Link. In fact, the use of MotionPlus has seen a step away from the A button mash toward realistic 1:1 sword fighting, allowing for strokes from several angles and truly seating the player into the shell that is Link. It’s incredible how well the game works with motion controls and to such an extent and one can only truly appreciate such fine work by playing the game for themselves. As well as all the motion controls they introduced a stamina bar, allowing Link to sprint through the simple pressing of A. It's a small thing but upon reflection much needed, and you'll never want to go back to rolling everywhere (of which you'll find yourself hardly doing at all)! The only aspect one could point out to criticise is that camera control is still rather rigid in the restriction to re-centring it by pressing Z, but then Zelda fans should be used to this and it’s hardly a game-breaking concern. In fact, Skyward Sword uses the same view method as Ocarina of Time 3D, allowing players to scan the world around them with a simple movement of the remote, so in that sense you can still get a good grip of the world even if you can’t swing the camera around at your leisure.
And from said tight controls comes a fantastic combat system. Remember those Lizalfos you just hacked to death with the almighty A button? Well now they can block and counter if you attack from the wrong direction, as well as breathe fire and swipe with their tails! Yes, countering has become a huge focus within the combat of Skyward Sword, lending itself to a more realistic experience as you not only flip around like a circus act, but also find yourself using your shield to deflect enemy attacks for the opening to initiate one of your own with a simple flick of the nunchuck. It borrows a few ideas from Twilight Princess, but the core focus of what makes the combat so fantastic is that it really feels like you’re holding the sword and shield and engaging with the fights. I enjoyed such inclusion in Red Steel 2, but that pales in comparison to its effective use in Skyward Sword. And, of course, use of items in combat remains an important tactic allowing the player to exploit weaknesses and gain the upper hand; this includes the use of items in real time, meaning that rather than a pause and short animation, you'll take a potion while moving about for example.
To go with the combat system is a smattering of great enemies, including a healthy recycling of said enemies through different, stronger variations. It keeps things from getting stale by just throwing the same few enemies across several locations, and also makes backtracking a much more pleasant experience. The AI comes across as decent, making use of their various capabilities and more often than not actually providing a sense of challenge, which is something that has lacked previously and sees a requirement to utilise the various methods of healing available. In fact, on the whole Skyward Sword presents a much better sense of difficulty, rather than it being confined to just some trickier puzzles. This includes the bosses, which make use of the usual scenario of stages and being vulnerable to the latest item you’ve just acquired – hey, it’s a reused formula, but it works well. In fact the bosses are very well designed and are where the real meat of the combat system is to be found – just the first boss will give you a real challenge, and it’s a pleasure to see this happen. It’s not dominatingly hard, but the game isn’t going to hold your hand either, and this balance really shines throughout.
That’s not to say the puzzles aren’t worth your time though; quite the contrary, they’re brilliant. With the much needed shift away from large open spaces (let’s face it, we got over those a few years after 3D games were introduced seeing the “wow” factor having dissipated) to a dungeon-to-dungeon concept, with all progression within the game being marked by an overall sense of achievement through overcoming the various puzzles you’ll encounter throughout. Although there’s still some “push this here” stuff going on (though mostly just for backtracking reasons to previous parts, which is actually very useful and well designed), the majority of puzzles require a nice amount of thinking, with some of them really encouraging you to rack your brain and remember previous experiences in the game. It’s just another way in which your experiences throughout the game all become tied in with each other, and from backtracking to find an item to exploring the Silent Realms (like in Twilight Princess only much better) the puzzles seep into all areas of the game and again reinforce that sense of achievement and difficulty that runs through the title.
So is there anything we can do to overcome this new adversity of difficulty? Yes; you can upgrade, and then some! From your core items to potions, upgrading is an important aspect of Skyward Sword you want to engage with in order to not only better protect Link, but learn some nifty new tricks too. To do so will see you collecting a lot of resources, which appeals perfectly to any OCD players out there. Want a Slingshot which can shoot like a shotgun? A bigger net to catch bugs and birds easier? Well, now you can! Items of for upgrading can be found through exploration and collection, and is again another example of fleshing out the game without seeming like pointless padding. Even your shield can not only be upgraded, but also repaired if need be through the use of a hit points system for it which can see your shield break if not careful. Again, the small touches like this contribute nicely to a greater sense of realism, as well as adding depth to the core of previous Zelda games by bringing in fun, fresh ideas. It also gives a reason for having a lot of Rupees, which certainly can’t hurt!
So the graphics... well, I’ll say it here and now, they’re not realistic and if you’re a Wii owner then you shouldn’t be asking about that anyway (I felt this should be said following news concerning the Wii U); you know the score. Despite graphical weakness in comparison to other current generation consoles, the Wii has produced some truly beautiful games through a clever use of artistic style exemplified in titles like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Okami. And Skyward Sword follows in such footsteps, with an absolutely beautiful world to explore with a defining sense of character about it. The different locations are nothing short of stunning, and makes backtracking an absolute pleasure in this game, which is only aided by the way these locations are subject to change throughout the game to again keep things from going stale. Even better are the cut scenes, which are nothing short of sheer pleasure to watch, and are both tastefully placed and executed. Apart from outlines sometimes being a bit too jagged to stomach, the style of graphics in Skyward Sword say a lot for the feel of the game, producing a beautiful and engrossing world for us to explore. Character animations are of particular note, often saying far more than voice acting ever could.
And if it’s that not enough already, even the sound of the game is simply stunning. The soundtrack is completely orchestrated and stuffed with delights to the ear. The compositions are amazing, and the music is consistently used in harmony with the plot and graphics to create that strong, engrossing atmosphere that sucks you right in. Not only that, but the tunes pertaining to characters seem to... well, fit their character. The brilliance of this is best perceived by visiting the Bazaar, where the music will subtly change each time you walk up to a different shop. As for voice acting there’s not really anything to be said; there’s nothing to be heard apart from expressions consisting mostly of grunts and sighs, but they work well with the dialogue and character expressions so you don’t feel like the game is lacking because of it, and certainly not like we’re missing some major Zelda element (unless you enjoy remembering the CDi games...). Oh, and it should be said that there’s something awfully satisfying about hearing the sounds of items and weapons coming loudly out of your remote while performing actions like a sword swing or shooting the Clawshots.
So there you have it; Skyward Sword is one highly enjoyable, stuffed-to-the-brim package of great game design and fun to be had. It weighs in around a hefty fifty hours if playing at a reasonable pace, with an even longer game length if you truly take the time to appreciate it. Being in development for the entire life of the Wii has no doubt been beneficial to it, with only the very slightest of niggles to mention – although, I will note they did let one bug slip through which can literally render your game file useless (so make sure to read up on it before playing). Apart from that, however, Skyward Sword gives us a beautiful world with which to interact with in a strongly engaging Zelda title, where even the smallest details can make a great difference in the overall product. The plot is engrossing; the gameplay immersive; and the overall experience simply amazing. If the Wii is to go out with a bang, then Skyward Sword is that bang. It carries a good replay value, including a Hero Mode in a similar vein to Master Quest and Boss Rush Mode from Ocarina of Time as a boost, and is a title I recommend to all Zelda fans or someone who wants to see the opportunities offered by the Wii used to great effect in producing a top notch Nintendo title. It’s safe to say that all the pre-release hype was deserved, as well as all the following praise. Raising your remote like a sword to the heavens has never felt so cool.
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