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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I won’t try to hide the fact that I’m a fan of The Legend of Zelda. This is, of course, one of the most common claims out there in the video game universe, and is not one without good reason, but I feel that this disclaimer should bear some notice, as it may carry the incorrect assumption that as a fan, I may be more lenient in my review than critics of the series. I would of course argue that the reverse is true, and that the knowledge of where the series has come from and where it has succeeded or failed in the past is almost as important as the singular experience offered within the game itself, and in fact the memories of past successes only work to elevate fan expectations more with each new installment. Alternatively, I am also aware that said fan expectations often exhibit hyper-critical tendencies that have the potential to be blown out of proportion when referring to the overall experience, to which I will try to avoid as best as I can while still maintaining my opinions.

To cut to the chase, I think that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a fantastic addition to The Legend of Zelda series; not one without a few flaws and personal disagreements, but still easily one of the best, if not the very best Wii game in terms of developing towards the console’s strengths, and is a worthwhile experience to newcomers, veteran players, and really anyone who has picked up a controller ever since the series began 25 years ago.

With that said, here is what led me to my decision!

Controls and Equipment

Going into the game,  I will say that I was most worried about the ripple effects of building the game around the motion plus peripheral. While I appreciated the renewed focus on combat (something that I feel has been fairly lost to the series since the jump to 3D), I did not know how much variation would ultimately be had in fighting enemies, nor was I sure of what other elements dear to the series may be lessened in allocating development time and resources. Would sword slashes get repetitive and tiresome? Will the game become a straight-forward brawler with a sword? What can they do with motion plus that they couldn’t do with one accelerometer and IR?

To answer that last question first; a lot. Motion plus gets pulled into the equation in a number of unique ways, fully realizing what the peripheral had demonstrated in Wii Sports Resort within a unified story setting, able to switch mechanics on the fly. While the two games have the obvious correlations between sword fighting and archery, the game also benefits greatly from the controller’s second accelerometer in it’s skydiving and flying mechanics (both of the aerosport mechanics in WSR), as well as in its ability to tell precisely which direction the controller is facing (used for full spherical rotation of dungeon keys, identifying skyward strike poses, bomb throws/rolls (effectively doubling as a basketball and bowling ball, giving a new take on a standard item), and left-right motion and speed with the harp (Link’s instrument this time around).

Regarding the controls, I have to note that I experienced the occasional wonky moment where I’ve needed to recalibrate (most often it occurred with the item collected in the third dungeon), but doing so is usually a quick and easy fix by centering and pressing down on the d-pad. Similarly, I feel that the harp seemed somewhat of a misstep as I didn’t enjoy it as much as other musical items, and it would occasionally jump awkwardly when strumming. Neither of these were ever too frequent or too frustrating. All in all, mechanics were well implemented through the game’s items, and each exhibited a good level of variation in their use. Of particular note is the Beetle, a flying inventory item that not only is controlled with ease, but allows for puzzle design and room navigation that is in many ways without precedence in the Zelda series (the only thing that comes close is controlling a Seagull in Wind Waker, which could only be done in specific locations and wasn’t nearly as interesting).

The harp may be a bit stiff, but this minigame is just so charming

Now, to revisit the first two of my concerns around controls (monotonous combat, and linear gameplay), the answer may come down to personal experience, but my answers are fortunately “no,” and “no with an asterisk.” Personally I very much enjoy the game’s sword fights, and haven’t found them either repetitive or tiresome. It is nice to see common enemies exhibiting a natural level of defensive capabilities, be it blocking in cardinal directions (bokoblins, stalfos), diagonal directions (lizalfos), frontal shielding (moblins), and otherwise. I also find a tremendous amount of visceral satisfaction with cutting a beamos down to size and stabbing it in the eye to dismantle it. In general, you can still get on in the game relying on some good old fashioned controller waggle, but it isn’t nearly as fun as taking baddies on with your sword held high and shield at the ready (I should note that shield bashing returns from Twilight Princess and is better than ever). While I can say I’ve been electrocuted more times than necessary due to my own clumsiness, I have greatly enjoyed the level of combat added into the game. Plus, when taking that combat into consideration in how the overworld has been designed to guide you towards those combat experiences, I also feel the ultimate design is again quite positive, albeit slightly different than what the series is used to, one that does have bearing on our next area of discussion.

But before I move on, there’s one last area of control that needs to be called out; the stamina meter. It’s great! I’ve noticed a few complaints about Link tiring out when the meter is drained, but since his normal running speed is on par with what we’ve seen in the series, I don’t see the issue. The meter gives Link an extra acrobatic edge very reminiscent of the recent Prince of Persia games, and is well thought out to add tension to some otherwise trivial terrain navigation (treadmills, quicksand, climbing).

Exploration and Reward

Yes, the game overall is considerably linear as far as initial navigation, and by comparison to other Zelda games, there is very little in the way of terrain exploration (which I should say is actually one of my favorite aspects of the series). However, this is all done to fully choreograph the experience in front of Link, and is done in such an enjoyable manner that a great deal of interactivity with the overworld is gained where Link’s complete freedom is lost. Puzzles are everywhere now more than ever, and in most cases, the time spent getting to a dungeon is on par if not more expansive than the dungeon itself, making great use of Link’s available moveset in rapid-fire situations. A common criticism of the series is that there’s not enough uses for an item after that item’s respective dungeon, and that’s certainly not the case here. Challenges are well designed with Link’s full moveset in mind, and they get more varied as his abilities continue to grow and grow. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that the game also doesn’t end along with Link’s moveset, with some substantial challenges to be played through once Link’s inventory is full.

For those that do enjoy exploration and don’t wish to plow through the story as foretold, I should say that the game is still ultimately accommodating. First is the ability to return to the sky at warp points on land which are spaced out so you never have to go too far backwards or forwards if you wish to go off on tangents or side-quests, as well as the ability to create shortcuts through the wrapping landscapes for quicker access in future visits. Establishing these shortcuts are often puzzles in themselves, and really show how well the design team worked to construct initially-guided experiences within large hub areas that all become easier and more open to traversal later on.

Second are the two main side-quest types to be had in the game; those of goddess blocks and gratitude crystals. The first is primarily through exploration, where you locate and activate blocks found in the worlds below which activate treasure chests found in the sky. This functions similar to the treasure charts in Wind Waker, with the expection that claiming these treasure chests now involve more than just pulling them up with your grappling hook, and often come with additional navigation puzzles. Meanwhile, gratitude crystals involve aiding the world’s inhabitants (most being in Skyloft, the central hub area); somewhat of a cross between the the Bomber’s Notebook in Majora’s Mask and Poe’s souls in Twilight Princess, where in helping them out with their individual conversation trees and fetch quests, you earn crystals that all work towards a common goal of helping a cursed individual.

The final area that accommodates the player’s will to explore is in reaping the benefits of the game’s rewards, and the level of character customization that comes with them. This is primarily done in collecting treasures and insects throughout the world. While past collection items like Twilight Princess’s poe souls and golden bugs were primarily rooted in monetary rewards, Skyward Sword‘s collection items are put to physical use in upgrading your standard inventory and potions, allowing for your collecting to be tangibly rewarded with strategic advantages. Shields, quivers, bomb bags, your bow, and more can be upgraded at Skyloft’s blacksmith for increased power, durability, capacity, and speed. Insects can be mixed into potions (of which there are 5 base potions) to further increase their effects as well. A standard red potion can recover 8 hearts for example, while upgrading it once will recover all hearts, and upgrading it a second time will give two helpings!

Innovation further extends to the other occasional rewards Link receives throughout the game. By now, everyone is familiar with heart pieces which work to increase Link’s life meter, but now, Link’s statistical odds become open to exciting boosts as well utilizing magic medals (similar to Link’s magic rings in the Oracle games). Equipping these medals will net link a host of ancilary abilities, such as increasing the frequency of heart or rupee drops, and easily locating insects and treasure.

The adventure pouch… it’s kind of a big deal

And in case you may be concerned that all these rewards work to make Link ultimately becoming too powerful (as has happened in several installments), the game has a fix to that too with the adventure pouch. While Link will always have his standard equipment at the ready, he can only take what his pouch will fit for extra items, such as shields, bottles, bags and quivers, and medals (starting out with 4 slots, and able to upgrade to 8), while the rest of your belongings wait behind with the item check girl (who I’m not a fan of, but whatever). Altogether, the items, upgrades, heart pieces, medals, shields, and pouch slots make for the most customizable version of Link ever, where exploration and a little bit of planning go a long way in outfitting yourself for the trials ahead. Think you’ll be using the bow a lot? Take an extra quiver! Feel like looking for bugs? Swap out that extra bottle for the bug medal! It’s perhaps strange to think this considering the game’s advertized focus on motion controls, however it is this level of collection, customization, and resource management that I believe is this game’s greatest advancement and contribution to the series, and the one area above all that I hope to see continue in future series installments.

I say this with great excitement, however I should note that the collections also carry with them the game’s greatest annoyance, and that’s that the game reminds you what you’re picking up every time you power the game back on. Twilight Princess did this with rupee amounts, and that was infuriating, however the annoyance is doubled here, as you don’t just receive a “you found a _____” message, but the screen then takes you to the collection screen to see the item load in, joining it’s already existent brethren. I don’t need to be told I found an amber relic again when I already have 54 in the pouch.

Before I leave the topic of exploration, I should also note that player freedom has in fact taken a deeper hit than it should have, as for the third time in recent history (the first two being Twilight Princess, and Metroid: Other M) Nintendo has failed to plan appropriately for possible scenarios, and a truly heartbreaking glitch can be found late game that will murder your chances of completion. There comes a time when the player is supposed to tackle three challenges in any order, however one of these three has the potential to remove the triggers for the other two, halting all progress. Nintendo has since researched the cause for this glitch, and has determined it to have been the result of completing a regional challenge and talking to a Goron of all things before proceeding on.

To avoid the issue entirely, and apologies for this minor spoiler, I strongly suggest you save the desert challenge for last. This would, of course have been avoided if game progression was still entirely inventory-based, rather than objective-based (a recurring pet-peeve of mine for most 3D installments), but in any case, this is still inexcusable. Nintendo is better than this, and knowing these kind of  errors are out there is severely damaging to the player’s will to explore and follow their own plans.

Story and Presentation

While I can’t say that the game sets the bar for the series as far as an innovative story, or an emotional attachment to the world and it’s inhabitants (I believe these are held by Majora’s Mask), I will say that the story is ultimately enjoyable, touching upon many pre-existing story beats (some as far back as Zelda II!), as well as filling them with new conceptions and revelations… of which we won’t be getting into here for spoiler reasons. The game does take us back to a time when Hyrule as we know it had not yet come to existence, to which we receive a fascinating tale of adventure, fantasy, a surprising amount of primitive technology, and emotion, but beginning as nothing more than a common school-yard drama. Link is a young student at the Knight Academy. He’s friends with the headmaster’s daughter, and is bullied by a pompous oaf across the dormitory hall named Groose (who is also quickly becoming one of my favorite characters). The game’s simplistic start was a nice way to diverge from the normal origin stories of the character, and as an added benefit, the opening does a great job of really making you care about this game’s Zelda within a fairly short time. She is, in my opinion, the best rendition of Zelda to date, giving off tremendous amounts of personality and cheery emotion where many other versions fall flat, and her characterization only grows deeper as the story progresses. I’ve saved Zelda from danger countless times at this point, however this is the first time that I’ve actually felt compelled to do so on a level other than seeing the game through to the end. That’s worth something.

Groosin’ for a bruisin’

Outside of the immediate story and its characters, I also want to add that I greatly appreciated the level of influence held in the design of the game’s locations, pulling from series symbolism and non-canonical cultural sources.  The symbols of the three goddesses (first appearing in Oracle of Ages) make their return, along with the province names from Twilight Princess, and the Ocarina of Time sage medallions can be seen at the Goddess statue, for example. In many ways, the game is a fantastic retrospective on where the Zelda series has gone in the past 25 years as much as it is it’s own unique installment. Other locations also exhibit many ties to eastern mythologies and architectural design, and an entire dungeon has been identified as containing several distinct correlations to “The Spider’s Thread,” a 1918 Buddhist short story. Really, it’s some fascinating stuff.

To speak briefly about graphics (since I don’t get too concerned with them mostly), I’ve honestly found them to be hit or miss. I don’t wish to dwell on the Wii’s graphical capabilities for the zillionth time on the internet, however overall the light cell shading and impressionist tone are more than serviceable for the current generation. The field blur demonstrated when objects are far away hit their mark for the most part; and considering the size of some of the areas, they prove quite effective. There are other instances, however, where blur gets a bit trickier, and unfortunately, even things up close can get to be a little grainy. This mostly comes to mind for me in the desert, where I thought something in the distance was on fire, only to find out it was just a rock that was having trouble generating. Regardless, there are definitely moments when color combinations are just right, and the game really hits you with its intended style to really see where the game is graphically superior to the previous cell shading in Wind Waker.

As a final thought on graphics, I would say that whoever took charge of the animations and color shadings for Link’s hat deserves a promotion.

Music, I’m sad to say, is similarly afflicted. Being the first Zelda game with an orchestrated score, it was somewhat surprising to me that there wasn’t much new music that really stood out as memorable. Groose has a fun and recurring theme, and I greatly enjoy the music that plays at the world’s ranch locale, however I mostly enjoyed hearing updates of past themes when they are inserted. That said, the music, and all sound effects, for that matter, sound great, if not the memorable experiences I was hoping for, and the sound team was still not without a few brilliant tricks up their sleeves. Just as Saria’s Song was reversed to give birth to the Song of Healing, another popular song can be found when playing the game’s main theme (The Ballad of the Goddess) backwards. If you haven’t heard this yet, be prepared to freak out!

Conclusion

If I had to identify the portion of the game that really fires on all cylinders, it would be from the events leading up to dungeon 3 to the completion of dungeon 5. Dungeons 4 and 5, for that matter should be considered among the finest dungeons conceived in any Zelda game. The low points for me were the experiences and dungeons to be found in the Eldin province, which in comparison to the other two areas felt less inspired. Overall, this was a good game. While the game hasn’t topped my own favorite installment in the Zelda series, I thought the game was some great fun from beginning to end, and for my money is the most practical and thought out implementation of motion controls to be found on the console outside of a mini-game experience. This was what the Wii should have been all about, and it’s a shame that it took almost the entirety of the console’s life-cycle to see the initial promises of the tech realized.

One Comment

  1. I was avoiding reading this for a while, since I hadn’t played it, but I’m glad I finally did. I’m definitely looking forward to playing this now, and it doesn’t seem as minigame laden as the rest of the series since Ocarina of Time (at least, that’s the impression I got here). I’m also quite glad you mentioned the game-breaking glitch and how to avoid it. I found the Other M one of my own volition, but I don’t recall the one from Twilight Princess; what was it, exactly?

    Anyway, great review for what seems like something I’m really going to enjoy. I’m totally stoked about looking like a total dork sword fighting in my living room and totally not caring. The combat seems most exciting to me, since I actually know how to use a real sword (and Twilight Princess was already quite thrilling in that regard). I don’t think it’ll top Wind Waker for me, but it at least has a good shot at #3.

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