Zelda is something that I’ve always loved but also something that I’ve never actively looked forward to. I did get quite a bit excited for Skyward Sword earlier this month, mainly because of how much I didn’t know about the game and then how close it was—essentially how far I had gotten without being exposed to spoilers. Now, many weeks later, I finally have the finished product in my hand, and thankfully it’s surpassed the little expectations that I had in almost every way possible. The biggest thing I hate about Skyward Sword is the fact that it’s taken this long to produce a genuinely “hardcore” game that utilises the Wii’s functionality oh-so-well.
For the sake of word count, I will try not to talk about the story too much as it’s something that all players should experience for themselves (and I hate spoilers in reviews). The story starts off pretty much as in any other Zelda—a seemingly normal Link is going through his day-to-day life until suddenly his long-running childhood friend, Zelda, is whisked away by a tornado. Dedicated to save his friend and prove himself to the others on Skyloft, his floating homeland above the clouds, Link travels to the much-talked-about “surface” to find Zelda. Little does he know of what his quest will become.
I’ve purposely kept the story vague because I honestly think it’s pretty brilliant. The game is, as many may know, a prequel to the series and essentially “sets up” what happens in future games, and it does a great job. Thankfully, the game doesn’t completely dismiss what’s going on in the present day either, and provides a story that’s not an edge-of-your-seat drama, but instead a “slow drip” of interesting twists and turns. The final revelations regarding the game’s main villain, in particular, were something I really enjoyed although not a lot of lead-up nor time was dedicated to this particular plot point. Thankfully, Skyward Sword keeps the fan service to an acceptable level, making its story easy to follow for newcomers and the absolute diehard fan alike.
The weirdest aspect of Skyward Sword, for me at least, was the game’s graphical direction. Skyward Sword adopts the semi-realistic look of Twilight Princess, but melds it with a very, very subtle cel-shading effect to create a very cartoonish-looking visual. The characters themselves are not as poorly designed as in Twilight Princess, with many of them being designed and/or animated well to give them personality despite having no proper voiced dialogue. Every character you encounter in Skyward Sword is unique and Nintendo has done a fine job in crafting a believable (well, within reason) world to explore. The textures themselves, however, are a bit confusing. While the game does look vibrant and colourful, the textures in some of the environments have this weird pastel-like look to them that I assume is meant to make the game look like a painting, but instead it just looks a bit weird to me. Generally speaking though, the game looks great and each of the game’s locales look stunning and ooze atmosphere.
Skyward Sword has been long awaited by Wii and Zelda fans alike because of its control scheme, apparently boasting a true 1:1 sword combat component facilitated by the compulsory Wii MotionPlus. Thankfully, for the most part, the game really does deliver. Every single motion that you carry out with your Wii Remote will be translated faithfully to Link and his sword. It’s a great thing to see finally being implemented properly but one has to wonder why it’s taken this long to be properly done. Every single item is controlled with motion controls now, rather than the IR pointer, and this works great too. Rolling bombs is something that you will wonder why it was never included in any previous Zelda game, and it’s incredibly intuitive too; any issues can be resolved by re-centreing the cursor (with a press of the + Control Pad) and you’re ready to go again. The control scheme is largely what makes Skyward Sword so special, and in almost (yes, almost) every instance it delivers.
And it’s that “almost” that really got to me when I was playing Skyward Sword because those unfavourable moments unfortunately stood out to me more than the times when it just worked. There were two main components of the game that really stood out as being “poor”, and one specific scenario where the controls simply didn’t stack up. The first, swimming, was not much of an issue for me until I got up to one particular part of the game, where it became simply excruciating. During more “calm” moments, swimming does not pose much of a problem, but when trying to execute movements with finesse and accuracy, sometimes the controls were just too awkward.
The second, and more annoying, was the harp. This is, without a doubt, the absolute worst instrument to ever be featured in a Zelda video game and the most pointless one too. Yeah, you learn different songs, but every single one is played the exact same way with no variation. Playing the harp is also extremely frustrating; you have to “wave” your Remote in time to a pulsating circle. While it’s easy to begin with, almost every single song would eventually just stop working and I would literally have to wrestle with the controls to the point where I would have to physically put my controller down and try again later. If there was something to it, like inputting notes or directions or something, it would be great, but in its actual state the harp is nothing more than a glorified key and an incredibly huge letdown in Skyward Sword.
Without a doubt one of the things that really popped up on my radar with Skyward Sword was the way the game was intending to change the way things were structured, that is, removing the now-archetypal manner of going into dungeons, collecting an item, using said item to defeat boss, and then repeating the process over and over. Thankfully, Skyward Sword does a great job at mixing things up but some may find fault in the way it’s actually carried out. The game basically has four areas and one huge overworld. The areas fit particular design themes and contain several dungeons, but while you will be spending a lot of time in dungeons, there is a lot of time spent getting to the dungeons too. It’s great that the game doesn’t have such a linear path and it mixes things up quite a bit.
The other great thing about Skyward Sword is the way the whole game is essentially designed around the MotionPlus accessory. Enemies have clear weak spots only exploitable by very specific sword slashes or items; puzzles and switches are designed to respond not only to whether they are hit or not but in the direction in which they are hit. Similarly, the game’s bosses also require very specific motions as well as specific items. The fact that almost every facet of this game has been designed with the MotionPlus in mind really makes it such a strong offering to any Wii player and also a true realisation of what makes the Wii so good. This is motion controls done right. Another encouraging aspect of Skyward Sword is items themselves. They are used throughout the quest at different times, without fail, rather than only in the dungeon they were found in.
Of course, while Skyward Sword does many things better than previous Zelda games, it also takes a lot of absolutely perplexing steps backwards. The first is without a doubt Fi, the “assistant” to Link who provides information on enemies and objectives. The biggest offence with Fi is simply how much she holds your hand, how often she pops out, and most importantly, how devoid of personality she is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character in a video game who is any less endearing than Fi. She will pop out to inform you where to go, then to inform you that she’s marked the area on the map, and finally to inform you that you’ve arrived at the area on your map. She’s just that tedious and she really interrupts the pace of the game. Unlike previous assistants like Tatl, Navi and even Midna, there’s really nothing appealing about Fi at all. Sure, she offers a lot of (pointless) statistics and probabilities, but besides that, really, what’s the point? Asking for help never gives the player the help they need, but rather vague generalisations about the area you’re in. It’s very un-Nintendo-like to include such a useless companion.
There’s one other thing that really stood out from Skyward Sword as being rather lacklustre, and that’s the overworld. Most of the game sees Link riding through the actual “surface” lands and through the sky itself, but the overworld (the land in the sky) feels incredibly barren and dead. It has little to no charm, not anywhere near as much of the fields or oceans that we’ve been able to travel through in previous games. And rather than the game feeling like a large, interconnected world, we’re instead made to feel like there are three distinct areas along with a world connecting them. There’s just too much space and too little going on to make it endearing to explore, though when you do you’ll find some small extras but not a whole lot. On that note, the revisiting of each area multiple times does change up the game’s structure from traditional Zelda games. However some may see this as a lazy way to cut back on asset building, though my opinion is that it works sufficiently.
With Skyward Sword, I didn’t really know what I was expecting. Either the fact that many games of this generation are exceptionally short, or that I just haven’t played a Zelda game since Twilight Princess may have affected my expectations of Skyward Sword. But, you’re all probably wondeirng what I’m getting at. Well, Skyward Sword is an incredibly long game. Just “whizzing” through it without concerning yourself with side quests will easily take you over 30 hours, which is quite long for this kind of game. My final play-through with a few quests done on the side clocked in at around 36 hours, and this can easily expand as you undertake more and more side quests.
The game packs a bit of a challenge too. Between some very cleverly designed puzzles and the lack of advice from the absolutely useless Fi, actually getting through and solving a puzzle feels incredibly satisfying. This was easily the first Zelda game I had the most trouble with in terms of progression. While it’s easy to dismiss the motion controls as pointless in the early stages of the game, enemies eventually develop tools that will actively punish those who slash randomly at them rather than actually thinking out their attacks, which is something I thought it be worth noting for sceptics of how well the control scheme is implemented. This is definitely one of the most difficult Zelda games made—your shields all disintegrate (except for one obtained late in the game), your item storage space for potions is limited, and every shred of grass won’t house hearts like other games. Link can also now sprint, but a Stamina Gauge has been implemented, meaning that Link cannot spam spin attacks, spend countless minutes climbing on walls or even swim without fear of death or damage.
Skyward Sword, in keeping with the theme of “new”, has a fully orchestrated soundtrack that sounds almost godly in its composition. With extremely vibrant and expressive musical tracks, Skyward Sword employs music that dynamically changes tone and tempo as you explore certain areas of the game’s world. Whether it be a slow and ambient piece or an upbeat and incredibly tense-feeling battle tune, Skyward Sword always has a great tune belting from your speakers no matter what the situation. The incredibly strong soundtrack, coupled with the rich and vibrant art style really gives the world an incredible amount of atmosphere. Each dungeon and field has a great score that perfectly encompasses the “mood” and “feel” of the area. All in all, it’s just great. The audio feedback that players will get from landing consecutive hits on their enemies is also incredible, taking cues from the criminally underrated Wind Waker.
All in all, Skyward Sword succeeds in many ways where previous Zelda games wouldn’t dare to even go. The best thing about Skyward Sword isn’t the fact that it’s a prequel nor that it’s a commemoration of what makes the series so great, but the fact that it’s a very huge step forward and it feels like a “new” game rather than being just another “cookie cutter” Zelda installment. Skyward Sword is great but I couldn’t ignore a few frustrating flaws, and these flaws were non-existent in previous Zelda games. You were almost there for me, Nintendo, almost. A nearly perfect Zelda experience.