Thursday, December 8, 2011

Zelda: Skyward Sword review

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

You’ve probably heard of The Legend of Zelda at some point in your life. A good majority of you probably think that Zelda is “that elf boy with the dorky green hat.” We already can’t be friends. Anyway, The Legend of Zelda is actually a long-running series in which each game is its own entity, similar to Final Fantasy; in other words, you don’t have to play any of the other Zelda games to understand this one. Almost every entry stars a young boy named Link who ends up having to save the Princess Zelda from some great evil, usually a man named Ganon or Ganondorf. That’s right, the series is named after the useless princess who always gets kidnapped (even though she clearly has strong magical powers) instead of the brave hero, Link, who goes through intense trials and fights powerful monsters to save her. Excuuuse me, Princess!

Skyward Sword is about a boy named…can you guess? Again, if you said “Zelda,” get out of my face. Link and Zelda grew up together in a beautiful island town called Skyloft. Oh, and instead of the island being in the ocean it’s actually a floating mass hovering high above the clouds. Small detail.You find yourself at the start of the Wing Ceremony where Link is competing with his peers to gain the official title of “Knight,” which just basically means he can ride his goofy looking duck thing—called a Loftwing—freely around the skies. Eventually Zelda ends up falling through the clouds to the mysterious surface world which, for some reason, no one really seems to know anything about.

There is some great plot and character development leading up to the real start of the game, and I particularly enjoyed seeing Link and Zelda’s close friendship since in most games in the series Link doesn’t even really know who Zelda is. This whole opening section of the game can drag on a little, and it might turn off some players who, like me, really just wanted to get their sword and start killing stuff; but it was very nice to see a solid and cinematic story in a Zelda game. All this is expressed with beautiful character animation and a breathtaking orchestral score. I only wish they would have done full voice acting instead of the usual grunts and noises we are familiar with from the series. Even though the dialogue is very well-written, it would be nice to hear it spoken so they wouldn’t just be awkwardly moving their mouths like something you’d see on Sesame Street.

Let’s talk about the visuals for a little bit. I’m not a stickler for HD graphics, and I never have been. I firmly believe that animation, stylism, imagination, and presentation are all vastly more important than just making something look shiny and realistic; I can look out my window to see something realistic. I love the idea of the visual style in Skyward Sword, I really do—the impressionistic style of things in the distance, the way all characters, monsters, and even plants all seem to actually live and breathe, and the previously-mentioned fantastic character animation. However, I feel like the whole visual style is stuck in some odd place in between the absolutely gorgeous cell-shaded look of Wind Waker and the more realistic, dark style of Twilight Princess. I still consider Wind Waker to be one of the most beautiful games ever created, and I don’t just mean “good for its time,” I mean to this day, even on the Gamecube, it still actually looks good. Personally I think the reason Wind Waker still looks so great is because Nintendo chose to take a risk and commit to a visual style, taking it as far as they could. If you look at the artwork for Skyward Sword you will see an astonishing impressionistic art style; maybe if the game were on a more powerful system the rendered graphics could look as close as possible to that artwork, but Okami did something like that on the PS2 so it can’t be blamed on the hardware. Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying, the bottom line is that this game is absolutely gorgeous and easily one of the most colorful, best-looking games of the year even if it isn’t HD. And hey, as long as they don’t try to make the next game’s visual style match that of the Philips CD-i games then we’ll be fine.

I know that what everyone really wants to know about this game is how good the gameplay is with the Wiimote. Short answer: fantastic. Whether you like it or not, this console generation has unexpectedly become a motion control generation; Nintendo pioneered it and the others followed. So far even the best of the best in motion control gaming haven’t really been that great, or they could have easily done without the motion controls. Most of my favorite Wii games barely use motion controls, if they even use them at all. Finally, after five long, junk-filled years of motion control games I can officially say that there is now a definitive game that has actually made me think, “Wow, this is how games should be played.” I never want to go back to button-based gameplay with this type of game, at least not with a Zelda game.

You have to go into this game realizing a couple things about the controls though. One of them is that this is an adventure game, not a realistic swordfighting simulator. I’m not saying it’s not accurate, it really does feel like 1:1 movement—whatever you do with your Wiimote, Link does with his sword. You can move your sword around at will, but you are actually limited to nine types of attacks—eight directions of slashes (up, down, left, right, and the four diagonal directions) and a forward thrust; you also have a horizontal and vertical spin move. I say you are “limited,” but actually this just tightens up the gameplay and makes it feel very solid. I had some occasional control issues, but most of them were my own fault. I could have done without the motion controls for flying and especially swimming, but that’s a minor complaint. Also, keep in mind that this game does not use the sensor bar at all, so it has no idea where the TV is; when you need to use anything besides the sword, wherever the Wiimote is pointing becomes the TV’s center. If it feels off when going into first person mode to aim a slingshot, shoot a bow, or just look around all you have to do is press the down button on the d-pad and it will re-center. You will have to do this a lot, and it seems burdensome at first, but it becomes natural after a while and it makes sense why you have to do it once you understand the technology and how it is working.

Another thing to keep in mind is to swing your sword deliberately. Don’t panic and wildly swing your arm hoping to “button mash” your way through fights. While this can work occasionally, normally you’re going to end up losing over and over again with this ‘method,’ particularly to bosses. Each fight, even with normal enemies, is a strategic and engaging battle, and being smart about the way you fight is just as important as your reflexes. Enemies literally watch your sword’s position and they will block and attack accordingly. An example of this is the boss of the first dungeon in which you are basically having a one-on-one sword fight with someone and the only way to hit him for the first part of the battle is to distract him by holding your sword in one position, then quickly slashing from the other direction. Speaking of that boss, that was the first time I can remember in a very long time that I have actually been truly challenged by an enemy in a Zelda game; it took me several tries to defeat him. Once I finally defeated him I felt something that I don’t really remember ever feeling from a video game—I felt a sense of real, tangible accomplishment from using skill with more than just my thumbs to defeat an enemy. The game is challenging but never overly difficult; it never holds your hand and forces you to move on, but there is always very informative help available if you get lost or forget what you are supposed to be doing. Skyward Sword makes you feel good when you finish something not only because you are excited to see what’s next, but also because you feel proud of what you just did.

Usually a Zelda game works like this: there are maybe seven to ten dungeons which make up the core of the game. In a dungeon you’ll get keys to open doors, a map, a compass to show where chests are; then you will generally fight a miniboss which gets you a new tool you will use to make your way further into the dungeon until eventually you get to the end and fight the big boss. Once you finish, you will have to do some sort of quest or use your newfound item to make your way to the next dungeon. Repeat until you beat the game. Skyward Sword basically follows the same pattern, except somehow you don’t even notice it and they made it feel much more natural and less like you are being rushed or forced down a straight path. While it is far from a sandbox game like Skyrim, there is a lot more freedom and depth than we normally see in the series.

Dungeons feel very natural and fit in perfectly like they actually belong as part of the world, and the field sections in between, while much more open, require as much problem-solving and skill as the dungeons do. The dungeons show off some of the best level design I’ve ever seen in any game, and they are truly astonishing at times. I noticed that just looking at the map they look a lot smaller than in past Zelda games. This scared me at first and I thought they were going to be quick and boring. I was wrong. Each dungeon is intricately designed, and each has an entirely unique individuality that sets them apart from any of the other dungeons in the entire series. It’s hard to explain, but the dungeons have been simplified yet the complexity is higher than anything else I’ve seen from the series.

The pacing of the game is generally great; even though there are occasionally times I just wanted to finish what I was doing to get to the next part, but these moments were rare and short. Looking back on the entire experience I can really see character and world progression that is hard to find now days in the gaming industry. Link never even talks throughout the game, but I see the boy I started with and the boy from the end of the game as completely different people. That is impressive. I feel like I was there with Link on his jourey, learning and growing along with him.

As for world progression, even though there are only three main areas in the game—Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert—each has so much variety and depth to it that I never dreaded going back to any of them because I knew I would either be going to a new part of that area, or if I was returning to a previously visited section I would be doing something completely new. That is how the whole game is, you are always experiencing something different and fresh.

The only thing that got old for me was traveling on your bird. Personally, I think the whole travel method was either an afterthought or an incomplete gameplay element they decided to put in anyway. It was incredible at first—jumping off a sky island and calling your bird to catch you, diving off your bird high above a piece of land and positioning yourself for a good landing Pilotwings style, and simply exploring the open sky. Maybe I’m the only one, but I thought the section you could explore was, just like with Wind Waker, one portion of an entire world map and you would be able to open up new areas over the course of the game. I was wrong. Aside from a small exception, that small airspace you can explore is all you get for the rest of the game. It doesn’t help that there are really only four or five notable pieces of land that have anything on them besides chests. I think a quick travel method would have helped, at least that way I wouldn’t have to keep doing something that reminds me of a tragically missed opportunity for something great.

I’ll try not to spoil anything, but at one point in the game I was also teased with time travel. I was unbelievably excited thinking I was going to be able to explore an alternate version of the world I had come to love, similar to the Dark World in Link to The Past. I was wrong again. I don’t want to say any more out of fear of spoiling the game for you, but I’ll warn you right now to not get your hopes up the same way I did.

Skyward Sword takes many conventions from the series, and video games in general, and either perfects them or completely twists them into something wonderful and fresh. An example of this is the time-shifting stones which when hit transform everything within a certain radius into the way it was hundreds of years in the past; that was enough innovation to give me an excitement I haven’t had in a long time, but then later on in the game they took that idea and progressed it and evolved it even further into something unbelievably interesting (but I won’t spoil how they do that). There is nothing in the game that doesn’t have some sort of innovative twist to it.

Not only have the items themselves been changed up, but they can all be upgraded using parts gathered from monsters. For example, the Slingshot can be upgraded to the Scattershot which, when charged up, shoots a wide spray of ammo. The items also have expanded past the usual one-purpose simplicity and can generally all be used in more than just one situation. One of the new items, the Hook Beetle, can be used as a scouting device, pick up items for you, or even pick up bombs and drop them onto enemies or objects Link wouldn’t normally be able to reach. All the returning items also have twists to them. Sure you have bombs just like in every Zelda game, but have you ever been able to roll them along the ground like a bowling ball, and even twist your wrist to give it spin? Maybe in real life, but not in a Zelda game.


In a time where people gladly pay $60 for a game that lasts ten hours, it’s refreshing to see a $50 game that has thirty to forty hours of fun, innovative content without pointless filler. I have some issues with Skyward Sword; the game is never actually bad, I just felt like there were so many missed opportunities to make an astonishingly wonderful game even greater. Fortunately nothing ever really takes away from the fantastic experience. The entire game, from start to finish, just flows seamlessly, and you never feel like you are simply moving on to a new level.

Absolutely gorgeous visuals, a beautiful orchestrated soundtrack, and innovative gameplay all supplement an epic adventure filled with great story-telling, interesting and lifelike characters, level design that is unmatched, and an exciting world that is constantly evolving. There is never a dull moment, and everything comes together in a near-perfect way. Nintendo has proved that they can still make games for the hardcore gamer, yet still make them accessible to the more casual audience. They have also proved that motion controls can be used for more than just party games, and not just as a good supplement or replacement for button controls, but as a completely new and possibly better way to play to play video games.

There isn’t really a way to express in words how it feels to play this game. It is not just a game, it is in an experience, a story, an adventure, and (I can’t resist) a legend. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is the best game ever, or even the best Zelda game, but it comes pretty darn close.

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