The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword review
- The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Made2Game The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword review score: 10/10
Format: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Nintendo EAD
I've never penned The Legend of Zelda as an RPG series. To me it's always been an action adventure game with some light RPG colouring. So colour me surprised that Nintendo, in creating The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword, have effectively injected new life into the Legend of Zelda series and made arguably the finest linear role playing game to date.
I realised this fact around 25 hours in when having a rematch with a harder incarnation of one of the game's earlier bosses. When I first fought this foe I floundered to return any of his projectile attacks, he played with my sword as I flailed in close quarters combat, and my attempts to parry saw my shield splintered and spread across the floor, much to my slack-jawed chagrin.
Fast forward to hour 25 and I'm facing this enemy again. He launches a horizontal line of pins, I return them with a perfectly timed rightward slice. His second volley is vertical. No sweat, all of them are returned to sender with expert timing. Agitated, my foe charges at me, but such hasty actions are foolhardy and predictable, I stun his assault with a well timed thrust of my shield and launch into a flurry of blows that would make Zorro jealous.
There are no experience points in Skyward Sword, no skill trees or specialisations, but the connection you foster with Link through the game's unique motion controls creates a bond much deeper than any arbitrary number can hope to simulate. You don't simply steer Link through his quest, you become him, and the screen melts away. We all thought the Wii could do this and finally, in its dying days, it has done. And it has done so beautifully.
In the beginning...
The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword tells a rather different tale to the Zelda norm. It's been hundreds of years since Hyrule was whole. A great evil saw the goddess eject what was left of human life into the sky, far away from the war-torn 'surface', and here they have lived, forming lifelong partnerships with the huge Loftwings and forgetting much of their history and life as it was below the now impenetrable cloud barrier.
We take control of Link, a denizen of this airborne colony, which goes by the name of 'Skyloft', in a very Disney-esque opening full of beautifully delicate animation and a fun array of characters. Link must earn his right to become a knight of Skyloft by beating the other, rather brutish candidates in an aerial challenge. This intro displays a clearly lovestruck duo of Link and Zelda and a narrative tact often considered lacking from Nintendo's work.
It's not long after winning the ceremony that Zelda is struck from the sky and falls to the 'surface', at which point Link, now caught up in an ancient prophecy and wielding a talking sword, chases after her to the overgrown and forgotten surface that will one day become what we know as Hyrule.
In a brilliant touch, all bombs you use are the rudimentary plant variety - humans are yet to colonise Hyrule and invent actual bombs.
As much as it may seem similar, this is far from typical Zelda fare. The leading lady is a stunningly headstrong character who spends most of her time two steps ahead of Link. The 'villain' is a constant threat, a bizarre mix of Rocky Horror Tim Curry and Zorg from The Fifth Element. And the plot has some notably touching moments alongside some fan pleasing revelations – this is the 'first' Zelda title chronologically and has some rather important additions to Zelda lore.
While it's arguably not told with the same eye for game structure as, Ocarina of Time, say, this is a coming of age tale with an eye for character that could stand alongside Disney's best. Especially thanks to the absolutely delicious animation.
While we're on the topic of looks it's fairly safe to say that this game is eye-massaging design genius. The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword adopts a clever level of detail trick that sees objects in the distance blurred in a style reminiscient of impressionist art, akin to that of artists such as Paul Cézanne or Claude Monet.
Simply put, it's gorgeous. I want to print off and frame some of the vistas present in this world. I realise it's a necessary trick to make sure the game doesn't look like complete arse - as many Wii games can on a big fancy HD display - but it's a stunning effect regardless. Then there are the character models. which too look fantastic with their soft lighting and bold colour palettes. They're often delightfully oddball as well. The flair and creativity on display here is the greatest in any Zelda since The Wind Waker.
The Sky may not have as much in it as Wind Waker's ocean but be honest for a second, most of Wind Waker's ocean was rubbish.
Oh, and then there's the music. From the sombre tones of the flute, bassoon and strings love melody and the rousing, soaring orchestral score that follows your heroic dips and dives through the sky to the creepy dungeon melodies underpinned by driving beats and discordant chord strums, and a hauntingly intriguing pan-pipe solo, Nintendo's composers have an artist's eye for instrument selection and exquisite composition that truly embelishes the feeling of grand adventure.
Seriously, I could write entire dissertations about the sheer artistry present in the game but I'll hurry on to the really good stuff...
Gameplay. Every gamer worth their salt knows how a Zelda game pans out. Have task, go place, work out how to get into dungeon, enter dungeon, find item, win. That's how every Zelda works right?
Well it's kinda still like that, but not entirely.
For The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword, Link has clearly taken several pages out of Samus' book. Skyloft is the only real 'residence' in the world and the three areas below the cloud blanket - the giant mushroom filled woods, the volcanic north, and the timey-wimey desert – are like huge dungeons in themselves, full of traversal puzzles and nasty enemies, with exploration opening up shortcuts and revealing secrets.
There are friendly faces below the clouds, but this isn't the Hyrule you're used to. While one might complain that there are 'only' three areas and that you have to revisit them all three times during the main story, you're often visiting a new unexplored part of said area or there are more enemies milling about, or it's undergone such a change that the basic gameplay of the environment is completely different. It doesn't matter. If anything it strengthens your feeling of companionship with the characters and locales and gives the evil a genuine sense of presence in the world.
These mole people seem to be everywhere, accessing Dungeons ahead of Link simply by tunnelling in. Cheating buggers.
So yes, game progression still mostly involves heading to the location of your next dungeon, working your way to it, solving some extra aside to open it, then trekking inside and beating it. Not massively different then, but the dangerous overworld gives this Hyrule a sense of danger not felt in a Zelda since A Link to the Past. There are noteworthy changes in movement, combat and item application though, which serve to improve both game feel and flow tenfold.
Link to the future
Combat in past Zelda games was crap. Combat in The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword is brilliant. The game is played with 1:1 sword recognition through the Wii's MotionPlus add-on and combat takes advantage of this. Boiling it down, you can swing in nine directions - horizontally, vertically, diagonally and a stab – and enemies often react to this through blocking or dodging.
While lesser enemies can be dutifully dispatched through some swift waggle tactics – the satisfaction of swatting a Keese into a wall cannot be ignored - bigger enemies are puzzles in themselves and require far more thought to dispatch than any previous Zelda baddies.
Do you avoid their attacks and launch a counter assault? Do you try for a shield parry? Feign your sword one way and slash their exposed side? Fighting a foe in Skyward Sword rewards experimentation and investigation and never gets old. Beating a Beamos in a clean slice, slice, stab move is a satisfying feeling that no form of simple button controls can hope to emulate.
Actual puzzles are vastly improved as well, thanks to the focus on solid brain teasers over filler block and button affairs. The biggest change is Skyward Sword's erosion of established Zelda concepts. Eyes no longer need to be shot with arrows, they need to be dizzied by twirling your sword. The always disappointing compass is now paired with the map, which you genuinely have to read to identify weak walls. Zelda dungeons have never been constructed with such smarts, such purpose or with such deliberate avoidance of pre-school block and hole 'puzzles'.
Purple water? Either an evil lair or someone just really likes Ribena.
Paramount to this smarter approach is the new or improved arsenal at Link's disposal. The flying beetle is Link's own remote control baterang, allowing him to check around corners and nab objects, giving dungeons a whole new dimension. The whip is a physical joy, doubling up as a lasso for distanced switch pulling and for swinging over gaps Indiana Jones style. Elsewhere the traditional bomb can be thrown or rolled, with the second application leading to some great physics-based puzzles.
Oh and it's all much, much faster. Movement is the key point of discussion. Link can now dash, allowing him to scale low walls with the gusto of an energetic action hero, and scale vine walls with daring leaps, but the presence of a stamina meter adds a fragility and tension to such actions. Also worth noting is that item swapping and potion use are all performed in real time as well, while some item use is brilliantly context sensitive, meaning Skyward Sword moves at about double the pace of any previous Zelda game.
All this is ever more impressive when you consider the main quest alone lasts upwards of 30 hours...
It's a remarkable 30 hours really. While, yes, there are a lot of fetch quests that can occasionally begin to grate, the gameplay variety on show here is outstanding and really helps Skyward Sword feel like a huge, varied adventure.
Dungeons have a tendency to tinker with one shot ideas, such as balancing a huge orb through lava. Bosses aren't confined to dungeons, Skyward Sword sees them appear when and where the plot needs them. If the plot demands, I dunno, a minecart, then Skyward Sword will damn well add one. The gameplay is constantly finding new concepts to try out well into its 30 hour run, and its most impressive tricks are saved until the latter stages of the adventure.
It's a bravery and confidence of design breadth sorely lacking from other action adventure titles.
Then of course there's Skyloft and the Sky itself, which if you take the time to explore it, can add hours upon hours to your game. It's a genuine shame that Link's home can be almost entirely ignored throughout the course of the story, save for the odd potion top-up, item upgrade, and essential plot progression, as this is a town full of quaint stories and brilliantly entertaining asides that are second only to Majora's Mask as a series high-point for characterisation.
If the next home console Animal Crossing doesn't adopt Skyward's 1:1 bug net action then it will be an instant write off.
Oh yes, item upgrading. Skyward Sword's Hyrule is full of materials you see and, in a neat RPG-lite way, Link can collect these materials and upgrade his items for a nominal fee. A minor, unessential addition but a neat improvement that helps add depth to the world and a purpose for Link's kleptomaniac ways. Not that you can be such a hoarder, the addition of an 'item pouch' limits how much extra you can carry in the way of spare shields, bottles, extra quivers and stat-boosting medals.
These RPG-like mechanics add a lovely layer of additional consideration that, when combined with the more testing combat and unlockable 'Hero' mode, turns Skyward Sword into something resembling a technicolour Dark Souls.
There's something about Zelda
The thing about Zelda games is that they always seem to be working on another level to the rest of the industry and never compromise. Does Link resort to any sort of 'hero' vision to solve his puzzles? No. Are items pinpointed on your map to ensure you find them as quickly as possible? Never. Is the emotional sentiment of a mid story twist ruined by a tacky achievement ping? Absolutely not. Link may be faster and more agile but he's no less the scavenging, resourceful little scamp we started guiding around 25 years ago.
Yes, there are a few too many fetch quests but take the time to separate story chunks with some Skyloft exploration and these cease to be an annoyance. Likewise any motion control pointer issues are easily solved by a quick tap of the D-Pad, or by ensuring you're playing in a straight line with your sensor bar. It's painless.
Some of the bosses are the best in the entire franchise, and a boss rush means you can test yourself against them as much as you like.
While isolated elements may not match up to previous iterations - Skyloft can't compare to Majoras Mask's living Clocktown while companion Fi is no match for Twilight Princess' Midna - Skyward Sword strikes that essential Ocarina of Time balance between its grand story, creative cast, unrestrained, intelligent design and a delightful world with no element feeling particularly weak or undercooked. This, alongside the snappier pace and brilliant controls, make Skyward Sword the new series benchmark.
Long story short, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is Zelda at its smartest, at its funniest, at its most energetic, at its most expansive, at its most reverent and at its most beautiful. Link is gaming's greatest tomb raider, its greatest explorer, its greatest sword fighter and, ultimately, its greatest hero. And when Zelda is at its best, gaming is at its best.
The motion controls are truly the star of the show, almost entirely redeeming the Wii in one glorious dive of your Loftwing, in one satisfyingly well-timed swipe of your sword and in one smile-encouraging flick of a pumpkin. This is a world with a story and characters to indulge in and, like the best Disney or Studio Ghibli movie, it's a world full of love, passion and surprise. So sit back and remember what it's like to be 13 years old again. Except this time you don't just get to join Link on his adventure, this time you get to become him.
Words by James Bowden (Twitter: Dalagonash)
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