Review by Blue Blob

Reviewed: 01/25/12

It gets so many things right, but so many things wrong as well.

In late 2006, Nintendo released the most overhyped Zelda title ever: Twilight Princess. Whilst it seemed to tick all the 'Zelda' boxes, it offered nothing new and was almost laughably easy (in heavy contrast to its cliche 'dark' and 'mature' aesthetics). It was also blatant that the Wii controls were tacked on as an afterthought to make a Gamecube swansong into a launch title, rather than providing the immersion and innovation that early Wii trailers promised. Soon after the release on Twilight Princess, Nintendo's developers got to work on a fresh Zelda game that would fully implement the Wii's controls and provide us with a brand new experience, rather than an awkward hybrid stuck in hardware limbo.

To start the review on a positive note, Skyward Sword fixes most of the mistakes Twilight Princess made - for starters, the game is much more challenging, with puzzle segments appearing outside of dungeons on a heavy basis, and enemies that require timing and strategy unless you want to be beaten to a bloody pulp. The game also takes full advantage of the Wii's Motion Plus add-on, which is fantastic for enemy battles (you can't simply waggle the Wiimote like a baby to win fights) - this already provides a more satisfying 'motion control' experience than Twilight Princess.

Unfortunately, Nintendo did not know when to stop with the motion controls. Link's weapons are all a joy to use, especially the remote controlled Beetle and the Gust Bellows. If the motion controls were used just for combat/item purposes, then the game would be fine. Unfortunately, Nintendo has tacked motion gimmick idiocy to all sorts of unnecessary parts of the game. Swinging my hand back and forth to swing a vine? OK, that's fine. Twisting my wrist in near impossible directions in order to simply SWIM, however, just strikes me as a bad design decision. The number one point of motion controls is to further immerse the player in the game; for example, when swordfighting, I actually forget that the motion controls are there - it feels completely natural. However, when the game makes me tilt and twist the Wiimote in order to explore underwater, I am constantly reminded that I am flailing my wrist about like an idiot.

Gameplay
I'd love to say that the controls are just the tip of the iceberg, but unfortunately they've joined forces with some terrible gameplay decisions. To put it bluntly, Skyward Sword is the most linear and shallow Zelda I've ever played, and may be the start of the series heading in a direction I really don't like. Once a series built around exploration, experimentation and adventure, Zelda now seems to be a bunch of obstacle courses and scavenger hunts chained together with some cool boss fights and a half-assed plotline.

To those not familiar with Zelda, the formula is usually always the same: You're a blonde kid (or sometimes teenager) called Link, and you traverse the fantastical landscape seeking treasure, useful items and 'dungeons' (basically huge labyrinthine areas that act as the game's 'levels'). Skyward Sword is no different on the surface, until you realize that the exploration factor has completely gone. In this game, Link comes from an island in the sky, and must journey to the 'surface world' on his giant bird in order to do his adventuring and eventually rescue everyone's fave token kidnapped Princess, Zelda. Along the way he is constantly pestered by his 'assistant' Fii, a robotic female incarnation of Link's own sword.

The sky is essentially the 'Hyrule Field' or 'Hub World' of the game. Unlike the massive Great Sea from Wind Waker, the sky is pretty much a glorified 'level select', with 4-5 locations of actual consequence and interest, and a bunch of boring floating islands that house treasure chests. Even Link's hometown of Skyloft features more things to do than the sky itself - in fact, Skyloft is one of the very few areas you can traverse at night, seeing as you can't even fly at that time of day (thus, you never get to experience the surface world at night time either). The chances for exploration and atmosphere have already been obliterated, seeing as the most open area of the game has absolutely nothing to offer and the day/night system that reaches as far back as 1998's Ocarina of Time is now gone.

Surely things must be better once you reach the surface world? Unfortunately, it gets even worse. Basically, from the sky, Link can eventually descend into one of 3 stock videogame locations. You've got a green forest, a red volcano and a yellow desert. None of these areas connect up to each other like previous Zelda games, and they essentially play out like Super Mario 64 levels. Once initially traversing through Faron Woods to get to the Skyview Temple, for example, there is pretty much nothing else to do there. Due to the adventure factor being absent, Nintendo has added an extreme amount of padding to the game, mostly incarnated via 'dowsing' segments, where Link must search around with his sword for whatever pointless item he needs at the current time. These dowsing segments would actually be pretty neat if they were optional or used scarcely, but unfortunately they plague the majority of the game.

So whilst Skyward Sword is initially disappointing, it's not all doom and gloom. The combat is fantastic, especially with the new range of sword techniques and the requirement of shrewd tactics to beat some enemies. Link also has a new stamina meter, and is more agile than ever before, being able to sprint and run up walls. Sometimes you must use strategy with your stamina meter - for example, running across quicksand drains it, so you must figure out if you can run somewhere stable before you progress.

The dungeons/temples are also as expertly designed as any other Zelda game and house some very entertaining boss fights, especially the 6-armed Buddha-esque mechanical monstrosity in the Ancient Cistern segment. Unfortunately, the dungeons' significance seems somewhat downplayed because the 3 overworlds are basically dungeons in their own right. Another thing that brings the game's overall vibe down is the fact that the enemies are very limited in range, and not many dungeons have enemies that seem like they could have made their home there, unlike many other Zelda titles (especially Wind Waker and Twilight Princess).

The game has its own attempts to break up the formula somewhat, and offers a couple of boss fights outside of dungeons as well as a cool weapon upgrade system, where Link must scour the surface for different collectibles that he can then use to make his weapons more effective. A new gameplay idea known as the Silent Realm also comes into play midway through the game - before entering a dungeon, Link must first go through a Metal Gear Solid style section where his spirit (void of all weapons) must avoid these hideous guard enemies and collect 'Tears' - basically taking Twilight Princess' light restoration sections and actually making them enjoyable.

Skyward Sword is actually quite fun to play through once you get over the realization that this is the most simple, 'arcade'-style Zelda that has ever been made, when it could have been much more. Whilst the fights are tense and the puzzles are great to finally solve, the lack of a true overworld, tacked-on motion gimmick stupidity and an abundance of tedious backtracking stop it from being great. The side-quests are nothing to write home about either, with most of them just involving Link flying to some random location, grabbing something and taking it back to its owner or whatever.

Graphics
Skyward Sword's graphics have polarized many people, and quite frankly I think they work just fine (remember that the Wii's graphics are that of a Gamecube, a console released in 2001!). Places like Skyview, Skyloft and the Ancient Cistern look beautiful and the game is bursting with color, something that many modern games seem to neglect. The designs are also fantastic, especially main antagonist Ghirahim, Link's goofy rival Groose and Zelda's guardian Impa. There are 3 races down on the surface that all have quite fresh designs as well, especially the Mogmas, which seem to be moles crossed with New York gangsters. Some bosses, however, look a little out of place - The Imprisoned looks like something from Banjo-Kazooie, and the boss of the Sandship, Tentalus, resembles something from Monsters. Inc rather than a fantasy action title.

Sound
The soundtrack for SS is probably the most functional yet -whilst it does offer a few fully orchestrated pieces (like when Link is travelling through the sky on his bird), the rest is just the usual Zelda-style music. There aren't many notable themes this time around, aside from the menacing, organ-led piece that plays whenever Ghirahim shows up. The sound design, meanwhile, is great - taking a leaf from Super Mario Galaxy's sonic bible, Skyward Sword's music often shifts depending on what is happening. For example, drums start playing whenever you encounter an enemy whilst flying, and Skyview's background music grows more intense and orchestral as you progress through.

Story
Zelda games have never had particularly deep or engaging storylines, with a few exceptions (Majora's Mask is the most notable one). Skyward Sword sets itself up for a lot of potentially exciting and emotional plot, but ultimately falls flat on its face. There is a lot of involving drama at the start - Zelda is whisked to the mysterious surface world, a flamboyant demon lord makes a mockery of your sword skills and you find out there's a gigantic evil titan sleeping under the Earth. Unfortunately, what follows is essentially the longest 'prove your worth as a hero' segment ever, seeing as that is all the plot basically is (and no, it never really changes). Everything involving Link, Zelda, Ghirahim, the Imprisoned and Impa is all a gigantic tease, and nothing really happens until the end of the game.

Twilight Princess made a similar mistake, with a lot of setup in the first half, but then having Link search for 4 randomly placed macguffins in the second half with very little plot inbetween. Much like the latter half of TP, Skyward's plot is basically 'Go to forest, get thing, go to volcano, get thing, go to desert, get thing, OK, you got the things, get some more things please from those same locations'. It actually hurts to type that, because this game has some very well-written and interesting characters.

Skyward Sword's writers should have taken a hint from Wind Waker and Majora's Mask - both games that blended their dungeons and locations with their storylines to make actual scenarios (who can forget the Forsaken Fortress, or Ikana Canyon?). This made the games more involving as a whole, and gave me incentive to beat the dungeons and bosses. Skyward Sword, meanwhile, shoves Link, Zelda, and Ghirahim's development to the sidelines and makes the plot revolve around 'trials' and 'proving yourself'. It would be fine for the first third, but the entire game? It says something when the comic relief goofball that is Groose gets more development than the main characters!

Overall
+Great combat system
+Puts the Wii remote to good use...most of the time
+ Dungeons are as inventive and fun as ever
+Difficulty wise, a definite step up from Twilight Princess
+Great character designs/style
+Fantastic sound design

-Very linear
-The sky is convenient, but shallow
-Forced Wiimote controls for things that don't need them (swimming!)
-Endless amounts of filler and padding
-Lack of interesting side-quests
-Lacks the atmosphere of previous Zeldas

Skyward Sword isn't the mecca of gaming that Zelda fans have been pining for - in fact, after playing Twilight Princess again recently, it doesn't even top that title. If you can endure its flaws (and believe me, there are many), it's an entertaining and energetic Zelda game.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Product Release: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (US, 11/20/11)

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