Review by ABXInferno
Reviewed: 11/04/13 | Updated: 11/30/17
After twenty years of Zelda, Nintendo knows its formula needs a shake up.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a charming and powerful origin story that serves up some of the finest presentations of the series' history. But as well-executed as the game is graphically, more importantly, Skyward Sword is Nintendo's attempt to rewrite the rules of its beloved series, and change the 25-year old series for good. It makes hefty changes to the way its dungeons and plot progress are set-up, and some were desperately needed to keep the series feeling fresh.
Well, Skward Sword is fresh, for sure, but for every step forward, it takes a bigger step back. Skyward Sword is the tale of a beautifully-crafted origin story to be proud of, but inherent problems in its basic design and structure stemming from its shortened development keep it from reaching the same dizzyingly high bar that its predecessors have set, and fans have come to demand.
Jaw-dropping, even without HD
Even as the Wii ages, Skyward Sword manages to look and sound stunning in its presentation. It's beautiful, almost comic-like art style is the perfect blend of the cartoonish Wind Waker, and the more mature Twilight Princess design. The result is a Wii game that looks no worse off for being on a system whose basic technical foundations were first set with the Nintendo GameCube in 2001, and it even manages to delight, with a varied and attractive color palette, as well as some of the finest music to ever grace a Zelda game, no doubt thanks to the fact that most of the game's setpieces were performed by a live orchestra.
Beyond just looking the part, Skyward Sword uses its graphical and audio credentials to tell the series' origin story, with a basic but effective story that makes maximum use of the many delightful characters you meet along your journey. There's little doubt that this iteration of Zelda is the most likeable one yet, and the chemistry she shares with Link is undeniable. It's good to finally see the series' namesake being relatable and expressive in a way she never was, not even in Wind Waker. That's why it's a damn shame we don't see more of her, but the rest of the cast is equally memorable. From villain Ghirahim, to local jock Groose, to the Kikwis and Gorons that reside in the lands below, Skyward Sword is the first Zelda game since Majora's Mask to effectively make use of the supporting cast to strengthen, and not just serve as distractions to, its main storyline.
Fighting on all sides
Skyward Sword also makes a major step forward in the way you handle Link. You will need either a Wii MotionPlus accessory or a Wii Remote Plus to play this game. The game takes advantage of the extra motion sensing to let you control Link's sword almost one to one. The game doesn't just make you use these controls, it essentially forces you to do it. Deku Babas can only die if your sword swing aligns with the direction their mouth is open in and Moblins can only be defeated if they don't block your attacks. Every battle is more strategic now and button mashing is no longer the key to success here. The problem is that it's forced upon. Deku Babas and Moblins are far too populated - I don't want to be forced to analyze and wait for an opening every five minutes.
Another problem is that as powerful as Wii MotionPlus is, the technology isn't perfect: sometimes Link just doesn't do what I want, and it usually means I get counterattacked for attacking at the wrong time. It made some of the hearts I lost feel cheap. There's never really any danger of running out of hearts in normal mode, but I imagine you'd be worse off if you're playing the game's Hero Mode, which removes all stray hearts from Link's world, except under very certain conditions.
There's yet another change to the way that Link works in Skyward Sword: he has a stamina meter. His running speed has been increased, but it now depletes a green bar. I have mixed feelings about this: it makes Link seem more human, but it also bogs the game down somewhat, not least because Link is practically a lame duck when he runs out of stamina: walking slows down to a crawl, he instantly lets go of ledges, and you need to wait for the bar to refill completely to get your abilities restored. I imagine the system would feel less tedious if it just limited his running speed when he runs out of stamina.
At the very least, Skyward Sword has great dungeon design, one of the core aspects of the Zelda series. They're probably some of the best-designed dungeons the series has had to offer, with the notable exception of the game's last act, which is an ill-advised attempt that confuses and forces you to backtrack one too many times if you're not following the most optimal route, which only a guide will give you. The puzzles are otherwise incredibly varied, and the various themes that dungeons usually showcase are bright and visually engaging. One of the game's middle dungeons is probably one of my favorite in the entire series, one that offers a powerful contrast between the two themes on display.
The rest of the game's worlds however, take a strong backseat. There is only all of one town in the entire game, Skyloft, and while it's full of charming characters and things to do, one is just not enough, and the fact that the surface worlds have basically no civilization, despite having the population to support at the very least, small towns with little shops and sidequests, makes the rest of the game feel cold, distant and unrelatable. Same goes for the rest of the Sky, which is filled with an awkward mish-mash of minigames and one-trick ponies that have no particular reason for needing to be out in the Sky. They could have just as easily been in Skyloft and saved you the journey, but Nintendo needed a reason to make you want to explore the Sky, and the ending result feels rushed.
You'd think that five years is enough time to comfortably make a Zelda game, but it's interesting to note that there was a disagreement between the two main head honchos for the game. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the series, didn't fully believe in using motion controls for the game, much to the chagrin of producer Eiji Aonuma. So production of Skyward Sword in its final form, didn't begin in earnest until after the release of Wii Sports Resort in 2009, more than three years after Twilight Princess was released. Ever wonder why Wii Sports Resort comes with the curious additions of Zelda staples Swordplay and Archery, in addition to sports you would more traditionally find on an island resort? That's because those two games were ordered by Aonuma, in a concerted effort to convince Miyamoto of the promise held by making a Zelda game with Wii MotionPlus. Only after the release of that game, and the positive reception it received, did Miyamoto finally agree.
So the result is a game that really, only had two years worth of development time, which is about the same as Majora's Mask did... except that that game reused much of Ocarina of Time's engine, assets and control scheme. For Skyward Sword, a significant amount of work, from the visual style, to perfecting the controls had to be done, and the end result is frankly, commendable. At first glance, Skyward Sword appears well-polished, but dig a little deeper, and you start to see where the team had to cut corners.
Instead of the traditional three hearts, Skyward Sword starts you off with six heart containers, likely an effort to reduce the number of heart containers and pieces they needed to carefully scatter and pepper around the world. The game also only has four major areas: the Sky, Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano and Lanayru Desert, with the latter three being completely disconnected from one another. To move from one region to another, you have to go through the Sky first, and frankly, it breaks the immersion.
The lack of major areas doesn't mean the game is short, mind you. It just means that the game forces you to go through each on three separate occassions throughout the main story. By then, it starts to become a chore. While the Lanayru area is the one exception to this, bringing something truly fresh and imaginative on each visit, the grasslands and volcano don't land the same distinctions, long overstaying their welcome, with ill-advised fetch quests and missions that feel more like padding that lack the depth and imagination I've come to expect from Zelda games.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is well-intentioned, and occassionally delightful Zelda game. It moves forward Zelda storytelling in a meaningful way, and the dungeon design is some of the series' best, but the game is foundationally flawed stemming from its shortened development time, with a less-than-perfect control system that makes it feel sometimes awkward and cheap. It will still please fans of the series, but Skyward Sword should not serve as an accurate benchmark of quality for people just getting into the series with this game.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (US, 11/20/11)
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