This is a game I’ve been wanting to write a review about for a long time. I may not be the world’s biggest Zelda fan but I’ve played my fair share of them with most games on most systems somewhere in my catalogue (I never got round to playing the Oracle games on the gameboy colour, the Minish cap, or the Spirit Tracks…oh and the less said about the Phillips CDi games the better). With The long anticipated Skyward Sword coming out on the Wii last November, many fans, including myself were waiting for what was promised to not only be one of the great console entries in the franchise but also one which was promised would shake up the increasingly stale Zelda formula. I’ll say it right now so you can skip to the comments section and vent your anger right away…I was let down. I enjoyed much about the game but I was also disappointed in many areas and have my share of gripes so with that caveat out of the way lets dive into the meat…
Skyward Sword has been a long time in the making, chiefly due to three reasons; 1 was the addition of true motion controls that are truly integral to the gameplay. 2; the redesign of many of the series’ long standing tropes such as dungeon layout, narrative structure etc. 3; the visual style was yet again a new one rather than the same style used in Twilight Princess. Now all these sound great on paper, they give the impression that this is truly a new experience, from the ground up, and on this I certainly can’t deny that Nintendo delivered.
This time around Link is starting out his Knight’s training as a resident of a realm above the clouds known as Skyloft. Hyrule is of course below the clouds, a sort of unseen legend to the people of Skyloft. Skyloft serves as a kind of hub world that you can travel back to regularly and houses the shopping area known as the Bazaar. Here you can buy supplies like potions and bombs and new gear such as improved shields. You can also upgrade your items here, RPG style by collecting seemingly useless items out in the field and bringing them back to Gondo, the Bazaar’s item repair guy. I for one appreciated this addition, it made collecting items seem like a worthwhile task and even made me explore areas that I would have otherwise left untouched. I hope they keep this idea in future games in the series.
Skyloft is populated by the usual zany characters that fans have come to know and love in the series. Many of them will offer you side quests if you talk to them (that’s right, no big glowing ‘quests be here’ arrow for you!) the oddest of which has to be Batreaux, a bizarre gender confused evil satanic looking monster who simply wants to be loved by people…I’d forgotten how weird Zelda can get. The place itself is a charming little island with a wonderful feel to it. The music is especially relaxing, it’s the kind of place you can just spend a few minutes in doing nothing but wandering around and taking in the environment. It felt like a welcome break from the bleak landscapes of most first person shooters and action adventure RPGs I’d been playing at the time. Skyloft itself is just one of a sea of smaller islands floating in the sky. You can explore the sky with your loftwing, a race of birds that the people of Skyloft use to get around. Most of the little islands have some little secrets hidden away, however, I felt overall it was somewhat wasted potential. The sky reminded me of the great sea in the Wind Waker on the Gamecube, however, where the great sea was huge and expansive and had islands worth exploring, the sky feels small by comparison and offers little insensitive for serious exploration.
Of course, the bulk of the game will be spent adventuring in Hyrule, which is itself is split into 3 regions; Faron woods, Eldin volcano, and Lanayru desert. You can probably already see a complaint regarding the game’s size coming up here. Whereas previous games in the Zelda series had a plethora of different locations, all with their own feel, Skyward Sword offers only 3, with Faron woods and Lanayru desert both also acting as what would be the typical water world thanks to events that happen later on in the game. Nintendo’s rationale for this decision was that it would let players become more familiar with a small number of locations and allow them to come back explore them in different ways throughout the game. This is certainly true, I’m just not sure the game is any better for it. Each of the locations themself have plenty going on in them as they each have various different dungeons and go through various transformations. Lanayru desert in particular has a rather fantastic mechanic going on. It starts out as a barren desert wasteland with little going on. This, it turns out, is because of something that happened a few years ago. The area was mined for crystals which have the ability to alter time, and as luck would have it, some of these crystals are still lying around. When you hit one of these crystals, a small area around you suddenly springs to life as it’s sent back in time to an age where the region was bustling with activity. In practice this means you’ll uncover hidden treasures and alter how a room works by uncovering things about it from its past. You can even use this mechanic to down enemies; move towards them whilst holding a crystal and they’ll vanish quantum leap style, presumably as they weren’t around in the past (although why Link doesn’t suddenly turn into a screaming baby when holding these time crystals is something of a mystery). Eventually when you activate enough of these crystals almost the entire region is transformed and reveals itself as a bright and vibrant industrial type setting with a genuinely fascinating architectural style…well done Nintendo artists! Each of the 3 regions also get turned into a ‘silent realm’ at some point in the game. When this happens you’ve got to collect glowing drops in order to return the area to its normal state, something ripped straight out of Twilight Princess! The dungeons too are very well designed in Skyward Sword and the puzzles are certainly somewhat different from Zelda games in the past, they’re just not different enough… My favourite would have to be the buddhist temple-like Ancient Cistern. So on the whole it probably sounds like I enjoyed the locales in Skyward Sword, and I did. I just can’t escape the feeling that the world is very small and it just felt like for what was supposed to be the biggest Zelda game yet, a huge step back.
Now onto the aesthetics. I’ll get the bad out of the way first…the visuals…they suck!
I’m not one of those people who cried shenanigans when they announced that the Wind Waker would be cel shaded, on the contrary, I believe Wind Waker to be the best looking Zelda game by a country mile. But the mashing together of a pseudo-cel shaded look, that I believe is going for a water-colour feel, with semi-realistic (read twilight princess style) character models just didn’t work for me. I’m not outright opposed to the idea, it just looked like ass in this case. The awfully low resolution textures and shaders combined with abysmal anti-aliasing (that’s the degree to which the jagged edges are smoothed out) also conspired to make this game look like a dog’s dinner. I’ve actually seen the game running on the Wii/gamecube emulator: Dolphin in 1080p and with upresed textures and it looks pretty damn good! In the beginning I’m sure Nintendo felt pleased with their decision to go with last gen hardware but I bet they’re kicking themselves now.
I’m pleased to say the audio is anything but the same story. This is the first time a Zelda game has used a fully orchestrated soundtrack and let me tell you it is glorious. The whole game feels a bit more grand, on a scope not yet seen in the Zelda franchise. The theme when you’re flying around in the sky is particularly stirring and I certainly hope this will be a standard for future Zelda games. I’ve heard people complain that the music in Skyward Sword is generally forgettable, I disagree, this is one of my favourite soundtracks this year. Come to think about it, these are probably the same people who want the Zelda games to be fully voiced…forget that!
Now my biggest bone to pick…the gameplay..or rather the controls. I’m sure I’m in the minority here but I just don’t think motion controls improved the Zelda experience. The idea of sword play with 1-1 motion control is very enticing indeed but I fear it’s like perpetual motion, it’s an ideal that just can’t truly, accurately be reached (at least not with the current generation of motion controls). The reality is that a Zelda game, along with almost any other 3rd person adventure game exists within the confines of its engine. An engine that handles movements such as running, jumping, managing inventory, interacting with objects in your environment etc… combat is just one part of this. To get true, absolute, follow-your-every-slight-flick-of-wrist style controls you’d need an isolated 1st person simulator, and that’s just not going to happen in a Zelda game. Unfortunately, whilst the combat actually works reasonably well for most of the game, several important boss fights (the Girahim and final boss fights in particular) demanded the kind of lightning quick reflexes that the Wii motion plus just isn’t capable of. This is a shame as there are some great items in Skyward Sword. The Flying Beetle, gust bellows, whip, and digging mitts are great additions to the arsenal, the first three work very well with the motion controls (as does the bow I might add) and the last of which involves a rather engaging little underground digging minigame which I found very enjoyable. However, I just couldn’t contend with the swordplay demanded by latter boss fights. Yes the first time you slash those training logs and the sword appears to mimic your actual movements is a bit special, but it quickly wears off. Fighting Girahim for the last time, the sword felt like it was moving almost half a second after I swung and this came very close to breaking the game for me. Now I don’t blame the Zelda team for this, I think they did the best they could with what they had but it doesn’t change the fact that the gameplay suffered as a result.
So those are my thoughts on Nintendo EAD’s latest Zelda effort. I did not arrive at the final score below in the usual manner of balancing up the pros and cons and landing somewhere in the middle. You see, unlike many games which I would award a score like this to which tend to be generally mediocre; something functional but wholly uninspiring, Skyward Sword is anything but. The high points in the game are real high points, things which put a huge smile on my face and made me think the team at Nintendo had done something truly special. However, there are things in the game which angered my tremendously. Things which were not mere slight disappointments which were easily overlooked, no, things which I felt genuinely hampered the overall experience and I think are in need of serious reconsideration for the next entry. After playing through Skyward Sword (in particular the final two boss fights), I am worried by Eiji Aonuma’s comments that Zelda won’t go back from motion controls. However, now that the industry is beginning to lessen the emphasis on motion controls and with the Wii U’s tablet controller being what seems like a pretty big obstacle to motion plus integration, maybe it won’t happen. I hope with these things considered in the overall context of the review, you won’t be overly shocked by the final score. I hope the inevitable next entry for Zelda (on either the 3DS or the Wii U) will be a different experience.