Discussion Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

LegendOfZeldaSkywardSword

The grave plot and casket have been picked, but Nintendo’s Wii isn’t quite dead yet, folks. With the Wii U on the 2012 horizon, the console that sparked the motion control revolution is clearly in decline, but, as a number of surprising gems have already shown us this holiday season, the pulsing aura of the Wii’s glowy blue disc drive isn’t ready to be doused. In fact, if The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has its way, that light won’t be fading any time soon.

Destined to be the Wii’s glorious last hurrah, Skyward Sword brings the platform full circle – Twilight Princess launched the console, Skyward Sword is essentially sending it off. That’s a hefty burden to carry, but if any hero is up to the task, it’s Link.

Aaron and I have been exploring every inch of Nintendo’s latest Zelda legend over the past couple weeks, attempting to wrap our heads around such a huge and momentous experience and compile our thoughts into a single review. Now the time has come for you to read along as we discuss the highs and lows of Link’s skyward adventure. You are welcome to join in on the discussion in the comments!

Matt: I’ve been pretty disappointed with Nintendo’s design approach since the dawn of the Wii. The company’s first-party development has slanted much younger and much broader, often seeming to forget about the style of game that made Nintendo the #1 name in gaming, starting back with the NES. When core franchise titles have been released, very few have shown the type of evolution expectations demand from today’s technological advancements and the greater potential for more complex level and game design systems.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, to me, embodies a lot of what is good and bad about the Wii as an overall platform. It augments tradition with some new tricks, achieves great success with many of its motion control implementations, but falters in a few spots and at times seems frustratingly stuck in the past. The end result is mixed but still overwhelmingly positive. On a personal level, it doesn’t quite stack up to my two favorite Zelda adventures, Wind Waker and A Link to the Past, but on my list does come out ahead of Ocarina of Time and the other installments.

Chronologically speaking, Skyward Sword serves as a series prequel, an origin story telling of Link and Zelda’s unbreakable bond, the forging of the Master Sword, and the initial rise of Ganon. The story doesn’t go very deep in terms of character development and complex dialogs, but the narrative succeeds in making you care about the world and its inhabitants, and by the end you do gain a better understanding of and appreciation for Link’s previous quests.

Nintendo still hasn’t embraced fully voiced dialogue, choosing instead to stick with chirps, moans and lines of gibberish played over top of text speech boxes. Link should always be voiceless, but I would like to hear some real voice acting from the other characters in my Zelda games these days. I do give props to Nintendo for at least catching up to the times with the game’s phenomenal orchestral score which brings new elegance to classic audio themes (a free soundtrack CD comes in all initial production copies too). Opening a treasure chest has never felt so rewarding!

As a game, Skyward Sword doesn’t break from formula – and that’s fine by me. Link begins his journey as a lazy knight in training, eventually growing into his familiar role as the legendary ‘Chosen One’ destined to rescue Zelda and save the kingdom. Link’s quest follows a similar progression to those before it. You start in a main town area–this time a floating island in the sky known as Skyloft—traverse an overworld map to reach outlying areas—flying on the back of a red bird is Link’s new form of transportation—and delve deep into dungeons, solving puzzles, defeating enemies, collecting gadgets, looting the key to open the final boss door and proceeding to take down the dungeon guardian lurking inside. And yep, you get an extra heart container upon victory.

Within this familiar, fits-like-a-glove formula, Skyward Sword folds in some new wrinkles, particularly when it comes to sword combat and puzzle gadgetry. But before moving on, I’ll pause here for a moment to let Aaron jump into the discussion. What say you, Aaron?

Aaron: Familiar formula sums it up nicely—when the game’s opening narration talks about stories and legends told and retold over the centuries, it’s not kidding. Skyward Sword fits right in with this holiday gaming season’s recurring theme—beloved, time-tested gameplay burnished within an inch of its life, yet still saddled with the same inexplicable issues that troubled its predecessors. (Feel free to toss Gears of War 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 and Uncharted 3 into this same gift-wrapped box. Trust me, there’s plenty of room.)

Every amazing improvement comes with its attendant drawback: I absolutely love that the series finally gives us 1:1 swordplay (I’m sure the development team working on Kinect Star Wars is angrily snapping virtual lightsabers over their respective knees.) I don’t love that during far too many of Link’s special sword attacks—swoops and thrusts required to vanquish certain types of tougher enemies–the equation becomes 1:whatthehelljusthappened. Tooling the skies on your bonded loftwing is an exhilarating and gorgeous experience unlike anything the series has ever offered us. It’s wonderful–until you’re asked to backtrack to the Eldin Volcano and the Skyview temple for the umpteenth time, and suddenly flying the feathered skies doesn’t feel any different than driving a car around in ‘Grand Theft Auto Wherever’. And no, referencing how “Metroid-like” this game-padding design choice really is doesn’t make it any more palatable or less lazy.

None of this is to say that Skyward Sword isn’t an absolute marvel of design, but I’d argue that its greatest accomplishments/advancements are actually narrative-based. Specifically, taking characters we’ve spent the last quarter-century with and giving them an adventure that makes them feel fresh and interesting again, even though the basic story—Link loses Zelda, Link beats down capital-V villain, Link saves Zelda–hasn’t changed at all. Even Fi, the spiritual AI/dispassionate game guide that accompanies Link on his epic journey, is fascinating and mysterious.

Others have written that Skyward Sword is the Wii game we’ve all been waiting for. I’ll second that emotion, but I have to add a “what the hell took so long?” It’s a bummer that the game’s truly wonderful soundtrack also doubles as the Wii’s funeral dirge.

Matt: I’ll second the thought on “what the hell took so long?” But I will also add that Nintendo clearly put the extended development time to good use, particularly in the game’s art design. I don’t think there’s been a more graphically impressive or visually attractive game built for the Wii than this. Skyward Sword beautifully marries the whimsical toon aesthetic from Wind Waker with the ‘adult Link’ look of Twilight Princess, resulting in a painterly, almost water color style that suits the storybook Zelda narrative so well. Even on a big screen HDTV where many Wii games tend to look horribly aliased and washed out, this game often looks like it could easily be running off of a PS3 or Xbox 360. The results speak for themselves.

Part of the wait I’m sure also had to do with the fact that the Wii’s motion technology simply wasn’t capable of pulling off what it does in Skyward Sword, had it been released even a year or two ago. Skyward Sword harnesses—and requires—Wii MotionPlus on a level beyond every other compatible game on the console. The word waggle is often used to describe the type of motion control input required by the majority of Wii games, a term that succinctly characterizes how you can waggle the remote with reckless abandon to complete many activities. Skyward Sword is a no-waggle experience, in all prominent areas at least. Sword combat, although occasionally flaky in recognizing the direction of your strikes (I had most trouble getting the forward thrust attack to register on a consistent basis), has a natural, rhythmic flow to it, complimented nicely by the progression of attack notes that strum along like a sequence of harp chords as you chain multiple strikes together. Not to be forgotten, the Nunchuk has a motion sensor too, and is used effectively as Link’s shield. (You hold the Nunchuk up to block and push it forward like a fist-bump to parry attacks or redirect projectiles back at enemies.)

The 1:1 sword tracking is a constant focus of the combat, as even lowly skeleton and goblin type enemy fodder employ pattern-based defensive tactics. So you can’t wildly swipe the remote at the screen and hope to prevail – you have to watch the enemy, adjust your attack angle accordingly, and land one or two hits at a time when a weak point is left momentarily unguarded.

Gadgets Link obtains on his adventure utilize motion control in many unique ways as well, and the dungeon and puzzle layouts designed around these gadgets are so clever and imaginative. It’s not uncommon to come across puzzles late in the game that require one-time use of a gadget you obtained at the very beginning. Every tool has a use from start to finish. That’s just damn good game design.

There’s a remote control bug you get to fly through small crevices with lifts and tilts of the remote, ranged weapons like the slingshot and bow and arrow aim precisely by pointing the remote at the screen, and later on you get hold of a whip which, at the crack of the remote, is used to pull distant switches or latch onto overhanging swing points. Surprisingly, Link has no boomerang this time around though, which almost seems blasphemous.

The only Wii Remote implementations I didn’t care a whole lot for were the flight controls (having to repeatedly flap the controller up and down to gain altitude got real old real fast) and the way you have to flick the remote to speed up while climbing ladders or vine-covered walls. Another thing that annoyed the hell out of me was the auto-jump mechanic. Link is a little more agile in Skyward Sword than he has been in the past, but he still can’t jump on command. Instead, when you approach any ledge, a context-sensitive command kicks in to send Link leaping ahead, even when you are facing a pitfall and have no intention of jumping forward. Through no fault of my own, I fell to my death and had to repeat numerous platforming sections because of this.

The camera and lock-on can cause problems too, since the lock-on button also doubles as the snap-action camera rotation. Thus, when your perspective is off during a battle and you attempt to correct it, sometimes you’ll lock onto a different target instead and your view will become even more obscured.

My main point of contention – and it’s something you already touched on – is how grossly over-padded the game’s final hours are. In total, Skyward Sword chewed up a good 28 hours of completion time (that’s just counting the story), however the last eight or so of those hours really fell flat until the final boss showdown and lengthy ending sequence wrapped things up on a high. In that time, I revisited the three main areas – forest, desert, and volcano – for the third or maybe even fourth time, having to backtrack through areas I’d already completed multiple times before upon each visit. Over the course of the game, a particular boss must be downed on three or four different occasions with only minor variations introduced each time, and later on there are two out of place levels in the volcano area that introduce escort and stealth mission objectives. (During the stealth part the game forces you to recollect your gadgets over again too — lame!)

Skyward Sword is packed with upwards of 40-50 hours of gameplay, should you attempt to gather all treasures and heart containers, upgrade all items and gadgets, and complete side quests for the citizens of Skyloft, and that’s great in terms of bang for your buck. (A quasi-New Game+ Hero mode also unlocks after the first completion.) But of that time, I do wish the story portion was held to a more concise length of 15-20 hours. Before I hit the final third of the game, my impressions were sky-high positive. Coming down the home stretch, certain design flaws I was initially content to put up with became a drag.

Aaron: If you’re going to go out, go out with a bang, right? Nintendo nailed the big-picture piece of that, in that Skyward Sword is to the Wii what God of War 2 was to the PlayStation 2—an absolutely essential title that realizes and maximizes the potential of the console platform. Or the equivalent of fabulous break-up sex. Really, take your pick.

But on a smaller scale, Skyward Sword fumbles the answer. Would I have sacrificed 10 hours of gameplay for a less obviously repetitive final stretch? I think the answer has to be yes—as much as gamers like to bemoan the trend toward shorter and shorter triple-A titles, the concept of epic isn’t always measured in gameplay hours. And unlike Batman: Arkham Asylum, the backtracking in Skyward Sword didn’t even make that much narrative sense.

I’ll agree that the auto-jump function easily wins the prize for feature that accomplished the very opposite of what it was intended to do. Clearly designed as a crutch for casual gamers, auto-jump instead causes seasoned platform experts to hurl their Wii MotionPluses the way Link hurls pumpkins and pots. The amount of futzing with the Nunchuk and Z button required to simply line yourself up for a simple gap jump was more annoying than spending a weekend with Groose. And that’s before the overanxious context-sensitivity causes you to take a leap of faith you never intended. It’s one of the very few functional effects that break the wonderful spell Skyward Sword manages to cast.

At the other end of the feature spectrum, Nintendo deserves major props for the graceful way inventory management is handled here. The best adventure-RPGs have always required clever and creative thinking to solve puzzles. What a refreshing approach to see a game that moves beyond the tired find-object/use-object-to-solve-puzzle-five-feet-away formula.

Missteps aside, the bottom line is this: You can’t call yourself a Zelda fan—or a game fan—without hopping on your loftbird and experiencing Skyward Sword. In its greatest efforts (think Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land) modern Nintendo approaches the magic of classic Disney. And Link’s latest stands high in the pantheon.

Aaron-BuyIt

Matt: I’m right there with you on the game length issue. As game prices have inflated (and the economy has swirled deeper into the toilet), game length has become a deciding factor on whether or not a game is worth purchasing for a lot of people. I get that to an extent – there is inherently more value to a 50+ hour RPG compared to a 6-hour-or-less shooter, and if you can only afford one the choice seems obvious. But more hours doesn’t always mean better game, as Skyward Sword demonstrates. At 15-20 hours, this is a game I would have been readily willing to replay many times over and spend countless additional hours with on the side, scouring the lands for every last secret area and collectible. But because of the tedious closing stretch, I don’t see myself diving back in again for the foreseeable future, even if the first two-thirds of the game were as engrossing a 15-20 hour chunk of gaming as I’ve played on any platform all year.

As a one-shot experience, Skyward Sword is another triumphant example of Nintendo’s magical–albeit steadily aging–game design philosophy. With some fine-tuning to certain controls and a little extra thought and care put into its final acts, this could have been an all-timer. Unfortunately it never quite ascends to those lofty heights, but the tried and true Zelda formula, further elevated by intuitive motion control, a gorgeously presented storyline and some of the smartest dungeon and puzzle layouts to date, still places Skyward Sword in an elite class few games are able to reach.

Matt-BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ 1:1 sword control (mostly) delivers the goods
+ Gorgeous graphics, presentation and story
+ Familiar characters made fresh again
+ Inventory system is brilliant
+ Outstanding orchestral soundtrack
+ Smart, well thought out dungeon puzzles
+ Lots of secret treasures and side quests

Cons:
– Irritating flight controls make flying between locations tedious
– Egregious backtracking and content-padding over the game’s last third
– Auto-jump system is auto-annoying
– Camera and lock-on combo can be a pain in the you-know-what
– Lack of voice acting stands out more than ever

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Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: 11/20/2011
Genre: Action Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!