Even as I sit down to pen a relatively spoiler-free review of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, I can’t help but laugh at the very concept. Any gamer who’s ever weaved his way through a Zelda title in the 25 years of the series’ history surely already knows the relative slant. There is a girl and a hero, a sword and a prophecy. But most importantly there is an epic quest. Skyward Sword adheres to these established conventions, but it isn’t afraid to take certain liberties for the sake of the narrative.
Taking place in a land above and beyond the traditional climes of Hyrule, the title represents a high-flying adventure of a somehow more relatable, more human Link. The world of Skyloft (and the fabled land below, where much of your adventuring takes place) may be smaller than those of other Zelda titles, but at the same time it still manages to seem familiar.
Taking to the air on your Loftwing, the preferred mode of travel for the citizens of Skyloft, seems less akin to riding your trusty steed Epona than to navigating the waters of Wind Waker in the King of Red Lions, but there’s a comforting commonality nonetheless. The more interesting wrinkle, however, is the mechanism by which you control the creature. Flapping your Wii Remote to power the bird aloft feels ridiculous at times, but seldom unnatural. If anything, the controls in Skyward Sword represent the fulfillment of the Wii’s long-neglected promise.
Properly implemented 1-to-1 Wii MotionPlus movement means that Skyward Sword puts you in direct control of our hero. You can’t simply waggle your way through combat and expect to escape unscathed. Instead there is a straightforward, deliberate method for approaching most enemies that involves understanding along which plane one must slash to deliver the proper blow at the appropriate time. It’s a skill you’re forced to develop early on fighting the plant life of the world below, and one that’s properly hewn even before the fights become frantic and truly satisfying. This level of highly tuned control also extends to your abundance of secondary items, which, from projectile weapons to the instrument du jour, don’t so much push gameplay to new heights so much as they tweak the pre-existing formula in satisfying ways.
Of course these mechanics mean little in the absence of a reason to play, but Skyward Sword delivers a story that’s a cut above those of its predecessors. The most marked change is the warm, tender relationship between Link and Zelda. This makes her abrupt — but certainly not unexpected — abduction feel all the more heart-wrenching. Rescuing her and discovering the true implications of her disappearance (not to mention the threat of a new evil) feels important because of this connection. Sadly this makes the game’s shortcomings along the way even more painful.
Skyward Sword isn’t merely a Zelda game; it’s a Zelda game that makes very little effort to hide its outside influences. You’ll find, amid the title’s heavily Japanese sensibilities, hints of everything from Disney tropes (your childhood foil Groose is really just Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, with one noticeable addition) to a relatively toothless equivalent of the Mass Effect response wheel. But the biggest influence here, the one note that carries throughout, is a Final Fantasy-style sense of the exploded narrative. So often the game chooses to tell rather than show, and, from the wit and wisdom of locals to the plot-powering ponderings of your computer-talking Na’vi analogue Fi, this means that a significant chunk of your playtime is spent poring over on-screen text.
Though he’s too young to go at it himself, I chose to share some of my Skyward Sword playtime with my adventurous 6-year-old. And just as often as he’d ooh and ahh at the game’s thrilling combat and enticing discoveries, he’d also comment on the its frequent lapses into uninspired text-bombs.
“Are we just reading again, dad?” he’d say, a little disappointed, and typically I would respond in kind.
Still, this isn’t the gravest of the title’s trespasses. Just like wading through page after page of click-through text severs the player from the play experience, so does Skyward Sword‘s reliance on artificial inflation. Though the game takes pains to ensure that the dungeon exploring and boss battles are familiar but not wholly predictable, the fact that it forces you to spend so much time replaying the same areas, back-tracking across well-worn ground and performing menial fetch quests somehow deflates the urgency of Zelda’s rescue. Even the method of divining, using your sword to track her whereabouts, taught early in the game, seems so banal as to make a mockery of what should be an appealing and emotionally driven quest.
Yet that’s not to say that this shift was completely bad for the series. Long viewed as a role playing game in the loosest sense, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword finally makes that jump from RPG-lite. Things like a more legitimate, recipe-based crafting upgrade system and a staggering number of discoverable collectables seem to put Link’s interest and development more solidly in the player’s hands. Moreover, the fact that Link is presented as little more than a student with a strong, shared affection with Zelda from the game’s earliest moments similarly breaks him free from his old mold. He’s a blank slate onto which you can insinuate practically anything you wish.
These little tweaks, both good and bad, are littered throughout the lengthy playtime. A solid save system, a brand new world of adventures, a genuinely inspired soundtrack and some truly trying puzzle-work serve to aptly propel things forward, but all this ambition cuts both ways.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the game’s art direction. The gouache on canvas graphical overlay isn’t such a far cry from the fabric feel of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, but for a game that’s long divided its time between the realistic and the cartoony iterations it was a bit of a side-step. At times these visuals are beautiful, charming and utterly engaging, but that’s not to say they are always successful. These stylized graphics scale poorly, and at times environmental objects like trees appear as little more than thin, one-dimensional blobs. While I applaud the team for forging ahead into new visual territory, the graphics sometimes feel less like a conscious choice and more an attempt to hide the seams of the Wii’s infamously underpowered processing.
Nintendo of America’s outspoken president Reggie Fils-Aime recently said, in reference to the game’s sky-high review scores and overall critical acclaim, “I don’t know if there’s going to be a video game in history that’s going to be able to compare to Skyward Sword.” It’s a nice sentiment, but on a very nuts-and-bolts level I’m not sure if there’s even a grain of truth to it. Yes, the game has been well received and, yes, it is most definitely worth playing, but many of its greatest strengths are soured by its most severe detriments.
Like many things that I hold dear (Anthrax’s Worship Music, for example, and the post-Montreal 2011 New York Rangers) The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is full of hope, skill and promise. But ultimately it is more an affair for existing fans. One needs only look at the title’s vanity bundle, which includes a handsome golden Wiimote Plus and a special 25th anniversary symphonic soundtrack CD, to see this fan service in action. This could be perceived as a veiled admission that Skyward Sword is more a game for Zelda lovers than a vehicle to create converts, but despite its flaws it certainly has the potential to be a new generation’s Ocarina of Time. (Let us all pause to remember that damned Water Temple.)
There seems to be a notion that this title represents the ultimate in Wii gaming, and, for those who have been looking for a more interactive Zelda experience that might certainly be true. Moreover, with Wii U waiting in the wings it may prove to be this console’s last big first-party hurrah. Both these facts, coupled with the way in which Skyward Sword plays up the source material for the better, will certainly help to secure a coveted place in video game canon. Still, it’s not a flawless iteration, despite what the ample number of perfect-10 review scores may lead you to believe.
What it is instead is another grand and touching tale of a girl and a hero and a sword and a prophecy that’s occasionally hampered by questionable design decision and padded storytelling. You will read and stagger and suffer through the first several hours of playtime. You will balk when asked to return to the same lands again and again. But along the way, gradually, you will uncover a tale for the ages. You will find yourself playing a Zelda title that is, despite its myriad of shared structural and thematic motifs, a fresh new experience. And somehow these stumbles and fumbles feel fitting. Because it is, at its heart, a game about the joys of falling down only to get back up again.
WIRED Fine use of motion controls, beautiful soundtrack, a solid narrative rooted in but not restricted by Zelda canon, evolved RPG elements, new puzzles and boss battles, collectibles galore, substantial playtime, emotional appeal.
TIRED Sometimes underwhelming graphics, busywork that breaks up the action, an annoying “tell, don’t show” mentality.
Review materials and images provided by: Nintendo of America