Originally Reviewed: 2011
Call it an unfair generalisation, but it could be argued that ‘hardcore’ Zelda fans will fall head over heels for a new entry in the series, declaring their undying love for the game and ignoring its obvious flaws. No game is perfect, but Zelda games, especially post-N64, do tend to have something about them that would seriously damage the reputation of another game that didn’t bear that recognisable Zelda name. It’s because of that name, that philosophy, that Zelda games gain such acclaim. When challenged with criticism over the flaws, a common response would be “yeah that’s true, but it’s more Zelda!”
I will make no bones about being one of these people. I would tell you that I love Twilight Princess, but a recent playthrough reminded me that I actually hated the wolf parts. Likewise, I loved Wind Waker dearly, but would I really want to grind through that end of game Triforce pieces hunt again? Probably not. Skyward Sword (SS) unfortunately suffers from similar vices but let’s make this clear – I absolutely love it.
This review will not be a hyperbole-filled Zelda love fest throughout, however. There is a lot to love about SS, and so much has been improved, but taking off the Zelda-specs, especially in this current generation full of magnificent titles, can tarnish the relationship somewhat. The game still feels like it misses certain aspects and makes mistakes that hopefully will be rectified on the apparently all powerful Wii U so there can finally be a definitive ‘best Zelda ever.’ *Update: YEP – Alex*
Starting off with the story, we immediately encounter the first problem. Suffice to say, it’s not very good. It’s good if you liked every Zelda story so far, because it’s no different to almost all of them. Link starts off a normal kid, Zelda gets kidnapped because she’s actually rather important, Link puts on a tunic and finds various items from various places, becomes the hero of time, kicks evil’s ass and goes home. SS is a much better game than Twilight Princess, but at least that title tried something slightly different with its story.
If the story falls flat, then the game’s presentation does almost everything in its power to mask this. Firstly, the art style is gorgeous. Nintendo know the limits of their own machine better than anyone and SS combats the Wii’s lack of HD power with a beautiful cartoon-esque design that delivers that patented Nintendo charm by the bucket-load. Animations and facial expressions are terrific and the game is an absolute joy to look at throughout. The sweeping and majestic orchestral soundtrack is also incredible – Zelda has never sounded so good.
The story’s main action unfolds through cut-scenes, which are easily among the most stunning and cinematic yet seen in gaming (especially towards the end). Nintendo’s penchant for gorgeous mis-en-scene and high-octane, swashbuckling action are here in abundance and the majority of the cut-scenes are both jaw dropping and utterly epic. But, and this is a big but, the cut-scenes are also the reason for that ‘almost everything’ remark earlier on.
In a game brimming with as much cinematic flair as SS, it has gone from being surprising to downright annoying that Nintendo still refuse to move away from text-based dialogue. Cutscenes are immediately spoiled when you have to pick up the controller to hold the A button down to mash through line after line of text. It takes all the immersion out of the action and can leave some scenes desperately lacking that extra bit of punch. Tell me the story, Nintendo, don’t make me read it.
The text-based dialogue becomes even more frustrating thanks to the utterly inane dialogue of Link’s companion Fi. Her stats-based drivel is so boring it’s like watching Link destroy a huge, hulking demon and celebrating victory by reading a maths book. Any immersion in story is instantly and consistently broken by this horrible character. Sure, Navi was annoying, but at least she had personality and didn’t bother you with telling you that ‘your hearts have been depleted, you should replenish them at the quickest possible opportunity’. The phrase ‘no shit, Sherlock’ has rarely been more appropriate.
Some Zelda fans remain staunchly defiant against the notion of hearing Link’s voice, but with so many incredible examples of video game stories being wonderfully told via a silent protagonist, why can’t we hear voice acting for everyone else? Half-Life 2, Portal 2 and Bioshock are prime examples of how this can work. Let’s not confuse things here – when they want to, Nintendo can write epic dialogue, but slapping nothing but a stupid noise over some slowly crawling text is not epic.
And it seems like Nintendo aren’t satisfied with bombarding you with text dialogue, they want you to read the same dialogue over and over again. Go back to buy more potion? Unskippable dialogue every time. Find a useless bug in the grass? If you’ve turned off the Wii since you last caught this bug you’re met with the same monotonous unskippable blurb you’ve seen tens of times. Every time. It makes you want to never turn off the console, and not in a good way. It’s this type of constant repetition that will really irk almost every player, especially after 20+ hours of it.
The elephant has been left in the corner long enough, so it’s time to discuss the motion controls. They work. In fact, they work really well… most of the time. Sword swinging starts off tricky, but after about 15 minutes feels very natural and the 8 mapped directions definitely help the player to accurately slice up enemies. In moments of fast flurrying swipes, it can become a little un-responsive and the thrusting stab motion is quite difficult to perform, but SS is still without question the pinnacle of motion-controlled gaming.
Not only are the sword controls near perfect; they’re consistently a lot of fun. Performing a skyward strike or fatal blow is immensely satisfying and it feels like it will be impossible to ever play a Zelda title with buttons again. Other uses of motion controls are more of a mixed bag, but patient players will never find too much to take umbrage against. Bird flying is decent and the various items are all well designed and very natural to control. The controller does perhaps need centring a bit too often, but it’s certainly not game breaking.
The game world in SS is another aspect that will divide opinion. The overworlds have been designed to include much more ‘adventuring’ where simply getting to a temple or dungeon becomes a challenge in itself. The overworld feels like one huge dungeon and this leads to a much more organic feel, but unfortunately the overall design of the world is a disappointment. There are only three areas beneath the sky to explore. And explore them you will, three times each.
To be fair to Nintendo, they do alter the environments to an extent each time you return, but I’m almost certain most fans would simply prefer six or nine areas over the same three with ‘water’ or ‘darkness’ slapped on. Don’t get me wrong, the environments look great, and the additional items you obtain throughout the quest do keep the gameplay in each one feeling reasonably fresh. It’s just that any feeling of excitement and exploration can be dampened by constantly having to revisit places over and over again.
There are extreme examples of where this really becomes a problem. For one, the very first dungeon you enter, you have to do twice. Same dungeon. Twice. Worst of all, you always have to make your way through the game in the order it tells you. Where’s the sense of freedom? No, you have go to whichever area that mechanical idiot Fi tells you is “85% likely to house (item X).” She’s not even 100% sure! Let me take that 15% chance and go elsewhere, maybe it’s more fun! Take a game with the exploration level of Skyrim and hold it up against SS and it’s really apparent that Zelda’s hand-holding is even more archaic in this modern generation.
Below the clouds is a mixed bag, then. Above the clouds, however is possibly worse. Never has a Zelda game seen a hub world so brimming with possibility subsequently brought crashing down into mediocrity. You can fly on a huge bird for crying out loud, but you can fly merely to little clumps of rock with treasure chests on them. For SS has only one ‘town’. Wind Waker’s sprawling ocean could feel like a chore to negotiate at times, but it had far more to see than the sky in SS. Flying, for the most part, is really fun; it controls well and feels fluid, but you’re only really flying from Skyloft to a hole down through the clouds. A real missed opportunity.
There’s been a lot of negativity so far, and I want to mention all the great things about this game, but most come tagged with missed opportunities and disappointment. Some of the dungeons are truly excellent, with level design and innovation never seen in Zelda before. The Lanayru sections using Timeshift Crystals are mind-bogglingly awesome. Also, the items Link collects in this game always feel relevant, always useful. Nintendo has finally realised that there should be more to an item than using it to beat a boss.
Speaking of bosses, SS’s are again, a mixed bag. Those using the motion controls and clever use of items are spectacular. The Automaton boss at the end of the Ancient Cistern is absolutely one of my favourite Zelda bosses of all time. For want of a better phrase, it’s truly epic. It took nearly 20 minutes to beat and the sense of satisfaction was rarely paralleled in the game. There are other great bosses too, but some are just heinous.
You fight the main villain three times, (the first two fights are completely identical) and you also fight a big hulking blob called The Imprisoned three times, each time more frustrating than the last. It became so ridiculous that I honestly thought the third Imprisoned fight was optional. I thought I’d accidentally triggered it by going out the wrong door, so I ran away – defiantly refusing to put up with it again. Eventually I realised I had no choice, so I reluctantly slogged through another 15 minutes of exactly the same fight I’d already hated twice before.
There’s probably a need to apologise for the length of this piece, but as any true Zelda fan knows, these games are so close to their heart that any sort of quick and snappy review would never be enough to give you the true Zelda fan’s opinion. Skyward Sword is a game riddled with minor annoyances and repetition, but it’s still a beautiful game full of spectacle and swashbuckling adventure. The undeniable charm of every previous Zelda title is here and the motion controls truly are a revelation. It’s just that almost everything else in the game isn’t.
I do love this game, because I love Zelda. For me and fellow Zelda-ites there really is no greater feeling than seeing a kid in a green tunic run about with a sword; there’s just that feeling and essence about these games. Why else would we get such satisfaction from cutting grass all the time and why do we feel the need to run after every rupee that comes out even when our wallets are full? But we as fans, and Nintendo as a company, need to step out of the bubble and realise that this can’t be enough anymore. Something needs to change before Link is totally left behind.