Skyward Sword joins Super Mario 64 as a game that almost single-handedly justifies Nintendo's approach to hardware development, and stands as one of the best titles in the storied franchise. Still, it can't get away from a few minor faults that stop it just short of perfection.
- Dungeon and puzzle designs are among the series' best
- Impressive MotionPlus controls and swordplay
- Art direction compensates well for lack of graphical horsepower
- Fully orchestrated score lives up to Zelda's lofty standards
- The world structure is both linear and sparse
- Design inconsistencies and the occasional bit of recycled content hurt the overall experience
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review
“The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is better than _________.”
It’s a meaningless statement. It pretends at objectivity, and has no place in what is meant to be a personal opinion delineated in somewhere around 2,000 words, but there’s a score at the top of this review. Maybe you’ve noticed. A direct comparison to the game’s predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, seems apt. I probably had more fun with Skyward Sword, if that means anything, but Twilight Princess was more even, more steady-as-she-goes. It did not hit the peaks of Skyward Sword, but neither did it reach the lows. It’s likely the opinion will be fairly split.
Still, Skyward Sword improves upon its legacy in several, non-trivial ways. It’s a testament to Nintendo’s iterative process that they can improve so steadily on an existing formula, though a word to the wise for anyone expecting some sort of revolution in the franchise: the narrative and gameplay structure of Skyward Sword very closely match its forebears. The designers at Nintendo rely on the strength of the MotionPlus controller to complement the experience, a hardware addition that clearly represents what the Wii remote should have been at launch. And, largely, they succeed. There are issues inherent, yes, but every aspect of The Legend of Zelda that fans have grown to love over these past 25 years is present and accounted for.
Really High School
In Skyward Sword, both Link and Zelda live in the village of Skyloft, floating high above the clouds. Link is in training to be a Knight of Skyloft, whose heroic duties appear to be limited to telling villagers they can’t fly at night. To this end, Link has a companion: a Crimson Loftwing, who will appear at the press of button to carry Link across the sun-drenched skies. The relationship between the two is, unfortunately, not explored as the game progresses.
Instead, the opening narrative focuses on a bit of a love triangle between Link, Zelda, and Groose, who is essentially Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. It’s all a little more high-school drama than we’re used to from the series, but that’s not to say it doesn’t work effectively enough. The slightly-more-than-friends connection that Link and Zelda share adds emotional resonance to many of the scenes, something the Zelda series had been missing of late.
Eventually, Link attains the Skyward Sword, and along with it, his trusty colleague in this particular installment of the series: Fi, the spirit of the sword. Fi is an artificial intelligence (the Goddess of Hyrule has clearly been taking some programming lessons), advising with stoic guidance and cold probability. She doesn’t offend, but she certainly lacks the charm of Midna, a bright spot in Twilight Princess. There are a few twists, but overall, Skyward Sword continues the tradition of placing gameplay ahead of story. And that’s okay, because that gameplay part is, you know, pretty good.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary in the overall gameplay structure: some adventuring in the surrounding world, dungeon, boss, repeat. But Skyward Sword takes those puzzle elements from its dungeons and more effectively integrates them into the surrounding land of Hyrule, making the journey from one Big Key to the next a much more intellectually rewarding experience. The addition of a dash feature gives Link greater mobility over his surrounding environment, and though it can occasionally become a chore having to wait for the stamina gauge to refill, the mechanic is used very well as a puzzle element throughout the game.
The dungeon design itself deserves rare praise, even among the game’s predecessors. Several of the dungeons of Skyward Sword somehow consist of only four or five larger rooms, instead of dozens of smaller ones, and yet somehow they tie together so fluidly that the exploration of those rooms can take upwards of an hour and a half, challenging and creative the whole way through. There is some mythical braintrust that Nintendo and Valve must share; their puzzle designs are unmatched in the industry. In addition, while the first few bosses aren’t terribly impressive, the game’s later encounters are some of the best in gaming; there are some true Shadow of the Colossus-esque moments in there, in exhilarating fashion. And, as a quick mention, the “spirit trials” later in the game produce feelings of genuine terror, something a Zelda title has never quite managed prior.
But within these glowing facets of the gameplay lie significant faults. First, though each newly attained item is used well, there are only two items in the entire game that can be properly qualified as “new” to the series, which is a disappointment. But this annoyance pales in comparison to Skyward Sword’s largest issue, the world connecting the dungeons together…or rather, the lack thereof. There are only three areas in the game, each not terribly large, connected by a literal “over-world”: the cloudscape above and around Skyloft.
This, itself, wouldn’t be a problem, since this structure is really only a three-dimensional version of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker’s azure seas, which were full of interesting islands and hidden secrets. But the scattered boulders floating around Skyloft are devoid and empty, and there is precious little to do or to see outside the village proper. Without a connecting world to bind the locales together, Hyrule feels less of a real place and more a path to the next dungeon, and as a result, Skyward Sword feels much smaller, and much more linear, than one would expect.
Still, kudos for Nintendo for maximizing every square inch of those three main areas. Despite the lack of real estate, Skyward Sword clocks in as one of the longest Zelda’s on record, and despite a few odd instances of recycled content about halfway through the game, nothing feels nearly so “filler” as that Triforce Hunt from Wind Waker. Expect a good 35-40 hours for the average player to see the end credits roll.
And, as a final note on gameplay, I want to mention a very out-of-place addition to the franchise: the ability to upgrade your existing equipment using items and bugs scattered across Hyrule. The game seems to think that it bestowing one of these ingredients (in big treasure chests, no less!) is a satisfying reward, but by and large, most of the upgrades feel worthless. The items in any Zelda game are primarily used for puzzle-solving, not combat, so upping their damage potential feels fairly useless. In addition, shields now have the capacity to break after extended use, either forcing the player to advance without protection in a dangerous area, or trudge all the way back to Skyloft to either repair or purchase a new shield. By the end of the game, you’ll be saddled with a bunch of useless items in your collection screen, and only a scarce few end up useful (most notably, those used to upgrade health potions). This is a feature we could have done without.
A Painting in Motion(Plus)
Skyward Sword’s art direction, color palette, and graphical effects were designed to hide the limitations of the now nearly ancient Wii hardware, and do a fairly excellent job in that regard. There is a strange depth-of-field shader, wherein distant objects look more and more like an impressionistic watercolor painting as they fade into the distance. It’s a cool effect, to be sure, but it seems to be oddly inconsistent at times: occasionally an object very close to the camera will look strangely blurry. The score, meanwhile, is triumphant: a fully-orchestrated mix of brilliant themes, both original and reimagined from Zelda’s history. Sound design is equally impressive, though if Nintendo doesn’t rid themselves of the “low heart beep” effect soon I’m going to punch a hole through some drywall.
Much has been made of the motion controls, and rightly so: they are a primary focus of gameplay. Every single item uses them in some aspect or another, but they aren’t superfluous; most genuinely draw you into the game. The control of your Crimson Loftwing through the skies is particularly engaging, the bird reacting perfectly to even the barest rotations of the Wii Remote. This precise control enhances the breathtaking feeling of simply skydiving at will, either off of on onto an island in the sky. Unfortunately, due to what one can only assume were technical limitations, this cannot be done seamlessly onto the island of Skyloft itself, which is disappointing.
More minor issues mar the experience. For some reason, any item in the game that requires pointer controls does not actually use the Wii’s sensor bar, but rather solely the MotionPlus capabilities of the Wii remote. While you can recalibrate and re-center the crosshairs at any time by pressing down on the D-Pad, it can be disorienting and frustrating during the heat of battle. In addition, there seem to be some inconsistencies as to when MotionPlus controls are implemented. At many points throughout the game, you thrust forward to insert your sword into a lock, twist the controller, and then…press A to push the lock inward. Why? Why wouldn’t we just thrust again, or pull the sword out? Why do we use motion controls when skydiving, but not sliding down a hill? These aren’t major complaints, but they add up.
Swordplay is, for the most part, well implemented, even if the game simplifies your free slashing movements into one of only eight recognized directions (nine, if you count thrusting). There’s a bit of a learning curve, though; don’t expect “waggle” to get you anywhere, as it did in Twilight Princess. The first boss even makes a point of chastising you for such behavior, punishing any non-directed swipes.
Here’s to the future, Nintendo
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword does a whole lot right, and at times, it’s a genuinely magical ride. It delivers in spades, but its corners are too sharp, its edges too rough, to warrant that coveted perfect score. Still, I say this: to fans of the series, be not disheartened. Skyward Sword is a fantastic continuation to the storied franchise.