The Legend of Zelda franchise is one that always splits opinion. For fans, there is simply nothing better than tackling a multi-tiered dungeon in preparation for an epic boss battle at the end. For the detractors, the familiar pattern of how things are done is something that is well overdue for a change. Well, for the most part, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is that change.
The first couple of hours of Skyward Sword are a bit of a surprise. Whilst most console Zelda games have been “right, you’re the hero, go and save Zelda”, you never really feel like you have a strong enough motive to (in my opinion, anyway). Skyward Sword remedies this by taking time to explain the bond between Link and Zelda, who have grown up together and become firm friends.
In fact, establishing characters plays a key role in the game. We see rivalries start, friendships grow and trust being earned. It goes above and beyond any other Zelda game. One of the key enemies, the Demon Lord Ghirahim, also manages to step away from the normal “bwah ha ha I’m EVIL” cheesy dialogue, and actually comes across as rather sinister.
Case in point, the first time you meet him he calmly introduces himself in a gentlemanly manner, before stating he’s not going to kill you, he’s just going to beat you to within an inch of your life. Just because he can.
And then there’s your guide, Fi. Coming across as a mixture of a less intrusive Navi and Cortana from Halo, Fi resides in your sword until needed. She’s a bizarre addition, coldly stating your chances of survival in certain situations like a form of AI. By the end of the game though, she has become so much more.
This little bit of land in the sky becomes known as Skyloft, and it’s here where the player begins their journey. Skyloft is essentially Skyward Sword’s hub world, acting as a point of return after key quests. It’s here where you will stock up on potions, arrange items and upgrade equipment (more on that later). However, a bit of exploration will unearth a wealth of side-quests to undertake, as well as taking to the sky.
As you’re on an island floating high in the sky, horses are of little use for transport in Skyloft. Instead there are large winged birds known as Loftwings. At any time you can dive off the edge of the island, and with a quick whistle you can summon your Loftwing and fly around. It’s during one of these little excursions that a dark whirlwind appears and knocks Zelda from her mount, sending her tumbling beneath the clouds and into the unknown lands below.
You soon find out that this whirlwind was no accident, and a dark power is threatening to break free and consume everything. Both Link and Zelda are key in preventing this, so after uncovering the Master Sword and Fi, Link heads off to try and find his best friend.
Duality is a common theme with many Zelda games, and Skyward Sword is no different. Up above is the relative safety of Skyloft, whereas the lands below are home to the three main, dangerous territories where you need to explore. Many may scoff upon hearing that there are a measly three areas, but that’s not the full story.
Each main area has a temple to find, but rather than just wander up and go in, you now have to earn the right to enter. These challenges take on numerous forms, but needless to say they will have you solving puzzles across the entire environment, and it’s best to pay attention as you’ll need to recall layouts later on.
When you finally make it to a temple, which can take a good 1-2 hours, you’re in for an absolute treat. The level design is absolutely without equal, and Nintendo has created some of the best puzzles seen in gaming. No two hours are the same, and the difficulty seems to be pitched perfectly, as you’re constantly challenged but rarely come up against a brick wall.
Part of this is also down to Link’s new range of gadgets. There are some old faithfuls, such as bombs, and then there is the new stuff such as the beetle. When you fire off the beetle you can steer it in the air for a limited time, opening up a world of puzzle possibilities, which Nintendo take full advantage of. It’s rare to be so constantly impressed by a game.
The boss battles, as one would hope, are also on the epic side. At one end of the scale you have one-on-one sword duals with Lord Ghirahim, and on the other end you have…well, I probably shouldn’t say. Let’s just say some of the creatures are a little on the large side.
Bucking the norm, Link has a new range of abilities to play with. Early on you learn the ‘Dowsing’ technique, which acts as a sort of radar, allowing you to locate the direction of items/quests/treasure. You can now also set waypoints, which sends up a beacon of blue light into the air to guide you to where you want to go. Nintendo has also given Link the ability to sprint, meaning no constant forward rolls to speed up travelling.
This comes at a cost though, as although Link has a new, athletic outlook, he also comes with a stamina bar that depletes as you take part in strenuous activities such as climbing, and performing special moves. If this bar fully empties Link will be unable to defend himself for a period of time. There are more abilities to unlock as you progress, but I won’t spoil the surprise.[drop] Needless to say you will be returning to the three territories often, but rather than tread over old ground you can use newly acquired gadgets and abilities to access new areas. Well, I say “areas” but in all honesty they are huge, doubling the size of the existing level. There just seems to be layer upon layer of new content, and just when you think you’ve seen it all you get hit with something new.
It’s a huge game, and running through just the story will see you nudge 40 hours. If you tackle all the side-quests then I can’t even hazard a guess as to how long it will take you.
If this isn’t enough, you can take part in item and potion upgrades. Throughout the game you’ll come across various substances, be they hidden away or awarded for defeating an enemy. These can be traded in for upgraded equipment, such as making your shield stronger. Collecting certain insects will also allow you to “power-up” a potion, so for example a red potion will fully recharge your health, rather than just restore eight hearts.
Of course, this being a first party Nintendo game, motion controls play a huge part. Skyward Sword relies on Wii Motion Plus rather than a normal Wiimote, and as such accuracy is increased tenfold. Link’s arm follows yours as you angle attacks, and enemies react by blocking and parrying, forcing you to find an opening.
When you have time to set up an attack it works very well, but deteriorates somewhat when you’re in a rush. For example, if you spy an enemy up ahead you can approach it; sword angled how you want it. If you’re caught off guard, however, it becomes a mad scramble to try and attack, which can confuse the Wiimote into performing a move you weren’t intending to use.
The same can be said for using equipment. When things are at a leisurely pace you can select and aim various gadgets very smoothly; it’s great stuff. The opposite is true when you’re under attack. Don’t get me wrong; Skyward Sword is a good example of how to do a fully motion controlled game, but there were times when I yearned for Classic Controller support a la Xenoblade Chronicles.
However, Skyward Sword’s biggest issue is quite a contentious one. I’ve harped on about how impressive the temples and puzzles are, but it gets to a point where it seems that Nintendo didn’t know how to end the game. Remember the point in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King film where everyone thought it had ended, but then it carried on going for another half an hour? That’s what happens here.
The game could have easily reached the final dungeon several hours before it actually does, but instead you are forced to take part in some tedious fetch quests, and an abysmal escort mission that lasts about 45 minutes, and makes absolutely no sense. One ‘quest’ in particular sticks in my mind, where the person in question actually has the item needed to proceed, but instead of giving it to you they split it into two dozen pieces and makes you swim around for an hour trying to find them. The amazing quest and puzzle design described earlier dissolves into tedium.
Graphically Skyward Sword will also provoke mixed reactions. The main character models look brilliant, like a grown-up version of Wind Waker. As there is no voice acting, all the emotion needs to be shown via facial expression, and Nintendo has done a fantastic job. Similarly, the temples and boss battles look equally good. The watercolour painting effect used for the background is less successful though, although some people will love it. It’s just not for me. There are no such complaints with the audio, as there are some absolutely stunning tracks.
- Exploring the sky with your Loftwing is serenely enjoyable.
- Stunning soundtrack.
- Some great looking locales/character models.
- Skyloft is a great hub.
- Superb puzzles/boss battles with well designed locations.
- New gadgets are brilliant.
- When rushed, motion controls can become frustrating.
- The art style can be a bit hit and miss.
- The final few hours drag, and feel unnecessary.
For 90% of the time Skyward Sword is an absolute revelation, with perfect puzzles and well-designed locations. It also provides characters you can care about, and genuinely want to help. The motion controls also hold up well for the most part, although it will still be a sticking point for many gamers.
Unfortunately it’s that final 10% that really does disappoint. After sampling some of Nintendo’s finest work, to suddenly find yourself taking part in some extremely uninteresting, generic quests is a bitter pill to swallow.
Still, push on through and you’ll still find one of 2011’s best games.