The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Video Review
20 Dec, 2011
Admit it, when playing a 3D Zelda game, most of our travel is done by rolling. Maybe that extra hint of speed is in our head, but regardless of whether or not it gets us around Hyrule quicker, rolling is usually our preferred method of getting Link from point A to point B. I feel like someone at Nintendo noticed this trend, and to remedy it they decided to grant Link the ability to run in Skyward Sword. Of course being able to run without stopping would also prove problematic, so to counter that Nintendo developed what is arguably Skyward Sword’s best new mechanic, the stamina meter.
The stamina meter is a brilliant little addition to the Zelda series that I hope never goes away. It does wonders for the way we navigate Link around his world. Along with how the stamina meter opens up new opportunities for environmental puzzles, it also creates interesting boundaries for us as the player. Link can do everything faster now, be it running, climbing, or dashing up walls, but each of these actions drain his stamina meter. Even Link’s famous sword spinning attack is tied to the stamina meter so that players are forced to think about the best times to use it. When the meter is drained, Link becomes tired and worthless until the meter quickly refills itself.
I know it probably doesn’t sound like much, but the way in which Link handles now has greatly changed the pace of the game and the way Link navigates his terrain. In fact, there are whole sections of the game, the Spirit Realm areas, that are built entirely around the concept of the stamina meter.
There are other fun new navigational features as well, like the ability to lay visual check marks as a guide on the maps and to dowse for items. Dowsing allows Link to use his sword as a metal detector of sorts in order to help hunt down key items. It may sound like these features dumb down the experience and the thrill of discovery would be lost, but I think they help alleviate some of the frustration of wandering around in a 3D environment and help keep the player on track. Also, despite showing the direction of an item, it’s still up to the player on how exactly to get to said location. Zelda purists may choose not to use these optional skills if they wish to scour the lands the same ways they’ve always done. These new navigational features plus a more agile Link speed up the flow of the game.
This leads us to Skyward Sword’s take on field design. When not flying around in the somewhat barren sky on his trusty red loftwing, Link’s on foot adventures are seemingly more like a Metroid game than a Zelda game. Each of the world’s three areas are less like a traditional overworld and more like vast interconnected dungeons. Sticking with the Metroid comparison for a moment, the areas don’t interlock organically like they do in Tallon IV of Metroid Prime, instead they feel much more like the disconnected areas of Metroid Prime 3. These self contained areas are the heart of the game. Players will be asked to travel to them several times over throughout the adventure, but they’re almost always exciting as each trip back to them yields more areas to explore, more items to find, and harder enemies to fight.
Then there are the dungeons, what many consider the meat and potatoes of a Zelda experience. On a whole they’ve been stripped of their size, instead distilled into areas with roughly no more than 10 rooms total. While it sounds like it’s a bad thing, these dungeons make every area matter, as a single room can sometimes take over twenty minutes to get through. While the dungeons start off rather standard, the third dungeon and on are all borderline genius. There just isn’t a bad one in the lot and they somehow never cease to surprise with new creative challenges.
If Skyward Sword has any real issue at all, it would be pacing. Aside from the semi-long two hour introduction sequence, there is thankfully not much filler until much later in the game. For example, players are asked to take three trips up Eldin Volcano almost consecutively. Each trip up the volcano varies slightly, however one of them involves an uninteresting escort mission that drags down the momentum that was starting to build. There is another point that involves swimming at Faron Woods that is easily the low point of the entire experience. On top of that there are even some repeated boss fights. Sure, the boss fights are mixed up to be more difficult than the last time, but at the same time they seem like missed opportunities. One boss actually has to be fought three times, almost twice in a row. I could see doing this fight twice, but three times was over kill, especially since it’s one of the more uninteresting battles in the game.
The bosses are generally incredible, some of the best that this series has seen. Combat as a whole just feels right, especially thanks to the new motion control. I’ve spoken with some people that seemed to have issues with the motion control but I personally never had any genuine issues. I’m not sure where the discrepency lies, but regardless, motion control has certainly opened up the possibilities of Zelda’s combat even if they’re not 100% accurate.
Take fighting a dangling spider for example. The spider can be cut down from his rope, causing him to flip onto his back giving Link a chance to perform a fatal blow. Or the spider can be knocked sideways, and then stabbed in his weak point as he turns over. There are many other enemies that can be fought multiple ways, and I had fun experimenting with the different ways I could deal with them. Plus there are loads of genuinely awesome sword fights that demand a more defensive Link than the usual offensive Link we’re used to playing as.
The items are much more useful this time around as well, with an inventory that Link is constantly required to juggle through in order to proceed. Some items, like the beetle, are kept relevant throughout the entire game thanks to item upgrades. What starts out as a simple a scouting device, turns into a remote controlled bomber, and then through optional upgrades earns the ability to go faster and have more air time. Not all of the items get the sort of love and care that the beetle does, but there isn’t really a dud in the bunch and they’re all fun to use.
Selecting items has become a much more streamlined process as well. Instead of going off to an equipment menu and assigning an item a button command, Skyward Sword’s pouch menus allow the player to quickly select an item in real time. The pouch menu is a circular overlay that appears on screen in which a simple gesture selects the item. Eventually I learned the menu so well that I could select items simply by opening it and already having the remote pointed in the position I need. I know the pointing the remote at 12 ‘o clock will equip the bow and arrow, and I know that pointing at 3 ‘o clock will allow me to use my beetle. Essentially it boils Zelda back down to its two button roots of having a sword button and an item button, yet the streamlined menu never makes it feel limited. It’s very clever.
What is interesting is the way the pointer control completely uses Motion Plus. There is no pointing towards the censor bar for IR aiming, instead once an item is equipped the game automatically makes a center point from the position the player is holding the remote, and waving the remote from there adjusts the aim. I could see people failing to grasp this concept and having a hard time aiming, especially since they’ve been so trained to aim at the sensor bar. For those that have trouble with centering the remote, pressing down on the DPad at any time will center the reticule. It must have been a programming nightmare to get the remote to secretly recalibrate almost constantly, but it’s paid off because I think it works wonderfully on a whole.
As far as the story goes, long time fans will find plenty to like in the various origins that Skyward Sword dives into. The story fills in a few key blanks in the overall Zelda mythology and presents new possibilities for the series. The series still lacks voice acting and keeps the cut scenes to a minimum, which while this comes off dated, I can’t help but respect Skyward Sword for understanding that it’s a video game and not striving to be something it isn’t. While I enjoyed the story, I particularly like the little side stories that take place on Skyloft the best. Skyloft isn’t full to the brim with inhabitants, but it makes up for the volume in quality.
Skyloft, the games central hub, feels very similar to Clocktown from Majora’s Mask. Each person there has their own story and unique personality. The shop owner might be my favorite character on Skyloft. Just watching him go about his business is enjoyable, from the way he carries himself as Link approaches his store, to his complete disappointment as Link leaves the shop empty handed, and then discovering how downright miserable he is when visiting him at his home at night. Link himself has plenty of fun mischievous moments too, my favorites involving him stringing along the Item Check girl into thinking he loves her, and another where Link can deliberately shove a love letter down a toilet, ending the chances for love to bloom for certain characters. Returns to Skyloft were never a chore and I’d often get side tracked for hours helping out the various townsfolk.
On a whole Skyward Sword is the most creative Zelda since 2000’s Majora’s Mask, making amazing strides in not only the way motion controls can be implemented into an adventure game, but also in the way smart navigation allows players to cut out lots of the fluff. Unfortunately, pacing issues keep Skyward Sword from being absolutely perfect. However, a few dull spots barely taint what is easily one of the most creative and well thought out games ever designed.