Many a word has been written in praise of the Zelda series, and rightfully so: Link’s adventures have provided some of gaming’s most compelling and groundbreaking adventures. Though with such a pedigree comes sky high expectations, which arguably contributed to the middling response of the Wii’s first Zelda game, Twilight Princess. Now, five years later, just as a Zelda game began the Wii’s life, so too will one close it. Does Skyward Sword reverse the wrongs of its predecessor or is it beholden to a bygone era?
When the Wii was first announced, I guarantee that the first thought to cross most gamers’ minds was “sword fighting in Zelda is going to be awesome.” Unfortunately, it’s taken until now for that dream to be realized, but the wait has been well worth it: sword fighting is indeed awesome. Now Link’s sword mimics nearly every slight movement you make, picking up your thrusts and swings with surprising accuracy. Hell, you can even rotate the sword blade in your hands, even though it has no practical effect.
The enhanced controls go far beyond just the sword and have been extended to almost every facet, such as items, swimming, flying, and even the user-interface. No longer will you have to pause the game to switch items; now you can quickly equip anything while even in the heat of battle, simply by reaching for the item itself. It’s very natural, and I hope it becomes a new standard for the series.
The controls aren’t without some pitfalls, however. Namely when using some items that depend on aiming, such as the bow and arrow, you’ll find their accuracy doesn’t always correspond to where you’re aiming the controller. Granted, this can be easily fixed with a quick button-press to recalibrate the controller, but it’s a slight annoyance that can break the sense of immersion.
Ever since Zelda made the jump to 3D, the worlds have been growing progressively larger. Unfortunately, Twilight Princess reached the breaking point with a world so large, it was a chore to explore--particularly since vast amounts of it contained absolutely nothing to do. Skyward Sword scales this back significantly, creating a denser, richer world. And it ties it all together brilliantly by allowing Link to fly between locations using his Loftwing (a giant bird, one of several apparent Avatar inspirations). On the surface, it’s very similar to the boat from Wind Waker, but several times faster and more enjoyable.
Of course, what is a Zelda game without puzzles? Skyward Sword delivers by extending the riddling nature of the dungeons to the entirety of the game. The journey to each dungeon is now filled with environmental puzzles that are guaranteed to leave you scratching your head. Take, for example, the journey through Lanayru Mines, where you’ll have to activate time-crystals which revert the small pocket of surrounding area to a time hundreds of years before, while leaving the area outside that radius exact as is. It’s often mind-bending, but without ever feeling insurmountable. Even the combat has been infused with a light sense of puzzle-solving as you deduce the proper manner in which to swing your sword. It actually makes for a far more engaging, less disjointed experience.
The dungeon design is among the best the series has ever seen. In many Zelda games before, I actively dreaded entering a temple - I knew not only was I entering a giant puzzle, but also a labyrinth. Oftentimes, the greatest challenge was simply not getting lost. Mercifully, the dungeon design has been streamlined significantly in Skyward Sword, without at all compromising the difficulty. Instead dungeons generally feature fewer rooms with more focused puzzles. However, it never feels dumbed down. It’s a very subtle tweak, but one I think most will appreciate.
The world of Skyward Sword has been wonderfully realized, expressing a liveliness not seen since Wind Waker. Now granted, the Wii is a bit long in the tooth technologically, and I’ll admit coming hot off of the visually spectacular Uncharted 3 was a bit jarring. But it wasn’t long before I was absolutely lost within the stylistic beauty of Link’s world, where the world’s pastels paint an otherworldly fantasy picture. The terrain even melts away into a sponge painted-like backdrop as you venture away. It’s a beautiful effect and one that truly enriches the visuals.
While both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess dabbled with character expression to varying success, it’s down right palpable in Skyward Sword. You can read the emotions right off the characters’ faces without reading the words--though you should too, as the script is the best yet in a Zelda game, injecting a certain whimsical humor that really brings the story to life. The wonderful script and excellent animation gel perfectly to bring the characters to life. And for the first time ever, there seems to be a real spark--actual chemistry--between Link and Zelda. And while it still may not be explored as much as I would have liked, both characters feel like actual beings enraptured by fate, instead of mere plot devices.
While the overall game is fantastic, it does take a while to get truly interesting. One of my biggest pet peeves in games is a slow opening. I want to be captivated from the start; to feel the game’s essence from the get-go. This was partly why I was so let down by Twilight Princess: the plodding early hours really eradicated the momentum I felt going in. Fortunately, even though Skyward Sword’s opening is still slower than I would ideally like, it’s significantly better paced than its predecessor. Of course, the pacing of Skyward Sword is simply fantastic all-around. This is a 60-70 hour adventure that almost never feels dull or repetitive. In fact, if it weren’t for a few annoying fetch-quests towards the end, I would argue that Skyward Sword is nearly as tight as A Link to the Past.
In many ways, Skyward Sword feels like a love letter to fans let down by Link’s last adventure. Where Twilight Princess was dark, Skyward Sword is bright; deep instead of vast; lively in lieu of desolate; and above all else, Skyward Sword is fun to play the whole way through. While it may not blow minds like Link’s very finest, it didn’t really need to. Skyward Sword simply needed to prove that Zelda is back on the right track. It may not be the Wii’s best game (hi Mario Galaxy 2); it may not even be this year’s best game (hi Portal 2), but like the brilliant blue backdrop of Skyward Sword, Zelda’s future has rarely looked brighter.
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release: November 20, 2011
Available On: Wii
Link to the Past: Loved
Ocarina of Time: Loved
Majoraís Mask: Loved
Spirit Tracks: Loved
Phantom Hourglass: Meh
Wind Waker: Meh
Twilight Princess: Kill it with fire