Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

 

It’s been four years since Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for the Wii. It took a while, but I finally got around to beating the game. Naturally now seems like as good of a time as any to share my thoughts on the game. Sure it might be a procrastinator’s review but opinionated reviews matter as much now as they did three years ago (not at all), so why not? A new release for one of Nintendo’s marquee franchises always deserves some attention. Read on to find out my thoughts on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a game that shares its story beautifully despite a few distracting issues.

Presentation

The first thing I noticed when playing Skyward Sword? Even at three years old, this is a gorgeous game. The art style incorporates a blend of styles seen in both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, making use of light cel-shading, vibrant colors, and textures to evoke an almost water-color like quality. The art style really helps bring out the elemental aspects of each zone/dungeon and small details such as water/magma effects, lighting, and a fully-orchestrated soundtrack help each area feel lively and detailed. It’s a shame that such expressive artistic elements clash with the character designs as much as they do. Many of the characters and monsters in Skyward Sword are made with rounded or even bulbous proportions. While this works for the NPC characters of Skyloft, and some of the lower-tier enemies found on the surface, many monsters are left looking a bit too cute and cartoony for my liking.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in boss battles. On one hand you have fearsome titans such as Koloktos, an Eastern-Asia inspired automaton with six sword-bearing arms, Moldarach, a thousand year-old scorpion, or Levias,an elder sky god infected with a demon parasite, and on the other you have Scaldera, a flaming ball of rock with cartoonish legs, Tentalus, a blob of tentacles with an all-too-obvious-weak-spot eye, and the Imprisoned, a giant black mass with gigantic white toes that is quite possibly the most generic and lazily designed boss I’ve ever fought in a video game.

The best Skyward Sword bosses look like they stepped out of the best Saturday morning cartoons...

The best Skyward Sword bosses look like they stepped out of the best Saturday morning cartoons…

and the worst look like they stepped out of Nick Jr.

and the worst look like they stepped out of Nick Jr.

I wouldn’t say that the character design ruins the game by any means, in fact many of the mini-bosses and high-tier dungeon fodder make up for many of the design shortcomings. I just found it jarring to be fighting through enemy hordes to eventually confront a monster possibly designed by Fisher-Price. The end result is an aesthetically pleasing game that seems unable to decide what age group it wants to target. A sentiment that carries over into other systems of Skyward Sword.

Gameplay

Shortly after announcing the development of Skyward Sword in 2008, Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto firmly pushed the idea that Skyward Sword would bring about a new style of Zelda game. This wasn’t exactly a shocking revelation considering the Wii’s only other Zelda entry, Twilight Princess, was largely seen as a bare-bones Wii-port of a Gamecube game and failed to take advantage of the system’s unique control potential. In turn, Skyward Sword looked to introduce 1:1 sword attacks among other Wii-centric gameplay elements.

While Skyward Sword certainly introduces some new and welcome additions to the series, it falls short in tying everything together into the perfect package. Chiefly among these additions is the 1:1 motion capabilities of the Wii-mote. Many enemies have adopted directionally sensitive methods of attacking and defending that force the player to slightly alter their strategies to come out on top. This system works perfectly in general combat/gameplay, but can falter when used in more sensitive situations. Hacking and slashing gangs of moblins feels great. Dancing past the attacks of a lizalfos before planting a well-aimed blow around their guard leaves you feeling accomplished. However, pulling off these kinds of moves while also balancing a touch-and-go camera system, during a boss fight with limited windows of opportunity to defend/attack can be maddening. Aiming projectiles such as the bow, slingshot, or new beetle multi-tool can be equally frustrating when finer motions and quick-reactions are expected to be balanced.

Other gameplay features come courtesy of Nintendo’s mission to make their games as accessible as possible. Fi, the spirit found dwelling within the Master Sword, acts as a guide to the player. It’s similar to the role of the fairies Navi or Tatl from previous games, albeit Fi is far more in-depth in her analysis. Many fans claim such an addition to the Zelda gameplay waters down the overall experience. While I can see the reasoning in this, having played the game in opportunistic chunks of time I enjoyed a degree of handholding. It was nice to be able to come back to the game after a month or so and not feel like I missed a step. I attribute that to Fi’s implementation into the game.

An element of Skyward Sword’s gameplay that I did find to be watered down was the exploration provided by the overworld’s layout. The overworld of Skyward Sword is broken up between one sky realm, Skyloft, and four surface realms. Players fly to each surface region and then play through an outdoor area before taking on the dungeon. This system feels like a far departure from the sprawling worlds of recent console entries in the franchise. The design of the overworld leaves Skyloft feeling quite a bit more barren than Hyrule or Termina. It’s difficult to feel a sense of exploration and adventure when the main hub of the game simply acts as a conduit to the dungeons. Luckily, the dungeons in Skyward Sword are in my opinion some of the best in the series. Each dungeon consists of varying elemental puzzles and challenges that excellently balance the unique items found throughout the world. Later stages of the game do rely more on backtracking than I would have liked, but each runthrough of an area requires new techniques so it’s mostly forgivable. This is also helped by the surface zones, which add variety to the game by playing out like miniature dungeons themselves. Each of the surface areas are highly detailed and full of personality and challenges. I just wish they felt more connected on a larger scale.

Conclusion

Skyward Sword is a game that serves an integral role in the Zelda franchise. As a story it sets the framework for both Hyrule and the overall Zelda series timeline. Its creators wanted to use this game as a marked departure from the typical Zelda gameplay formula and it succeeds in doing this despite a few kinks. Transitioning into new styles of gameplay can leave Skyward Sword feeling disjointed at times, but the pros certainly outweigh the cons. Old and new fans alike can enjoy the game for its lore-establishing story, beautiful presentation, and varied gameplay. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a game that I absolutely recommend to anyone that owns a Wii.

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