I beat The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword today (today being the week or so ago that I started drafting this post). Although there’s going to be a lot of review-ish stuff in what’s to follow here, I’m looking at this post more as just some reflection on the game, pointing out some things that I liked didn’t like, as well as ruminating on the series as a whole.
As I look back over what I’ve written, a lot of it seems fairly negative, so I think I’ll add a disclaimer here. I love Zelda games, and I really enjoyed Skyward Sword. I certainly don’t think it’s deserving of the perfect 10 that ign.com gave it, but I still think it’s a great game. So please, don’t forget that as you read on.
Ok, maybe I’ll start with a tad of series rumination instead. The first Zelda game I ever played was Ocarina of Time. That game is not only my favorite of the series, but my favorite game of all time. The N64 era Zelda games (Ocarina and Majora’s Mask, a brilliant game in its own right) are the archetypes of Zelda games for me. Part of it may be nostalgia, I’ll admit. But that’s where I’m coming at this from. Those are the best. Those are what Zelda games ought to be. Those are Zelda done right, and in Ocarina‘s case, perhaps done to perfection.
Part of what made those games great is that they knew when to have fun, and they knew when to be serious. All Zelda games have quirky, funny supporting casts, bright, cheerful environments, and the odd thing that is downright goofy. I’m in favor of that. It’s part of what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game. But what Ocarina and Majora’s Mask did so well was use these features of the franchise appropriately. There’s childhood whimsy on display in places. But there’s also a darker element at work. Link finds himself in danger at many points, and the art style, while remaining stylized and “cartoony” in its own way, never fails to communicate that there are seriously bad things around that will unmercifully kill him if he looses his focus. The atmosphere in these games in frequently downright creepy. Wandering through a monster-infested dungeon, the player never forgets that the world is in jeopardy. I don’t mean to get into the middle of the debate over Wind Waker‘s art (because that’s kind of a tangential issue), but part of why I didn’t like that game as much as the N64 Zelda games was I never felt dread for the world. Most of the monsters seemed like they could have been pacified with a hug, and Ganondorf wasn’t entirely exempt from that sort of snuggliness.
I mention all of this to help explain, by contrast, why I have problems, both on a technical and a personal level, with some aspects of Skyward Sword. I know there are people who love Wind Waker to death and think Zelda should be super-cuddly and cute. For me, that’s not Zelda, but that’s a valid opinion. If it’s your opinion, I hope you won’t dismiss what I have to say out of hand; see if you agree with my technical critique, and ignore the aspects which are purely opinion. Besides, I’m starting with the art because that was very important to the overall feel of the game, but I’m going to be talking about a log more than just that.
And with that, I dive in.
I thought Skyward Sword‘s presentation was wildly inconsistent, and yes, that begins with a personal opinion about the art. Skyward Sword is trying to tell an origin story for the Master Sword and Hyrule, staples of the rest of the series. Functionally, it boils down to a long brewing fight between the goddess Hylia and a demon king who wants to destroy everything (as demon kings are generally wont to do). The fight plays out through Link and Zelda on the side of the goddess versus the main villain, Ghirahim, on the side of the demon king. In short, it’s bad stuff with serious consequences for the future of the world. But the artistic presentation only made me feel like that was the case about a third of the time. Yes, there were times when the developers nailed it, such as with the spirit realm segments. (No matter what you thought of the gameplay in those sections, the atmosphere was spot on.) But when a major battle is against an armless, scaly walking blob, and my goal as a player is to bludgeon its toes until it falls over, I have trouble buying the serious mood that the game it trying to persuade me to take. There were too many moments like that, both big and small. I wanted the same persistent feeling of eeriness I got as I crept through the Forest Temple (or any of the others, for that matter) in Ocarina, and all I ever got in Skyward Sword was the occasional twinge.
On a related note, with frightening frequency I had to remind myself that I was playing a Zelda game rather than a Mario or Donkey Kong game. There were aspects of the environments (such as robots) that just felt completely out of place in a Zelda title, regardless of how well those aspects were implemented.
Presentation was similarly inconsistent in the character models. Link was beautifully detailed, but many of the supporting cast including Zelda herself were not. They appeared bland, two dimensional, and really, unfinished in comparison. I was also a bit confused by the depth-of-field effect applied to the whole game. Objects in the foreground were rendered sharply, but as objects receded into the distance, they became blurred, rendered instead by many little spots of color, like an impressionist painting. The effect itself looked great. Distant vistas looked great. But it only served to highlight the Wii’s limited graphical horsepower, and the lack of detail that was frequently on display up close.
Moving on from presentation issues, let’s talk about the controls. Skyward Sword requires the use of Wii MotionPlus, which allows, more or less, for 1:1 control of Link’s sword. This is what Wii owners have been clamoring for since the announcement of the system. Twilight Princess gave us waggle, which, though a glorified button, was tremendously immersive and fun, but with Skyward Sword Link can now, in theory, perform precise attacks in any direction. And it works. Sort of.
Yes, Link can intentionally swing in a number of specific directions, as almost every enemy in the game requires him to do. But I still found myself flailing my remote and cursing out my TV because Link wasn’t doing what I thought I has dictated. Many enemies, from the ordinary Bobokin to the final boss, react so quickly to the direction of Link’s sword that I found myself just waggling blows until I scored a hit because as long as they were defending they couldn’t attack me, and any strategy was next to useless because they defended too quickly. Certainly, there were some enemies that required a more subtle approach, and with only a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, bobokin with an electrified billy club) these were the most enjoyable fights of the game. For example, there were two and four armed skeletons that altered their guard more slowly, and if you struck the wrong way you’d be open to counterattack. When you failed to score a hit or suffered damage, you knew what you’d done wrong. But flailing around because enemies can anticipate you too well was maddening.
Music has long been a part of Zelda games, but here it felt tacked on. Link has a harp, and you can use it to solve a few nonessential puzzles in addition to the couple of times you need it to progress, but playing the harp in these instances is a boring rhythm minigame that has nothing to do with music, really. The developers would have been better served either instituting a better music system or scrapping the mechanic altogether.
Perhaps my single biggest complaint about the entire game, however, was Fi, the spirit guide character that travels with Link everywhere he goes. She had to be modeled off of C-3PO from Star Wars, except removed of all personality. She states the obvious, summarizes conversations you just had, and is, simply stated, a computer. There’s a running joke about how annoying Navi, the fairy sidekick from Ocarina, was. But next to Fi, Navi seems like the most interesting man in the world.
I guess the final complaint I’ll voice about the game has to be with regard to its quest structure. For all intents and purposes, there are four areas in which the game takes place: Skyloft (the “home base” for Link) and three areas below the clouds. Link can adventure in each of those areas, but each one is self-contained. As the story progresses, Link also returns to each area multiple times, occasionally opening new sections, but always revisiting old stomping grounds as well. This in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing (although I think it does limit the adventuring spirit that is core to Zelda games), but instead of doing interesting things with the areas a-la-the changes in Ocarina from young Link to adult Link, the tasks set before you are too often mundane fetch quests and make-work for the sake of adding gameplay hours. They serve little, if any, purpose to the story, and often are cast in the light of “just to make sure you’re really the hero the goddess appointed, complete this test” even though you’ve already done things to prove yourself to that region.
On the other hand, Skyward Sword was at times a tour de force when it came to puzzles, providing some of the smartest, most fun, most integrated challenges Zelda has had in a while. There are two that stick out: one recurring and one not.
The recurring one has to do with the time-shift stones in the desert province, the premise being that the region was not always a desert and was once a lush mining colony (yeah, that sounds weird, but just go with it). Link can activate these stones by striking them with his sword or an item, and they create an area that is shifted back in time. Old mining equipment gains power and can move, doors can open, robots are activated. Almost every puzzle in this region centers around manipulating these stones, and it’s brilliant.
The other puzzle I’ll specifically mention comes very near the end of the game. Link encounters a dungeon that has eight rooms positioned on a 3×3 grid. Each room has specific sides where there are entrances. Link can manipulate the order of these rooms from a few specific locations, moving the rooms he’s not in like a sliding puzzle. Each room then has its own challenges, but half the battle is figuring out how to rearrange the rooms such that Link can get to all the necessary ones. It was great fun.
I guess that’s about it for now. Since this is sort-of-not-a-review, I’ll offer sort-of-not-a-verdict. Skyward Sword is a great game. It’s a lot of fun, runs for 20-30 hours of gameplay easily, and is well worth your money, particularly if you’re a fan of the series. It tries out a number of new ideas and succeeds in executing them to varying degrees. It’s far from a perfect game, perhaps not even my favorite Zelda on the Wii. But I did enjoy playing it despite some of its frustrations. I’ll call it a 4 out of 5.