27th November 2011 - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the latest instalment in Nintendo's 25-year old franchise. It is to be the last major first-party game to be made for the Wii before the company focuses on their upcoming console, the Wii U. With these facts in mind, and the impression of retreading old ground left by the last title, Twilight Princess, I was prepared to experience a solid, but disappointing, game that would follow the same formula and trappings of the past Zelda games. After playing Skyward Sword, I am humbled and ecstatic to reveal that this latest Zelda game is, without a doubt, not just the greatest Legend of Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, but the best game on the Wii, period.
The story begins on the floating island of Skyloft, where the main character, Link, is participating in a local ceremony that is being lead by his childhood friend, Zelda. In a matter of minutes, however, Zelda is captured by evil forces and Link must venture into the unknown, and along the way discover his destiny.
Before getting into Gameplay proper, a certain observation must be made first about Skyward Sword's story and characters. At the risk of alienating long-time Zelda fans, some elements that have become synonymous with the Zelda franchise seem to have been altered or removed. It almost reaches the point that if it weren't for the names or the call-backs to other games, one could forget that they were playing a Legend of Zelda game. The result, some would think, that everything the series was about would die with this sudden change, but, ironically, it is because of these changes that this new Zelda has done so much right. As opposed to having Zelda as a princess she is established as a childhood friend of Link, and even though the dialogue is all given in text boxes, the body language and actions by both characters show an amazing intimate chemistry that can rival the characters in Ico. It's because of this character chemistry that instead of rescuing Zelda because of her being important to the plot, she becomes important because of the bond she and Link share. The changes also move to the types of creatures you meet along the way, as well as a new truly menacing villain. For the sake of spoilers, I will not reveal who or what sticks around, but the amount of variety is a giant breath of fresh air for this series.
The gameplay mimics this giant leap of change, and it is a blast. Using Skyloft as a main hub, you travel to every location by flying on your Loftwing, or giant bird. The flight controls take some getting used to, but once you adjust, the thrill of free falling to your next location or just flying through the clouds is absolutely amazing. The core of the game is, of course, sword combat, puzzle-solving and some mild platforming. The sword fighting most notably has received a massive overhaul from just waggling the Wii Remote. With the addition of the Motion Plus, the game is able to track not only the direction you're pointing the Wii Remote, but also in which direction you are slashing. Vertical, horizontal, diagonal, stabbing, all of that is done by performing the appropriate action with the remote. This is used very creatively, for it makes you think in every single sword fight you're in, whether it's waiting for all of the heads of a mini-hydra to link up or slicing apart the exposed bits of armour on a robot. If there is a hiccup it is that every now and then slashes take the tiniest fraction of a second to be performed after swinging the remote, but it is overlooked once you get used to it.
As for the secondary items and dungeon levels of the game, these are the official highlights of Skyward Sword. Every single level of the game is cleverly put together and makes the challenge come from active trial and error, as opposed to the level railroading the player from one encounter to the next. The game doesn't hold your hand, but neither does it leave you to choke all together. A middle ground is met with the ability to receive hints, and using your sword as a divining rod for specific things such as hearts, rupees, small keys, etc. More than once, I was actively stuck in a room for the bulk of half an hour trying to figure out how to get to the next room. These moments aren't frustrating as they are taxing to endure but invigorating to get through. The special items you get in Skyward Sword are still distinctly Zelda in the broadest areas. You still get a bomb bag, and a slingshot, and a bug net, but the new items are so clever and flexible in use that it's a major surprise they weren't implemented sooner. Specific items like the Beetle, which is a remote controlled insect that can be used to cut cords, pick up items, and if you're really stumped, dungeon recon, and the Air Bellows, a giant jug that spew’s a harsh stream of wind.
If there is anything resembling a complaint I have about the gameplay, it would have to be that for those with short attention spans, the game can feel very slow in the beginning. It's not slow in the sense that the game performs a giant information dump on you, but more in terms of mood setting and character building with a well integrated tutorial. The game gets going about an hour or so in but once this game gets going, you do not want to stop.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword rejects the realistic aesthetic of its previous instalment, Twilight Princess, and goes for a wide and diverse colour palette. Because of this bright use of colour mixed with just the right shades and art direction, the atmosphere of the entire world just screams, “adventure is out there!” The character models are distinct, the stylization isn't too flamboyant to turn the characters into caricatures, and in cut scenes, the emotion emitted through the face and body language is mesmerizing.
Skyward Sword's musical score is arguably the best score of the year. From intimate and gentle strums of the harp, to triumphant and bold orchestral swells to the endearing vocal work from the chorus, the music of this game is the kind you will find humming in your head for months to come. The folly effects are also really well assembled. Sword slashes have impact, the rushing sound of water has great force behind it, and the sound of the wind ripping past as your free fall from the highest point in the map is addictive.
Skyward Sword is a game that leaves no one disappointed. Zelda veterans will love the new level design and story direction as well as the subtle references to past games, those who have only dabbled in Zelda will find the game engaging and serviceable, and those who have never played a Zelda game in their life will find a lot to love. Skyward Sword is a great game, not just for a game that's on the Wii; it is a strong contender for Game of the Year. In almost active defiance of gaming trends of high graphical fidelity and gameplay revolving around spectacular set pieces and aggressive linearity, Skyward Sword is a game that reminds gamers that something doesn't need to look realistic to be touching, and that enjoyment can come just as much from brain scratching puzzles as re-enacting an event from an action movie. In addition to a 25 hour long or so main story, there are mini-games to play, hidden objects to obtain, and none of it feels vestigial or tacked on.
Skyward Sword is just the kind of game the series needs. It's a love letter to fans, it's accessible to new people, it's homage to its rich 25 year history, and if a slow start is the only excuse I can find, it's a masterpiece to boot.
+ Great Art and Level Design
+ Engaging and Awe-Inspiring Gameplay
+ Emotionally Touching Score
- Relatively Slow Beginning
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey