Given how long the regular review is, we are offering the following abridged version for those who may not wish to read as much about the specifics.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword by Nintendo for the Wii is a pretty massive undertaking, from start to finish, particularly if you aren’t able to devote more than a few hours a night to playing it and aren’t trying to complete it as quickly as possible. We’ve reached the end of the game with over 50 hours clocked to our file, and we’ve been playing since before the game was released (such is life).
We’ve been playing Zelda from the beginning, and while we have not played every single installment (waiting for the Oracle games to hit the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console as we speak), we have played most of them. Some we have loved, and others… not so much.
With that said, Skyward Sword is undoubtedly one of our favorites in the entire franchise, and more than Ocarina of Time, at that. But would we recommend it as a blind purchase?
Surprisingly, the answer is no. Truth be told, if you can try it out first somehow– a demo unit, visiting someone who bought it, etc.– we thoroughly and wholeheartedly recommend doing so first. And the bigger a Zelda fan you are, the more strongly we encourage it over buying first and playing later.
If what Producer Eiji Aonuma says is true, that future Zelda titles will follow in Skyward Sword‘s footsteps, then this is the game which may determine where you stand with the franchise for years to come.
In the link, Aonuma is specifically referring to Skyward Sword‘s biggest selling point: the 1:1 sword combat. As we discussed previously, the sword controls are largely 1:1, but in a different way than you might expect. Link’s full arm follows the orientation of the controller, rather than the finer movement and placement you find in a game like Red Steel 2 (not that there have been many others to attempt it).
They can be tricky to get used to, but when you do, they work great. Or rather, perhaps we should say “if.” It seems that a lot of people have trouble getting used to how the sword controls work, and regretfully, the game does not offer much to help you along.
Generally, if you get the hang of it, then it is rarely a problem and provides a very engaging dynamic compared to past 3D Zelda games. We would even liken it to the exciting shield-and-swordplay found in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, fully realized in a 3D game with greater potential and opportunities presented. Unlike pressing a button or “waggling” as in Twilight Princess, there is definitely a certain level of skill required here.
One other thing we absolutely love is the Skyward Strike. Being able to shoot energy from your sword again, in 3D no less, is such a thrill for the oldschool Zelda fan in us, and it’s amazingly versatile, too. 25 years ago, shooting beams from his sword was just a part of who he was, and so it is once again.
Link, Agent of SHIELD
Coupled with the new sword mechanics are also new shield mechanics. You can no longer passively hold the shield button (in fact, there isn’t one) while enemies attack; your shields have a set amount of durability, and if too much damage is inflicted upon them, they shatter (or burn, as the case may sometimes be).
Over the course of the game, you can purchase numerous types of shield, use collected resources to enhance them, and even add potions to further (temporarily) increase their durability. However, shields are not a sure thing in this game; in addition to being breakable, they take up a slot in your inventory pouch (you start with a handful, and collect more), and some people opt to go without.
The shield is just the tip of the iceberg where resource management is involved in the game. As noted, you’ll also be collecting 16 types of resource from throughout the game, mostly from fallen foes, in order to help upgrade not only your shields, but other items, too. There are also a dozen insects to collect for enhancing potions, or just selling.
Another resource is Link’s stamina meter, which feels like it is used for everything he does: sprinting, spinning in the water, spinning his sword, pushing, pulling, climbing, or even just holding on to the wall. If you run out of stamina, then Link slogs along until it refills completely, and is unable to use any of his items, including his sword and shield. In other words, you’re defenseless.
Ideally, you would be able to build this meter up over the game somehow, but surprisingly, you cannot– Link’s stamina remains the same throughout the adventure. There are potions which can enhance your stamina, but they only last three minutes.
After enough waiting from one segment to the next for your stamina to refill, as well as watching Link essentially struggle with tasks his successors (or predecessors, if you prefer) performed with such relative ease, this Link unfortunately comes off looking considerably weaker by comparison.
What a Wonderful World This Could Be
The game’s three main areas– the Faron Woods, the Eldin Volcano, and the Lanayru Desert– are each revisited several times over the course of the game, but things change each time. In addition to expanding areas, new enemies will appear, and other elements will change things up considerably.
As a result, each area seems to grow while maintaining a sense of familiarity, giving each region a sense of prominence more akin to Hyrule Castle or Kakariko Village in past games. Furthermore, each area feels much more densely packed than in previous games– unlike the vast expanses in which there is little to be done in past games (beautiful though some of them were), it feels like you don’t have to go very far at all to encounter an enemy, find a character, or solve a puzzle.
In a way, it reminds us of the older top-down Zeldas, where it seemed that almost every screen had to serve a purpose.
Unfortunately, the game tends to deviate from those same early installments by feeling more linear. There is little room for genuine exploration, as it seems that so much is poised to tell you just where to go next.
Despite this, however, the game as a whole seems to have a certain sense of flow that feels a little more consistent and less segmented than the formula seen in previous Zeldas. You know the one: Start adventure/tutorial > Collect three MacGuffins > Plot twist > Seven (or however many) more MacGuffins > End game.
Perhaps it’s due to the goals being split across three regions, but something about the progression just feels a little more natural and a bit less formulaic in Skyward Sword. The big twist comes much closer to the end of the game, and there are more intermission-type quests between other segments, thus making everything feel a lot more even than in prior installments.
The other big part of the world to note is that above the clouds. In a way similar to Wind Waker, there is a massive span of sky for you to fly around in, dotted with floating islands all around. The downside is that there is very little to do on most islands– opening a chest you may have been unable to until a certain task is completed being the most common.
“Master, There is a 95% Chance I’m Going to Repeat What You Were Just Told…”
Arguably, the worst part of the game has to be the near-omnipresent Fi. At the very least, she seems to be as trying as Navi, if not more.
For those unaware, Fi is the spirit within the sword Link wields in this adventure. At first, she seems sort of cool– like KITT in sword form. But as you go on, you grow to get quite tired of her and possibly even sick of her.
Fi has the annoying trait of always stating the obvious. If a character tells you he’s lost his hat and he thinks it fell somewhere beneath the clouds, she’ll emerge for the express purpose of telling you that there is a 88% chance this man is hatless, and that there is a 93% chance you will need to go below the clouds to get the hat if you don’t want his head to become sunburned.
Locks which need keys, Wii Remote batteries getting low, or– worst of all– when your hearts are low. In addition to the beeping that causes, she beeps as well as making the sword start to glow, just so she can come out and tell you that you’re running low on health, and that you should get some hearts to refill your life meter.
Redundancy aside, though, Fi isn’t all bad. She can analyze enemy stats for you, and also helps you with a new skill called Dowsing, which allows you to find items– including the aforementioned hearts– by pointing your sword. It’s kind of cool, in a way, particularly if you’re a fan of stuff like PKE Meters or shouting “give me Sight Beyond Sight!” as you look around.
More Control, Less Control
The final thing to talk about is more of the controls. Beyond swordplay, there are some interesting things which can be done with them, from flying your Loftwing steed to swimming to guiding a remote beetle drone across the landscape.
But for all the handholding the game does, it can be incredibly vague when it counts. For one thing, there is a certain skill required when riding a Loftwing, and going by the reactions we’ve seen, most people are left unaware that they need to “flap” the Wii Remote to make the Loftwing flap its own wings, allowing it to gain elevation.
In addition to the motion controls, there are the pointer controls– or the lack there of. Unlike most Wii games, Skyward Sword makes little to no use of the IR sensor bar atop the television (or underneath, depending on how you’ve set it up). As a result, it bases the cursor’s “center” on the screen on wherever you happen to be pointing when you bring it up, and you’re constantly having to recenter. Worse still, the pointer can frequently become uncentered while using it, leading to more recentering.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has a lot of good points and a lot of bad, and it really seems to vary from player to player which carries the greater weight. The above carries but a sampling, and there is so much more we haven’t even touched on here, for better or for worse.
In our opinion, while the game has its issues– several of which could probably have been solved by including options (such as skipping/speeding up text, turning Fi’s tips off, allowing IR use for the cursor, etc.)– we weigh in favor of the game. For us, the good definitely outweighs the bad, enough that this is one of our favorite Zeldas of all time.
Even so, we strongly encourage trying it for yourself before committing to a purchase. Skyward Sword is truly the sum of its parts, and it’s the kind of game you can only experience for yourself to be sure whether it’s right for you. But no one should miss out on it due to mere hearsay– even our own.
If you need more information, you’ve got it: our full review has many more detailed analysis of different aspects of the game (plus a gallery of screens and video), but even then, we couldn’t cover everything– there is just that much going on here.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released for the Wii on November 20th, 2011, and is priced at $49.99 (or more, if you find it bundled with the special edition Wii Remote Plus). A review copy was provided to us by Nintendo of Canada.