The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword by Nintendo for the Wii is perhaps the most challenging review we’ve written to date.
Part of it is due to the sheer size of the game. It’s 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).
With so much to see and do, we feel our normal style of review is inadequate; were we to go all-out on it, we could probably write an entire book about the ups and downs of this particular game, as there are so many.
And then there is the other part: In our time playing it, we’ve also had the opportunity to witness the reaction of other players to the game, and have come to recognize Skyward Sword as perhaps the most divisive game in the history of The Legend of Zelda. Some aspects are annoying to some, and enjoyable to others, while other parts are just genuinely bothersome to nearly everyone.
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.
In the player’s hometown of Skyloft, the floating mass of land high above the clouds, you are able to go to a training hall to practice against log dummies. And while this does help one to get the gist of how the controls work, fighting dummies is very different from taking on actual armed combatants, even the lowly Bokoblins of even lower intellect.
It’s a trial by fire (sometimes literally) as you move in to engage foes who seek to block your attacks, and will change the position of their guard to accomodate for movement of the player’s sword. If they’re guarding high, you’ll want to strike low, but if you take too long, they’ll move their guard to block low.
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.
Unfortunately, there are some foes who can prove especially troublesome for even those players who have a handle on how the swordplay works. This is especially apparent when confronting the evil antagonist of the story, Demon Lord Ghirahim, who is able to block your strikes from any direction by grabbing your blade between his middle and index fingers.
Ideally, you’re supposed to face encounters like this by moving where your sword is held, and striking from that direction. But if you move too slow, the enemies will change their stance to block. Yet, if you move too quickly, then the controls register it as a slash, thwarting your movement and potentially even leaving you open.
Unlike pressing a button or “waggling” as in Twilight Princess, there is definitely a certain level of skill required here.
In all, the new method of swordplay is great in the right hands, but unfortunately, you’re pretty much tossed into a sink-or-swim situation after acquiring your sword. When we first played the game, we imagined that there would be a considerable tutorial to help acclimate users to the new mechanics, one which would put the introduction of Twilight Princess to shame; instead, there is virtually nothing remotely close.
Ironically, that does not mean that Skyward Sword allows a greater degree of freedom to the player. Just the opposite, in fact, but we’ll get to that more in a bit.
As for precision, moving your sword feels pretty precise for the most part, though there are some caveats. We’ve yet to see any extensive testing, but some attest to greater responsiveness coming from the Wii Remote and MotionPlus attachment, rather than the all-in-one Wii Remote Plus, such as the one included in the game.
Furthermore, these controls seem as though they take a greater toll on the Remote’s battery life, and the swordplay seems less responsive as the amount of power in the battery seems to dwindle. But again, we’ve yet to see this tested, and is merely speculatory, based on hearsay and our own loose observations.
One last note about the sword mechanics before we move on: we absolutely love 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).
A flick of the Nunchuk brings out the shield, and another flick will have Link ram it forward. Timed right, this can stun enemies with melee attacks or deflect some projectiles back to their source, and the shield won’t take any damage in the process.
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.
In concept, it’s a welcome enough idea, though we think it could use a little work. There are areas where you’re required to sprint, and these are often long enough to drain your stamina completely, leaving you to wait for it to refill at the other side before you can really continue, thus interrupting the action.
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
Moving on, another point of contention within the game is the world itself. People were taken aback when they learned that there would only be three regions within the game, plus Skyloft and the world above the clouds it inhabits.
Miyamoto stated that the reason behind this was to establish more meaning to each area through revisitation, rather than the common “one and done” type of questing performed across numerous areas in past titles. And truth be told, we think it works.
The three 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.
While this seems to improve later to some degree as you open up more of the world, it still tends to feel disconnected– rather than one area flowing into the next, each feels very distinct and separate. The fact that a later portion of the game, one which allows you to perform tasks in the order of your choosing, leads to a game-crashing bug hints that the freedom to explore was not too high on the developers’ list of priorities.
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.
Unfortunately, some of the quest portions feel a bit contrived, as though they could come up with no better reason for you to be doing what needs to be done. Just how many times must one prove that they are the one chosen by the goddess, anyway? Thankfully, those are in the minority.
What isn’t in the minority is something Zelda players seem to either love or hate: stealth missions. There are a total of five in the game; four are actual tasks, missions in a spiritual world where Link has nothing but his stamina to get him by, and one strike means starting all over. These aren’t quite as bad as the stealth portions seen in some past games, and the fourth actually comes as a bit of a surprise– you almost want to smirk and say “yeah, I’ve got this” when it comes up.
Fortunately, in those four segments, you are still able to act if you’re spotted, unlike past Zelda games. Unfortunately, being spotted triggers a cutscene every… single… time. The fifth, a separate thing altogether, plays more like the old Zelda stealth segments, where just being spotted means Link gets the “deer in headlights” look on his face as he waits to be clobbered, starting him over from a checkpoint.
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.
Beyond that, getting from Point A to Point B can take a while. There are certain rocks which will increase your speed greatly by passing through the hole in them, but if you miss those, you’ll either have to keep moving on slowly, or try to circle around, which can be troublesome with the need for a wide arc.
That last part is also troublesome if you touch down in the wrong area beneath the clouds. Just visiting a goddess statue, you can return to the sky, but if you want to drop back into another part of the same area, you have to circle your Loftwing (the large birds you ride) around in a wide arc to have another go at it. Midna’s portals were a bit more elegant and efficient, to say the least.
“Master, There is a 95% Chance I’m Going to Repeat What You Were Just Told…”
Speaking of Midna, who has proven herself to be perhaps the most endearing of all Link’s sidekicks, the worst part of the game has to be the near-omnipresent Fi.
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.
On the other hand, there are many times when you learn of a new item to dowse for, and Fi begins glowing and going off for you to do so immediately, before you’re even in the area where you can really use it.
A similar nuisance is every time you restart the game after quitting. You’ll often be told what things you pick up are, even if you have dozens of them, or are 50 hours into the game. And every time you pick up a resource item after starting the game up, it cuts away to your item screen to show it being added there, even in the middle of a vicious battle. It’s nothing short of bothersome at best, insulting at worst.
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.
Swimming, flying your Loftwing, and controlling the mechanical beetle drone all call on you holding the Wii Remote steady for straight movement, and tilting it accordingly to go up, down, left, or right. Unfortunately, the “down” part is slightly problematic, particularly for longer stretches, as it can be tricky to hold the Remote in such a position for very long without wanting to turn it, which makes your character turn as well.
And for all the handholding the game does, it can be incredibly vague when it counts. Similar to learning the sword, 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.
The motion controls do play a big part– maybe too big a part. One instance is the main key in each dungeon, which must be rotated to fit the lock a certain way. Doing so with the motion controls is clumsy and annoying, however.
At the same time, there are instances where one can’t help but think it would be better with motion controls. One such instance is when carrying a stack of pumpkins without letting them fall. One would think that using the Wii Remote, much like when you’re walking a tightrope, would be the natural thing to do. Instead, it’s all controlled by analog, and you can’t turn, either, leaving one to wonder why they chose not to use it.
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.
You may have noticed that throughout this review, we would list a lot of good things, but follow up with bad, or vice-versa. This is pretty much what makes the game so divisive among players, and it becomes a matter of each individual weighing what they like and what they don’t like.
Furthermore, there is just so much more which could be said: many of the boss battles are great, though some are simply irritating. Most items feel useful again, and you’re likely to use them frequently, rather than gathering dust like in previous games. And much can be said of the characters, too; some fall a little flatter than others, but several are introduced that we’ve grown to love, including some new species.
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.
But, that’s just our opinion. Whether or not you’ll like it is something you’ll have to find out for yourself, but we certainly encourage everyone to at least try it; don’t write it off beforehand based on things you might have heard or read. Otherwise, you might find yourself missing something grand.
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.