The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review

Skyward Sword is the first considerable shift in the way Zelda games have been structured, and it is almost a complete success

skyward_swordUp until the release of Skyward Sword, it had been 25 years, or 9125 days, or 219000 hours since Nintendo first unleashed The Legend of Zelda onto the world. It is possible to say that, through that amount of time, there had never been a single second elapsed during which no developers inside Nintendo’s headquarters were working on a title of the franchise, just like there has never been a millisecond since then without a Nintendo system being turned on while a Zelda adventure unfolded on the screen.

Through that quarter of a century, Nintendo was constantly creating quirky characters, calculating puzzling dungeons, drawing stunning art, engineering immersive scenarios, and constructing moving plots; and during that same period, the company – with almost full accuracy – hit its target of creating games that rank among the best titles ever right in the bullseye.

Legacy, though, is a very heavy burden, and as it is to be expected, every new game in the series is already born with a huge weight on its shoulders: the weight of being automatically compared to its glorious predecessors. No series in the gaming world, and perhaps in the entire universe of entertainment, is as demanded and analyzed as microscopically as The Legend of Zelda, because no series has garnered the same level of respect for being so consistently amazing for so long.

skyward_sword2Whether or not The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the crowning achievement of the series is one endless discussion, but one thing is for sure: until its launch, no game in the franchise had tinkered with the pillars of a Zelda game the way Skyward Sword did. It is a title that doesn’t blow all other Zelda games out of the water, but it proves that – if necessary – successful changes can be implemented to the series; shifts that could give it enough vitality to roll for another 25 years.

Skyward Sword serves as the prequel to Ocarina of Time and deals with the origins of many legendary aspects that are recurrent throughout the series. An epic orchestrated piece sets the tone for the telling of the story of how the Triforce was created by the three goddesses – Din, Farore and Nayru – and entrusted to Hylia. Soon after that event, the Demon Lord, Demise, amassed an army in order to grab the Triforce for himself since the object would grant him his wish for endless power.

During the battle between the good tribes of the world and the evil army, Hylia used her power to send pieces of the land skyward in order to fully protect humans and the Triforce from Demise. The battle was fought, Demise was defeated and sealed, and with the passing of time the world under the clouds became a source of mystery, interest, and fears to those living in peace in the sky. And it is on one of those islands that Link, the chosen hero of the goddess, lives his life unaware of his fate.

From the get go, Skyward Sword manages to develop a deep relationship between Zelda and Link. He is the quiet absent-minded boy who is about to compete in the Wing Ceremony, an important competition whose winner gets promoted to a knight, and Zelda is the daughter of the headmaster of the academy where Link and other students have classes and train.

Through its first three hours, Skyward Sword takes a turn towards cinematic territory and develops its central characters masterfully. The underlying feeling of romance in Link and Zelda’s relationship is absolutely heartwarming and their dialogues are very well-written, not stepping into clichéd land-mines at any times.

skyward_sword6By the time tragedy strikes and Zelda falls to the land below the clouds following a mysterious incident, players will be so involved in the duo’s sweet relationship that the source of the urge for adventure will not be restricted to seeing what dungeon comes next. There will be real motivation in saving the damsel in distress and bringing those two friends back together, and the plot is smartly developed by alternating the unraveling of both the traditional good-versus-evil saga and the human aspects that surround the journey.

By the time one gains control of a fully equipped Link, it is possible to notice how big of an overhaul has been done in the controls department. They are definitely hard to get used to, not because they are bad – although there are indeed some hiccups here and there, but because never has a game been so integrated with actual motion controls.

Skyward Sword throws a whole control philosophy out the window, and brings in a new paradigm. Even the most experienced players will fumble with the setup at first, as if they were 5 year olds having their first contact with a joystick and having to look down at the position of the buttons before every move. It takes patience and a bag of good will, but within four or five hours the difficulties will be surpassed and it will be easy to see the benefits brought by the Wii Motion Plus. Zelda games have never been this streamlined and engaging, and it is all because of the controls.

Undoubtedly, the game’s focus on motion will disappoint some of the fans, which will see the little issues of responsiveness and a few other quirks – such as the occasional but far from bothersome recalibration that is prompted by the game – as proof that such philosophy does not work in a game of the Zelda brand. Those that are able to look past the little issues, though, will probably not want to go back to a traditional control method.

skyward_sword4There are two central benefits brought by this new implementation, the first one being combat. Players can now accurately perform a large number of different slashes, and it is all done by performing the correspondent move. It is possible to stab – a motion that sometimes is indeed problematic in its capture; perform vertical or horizontal swipes; and start moving the sword either from the left, from the right, from the top, or from the bottom. The game gives players total freedom as to what attack to execute.

The large array of moves becomes vital because all enemies in the game are designed so that only specific slashes will successfully land; for example, Deku Babas can have either vertical or horizontal mouths, which means only a slash parallel with its mouth orientation will defeat it. Combat has now become a puzzle in itself, and by doing so Nintendo has added a lot of value to a game whose battles would have otherwise been solved in button mashing affairs.

The second benefit comes in the equipping of items. Players no longer have to map equipment such as the bow, boomerang or hookshot to a limited number of buttons. Instead, all that it takes is a press of the B-button and a wheel with all items will open up. By dragging the cursor towards the item of choice players will select the item and quickly equip it. There is no need to pause the action, and the switch from one item to another can even be done as Link is walking.

Boss battles, dungeons and, as a consequence, the whole game gain a brand new dynamic, which is incredibly beneficial since for the first time ever the dungeons, the overworld, and the bosses require a balanced use of all the items in Link’s inventory. The item acquired in the dungeon is no longer the key to do everything, working – instead – as an extra ingredient on the recipe that allows Link to travel further and further into his quest.

The alterations brought by Skyward Sword are not limited to the controls, though. The game’s structure has also been considerably shifted although it still follows the pattern that has been present in the series since A Link to the Past. Here, Link will do a small quest above the clouds, which will open up an area below the sky; explore the area; reach the dungeon; and go back to the sky to open another area. It’s a cycle that repeats itself constantly, but that is made interesting by the different puzzles, scenarios, and enemies that show up along the way.

skyward_sword3During its second half, the game will make players backtrack into previously visited places, as there are only three distinct areas below the clouds. In Metroid-like fashion, the backtracking centers around the discovery of incredible brand-new locations that could not be accessed due to a lacking piece of equipment.

A few of those missions lack creativity and end up coming off as dull means to extend the playing time, but most of them are actually deeply engaging and creative, such as when Link – having lost all his equipment – must find smart ways to sneak through a slightly altered enemy-ridden version of a previously visited scenario while trying to recover his items; or the long mini-epic ocean-centered quest that leads to the finding of a haunted vessel.

The biggest difference between Skyward Sword and all previous Zelda games lies in the fact that, here, the dungeons seem to have leaked to the outside of their own structures; the overworld, instead of being the usual empty landscape through which Link mindlessly rushes with his transportation method of choice, has now become an open-wide dungeon where, in place of distinct rooms, players will find one large area that needs to be carefully explored by killing enemies and solving progressive puzzles so that Link can reach the actual dungeon in the area.

Consequently, the game loses to its recent predecessors in terms of explorable area, but the result is an adventure that is just as long and much more engaging, as it is always demanding players that they look around, explore, find ways to get through treacherous land, and use their entire inventory in the search of items that will open up the way to the dungeon. Skyward Sword is, therefore, much denser and more constant in its challenge than previous Zelda games.

Once players reach the dungeons, they will be treated to the usual mind-blowing Zelda design, and it is worth mentioning that Skyward Sword has the strongest most consistent bunch of dungeons among all titles that preceded it. Because dungeons are no longer centered around one specific item, most of the puzzle solutions are much less obvious this time around, instead making Link dig to the bottom of his inventory to find previously acquired items that will help him in certain situations.

skyward_sword7Link’s inventory, which presents the usual items such as the slingshot and bombs, has also received some brand-new clever pieces of equipment that make use of the motion-centered nature of the game, such as the beetle – a flying insect controlled with the tilting of the Wiimote – and the whip, which can be used to beat down enemies or manipulate far away switches depending on the way players flick their wrist.

While the land does not offer any open-wide spaces where no goal is present other than going from point A to point B, the sky will satisfy players that still have that desire to feel like they are on a journey through a sprawling world. Controlling Link’s giant bird, however, can be a dull affair. Since all of the creature’s movements are done with motion controls, navigating to the hero’s destination usually takes more effort than it should, forcing players to keep the Wiimote pointed towards the screen while shaking it every once in a while so that the bird flaps its wings to recover lost altitude.

The main problem with the sky, though, is that – far more than that of The Wind Waker – it feels empty even though its size does not even touch the gargantuan proportions of The Great Sea. With the exception of Skyloft – the central town in the game – and another four pieces of ground where fun mini-games and interesting people can be found, the sky simply lacks cleverly designed islands, as most of them look like bland floating patches of grass.

Due to such general lack of life, the sky lacks the strong sense of discovery and exploration that was present on The Great Sea and that made traveling between islands for 3 minutes an engaging experience. Instead of the excitement of exploration, players will mostly smell the heavy air of missed opportunity while mounting their Loftwing.

skyward_sword8Like all Zelda games, Skyward Sword is filled with sidequests that complement the adventure. Skyloft is packed with interesting characters whose characteristics are made more extravagant by the game’s expressive visuals, hence giving them more personality and making them much more likable, and – as expected – most of them will have problems Link needs to solve by moving a little bit out of his central quest’s path. The rewards for clearing those tasks offer plenty of motivation, but while some missions are clever and provide neat bits of character development, a few of them feel padded and entail long trips through the world.

Additionally on the department of extras, under the sky, players will find Goddesses Cubes, which when activated by Link’s sword will open up treasure chests with big rewards located above the clouds. Finding and activating those cubes requires an extra deal of exploration of the earthly scenarios, and, in conjunction with the aforementioned sidequests, they are likely to turn Skyward Sword into a fifty-hour game for most players.

On the technical side of things, Skyward Sword is certainly – alongside the two Super Mario Galaxy games – the Wii’s finest hour. The art direction, a curious blend between the extremely cartoonish Wind Waker and the more realistic Twilight Princess looks perfect for the series. The Legend of Zelda has always been a series sitting between a real medieval world, strangely populated by extravagant characters, and the uncanny magical spiritual realm, and the graphics – which seem to have been taken out of a watercolor painting – convey exactly that. The anticipated orchestrated soundtrack lacks the catchy value some past Zelda songs featured, but in the other hand they add a lot to the game by making it undoubtedly grander and more urgent.

skyward_sword5In a game as huge and Skyward Sword some occasional missteps are bound to show up. Fi, Link’s companion through the whole game, is a character whose robotic behavior starts off as amusing, but ends up being tiresome and stops players from creating any emotional connection to her relationship with Link. Skyward Sword also presents the minor game design flaw, inherited directly from Twilight Princess, where – after resetting the game and picking up from where they left off – players will have to go through a quick explanation on any bugs or materials they acquire even if they had already done so in a previous gaming section, an unnecessary feature that breaks up the pace of the game and annoys players.

Finally, whenever players select an item from their inventory list, the game will recalibrate the Wiimote by considering the point to where the cursor was pointing to at the moment Link brings out said item as the center of the TV screen, players who fail to notice that will invariably have to go through the hustle of re-centering their Wiimote every time they use an item. The game could have made such process clear so that all players know that, when pulling out an item, they must focus the pointer on the center of the screen so that the calibration is not out-of-sorts.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the first considerable shift in the way Zelda games have been structured, and it is almost a complete success. The main staples of the series are all here: puzzles, stunning bosses, incredible dungeons, overwhelming scenarios, and lovable characters, but at the same time it is clear to see that Nintendo tried to move away from many features that were rusting with the passing of the years, and they have done so quite well.

With 25 years on its back, there may be no harder task in the whole gaming industry than creating an amazing new title on the Zelda franchise, because as soon as a new installment is born, it will have to shine brightly under the light of comparison against masterpieces like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker. Therefore, Nintendo’s ability to constantly rise up to that challenge during the series’ long history is worthy of praise and many thanks, for The Legend of Zelda’s ability to conjure up the feeling of awe from both longtime fans and newcomers remains perfectly intact.

skyward-sword

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About Matt

A Brazilian gamer with a great love for playing Nintendo games, and a hobby of writing about his gaming experiences and thoughts. Even though that is what I mainly do for fun, I also love listening to music (especially rock) and watching movies (especially animations), so also expect a few posts on those matters.
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13 Responses to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review

  1. I would place Skyward Sword above Twilight Princess and probably Majora’s Mask (which is fun and different, but also incredibly tedious). But I’d place it behind Ocarina and Wind Waker (which was always the best one).

    I love many of the changes Skyward Sword made to the series, but the later portions of the game are absolute nonsense with all the backtracking and padding. It’s clear proof that a longer game doesn’t equate to a better game.

    I also hate Fi, who is undoubtedly the worst character in Zelda history (main character, anyway). I never liked Midna, but I’d take her over Fi’s utter lack of character and personality any day.

    But overall I like the change in structure, and the motion controls are brilliant. It’s not a masterpiece, but it isn’t far from one.

    • Matt says:

      I am not sure I would put it ahead of Majora’s Mask, but I agree when you say it’s not a masterpiece, but it isn’t far from one.

      As for the backtracking, as I have mentioned on the review, I like the Desert and Volcano portions; I think the ocean region of the desert utilizes the time-shifting stones (is that their actual name?) brilliantly, and it is entertaining – at least to me – to go through the volcano area while having to sneak around and see how that open area is turned into some sort of mini-dungeon (it is worth noting that, here, the sneaking around is implemented much better than it is on Wind Waker’s Forsaken Fortress due to the fact the game does not send you all the way back to the start whenever Link’s caught).

      However, I will agree that some of the other backtracking – especially those that are fetch quests, and the whole second time through the forest area, are unbelievably dull and annoying.

      • I can understand the appeal of Majora’s Mask in a lot of ways, but I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply can’t get drawn into it like I can with Nintendo’s best games. The 3DS version, which I find to be an improvement over the N64 original in just about every way, is still waiting to be finished. I’ve beat the first few dungeons, but whenever I get the chance to play some video games, I find I go to others a lot more easily. I need to finish MM3D to write a proper review, but I honestly don’t always have the interest to continue, despite its quality. I think the nature of the game is a double-edged sword. It’s inventive, but it also makes the whole adventure rather tedious. With Skyward Sword, most of my issues don’t come until later in the game. I think the only 3D Zelda that I have no notable qualms with is Wind Waker (Ocarina is technically sound, but in many ways I feel it just rehashed A Link to the Past, otherwise it’s all good). I guess I’m just more of a Mario man.

        Anyway, I don’t hate all of the backtracking in Skyward Sword, but I think it just gets ridiculous towards the ends. There’s no need to fight the Forsaken so many times (the first two times were fine, but after that…), and sometimes I can’t help but think they were trying to extend the game’s length by adding unnecessary backtracking. This mostly shows when you’re trying to get the pieces of that song from the dragons and the whale, where each one sends you on a different quest, but before you can do those quests you have to do different quests, and before you can finish those quests you have to do completely different quests. It got to the point where I forgot what my original goal was.

        But for the most part, Skyward Sword is still a fantastic game that I’ve been meaning to revisit. Though I legitimately dread having to sit through Fi’s non-dialogue all over again…

        • Matt says:

          It’s a shame about Majora’s Mask. I think it is spectacular!

          You are right on calling Ocarina of Time a rehash of A Link to the Past. Back then, it was fantastic, and it still is the 3-D Zelda game that is the closest to being perfect. However, especially in the light of the Zelda games – both 2-D and 3-D – that came after it, it does feel like Zelda by-the-books. It doesn’t have any major quirks or out-there mechanics.

          I had forgotten about the battle against The Imprisoned. That thing is incredibly annoying. But yeah, Skyward Sword’s backtracking often feels forced.

  2. Red Metal says:

    I really enjoyed this game’s motion controls, as they were inventive and contributed a lot to its quality. It made combat with the sword a lot more interesting than it is in other installments. The beetle is my favorite new item, and it too capitalized on the motion controls. Furthermore, the timeshift ability that features in the Lanayru region is such a good concept, that it could have been the basis for its own game. As far as dungeons go, I really liked the Ancient Cistern and the Sandship.

    As for what I didn’t like as much, I think it boiled down to three main problems. The first was that the bow is obtained surprisingly late in the game. I think it was meant to make the slingshot more necessary, but it reminds me of a third-person shooter I played where you don’t get an assault rifle until the very end of the game; it just shows that not including cool weapons until late in the game is a bad idea every time. The second problem is that the most of the trials between the Fire Sanctuary and the Sky Keep felt like filler – especially having to fight The Imprisoned twice more. Finally, as you said, I was disappointed by how little the Loftwing factored into the game. Considering how early it was introduced, I thought it would be important throughout the game or there would be a few sidequests associated with it, but that didn’t seem to be the case, did it? Exploring the Great Sea was much more fun.

    Anyway, in spite of its flaws, Skyward Sword is a solid game. I may not like it as much as I do the other 3D Zelda games, but, again, this fact just demonstrates what a great series it is. This installment still manages to be miles ahead of most other series at their peaks. It was also legitimately challenging – probably the hardest 3D Zelda game, which is something I felt was lacking from the series starting with A Link to the Past.

    • Matt says:

      Great points! Yeah, the Cistern and the Ship are the game’s best dungeons. The Lanayru Mining Facility gives them quite a run for their money, though. Skyward Sword’s dungeons are certainly the best part of the game. I can’t find anything wrong with them.

      The motion controls were indeed great. I know many people are probably hoping they will not be forced onto players on the next Zelda game, which is probably a given since the Wii U’s main control is not motion-centered, but I really want them to give us the option to use the Motion Plus. I feel using any other control scheme would be a step back.

      And I agree with the flaws you have mentioned!

  3. I have played this game. I found it interesting reading that the dungeons do not focus on one piece of equipment that allows the player to complete all the puzzles as I had not noticed this aspect while playing the game. I also experienced some of the problems identified with the controls, such as Link slashing when I tried to make him stab. I agree that the game does seem to be a mix between the cartoon graphics of Wind Waker and the realistic designs of other Zelda games and the bright colours and out of focus graphics do look like a water colour painting. I did not actually mind the back tracking. I felt the player explored new areas when revisiting the locations and the game added ways of changing the areas, such as the forest being submerged in water and Link being restricted on the mountain. I was also surprised to see this game was one of the few Zelda games to incorporate dragons into the plot and I enjoyed finding these creatures. I also found the parts set in the Silent Realm to be an interesting addition to the game and liked the designs for these environments.
    After hearing the game was intended as a prequel to the other Zelda games, I thought the plot was going to include references to the future. I was surprised to find the story concentrated on past events, however, it was interesting to discover the Skyward Sword turned into the Master Sword and the origins of the Hylian Shield. I also found the game’s villains strange. The main villain did not appear properly for much of the game, appearing periodically as a beast escaping his captivity and being described as a fighter. The secondary villain, Lord Ghiarim, appears very briefly in the game and seemed to have little influence on the plot. This changed for the game’s end, when the main villain recovers his power and Link fights both characters in a series of impressive battles.

    • Matt says:

      The backtracking had some great moments. As you have said, the mountain portion (when Link has his equipment taken away from him) is great, and so is the desert segment. I was not a big fan of the flooded forest, though. I feel that, differently from those two examples, it did not bring anything new to the table; it felt like padding. Also, a few of the sidequests, and the portion where Link goes looking for the soup to give the big dragon (I forgot his name) included some real dull backtracking.

      Comparatively, many people say that The Wind Waker’s Triforce quest is filler, but I actually loved it! I thought that having Link travel around the ocean looking for charts and rupees played right into the hands of the game’s fantastic world design. I guess Skyward Sword could have achieved that same magic as it sent Link travelling from place to place looking for items, but the sky was too dull for that.

      I also loved finding out about the past of the Zelda Universe. It is one of the reasons the game’s plot is so great!

      Thanks for reading the review! =D

  4. I actually found it quite interesting to see the forest flooded and having to dive down to explore the area, where previously Link had walked along. I found the sky a bit strange. Before starting the story, I thought the game would make flying a large part of the travelling, similar to using Epona in Ocarina of Time. It was weird that Skyloft was filled with characters who were seemingly alienated from the ground and the rest of the story, while characters on the ground worried about the release of Demise, people in Skyloft were more interested in lost items, no one seemed to be concerned Zelda had been kidnapped and they considered Link to be too inexperienced to fly at night, despite him defeating huge monsters. I do find flying around the sky a little tedious and it is annoying having to return upwards to reach the different areas on the ground, but I like the way the sea of clouds is designed.
    I also felt this game involved religion more heavily than previous Zelda games. In Ocarina of Time, for example, the three goddesses are mentioned briefly with a creation myth, but they seem to be used to make the Triforce seem more powerful, than to add a religious backstory. In this game, however, a statue of the Goddess dominates Skyloft (and the sky), the game begins with a ceremony devoted to her, the Goddess features heavily in the backstory, Zelda is taken to sacred springs located within three temples to purify her and she is revealed to be an incarnation of the Goddess.
    I also felt there was a slight sexual feature of the game. At the beginning, Link needed to compete with other students to be included in a special moment with Zelda as part of the ceremony. Other characters talked to Link about this “special moment” in such a leering way (about he and Zelda being friends since childhood), and Goose’s excitement he would have the “special moment”, I could not help but sense a slight innuendo, that Link’s transition to manhood was cruder than initially implied. Throughout the game, Zelda becomes a distant and unreachable character, either due to her being captured or being kept behind strong doors. I found Link seems to be more effeminate in this game, with a slightly feminine look and extremely expressive face. When Link first meets Ghirahim, the villain seems to be so overly friendly with Link (almost kissing him and using his tongue) that I thought the actions seemed too adult for the game. I was surprised when Link retrieved ear rings to protect against heat, equipment I have not seen in other Zelda games.

    • Matt says:

      I thought the sky was a bit boring. On The Wind Waker, the ocean had almost fifty islands (not to mention other secrets) and all of them had a purpose, even if it was just the placing of a stone or a silly mini-game, but there were also those with mini-dungeons and more intricate challenges. I thought Skyward Sword would deliver something of the kind, but then the overworld turned out to be a bunch of small patches of grass where chests occasionally popped up plus about five islands of real value. It felt way too thin. With that being said, the design of the “earthly” overworld is impeccable; the three lands are all filled with details and constant challenges.

      I had never thought about how much of a focus Skyward Sword puts on religion, but you are right about it; it plays a pretty prominent role throughout the game. It is a nice touch!

      As for the whole sexual undertones, the Ghirahim thing is impossible to overlook; it is pretty twisted and surprising for a Zelda game. However, I had never looked at the whole “ritual” the same way as you do, but I guess that, given the characters don’t have voice acting, the intonation of the “special moment” hangs up in the air, so it is certainly possible to see it like that.

  5. Don’t like the bird travel, the graphical quality really wasn’t the approach I liked with more care about art style than actual quality with samey combat and uninteresting locales.

    The Zelda was the best Zelda we ever had as a emotive, cheery young girl. Fi serves no purpose, in fact less of a purpose than Navi as Navi gave enemy hints quickly and suggestions to the next correct destination.

    The dungeons were some of the better the series has had with items that weren’t some of the best, go figure.

    Boss fights were interesting, I don’t feel they were too memorable as I’m struggling to count more than 2.

    All in all? It checked a few new things Zelda needed while simultaneously unticking some things I really need in my Zelda games. Not good enough in my opinion, my first genuinely boring Zelda game.

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