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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My Review: The Legend of Zelda- Skyward Sword (Wii)

Nobody seems to be able to agree with one another when it comes to new entries in The Legend of Zelda series. Perhaps this is due to the high expectations placed upon such a venerable series, but each new Zelda title bring with it a new horde of disgruntled fans. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is perhaps one of the most divisive games in the Zelda series, with some fans singing the praises of its more dramatic storytelling and impressive use of the Wii MotionPlus, while others deride the changes to the Zelda formula and aren’t at all impressed by the motion controls. Well, never let it be said that my opinions lean towards extremes, since I find myself somewhere in the middle ground. While Skyward Sword is still a very enjoyable game, with some of the shining moments of brilliance we expect from The Legend of Zelda, it does have some pacing and control issues that become more and more aggravating as the game goes on.

Remember- whatever you read in this review,
Groose makes up for EVERYTHING
Skyward Sword presents itself as an origin story, both for the kingdom of Hyrule itself and for Link’s iconic weapon, the Master Sword. This incarnation of Link is a denizen of Skyloft, a floating island situated above the clouds. When Zelda, Link’s childhood friend, is whisked away by mysterious forces, Link must don the garb of Skyloft’s knights and pursue her to the strange, untamed land below the clouds, and eventually finds himself and Zelda bound to a far greater destiny that either of them could have possibly imagined. While I don’t think the storytelling in Skyward Sword reaches the levels of, say, The Wind Waker, it does provide some interesting tidbits of lore and nods to Link’s ‘future’ adventures such as Ocarina of Time. Where Skyward Sword does noticeably improve in the storytelling department is with its characters. Granted, Fi is a disappointingly lackluster partner after the lively and complex Midna, but both the new incarnation of Zelda, and school-bully-turned-ally Groose experience compelling arcs and are generally more believable characters than we have seen in past games. The villainous Ghirahim is also one of the best antagonists the series has ever seen, coming across as a demented mix of Agahnim and Kefka from Final Fantasy VI- he’s sadistic, flamboyant, and generally just a joy to behold.

The most controversial aspect of Skyward Sword would have to be the focus on motion controls. The game is built around the Wii MotionPlus accessory, which allows for sword combat to be based on the direction the player swings the remote and for more context-sensitive actions using the Wii Remote. There’s an almost palpable sense of awe upon first booting up Skyward Sword and experimenting with the controls, which are responsive and don’t take very long to get used to at all. The problem with Skyward Sword’s design doesn't lie with the controls themselves, but rather with how much time you’re going to spend with them. Early combat encounters are fairly straightforward, but most enemies have obvious tells and weaknesses that need to be exploited by slashing them from the correct angle (or just stabbing them, which is actually a viable tactic against Deku Babas and the like). The motion controls work well for the most part, but they can become frustrating whenever the game requires you to be precise- I can’t count the number of times my Wii Remote registered a diagonal slash when I was trying to swing horizontally or something like that. This led to some encounters becoming more difficult than they needed to be because my swings weren't being registered correctly, particularly during the (otherwise excellent) final boss battle. Other than these minor grievances during more intense combat sequences, however, the controls in Skyward Sword feel natural and generally work well.
Link, ready to cut some fools and wrestle with finicky controls

A bigger problem is the game’s pacing, which exacerbates the control issues by making you spend far too much time with them and spreads the interesting story moments thin with unnecessary padding. Backtracking has always been a part of the Zelda formula, but Skyward Sword increases the amount of unnecessary backtracking by an absurd degree. Rather than a large open overworld to explore, the game instead has the central hub of Skyloft and the skies surrounding it, which can be accessed by flying on Link’s Loftwing (large birds used as mounts by Skyloft’s residents). From there, Link can fly to one of three distinct zones. This change in structure is another controversial aspect of Skyward Sword, and while I appreciate the Zelda series trying to make small tweaks and improvements to its formula, it doesn't work very well here. The world feels disjointed, with each zone essentially serving as a more linear extension of the next dungeon, recycling many of the same puzzle pieces and repopulating the area with more difficult enemies on subsequent visits. The first time you visit each of these zones, they are quite fun to traverse, but by the third time you are forced to revisit the same exact area and perform the same increasingly uninteresting tasks, the game just feels like it’s spinning its wheels. Skyward Sword’s design philosophy seems to be that if it was worth doing once, it’s worth doing three or four times- be it the awful forced stealth sequences in the Silent Realm (seriously, I want to find whoever designed these sections and feed him his own testicles), or a repetitive recurring boss fight, or just the sheer monotony of going through the same zone you've been back to twice now in order to find yet another sacred doohickey… Skyward Sword is a fun game with some brilliant moments, but those moments are padded out by some truly tedious game design.

One of the excellent bosses you'll face along your journey. 
Let’s talk about some of those brilliant moments, because I don’t want to give the wrong impression- despite its faults, Skyward Sword can be quite enjoyable. The dungeons, for instance, are among the best in the series, with some deviously clever puzzles to solve (I particularly enjoyed the use of Timeshift stones). These display Nintendo at their most creative, and figuring out how to progress in these labyrinths provides the proper balance of frustration and sudden comprehension that makes action-adventure games such as this so compelling. The boss fights, as a rule, are stupendous- even easier bosses like Moldarach are often intense affairs, and the final boss fights are absolutely fantastic and require adept use of the motion-driven sword combat. Skyward Sword’s presentation is also worth mentioning- presented as a mix of Wind Waker’s cel-shading and Twilight Princess’ realism, the end result attempts to mimic watercolor paintings, and while some of the character designs leave something to be desired, overall the colorful and vibrant art style is excellent. Of course, the orchestral music is also excellent, although some of the generic area themes get a little repetitive and lack the catchy compositions we've come to expect from Zelda soundtracks- still, tunes such as Ballad of the Goddess and Fi’s Theme stand out as some of the highlights of the game’s score.

If it wasn't already apparent, Skyward Sword does leave me a little torn. While I do consider it to be the weakest of the 3D Zelda games, the series’ pedigree is so strong that even in a slightly diluted form, Skyward Sword remains a compelling gaming experience. The sheer repetition can become monotonous, and the motion controls are imperfect, but there are enough great ideas and memorable moments in even an average Zelda game that it’s hard not to give it a tentative recommendation. 

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