Review by Ian_Kovich
"A wealth of interesting ideas, but poorly executed. Skyward Sword will not stand the test of time that Ocarina of Time did."
This is my third time attempting to write a review for Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I just have no idea how to express my opinions on this game.
What makes Skyward Sword so difficult to review is that, looking at the game as one whole, cohesive experience, I found it to be sorely lacking. However, it does exactly what it intended to do, and that hasn't stopped reviewers and even a large number of gamers to call it the next best game since Ocarina of Time.
I'm clearly not missing out on anything, because after venturing around certain corners of the internet, I've learned that many people do, in fact, share similar complaints with the game as I do, complaints that are normally called out in many other games across a variety of genres and franchises.
So why exactly is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword a huge hit with certain fans while a huge miss with others? I think the best way to find out is to break this review into three categories: what the game does right, how it won over those that enjoy it, and where the game is in desperate need of improvement.
What It Does Right
For all my complaints, there are a number of things that Skyward Sword does that I not only believe improve the Zelda franchise, but also actually take a step forward compared to other currently popular franchises across all platforms. Here's what I like:
More agile Link
Some new adjustments to the typical Zelda control scheme allow Link to move around his environment much faster than before. You can sprint now, allowing you to cover more ground in shorter periods of time, and you can run up walls slightly to reach higher ledges. My only real complaint is that the animations used for Link, such as his sprint, climb, and crawl animations, look way too cartoony and over-the-top for the design they went with.
Equipping and using items
Now, you have only one button for using items. What makes this work is that it's also the button used to bring up a radial menu akin to Mass Effect where you can select a number of items and weapons you're carrying by use of the pointer. It's much faster than having to pause the game, search for the correct submenu, choose to equip the item, and then un-pause the game. It also helps that you no longer have to remember which item is currently equipped to which button. Although, the game not pausing when the radial menu is up does lead to certain moments where you wish it would, such as in the middle of combat.
Colors. Lots of colors.
Nowadays, it seems that if a game isn't overly cartoony, it's not allowed to use any color scheme that involves the primary colors. Even The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess fell victim to using a very desaturated, very gray and brown aesthetic. Although I do have some complaints with the art direction that Nintendo went with here, which I'll get to later in the review, a lot of the locales are still very pleasant to look at.
There's even some semblance of technical prowess as water shimmers and refracts like real water does, and light sources like fire illuminate objects like real fire would.
Although this will also count as a negative later in the review, I need to point out the plus side to this design choice.
It felt like, in previous Zelda titles, that the larger a dungeon was, the more time was being spent just figuring out where to go as opposed to being presented with a challenge, be it a puzzle, a series of platforms, or enemies, and then overcoming that challenge. Here, the dungeons are just the right size. You never feel truly lost, and when you reach each dungeon, you're not overcome by their scale and complexity to the point that you want to take a break from the game.
Completely unrestricted control scheme
I do have one gripe in regards to the controls (well, two, one being specific, the other being broad), but there are a lot of clever, intuitive ideas involving the control scheme, namely the use of Wii Motion Plus, that does make the experience better.
The big one is that you're no longer locked to the ground when looking in first person and using a ranged weapon. If you're in combat, solving a puzzle that uses a weapon like the bow, or just simply studying your environment for clues, you can move about freely, and the default settings you have to use feel just right.
What You Need to Enjoy It
Unfortunately, that's about all the praise I have for Skyward Sword. It's not that I hated everything else, but they do range from being unremarkable to questionable, as in, Who thought this was a good idea?
But before I get into that, there are a few other things I need to mention. Namely, the criteria needed to enjoy Skyward Sword. Yes, I believe that there's certain criteria required to obtain any enjoyment out of this title. To put it simply, if you're not a huge, hardcore Zelda fan or someone with a lot of time on his or her hands, there's a good chance you will hate this game.
Skyward Sword is a time commitment
Make no mistake: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a very, very long game. It's not because the game is bursting with new content around every corner, but because a large number of sequences in this game, dungeons excluded, feel like they drag on forever. This is thanks to an excessive amount of padding and filler, which I'll get into later in the review.
If you hope to play this game in short bursts, like I did when I was busy with college and finals, you will often turn off the game and realize that you got almost nothing completed.
Let's look at two games on different ends of the spectrum to get my point across: Super Mario Galaxy and Call of Duty. You can play Super Mario Galaxy in short bursts thanks to its individual level design, with each level only lasting somewhere around five to ten minutes, usually ending with you obtaining a star and/or fighting a boss. In Call of Duty (any of them, really), you can play a certain level or hop into an online match, either one taking up about the same amount of time as a level in a Mario game.
The key element here is that, once you turn off the game, you made clear progress: you either beat the level or got some kind of reward for the time you put into the game.
With The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, there is no immediate reward. The areas you have to visit and get through are massive in scale, which sounds like a plus, but what this ultimately means is that you have absolutely no idea exactly how much longer you need to press on before something happens; all you know is that you moved forward to some degree. How much compared to how much further you need to go, you never know, which is also thanks to, again, seemingly tacked on sequences added solely to pad out the game's length.
That said, it's absolutely imperative that you have hours set aside to play Skyward Sword. Anything less will kill your enjoyment and anticipation to play the game, because, as opposed to playing the game for long periods of time, you really won't feel like you're progressing through the game as much as you're just redoing the same thing over and over.
Playing outside the main quest
Another important thing to note is that you absolutely do not want to complete the game as fast as you possibly can. One common trait I'm noticing amongst a number of Skyward Sword fans and reviewers is that they took the time to see what else the game had to offer outside of its main quest.
That said, there is a lot to do in Skyward Sword. There are all sorts of miniquests, including a new one for the franchise where you can collect a number of trinkets used to forge your items and weapons into more powerful ones. Obtaining an entire inventory of maxed out equipment is certainly going to take up a number of completionists' time.
So how exactly does this make someone view Skyward Sword more favorably when the Zelda franchise always had miniquests? As I said earlier, there is a lot of needless padding and filler in this game, to the point that some sequences aren't even given a legitimate reason for why you have to be there or do anything.
However, if someone were to take their time and stop the main quest in favor of doing something else, it's much easier to forget these problems, maybe even forget that they exist at all. A lot of miniquests, including the ones where you help out people in your hometown of Skyloft, have almost immediate rewards and take very little time to complete. You could get a whole lot more out of Skyward Sword in a single sitting just by staying in your hometown instead of trying to beat the game.
But neither of these reasons can match up to what I believe is the number one reason why people overlook the number of problems I'm about to get into and think Skyward Sword isn't just a fun game, but near perfect:
Let's be honest here.
It's been five years since Nintendo released a Zelda game.
The last one wasn't even built for the Wii, but was ported from the GameCube.
Skyward Sword was not only the first non-casual Nintendo game to showcase the Wii Motion Plus, but was also Nintendo's big holiday release (not to mention their only real big game the entire year) and possibly the last big game to hit the Wii.
On top of it all, Nintendo kickstarted an international orchestra to commemorate not only Skyward Sword, but the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda franchise. That 25th anniversary logo even appears in the game itself.
Needless to say, people were hyped, and hype has a way of skewing opinions.
Reviewers are afraid to give highly anticipated games, especially ones in long-running franchises, bad scores in fear that fans will lash back, as witness by what happened with Gamespot. Jeff Gertsmann's 8.8 score for Twilight Princess created such an uproar that it almost became a running joke on the internet.
Fans themselves are afraid to criticize highly anticipated games, because why would they want to? They've been waiting literally for years, and they even paid full price for the game, probably more if they got the bundle. They don't want to believe that something they've waited for for such a long time that cost them money is anything less than perfect.
Although it should be pretty obvious, I wasn't hyped for Skyward Sword. Not that I was trying to be a cynic, but I felt that my hype for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess diminished my appreciation for the game, so I tried to go into Skyward Sword without any preconceptions, knowledge of the game, or anticipation in hopes that I would appreciate what it did have.
Everything Skyward Sword Did Wrong
This is a really touchy area to dive into, mainly because, by the end, I'm going to explain how literally every aspect to Skyward Sword has been done to a greater degree by past Zelda games, which is certainly not going to sit well with a number of people. Namely, those that believe this really is the best Zelda game ever created.
To make a long review short, Skyward Sword feels like it took advantage of the hype surrounding it by getting away with the bare minimum, allowing plenty of breathing room for it to be outdone by the next Zelda outing.
Seeing as how everyone is quick to compare Skyward Sword to Ocarina of Time, this review will give quick snippets as to not only what made Ocarina of Time great upon release, but also why it holds up even today. Unfortunately, these snippets will lead to in depth explanations regarding everything Skyward Sword did wrong.
Ocarina of Time doesn't exactly have a groundbreaking story; it's pretty much proof that Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces holds true, as the story just involves Link, a child who is bestowed with a great destiny, where he must save the world from a great evil, assisted by a number of character tropes.
But what makes this story work is the execution. The biggest factor is the villain himself: Ganondorf. He's not just a villain that looks and is described to be the part, but you actually get to see what he's capable of: he kills the Great Deku Tree, forces the Gorons to almost starve to death, and curses the Zora's guardian god. After Link returns from seven years in isolation, Ganondorf actually accomplishes what many villains across several forms of media fail to do: he actually wins.
The marketplace that was once bursting with energy and full of people is burnt to the ground and filled with the dead, Ganondorf's castle now stands where Hyrule castle used to be, Link's home is filled with monsters, the Gorons are about to be fed to a volcano-dwelling dragon, and the Zora people are trapped underneath a thick sheet of ice.
Again, what makes this story work is that instead of being told about a terrible fate befalling the land, you actually see it happen. With nary a word spoken, one can simply see just how menacing of a bad guy Ganondorf is and why he must be stopped. It's not so much about saving the world from impending doom as much as it is about taking it back.
Unfortunately, Skyward Sword's villain, Ghirahim, is no Ganondorf. I wouldn't even put him on the same level as Skull Kid from Majora's Mask. He's just a pansy.
As blunt as that sounds, it's the truth. As a villain, Ghirahim fails in practically every category. Every time he attempts to accomplish something, he fails. Every time he has to fight you, instead of going all out to ensure his victory, he toys with you, ultimately allowing you to beat him and cause him to retreat. Twice. By the end of the game, just when it seems like he's about to get what he wants, you thwart it instantly, cementing him as a villain that accomplishes precisely nothing.
What this ultimately results in is a story that has no sense of urgency or atmosphere. It was pretty difficult for the people in Ocarina of Time to ignore the presence of a looming evil considering everything that Ganondorf does, but that's exactly what the people in Skyward Sword do. Ghirahim fails as a villain so badly that literally nobody, not one person in Skyloft or the world below it, seems to know that he even exists.
It seems that the writers were well aware of this, which is why they made him effeminate and overly melodramatic to compensate. I can't describe him as anything other than shallow,' because judging him just by his actions, he just can't be taken seriously. The worst part of it all is that the story does take him seriously, like I'm actually supposed to believe that he's this big threat that must be taken care of.
What makes Skyward Sword's plot noticeably different compared to previous Zelda titles is that Zelda herself is not a princess, but instead Link's childhood friend and possible love interest. Since I need to address this somewhere in the review, as is common among anime, this love subplot is never explored or developed, going absolutely nowhere.
But that's not the problem. The problem is that, unlike previous Zelda games where rescuing Zelda doesn't become an objective until very late in the game, the whole quest involves saving her. The plot begins with her falling off of her bird and disappearing beneath the clouds. First, you need to find her. After that, you embark on another quest where you need to find her again. Finally, you embark on yet another quest to wake her from a deep sleep.
There are three problems with this overall plot. The first is that Zelda is never in any immediate danger, as the game goes out of its way to tell you that. You're reassured that she's probably okay and that you can take your time to find her... by her father. That, by itself, is bad enough, but then comes the second problem: once you reach the mysterious land beneath the clouds, it feels exactly the same as Skyloft. The areas you visit are bright, colorful, cartoony, and filled to the brim with comic relief characters. It turns out that Zelda's father was right, as you quickly find out that she's even able to push forward through these areas without your help.
Then comes the third problem: basically, the only people that will care about the plot are Zelda fans. If you're not that invested in the series, the story will come off as nothing more than generic. Again, the relationship between Link and Zelda doesn't go anywhere, so what exactly is the point of this little tease that the two are more than just friends? Well, to get a reaction from the fans.
In short, the plot quickly dwindles into one where Link isn't so much as trying to rescue Zelda as much as he is simply trying to catch up to her. At some point, she even gets her own guardian. When that happened, I had to ask myself: what exactly is the point of me playing this game? What exactly is Link's role? If Zelda is trying to accomplish something, is there any reason whatsoever why Link can't just simply tag along? Something tells me that the game actually tried to give a reason, but like many other sequences in the game, it wasn't good enough for me to remember it.
If it sounds like the plot is paper thin, it pretty much is. The entire story hinges on the objective of getting back together with Zelda, and it tries to do this for somewhere around 25 hours. The end result is loads of padding and filler, stretching the story to the point where there are long periods of nothingness. The first part of the game is just an excuse to open up the three main land areas with the second being the origins of the Master Sword... which, in hindsight, is very unsatisfying and underwhelming for the purpose it was created.
The final part of the game leading to the climax is probably the most excruciatingly long, most poorly excused gameplay sequence I've ever had to sit through, which brings me to my next subject:
Ocarina of Time does have its fair share of padding. Oftentimes, you can't go straight into a dungeon because you need to complete a certain task. These kinds of tasks range from either buying a shield and finding a sword to retracing your steps back to your home to learn a song.
So what's the difference between this and Skyward Sword? About 45 minutes of play time.
The big change to the Zelda formula that Nintendo has been alluding to in Skyward Sword turns out to be simply swapping out cities and towns with areas crawling with enemies, puzzles, and platforming sections; pseudo-dungeons, if you will. This presents a number of problems, a big one that I'll get into in a bit, but another that makes the game feel like it's deliberately wasting your time.
You will spend somewhere around half to a full hour trudging through these areas, fighting enemies, solving puzzles, and navigating platforms as you would in a dungeon. But as soon as you reach the dungeon's entrance, you're given a vague reason why you can't just go in. You may need to find some missing forest folk so you can be given an item to go in. You may need to find five missing key parts to unlock the dungeon door. You may need to replay an entire dungeon you already beat to find an item to heal a dragon that will grant you access to another dungeon. I'm not joking about that last example.
These instances of deliberate padding even extend outside the find dungeon, find x items' formula. There's one notorious sequence about halfway through the game where you're on a boat, searching for clues to the location of a much bigger boat. Your boat mate takes you to a shipyard saying that there's probably a clue here. You go through a series of tilt-controlled mine cart minigames and end it all with a fight against a boss you already defeated in a previous dungeon. Once you return to your boat mate, he says, Oh, you didn't find anything? Let's move on, then. This entire sequence could be removed and nothing of value would have been lost; it serves absolutely no purpose to the story nor the gameplay. You never play a part like this ever again, and the fact that the game recycles a dungeon boss instead of creating a new one shows that this part was tacked on without thought or reason.
Some instances are just obnoxious. You need a large supply of water to open a gate at one point, so you have to fly all the way back to another key area, speak to a certain character to pick up a water basin, fly all the way back to where you came, and then initiate an escort mission because the NPC carrying the basin decided to race you without knowing where to land.
The overall problem is that it's clear the developers didn't think about the implications of the find Zelda' plot and how it would affect the length of the game. While Ocarina of Time could bypass this problem by having its padding sequences take you to new locations with different gameplay mechanics that don't feel like set pieces, Skyward Sword forces you to do what you have been doing the whole time, just in an attempt to continue doing what you were already doing.
A lack of meaningful subplots
Previous games like Ocarina of Time bypassed this problem of deliberate padding by offering legitimate story reasons for each quest: you find the three Spiritual Stones to obtain the weapon that will help you defeat Ganondorf. As you do this, you're helping out either individual or groups of people, some of which become sages to aid Link on his quest. You awaken these five sages so it'll be possible to seal Ganondorf away, and by doing this, you're also restoring Hyrule back to its original state. Stories within a story, if you will.
Twilight Princess did this, as well, which is probably why I enjoyed it despite how long it was. The land and each key area was in great danger, and your efforts restored everything back to what it used to be.
But with Skyward Sword, it's just aimless running around. Each quest is just an attempt to speak with Zelda, barely offering any other reason why you're doing what you're doing. Again, the first part of the game is just opening up the three areas, and the second is the creation of the Master Sword. That's it. Everything in between these small story bits is just more combat, platforming, and puzzle solving, which leads me to my next topic:
In a previous section, I mentioned that Skyward Sword's new formula, namely the inclusion of pseudo-dungeons,' or areas that function like dungeons, introduces another problem, and this is it: the pacing.
Just so we're all on the same page, pacing' isn't just the rate at which something, like the story, moves, but how intense it feels from one moment to the next. For example, an action movie with good pacing will have not only plenty of moments of action, but also plenty of moments of rest which give the story enough time to be told while giving the viewer a chance to anticipate where the next bit of action will take place. An action movie with too much action can overwhelm and exhaust the viewer, and too little action, conversely, would bore the viewer.
That said, Ocarina of Time should be given a case study for how well it's paced. To put it simply, you never feel like you're doing the same thing for more than a few minutes. Sometimes, you're in a town, which is calm, quiet, and welcoming, accompanied by catchy music. Dungeons, by contrast, are intense, dark, and intimidating with more atmospheric music. You go from talking to people and playing games to either fighting enemies, solving puzzles, or navigating platforms. The end of each dungeon contains a boss fight, and upon defeating it, everything winds itself down, making you want to press on to do it all over again. Taking each town-to-dungeon sequence into mind, the story as a whole just continuously builds until the final showdown with Ganondorf's most powerful form.
Skyward Sword, however, botches this formula entirely. By replacing the towns and cities with what amounts to an extension of dungeons, almost every instance of the game feels exactly the same.
You're constantly fighting enemies, you're constantly solving puzzles, and you're constantly navigating platforms, usually in no coherent order whatsoever or any noticeable change in difficulty. Once you make your way into a dungeon, you proceed to do the exact same thing, only now with doors and keys dividing each room.
But now I get to explain exactly what I meant earlier when I said that the dungeons being smaller proves to be as much of a flaw as it does a positive. Simply put, the dungeons, which used to be the most exciting parts of each game, have now become the shortest. It actually takes longer to reach a dungeon then it does to complete it. This wouldn't have been an issue if Skyward Sword stuck with the original formula of visiting towns and other peaceful areas to contrast the differences with a dungeon, but now, your efforts are rewarded with being able to continue doing what you have always been doing, only for not as long.
Words can't describe just how backwards this is. The developers have actually gone out of their way to not only make sure it takes longer for you to reach a dungeon, but that it takes no time whatsoever to complete it. There's tons of buildup, but no payoff.
And it's not just a matter of the gameplay, but just how the game feels, as well. Again, Ocarina of Time would constantly go from bright, colorful, cheery areas to dark, dank, eerie ones to contrast what you'll be doing. Skyward Sword, however, continuously opts to be cartoony as possible. Dungeons feel exactly the same as the areas outside, which feel exactly the same as Skyloft, and sometimes contain the comic relief characters you were speaking with outside. Not even the dungeon bosses up the ante by much, considering that one boss, a giant octopus creature, looks like a rejected Sesame Street puppet. Even Wind Waker was brave enough to intensify the game from time to time.
Going full circle back to the launch of the Wii
Earlier in my review, I mentioned that hype has a tendency to skew people's opinions on how good a game is. This is one example where I'd like to try and prove that notion.
When the Wii first launched, developers didn't really know what to do with the Wii Remote, so they just tacked motion controls onto every little thing, even if a button press would suffice. A lot of people had a problem with this and weren't afraid to voice it.
But with Skyward Sword, nobody seems to have a problem at all.
I understand the use of motion controls for sword fights and aiming at the screen; I said so at the beginning of my review that it opens up some gameplay possibilities that weren't possible before.
What I don't understand is why Nintendo insisted on using motions for every. Little. Thing. When flying your bird, you shake the controller to go higher. To steer your bird, you point the controller. To swim in certain directions, you point the controller. To break free of an enemy, you shake both controllers. To control the direction of a really high fall, you tilt the controller. To control your new Beetle item, you point the controller.
The list goes on and on, but what should be noted is that the analog stick has no function during any of these instances.
And my question is this: why? We've seen games like Majora's Mask get by perfectly fine using the analog stick for new mechanics like underwater swimming, and that was even faster than the swimming in Skyward Sword. My only guess as to why Nintendo would force motion controls into every aspect of the game was just because they wanted to showcase the Wii Motion Plus' capabilities, not because it actually benefited the experience.
It's made all the worse that the game doesn't run at the necessary 60 frames per second required for motion controls to work. Games like Red Steel 2, Metroid Prime 3, and even Wii Sports: Resort had very fast, responsive controls because the games ran fluidly, allowing not just button, but also motion commands to be picked up instantly. Skyward Sword, however, sticks with the common 30 frames per second, which was fine with previous games where precision wasn't a focus, but here, that's what drives the gameplay. Oftentimes, despite my use of the bundled Wii Remote Plus, Link will either attack the wrong way or too late.
This makes the combat more cumbersome than it needs to be. Not only will enemies instantly block certain attacks, but some damage you instantly should you attack the wrong way. Some grab onto you, forcing you to shake the controllers until you're free. However, this will, more often than not, force you to perform a spin attack, and when the enemy is electrified, I found myself constantly attacking by accident and getting hurt.
This sort of ties in to what I was saying about motion controls being tacked onto every little thing, but this takes it a step further.
As I played through the game, I quickly came to realize something. There were a lot of mechanics introduced to me that never appear again, or only become optional.
For example, in the first dungeon, there are these eyes' that act as locks of sorts where you need to twirl your sword to make them dizzy. This is why Link will point his sword in the direction which you're pointing the Wii Remote. However, after this dungeon, this mechanic barely came up again, if at all. So, Link will point his sword where you point your controller for the sole purpose of exactly one part early on in the game.
There's also an instance where you have to draw a missing symbol in a picture to open a gate. This happens exactly once, and isn't even that difficult because you're told that you can find the missing symbol in the area that you're in. The obvious example of padding aside, this only becomes a clearly tacked on mechanic as you'll randomly find these canvases' of sorts strewn around the game where drawing shapes such as hearts will give you items.
Then there are motion quick time events.' Several parts of the game have you moving the controller in a particular fashion to initiate certain events, but without a time limit or any real way to fail,' these just become another showcase of the Wii Motion Plus instead of real game mechanics.
And since it probably counts as well, the musical instrument you obtain quickly becomes nothing more than a gimmick, as well. You don't learn or play songs as you would in games like Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, or Wind Waker. You can only strum the notes by moving the controller back and forth. When it comes to play a song, all you do is move the controller in rhythm with an on-screen metronome until a cutscene starts where Link plays the song without your input. It took an already simple musical minigame and removes almost all player input.
Earlier, I mentioned how the game will often resort to padding out the game's length using clearly tacked on sequences.
In retrospect, a lot of games do this, but are rarely called out on it. Even when certain sequences are proven to be completely pointless to the overall story, people enjoyed them for how fun they were.
So why did I bother calling out Skyward Sword's padding sequences? Not just because they're unnecessary, but also because they're just not fun. Namely, they're not challenging, exciting, or even new when they're not completely pointless. A huge bulk of Skyward Sword's padding involves the player having to explore areas they just played through to find items of interest. It's bad enough that these areas have already been seen, but it's worse that you know exactly where to go. This is all because of a new mechanic called dowsing'.
In short, dowsing is where you point your sword and it blips like a sonar. You use it to figure out where items or people of interest are and how far away they are from you.
To put it simply, you can't kill the exploration factor of a game faster than by including a mechanic that tells you precisely where to go.
It's not that I think dowsing should be taken out; in fact, it's pretty much essential. If one were to try playing the game without dowsing, one would get lost instantly. But that's not an excuse. It's just a testament to how counterintuitive the level designs are. If the game were more competently designed, one would try finding items of interest without needing to be told exactly where to go.
In fact, Skyward Sword seems to have this knack for telling the player a ton of things they think he or she needs to know...
Treating the player like an idiot
Probably the biggest, or at least most insulting, factor to Skyward Sword is that it simply doesn't trust the player to be able to figure anything out on his or her own. In fact, it goes so far in thinking that the player is a moron that I almost can't bring myself to say that this is a game for Zelda fans in spite of the fact that they're probably the only ones that would get' it.
And it's not just Link's new partner, Fi. The game as a whole just goes out of its way to explain the completely obvious.
Picking up rupees gives you a heads up that they're currency and that different colors equal different amounts. Is this really necessary? Do Zelda fans really need to know this by now? I don't even think new players, be they casual or not, would need to know this. You have a counter that obviously changes differently depending on what colored rupee you pick up. At some point in the game, the player is bound to stumble into a store and figure out that the colored rupees they've been picking up all this time would be used to buy things.
Then there's the health. The constant beeping was enough before, but now there are two more factors that tell you that you need to find hearts. Now, Link himself will constantly blink red when near death. On top of that, Fi will constantly chime in until you listen to her that you need to find hearts. Again, why? Your health meter consists of hearts, and enemies and other objects drop hearts all the time. It doesn't take much to put two and two together.
But since the elephant in the room needs to be addressed at some point, I need to talk about Fi, who is, by far, without question or even a sliver of doubt, the most annoying partner in the Zelda franchise.
Since I do a lot of comparing to Ocarina of Time, it's time to talk about Navi. I'm going to be up front about this: anyone that thinks Navi is annoying with her tutorials or her hey' and listen' vocals didn't think she was on their first playthrough. She only explained things that were new to the Zelda franchise due to the jump to 3D, and otherwise kept her mouth shut for extended periods of time in the game. After the first dungeon, it would be rare to hear her speak up more than once per gaming session.
Fi, by contrast, never stops talking, and seemed to get on a lot of people's nerves by the end of the first quarter of the game. At the risk of angering certain people, she's like Samus from Metroid: Other M. Ignoring the fact that she probably belongs in a sci-fi game due to her design and speech, making her seem terribly out of place, she has this huge tendency to point out things that you've already seen or heard. If you're told where to go, she tells you to go there. If you see a treasure chest, she tells you there's a treasure chest. If you find the dungeon boss' key, she tells you that it's the dungeon boss' key, even after the first temple.
Even worse, there's no way to avoid her conversations. You can't skip dialogue in the game, only certain cutscenes, and after you've already seen them, no less. She not only chimes in like Navi, but will automatically show up to tell you what to do. Remember in the Great Deku Tree dungeon in Ocarina of Time how Navi would pop up automatically to tell you certain mechanics? Imagine an entire game like that.
A stylized uncanny valley
At the beginning of my review, I said that I like the visuals, but had a problem with the art direction. What I meant was the character designs.
Simply put, I feel that the artists for this game were locked in different rooms given very vague ideas about what the game was supposed to look like. Literally no two characters sans Link and Zelda look like they belong in the same universe. Some look like they came straight out of Ocarina of Time, others out of Wind Waker. You even have the occasional anime trope, including the salesman with the small eyes, huge grin, and hands constantly rubbing together.
It's not just the inconsistent style, but also just how wrong these characters look. I never thought I'd play a cartoony game where I reacted to the characters the same way I reacted to the ones in Mass Effect, but here it is.
Just to reiterate, I really feel that Skyward Sword's character designs fall into the uncanny valley, a concept theorized by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori where things that are almost, but not quite human tend to appear awkward and possibly revolting. This usually applied to things that looked realistic, but I can't think of any other way to describe Skyward Sword's character designs. The characters' eyes appear soulless, their jaws during conversations open and shut like robots, and there are even some animation errors where a character's looping animation presents a pause or an awkward jump.
The biggest offender, strangely and unfortunately, is Link himself. His design is just plain awful. I can't look at him in cutscenes without either wanting to wince or laugh at just how awkward he looks. Most of his facial expressions look like they're painted directly onto his face, others looking incredibly stilted. There's one where he's supposed to look shocked at some revelation that Zelda is giving to him, but it looks like he's staring right through her, as if he remembered that he left the stove on or something.
And it's not just the way he looks, but also the way he moves, as well. Despite the fact that he looks closer to his Twilight Princess design, he moves like a cartoon caricature. The way he climbs, runs, moves and attacks with his weapons, and even reacts to pain just don't look right. When I fell into lava for the first time, I was taken aback by how he shot up into the air trying to put out the fire on his butt as if he were coming straight out of a Looney Tunes episode.
Then there's the usual monosyllabic grunts and sound effects characters give. It was present in previous games, but is obvious to the point of annoyance here. It's like every character can't start a new text box without making some awkward noise. There are even cutscenes where characters go entire text scrawls while making sounds like a gorilla. Ghirahim is probably the biggest offender of this, as several times he'd start making these awkward, unnatural moaning noises as he spoke, leading me to do nothing but imagine what in the name of all things holy the voice actor was doing in the recording booth.
I couldn't stop laughing.
This is definitely going to be the shortest part of my review. Although Skyward Sword's soundtrack is entirely orchestrated, it's almost entirely forgettable. There's nary a single tune that I can remember outside of the flying portions of the game, because that's the only one that has a grasp on the concept of having a memorable melody. Although, sometimes I wonder if the only reason I remember it is because you're forced to fly from place to place, revisiting areas of interest so many times that you have to hear the song so many times.
Speaking of revisiting areas, that's another aspect I need to bring up. One thing that Skyward Sword does a lot is force you to backtrack just to unlock new areas.
In the first part of the game, every time you clear an area, you need to fly back to the Goddess Statue in Skyloft just to unlock a new area. After that, you need to constantly fly back to this thunderhead that houses a temple to obtain a new objective. Since you need to fly to and from this place, you spend about twenty minutes flying around just to learn where to go next. Imagine the sailing in Wind Waker, but having to go back to Windfall Island every time before you can embark on the next part of your quest.
This just highlights another issue with the gameplay, and that's just the fact that flying feels almost pointless. There's only about two instances in the game where the flying is pivotal to the gameplay, but otherwise just serves as a means to go from one place to the next, usually without conflict. The final moments of the game seem to forget about flying altogether, a stark contrast compared to the horseback fight with Ganondorf in Twilight Princess.
Nintendo claims that they worked on this game for five years, and even if that were true, which I'll address later, this game certainly doesn't feel like it's been worked on for five years.
There's only one town in the game and three key areas, all of which you're forced to visit several times over. There are two bosses that you fight three times, another boss you fight twice, and an entire dungeon you play through twice.
Then there are the bokoblins. Literally every other enemy in this game is a bokoblin. I must have killed several hundred of these things, an estimate I'm quite sure is accurate considering that, near the end of the game, Ghirahim decides the best way to combat you is to send quite literally hundreds of these your way. It's almost cute that, after killing the last several dozen to hundred of these things, he thinks that they can still put up some form of challenge. It's the same issue from Red Steel 2 where the player continues to get stronger whereas the enemies remain almost exactly the same, creating a sharp drop in the difficulty curve.
It's a real shame that, despite the game's heavier emphasis on combat, the developers decided to just throw all of these samey cannon fodder enemies at you instead of adding series staples like Darknuts or coming up with new ones. That apparently didn't come up during the planning phase.
What Skyward Sword's combat boils down to is this: an enemy will either hold their weapon a certain way or have a clearly marked weak point that needs to be struck the right way in order for them to get hurt.
In regards to the first type of enemy, this makes the combat come off as illogical and unnatural. Enemies will run up to you and then start circle strafing you while holding their weapons in obviously telling ways. They're not so much as trying to fight you as much as they're begging you to figure out how to beat them, a challenge rendered moot at not only how obvious it is, but how often it comes up. Again, the most common enemy is the bokoblin, and every single one of them does this except for the archers for obvious reasons. Thankfully, the final boss ignored this problem and actually had a pattern to memorize, making the combat more difficult and satisfying than everything that came before it.
Then there are the enemies who can only get hurt once you figure out which direction you need to strike. Again, this becomes so typical that it just loses any semblance of challenge. If an enemy has a vertical opening, guess which way you attack? Horizontal?
In the end, the combat just feels forced, like the game is self aware that it's trying to show you that combat involves swinging the controller in specific directions. It doesn't feel difficult, just horribly obvious. Twilight Princess' combat felt more thought out and satisfying.
Poor excuses to elongate gameplay
When the game isn't deliberately padded, it doesn't do a very good job at explaining why you have to complete certain tasks. One big instance is during the Song of the Hero quest where you need to learn pieces of a song from the dragons in each key area. The Water Dragon forces you to swim through this whole lake finding each note to her piece of the song, claiming it's a test to see if Link really is the true hero. This is really redundant considering that you already proved in an earlier encounter that he is the hero. He's also carrying the completed Master Sword. The Triforce is also appearing on the back of his hand. Having to prove your worth' at this point is just ridiculous.
Then there's the aforementioned find the forest folk' fetch quest, where you do exactly that: you find people. You don't rescue them or anything, you just confirm exactly where they are to ease the worries of the forest elder... who isn't particularly worried to begin with, like knowing his people are still in a monster-infested forest somehow makes him feel better. That's not what bugs me, however; you do this because he claims to be too worried to remember where he saw Zelda head off to, despite the fact that there's exactly one direction she could have gone.
It's really like the developers just asked themselves how they could lengthen the game without stopping to think whether or not it makes sense, like they expected gamers to just buy it without thinking.
It really doesn't help that, again, most of these sequences take an excruciatingly long time to complete, your only reward for your efforts being that you can proceed through the game, doing what you were doing before the fetch quest began.
Again, it's really difficult to believe that this is a game that Nintendo spent five years working on. So much of the game feels so quickly stitched together than one could claim that Nintendo was pressed for time, which is probably why it got delayed once.
The most obvious instance is a new variation of the blue rupee glitch' from Twilight Princess. Every time you boot up the game, it instantly forgets that you picked up any items that you use for forging. Because of this, every time you find one of these items, it pauses the game, letting you know what it is and showing it being added to your inventory. Considering how many different items there are, this happens a lot, and can even happen in the middle of battle due to enemies dropping a number of these items. It brings the flow of the game to a full stop for about ten to fifteen seconds. How did anyone working on this game not realize that this was happening?
Sometimes, the challenge of the game feels nonexistent, too, like the developers truly didn't care about how to structure the game. At the beginning of one dungeon, there's a barred door that you need to get through. To open it, you pull the lever right next to it.
Ultimately, a Very Safe,' Uninspired Zelda Title
In the end, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword's biggest issue is that this is a game solely for the most hardcore of Zelda fans, those who are actively willing to outright dismiss flaws at the prospect of finally being able to play a full Zelda console game since 2006.
The only real reason one would push through the game is for the story, but without a competent, interesting villain and the save Zelda' plot stretched to being paper thin due to excessive padding and filler, the experience falls completely flat.
I would like to push that problem aside and say that the game is still fun to play, but it truly is a very tiring experience, but not in the literal sense one would assume from a motion-heavy game. The new formula and structure ensures that you're doing the same things over and over with very little variation in difficulty or content. When the game comes to a grinding halt to put you on a fetch quest, there's barely a challenge to it as the aforementioned dowsing mechanic renders it insultingly easy. Once it's over, you pick up where you left off like nothing happened.
As for the 'five years in development' notion, there's an interview with Eiji Aonuma somewhere in 2009 where he said he started planning Link's Crossbow Training 2 before Nintendo intervened, telling him to make a real Zelda game instead. This is made all the more obvious at how Nintendo still felt pressed to delay the game and couldn't bother to fix the glitch that reminds you what certain types of items are.
Skyward Sword is smaller than almost every 3D Zelda released, which is surprising considering it was made with no restrictions due to the use of a DVD, with less content, a sparse story, recycled assets, and overall just lazy design including a cardboard cutout stereotype of a villain, obvious padding, and a haphazard, directionless visual style. If the motion controls were taken out of the game, there'd be almost nothing that makes Skyward Sword stand on its own.
Overall, Skyward Sword is not a game that will stand the test of time. Everything from the story to the visuals to the implementation of motion controls and its mechanics leaves so much room for improvement that saying it's the best' is practically an insult to every game that came before in the series.
It really won't require much effort for the next entry to be better than this.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 02/13/12
Game Release: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Controller Bundle) (US, 11/20/11)
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