"A decent game, but being that this is Zelda, I expected much more"

If there is one gaming franchise that I could always count on to give me a spectacular experience, it's Zelda. The series is the quintessence of an adventure game done right. They provide an expansive world with lots to explore, and always give rewards for your efforts. The controls are tight and intuitive, the atmosphere is rich and carefully designed, and the dungeons and puzzles are clever and carefully crafted. But somewhere down the line, the series took a turn in the wrong direction. It's uncertain where the point of digression took place. Many might argue Wind Waker. Some might even say Ocarina of Time, and others will say that the series is as remarkable as it has always been. However, I'm here to argue the contrary. With Nintendo's newest addition to the series, Skyward Sword, they've managed to mar the quality that I've come to expect from this beloved franchise.

My concerns for this game were formulated even before I got a chance to play it first hand. Simply from viewing images and videos, I could already sense that something was astray. And what I witnessed seemed to be the end result of Nintendo having to deal with the negativism regarding the graphical style of Wind Waker and to some extent, Twilight Princess. One resulted in the most jovial and colorful iteration the series had ever seen, and the other took it to a darker, grittier tone that was more in line with what we saw from Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Now Skyward Sword on the other hand, doesn't fall anywhere on either side of the spectrum, and instead utilizes elements from both graphical styles, resulting in a product that doesn't really know what it wants to be. Now it's entirely up to debate what the 'correct' style is, but personally I thought that Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask were more in line of what that style should be. Fierce combat, dark magic, and grotesque monsters are just a few of the things that are associated with Zelda, which are also things that are notably absent in Nintendo's other, more child-friendly series, like Mario. And bizarrely enough, there's plenty in Skyward Sword that seems to borrow from that series, from the bright, vibrant colors to the multi-layered terrain and to the necessity for platforming. Perhaps this is just a result of the designers exhausting all their ideas in previous games, forcing them to take inspiration from other titles, but in the end, it turns Skyward Sword into a muddled mess. When I play this game, I ask myself, if they were to replace Link with another random character, would I still recognize this as a Zelda game? The answer is 'barely'. And that, is a terrible sign when you're playing through one of your favorite gaming series.

Skyward Sword starts you off in Skyloft, a floating village in the sky. There's nothing glaringly wrong so far. The game starts off with what you would come to expect from a Zelda title. The town is filled with shops to explore, items to collect, and a minor conflict to jump start the story. Link has to win a race to achieve Knighthood, but his bird is kidnapped by the local bully, who has intentions of winning the race himself, to that he can have some 'alone time with Zelda'. Fast-forwarding a bit, we get to the point where Zelda is 'taken'. And this is around the point where I have to let out my first sigh. Now I know the Zelda series isn't extolled for its story, and I didn't come into this one with high expectations. But I'm just begging to know why does Zelda have to be the figure that propels the story? Why does she have to yet again play the victim? Majora's Mask did away with it, and it provided a fresh and interesting experience. Why does Nintendo insist with recycling the same plot mechanics in every new title? I know it's a question that will go unanswered, but it still hurts Skyward Sword just the same. Despite this game being new, there will be times where you will feel like you've played through this already. And I'm not just talking about story, but overall game design as well.

As we've come to expect, all Zelda games have a central hub that connects all the different regions of the game. There were quite a few complaints with the previous installments of the series. Wind Waker had too much ocean, requiring lengthy voyages to get to new destinations, and Twilight Princess suffered from a similar problem, where there was a lot of ground to travel, but not a whole lot in it. Granted, it was nicer to look at, but still, as far as purpose, it was lacking. Skyward Swords gives us a new hub, utilizing the 'sky'. And dare I say, it manages to be more devoid of life than any that has come before it. There exists perhaps a half a dozen different floating rocks that will harbor a building of some sort, but aside from that, there isn't anything else, except for, amusingly enough, 'boost rings' that will provide a brief boost to your bird's flight velocity. So rather than make the hub smaller, negating the need for these 'boost rings', they keep the hub unnecessarily large, providing some fatuous means by which to travel faster, giving the illusion that you're actually getting to your destination faster, although since there's only one place that you will frequently revisit (Skyloft), there's little point in having a hub at all. Perhaps it would have been more useful if there were more than three main territories that you could access. Bringing flight to a Zelda game was a fascinating concept, but the way it's executed in this game makes you wish it wasn't there at all.

As for the regions you can explore, they too, left me wondering who was head of the design team. Zelda games have always followed a natural progression, where you would embark on some sort of quest that will eventually open the path to the next dungeon. Now these quests are generally intertwined into the game in such a way that they move the plot along. The characters you interact with are part of the story and are usually the key to getting where you need to go. Skyward Sword somehow manages to throw away all the subtly and basically has the characters spell out to you that you are about to undergo a fetch quest. For example, in the first you region you explore you will encounter these creatures known as Kiwis. You'll meet the father Kiwi that tells you to locate his children to tell them he's OK, or something to that effect. So now you are left to wander this large area in search of these creatures. And to help assist you, the game provides a method of locating them (and other essential things) called Dowsing. You aim your remote across the environment, hoping to find a response in the signal. When you do finally manage to point it in the right general direction, the pointer responds accordingly. However, you still have no idea where the creature is, as it could be ten feet away, or a thousand feet away. The only thing Dowsing provides is the direction you have to walk in in order to find it. Now this is the point where I ask myself, does doing this progress the story in anyway? The answer is no. These characters have nothing to do with the plot, and whose only purpose is to hinder your path to the next dungeon. Now I'm aware past titles utilize this method of padding the game, but it's much more subtle and usually contributes to the plot. After completing this, you'd expect the small, cutesy critter to grant you a shiny yellow star and tell you that there's 119 more to go. But no, we're playing Zelda. You can also expect more quests like this too later on in the game. The next region will have you collecting 'pieces' of a key to get through the door of the dungeon. I can only wonder what to expect later on in the game.

The sets in this game are also very uninspiring, resembling perfect cliches of games from fifteen years ago. So far I've explore the Faron 'Woods' and Eldin 'Volcano', which aside from their names, I can recognize as such by their decoration, which consists of superfluous use of the colors green and red, resembling the hardware-limiting worlds of Mario 64. Eldin Volcano in particular was exceptionally perplexing. There's literally nothing there aside from brown rocks and lava, both incorporating boring textures. You could easily put this level into a hundred different games and it will fit right in. There's little here that ties it back to Zelda. You'll climb up and down ledges, jump from platform to platform, progressing in a linear path that takes you all the way to your next destination. And on a different note, the music in this area caught me off guard as well. When I first heard it, I thought I had audio coming from somewhere else, because the music I heard bared no resemblance to something you would expect to hear from a volcanic level. It was a cheery, light-hearted tune that, yet again, could fit into some bright sunny level in a Mario game, and it would still be a poor musical composition. I think it's painfully evident that Koji Kondo had little or no involvement in this game's soundtrack, because most of the tunes you'll hear are generic and mediocre, and are well below the standards of what has been previously set. Music is an integral part to the Zelda series, responsible for setting the mood of each area and environment. That harmonious union is no where found in this game thus far.

The last point I want to cover is the 'acclaimed controls' that Nintendo has heavily advertised as being revolutionary, and in some ways, it is, when you consider the Zelda series as a whole. For the first time, Link's sword will respond with one to one motion with the new Wii Motion Plus controller. For the most part, it functions rather well, though it's still a ways away from being perfect. Link is able to slice at three different preset angels: horizontally, vertically and diagonally. He can stab as well, and perform his trademark spin attacks. With some practice, you'll manage to find that you do, in fact, have a great deal of control over the way Link uses his sword, but that unfortunately, is the only compliment I can give concerning the controls. Because Nintendo chose to solely rely on the Wii Motion Plus technology, other aspects of the controls, which were once perfected, have suffered. What I'm referring to is aiming projectiles. The aiming is no longer done with the sensor bar and is now entirely dependent on the Wii Motion Plus accessory. You'll now find that aiming feels a lot 'heavier', in the way that your motions in real life do not correspond immediately to what you see on screen. Subtle movements are a lot harder to pull off now. And in addition to that, you'll actually have to recalibrate the pointer every time you pull out one of these weapons, by pushing down on the D-pad. You can sometimes avoid having to do this if you point the Wii remote directly at the center of the screen before aiming your weapon, but why use this method of aiming when the sensor bar performed so much better? In addition to aiming, you also have to wrestle with these controls while performing other actions, like flying your bird or even throwing bombs. Yes, it's a semi-creative way to implement the new controls, but at the end of the day, it's more cumbersome that using a standard control scheme. There will be plenty of times where the challenge comes, not from battling enemies or navigating perilous paths, but from the controls themselves. It ruins the immersion of the game when I have to constantly consider the way the game interprets the motions I make with the controller. I'm constantly reminded that I'm playing a video game, and not undertaking the role of the legendary Hero of Time.

Skyward Sword may be a lot of things, but a game deserving of the Legend of Zelda title is not one of them. The game lacks in originality and borrows influences from places that it shouldn't. It's like taking a generic platformer, throwing pipes, mushrooms and stars in it and then calling in a Mario game. Skyward Sword at times almost feels like a parody of itself. Nothing you encounter ever comes as a surprise, rather just a concrete reminder that, 'hey, remember this gameplay element from previous titles? Yes, we put it in here, too, just to remind you that you're playing Zelda'. No care or consideration was put into the way these different elements were incorporated into the game. They're just scattered all over the place so that you're sure to find them. I can only hope that Nintendo takes a step back in their next installment and think about the things that truly define an authentic Zelda adventure. I don't want a product that appears to have come off an assembly line. I want talent, heart, and emotion put in to it. I want another game worthy of the Legend of Zelda name.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 11/29/11

Game Release: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (US, 11/20/11)

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