Review by FenderMaster

"A solid and well crafted Zelda game, but may disappoint certain Zelda fans"

The Zelda series, for all its brilliance, has often been criticised for rehashing the same ideas and concepts time after time. Anyone who's played any Zelda game released between 1992 and 2010 will be pretty familiar with torch lighting, block pushing, shooting eyeball switches, as well as Links well-worn tools, such as the slingshot, bow (we really don't need both of these…), bombs, insect net, hookshot and musical instruments.

To say the Zelda series hasn't made significant changes would however, be silly. The Hyrule overworld has seen some drastic changes, from Wind Wakers ocean, Spirit Tracks linear, ill-conceived railroads, and now Skyloft; Skyward Swords one and only town and hub of sorts. Skyloft is one of the Zelda series largest towns, perhaps being second in size only to Majoras Masks Clock Town, with about 20-30 npc's residing here. There is a knight's academy, a bazaar where you can upgrade your items, buy new shields and potions and several houses dotted across the island. You can dive off any wooden platform to climb aboard your Loft Wing, which is Skyward Swords main mode of transport. The Loftwing is controlled by holding your remote like an aeroplane, and tilting the remote to turn, dive or climb. Every 20 seconds or so you need to flick the remote upwards several times in order to regain altitude. This is as slightly irritating motion since it's difficult to maintain a straight course while flicking the remote upwards.

The sky itself is fairly empty with the exception of numerous small rocks, about the size of Mario Galaxy's smallest planetoids dotted across the sky, most of them empty. As you explore the surface world you'll find cubes which can be struck to reveal or unlock treasure chests on these little floating rocks. Aside from these small rocks, there's one populated island with a pumpkin bar, and a couple of minigame islands, but that's your lot. There are few caves or grottos to explore, hidden locations, underground tunnels, and not much in the way of hidden characters. When compared to your average Zelda town, it's a pretty good one, but when you consider that it's the only town in the whole game, it's more than a little disappointing.

Traditionally Zelda overworld have consisted of numerous distinct regions all found off at the peripheries of the central hub field. In Skyward Sword things are a little different. There are three distinct regions, a forest, a fiery volcano and a desert, each of which are accessed by dropping through holes in the cloud back in Skyloft. Each region is isolated with no shortcuts or passages connecting between them. On your first visit, it's fair to say these regions and dungeons can be a little disappointing, however repeat visits do reveal some varied new areas for at least two of the three provinces. Zelda games have traditionally had quite varied gameplay, with equal parts talking and helping townspeople, exploring the wilds and fighting/puzzling your way through dungeons. In Skyward Sword this has changed a little. While there's still quite a few optional sidequests in Skyloft, you're rarely required to spend much time there between dungeons. Each region is now filled with enemies and puzzles so that the entire game sort of feels like a dungeon. For some this may be a definite improvement, though others may feel that some of the series sense of adventure, and wonder at exploring new locations has been lost.

Prior to most every dungeon you are required to undertake some variety of fetchquest. These are something of a mixed bag, some are quite fun, while others are extremely tedious. The best of these will have you visit entirely new areas, solving puzzles, using your items in inventive ways, and occasionally fighting some cool enemies. At their worst they involve backtracking through an area you passed through just minutes ago and following your radar like dousing abilities. Even at their best though, these interludes can feel poorly paced and are obviously just there to artificially extend the games length in the absence of more compelling things to do.
The second half of the game is much stronger than the first, with return visits to two of the regions revealing significant new areas or drastic changes to the regions circumstances. While the game does recycle its own content, it must be said that it does an excellent job of shaking things up on at least one of the return visits. That said, a couple more regions and less recycling or padding still would have made for a more compelling experience.

The dungeons themselves, the meat of any Zelda game, are again a mixed bag. For the first three dungeons I felt like I was going through the motions. The designs seem a little generic by Zelda standards, there were no amazing surprises, nor did I encounter any ingenious puzzles. In fact it must be said that Skywards Swords puzzles are rarely at all challenging. Usually if you're stuck anywhere it's because you didn't see a well hidden switch, or fully explore the area you're in. The second half of the game starts with two of my favourite Zelda dungeons, easily up there with the series best. Unfortunately the last normal dungeon, though by no means bad, was more in line with the game's first half than its second in terms of quality, with quite possibly the worst Zelda item ever found in a dungeon.

Skyward Swords biggest draw is its motion control swordplay. With the aid of the Motion+ accessory, Skyward Sword looked to deliver on that promise of motion control swordplay that expected from Twilight Princess back in 2006. The motion controlled swordplay is, with a few caveats, absolutely excellent. Providing the remote is calibrated correctly, the remotely accurately detects vertical, horizontal and diagonal slashes as well as thrust attacks. Nowhere is this swordplay better utilised than with this games bosses, the best of which are easily among the series finest. Where swordplay can occasionally trip up however, is with the regular enemies. Certain foes can block your attacks, and constantly shift their guards in response to the angle at which you are holding your sword. If you raise your sword to the top right to prepare for a downwards diagonal slash, then your opponents will quickly shift their guard in response to block from that direction. The problem is that in order to attack from an enemies exposed angle, you must move your sword into position then attack very quickly, before they respond, however quickly shifting your sword hand may be detected as a slash attack, which against electricity sword wielding foes found in the desert region results in damage to you, even if they block. On other occasions attempts to quickly shift your swords angle then follow through with a slash will result in the attack coming out at the wrong angle. Clearly there are still some issues with the technology where fast movements are concerned. The boss battle are actually much slower paced than the normal enemies, and work well within the limitations of the technology, which makes the normal enemies speed all the more surprising. A simple solution would have been to hold a button to shift your sword angle without slashing, then releasing the button to attack, something that will hopefully be considered in future titles.

Aiming with the bow or hookshot is now done using gyro rather than IR controls. This is perhaps the worst implementation of motion controls in the game. While aiming, the controls constantly go haywire, and need to be recentered, and while this is done rather easily by pressing down on the D pad while aiming, by the time the remote is re-centered, you're already aiming at the wrong target. It wouldn't be entirely, unfair to call the aiming controls broken, even if Nintendo gave us a patch job fix. Motion controls are also assigned to swimming and flying. Flying your Loftwing around the sky is generally fine, the remote is held like an aeroplane, and controlled by tilting from side to side, pointing down to dive, and up to glide upwards. In order to maintain altitude the game requires that you shake the remote upwards to flap the birds wings. The issue with this is that it's quite hard to maintain a steady course with multiple consecutive shakes. Swimming is controlled via analog stick on the waters surface, but upon diving you shift to remote only control. Swimming controls are very similar to the Loftwing except that a quick nunchuk shake is used to jump out of the water. While both swimming and flying undoubtedly work, there still wasn't a moment in the game where they felt as natural or intuitive as traditional controls. Like Mario Galaxy's spin attack, it's not a deal breaker, but still a poor design decision, particularly the swimming controls.

The games presentation is overall quite impressive. Thanks to a smart art style with watercolour style textures, the games SD resolution is rarely noticeable, and the character models mostly are very good. This is also the first Zelda to feature fully orchestrated music, and while the selection of songs in this game aren't the series most memorable, the sound quality makes up for this. Whether it was a deliberate stylistic choice, or stubborn adherence to outdated traditions, Skyward Sword still doesn't feature any voice acting at all. Character dialogue is still conveyed through text bubbles with characters mouths moving and a grunt accompanying every line. The dialogue is generally well written, and the animations are charming, but it still never quite feels right. Seeing a characters mouth move but no sound come out just feels like an awkward compromise. Some players like to imagine what the characters voices would sound like rather than relying on a voice actor's interpretation, but given that we already know what they sound like through their grunts and shouts, it's difficult to believe this was the intention.

Overall this is a solid entry in the Zelda franchise, all Zelda fans owe it to themselves to play this game. More than any Zelda title in recent years, Skyward Sword has drastically shaken up what was becoming a somewhat stale formula, but for every positive change there is also a negative. How much you enjoy this title will really come down to what you look for in a Zelda title. This is one of the most action packed Zelda titles in years. If you found recent Zelda games to be a little slow and sedate outside of the dungeons, then this game will seem like a big improvement. If however, you're the type of player that likes to step out into a big world, and not know where to go next, and to wander off and make progress and discoveries regardless of which direction you take, then you may come away somewhat disappointed. Even for those of you who may not like all of the changes brought to this game, it's still an undeniably well-crafted and enjoyable experience, and easily recommended to anyone who calls themselves a Zelda fan.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 12/13/11

Game Release: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Limited Edition) (EU, 11/18/11)

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