The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword ReviewJoe Green
It's a good time to be a gamer. This Christmas season has been host to some of the best in gaming history and we're all spoilt for choice. So, which should we choose to keep us and our loved ones busy over the festive season? To date, almost 90 million Wii consoles have been sold worldwide and that means there are a lot of potential gamers out there looking to fill that void in their Wii library with something special. Zelda: Skyward Sword is your answer. If you buy one Wii game for you and the family this season, it would be folly to look elsewhere.
Over the last two and a half decades, Zelda has become one of video games' most iconic legends and is a staple to any gamer who fancies themselves a 'true' gamer. Yet at the same time, Nintendo has created a world which can be and is loved by many, regardless of their gender, age or gaming preference. This overly promoted concept of gaming 'political correctness' has somewhat become Nintendo's defining motto in recent years. Titles such as Zelda make these efforts to hook the masses seem redundant, as it in itself symbolises everything a game requires to be universally loved. It offers a world where those who enjoy games and those who didn't realise they enjoyed games, can experience the very best the industry has to offer. Quite simply, Zelda has and hopefully always will, represent the epitome of innovation and thoughtful game design, masterfully crafted by the heart and soul of Nintendo's very finest.
Skyward Sword is no exception to the standard of excellence we have come to expect from the Zelda series, as it offers tight gameplay amidst unique and thoughtfully created levels and dungeons. The characters are, as ever, a delight to meet and the story is woven through a plot thick with emotion, intrigue and style. Those not new to the series will be pleased to come across old character favorites and will smile at the blatant note to older games in some locations. The first time this happened for me was during the first dungeon. Resembling the forest dungeon in Ocarina of Time, you acquire that dungeon's unique item after taking on a surprisingly intimidating Skeleton in a swordfight. Often it is the slightest of references such as this, which inspire you with nostalgia and make you remember why you loved Zelda so much the first time.
From a gameplay point of view, not much has changed to Zelda's core structure. Your progress is still impeded by the requirement to procure exceptional gems from three initial dungeons, which later expand through the narrative and result in you seeking other similar items in later, more challenging dungeons. I, for one, do not find this to be a fault of the game. Not least because it sticks to the principle of "don't fix what ain't broke", but it is quintessential to Zelda's magic. It is hard to define, but those who have played the game before will understand the impact this has on the game's success and those new to it, will not be disappointed by the game's pacing, as after the first two hours, it is by no means sluggish.
The greatest change in Zelda's recipe this time naturally comes from the new method of control with the Wii's motion plus. Unlike Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword has been designed from the ground up with motion controlling in mind. This has an effect on literally every gameplay mechanic you will use throughout the game, from puzzles to combat and gadgetry. Yes gadgetry, as Link has more useful items up his sleeve than 007 himself. Series classics such as the bow and arrow return, but many new arrivals are found and all with the precision focussed nature of the motion plus in mind. Without a doubt, these are fundamental to the success of the gameplay as with each new addition, they offer thoughtful and intriguing ways to overcome a particular dungeon's obstacles.
Difficulty this time around is one aspect I have found that has increased. From the very first dungeon I had to stop several times, inspect the map and question my intelligence as its puzzles confounded me. Nevertheless, this is something which by no means hinders the gameplay, as often in the past, the undemanding difficulty level has been one of the only complaints for fans and yes I'm talking about Wind Waker.
The same does not hold true however for the unintentional difficulty with the motion plus controls. I know I will not be alone in saying that I have often encountered difficulties with the method of control. There is no fundamental fault with them, as they are largely very accurate for their purpose specific challenges. But this is perhaps only entirely true when viewed in isolation. After playing the game for several hours, the necessity to constantly reset your pointer or make 'overarching' sweeping motions in order to recalibrate the controls, may begin to wear your patience thin. In complete honesty, I have often found myself wishing for a 'proper' controller and later dismissing the thought when I come across a new way in which the controls are very cleverly used.
It is a Catch-22, as in many ways the new precision based controls are the essence of the game's success and certainly represent this generation's form of innovation for Zelda, but at the same time, they can be its single greatest downfall in my mind. On some occasions, a difficult swordfight will require a speedy gesture in order to overcome the opponent's parry. Nevertheless, sometimes that results in you taking a swipe with your sword when in fact, you intended to simply move quickly from left to right before taking your shot. Like it or love it, it is still a successful method of control on the whole, but do expect it to test your patience upon occasion.
Story is an area which is normally best left a mystery to the gamer until they have had the opportunity to experience it themselves and I would not seek to preclude anyone from having that opportunity. What can be said however, is that it is a more grown-up form of story-telling compared to those games from the past. Not in the same vein as Twilight Princess, which opted for moody settings and a dark and foreboding tone, but by its mature and witty use of dialogue. Romance is perhaps the most distinctive new theme which you will see in Skyward Sword: a welcome addition to the narrative and at times very comical in its naivety.
The last area which needs to be touched on for the latest incarnation of the Zelda franchise is its graphics. Often controversial, particularly in today's power hungry society, cel-shaded graphics are rarely a crowd favourite upon announcement. As with Wind Waker, many people instantly dismissed the potential of the new game based on its graphics alone - which is a flawed perception. Similar to the cel-shaded graphics of Wind Waker, this latest Zelda takes on a distinct cartoon approach, but with an impressionistic style reminiscent to a form of art in itself. In fact, it would be wrong to describe the graphics purely cel-shaded, as you will see that there are clear differences. Similarly, there is a lack of texture detail in preference of bold and bright colors, but the washed-out, bloom effect which is seen in the game's lighting, gives it the look of a watercolour painting. Again, we should not forget that the notion of 'good' graphics is not always determined by the number of textures on screen or the impression of realism which is given. On some occasions, artistic style and individuality can be just as pleasing to witness when in motion on screen. I believe Nintendo have successfully created a distinctive visual flair for their game, more so than could ever have been achieved by a realistic approach.
So, if you've failed to grasp the answer in the preceding paragraphs, or if you just simply skimmed through them, let me summarise why Zelda is a monumentally worthy addition to your Wii collection this Christmas. It has been made with a level of attention to detail, thought and skill which is rare in today's popular games. It is crafty is its puzzles, amusing in its script, perplexing in its Eastern outlandishness, innovative in its level design and it is fun. That's why we play games after all is it not?
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.