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We Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The Legend of Zelda is one of the most beloved action RPG franchises out there, and usually for good reason, among them being that it was one of the first console action RPGs in existence. The latest Legend of Zelda game, Skyward Sword, is the second Zelda title for the Wii, and the first of these titles that was made exclusively for the Wii (the prior, excellent title, Twilight Princess, had a simultaneous Gamecube release). Is Skyward Sword the best Zelda game out there? The worst? Let’s find out.

Those of you who are thoroughly familiar with The Legend of Zelda can probably safely skip this part. The first Legend of Zelda game appeared back in the mid 1980s for the NES console—1986, to be precise. The game was fairly rudimentary by the standards of today’s Zelda games, but it set many of the tropes that remain with the series today, including a heavy emphasis on environment- and tool-based puzzles, a fairly heavy exploration bent, and so forth, down to many of the same musical cues and themes that have appeared in just about every Zelda game in existence. The game was popular enough to spawn a slew of sequels, and just about every Nintendo console has had a Legend of Zelda game for it. That’s all the history you’re going to get for this review; The Legend of Zelda as a phenomenon is fascinating enough to warrant its own article.

The Legend of Zelda, if you are unfamiliar with it all, follows the adventures of an all-around nice guy named Link (well, as long as you accept the default name) as he travels across a land called Hyrule, undergoing Epic Quests and Doing Important Things. More often than not, it’s saving the world, or saving Zelda. In Skyward Sword, Link lives on a floating island called Skyloft (in the sky, no less! Above the clouds, even!), and he’s aspiring to be a knight of Skyloft. Unlike regular, ground-based knights with horses that positively drip with DLC armor (ahemOblivionahem), the knights of Skyloft ride on giant birds called Loftwings. Not just Skyloft’s knights, mind, but they’re the chaps who probably own the majority shareholder stake in Loftwing Farms™. The legend around Skyloft is that no one has actually ever seen the ground below the clouds, since the layer of cloud is so thick that no Loftwing will penetrate it. Do you smell plot? I smell plot.

Skyward Sword was created to take full advantage of the Wii MotionPlus accessory (or the Wii Remote Plus, if you have one), which promises 1:1 motion control. The concept itself is awesome, and with the promise of a proper sword fight this time, I popped the game into my trusty Wii and fired it up. First thing that happens is that the game assures you that it cannot be played without the Wii MotionPlus, so I feel it’s only fair to pass along the same warning.

Near the start of the game, you receive some basic instruction in how to flail about properly, and I was quite impressed with how well the swordplay worked on stumps of wood. Slash horizontally, and Link performs a horizontal slash. Slash vertically, and Link does likewise. Diagonal cuts work the same, as does a forward poke. Having mastered the basics, off I went to go learn how to fly a Loftwing. It took me a while to get used to not using the Nunchuck to control the bird, but I must admit that changing the angle of the Wii Remote to change the angle of flight makes moving about in 3D space really easy. Such a pity that the bird has an awful turning circle. Furthermore, the steadiness of your Loftwing depends very much on the steadiness of your own hand, so if you’re of a nervous disposition, you might struggle here. Mercedes would never allow such steering. Just saying.

Inevitably, Zelda makes her disappearance, and of course it’s up to Link to go and hunt her down to drag her back to Skyloft, whether peaceably or kicking and screaming. This also, inevitably, means discovering precisely what lies beneath the thick cloudy barrier. In every Zelda game, Link has a guiding companion of sort. In Ocarina of Time it was Navi. In Majora’s Mask it was Tatl. In Twilight Princess it was Midna. In Skyward Sword, your companion is Fi, the embodiment of the sword you carry. Fi acts as your guide, adviser, and often enough, all around Ms. Obvious, and she can become incredibly annoying. Do we need to know from her that there is a “75% chance” that the treasure chest we spotted earlier “contains the means forward”? No, Fi, we figured that out for ourselves. We’ll call you if we need your meaningless statistical percentages on how the story is going to proceed. Or whether we need to “refresh our health”. Or even, I swear this is true, whether the batteries in the Wii Remote are dying. Personally, I preferred Midna, who was much friendlier and didn’t offer so many dratted meaningless numbers. I also don’t recall Midna bothering me every time the batteries needed changing, but that may just be my faulty memory. Still, Fi’s who we are stuck with for this game, so make the best of a bad situation, and remember to keep a store of spare batteries handy, because the WiiMotion Plus will drain your batteries like Dracula drained Mina Harker (okay, a bad analogy, since Mina actually survived, but the point remains).

The battles in Skyward Sword are more than your standard “waggle-waggle-ooh-I-hit-it” affair. Because the Wii MotionPlus picks up on every subtle nuance of motion you make (well, in theory, anyhow), the monsters have been upgraded to make battles more than just a matter of timing. Now you also have to deal with hitting the monster from the correct direction, because they are often blocking from most of the other directions. As mentioned, this is how it’s supposed to work.

And here is where things start to go ever so slightly wrong. It’s almost like watching a waiter stacking plates to create a great glass-and-gravy tower, complete with teacup on top, and then watching as he makes his wobbly way toward the kitchen. You fear the inevitable crash, and you’re watching with a sense of “Will he make it? Or will he have to clean up the porcelain carnage afterwards?” The motion sensitivity can be a somewhat fickle mistress to tame, and you’ll as often find yourself performing a downward strike when you meant to perform a diagonal strike as you will perform a poke stab when you meant to perform a horizontal strike. You’ll also as often poke the enemy when you want to shield-bash with the Nunchuck. It can all get a little frustrating at times. Later on in the game you’ll receive a harp (lyre?), and strumming that harp is another one of those “glass-and-gravy” scenarios. To play the harp you have to sweep the Wii Remote back and forth in wide, sweeping movements in time to a ticker. Saying that it can be tricky to get this motion right is about as understated as saying that a trash dump is only a little mess; at one point I spent well over five minutes or so with my arms threshing about in wild abandon, trying to get the timing and motion right before the game was satisfied that I had waved my arms in the proper manner. Whenever I could foresee a harp section looming ahead like a buffalo about to charge, I felt dread in the bowels of my abdomen at the mad windmilling I’d have to go through to make the game happy.

One last point to note about control is that with the Wii MotionPlus the Wii Sensor bar isn’t as necessary any more. It may take a while to realize this, so here’s a helpful hint: any time you need to aim anything, point straight at your screen before engaging the tool, whether it be a flying beetle, slingshot, clawshot, bow-and-arrow-shot, shot-put, or just plain shot-in-the-dark; the MotionPlus assumes that wherever you’re currently pointing when you engage the tool is the center of the screen, even if you’re blatantly pointing behind you. Which I do frequently enough. Don’t ask.

Mind you, I’m griping at very little here, plainly because there’s very little to otherwise complain about with Skyward Sword. It’s a beautiful and amazingly fun game, minor flaws aside. And when I say beautiful, I mean it. The art style is attractively and deliberately simple, and has an impressionistic feel to it. Flying around in the clouds can be incredibly soothing, and the musical score is also suitably soaring. It’s one of my favorite Zelda soundtracks so far, and I really love the soundtracks in the Legend of Zelda games. Apparently, this is the last time we’ll see this sort of art style in a Zelda game, which makes me a little sad, since I’m not sure I want to see a more realistic style. There’s a sort of whimsy to the art that somehow reinforces the fantasy of the game, making it more engaging, possibly because you’re more willing to forgive and overlook minor art problems and glitches. If it were a more realistic art style, the flaws in the art become far more pronounced, jarring with the immersion in the game. I hope that Nintendo take this sort of lesson to heart when designing the next Legend of Zelda game (which we’re assured will be for the forthcoming Wii U console).

Even the environments are beautiful to play in, whether it be Skyloft and its surrounds, or whether it be the forest, volcano, or desert below. As par for any Zelda-shaped course, there are plenty of puzzles to be had, and most of the puzzles center around the tools you combined with the environment. It’s all great fun.

Of course, if you’re tired of the missions down on the surface, there are plenty of side quests and missions to be had up in Skyloft itself, whether it be taking pumpkins to a shed, hunting insects, or simply fetching something for someone. Even the bosses can be seen as a kind of puzzle: in prior Zelda games, the item you were just given was what you used to defeat the boss of that stage, but this is not necessarily the case with Skyward Sword. I’m also not saying that the object you have isn’t used to defeat the boss, but you need to do a little thinking around most of the bosses you encounter. The puzzles and bosses remind me an awful lot of a very similar game: Okami (which if you haven’t played, you should be kicked), and if you’re one of the rare, wonderful individuals who has played Okami (either the Wii or PS2 versions), you’ll feel very at home with Skyward Sword. For me, however, it felt as if there were far less of “go back to an old stage with new tools to find new stuff” as there was in Twilight Princess, but I’ll have to replay Twilight Princess to be sure, so take that with a healthy dose of sodium chloride.

All in all, I’d highly recommend The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It might have its small niggles, but then what game doesn’t? Even if you’ve never played a Zelda game before this, Skyward Sword doesn’t pretend to be part of a series, so you can jump straight in knowing very very little about the Zelda universe or its timelines or even its characters. The game is filled with a veritable army of charming folk, a hard-drive’s worth of memorable moments, and the kind of environment-driven gameplay that’s missing from many similar button-masher-style action RPGs. To answer to question I posed at the start: is it the best Zelda game out there? It’s certainly one of the best, in my opinion, and the two Legend of Zelda games alone—Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword—are certainly worth buying a Nintendo Wii for. You definitely won’t be disappointed by this amazing game.

Final score: 8.5 treasure-shaped prawns out of 10
Detailed information:
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: November 2011
RRP: R499
Age Rating: 12

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