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Xander Markham avatar 9:39 PM on 11.30.2011
Review - The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword



Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: SKYWARD SWORD
Format: Wii
Developer/Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1

Skyward Sword is a game obsessed with motion. That's true of the controls, which utilises the gyroscopic sensitivity of the Wii Motion Plus to manage everything from basic attacks to swimming and various forms of flight, but even moreso of the core of its design. It is a game driven by keeping the player moving forward at all times, towards a new checkpoint or location.

The dowsing mechanic exemplifies this: courtesy of new fairy companion, Fi, your sword is now able to track people, locations and objects of importance, compelling you towards them with an excitable bleep. The game doesn't like the idea if it going unused, either: leave the C button alone for too long and the bleeping will start regardless, shrilling at you to get moving towards your next destination. No time to lose - there's a thing and it's all the way over there! What are you standing around for?



Goal-oriented progression is hardly new for either the series or videogames in general, but previous Zelda games have applied it fairly casually. You COULD head for your next dungeon in the desert, but there's also a lake waiting to be explored, plus all those opportunities passed a while back to use an item recently picked up. Skyward Sword includes side-quests and secrets, but does not exactly seem enthralled by the idea of players taking the time to indulge them (or, heaven forfend, go for a wander) when there's a story waiting to be told.

The game is significantly more linear than any previous entries, with environments designed more like obstacle courses than expansive worlds. Once you have made your inaugural pass through an area, a number of shortcuts are put in place to facilitate later navigation, allowing a touch more freedom but mostly in the aim of allowing quick access to a new path later on.

While a little dismaying for those of us who enjoyed taking Zelda games at our own pace, Nintendo have to be complimented on their outstanding use of space: from the surface lands to the dungeons, Skyward Sword is a masterclass is level design ergonomics, with nary a square inch wasted. Dungeons, in particular, are smaller in size than those from previous games, but navigating each feels like a puzzle in its own right - literally, for one example very late in the game - making for some of the series' finest efforts to date. The game may be a stricter taskmaster than veterans will be used to - as far as could be from the freeform NES original - but its efficiency is undeniable.



While the exploration may be missed, Skyward Sword is at its best when doing its own thing. The game's linearity allows the designers to throw new tests at the player with startling rapidity. One moment you will be duelling with a Bokoblin on a tightrope, the next guiding a minecart around a track at high-speed, or ascending a set of steep buttes to collect a map from the inconveniently located house of a robot pirate. The high volume of fetch quests (and one boss battle repeated three times and no less boring on each recurrence) can be frustrating and needlessly pads the game's length - a less forgiveable error in light of Xenoblade Chronicles staying consistently fresh despite being at least four times as long - but the game manages to be just surprising and wonderful enough that persevering through the annoyances feels worthwhile.

The motion controls play a big part in this. The sword fighting is the first and most obvious implementation, but each item in Link's arsenal is refreshed by the added physical twist. Bombs can be rolled along the floor or tossed through the air with the relevant gesture; levers manipulated with a crack of a whip and the wrist; a mechanical beetle flown through the air to scout ahead and find hidden switches: it is just a shame that the upgrade system is so negligible, neither in-depth or impactful enough to satisfy veterans, nor sufficiently simply for newcomers to easily to get to grips with.

Enemies, too, are vast in number and each requiring a different strategy to defeat, be it lacerating gooey blobs, dissecting Deku Babas, or slicing laser-firing totems along their illuminated body markings. Crowd control can be problematic when Link is surrounded, as wide attacks aimed at one enemy tend to get deflected by others at your sides (which can lead to damage being taken when the enemy in question is designed to punish misplaces swipes with electric swords and the like), but the physical nature of combat makes each encounter a thrill, especially the boss fights revolving around one-on-one duels, making an engaging step-up from what was offered in Ubisoft's excellent Red Steel 2 last year.

It isn't all perfect: the sword swiping may be vastly improved over Twilight Princess, but the decision to forego the sensor bar altogether for aiming, relying solely on the gyroscope, is a frustrating mess. With the remote's sensitivity set so low (and unalterable), the on-screen cursor often lags behind the player's movement rather than relaying it directly, meaning recalibration is required almost every time it is used. Trying to take aim in the midst of combat and finding Link pointing somewhere entirely different to the direction of your Wii remote is unacceptable. The skyward charge is also somewhat unreliable for the same reason, often taking several attempts to initiate and adding a unnatural layer of difficulty to the two boss battles in which it plays an integral part.



As the 25th anniversary game, there are a number of echoes to previous entries in the longstanding series, few of which are a comfortable fit: the sky echoes Wind Waker's vast ocean, but with fewer areas of interest and requiring too much physical activity - controlling the flight of Link's bird, the loftwing, is done with the Motion Plus gyroscope - to achieve the Zen-like relaxation which made traversing those expanses bearable.

A musical instrument and time travelling mechanic are carried over from Ocarina, although the former is strictly controlled in terms of when and how it can be used, and the latter is restricted to two areas, both identical in past and present barring a slight darkening in colour palettes. Twilight Princess' teardrop-collecting trials are imported wholesale and only slightly less irritating. Majora gets a small nod prior to the climactic battle, but otherwise continues to be treated like the black sheep of the Zelda family.

In lieu of a vast Hyrule field, the game's central hub is Skyloft, Link's floating island home from which he can access three areas of the land below (divided between forest, desert, volcano). Though its soft colours are easy on the eye, it is by far the blandest of the Zelda overworlds to date: apart from the chests secreted away in various nooks and crannies, accessible only after being 'activated' by cubes on the surface, there is precious little waiting to be uncovered. The flying mechanic, meanwhile, remains unchanged from beginning to end, with the sole attempt to use it in a combat situation being mundanely simplistic and barely lasting more than a few minutes. Those hoping for aerial (bird)fights will have to think again - it exists solely as a means of navigation and is consequently one of the game's most blaring missed opportunities. Fortunately, diving from the sky's highest point to its lowest island never gets old.

The town's populace is imminently forgettable, mostly defined by appearance rather than personality, making the tasks they set feel just that little bit more laborious than usual. Although there's one moment which is genuinely hilarious (a rare treat in gaming, but one which Skyward Sword pulls off unexpectedly frequently), involving a dilemma as to what to do with a poorly-worded love letter, nothing ever comes close to matching the joy, tragedy and grace that made each of Majora's Mask side-quests so rewarding. As befitting a game so determined to keep its players on the straight and narrow, most can be done and dusted with a minimum of time and effort.



One improvement on previous entries is the relationship between Link and Zelda, which finally manages to flesh out both characters beyond the usual hollow archetypes of hero and damsel in distress. Stripping Zelda of her royal status (although she is still the daughter of the prestigious Knight Academy's headmaster), she instead becomes Link's dearest childhood friend and unspoken crush, the one who wakes him up when he sleeps in - leading to the game's most heartbreaking line - and shouts down the gang of jealous bullies who confront him. If the other characters are mostly reduced to space-fillers (exceptions being Groose's excellent comedy stylings and Lord Ghirahim's gleefully sadistic androgyny), putting Link and Zelda as the game's emotional core works to moving effect.

The central love story - because that's what it is, even if Zelda is quite the tease - is enhanced no end by Koji Kondo's versatile and playful score. While only the end credits track reaches the heights of his greatest works, notably on Ocarina and Mario Galaxy, the orchestration is an enormous step up from the MIDI-produced soundtracks from previous Zelda titles and hits all the right emotional cues - sad, funny, stirring, sedate - at all the right moments. The way the music for the Skyloft Bazaar alters slightly to suit each vendor is a particularly endearing touch.

So too does Skyward Sword change character, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. The painterly visuals are a perfect fit for the series' unique blend of epic scope and intimate charm, but the feeling pervades that they are unlikely to survive the leap to the next generation of consoles. The streamlined design leads to some of the series' most engaging dungeons, but also makes this the first 3D Zelda to have no time for a sunset. The story of Zelda and Link finally finds a heart to match its legendary scale, but reduces the supporting cast to non-entities. For every fresh innovation to drive the series forward, there seems to be a frustration or a loss to match. Nods to the past feel perfunctory and half-hearted. A relief, then, that the moments when it all comes together are so much greater in power than those when it stumbles: Skyward Sword's greatest achievement is in getting a twenty-five year old series moving again. [ 7 ]

This review will also be published on my blog at 12pm GMT tomorrow.

 
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