Thursday, March 29, 2012

Late in the game review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Game title: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Console: Wii 
Developer: Nintendo 
Release date: November 20, 2011
Before we really get started here, let me preface this review by saying this: I am a Zelda fan. Zelda was one of the first big series I really got into, and it's the one I've followed the most loyally, so if my words are a bit biased, I apologize. Just know beforehand that this review is from that perspective, and we'll be fine. Right then, onward!

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the very latest in the Zelda series, one of Nintendo's strongest franchises. This game has had its ups and downs, and audiences have been waiting for its release since series creator Shigeru Miyamoto released the image below back in 2009.

For the uninitiated, each Zelda game is located in a new world with new characters and enemies, but certain constants are in almost every game. The hero is always Link (although you can often name him whatever you want), he wields the legendary Master Sword, and he must often save Princess Zelda from evil forces, usually Ganon.

There are several themed dungeons to complete, one for fire, one for water and so on. Each dungeon yields a treasure, and common ones are a bow and arrow, bombs, a boomerang, and a grappling hook/hookshot. The all-powerful Triforce is usually involved, and in many recent games, Link has flexed his musical talent by taking up an instrument (if you count the wolf howl from Twilight Princess as a musical instrument).

These similarities have led to the popular belief among fans that Link and Zelda are technically different people in each game, but they are eternally reincarnated in different eras, and so each game features a different protagonist with the same spirit in a new location.

The Zelda team never wrote the series with that in mind, but they have since adopted this theory and made it part of the Zelda lore. They have even even taken the liberty of compiling a timeline of every Zelda game.

You'll notice that Skyward Sword is first, chronologically. This game is the start of it all. There are a number of events over the course of the game that confirm this, but to really drive the point home, players actually get to forge the Master Sword, instead of finding it like in the other games.

As for the setting this time around, Link and Zelda are childhood friends on the floating island of Skyloft, where everyone rides giant birds called Loftwings. Link's tried-and-true green tunic and hat are just the standard uniform for his grade at Skyloft's academy (despite the fact that nobody else actually wears a green one). As anyone with a brain stem could see coming, Zelda is snatched away early on, and Link must be off to rescue her, down on the surface. Adventures ensue.

Interviews with the developers of Skyward Sword revealed that the team's mission this time around was to change the series up a bit. They wanted to make this Zelda new and different from past versions, but keep it feeling like a Zelda game. As well-received as this game is, I'd say they accomplished that goal.

One of the biggest things that sets this game miles apart from its predecessors is the use of motion controls. Yes, Twilight Princess had them too, but that game was designed with the GameCube in mind. Wii integration and motion controls were tacked onto Twilight Princess at the last minute.

Skyward Sword was Wii from start to finish. It's different. This is a game by Nintendo for a Nintendo console that uses motion controls patented by Nintendo. They work.

As you may have heard, I am personally not a big fan of motion controls. For the most part, I consider them gimmicky, and I think most games that use them would be better without them. Skyward Sword is an exception. I was wary at first, but the more I played, the more my opinion shifted, at least in regards to this game.

I began to enjoy the fact that you had to swing the Wiimote up and down to flap your giant bird's wings, that you had to steer your flying remote-controlled Beetle by twisting and pointing the controller, even the fact that you had to balance on a rope by balancing the Wiimote (that doesn't make it less of a pain, though).

What sold me was the sword. Because Skyward Sword uses the Wii's MotionPlus technology, the game is able to tell the exact angle you're pointing the controller. This means that if you have your sword out and point left, Link points his sword left. Right, he points right. You can even twist the controller, and Link will twist his sword. If players point the Wiimote straight up, Link will do the same with his sword, and charge a Skyward Strike, a ranged attack that improves along with Link's sword.
You can slash at enemies from any angle, and even do a vertical spin attack (although the horizontal one is still more useful). There are droves of enemies specifically geared to show this off, including main villain, Ghirahim, who players will battle more than once. These enemies often only block half their bodies, so you have to hit them from the opposite side. This has the amusing side effect of making them look utterly ridiculous.

On the topic of Ghirahim, you can't talk about this game's villain without mentioning his demeanor. This guy is a cocktail of frustration, outlandish gesticulations and impotent rage.

It is disconcerting that this guy is the antagonist. I'm supposed to be afraid of him? It's hard enough to take the guy seriously in the first place, but is anyone actually afraid of him? Let's take a moment to compare Ghirahim to Zant, his Twilight Princess counterpart, shall we?

Both villains take center stage for most of the game, they are both original, non-recurring characters, they both use magic, and they're both incredibly pale (once you get past Zant's helmet, anyway). 

Ghirahim is a willowy emo waif in a skin-tight body suit that players humiliate in battle on three occasions, with the first time serving as the first dungeon's boss fight. If you can trounce him right out of the gate like that, it's hard to be intimidated later. For 99% of the game, players learn nothing about his personal history other than the fact that he is trying to revive the Big Bad he serves. 

Zant is (pictured right) a being from another dimension gothed out in creepy armor, and is often flanked by his tentacle monster-esque guards. He changes the Light Realm to Twilight as he walks, semi-permanently traps Link as a wolf, and has already taken over half the world by the time Link is called to action. Only later in the game do players learn that Zant also serves a Big Bad, but he could have believably taken that role himself.

Now, Skyward Sword is a much more lighthearted game than Twilight Princess, so it makes sense that the villain would be more silly than scary, but, come on, even Wind Waker had Ganon.

Another new addition to Skyward Sword is upgradeable gear. Sure, in older games you'd find a bigger bomb bag or a better shield, but in this game, you can use small treasures form treasure chests and fallen enemies to beef up many items. After a good trip to the upgrade shop, Link can walk away with a tougher shield (they'll break, eventually), a faster Beetle, a more powerful bow, and a bigger bomb bag. That's a pretty nice haul, all in all.

It's even possible to upgrade potions found at the potion shop, although they use different ingredients to become more powerful. They use the awesome power of bugs! I know it's kind of gross to think you're drinking a butterfly to heal up, but hey, do you want to heal or not?

Upgrading a potion goes something like this: a basic heart potion restores eight hearts of health. A 2nd level heart potion, which requires a few bugs found from all over the world, will restore all of Link's heath. A 3rd level heart potion, which requires a different batch of bugs, will restore all of Link's health, and it has two servings in one bottle. Get yourself a few of those, and there's not much that can bring you down.

Once you're all geared up, it's time to go adventuring and save the world! Link spends most of his time being slow as a snail, just missing Zelda as she's taken away to another location time and time again. Does "the princess is in another castle" ring any bells? Seriously though, Link is almost always about 30 seconds late for these things. Fortunately, so is Ghirahim, so you get to keep pissing him off by knocking him around or killing his minions.

The dungeons in Skyward Sword are elementally themed, like previous versions, but they do introduce some new elements. A notable example of this is the existence of Timeshift Stones, which players will first use leading up to the third dungeon. These stones do just what you think: they shift time. With the exception of Link, everything in a certain radius around one of these is set back hundreds of years.

This, thankfully, means that the quicksand-filled desert is replaced by solid grassland beneath your feet, old machinery roars to life, and even ancient enemies will spring up and into the fray. It is fairly hilarious to knock one of those enemies out of the stone's area of effect. I always imagine the booming voice of a narrator yelling "RING OUT!!"

Timeshift Stones are used in fairly ingenious ways throughout your journey. They appear stationed on moving mine carts, as portable objects players can carry around, or, my personal favorite, as a power source for a speedboat in the used-to-be-the-sea part of the desert.

Things like Timeshift Stones, and other new elements in Skyward Sword, make me believe that the Zelda team still has a few tricks up their sleeves, and they may yet surprise us in the years to come. Considering how much Nintendo wants the Wii U to do well, a good Zelda game may be what it needs. If the Wii U's cinematic tech demo is any indication, they're definitely cooking something up.

Speaking of cinematic, Skyward Sword steps up the cinematic quality of the Zelda series. While there have been cutscenes for years, in Skyward Sword, some of Link's expressions (he's still the silent protagonist) convey more personality than ever before.

This is especially apparent near the end of the game, when Link is staring down the Big Bad with a mean "I'm going to kill you" look on his face. It's not just about saving the world and being the knight in shining armor, Link actually wants to fight and win. I mentioned before that this game is, overall, a lighter-toned one than Twilight Princess, and that's true, but moments like these show the player that lighthearted games can still be dark, at times.

Of course, there are those silly moments too...

Other reviewers have mentioned that, plotwise, Link never seems to stop having to prove himself to someone, even when he should be fully recognized as a hero already. While this does indeed happen a lot, it makes sense with this game. This is chronologically the first Zelda game ever. Link is spending a lot of this game not only proving that he is a hero, but becoming a better one. There's actually a game mechanic that literally improves Link's spirit until it becomes a true hero's spirit, which starts that whole reincarnation cycle I mentioned earlier.

It's true that Link is almost never immediately good enough to merit any help, but, I'm okay with that this time because he's laying the groundwork for all future Links. He's creating the Master Sword, becoming a true hero, finding the Triforce, saving the world and, it's safe to assume, getting the girl (they never exactly spell that out for you, but it's there).

One of the game's few downsides is Fi. Fi is the spirit (or computer program, not quite sure which) that lives inside Link's sword. She is the Navi of this game. She's always buzzing in your ear and telling you things you already know. "Oh, there's a 90% chance I should go to the left? Thanks! It's not like that person I just talked to already told me that, or anything."

I get that the Zelda team is trying to make the game accessible to kids, but, really, do we have to dumb it down that much? First of all, kids aren't the only ones playing these games anymore. Secondly, kids figured out the original Legend of Zelda back in 1986, and that was hard. Give the current crop of kids a chance to show you what they can do, they might surprise you.

Final Call: 
For fans of the series, Skyward Sword is a great game. It's fun, adventurous, filled with all kinds of enemies (although they do tend to throw variations of the same type at you), interesting items and, most importantly, good uses of motion controls. This is the only motion controlled game, outside of perhaps Wii Sports, that I would recommend because of the controls, not in spite of them.

While the plot leaves something to be desired, it does have its moments, and it's worth seeing. Besides that, there are some enemies that are fairly tough this time around. I know many Zelda fanatics can go through their favorite games without losing more than a couple hearts, but some Skyward Sword enemies took some serious chunks out of my heath meter. If you're looking for even more of a challenge than that, there's always Hero Mode.

Hero Mode is essentially a new game +. It's the same game, except enemies hit twice as hard, almost nothing drops health, and money is more scarce. On the other hand, you are able to keep your upgrade ingredients (treasures and bugs) and your Skyward Strike is immediately fully upgraded. Those aren't huge advantages, but when enemies are doing double damage, you'll be thankful for them.

Skyward Sword is one of the Wii's biggest draws right now, and it might actually get some "core" gamers to get their controllers swinging, instead of just collecting dust.

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