The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Before we get started: As with all of my coverage of the game thus far, I’ve done my very best in this review to provide my opinion after many hours of play and the completion of the game without spoiling anything. I have intentionally left many details out and spoken vaguely so as not to ruin anything for you—instead, hopefully you will walk away with a serious idea of what to expect without knowing anything you didn’t already want to know. After all, games this good only come along once in a blue moon… and there’s no reason to sacrifice any of the unforgettable experience on the horizon.

Five years ago, my time with Twilight Princess had me convinced that Nintendo was descending from the apex of the Zelda series. For a franchise held to such an unattainable standard, it’s easy to forget just how difficult it is to consistently impress the audience. And just so, in spite of its remarkable scope and various modifications to the formula, Twilight Princess nevertheless became known as the latest subordinate to the behemoth that was 1998’s Ocarina of Time. It wasn’t shocking, or daring, or any of those things which might have qualified as a dangerous choice. To the contrary; aside from its questionable wolf interludes, it was a game which leveraged a clever blend of nostalgia and permuted conventionalism to deliver an experience that was both rewarding and familiar.

Rewarding and familiar are valuable traits when they are accompanied by the power of a classic franchise, but it’s those games which dare to challenge the conventional while simultaneously embracing their greatest assets that are allowed to compete for a spot at the apex. And with that realization spearheading their efforts, Nintendo today brings us what is, in my mind, the greatest entry in the Zelda series to date. For Skyward Sword, the expectations are every bit justified—and met. Fitting that the Wii’s ultimate swan song would redefine both the boundaries of the console’s abilities and the beloved franchise from which it hails all at once.

Many more videos, most spoiler-free, can be seen in our video gallery (updates still coming).

What a Wonderful World

Skyward Sword begins with Link and Zelda living on a floating island high above the clouds called Skyloft. Link is in training to become a knight, a process which involves learning to master control of your personal Loftwing—a bird which every Skyloft inhabitant uses to get from place to place. The game begins on the day of the annual Wing Ceremony, which starts with a customary flying competition between student birdriders where the winner gets to participate with Zelda in the formal ceremony taking place thereafter.

In spite of some meddling by a few resident bullies, Link (predictably) prevails, much to the delight of his childhood friend Zelda. It isn’t long, however, before tragedy strikes and she’s taken below the clouds to a rumored place known as “the surface”. Since Loftwings won’t fly below the cloud layer, Skyloft’s residents have only heard stories of its existence—and, of course, it’s now Link’s job to find and rescue the young maiden. His adventure tells the story of the origin of the Master Sword, as well as the most fundamental pillars of Zelda lore. Skyward Sword is the start of the Zelda legacy, and chronologically, this Link and Zelda are the first on the timeline.

It’s merely a twist on the traditional Zelda tale perhaps, but the foundational setting it provides is the first clue that you’re in for a unique experience. Link’s world in Skyward Sword is an ocean of miles-high mini-attractions draped overtop a surface consisting of three major areas: forest, desert, and mountain. The vast majority of exploration and gameplay takes place on the surface, but regularly, you’ll be returning to the skies in search of treasure or a trip back to Skyloft for supplies and a break from the action. There’s a little bit of Wind Waker explorative appeal to be found in the skies amongst the floating spheroids, but it’s nowhere near the same level of nonlinearity—and that’s a good thing (we’ll come back to this in a bit).

All eyes on Link.
All eyes on Link.

In terms of look and feel, the entire world is rendered in a beautiful pastel presentation that often resembles a painting. As you roam the environments, it’s possible to look far into the horizon and see actual explorable elements without the disruptive effects of pop-in—though distant sights are invariably blanketed in a watercolor-looking depth-of-field blurring effect. This approach effectively masks the constraints of the Wii’s 480p video hardware to produce frequently stunning environments. It’s the perfect example of how artistic approach and stylization can circumvent technical limitations.

Meanwhile, the game’s subjects are cartoony, cell-shaded characters that nevertheless bear the artistic style of Ocarina or Twilight Princess in lieu of Wind Waker’s superdeformed chibi-style models. Emotion is often clearly communicated via facial expressions, and truly, the only modern amenity we’re lacking is voice acting. After having spent my time with the game, I’m not convinced that such an addition would really even have added to the experience; I almost feel as though Zelda works better without it. The occasional exception to this sentiment is the sometimes-goofy selection of vocal emotive grunts and sighs that characters exhibit as they speak.

Overall, however, from the spiral tree trunks and magnificent waterfalls to the eerie, foreign confines of the game’s dungeons, this is my favorite realization of the Zelda universe yet. It’s vibrant, surreal, and beautiful, able to convey emotion and engulf the player. Its characters and themes are darker than those in Wind Waker, but more relatable than those in either Twilight Princess or Ocarina. It’s a Hyrule that I want to fight for and a Zelda that I need to save.

And the game’s soundtrack also deserves special mention. Not only does it include a large number of fully orchestrated pieces (for the first time, as tragic as that fact is), it’s every bit as dynamic and moving as the soundtrack for Ocarina of Time or The Wind Waker. Fewer than half of the in-game songs are orchestral, but even those which aren’t are generally very good regardless, and some wouldn’t even work live (in general, when orchestra is a requirement, you can expect it to be done). Many of the melodies are catchy or memorable, and the dungeon themes are appropriately eerie or ambient.

The dynamically changing soundtrack includes the live recordings, which have been layered for compatibility with the concept. In other words, somewhat like in Super Mario Galaxy, when you make your way from place to place, the music evolves with different instruments (generally there are just a couple different ensembles for each tune), accentuating the differences in your environment. Skyloft and even the (excellent) flying theme music both incorporate this strategy, and it works perfectly. In dungeons, the music swells or changes according to how deep in the dungeon Link walks or other modifying factors unique to that particular place.

You look familiar.
You look familiar.

Atypical complexity

The story and presentation are only the beginning of what’s unique about this Zelda, however. Everything from gameplay to pacing and even the traditional series template has been reworked for Skyward Sword.

The most interesting permeating theme tying all of this together is complexity. Many of Skyward Sword’s innovations hinge on its surprising ability to implement additional layers of complexity without overwhelming the player. Unlike any previous Zelda game since Ocarina, there are so many of these here that it would be difficult to list even most of them. Regardless, I’m going to try.

The first and most pronounced of these complicating additions is the new combat system, which fully taps the capabilities of the Wii MotionPlus system to provide the closest thing to a 1:1 experience as possible without breaking down. Sword swipes follow the direction of your Wii remote, complete with stabs and horizontal/forward flip slash maneuvers performed with both remote and nunchuk. Link can also perform a special attack called a Skyward Strike by holding his sword upward for a few seconds until it glows. Enemies and bosses very often exploit this depth of combat by visibly opening their defenses only to a particular direction of sword swipe, thus forcing the player to actively monitor their stances and apply quick judgment before their attacks. It’s both exhilarating and challenging, and it greatly adds to the overall experience. It’s literally impossible in Skyward Sword to waggle spam your way to victory.

Meanwhile, control over the rest of your equipment follows suit. Bombs can be thrown with a downward flick or even rolled to their target via a bowling gesture. Arrows are fired using a simulated bow-drawing maneuver, and the accuracy and immersion provided by it is actually palpable. The use of nearly every other item likewise leverages the same flexibility, making for exciting role-play as the hero. Not to mention the fabulous selection of items for this game; many of the mainstays make a return, but there are a number of clever new additions as well, all of which make seamless use of the control scheme without ever seeming gimmicky or contrived. Quite simply put, this is how Wii gameplay was supposed to be done all along.

Click here for another exclusive, new video clip.
MINOR SPOILERS in this video. Many more videos, most spoiler-free, can be seen in our video gallery (updates still coming).

Shields are handled a bit differently. Once again, you defend with your nunchuk, and simply thrusting it forward draws your shield and blocks an attack. But in doing so, you also forfeit some of your shield’s durability, communicated via a persistent meter on the screen. If it depletes entirely, your shield will break and will need to be repaired back at Skyloft. Many shields are also at risk of being burned to ashes or transmitting electrical shock to their holder. Still others exist with properties such as self-healing, which helps to eliminate problems with their durability during lengthy trips.

Should you ever be underwhelmed by the capabilities of a particular item in your possession, it may even be possible to upgrade its parameters. Skyward Sword features a lightweight version of an item crafting system as well, providing (in general) two upgradeable enhancements to many of the game’s items in exchange for collectible resources and a small sum of rupees. For instance, the slingshot can be upgraded to fire multiple projectiles in scattershot and the bow and arrow can be enhanced for greater power.

All of this is made possible via collectible resources and treasures you’ll amass throughout your travels—stuff like bird feathers, amber, and even rarities like Goddess Plumes. In addition to these, you’ll find a wide array of collectible insects also which can either be sold for profit or used to infuse potions for enhanced effects (yep, even potions are upgradeable). And on top of all that, there are lots and lots of things to buy, ranging from incremental arrow plume and bomb bag expansions in the peddler’s shop at the bazaar to more exotic adventure pouch expansions, bottles, and even special effect medals at Beedle’s floating shop. The latter are actually like accessories or relics in the RPG world; they are equippable items which imbue Link with special abilities while they’re carried along, such as an increased incidence of rupees or treasure or an additional heart.

Upgradeable everything.
Upgradeable everything.

This many different items to choose from also calls for an overhaul of the conventional menu system. While all eight of your staple gadgets are always carried along with you, your secondary items (such as bottles, effect medals, and ammo expansions) all compete for an additional allotment of several empty slots in your adventure pouch and can be swapped out at any time at the Item Store in the bazaar (whose owner apparently has an uncomfortably heavy crush on our hero). This once again provides yet another layer of optional complexity to help adjust your strategy throughout your quest. Looking for resources? Pack your treasure hunting medal and hack and slash your way through the forest for a bit. Gearing up for a tough battle? Load up on potions and a couple of Life Medals to extend your longevity.

And we’re not done yet. The next difference is the inclusion of a stamina meter, and it’s an excellent addition. In Skyward Sword, anything Link does which is strenuous drains this meter. This includes block pushing, hanging from ledges, vine climbing, and running. Yes, running—Link can also run if you hold the A button! This means no more endless rolling maneuvers to try and shave precious seconds off your travels. I’ve no idea why it’s taken so long for Link to receive this ability, but since the real estate has expanded so dramatically in Skyward Sword, it’s about time. I love the ability to run.

The stamina meter alone accommodates numerous opportunistic enhancements to Zelda gameplay, such as leaping up ladders and across vines, quickly jumping up small ledges without even having to stop to hang on, and dashing across small segments of quicksand. It also provides for little green stamina orbs which are littered around the world that immediately refill your meter. Should you happen to let it run completely down, Link will slow considerably while he rests for a few precious moments, unable to attack or perform any sort of quick movements. It’s yet another added dimension to the gameplay made possible by serious reinvention of what defines a Zelda game.

All of these additions, of course, provide for plenty of exciting new puzzles and lots of extra collectible loot. For the first time in a long time, rupees actually are not disposable and overabundant. And the plethora of chests decorating the landscapes (and the dungeons) which include everything from rare resources to medals make adventuring that much more fun.

Click Here for another new, exclusive video clip.
Many more videos, most spoiler-free, can be seen in our video gallery (updates still coming).

A different flow

Skyward Sword even turns the traditional method of Zelda progression on its head. Gone is the series of dungeons separated by short, often predictable gameplay segments. Now, even when you’re finding three creatures or collecting five pieces of a key, the game finds a way to make it worth your while. For starters, what backtracking is involved is generally tasteful and well-implemented. Sometimes environments are wholly transformed upon your return to them, or at the very least, your newfound abilities or knowledge makes them fully navigable and exciting to explore.

There are frequent situations where you will be scavenging for items you need or a certain hidden entrance to a new area, but in spite of the obvious vapidity of some of these tasks, your search is rarely aimless and frustrating. There are situations where it could be argued that such content breaks up the flow of the game, but by that same argument, nearly all past Zelda games have had similar issues. More or less, this is an element of the series which has merely been exploited once again in Skyward. Besides, you’re blessed with the support of your dowsing system, which is a new feature of your sword which allows you to select a target to search for and be guided to it via arrows pointing in the general direction of its location. This only works, however, when in first-person dowsing mode, making it impossible (or at least, unaccommodating) to use indefinitely. It’s a smart supplemental feature that makes hunting for odd items easier and prevents stalling.

Moreover, your sword spirit, Fi, provides ready assistance at the touch of a button, and it’s actually helpful in many scenarios. You can choose between Hints, Analysis, Rumors, and other items such as a brief summary of the story to this point. And best of all, she’s hardly ever annoying or pushy about her advice. Often, she’ll pop out on her own and reiterate a one-line version of what’s just occurred for clarity, but beyond that, she’ll leave you in the dark plenty often without offering advice until you really need it or ask for it. She even chooses to stay silent during boss fights until you see the Game Over screen once, at which point she’ll offer some analysis if you want it.

Goddess Cubes get sent to the sky to become treasure chests.
Goddess Cubes get sent to the sky to become treasure chests.

Best of all, though, the game is often almost completely unpredictable. The handful of dungeons in the game are all incredibly varied in both theme and design, and their spacing and locations is variable. There’s a solid five hours of gameplay before you even reach the first one, in fact, and much of the in-between gameplay often resembles that of lightweight or otherwise unorthodox dungeon gameplay. For instance, the trip up the mountain or the search through the desert to access the respective dungeons are both equally lengthy and challenging as the dungeons themselves!

Gone are singularly-themed dungeons as well. Rather than a Fire Temple, Wind Temple, or other uniformly elemental environment, we’re now treated to more complex multithemed dungeons. Stuff like earth and fire, sand and machinery, and so forth. It’s refreshing to say the least, but even moreso when you consider the strong contrast between every single dungeon. One dungeon may be a small series of interconnected rooms with somewhat traditional progression, but the next might be an enormous arena with passages and platforms lining the walls, all of which are inaccessible from the outset but which will be inevitably traversed throughout the course of Link’s visit.

To call it creative or captivating would be an understatement; many of these structures are quite simply works of devious, mazelike art. They are as beautiful as they are intimidating, and in spite of the fact that nearly all of them is at least an hour in duration (the later ones approaching 1.5 hours or longer), it’s always a little bittersweet finally completing one and leaving the premises. I’d go so far as to say that, in totality, this is the best set of dungeons in any Zelda game to date.

The puzzles held within—and even those littered throughout the overworld—are equally unique. A shocking reduction in the number of block-pushing puzzles has occurred, and torch-lighting is nowhere to be found. Replacing such vintage series concepts are wild reimaginings based on the newly-included items and a whole array of other creative notions. Switches are more distant and disguised than ever before thanks to your beetle, which can fly for quite some time without needing to return. Door locks which require sword swipes from a certain direction in a certain order make an entrance. And you’ll manipulate wind, time, and the very structure of the dungeon itself before the game comes to a close. There are more “Aha!” moments in Skyward Sword than in any other Zelda game before it, and that’s a serious testament to the power of its creativity.

Link's anime-like portrayal reveals more emotion.
Link’s anime-like portrayal reveals more emotion.

Beyond all of that, like the very best of games, Skyward Sword simply refuses to bore you. Once you’ve finished with a particular concept, it introduces another, completely different one. It rarely reuses puzzle ideas, and when it does, there’s a good reason for it. The same goes for the bosses, which, in themselves, are a parade of creative concepts and intense circumstances. You’ll go from battling the relatively small (albeit still tricky) Demon Lord Ghirarim to waging war against the terrible scorpion Moldera. Every boss battle has its own distinctive strategy for success, and it only partially involves the use of the dungeon item. That means that there’s plenty more to master beyond the obvious use of what you just acquired.

Flying High

When you’re tired of battling for a while, you’ll find sailing through the skies in search of treasures to be a great distraction. Its undeniable reminiscence of Wind Waker’s ocean exploration might worry you if you often frowned at the idea of a lengthy trip across the ocean—but fret not. In Skyward Sword, a fusion of fast travel and mitigated flight segments is your means of transportation. Scattered generously throughout the game’s world are bird statues which can be used to save the game or travel to the sky instantly (those within dungeons send you to the entrance of the dungeon instead). A short trip via Loftwing to Skyloft or other airborne attractions is required, but upon returning to the surface, you’ve only got to make your way to the relevant opening in the clouds to be presented with your choice of any of the bird statues you’ve previously visited as a drop-off point. This makes traversing the game world as painless as possible without completely removing any sense of scope and exploration.

While flying, it’s tempting to go exploring as you sail by random rocks in the sky. Sometimes it’s worth doing, but most often, items of interest are already marked for you on your map (and can be visibly flagged in the real world via the use of multiple beacons, which are huge vertical blue lights). Treasures are often “sent” to the sky via the use of so-called Goddess Cubes on the surface; these are distributed across the landscapes in sometimes difficult-to-access locations and must be struck with your sword to activate. For the most part, it makes hunting for treasure above the clouds less of a travel-laden scavenger hunt and more of a set-a-course-and-find-the-chest sort of routine. It’s not bad, however, as there’s plenty of other optional stuff to do.

Speaking of which, the game features an abundance of side quests and optional content. The vast majority of these originate in Skyloft, usually at the request of a townsperson in need of help—stuff like finding a lost family member or cherished item, delivering something on their behalf, and so on. Helping people earns you Gratitude Crystals, which can be used to complete another, larger sidequest (and are similar to OoT’s Skulltulas in that regard). Interestingly, a number of these errands actually involve moral dilemmas on Link’s part—which is more akin to Majora’s Mask than anything else. There’s also a day/night system that affects the happenings in town, but it doesn’t dynamically change; instead, you’ll have to visit a bed and choose day or night for your wake-up time. (It’s also not possible to fly at night, so any place that’s explorable at night needs to have a bed on its surface.)

Ready for an annoying battle?
Ready for an annoying battle?

The right kind of different

It is decidedly Zelda, but ultimately, it’s what makes Skyward Sword different that renders it so memorable. This is a creative and unique entry in the series that nevertheless feels right at home. The foundations are intact, but the specifics and the parameters have all been bravely adjusted.

As with nearly every game, I do have a couple of minor gripes. For starters, while the presentation is overall phenomenal (probably the best of any game on the Wii aside from perhaps Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2), there are situations where the transition between live orchestra and MIDI can be quite jarring. A good example is the game’s ending, where some songs are orchestral and others are sequenced. When the ordinary sequenced music sits side-by-side with the majesty of the chilling live orchestra pieces, it simply pales in comparison—and anyone with an ear for music will notice. Also, while I’m still not convinced that voice acting is the way to go for the Zelda series, the sighs and grunts exhibited by the characters are sometimes a little excessive and out of place.

Those small gripes aside, however, Skyward Sword is nevertheless undeniably a masterpiece. Its choice to step outside the usual boundaries of the template render it that much more enjoyable and set it aside from the piggybacking mentality of Twilight Princess. This isn’t just more and better; it’s different, too. And that makes it worth your time, even if you’re only remotely interested in the franchise. Do not miss this one under any circumstances.