Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

A warning: please be aware that while this review does not contain plot spoilers, it does contain minor character and boss spoilers.

Skyward Sword is a terrific game.

But of course it is, right? We've come to expect such accolades from a Zelda game. No, the question becomes, when discussing a new Zelda adventure, how terrific is it?

Is it exceptional? Is it a masterpiece? Is it the new best Zelda game? Questions like these in a review like this might typically end with "Yes and no." I'd like to answer them with "Yes... but almost no."

For 15 years, many gamers have used Ocarina of Time as the cornerstone by which all Zelda games - no, all video games - are compared. In my humble opinion, every 3D Zelda game since has surpassed or at the very least equaled it, but they've all had their share of problems as well. Saving in Majora's Mask is frustrating, sailing in Wind Waker can be tedious and that scoundrel Tingle's Triforce charts are a "rental stopper" for sure. Collecting tears in Twilight Princess is baneful to say the very least.

Skyward Sword has its own cache of issues. Though drastically improved since Twilight Princess, there are still times when the game grinds to a halt and demands that you collect tears before moving onto the next task. These sections are an ugly welt on an otherwise exceptionally paced game.

Love is in the air
The three regions of this world (forest, desert, and volcano) are not interconnected like they might have been in another Zelda game. To move from one area to another, the player must return to the sky, which acts as The Great Sea did in Wind Waker. Link's main method of travel in this game is not a horse or a boat, but a giant bird called a Loftwing. The map of the sky is much smaller than the vast ocean, but this is a blessing; flying from place to place in Skyward Sword feels more like passing through Hyrule Field than sailing across the globe. Beneath the clouds, the world is typically navigated by dowsing, essentially replacing Link's wolf senses from Twilight Princess. The dowsing mechanic acts as a friend sitting next to you saying, "Warmer... warmer... colder. Ice cold!"

For the most part, this is a fun method of getting around, and never becomes boring or insulting. I found myself reminded of the ball of light on the map in Metroid Zero Mission, which told you where to go, but not how to get there. And getting there is fun. The game's regions are huge enough and interesting enough that even when it takes hours just to reach the entrance to a dungeon, rarely do you feel toyed with. You feel like you've been making continuous progress, seeing and experiencing what the game has to offer.

All this collides with a brick wall whenever tears show up.

Every item will find some use throughout the rest of the game
 But the main glaring flaw with Skyward Sword is its control scheme. Though an ambitious and genuinely impressive display of the Wii's capabilities, flawless 1:1 motion controls are still not truly there. Aiming reticles regularly fall out of alignment, the giant bird Link travels on frequently turns the wrong way, and any enemy that needs to be stabbed in order to be destroyed can prove inordinately frustrating, especially since stabbing was one of the simplest techniques to perform in Ocarina of Time. While the set-up of my living room might certainly be to blame for this, I'm not about to re-decorate just to enhance my enjoyment of a single game. Call me old-fashioned, but I firmly believe a game should be designed in such a way that variables like a glass coffee table or the angle of the sofa won't affect the way the game is played.

Each enemy requires you to be very tactful in the way you approach them
Which is not to say the controls are poor, only that I feel they should be much better. In fact, the swordplay is easily one of the best things about this game. Saying that the new sword mechanics "take some getting used to" is putting it lightly, and at first the steep learning curve can be frustrating. Zelda veterans like myself will ask themselves how on earth they died to the first Skulltula in the game, let alone three times. But the beauty of the new swordplay is that if you rush in, waggling blindly as you might have in Twilight Princess, you'll be cut to ribbons - as you would in a real swordfight. The motion controls demand that you think hard on each swing of the sword - whether you're fighting an enormous dungeon boss or a generic bokoblin, every strike counts and must be delivered in a certain way. Though mastering the sword is an uphill battle at first, eventually you arrive at a point where you realize that each death - yes, even as a result of a failed stab - was entirely your own fault. I've never played a game that achieved anywhere near this level of depth in combat. I never even fathomed that such a game could exist.

Though I'm still a curmudgeon who'd forgo motion control entirely if given the choice, and for all my complaining about the game's frequent tracking hiccups, even I recognize that Skyward Sword is only possible because of motion controls. And that is the truly remarkable thing about Skyward Sword: at the end of the day, grappling with the imperfect control scheme proves to be entirely worth the frustration because this is a game that cannot be experienced any other way. The exhilaration you feel as you finally figure out a tough enemy's pattern - and as you mature as a swordsman, cutting down hordes of enemies that previously gave you trouble - can be directly attributed to the game's unique control scheme. And as a result, the sense of immersion in Skyward Sword is incredible. You feel the utter helplessness as you struggle to wield your blade, and you feel yourself growing stronger and wiser, slowly mastering the sword as you continue to get a feel for the way the game is played. At the risk of sounding preachy, Skyward Sword perfectly demonstrates that graphics are not the most important component of a game's immersion.

As you progress through the game, you'll find new and more effective ways to deal
with enemies that you previously had some trouble with
I only bring that up because, graphically, I wouldn't call this the best-looking game on the Wii; I remember finding myself more impressed with both Mario Galaxy games (and I would actually bestow the honor of "best-looking Wii game" to Kirby's Epic Yarn, but that's neither here nor there). Still, this game is far from hideous, and the art direction is everything I believe a Zelda game should be. It's not simply a compromise between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, it's the perfect compromise: thoroughly colorful and endlessly expressive, but with just the right amount of gravitas to fit the tone of the story. Coming off the heels of Wind Waker, Twilight Princess found itself so afraid to be cartoony that its characters and story suffered, feeling less alive and less potent. Skyward Sword sheds that fear, embracing some silliness without surrendering any of the weight of its themes. The entire game has a very painterly feel to it that reminds me, of all things, of the movie Tangled. Though some of the models could certainly stand to be a bit less pointy, the game is still a joy to look at.

The setting in this game is perhaps the richest yet, so prepare yourself for a paragraph or two of unprofessional gushing. The floating island of Skyloft is a proper hub town, a place returned to frequently throughout the game to stock up on potions and upgrade equipment. Though both Twilight Princess and Wind Waker had areas that were revisited on occasion, neither really felt it had a proper hub; more often than not, the main reason to return to such town or island was because the game's plot called for it. Skyloft feels more like a Clock Town or a Kakariko Village in that you are rarely forced to return there, but frequently do; it's a safe place, a place where you can regroup and refuel before adventuring to your next destination. The residents of Skyloft are among the most memorable NPCs in gaming, and to call them "bursting with character" almost seems an insult. No game since Majora's Mask, Zelda or otherwise, has gotten me this attached to this large a group of characters. Wind Waker's Medli, Makar, Tetra and her pirates are some of the best Zelda NPCs around, and have certainly earned their place in the Zelda pantheon, but each of them is important to the plot. It's their job to be interesting and memorable. Where Majora's Mask excelled, and where Skyward Sword excels, is in giving life to the optional, the unimportant. I barely recall any of the NPCs from Twilight Princess beyond Ilia, Telma, Agitha, and that disturbing baby man whose name I can't even recall. But each resident of Skyloft feels like a real person. They have personalities and jobs and goals and likes and dislikes and even schedules; Skyward Sword uses a simple day and night system where, by napping in a bed, the player can explore Skyloft at night and get an entirely new perspective on the people within its boundaries. Fledge, Link's weak, effeminate classmate, does push-ups in his room at night. Stritch, one of the local bully's cronies, will purchase bugs you've captured in secret. Rupin, the pushy shopkeeper who giddily follows you around the store during the day, sheds the perky persona at night and runs a sort of black market. Even Beedle, who pedals a flying shop all day long and makes as many hilarious noises as he did in Wind Waker, becomes a verbose philosopher at night. Then there's Peatrice, the snooty item check girl who slowly warms up to you over the course of the game; Bertie, the henpecked husband at the potion shop, the grumpy bar owner who insists that you work off his broken chandelier (anything for a heart piece, right?), Batreaux, the demon who wishes he were human... maybe I'm overselling it a bit, but I don't believe I can understate the importance of strong characters. They go a long way towards making the player want to return to Skyloft, and toward making the player care about Link's adventure. It goes a long way toward making this, perhaps, my new favorite Zelda game.

Beedle is back and very similar to his Wind Waker counterpart but now sports an interesting pair of short shorts
Yes, you read that right. And you should know I don't toss such praise around lightly. Majora's Mask has stood at the top of that pillar pretty much since it came out, so how could anything hope to topple it?

I look at it this way; I'm of the opinion that Wind Waker had the best combat, Majora's Mask had the best characters, and Twilight Princess had the best bosses. For best dungeons, it's not so cut-and-dry, and I'd have trouble deciding between the four main 3D Zelda titles.

But that's mostly irrelevant now, because in my opinion Skyward Sword now wins or at least ties in all four departments. The combat and dungeons are number one with a bullet, and I think I have to, in good conscience, call the cast of Skyward Sword the new best. In Majora's Mask, though they were the exception rather than the rule, there were still characters like Honey and Darling or the nameless girl running the treasure chest game who simply didn't have much in the way of personality. But in Skyward Sword, every last NPC you come across is thoroughly individual with a unique set of facial expressions and personality quirks; each individual Goron and Mogma you meet even has a unique hairstyle!

Ganondorf is no where to be found but Ghirahim proves to be a formidable foe
The category of bosses is much closer, as no Zelda boss will have an easy time being as memorable as Stallord or Argorok from Twilight Princess. But even though not every boss in Skyward Sword will melt your face off, the stand-out confrontations really do knock it out of the park. Each heart-pounding clash with The Imprisoned is more harrowing than the last; the aerial dogfight with a flying whale - especially the way it ends - is riveting and unforgettable, and dismantling the golden, clockwork robot makes for one of my favorite boss fights in the series. The game's final showdown doesn't disappoint either; it's a breathtaking, cinematic clash of steel, and the most challenging fight in the game - and rightfully so. Skyward Sword also gets points ahead of Twilight Princess for allowing you to rematch defeated bosses.

So really? Skyward Sword, the new best Zelda game? Well, I'll leave that for history to decide, but gun to my head, I'd probably call it my new favorite.

To anyone excited about Skyward Sword, I warn you: you will find yourself fighting with the controls frequently. I caution you: you will groan and roll your eyes each time you're asked to collect tears or musical tadpoles before you're allowed to progress. But I promise you: it will be worth it.

Ricky thought this game was...

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