Looking back over the entertainment industry as a whole, it’s hard to pick out properties that have maintained quality and popularity for an incredibly long time. When that happens, it’s a sign that something has been done right. Having endeared gamers for twenty-five years, The Legend of Zelda series is one of those impressive productions. Throughout the years, the adventures of a green-clad elf and his attempt at saving the beautiful blonde princess, have captivated our minds and fingers. The formula has generally stayed the same over that time period, but each iteration has told the story in a different way, containing interesting new elements and digital cast members. Ask most gamers and they will tell you that this is one series that makes them proud to be a gamer.
The iconic story continues this holiday season, with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. A highly-anticipated release for many, it brings its own colourful character into the iconic tale of good versus evil. Exclusive to the Nintendo Wii, the game may act as the swan song for the innovative console, as the Wii-U awaits its launch. With all of that pressure, it’s a good thing that the folks at Nintendo have delivered a high-quality and very enjoyable addition to the iconic lore.
Acting as a prequel to what is arguably the best game ever created (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), Link’s latest adventure starts at a young and impressionable age. The game picks up on our unknowing hero as he gets set to participate in a ceremonial race in his hometown of Skyloft. A neat diversion from previous releases is the fact that this main hub is a floating island, nestled above the cloud line. With the surface land down below becoming an inhabitable area after an eruption spewed monsters into the land, a small sect of humans took to the clouds in order to start a new life. Having settled there for generations, new members of the lineage have grown up knowing only what life in the sky is like.
In this story, Link and Zelda are shown as being childhood friends who attend the same boarding school. She is the headmaster’s daughter, while he happens to be a well-liked and envied personality within the small location. Like every other local, the two have formed bonds with gigantic birds known as loftwings. At a young age, man and beast form a bond with one another, acting as mutual friends and protectors. Most importantly, the animals provide transportation throughout the clouds, where small islands dot the horizon. It’s due to this aspect of their aid that the ceremonial race was created. Since the inaugural challenge, the ceremony has been passed down throughout generations.
Every year, a group of potential, school-enrolled candidates, are chosen for a chance at knighthood. There’s only one catch, however: Just one can be crowned. That knighted soul must win a race through the skies; a goal that is completed by catching up to the chosen festival goddess and her loftwing. Dangling at arm’s reach is a small icon, which must be given to the land’s goddess statue, in order to complete the coming of age ritual. After that is completed, the assumed living goddess and her victor get to spend some time together.
From a young age, Link has had a very special bond with his bird. In fact, he’s the only one who has formed a connection with a crimson loftwing – the most rare of its kind. Due to this bond and his exceptional flying skills, our elven friend is the favourite at this year’s showcased event. That fact has the school’s bullies in panic mode, driving them to hide the bird in order to prevent the great competitor from entering the competition at all. The quest to find the lost bird is what kick-starts the game, acting as the first of many.
After winning the ceremonial race and being awarded fledgling knighthood status, Link takes his goddess out for a celebratory ride through the clouds. During their jubilant glide through sparse cloud cover, Zelda brings up some strange voices that have entered her head on occasion. She hasn’t read into it much, as there has never been a reason to worry within the idyllic Skyloft society. At least, until now. As the two progress their trip away from their beloved home, a large tornado springs up from below, knocking the young girl off of her bird and into oblivion. Link is saved by a knight scout, but his soul mate remains lost and is presumed dead.
Upon his awakening from a fright-based slumber, Link discovers a large room hidden inside of the Skyloft goddess statue. It is there that a strange elemental body known as Fi greets the boy with news of his destiny to save his love. Zelda is alive, and that is all that our hero needs to know in order to get ready for action – something we know well from previous experience. During this conversation, the player is told of a way to get to the surface through light beacons that erupt through the sky, clearing the cloud cover around them. Going through a hole in the thick white barrier which loftwings have never been willing to swoop through, becomes the most urgent plan. If Link is going to start his quest to save the headmaster’s daughter, he’ll have to drop into an unknown land. Of course, it’s not a surprise that this somewhat derelict and rundown world has been overrun by baddies.
The game’s story unfolds through four separate lands: Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, Lanayru Desert and Skyloft itself. In true series form, each of the first three listed worlds is full of danger and dungeon-style traversal, acting as the action-centric sections of the experience. The perfect little sky town happens to act as your main hub and town centre, with secondary tasks available for completion, as well as the odd monster encounter at night. These side tasks encapsulate aiding fellow townspeople out of predicaments. Perhaps one will need assistance to lug heavy barrels from one spot to another, or a young woman will need help finding her precious daughter. Other secondary options include the chance to fly through the skies, searching for secrets. Striking hidden boxes down below will light up your map with indicators of where to try looking next.
With the series’ latest release, Nintendo has created a rich and colourful game that carries on the popular adventure-based formula. Combat is just one facet of the overall experience, which is rife with well-designed puzzles and required exploration. Players are tasked with visiting the three incredibly different lands, in order to find various things such as rock-map pieces and sword blessings. As a result, trips back to each area become a necessity. This means that there is quite a bit of backtracking to be found, especially considering how often the player can return to Skyloft itself. This may bother some, but it’s something which is easier to overlook due to the game’s extravagant polish and high-quality design.
One major reason to explore these areas thoroughly, are the game’s new item wear and upgrade systems. Shields are most susceptible to wear, losing health with every blow. This means that an occasional trip back home to refurbish your metallic protector is in the cards. Wooden shields break quite quickly, so they must be purchased again as opposed to being repaired. The wear system feels a bit unnecessary, but its adjoining upgrade option is a welcomed addition.
All of the work is done at the Skyloft bazaar – a marketplace containing different types of vendors. Buy new equipment, fix aging materials or upgrade your stuff. All of those aforementioned opportunities are completed through the use of discovered rupees and picked-up items. The list includes trinkets such as ore, medallions, golden skulls and others. Potion potency can also be upgraded through this system, though it’ll cost you a bit of money. A good way to offset these costs is to collect different types of bugs, which can be sold to an avid insect observer.
Compared to previous outings, Link’s pack seems to have shrunk, decreasing the amount of equipment he can carry. As a result, some items will have to be stored in an equipment locker on Skyloft, or sold to the same clerk. It’s a minor addition that doesn’t change things much, sometimes acting as a nuisance, while contributing financially at others. You’ll want to make room for some of the new stuff, as larger bomb bags, deeper coin purses and more proficient shields, are near-mandatory helpers. Thankfully, this item dropping system doesn’t factor in much when it comes to quest-based items, of which there are some neat ones. Two exceptional new helpers which come to mind, are a tilt-controlled mechanical beetle and a horn which can blow sand dunes away. The latter becomes very helpful during an interesting boss battle that takes place against a gigantic insect.
Lasting for tens of hours, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a mix of old and new. Its landscapes are vivid and dangerous, containing some very interesting and innovative enemy types alongside returning faces. The game’s dungeons are as difficult as they’ve ever been, with some hair-pulling puzzles and progression tactics. All of this benefits from well-crafted puzzle challenges, plus interesting boss creations. Fans of the series will certainly find themselves engrossed within this lengthy and immersive quest. Although some have called it the best game in the series thus far, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a very good game, but Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past still retain the top spots in my mind. This outing feels almost too linear, with a lack of interesting new towns to explore – something which was a highlight in previous N64 Zelda titles.
There are a couple of mildly-annoying factors which mar the campaign’s structure, such as Fi’s penchant for calling Link about the same thing over and over again (heart depletion is an example). Another one relates to how the game likes to cut to an inventory screen when some upgrade materials are picked up. It’s understandable that the game would want to show players their collected inventory each time a new amulet or skull is picked up, but there’s no need to do it when the twelfth one is added to the pack.
It’s also important to note that Skyward Sword is a title which requires Wii Motion Plus assistance. The one-to-one reaction enabling controller add-on forms the basis of the game’s new swordplay system. Instead of pressing a button or swiping the Wii-mote aimlessly towards one side, players now have the ability to use real-life motions to create different types of sword swings. This becomes a huge part of every combat situation. Some enemies will require a specific directional slash from Link’s newly-discovered Skyward Sword, which has the ability to summon a blessing from the skies, enabling a powerful slice attack. If they’re hit with the wrong attack type, damage won’t be dealt. Many will also block specific attacks, leaving themselves open for another type of bladed vengeance.
For the most part, the new Motion Plus controls do a good job of forming a more complex and innovative combat system that the series hasn’t seen before. They also aid in some puzzle-solving endeavours. However, the more accurate motion tracking can become frustrating, acting as the game’s most prevalent fault. Usually, Link’s slices will accurately depict what the player is doing. However, there were quite a few times where his sword would do something different. While it’s nowhere near a game-breaking issue, this did become somewhat frustrating at times; especially when enemies would block most attacks. Other than this problem, the controls do quite well for themselves, with the nunchuk needing to be shaken in order to draw out Link’s shield. Conversely, tilting the Wii-mote to fly a mechanical beetle and its bomb-based cargo over enemies’ heads, is a very responsive highlight which shows off its one-to-one motion-tracking capabilities well.
Soaring through the skies on the back of a loftwing is also handled through the use of the aforementioned tilt-based control scheme. The beasts are able to be called at any time during trips back to Skyloft, giving the player a chance to fly at any time they would like. Of course, a jump off of a man-made bridge is required in order to instigate this scenario. Overall, this new and creative addition to the series’ formulaic means is quite fun and very responsive. It would have been nice if the beasts played a larger role, however.
On the visual side of things, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword looks quite good. Of course, it must be taken into account that this is a Wii game as opposed to something rendered in full high-definition clarity. Despite this technical disadvantage, the game will surely impress gamers with its vivid colour scheme and varied enemy types. The world is magical and feels alive, showing some interesting landscapes that are richly designed with nice details. While its draw distance is certainly lacking in comparison to other games, the development team made a great decision to turn background elements into something resembling a colourful painting. That idea was a great one, as it gives the experience some added character, though it’s not like this series was lacking that in the first place.
If you’ve played one of these games before, then you already know that Skyward Sword‘s audio is top-notch. It’s a given factor, considering the series’ penchant for quality music and sound effects. Many well-known and iconic chimes return, with great polish and fidelity, alongside some very good music. Trying to come up with a negative here is quite tough, meaning that the only way to do so would be to nitpick. There aren’t any major issues to be found in any element of the game’s presentation, let alone its sound design. Going further, it’s also quite difficult to think of any minor ones, other than one song which happened to be a bit grating.
Despite having a few issues, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of the year’s more engrossing digital creations. It presents a rich world for player exploration, though it would have been nice if more individual environments were added in as opposed to just four main areas. Fans of the series will be able to overlook its associated backtracking elements and occasional control issues, as they fall victim to this colourful and endearing experience. Overall, it’s a high-quality production which is well-worth checking out. Though, I don’t feel that it supplants select previous entries on the best game of all-time candidate list.
If you’re looking for a lengthy game with some interesting elements, creative puzzles and a bit of challenge, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a very good choice. Just make sure that you own a Motion Plus, or have the funds to splurge on the game’s special edition, which comes bundled with a Wii-mote Plus controller.
This review is based on a copy of the game that we received for review purposes.
Despite having a few issues, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of the year's more engrossing digital creations.