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• The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword

developed by Nintendo & Monolith Soft, published by Nintendo
1 player / 2 save slots / Nintendo Wii / 2011.11.20

Nintendo returns to the Legend of Zelda series once again with Skyward Sword, and like every second game in the series this one does away with the usual antagonist and setting.  Nintendo has managed to create a fairly unique world for the game, with childhood friends Link and Zelda living in the floating island town called Skyloft.  The game begins as Link is about to compete in an annual competition to see who will become the town’s next knight.

Thankfully there are fewer tutorials to work through than in the opening hours of Twilight Princess, so it doesn’t take long for the real adventure to get started.  And unlike previous Zelda games, players have access to frequent save points in each area that should help make the game more manageable.

Wii Motion Plus

Being that this is the first Zelda title built from the ground up for the Wii (Twilight Princess was initially developed for the Gamecube), Nintendo really tried to get the most out of the Wii’s motion controls.  They ended up going with the enhanced functionality of the Wii Motion Plus, which is better able to track the orientation of the remote.

New to the series are enemies who defend themselves by guarding against attacks from specific directions.  You’ll have to watch their movements and quickly slash horizontally, vertically, or diagonally with the remote to take advantage of the openings.  It’s a bit of a pain because the enemies will switch their guard stance frequently, and sometimes it feels like your motions just aren’t accurate enough.  However, it does lend an extra layer of strategy and realism to the melee combat that is missing in similar games.  Likewise, your shield can be readied with a flick of the nunchuck attachment and can be used to repel certain attacks.

The motion controls are used in a number of other ways throughout the game, especially in the case of items.  There are a slew of new and returning items to use, and most of them take advantage of the Wii remote’s functionality.  The designers even managed to find a new way to use bombs (you can now roll them on the ground like a bowling ball), which is great to see after all these years.  It’s one of the few Wii games where the motion controls feel tightly integrated with the game play.

New Ideas

Critics have begun to question if the Zelda series needs to evolve, and in response there are a couple of new concepts introduced which are a step in the right direction.  The biggest addition is the stamina system, which allows Link to sprint for a few seconds.  You can now sprint towards a wall and Link will jump up and grab onto a ledge if one exists.  He can also overcome small obstacles by hopping over them.  Stamina can also be used to quickly maneuver while climbing.  It’s a great addition that really helps take some of the monotony out of normal actions.

Another new concept is the upgrade system, which allows you to trade in loot to enhance equipment.  Loot comes in many forms, from the insects you collect with a bug-catching net to rare trinkets found throughout the world.  It’s a decent system, but it does mean there are fewer mini-games to be played (where Link would normally acquire item upgrades).  I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it, but if the system could be refined or applied only to certain types of equipment in future games it could really benefit the series.  You can also infuse potions with insects to create more powerful effects, which is another good idea, and any excess loot can be traded for rupees if you’re short on cash.  However, the constant sub-screen prompts when you pick up an item – once per item per game session – is very annoying.

By far one of the best new ideas in Skyward Sword are the time crystals, which dynamically alter the world around them when activated.  These crystals are only found in one of the game’s major areas but makes for some of the most inventive puzzles and game play situations.  It would be a shame if this sort of thing didn’t make another appearance in future titles.  Less exciting are the underground passages which Link can dig into.  Here the game switches to an overhead view of Link crawling through a maze of tunnels.

Not so great is the new storage system, which is only useful because Link has a limited number of item pouches.  Even when you’ve got the full eight item pouches you won’t have room to store everything you’d like to carry at once (larger quiver, bomb bag, slingshot ammo, bottles, etc.).  It means you’ll have to compromise on what extras you carry, which I suppose adds to the game’s difficulty slightly, but if that is its only purpose than it is slightly annoying.  Related to this are the wallets, which come in various sizes and can only store a certain number of rupees – it’s one of those elements which has hung around since the N64 days designed to limit you from buying items up too quickly.

Presentation

As with The Windwaker, Skyward Sword is set apart with a unique visual effect, though this time it is a bit more subtle.  A depth of field effect dissolves the background into paint splotches, which succeeds in giving the graphics an impressionistic feel.  Although it is just a filter effect, it can create some picturesque vistas.  This is also the first Zelda title with an orchestral score, which is a major step for the franchise.  However the lack of voice overs, which leaves the characters silently miming their dialogue during the many story sequences, detracts from the presentation.  It may be time to include optional voice-overs.

One of the problems I have with Skyward Sword’s art direction are the monster and creature designs.  While the bosses are generally quite cool looking, the majority of the monsters (and friendly creatures) introduced in the game are a bit wonky.  It feels half way between the style of The Windwaker and that of Twilight Princess, and falls short of both.  And the game lacks the dynamic time and weather effects of earlier games, which is disappointing.  At least they let you choose from a number of HUD options, preventing the regular HUD from cluttering the screen.

Conclusion

The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword is another excellent chapter in this long-running and much beloved series, and introduces some new ideas and game play concepts to keep things from becoming stale.  It offers around 35 to 40 hours of questing and has an optional “Hero” mode for those seeking a greater difficulty.  The new Wii-motion Plus controls add to the experience and the painterly visuals and symphonic score round out the package.  It’s not a perfect game, but the issues are relatively minor ones, so it’s an easy recommendation.

Quick Run-Down

PROs:

  • Cool painterly graphical effects
  • Orchestral score sounds amazing
  • Motion control works well (for the most part)
  • Stamina system speeds things up
  • Loot / upgrade system was a good addition
  • Can minimize HUD w/ various options
  • 35-45 hours of adventure

CONs:

  • Sidekick Fi’s constant advice is often unnecessary
  • Annoying sub-screen prompts for pick-ups (once per item per game session)
  • Subpar creature / monster art direction
  • No dynamic time / weather effects
  • Many Goddess chests contain useless items
  • Limited item slots requires you to use storage system

One sentence review: Another great installment in the Zelda series that introduces some key concepts to keep things fresh.
One word review: Solid.

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