Developer: Nintendo EAD / Publisher: Nintendo / Played on: Wii / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Animated Blood, Comic Mischief, Fantasy Violence]
If you grow tired of games based on wholesale massacre and gritty violence, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a refreshing reminder that games still have the power to take you to fantastic new places and charm you in ways you never thought possible. It’s like playing a fantastic dream from which you don’t want to wake. This game is something special, and should be experienced by everyone who has ever held a controller.
Since Zelda is in this game’s title, there are some gameplay elements you can depend on: there are dungeons, you will find new equipment and heart containers, and you even acquire an instrument and an animal companion — but the world, the gameplay, and the game structure surrounding those basic tenets is very different from other Zelda games. Your quest opens in Skyloft, a town floating in the sky for reasons later explained in the game’s story. After the first few hours of the game, you earn the freedom to explore Skyloft’s surrounding skies and islands on a large red bird. This is Skyward Sword’s adventure hub, and while you can draw parallels between the sky and its islands to Wind Waker, they’re different enough to feel distinct.
Eventually you open holes in the thick cloud cover below, allowing you to dive through and explore the surface. This is where the game’s dungeons live, though unlike previous Zeldas, the majority of your adventuring won’t be in subterranean, puzzle-filled lairs. Now, the time you spend traveling between dungeons is just as substantive as the dungeons themselves. What you do between dungeons is incredibly varied as well. You meet crazy characters, see amazing sights, and generally discover something new around every corner like a giant fuzzy testicle man or a pudgy fortune teller with piercing eyes. In addition to the basic satisfaction of solving puzzles and earning new equipment, that’s the real magic behind Skyward Sword. The game is wondrous and absurdly creative; any given room, island, or area could hold anything, which makes the game a genuine delight to play.
There are a few modern tweaks to the nuts and bolts that deserve mention. The most interesting is “dowsing.” This is acheived through your companion Fi, who is some sort of hologram lady that pops out of your sword to offer hints. Once attuned to a particular type of item, you can search for that item in first person. An indicator will both tell you roughly how close you are and the direction to an item. It nudges you the right way, but still leaves you the freedom to explore. Plus, it ensures that you find most of the game’s secrets…if you put in the time.
Those secrets are more substantive this time around. In addition to the Zelda-standard loadout of items, you also have limited “gear” slots where you equip expanded bomb bags, bottles, and medals that will help you find more rupees, hearts, or treasure, which in turn will help you upgrade your equipment. Deciding what gear to carry around and upgrading your equipment adds an appreciated level of complexity to the adventuring.
It’s time we dealt with the elephant in the room though — the Wii’s technical limitations. While Skyward Sword does a brilliant job working around the Wii’s shortcomings, there are certain gameplay hiccups that couldn’t be eliminated. Short loading screens when moving inside or outside break up the game’s immersion; the most critical occurs when you dive back into Skyloft. The loads are short but enough to kick you out of the experience. Content reuse is commonplace in the last third of the game as well. This is always done intelligently–for instance, a zone you’d once explored will now be completely flooded with water or enemies will ambush you and take away your items, forcing you to reclaim them one at a time–but it definitely throws a wet blanket on the sense of exploration and discovery that otherwise pervades the experience. Skyward Sword copes with the Wii’s limits brilliantly, but it’s hard not to imagine the game Nintendo could have made if the developers weren’t constrained by the technical limitations of the Wii.
Bearing in mind the Wii’s limitations, there are two ways to look at Zelda’s graphics. One: they’re artistically beautiful and incredibly creative… two: everything about the visuals desperately tries to mask the low-resolution textures and basic geometry. Personally, I found it easy to look past the technical issues. The game looks like a moving watercolor painting, vibrant and alive. However, just like the gameplay, you can’t help but imagine the game they could’ve made with some real horsepower. That said, it’s definitely one of the best-looking games on the Wii, rivaled only by Super Mario Galaxy 2.
While Skyward Sword copes well with the technical limitations of the Wii, it absolutely embraces the freedoms of the Motion Plus controller. This game will remind you why you ever thought motion controls were a good idea. You precisely control Link’s sword with 1:1 accuracy. This is no mere gimmick either: almost every enemy and element in the world is designed to work with this control scheme. Enemies block attacks from specific angles while trees and other props let you play with the sword for no other reason than it’s fun. Of course, there are a few hiccups. The “thrust” motion never worked reliably for me, and sometimes my bird would start turning towards the right as I flapped the Wii remote up and down to gain height. Other than that, the game controls like an absolute dream, which is the first time I’ve ever said that of any Wii game.
Skyward Sword’s music and sound effects live up to the incredibly high standard set by the rest of the series. Sound effects such as the clang of Link’s sword on enemy armor and the expressive grunts of the game’s cast help create the game’s otherwordly atmosphere. The game still eschews voice acting in favor of text, which I actually prefer, but you might be disappointed by that. The soundtrack’s quality has no room for contention though. Performed by a full orchestra, the game’s music is some of the best I have ever heard. It’s subdued when exploring, grand and sweeping when flying through the sky, and upbeat when in combat. It’s my favorite Zelda soundtrack by far, and I love me some Zelda music, so take that as high praise.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is not only one of the best Zelda games, but one of the best games ever made. It will take you places you’ve never been and show you sights you’ve never seen, so ignoring it just because it’s on the Wii would be a damn shame. I’d recommend Skyward Sword without hesitation to anyone on the planet, which also means I’m recommending it to you. Play it and love it.
9.5 / 10