Going Through The Motions? – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword review

So with the Wii U arriving next year, we’re coming to the end of the Wii’s lifespan–and what better way to end it than how we started: with a brand new Legend of Zelda game. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the culmination of Nintendo’s 25th Anniversary celebrations for the series and the first Zelda game to use the Motion Plus add-on for the Wiimote. So how does this latest addition to the legacy stand up?

First, a recap of the plot: Link wakes up, passes through an introductory combat sequence, does some basic tutorial stuff, Zelda gets taken, Link finds a legendary sword and discovers he is a long prophesized hero, goes off to save Zelda by passing through many themed dungeons, picking up items and killing boss characters along the way. Any of that sound familiar? Yep? Well that’s because I could have essentially written it about almost every Zelda game in the last 25 years. It’s not like I haven’t known this before, but until now it never really seemed to bother me. I’ll be fair though; I don’t really play Zelda games for the plot, I play them for the puzzles, the inventive dungeons and gadgets, and the epic combat and boss battles.

Those last two are unfortunately where Skyward Sword falls down. The game is hugely reliant on motion controls, more so than any other Wii game I’ve played in years. The idea is that swinging your sword directly correlates to swinging your Wiimote. Most enemies block attacks from specific directions and require precise attacks in order to be taken down; but even with constant recalibration, I was never sure which way my sword was going to go when I swung it. Swimming is also completely covered with motion controls, making it a nightmare to be sure where you’re heading at any time. I have no problem with games having motion controls, but I at least want the option to use a standard controller. Also the boss battles; Zelda is always where you can find some truly fantastic boss fights and Skyward Sword is no exception. However, at least two of these boss fights are repeated, albeit with slight variations, THREE times. There should never be a point where I enter a Zelda boss fight with the words “This AGAIN?”.

Skyward Sword is by no means a bad game; in fact it’s a very, very good game. It’s great looking (at least for a Wii game) and the dungeons are some of the most inventive I’ve ever seen. One in particular utilizes a time-shifting mechanic that is, frankly, inspired and makes for some of the game’s most interesting puzzles. However, it’s clear that the developers were so proud of it they decided to use it again at least four other times throughout the game. The usual gadgets make a return including the slingshot, clawshots and the bow–and are joined by a whip and a fully controllable flying beetle. This is where Skyward Sword starts to shine: the whip and the beetle open up opportunities for gameplay that have never been seen in the series and the game seizes them for all they’re worth.

I know this all sounds like I didn’t like Skyward Sword…but I did. I really did. For one, it’s definitely the hardest Zelda in quite some time; the first dungeon’s miniboss reliably kicked my butt for about an hour and I haven’t been stumped by puzzles like this in a Zelda game for a long time. That’s a level of challenge that’s been missing from the genre for some time and is highly welcome. I may have made fun of the plot earlier, but while the basic structure is the same, the actual character work was done far better than I usually expect, with a lot more detail put into Zelda and Link’s relationship–and some rare fleshing out of secondary characters.

Skyward Sword is a great addition to the 25-year-long legacy of the Legend of Zelda. The problem is that in many ways, the Wii is showing its age. The motion controls, while used inventively, aren’t reliable enough for solid gameplay–especially not for the 30-40 hours it takes to beat the game. It’s also very clear how much of a graphical divide there is between the Wii and the other platforms; and while a lot of this is tempered by great gameplay, it’s still sometimes hard to reconcile. However, there are some absolutely shining moments for the series in here and any Zelda fan would be remiss in not picking it up. It’s definitely a great swansong for the Wii and we can only hope there’s another 25 years of joy to be gleaned from Link and friends.

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