The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
It is quite a big year for video game anniversary's, just a few weeks ago we saw the release of Sonic Generations which celebrated 20 years of Sonic and now with the latest Zelda game we see that it is the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda. It's now 15 major titles and 60+ million sales since we first saw the original title in 1986 and without doubt this is a series of games which, more than most, has managed to retain its quality throughout with the undoubted pinnacle being 1998's Ocarina of Time... possibly the finest video game ever created.
So the 25th anniversary brings us the 16th major Legend of Zelda game in the form of Skyward Sword and as Nintendo have made the effort with this product, offering a collector's edition with bundled gold MotionPlus controller and orchestral soundtrack CD as well as an accompanying booklet.
With numerous tweaks to the traditional Zelda gameplay Nintendo could be at risk of breaking something that doesn't need changed, or they might just improve on greatness. Let's find out which it is.
Looking first at the plot which Skyward Sword is based around we are pre Ocarina in the timeline and once again play as Link and the game features Zelda with the setting now being Skyloft. Skyloft is a group of floating islands above the clouds where a small group of characters have been assigned with protecting the Triforce by one of the Golden Goddesses. Skyloft is sealed away from Hyrule however as the game progresses we are taken down to the surface where most of the game takes place, exploring environments and battling through dungeons as is normal for this franchise.
For anyone who has played a N64, Gamecube or Wii Zelda title since Ocarina of Time the overall gameplay in Skyward Sword will immediately feel familiar. That said the initial hour or so of the game very much feels different to previous titles as we adjust to a few of the new gameplay tweaks which start with the introduction of a stamina meter. By pressing A while moving we transition into a dash but this is only for a limited time as our stamina meter begins to count down. Reach the bottom and for a few seconds we are almost incapacitated as the character waits for the meter to climb back up. The same happens during more powerful combat moves and larger climbs. Next up on the list of changes involves MotionPlus (a requirement) were our sword, which we get access to very early on, is more precise and based very much on our own movements; a change which enhances the interactiveness of fights. Battles have also been enhanced with the need to understand each enemy and their fighting style, we can no longer walk in blade flying in any direction as each NPC requires a particular sword action, or multiple, to defeat. Puzzles too can also require use of the extra sensitivity of the motion plus controls.
MotionPlus is also heavily used in other areas of the game, when in Skyloft for example we control our companion bird (think Avatar) with it and when on the surface devices such as a mechanical flying insect tool respond to its fine movement detection.
Nintendo have also advanced the RPG esq elements of our gameplay with items such as our shield now very prone to damage, requiring repair at a shop, and we can enhance their effectiveness or durability using items we find or buy along the way.
Minor tweaks to the overall gameplay also include the way that save games work, we no longer enter the menu and save at any point; instead we must find a statue save point which often doubles as a transportation point between the surface and Skyloft. Finally map use has been expanded with the ability to set beacons (waypoints) and Fi our spirit guide (Navi style character) talks us through the ability to dowse for important information... using our sword to point the way towards a goal.
This being a Zelda game on Wii there is of course no Xbox, Steam or PS3 based achievements system or multiplayer. We simply have the core single player gameplay.
Graphics and Sound
The Wii has never been seen as a console which provides phenomenal graphics and Skyward Sword was never going to change that but Nintendo have become quite adept in getting the most from their hardware for some time now. Ocarina pushed the N64, Wind Waker took a new graphics approach on the GameCube and Skyward Sword finds a level somewhere in-between. The graphics are a lot cleaner, more crisp than Twilight Princess but at the same time very reminiscent of Mario Sunshine when in Skyloft. Dungeons on the other hand are rendered much more in the style of Ocarina/Majora Zelda, as is most of Hyrule. Overall a much brighter pallet than one might expect though.
There is plenty of view distance in the game, even if far away objects are often low detail, and the NPCs in the game are full of character which is always great to see. The animations used for Link have also received some added polish since Twilight Princess which works well with the added control actions.
On the sound front we have an orchestral score which very much fits the theme of the game. There is a distinct style to the soundtrack in Skyward Sword which sets it apart from the other games in the series, giving it a unique feel. There is of course very limited voice acting, just a few random "noises" here and there as our dialogue is played out in the form of subtitles... which can on occasion go on a little to long.
As we have hinted at above there is an initial feel to Skyward Sword which results in the game not feeling like a Zelda game, certainly for the first hour or so. During this time we are based in the very bright and vibrant Skyloft main island, away from Hyrule, without our green tunic and getting used to the various tweaks that Nintendo have applied to the gameplay such as our stamina meter. There often is a settling in period with a new Zelda game as the scene is set but this rivals some of the more severe and to be honest, we initially felt that the changes in Skyward Sword might be a step in the wrong direction.
After that initial hour or so things settle down a lot and having been introduced to the flight based gameplay, sword controls, travel between locations and with the story in full flow the whole game begins to move into a familiar style of gameplay which Nintendo have essentially perfected... even if we are not entirely sold on the stamina meter.
The only other significant issue of note is that Skyward Sword does often stretch out the gameplay with content between dungeons which sees us running from point to point on fetch/find style missions. These can become a little tiresome however always end in a progression of the story so there is a reward and they are soon forgotten when the game features moments such as those when we launch ourselves from Skyloft, plunging downward to be swept up by our bird companion.
Dungeon crawling, puzzle solving, exploring, boss battles, all are here and most are enhanced by MotionPlus. Fighting in particular has received the biggest fine-tune and although it is still possible too wave the controller around like a mad person, taking time to learn the ins and outs of combat results in a much more satisfying combat experience... and quicker enemy kills. It is without doubt the highlight of the game and the most successful use of a motion controller we can recall.
Dungeon Design is also very good in Skyward Sword, it features some of the best in Zelda games in fact with each area well thought out and the puzzles achievable. Yes there are times when the game can be infuriating, looking as if it is being impossible in what it asks, but always upon solving the puzzle at hand we find that the solution was staring at us all the time. For this reason it is always worth taking time to think, look and explore areas of importance.
Overall Skyward Sword may not be the revolution in gaming that occurred with previous Zelda games however it improves on the foundations set in Twilight Princess and evolves the gameplay in hugely positive ways with MotionPlus. Without doubt the best Zelda since Ocarina of Time. 94%