Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wii review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Having spent the longest time in development over all the other entries in the Legend of Zelda series, Skyward Sword carried high expectations when it was first teased at E3 2009, with Miyamoto and team promising that it would be a much different Zelda than Twilight Princess and the games that preceded it. The story was explained as a precursor to Ocarina of Time, exploring the origins of the Master Sword, the early days of Hyrule, and a number of trends that would carry over to the other stories in the series. Almost two and a half years later, the game was released, with plenty of fanfare surrounding it.

The story begins with Link and Zelda as students at the Knight Academy in Skyloft. Link gets a wake-up call from Zelda’s Loftwing bird, and he meets her at the statue of the goddess. She reprimands him for not practicing his flying much lately, and after a series of interactions with some of the citizens in Skyloft, Link runs into resident bully Groose. He taunts Link, who is currently unable to find his Loftwing in order to practice, but also adds a dash of humor as he admits how he wants to win the competition to be with Zelda in the ceremony. Zelda overhears this and informs Link that she will search the sky while he searches the cave, all the while suspecting that Groose might be responsible for this turn of events. After a brief search and encounters with some basic enemies, Link rescues his Loftwing, wins the competition, and has a romantic/awkward moment with Zelda atop the statue of the goddess.

This lasts for the first couple of hours and introduces players to two things. First, the core gameplay mechanics, including the 1:1 motion controls, Z-targeting, how to dash and leap with the stamina gauge, and controls for flying the Loftwing. Second, it gives a brief glimpse into how character-driven and narrative-driven this Zelda game is. This is the first time Zelda is not actually a princess, and she certainly has some attitude. Groose is a goofball of a jerk, but there’s something about his mannerisms that immediately clues players in to the fact that he – much like Zelda – is a more animated and believable character than many other Zelda characters could hope to be.

Following this, Zelda explains to Link that she’s been hearing a voice calling to her. Before she can elaborate, a tornado stirs up, whisking Zelda away and sending Link flying in the opposite direction. When he wakes up, Zelda is nowhere to be found, but he sees a floating figure that resembles a blue female who urges him to follow her. He ends up at the statue of the goddess, in a secret chamber that houses the Goddess Sword. The figure reveals her name to be Fi, and that Link is destined to become the goddess’ chosen hero. Fi opens a path through the clouds to the surface below, and Link journeys to a land that will one day come to be known as Hyrule.

Once there, Link meets an elderly Sheikah woman, who directs Link to Faron woods to find Zelda. Little does Link know that he is being followed by a member of the dark tribe that razed the land ages ago, before the goddess sent the people of Skyloft heavenwards to safety. Upon completing the first dungeon, Link is properly introduced to the game’s main villain – Demon Lord Girahim, a flamboyant individual who thinks quite highly of himself and little of Link. The two engage in a brief duel, and while Girahim admits he was only toying with Link, he appears frustrated at the fact that he spent too much time clashing swords, as Zelda has already left the dungeon. He then promises Link that he will not hold back the next time they cross paths.

Almost every dungeon in Skyward Sword follows a wheel-and-spokes layout, and most are rather small in size. However, certain areas cannot be accessed until Link acquires a new item or weapon. Because of this, players may find themselves revisiting rooms, albeit with a new angle. There’s been a lot of fat trimmed from the dungeon experience, but they still prove a reasonable challenge. Some are more straightforward, like the Earth Temple which (despite its name) is similar to Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Cavern. Others combine elements, like the Ancient Cistern - the upper level is something of a cross between Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple and Majora’s Mask’s Great Bay Temple, while the lower level is akin to OoT’s Shadow Temple.

The overworld is divided into four distinct sections. As a central hub, Skyloft is where Link can return to purchase potions and items, as well as upgrade these. The outlying rock islands are home to some of the mini-games and sidequests, and in that regard, the sky feels like a condensed version of the Great Sea from Wind Waker. Players can access the surface world areas of Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert through openings in the clouds. Each of these act as dungeon-like areas that precede that actual dungeons, though they still allow freedom in exploration. They build off some of the most creative mechanics the series has introduced over the years, with holes in the ground now full-fledged tunnel systems and timeshift orbs acting as real-time versions of the Rod of Seasons from Oracle of Seasons, altering the immediate environment around Link as he moves.

The previous style of saving the game on the fly has been exchanged for the bird statues, requiring players to save at checkpoints. These statues are frequent, however, and no player will have to retrace their steps too far as long as they save the game frequently. Should players find themselves stuck, they can use the harp to call upon the Sheikah Gossip Stones. The Stones can provide short video hints on how to progress, without completely giving away the solution to the game’s clever puzzles.

Each of the additions to Link’s arsenal prove as intriguing as they are practical. The Beetle acts in the boomerang’s stead, allowing Link to cut through rope and spider web from far away, by directing the Beetle’s course. It can also be used to pick up rupees, hearts, and even bombs, the latter of which can then be dropped onto enemies or rocks blocking Link’s path. The Gust Bellows uncover treasure chests and switches hidden beneath piles of sand, but can also propel certain wind-powered platforms. The whip can be used to activate switches from afar, or like a grappling hook, allowing Link to swing across gaps. But even when Link acquires the clawshots, the whip still remains useful. Despite the fact that Link we be gathering items and weapons as her progresses through each new are, none of them are ever completely abandoned. Instead, Nintendo has chosen to stack their puzzles and environmental designs on top of one another, making the gameplay dynamic and exciting.

On top of that there is a small learning curve that comes with the new super-precise and incredibly responsive motion-plus sword combat. Many enemies are revisited in a way that incorporates a puzzle-like strategy into the combat, requiring a more careful, tactical approach than in any previous Zelda game. Each boss Link will face presents a new spin on this, and almost all of them break away from the standard “third time’s the charm” attack pattern. Players can collect treasures on the surface and use these to upgrade their arsenal in the Skyloft bazaar. This new element of freedom is akin to how weapons are upgraded in the Final Fantasy series, and can go a long way. Both present drastically new additions to the series’ formula, but a little while into the adventure and players will find themselves wondering how they ever managed without them before.

The bulk of the story does take a little while longer to get off the ground than in most Zelda games. But the first few major plot developments really showcase the time and care that went into crafting this story. Girahim is one of the most memorable villains in the series to date, and the multiple times Link battles him prove increasingly enjoyable. The final boss fights are some of the most challenging the series has presented to date, but also some of the most exhilarating. By the game’s conclusion, players will be treated to one of the most convincingly human tales ever woven in a Legend of Zelda title. It’s a brilliant marriage to the epic fantasy nature of the franchise, and made only stronger by the impressionist art style and absolutely gorgeous soundtrack.

Ocarina of Time has been my favorite video game since I was eight years old. Skyward Sword never tries to be Ocarina of Time. True, there are plot connections, and the story is much stronger because of this driving force. But it isn’t trying to force an angle on players like Twilight Princess did. Skyward Sword plays in a way that is different, incorporating perfect motion controls and RPG-style upgrades and item management. It might pay homage to Zeldas of the past, but Skyward Sword is a breed all its own: a game that requires players to be tactical in their approach to enemies and puzzles alike. Is it the greatest Zelda game ever? That’s up to personal discretion. As far as I’m concerned, though, it is the greatest Zelda title released in more than a decade.

My rating: 10 (out of 10)

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