A much improved combat system marred by monotonous game design.
Skyward Sword, in a way, doesn’t feel like your typical Legend of Zelda game.
Nintendo’s release of Twilight Princess in 2006 was, for all intent and purposes, the most formulaic Zelda game in the series. They stuck to their roots—giving us one of their better tried and true Zelda experiences. It was awesome, but only in a way that makes Zelda games click. It didn’t do anything particularly new or groundbreaking—it just did “Zelda” really well. Skyward Sword, however, is going to surprise even the most diehard Zelda fans around. It still has dungeons, small keys, boss fights, and a bow, but it’s all tied together in a very “different” structure—less about exploration and puzzle solving and more about combat. You definitely have NOT played a Zelda game like this before.
I prefer to judge game’s on their own individual merits—it almost seems unfair to criticize a game based on a franchise’s prior flubs or miscues. Skyward Sword, though, should be praised for outdoing Twilight Princess’ combat in nearly every facet. Thrown together is basically what Twilight Princess’ combat felt like. Skyward Sword, however, will punish you for waggle. Enemies now have specific patterns that need to be determined before attacking, and you will be brutally defeating unless you observe their tendencies.
For example, Stalfos (the skeletal figures that carry swords and shields) will now block incoming attacks by holding their swords in specific ways. In order to defeat them you need to attack them by swinging in the opposite direction. It sounds contrived, sure, but it works pretty well. Enemies become more difficult to defeat, too, so just waiting and slashing sometimes isn’t your best option. Sometimes you’ll have to block an attack first with your shield, then dump on them with sword slashes. It all feels satisfying too, like you’re actually swinging the sword rather than triggering what could’ve been a button press.
The new combat Skyward Sword introduces with Wii Motion Plus is absolutely fantastic and is easily the best part of the game. It’s hard to criticize past Zelda games for doing anything wrong, or... bad, but the series’ combat has always been a bit lacking—whether you just spin around an enemy waiting for the A button to light up or something to that effect. You’ll definitely need to be more strategic, and you’ll definitely have to be ready. This is not a game to play casually. If you don’t play the game the way Nintendo intended, you’re going to die. I have to mention that the stabbing motion didn’t work well for me much, though.
Despite this I felt as if the rest of the motion controls felt forced or tacked-on. Using your shield, for example, is done by quickly thrusting the nunchuk forward. This is definitely not the best way to approach this situation because of the motion sensor’s douche bag nature of not working properly. It was especially frustrating when you had to use it in one particularly difficult boss fight. The same thing can be said about flying your bird in the sky and swimming under water—it never felt as if it was better than simply using the analog stick (which, no, was never an option). It’s also quite irritating that you constantly have to re-center your cursor.
Unfortunately it almost feels as if the new and improved combat system almost takes away everything else that made past Zelda games so much fun. The exploration and discovery aspects, for example, have almost been completely stripped out. Now Hyrule’s overworld is three main areas—a forest, a desert, and a volcano. Rather than introduce new areas over the course of the entire game Skyward Sword has you revisit the same areas multiple times. Not only that but you sometimes have to visit some areas three or four times. Backtracking isn’t something new to video games—or even the Zelda series—but Skyward Sword almost seems like it takes this aspect to the extreme. It makes for some pretty overused level design, like having to do the same “change time” mechanic multiple times over the course of the game.
This also relates to the game’s dungeon designs which are, disappointing to me, not very good. I love to sing praise of Zelda’s clever implementation of themes for their dungeons (like, for example, having an Ice Mansion for the Snow Temple, or having a dungeon floating the sky as a Wind Temple). Skyward Sword only features a couple of these cleverly designed dungeons and seems to miss opportunities nearly everywhere. Even the first temple, the Skyview Temple (or the Forest Temple) is a bland, gray, small temple with no real aesthetic design or clever puzzles. The game, too, features way too much “fluff” spread between temples and key story points. It sometimes felt like Nintendo needed to make the game longer so they added unnecessary backtracking to a game that already has too much backtracking to begin with. It turns a 20 hours game into 30 hours. The bosses, too, weren’t as memorable and not nearly as epic. It didn’t help, either, that one boss fight in particular needs to be defeated on three separate fucking occasions.
This brings me to the music, too, which was disappointingly average. It does feature some great tunes, no doubt, but the game is mostly full of unmemorable and somewhat generic sound design. The temple music in particular was not good. The game features absolutely no voice acting and possesses sound effect that almost sound like they were ripped right from Twilight Princess (not that they were that bad anyways, but still).
It might sound like I hate Skyward Sword—I don’t, truly. I actually think Skyward Sword is a great game. The game’s combat is absolutely fantastic and the clever ways Nintendo introduces new enemy types feels really refreshing and good for the franchise. Some parts of the game world work really well, too. One part, for example, has you manipulating time through the past and present. In the present there a sea of sand, but in the past that sea is filled with water. The way you maneuver your boat over the sand is incredibly well designed and looks really cool.
Skyward Sword’s visual aesthetic looks like a mixture between the Wind Waker’s awesome cel-shaded, cartoon look and Twilight Princess’ more mature aesthetic. Basically, the game looks very pretty. Nintendo went for a very awesome-looking pastel painting look and the result worked great. The visual style worked to the Wii’s lack of power. The draw distance has a muddy-look but looks more like brush strokes than anything.
Nintendo also made the game a little more RPG-y, to (probably) everyone’s surprise. You can now collect items throughout the game world which can then be spent on upgrading equipment you’ve collected throughout the adventure. If you find, for example, three tumble weeds, some ancient flowers, and some skull ornaments you could potentially upgrade your shield to be more durable (yeah, shield can fucking break, mind=blown). This makes collecting rupees and other items more fun and potentially necessary.
Basically, don’t expect Skyward Sword to scratch that familiar Zelda game itch—it’s not familiar. If you go into the game expecting something like, say, Twilight Princess, you could be potentially disappointed. The awesome implementation of the Wii Motion Plus for the combat finally feels as if Nintendo succeeded in doing what they always wanted to do with the Wii in the first place. Unfortunately everything else that encompasses the rest of the package feels a little more linear and a little less cleverly designed. Skyward Sword intrigues me to see where Nintendo will go with the franchise from here. As a game, it’s awesome. But as a Zelda game filled with a rich history of phenomenal games? If anything, it’s interesting.