A middling, but decent adventure
The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword is mostly the game that I’d expect it to be. You play as Link the green suited Hero, on his epic quest to save princess Zelda. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just what has come to be expected from a Zelda game. What sets Skyward Sword apart from the other entries in this series is that it’s the game that finally delivers on the Wii’s promise of good and interesting motion controls. I’ve always thought that swordplay could be done quite well with the Wii’s motion controls, but somehow Skyward Sword is the first game that gets it right.
Since Skyward Sword actually has good motion it requires Wii Motion Plus to play. With the motion plus Link’s sword moves almost one-to-one with the Wii-mote. This leads to interesting changes in the Zelda combat. Instead of waiting for an enemy to let its guard down so you can attack it you must attack it with a well placed sword strike. You can swing the sword horizontally, vertically, diagonally, or thrust it forward. Alternatively if you hold the sword to the sky it will charge up allowing you to shoot a blast from the sword. Enemies will place their weapons, hands, or mouths in a way that lets you know which direction you should strike them. In fights with normal enemies the precision doesn’t really come into play. Sure you can take down an enemy with a few well placed strikes, but fiercely flinging the Wii-mote about will usually yield the same result.
Boss battles are where the precision truly matters. If you attack certain bosses the wrong way you will be heavily punished until you learn to be more careful. One boss in particular will take your sword and throw it to let you know that you can’t swing the Wii-mote with reckless abandon as you do in most games.
Sometimes enemies require Link to block with his shield, which can be taken out by thrusting the nunchuck forward. If you thrust the nunchuck just before the attack lands on the shield the enemy will be staggered, which signals your chance to go crazy on it with your sword. This method is used to counter enemies who shoot projectiles. The shield introduced what I think is one of the most annoying mechanics in Skyward Sword. All of the shields have a health meter and when it hits zero the shield will break forever. This is something that’s never been fun in a game, so I really can’t see why Nintendo thought it would be a good idea.
Along with the sword and shield, motion control bled into every gadget Link finds in Skyward Sword. For the most part the arsenal is familiar with things like bombs, the bow, and the slingshot making a return. I was surprised by the new items and was a bit sad that they didn’t get more use. The one that gets the most use is the flying beetle. In order to hit far away switches, bomb walls, and pick up things you will take control of a mechanical beetle. In order to pilot it you turn the Wii-mote in the direction you want to bug to go. It works surprisingly well and is incredibly useful. On the other hand there were weapons such as the gust bellows, which is essentially a giant vacuum cleaner, which gets rid of sand. It’s used only a handful of times and it seems like a missed opportunity. The same goes for Link’s whip, but it gets even less use than the gust bellows. Skyward Sword tries to introduce a weapon upgrading mechanic. You can upgrade your shield and a select few gadgets by collecting materials around the world. This mechanic falls flat, because these upgrades are completely unneeded. They make the weapon slightly better, but the difference is barely noticeable. It seems like Nintendo was shooting for something much more grand, but it didn’t make it into the game.
All of this motion control works much better than I thought it would. It feels great when it works, but that’s where it fell short for me. I found myself needing to recalibrate and re-center the Wii Motion Plus far too often during my travels through Skyward Sword. Since the motion plus doesn’t use infrared it doesn’t need to be pointed at the Wii’s sensor bar. This means that the swordplay is never really affected by the previous issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its own issues. When you’re making broad strokes with the Wii-mote and Link is cutting down foes Skyward Sword’s combat feels amazing. The problem comes in when it doesn’t work as intended. There were certain times when I was making the stroke I should have been, but the enemy was still blocking my attacks. However, if I went crazy with the Wii-mote the enemy would quickly die. Things like that completely brought me out of the experience. However, I don’t think that these problems were caused by Skyward Sword. I’m fairly certain that they are caused by the Wii Motion Plus. As far as I’m concerned it’s a shoddy piece of technology that should have been built into the Wii-mote from the beginning anyways. Hopefully in the future Nintendo can find a way to make it work better.
Other than the motion controls everything about Skyward Sword seems fairly middling. The game opens on the floating island of Skyloft. Get used to it, because you’ll spend most of your time outside of dungeons there. It’s inhabited by a colorful cast of characters, much like every other Zelda game. These inhabitants will offer you side quests for upgrade materials and heart pieces. Everyone on Skyloft has their very own bird known as a Loftwing. This is how you move around the overworld in Skyward Sword. You take a running start and jump off the edge of Skyloft onto your oversized bird. It controls much like the beetle gadget, but it can go much faster. It still goes much slower than I’d prefer, but it’s a cool way to get around.
There are quite a few sky islands you can travel to, but none of them are very interesting. Most of them only house one or two treasure chests with rupees in them. Other than that there will be giant pillars of light that mark places you can fall through the clouds. Jumping off your Loftwing at these pillars allows you to reach the surface world, which is where the dungeons reside. There isn’t much exploration on the surface world, which makes Skyward Sword seem much more linear than other titles in this franchise.
While the dungeons are interesting they are standard Zelda fare. You fight, shoot switches, and collect keys to make your way to the boss. Then you fight the boss in order to advance the story. This is highly reductive, but it’s what’s been done in almost every Zelda game. This isn’t a bad thing, or I wouldn’t keep coming back for more.
Skyward Sword is a long game. It took me around 45 hours to complete the game. Normally I’d be thrilled with this kind of length from a game I enjoyed, but there was a point at around 30 hours in where I began to burn out. There are multiple sections of Skyward Sword that were clearly made to pad out the adventure. There’s a point where a game is too long and Skyward Sword reaches that point and then moves far past it. It could have easily been ten to fifteen hours shorter and I wouldn’t have minded a bit.
This isn’t to say that Skyward Sword is a bad game. In fact, I’d say it’s a great game. I found myself having a great deal of fun with the game despite everything I’ve said in this review. It may sound overly negative, but that’s because I’ve played so many Zelda games. It’s hard to put something into one of these games that’s going to wow me. I think that this game made me realized that I’ve had my fill of Zelda for a while. The whole story and setting of this game were middle of the road, while the motion controls were pretty good. Skyward Sword is a decent Zelda game that’s a whole bunch of fun when it works correctly. However, that might not be enough anymore. It’ll satiate diehard Zelda fans, but I think it’s time for Nintendo to rethink the Zelda franchise before it gets too familiar.