A quality adventure, held back by archaic design and technology
Sales numbers aside, it is my opinion that the Wii has been a disastrously bad console. It has given us an endless supply of garbage, with a handful of good or great games that fit into one of two categories:
1. Wonderfully designed games like Super Mario Galaxy that succeed in spite of motion controls and the Wii's crappy technology, and that would have been better on another console.
2. Wii Sports
In some respects, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the last chance for the Wii's motion controls to redeem themselves. As one of the few games to use the Wii motion plus, it offers more thoughtful, tactical combat in place of spastic Wii-mote waggling. I found that although the motion plus provides a noticeable improvement in control and precision, this game is still not the elusive motion control killer app that we have been eagerly anticipating for over five years now. If you ignore this minor disappointment, however, you will find that the game still provides you with a quality adventure. There is a formula at work that you have seen before, but it is a really good formula that hasn't been widely copied yet. At the same time, there are a few things different -- more than enough to make this game feel new.
Stop me if you've heard this before: Zelda has, disappeared, and it is Link's job to find her. At the start of his quest, Link has little more than a sword, but he gradually accumulates an inventory of gadgets, which he uses to fight monsters of all sorts and solve puzzles. In each new area, you usually find a new gadget, which you put to immediate use to solve the puzzles at that area. There are large dungeons that you scour for a key, and they key unlocks the area where the boss resides. The worst part about the game isn't that it has the same basic structure as other Zelda games. Not making big changes to the formulaic story is forgivable, because it is no different than, say, iterating on the story of "Batman vs Joker". Staying with the basic gameplay formula of puzzle solving, combat, and exploration was a good idea, and it is no different than, say, Valve repeatedly making games where you shoot people in first person.
The biggest problem, once again, is that this game is loaded with all kinds of minor annoyances that bog down the experience. Do you know what is unforgiveable? How about releasing a game in 2011 with no voice acted lines at all? How about having the game's dialog all told in unskippable, slow scrolling text? How about making me watch the same mini cut scene when I find a red rupee twenty times? How about not having a trading interface, forcing me to take a minute to do buy something when it only takes five seconds in most other games? Nintendo's need to appeal to the nostalgic gamer is usually blamed for these little annoyances, but that sounds like a lame excuse to me. Is there truly a significant portion of the Nintendo fan base that would be genuinely upset if they didn't see the description for a bug or for a red rupee twenty times in a game?
Alas, you are not reading this review to see me vent about my Nintendo pet peeves. You might be reading it to find out how well Zelda's unique combat system works. The answer is – "sort of okay". Combat is where motion plus is featured the most. The general principle at work is that you position
your sword so that you can slice in the direction that your enemy is not defending. If your enemy is holding his shield or his weapon to his right, you slash him on his left. If your enemy has an opening on top, you make a downward vertical slash. It would be great were it not for one problem – the game still can't always tell whether a movement is a slash or not. Sometimes, when you move your arm quickly in one direction, the game interprets that as a slash in that direction, when want you really want to do is get in position to make a slash in the opposite direction. To fight like you are supposed to fight, you have to move your arm somewhat slowly until it's time to make a slash. Enemies move too fast for you to do this. As a result, you will find yourself getting blocked and countered quite often. Combat isn't bad, and sometimes it does work as intended. It usually does punish you for carelessness and reward you for caution and observing your enemy to discover his patterns. It's close to being what it was intended to be, but not quite.
The other major feature of this game that features motion plus is flying. Like the airplane game in Wii Sports resort, you can fly a bird and, later, a portable flying gadget. Flying is an excellent application of the motion plus. The controls are near perfect. These parts of the game work so well that I wish that they could have been more integral to the experience. They are more on the periphery here. The areas where you can fly your bird are a little too empty to make those parts significant.
Where Zelda really shines is in its level design. Puzzles are fun to solve and even though the game reuses some of the gadgets from the previous games, the puzzles in this game have a unique feel. The game generally does a good job of "training" you on the basic mechanics, and then presenting progressively more challenging puzzles after that. There were a couple of puzzles where I got a bit stumped, in large part because I had figured it out but didn't do it right. For the most part though, the puzzle solving is very satisfying. The challenges change up frequently so that no puzzle style or gadget ever overstays its welcome. Keep in mind that this is a 30+ hour game. Finding a game this long that provides you with frequent changeups throughout the entire campaign is practically unheard of nowadays.
Sometimes Skyward Sword is described as an action/RPG, but the game really shines its brightest as an adventure game. One of the reasons that it is so much fun to complete Skyward Sword is because of an intangible quality that is has – the sense of being on an adventure. Every new area gives you a sense of wonderment as you enter it. The scenery is constantly changing and the treasures that you find while exploring give you a strong reason to always see what is around every corner.
One new gameplay element that doesn't work out as well is the item upgrading. By collecting bugs and treasure drops from monsters, you can visit merchants and pay them to upgrade some of your items. This addition would be a good one, but it has some issues. The biggest issue is that you don't even get access to some of the components that you need until the second half of the game. Some of them taken even longer than that. As a result, most of the upgrades are impossible to get until you have been playing for a long time. In addition, your shield is destructible in this game, and if that happens, you lose any upgrades to it. A lot of the possible upgrades are for potions, which seem like kind of a waste – why spend your valuable upgrading components so that your potion restores just a couple more hearts?
Skyward Sword's presentation is at least acceptable, although as you might expect, it is lacking in a few areas. The art style is about 1/3 Wind Waker and 2/3 Twilight Princess. For the most part, it is a good mixture. The slightly cartoony look helps smooth out some of the ugliness of the outdated Wii technology, but not so much that the realism is completely gone. Skyward Sword looks at least above average for a Wii game, but is there any point in saying that anymore? If you play games on any other current platform, the lack of horsepower in the console is becoming a real downer. In particular, the lack of anti-aliasing shows up badly in some of the bigger outdoor areas. Far away objects are so riddled with jagged edges that they are barely recognizable. I did like the music in Skyward Sword more than Twilight Princess, and I like the little riffs that play whenever you accomplish something. However, the lack of voice acting for any of the characters in the game becomes more and more unacceptable as the 64-bit era gets further and further in the rear view mirror. I can understand wanting to keep Link as a silent protagonist, but there is no reason for everyone else to be communicating in text.
At the end of the day, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a game with the strengths and weaknesses that you would expect from a Zelda game that heavily uses motion controls. More than likely, it will not change your opinion about either. This is not all bad though, because Skyward Sword is really strong in some areas, and it is a fun game almost constantly from beginning to end. The motion controls aren't a game changer, but the package, as a whole, provides a quality adventure.