Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In Defense - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Success is something that the Zelda brand always tends to achieve...each game strives for excellence and top-notch presentation, and for the most part they've reached their goal (except for those atrocities on the CD-i, but that's all we'll say about that). For years, The Legend of Zelda has been Nintendo's ace in the hole, which is hardly surprising given that just about every main entry in the series earns an average rating of 90% or higher. When people get a new Zelda game, it's a day to remember. Zelday, as I personally like to call it...and although I personally look forward to the next Metroiday much more than the next Zelday, I'm in the minority. That's not to say I don't like Zelda games...quite the opposite in fact, even if I have some different views from others with respect to my favourites in the series.

When Skyward Sword was first announced, I remember feeling underwhelmed (to quote Sloan). I don't know why...the art that was released just didn't thrill me, and I quickly forgot about the game, and rather than being consistently excited for it I would only look up information about it every so often. I can't think of another console Zelda game that I was so "meh" about at first...even Majora's Mask, one of my least favourite 3D Zelda games, at least had me captivated at the very start. What the hell was my problem? I guess Twilight Princess, although generally well done, left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, and it was stated that this entry was supposed to have a similar style. Twilight Princess looked good for what it was...but in the end, when compared to other entries in the Zelda franchise, it just seems to go through the motions. It's a solid game, but for me it just really didn't stand out when compared to say, Wind Waker. It wasn't charming, it wasn't challenging, and the story never gripped me. I guess when I lay it out like that for myself, it really makes sense that I wasn't taken with Skyward Sword at the beginning.

Gradually though, things happened. Good things happened to Skyward Sword. The art style was completely reworked into a beautiful painted world, which reminded me of artwork that I studied as far back as high school and immediately peaked my interest. I've always found that the best forms of Zelda are those that tend to lean toward less realism and more imagination in the design, a personal preference of mine that not everyone would agree with. It allows for more variety in...well, in everything that the game has to offer, really. As soon as this change occurred, I was looking into the game much more often. I was also originally skeptical of the game's exclusive use of Wii MotionPlus, even though I'd already seen it used extremely well in Red Steel 2, which is one of those games that everyone should play but no one has. Could Zelda really pull it off and make the motion controls amazing? What about the story...would it be memorable to me like the narrative found in Wind Waker, which happens to be my favourite 3D Zelda entry?

It turns out that the answer is yes. Skyward Sword is ridiculously good, and from the very beginning to the conclusion I was absolutely hooked on everything that it had to offer me. The fact that I actually need to consider if it replaces Wind Waker as my absolute favourite is a testament to how good this game really is, because I'm a stubborn prick and don't tend to change my mind very easily about things. So let's officially start this review, shall we? I may as well begin with the controls, because that's really one of the main draws of the game...not only is it designed to be a good Zelda experience, but it has to do so with a brand new control scheme from just about anything out there. Most of the game's enemies and puzzles are based entirely on the motion controls, and so I think it makes sense to lay them out and talk about them before getting into the other aspects.

Don't underestimate anyone...even these idiots.

Wii MotionPlus is the star of the show here, and the game requires it in order to be played. There is no other option, which yes, kinda sucks if you don't have one yet and need to shell out the extra cash to play the game. Well it's fucking worth it, so slam that cash down on the table and run away with your copy! Standard controls are minimal here, such as moving around with the control stick of the Nunchuk, interacting with objects and talking to people with A, and Z-Targeting with the Z-button. All that crap is normal and it's what you're used to, so don't's not like you have to walk in place to make Link move around or something. Rather, the Wii Remote is used intuitively for things such as menu selection, swordplay, and just about every item that the game gives you (which I will do my best not to spoil but it'll be tough). Swinging the remote when you have your sword out will make Link swing in the same fashion. If you waggle the shit outta the controller, mistakes will be have to know what you're doing and attack in the right directions, unless you happen to get lucky. This works consistently, and the only time I've seen Link's sword react in a strange way was when I messed something up myself or if there happened to be some glare from another source in the room, aside from the Sensor Bar (watch out for this). You can swing vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or stab forwards, and it all works once you get the hang of it. That's the key thing need to get used to what you're doing, which may put some people off. The stab, for example, took me a few tries to do well and time correctly, but once you do, it happens to be one of the most satisfying moves in the game. If you want to mess around, you can even just...move your wrist around, and watch Link's sword follow every movement and angle. It's NUTS. You can also raise your sword toward the sky to absorb energy in the blade, and the next time you slash your sword, the energy will take the form of a beam (called a Skyward Strike) to attack from a distance. This can be done in any slashing direction as well, including the's a nice throwback to the poor, long-forgotten Beam Attack that I've always absolutely loved. In addition to the swordplay, there's shieldplay which is simpler but tricky at the same time. When you shake the nunchuk quickly, Link will raise his shield and it'll absorb damage. Shields are different in Skyward Sword however, in that they have a durability meter and they'll break if they take too much damage or say, get burned up. If you're good with your timing, however, you can parry an attack perfectly by shaking the nunchuk just as an enemy attacks you...this will make them recoil and leave them open while also leaving your shield's durability untouched. It's a simple mechanic but it works really well and is very, very satisfying when you figure out the timing.

How about other control issues? Well, like I said, I'm gonna try to avoid spoiling the new items, but the classics should suffice to provide you with some decent examples. Bombs, to start, work just like them in front of a wall or enemy and it'll blow them to smithereens. You can tilt the Wii Remote up and do a tossing motion to throw a bomb (and also to throw other things in the game like jars and barrels), or you can tilt it downward and perform a rolling motion which lets you roll it along the ground. In addition to this, you can twist the remote when it's facing downward to put curve on the bomb if you want to roll it in a fancy way, with the trajectory illustrated by an arrow so you have some idea of what you're doing. It's a pretty cool little detail, which you don't really NEED to use, but the option is there. Another good item to use as an example is the Bow. You would think that, from other games that use a crosshair targeting system, you'd be pointing your remote at the screen/sensor bar to use this thing...but this isn't the case. Wii MotionPlus is able to simply pick up how you TILT the remote and this is what adjusts your aim. It's amazing how many little twitches it can pick up as you see your crosshair shake with the movements of your hand, and it makes the Bow that much more visceral and real when you handle it. When you actually get good with the Bow, it's not because you can point at something's because you've learned how to MOVE quickly and it's very, very satisfying. There are a lot more items in the game, but I'll leave it at that. Suffice to say though that they're all handled very well and controlling them is a cinch. It's also pretty obvious that there's a flying aspect to this game, and this is all done with Wii MotionPlus as well. Simply tilting the remote back and forth will change the angle of your Loftwing (giant bird that you ride) and it feels smooth. This kind of control is used in other instances in the game as well, and it works great in those cases too. There are also some really neat rare moments where you need to perform specific actions, and they're pretty cool...again though, SPOILERS SO I WON'T SAY ANYTHING MORE! Just trust me when I say that the controls are rock-solid. Even if you think the controller feels a little bit off, the game lets you re-calibrate it at pretty much any time you want and with minimal effort, which is a great feature to have. The only thing that seems strange is the game's instrument...which pretty much functions as a sort of timing game. I don't want to explain it because it's a plot device, but it seems like they could've done something a little more with it and I wasn't completely sold. However, you don't use it overly much for it to become an irritant, and once you get the hang of it, it functions just fine (much like everything else in the game).

Items are selected by holding the B-button, which brings up a wheel of your acquired tools. While holding the button down, you simply tilt the Wii Remote in the direction of the item you want to use and release it...this selects whatever item you want. It's very intuitive and simple, allowing for quick item changes on the fly without breaking the flow of the game. The same method of selection works for your Adventure Pouch. Holding the - button will bring up the pouch, which can hold up to 8 items by the time you fully expand it. These items include empty bottles, shields, and other handy treasures such as medals that affect how often you find rupees or increase the length of time that potions last for. Equipping or unequipping something from this menu is just as simple as selecting your items in the B-menu, or you can easily take a swig from a health potion seamlessly. Just don't forget that bringing the pouch up doesn't pause the game, so you can still get hit while messing around.

Another feature to note with control features is the new stamina meter. This is a green, circular meter that counts down whenever you make Link do something too stressful. For example, nice addition is that rather than rolling all over the damn place, you can just hold down the A button to dash! This makes your stamina meter count down, but it's way better than rolling everywhere like an idiot. Climbing vines, pushing objects, and using powerful attacks will deplete your stamina meter. When it runs out, Link will tire out and be unable to move at any sort of reasonable speed, leaving you completely vulnerable. A lot of portions of the game require you to budget your use of your stamina, and it's a pretty cool addition that makes you think about what you're doing before you tackle certain situations. Fruit can be found quite frequently that replenish your stamina, and in some cases these are in strategic locations so you can get by an obstacle efficiently with some careful planning.

Looks like Link's...BONED!

Another interesting factor is the ability to upgrade your items. Certain items can be beefed up at a Scrap Shop near the beginning of the game, and you do this by acquiring treasures and loot that you either find scattered randomly around the game, or insects that you catch during your adventure. The loot goes into improving things such as your weapons and adventure pouch objects, whereas the insects can be used to pump up your potions and make them stronger. It's a neat idea that isn't intrusive. It's nice because you certainly don't have to do it, but the improvements are nice to have, particularly when it comes to improving your shield's durability or the strength of your most loved weaponry. You might not need it, but having the option and ability to choose what you want to do is certainly awesome and although sort of primitive, it's a nice new feature to add to the Zelda franchise that could definitely be expanded on in the future.

After covering the controls, I can finally get into to the rest of the content of the game...of which there is a lot. I'll tell you guys my finishing time right off the bat: 46 hours. That's including finding everything and completing everything in the game. That's a pretty damn long game, and it's lengthened even more by Hero Mode, which becomes available to you after you complete the main quest...I'll explain more about Hero Mode later on though, and get into the details of the game content itself, beginning with the story.

It's safe to say that Skyward Sword presents the most well-developed and illustrated storyline of the Zelda series. Before you even begin the game, you are shown a stylized impressionist introduction that sets the stage for the world and its history. From then on, extremely well-animated cutscenes piece together the important parts of the story. Cutscenes from other Zelda games pale in comparison to the quality of these particular settings. Maybe it's something to do with the art direction taken with the game, or just simply better writing, but Skyward Sword takes the concept of a Zelda story and blows it up into something wonderful. Many people say that the art style was chosen because the Wii couldn't handle a "more serious-looking" Zelda...but it's clear that the presentation has been observed with such care that this statement couldn't be more wrong. Skyward Sword reminds me very much of the equivalent of a hand-animated Disney film: captivating and wondrous, with a superb attention to detail in characters' animations and colour. It's really a sight to behold and should not be missed.

The characters themselves are outstanding, and from the very beginning of the game, you actually get to witness the relationship between Link and Zelda on their home island in the sky, Skyloft. From the dialogue and facial cues the characters give each other, you immediately admire them and they become later on, when Zelda goes missing (not really a spoiler...I mean, come on, it's a Zelda game) you actually care about getting her back just to see her reaction to Link, or vice versa. Other characters and their development drive the story and the player forward as well. The main antagonist for the game, Ghirahim, has a very dark humour sort of personality to him that makes running into him and hearing his dialogue a delight. Fi, who serves as your guide for this Zelda adventure, has a very interesting personality and serves as a good companion for Link...although personally she left me wanting a little bit more backstory. There are many others throughout the world that you grow to appreciate, but I don't want to spoil too much.

The game starts in Skyloft, which serves as a sort of main hub location for you to constantly go back to. Here you can find stores to stock up, subquests to acquire powerups and items, and a few mini-games to participate in as well. When you dive off of the side of the island, you call your avian mount, called a Loftwing, and can freely fly around the sky and explore. This is absolutely epic, and you can see every little island in the distance. Although the sky itself isn't nearly as big as the Great Sea in Wind Waker, it's still a very good and manageable size without need of warping. There are accelerators that will propel you and your bird a great distance very quickly allowing you to get from place to place without using too much time, but if you miss one, it's not really a big deal and you won't find yourself bored at all. It looks amazing, and if you can see an island you can visit it which makes the world that much more tangible in some respect. My only wish is that, after Wind Waker, there were a few more islands that were more memorable or served as mini-challenges...but the larger islands that serve these purposes serve them well, and afterall, Wind Waker was structured differently. The Great Sea in WW was, in fact the overworld...that's not the case in Skyward Sword, in which you descend to the world below at set locations. This is where the real "overworld" segments are located.

The surface that you dive to from the sky is split into three massive, MASSIVE areas: Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert. You can't go to all three of these areas right off the bat, as you have to unlock two of them as you progress through the game, but even just exploring the first area (Faron) will leave you astounded at the size of it all. It's not just the size of the areas that stands out though...but also how they are constructed. Rather than the overworld being a method of getting from dungeon to dungeon, each section really functions as a pseudo-dungeon in its own right. That's not to say you're gonna find Small Keys littered around the woods, but you need to find items and work your way around obstacles in order to reach destinations rather than simply run from place to place. It's refreshing when you compare it to the bland overworld of Twilight Princess and even Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time and I hope this trend sticks around in future installments. In addition, you come back to these areas quite frequently throughout your quest, but oftentimes with a new item or two. These let you explore completely new portions that only expand the world even further, and in the end, every area is absolutely sprawling and will take you a long time to explore to the fullest. Exploration is aided by a feature known as dowsing, where you switch to a first person mode and point your sword around. As you move the sword around, it will direct you to the location of specific targets (usually important items and places) when you place the cursor over their general position. It's handy and will definitely help you out the first time through the game, but it's not necessary if you don't want to use it. Later on, though, it can be attuned to find whatever you want...such as Goddess Cubes which, when charged by your Skyward Strike, make a treasure chest available to you on one of the islands up in the sky. If you really get stuck, it's a nice way to point you in a general direction without blatantly saying "HERE IT IS!!". In addition, you are able to manually place beacons on your map so you know where you want to go. You can do this both in the Sky and in any of the surface areas, and it's a nice feature to add in so you can orient yourself without the game necessarily pointing things out to you. To my knowledge, you can't locate Pieces of Heart with this feature which I think is good...and yes, they do in fact make a return and you require 4 to make a new heart container rather than Twilight Princess' requirement of 5.

Hope you don't mind if I...HANG around!

When it comes to dungeon exploration...I firmly believe that Skyward Sword has some of the best laid-out locales of the entire series. I am dead fucking serious. From the first and relatively simple temple to the very last dungeon, their overall design is extremely well thought-out and it shows. They aren't massive by any means, but they're DENSE...if that makes sense. It will take you a while to get through rooms the first time you encounter them, and in figuring out how to traverse through the dungeons, you feel like you've sincerely accomplished something. Although at first these types of areas are relatively easy to figure out, rooms in the later dungeons are downright devious and so intricate that you really need to use your noggin to get by. I friggin' love it. The styles of the dungeons are all spectacular as well, from the simple and creepy design of Skyview Temple to the strange, strange dichotomy of the Ancient Cistern, to the genius mechanics that fuel your path through the Lanayru Mining Facility...everything looks and works awesomely. That last dungeon? Oh man...well done Nintendo. Absolute genius design on that one! You wait and see, and you'll understand what I'm talking about! One last thing to mention is that the "Big Key" for each dungeon is different...and they happen to be puzzles in themselves where you have to rotate them using the controller to make them fit correctly into the keyhole. These continuously get more and more oddly-shaped as you progress through the game, and are a good final trick before you fight a dungeon boss.

Let's talk about the star of the show here though, I feel: THE FUCKING COMBAT. When you have a game with 1:1 swordplay motion controls, you know the combat has to be a pretty big deal...and it's safe to say that Skyward Sword is one of the most combat-central Zelda games in a long, long time. Since your sword follows your precise movements, the enemies are designed to react to your sword motions. For example, if you're fighting a Bokoblin and it sees that you're holding your sword off to the left, it'll block that way. They can block pretty damn quick too, so you may attack 5 or 6 times in a row only to see your sword rebound offa theirs every damn time. It's frustrating, but you eventually learn to control your swings in order to outmanoeuver the bastards...and then you encounter the next enemy that needs to be figured out. Lizalfos will counterattack you if you strike them the wrong way, Moblins will shield against your attacks, and don't even get me started about Skulltulas. I actually almost had my ass handed to me by a damn Skulltula when I first met one. It was amazing. Each enemy pretty much functions as a sort of puzzle in itself that helps you to learn the sword mechanics of the game, and much like the dungeons or elements of the overworld, when you figure out how to beat each type without messing up it feels amazing...particularly this game's version of the Beamos. It's just one of those enemies that FEELS great to defeat each time. Also, if you learn methods to knock an enemy of its feet, you can perform a Fatal Blow on it to take it out immediately. In Twilight Princess, this tactic felt cheap...but it doesn't in Skyward Sword because you need to learn how to set an enemy up for it first. The other great thing about Skyward Sword is that each enemy (except for the really small ones such as Keese or Gels [Side note: I don't care if they're called Chuchus the game, these totally resemble and function like Zols and Gels from Zelda 1 and so I will call them that god DAMNIT!]) will hit you for a whole heart or more. If you mess up too much, you'll be taken down pretty quickly. This isn't baby's game Twilight Princess where each hit from nearly everything in the game deals only one quarter of a heart's worth of damage. The challenge in Skyward Sword is just right...luckily you can stock up on bottles of potions to help you out if you happen to come across a roadblock. It never feels unfair, it just feels like you need to learn to control your actions more efficiently and learn to read your enemies correctly.

As per my usual reviews, I follow enemies up with a boss section. Much like the standard enemies you find throughout the game, you'll discover that the bosses are just as tricky and ingenius. I daresay that Skyward Sword has some of the best bosses in a Zelda game...ever. It has been a long time since I've ever felt threatened by a boss creature in a Zelda game, and it's about damn time that's been rectified. Even the simplest bosses have their own tricks to them to deal damage, and like the enemies, they often make sure you use accuracy with your swordplay. There was one particular boss during the course of this game...that basically made me have a FUCK YES moment and I got all emotional because it was just so well designed, and made good use of your new items and swordplay, and had a unique element to it that really made it stand out. Not only that, but the music for that particular battle was absolutely epic, and I absolutely loved it. I won't tell you which one it is for the sake of spoilers, but I believe that telling you that these moments are in there and able to really impress a Zelda veteran should be enough to make you realize that there are some really cool boss moments in this game. However, there is one particular boss enemy that I feel was overused and could have maybe done with a little less screen-time, so to speak...but again I don't want to spoil anything and it happens to be a key plot monster so I'll leave it alone at the moment. Plus, you learn tricks for fighting it later on anyway, which make the encounters a tad better.

This wonderful game is accompanied by an equally wonderful soundtrack, and perhaps one of the most memorable ones to graze a Zelda game since Ocarina of Time. Some of this is due to the use of an orchestra for many of the tracks you hear throughout the game, from the epic theme as you fly around the sky on your Loftwing, to the boss themes and some of the dungeon tracks. These are spectacularly well done, and accompanied by awesome synthetic music as well. That is to say, the non-orchestral music still sounds awesome and fits into the game perfectly. Many of these tracks are dynamic too, and will alter based on certain situations or conditions that trigger a change in the music. It's awesome to hear and everything sounds amazing. I would also like to point out that, for the first time since...well, again since Ocarina of Time, the musical themes to the dungeons are ACTUALLY catchy and fitting music. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess tended to drift more to the simple use of...ambient sounds coupled with very minimal "music" for the dungeon themes. Skyward Sword finally undoes that odd trend and makes each dungeon's music stand out and feel unique. One of the themes even reminds me of the spectacular Spirit Temple track from OoT, which was always one of my personal favourites. I'm extremely impressed with the musical design overall in this game, and it's absolutely top-notch. There's not much to be said for sound, effects...and not because they're bad, but simply because they're perfect just as in every other Zelda game. Classic noises and fanfares make a return, and audible feedback from sword slashes on enemies is particularly satisfying. Everything sounds perfect and is never distracting. A lot of complaints surround the lack of voice acting in the Zelda series, but I'm glad they leave it out, personally. Rather than ram the voices of characters down your throat, Nintendo simply provides you with the classic samples of noises and grunts that people "say" when you interact with them, and you begin to form your own "voice" for them based on that. I find it a very nice way to make you envision dialogue being said without being intrusive or disappointing, and although many would disagree, I hope they retain this pseudo-voice acting for future installments.

And last but certainly not least...the graphics. Skyward Sword absolutely pushes the limits of the Wii and creates a stunning game with an amazing art direction and smooth animation. The visual style is that of...sort of a painting. The game is cel-shaded much like Wind Waker, but with more textural detail and other small touches that lend themselves from Twilight Princess. This all comes together in an extremely striking fashion that I believe suits the Zelda universe absolutely perfectly. Enemies are able to be designed without the "realistic" constraints of those observed in Twilight Princess, but have more artistic detail than those found in Wind Waker. Even that explanation doesn't really summarize it that well...but I definitely find it to be a perfect fit for the series and I hope the same design choices are explored in the future. The entire design reminds me of A Link to the Past's universe and characters, but brought into 3D...I love it. As I mentioned before, the game reminds me of a sort of Disney movie in art style, and it just looks amazing overall. Objects in the background have this amazing filter as well, which produces an awesome Impressionist/Pointillism effect that you'll just love to stare at once you've noticed it. Skyward Sword is no slouch whatsoever graphically, and the art style will only make it stand the test of time as Wind Waker has.

If I lived on a floating island, I'd probably freak out like mad.

To find everything and finish the game, it'll take you a long time. I personally took 46 hours to get everything and finish the game, and that's having gotten stuck only a couple of times over the course of the adventure. Some may take longer, and others shorter, but either way it's a damn long experience. However, couple that with the prospect of Hero Mode and you may in fact have double that length. Hero Mode is made available once you finish the game up and it replaces your save file. The difference in this mode is that enemies will do twice as much damage to you (hitting you for two hearts, or in some cases FOUR), and hearts won't even spawn until you locate and equip a certain type of item. Pretty damn hardcore, and it's definitely a nice challenge after having gone through the game once already. I'm just about through it, and had planned on writing my review after I finished it...but then I realized I've been blog slacking recently and wanted to get some content out!

What else is there to say, really? It seems to me like I'm done here, so all that's left is:


The Bottom Line

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is by far...the best fuckin' 3D Zelda game that has been created. It has a perfect blend of...well, everything. The layout of the entire game is so well-planned, the story is phenomenal, the art direction, music and sound are outstanding, and the utility of the Wii's motion controls proves that they're a solid mainstay that should be used in future installments. I only have a few problems with the game, but they're all a matter of preference. I wish I could explain more about Skyward Sword, because there are tons of unique parts that really stand out...but I can't spoil a game with so many spectacular design choices and surprises around every corner. I also like that it makes Zelda somewhat challenging again, particularly with all the enemies and bosses that are absolutely unique due to the use of Wii MotionPlus. I can safely say that, although it has been extremely close, Skyward Sword has ousted Wind Waker as my favourite 3D Zelda game. I just can't ignore how absolutely amazing the game is and it makes me so damn hopeful for the future of the Zelda franchise.


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