Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Super Mario 3D Land isn't a bad game, necessarily, it's just an incredibly generic one

(Mario hasn't looked this dumb in a long time.)

I’m going to start this review off by noting/admitting that I was a Sega Genesis kid growing up, so of course my childhood self thought that Sonic was hundreds of times cooler than Mario. As the years went by, and I began to get into Nintendo games and systems as well, my opinion has shifted, somewhat, from that stance. I admit that I still have a fondness for the Sonic series and its characters that Mario won't ever replace, but Mario has gone a long way towards winning me over. I loved Super Mario 64, for example, undoubtedly one of the most important games released during its time, and then the Mario Galaxy series came along and demonstrated that Mario still had what it took to stand at the top of his platforming peers.

Super Mario 3D Land though is not a game that lives up to those. This workmanlike handheld installment serves the sole purpose of bringing Mario to the 3DS, and no doubt, he will be making Nintendo untold of amounts of money. But with that, we have a game that plays it so safe and feels so devoid of creativity and inspiration that from start to finish I was just bored with it. I'm not expecting Nintendo to begin taking bold, artistic risks with Mario, their big moneymaker, but if they keep releasing games like this I'm going to lose interest incredibly quickly.

Graphics: Super Mario 3D Land sports a visual look roughly on par with the Galaxy series, though the art direction isn’t nearly as inspired. Mario’s universe looks like it has always has, with the addition of some cool (but rare) 3D touches that pop out at you. All in all, though, this game’s visual presentation didn’t do much for me. In Mario Galaxy, these same developers created a universe that absolutely popped, one whose visual wonders and surprises easily covered up for the Wii’s under-powered hardware. Mario Land 3D’s graphics on the other hand are just serviceable; technically they’re sound, and there are some cool effects and touches, but artistically, something’s definitely missing.

Gameplay: First and foremost, it's important to know going in that Super Mario 3D Land shares far more in common with the 2D sidescrolling Mario games than it does with the 3D ones, despite the game’s title. Though you can move Mario around in full 3D, the overwhelming majority of the levels take the form of a sidescroller, with you guiding Mario from left to right through levels so short and linear that they make Wario Land: Shake It seem expansive. Linearity in and of itself isn't a bad thing, but this game's levels are so limited in scope and offer so little opportunity to explore that at times I even considered the fact that this might as well be on rails given how little control you have over it. The extent to which you can explore is to seek out 3 coins, hidden (and I use that term lightly) throughout the levels, and these eventually serve as roadblocks to your progression ("You need 100 coins to enter this level!") but that's really about it. So basic and predictable are these levels that I couldn't escape the feeling that I was playing a bunch of Mario Galaxy B-sides; levels that were cut from Mario Galaxy 2 because they weren't good enough to be featured in Mario Galaxy 2. Boss battles are also fairly weak, a fact not helped by Nintendo's continuing insistence that you simply fight the same two bosses and over again in slightly different environments throughout the duration of the game. Yawn.

But this is all Mario platforming through and through; if that’s all you’re here for, the game certainly has a lot to offer as far as content goes. Completing the eight worlds to reach the end credits should take most gamers a few hours, but then you unlock eight additional worlds to complete, and the levels contained in them are much tougher than those in the main game. It’s been a topic of conversation, I notice, that people generally feel that this game was too easy, and though it's not without challenge, for the most part they have a point. Mario 3D Land sees the return of the Tanooki Mario powerup, something the game never ceases to remind you of, giving you the ability to hover for what feels like an endless amount of time. There’s not much challenge to be found in a platformer where a powerup is dispensed like candy to allow you to hover over many of its trickiest jumping sections, and that’s certainly the case here.

Either way, the platforming just isn’t in top form. This is Mario stripped down to his most basic core, with little in the way of invention or surprises. Mario 3D Land isn’t a bad game, it’s just an incredibly average one, and the feeling I got while playing it was simply that I’ve played it many times before.

Sound: Again, this category delivers exactly what you’d expect, with you’re the game sounding like pretty much every other Mario game ever made. After the orchestrated Galaxy soundtracks, this return to the old style of Mario music didn’t cut it much for me. Like the rest of the game, it’s serviceable, and it does the job, but it doesn’t do anything particularly well.

Verdict: I tried my best to have this review not come across as a rant, because as you can see by the score, this isn't a terrible game. Mario is Mario, and this is a solidly built, if predictable, platforming experience, and there are bits here and there where I found myself enjoying it. But there's a feeling of blandness that covers every square inch of Super Mario 3D Land's world. It has all the key ingredients you'd expect from a Mario game except the sense of adventure and excitement that you get from the best of them. The recently-released Rayman Origins had my jaw dropping in awe at its creativity and the ingenuity of its platforming. Super Mario 3D Land, especially in comparison, feels clunky, under-developed, safe, and perfectly prepped to target the masses. It doesn't feel like anybody who worked on this game was truly excited to be working on it. If you've played a Mario game before then you know exactly what to expect, and 3D Land feels no pressure to surprise you.

Presentation: laughably bad story as always. The 3D photographs that deliver it though are pretty cool.

Graphics: Looks like Galaxy but with worse art direction. Serviceable. Nothing much to get excited about.

Gameplay: Very standard Mario platformer. It is exactly what it is and does little to differentiate itself from the pack. Some of Mario’s least interesting levels in recent memory mixed with uninspired platforming and a Tanooki Mario powerup that makes the game rather easy. There’s nothing terrible here, just not a lot that’s fresh.

Sound: You know the Mario theme.

Replay Value: You unlock the Special Worlds upon beating the game, and these can keep you busy for a long time if you choose to play them. Design-wise I don't think they're *a whole lot* better than the main game itself, though they do provide a challenge that long-time Mario fans will undoubtedly appreciate.

Overall: 6/10

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Blog Post; My thoughts on the Resident Evil Revelations Demo

A game that's gotten a ton of attention since its announcement, Resident Evil: Revelations boasts not only some of the highest production values we've yet seen on the 3DS, but it promised a return to the "survival horror" style of gameplay, which we saw less of in Resident Evil 4 and then almost none of in part 5. Today, Capcom has released a downloadable demo of the game to the 3DS Shop channel, and after giving it a couple spins, I'm ready to leave my impressions.

First and foremost, this is definitely the prettiest-looking 3DS game we've seen yet. At a glance, the visuals look like a 360 game's, though once you start playing you can definitely notice some graniness and a bit of roughness to the visual presentation (jaggies) that make it not quite on that level. There are even some lengthy load times, which boggles my mind, since I didn't even think cartridges needed to load. Still, make no mistake, this is a great-looking game and the atmosphere's top notch. From the moment Jill wakes up in a bed onboard a dark cruise ship, the "survival horror" atmosphere is in full effect. This feels very much like the first few Resident Evil games, with a very palpable sense of intensity (due to a great soundtrack and subtle atmospherics) as you venture through the ship, occasionally seeing (and even being surprised by) some pretty nasty enemies.

The game uses a control scheme similar to Resident Evils 4 and 5, which means that moving and shooting at the same time isn't an option, but since you're no longer being surrounded by hordes of enemies at once, this makes much more sense here than it did in RE5. It all works fine, though the difference between using a weapon and a subweapon and switching between the two definitely carries a bit of a learning curve. Using herbs to recover your HP, as is traditional for the series, is now simply mapped to the A-button, which makes it too easy to use them by accident.

These flaws aside, though, this is a pretty fun demo. If you go after every enemy you see, you'll run out of bullets, so knowing when to fight and when to run is an important part of surviving the demo. If you die, it's over, so I definitely don't recommend fighting unless you have no other choice. The demo isn't too long either way, though a Hard mode is unlocked if you successfully manage to beat it.

All in all, I'm excited by what I've played. This definitely feels like old school Resident Evil with some new school twists, and the 3D visuals make the vibrant environments pop. The menu interface seems a little confusing right now and there are some long load times (!?) but this is looking like a game 3DS owners should definitely be on the lookout for.

Give the demo a shot to see what you think.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review: Rayman Origins....PLAY THIS GAME.

There was talk leading up to the release of Ubisoft's Rayman Origins about two things; its incredible hand-drawn art style, which has been the subject of universal praise, as well as controversy over its $60 price tag. What's so surprising to me is that in an industry where many seem to want to see the return of the Platformer genre to its old school 2D roots, these same people then hesitate to pay full price for it.

In the case of Rayman Origins, that's not only too bad, but considering how awesome this game has actually turned out, it's a downright shame. I'm a big supporter of the 3D platformer and have been for some time; that's not to say I haven't liked the 2D platformers we've seen this generation, but I've never felt that it was the direction I wanted the genre to head back in. Rayman Origins is the first game that's managed to make me stop and consider that maybe there really is something to be gained by cutting out all the fluff that has been building onto the platformer genre since it went 3D. This game is platforming reduced to its purest form, but refined to an incredible degree, and it's difficult not to be convinced by it.

Graphics: Rayman Origins is one of the prettiest games I've played this console generation, and that's due not only to the gorgeous hand-drawn visuals, but the inventive character and boss designs. This entire game has a certain whimsical look to it that applies to each and every aspect of its visual appearance, and the level variety's something to be admired. It all feels like one universe, even though levels range from a fire-heavy kitchen to stormy clouds, forests, underwater segments, and more. I didn't encounter any slowdown at all that I can remember, and while there certainly are load times, they aren't so annoying that they should be labeled as a flaw. Story sequences are presented with the same wackiness as the rest of the game, and everything feels so alive and zany that it's like reading a Dr. Seuss book. You never know what crazy sights will await you around the bend. Graphically, this is a flawless experience.

Gameplay: What helps to make Rayman Origins such a remarkable game is that the controls and physics feel so.....perfect. What ends up being a stumbling block for many platformers is made so easy here that it's almost hard to understand why so many other developers get it wrong. Rayman's hover works wonders and keeps you in the air for just the right amount of time. Jumping is pressure-sensitive and also feels just right. Deciding when to hover and when to simply perform a long jump is part of the fun, especially when in one of the many areas where the game requires you to move fast. Rayman has a dash ability that gets him moving quickly, and even combat, though it may be the game's most under-utilized feature, feels fun, with an amusing charge attack as Rayman winds up his swing. Fighting in the air is also an option. What amazes me the most about Rayman Origins is that *everything* involving the control of your character has been perfected. Each power you acquire as you progress through the game, including swimming and wall-running, not to mention flying, feels just as fun to control as everything else. And yes, this is a 2D platformer designed perfectly for an analog stick; a rarity, to be sure, but I couldn't picture anybody playing this with the D-pad.

It's good that the controls work so well, because this isn't a game that's afraid to challenge you. You're free to pass levels if you can't beat them, (though if you do this too often you'll fall behind on your rescuing of the Electoons, which will eventually bar your progress through the game until you go back and collect more) and the developers have been incredibly liberal with the checkpoints. The lack of lives is also a refreshing bit of game design. Still, Rayman Origins will definitely challenge you, but with that comes the feeling of satisfaction and reward when you do get past a particularly tricky part. There's some ingenious platforming here, and even if you find yourself cursing the game, you can't help but shake your head, pick up your controller again, and think, "I hate this part, but man, is this some brilliant game design."

What's nice about the challenge is how much satisfaction you get from playing well. Similar to past Rayman games, Lums are ever-present throughout the environments, and how many you collect is tallied up at the end of the level. When you hit certain points (say, 120 Lums, or 350 Lums) you'll earn an Electoon. You can find hidden Electoons on your travels as well, and at the end of each stage, you can see how many Electoons you have collected versus how many you would be able to collect per stage. Collecting Electoons unlocks bonus Treasure Run sections, which are fast-paced levels where you race a treasure chest through tough obstacle courses that will test even the most seasoned platformer fan. As with the rest of the game, the sense of reward here is high, as completing each one earns you a red ruby, which actually serve as teeth for one of the characters who lives in the Snoring Tree, your home base. Get him all his teeth, and you unlock a whole other area of the game. Getting enough Lums per stage also awards you with a medal for a top performance, and these aren't easy to get either, but it encourages you to collect as many as possible, and hitting certain triggers will give you limited time bonuses, like doubling the value of each Lum collected for a short time; Fun stuff.

Did I mention all the characters you can unlock by collecting Electoons? There's that too. Tons of characters, all chilling out in the Snoring Tree, waiting to be controlled by you. And though I played through Rayman Origins as a solo experience, I can imagine that the excitement of unlocking all the characters is much stronger in co-op multiplayer (up to 4 can team up). There's a lot here, and this isn't a short game, either. For all the skepticism surrounding whether it would be worth paying retail pricing for, this happens to be quite a lengthy experience, and that's just beating the main story.

If there's one weak point here it'd have to be the boss battles, which, despite looking cool, often come down to trial-and-error memorization and can even feel anti-climactic at times. In fact, there are a few moments over the course of this game that don't feel as if they were designed to be completed on a first try. Trial-and-error is certainly nothing new in this genre, but it's unfortunate whenever it does crop up here because even with relaxed penalties for it, dying's never particularly fun, and some sections (few, but some) wind up feeling frustrating.

Even with those flaws, Rayman Origins is a game that, for the most part, feels like platforming excellence. I beg anybody who has ever liked this type of game to give it a shot. You don't have to be familiar with Rayman to love the game's charm, and you don't have to be a platforming expert for the controls to feel almost instantly like second nature. Definitely a must-play.

Sound: Characters talk in that usual weird "Rayman Language" while you read text boxes but story here's minimal anyway. The music features plenty of orchestration with some weird vocals going on from time to time as well. While I could have done without the vocals, or at least done with less of them, some of the music here's excellent and fits the various levels to a T. Definitely a game with a look all its own and the audio to match. Sound effects are also handled well.

Story: Essentially, the loud snoring of Rayman and his friends angers an old woman nearby, and she sends her demons out into their world as a result. Rayman must go on a mission to free those she captured and turned evil, as well as stopping this demon granny once and for all. The story's presented in a very fun way but there's not a lot of it, and even with a plot twist that I just can't make any sense of, I enjoyed what little story was here. You don't really play a game like this one for the story, and Rayman Origins' story works very well for what it sets out to do.

Verdict: Reviewing this game for its single-player alone, it's possible that my score would be even higher had I gotten to experience its multiplayer. This is a great game that challenges you but rewards you well for your accomplishments. It has a constant charm, the visuals never cease to amaze, the controls work like a dream, and there's so much to play through and unlock here. Though the gameplay may not have quite the level of variety of something like the excellent Mario Galaxy series, and while there are some frustrating trial-and-error stuff and bosses who could have used some work, Rayman Origins succedes to a degree that I hadn't expected it to. This is an incredible 2D platformer, easily one of my favorites of this console generation, and one definitely worth whatever price you can find it for, so snap it up!


Presentation: Simple but entertaining story, easy to learn gameplay, and plenty to do even after the end credits.

Graphics: Beauty. That's all that needs to be said.

Gameplay: Great controls, lots of level variety, great system that rewards your skill. Some parts feel a little unfair but it's very difficult to hate this game even during those moments.

Sound: Solid music and your usual Rayman vocal delivery. Could have done without the vocal audio tracks though.

Replay Value: This is a long game just to complete, letalone to do all it has to offer.

Overall: 8.5/10

(My reviews go on a .5 scale)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Demo Impressions

Final Fantasy XIII was released a couple years ago to a rather mixed reception from fans and critics. Though its Metascore in the low 80s was solid by most standards, it fell far below where main numbered entries in the Final Fantasy series have typically found themselves, and fans were divided on a game that felt more like an action game than an RPG.

I liked Final Fantasy XIII, and though I wouldn't have called its completely linear approach and dramatic scaling back of many RPG elements like NPC interaction and town exploration a worthy direction for the series to head in, for what it was, I thought it was enjoyable. A sequel was the last thing on my mind when the end credits rolled, however, so I wasn't sure what to originally think once the sequel was rumored and then, eventually, announced.

But now we have a demo, a pretty expansive one too, and after having sunk my teeth into it, it's clear that Final Fantasy XIII-2 aims to be a very different game from its predecessor, one that's making obvious steps to address many of the original's shortcomings.

First thing's first, though. If you aren't familiar with Final Fantasy XIII's combat system, this demo might throw you for a loop. Though it attempts to explain it to you with a small tutorial, people new to the game will definitely not know the difference between a Commando and a Ravager, or what the Crystarium is, or anything like that. So for those of you new to the FF13 saga, I'd recommend waiting for the actual game to release before diving in, otherwise I'm sure you'll be fairly lost.

For the rest of us, though, FFXIII-2's demo provides a nice look at the game. After a pretty straightforward boss fight, you're put right into the middle of a big ruin in the midst of a heavy downfall. You can wander around this area and, yes, talk to NPCs and even visit an item salesperson! You can hang around the populated area for a while or venture into the ruins, where you'll encounter battles on your way to defeat the big bad guy whose making life tough for those in the area.

This is a pretty big area. FF13-2 incorporates a system similar to that found in the Star Ocean series, where the map has a "Percentage Explored" indicator letting you know how much of the area you've walked through, though unlike Star Ocean, areas you haven't been yet still appear on your map, albeit in a darkened form. Once you venture into the ruins, you can still see people hanging around, a few of which you can choose to talk to. Some will even give you sidequests you can elect to take on, and these award you with CP to upgrade your characters.

It's just Noel (new character) and Serah this time around, but you can actually switch your controlled character in battle now, and the 3rd slot is taken up by a monster who you can level up in the Crystarium as well. I wasn't so sure about this feature at first, but in this demo, it seemed to work pretty well. Besides some cinematic actions and a few new status ailments, the battle system feels similar to FF13, though, maybe because this is likely early in the game, it felt to me a little slower-paced.

Interestingly, enemies no longer wander the field. Instead, they'll randomly drop right near you as you explore, sort of like a random battle, but once they drop, you have the option to fight them or run away, or even accomplish a preemptive strike. While I personally preferred the roaming enemies from 13, this is a pretty good way to handle random encounters.

At one point in the demo, you're offered the choice to either face the boss head-on, or to instead look for a machine to maybe disable it. You get the option of choosing who to "discuss" this with, and then you get to make your choice. Though the choice is rather obvious in this case, hopefully other decisions like this in the game itself will prove to be a bit more of a gray area, since it has the potential to be a very cool feature.

As far as other aspects of the demo goes, you have a fully-rotating camera now, though I can tell it'll take some time to get used to. Naturally, with the environments offering you a bit more free-roaming, FF13's perfect sense of "pacing" isn't there. FF13 knew, for example, exactly how many battles would take place between cutscenes, and it paced itself well accordingly. This game doesn't have that advantage, so it doesn't quite feel as exciting as FF13 did, though of course, for many fans, that'll be just fine. The music, though, kind of disappointed me. While I was surprised by the quality of some of it, a lot of the music (especially the boss theme) comes across as generic "futuristic noice," something FF13's soundtrack did a great job at avoiding. 2 FF13 tracks do appear in the demo, and their quality over the rest of the soundtrack's pretty noticeable.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun with this demo. It has Chocobo-riding item salespeople, lots of NPC interaction, sidequests to take on, a big area to explore, a can-be-tough boss to fight, and even a talking moogle. The chemistry between Noel and Serah seems good, too, based on what I've seen. The "time traveling" aspects of the game were almost entirely absent from the demo, so I have no idea how that'll work, though I hope it's not too confusing. I'm definitely eager to play more, and can't wait for the game's release in late January.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: It may lack the polish that I've come to expect from the Zelda series, but Skyward Sword's an unbelievably fun game definitely worth experiencing

The release of a Zelda game is almost always greeted with unheard of amounts of anticipation by all generations of Nintendo fans. Skyward Sword, once thought to be the Wii's final hurrah (thankfully we're getting Xenoblade in Spring 2012 afterall) was looked at with a mixture of both excitement as well as skepticism, similar to how fans viewed the controversial Wind Waker back on the Gamecube before its release. Featuring a non-traditional graphics style and a reportedly heavy emphasis on motion controls, it's easy to see why some were concerned that this Zelda game wouldn't live up to the rest.

While I'll be the first to admit that several of these decisions didn't quite pan out, I'm happy to say that Skyward Sword delivers in a big way at providing an epic adventure that's, from start to finish, fun to play, and it's definitely a game that lives up to the Zelda name.

Storyline: Skyward Sword doesn't do a ton to break from the typical Zelda formula as far as the story progression is concerned. Though the settings and villains often prove to be different, the Zelda series can't ever seem to break away from the whole "collect 3 pieces of this" aspect of its narrative, and this game's no exception. Where Skyward Sword proves to be a big step forward in terms of storytelling though is in the way it conveys emotion. Much more cinematic cutscenes with some pretty impressive character animation do well to cover up the series' continued use of text boxes instead of voice acted speech, and with the exception of one crucial cutscene towards the end, I didn't find myself even once missing the voice acting. Link and Zelda are close from the very start, which raises the stakes and allows you to care far more about these characters then you otherwise would. There are a couple surprisingly powerful moments in here that definitely caught me off guard, including the game's truly epic ending. While Zelda is a series that has always placed gameplay first, (and that hasn't changed) Skyward Sword sees welcome improvements to its storytelling that definitely make its simple tale more involving.

Graphics: Visually-speaking, though, Skyward Sword's a bit of a letdown, with a graphics style that never managed to win me over despite some very pretty moments. Neither fully cel-shaded like Wind Waker nor carrying the more realistic look of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword instead finds its balance somewhere in between with a cartoony look reminiscent of a pastel painting, and though that certainly explains the game's muddy-looking walls and blurry backgrounds, there's not much else I can say except that it just looks rough. Wind Waker's cel shading had a clean and well-defined look to it, as did the watercolor painting style featured in Okami, for example, but Skyward Sword's visuals, in ways that I find hard to explain, just never managed to win me over. From a gameplay perspective, they occasionally even cause problems, such as when you can't see cracks in the wall that you're supposed to bomb because the textures on the walls look so blurry, or when you can't spot a ledge that you're supposed to grab onto for the same reason. Also, beware if you're playing this on an HDTV, as this makes jaggies that are probably much harder to spot in SD quite apparent. It's not a bad looking game, and this section of the review isn't meant to be a deal-breaker, but all in all, I can only assume that the aging graphics capabilities of the Wii system prevented Nintendo from fully reaching whatever direction they were hoping to take this game's visuals. Skyward Sword's graphics style is definitely interesting, but also probably its weakest aspect.

Gameplay: And here we arrive at the crux of any Zelda game. The series has always been about providing a big world to explore, dungeons to work your way through, sidequests to take on, heart pieces to find, enemies to defeat, and treasure to open. Skyward Sword has all of these things, but many of them are given a different spin that may alienate some long-time fans of the series. The game's divided into two areas; the sky and the world below. Skyloft, the only town and the world's hub, proves to be a charming but rather small village floating in the clouds, and it's here that many of Skyward Sword's sidequests can be taken on. Once you jump from the floating island and summon your bird in mid-air, you can then fly throughout the clouds as you seek treasure and the locations where you can dive to the dungeons below. The ground's divided up into 3 areas; Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert, and these expand over the course of the game as you acquire new powers and venture into uncharted territory. It was an interesting decision that fans will either love or hate; instead of giving us a big world map with tons of different little places to visit, we instead have 3 well-developed environment types that constantly expand as you return to them over the course of the game. Though these environments prove to be massive and though the dungeons hidden within them are varied, it's hard to escape the feeling that you're returning to the same "desert, fire, or forest" environments again and again, even though you may be exploring new places in them.

The sky world, on the other hand, doesn't grow by a whole lot. Though you at one point do gain access to a new area, the sky you explore proves to be far smaller than the overworlds in Twilight Princess and Wind Waker were, with less to do. As a whole, exploration was scaled back in Skyward Sword. That's not to say that there isn't any, but the game progresses primarily in a linear fashion, with little made to be available for exploration until the game decides that you're ready to explore it. Even treasure chests on the sky islands are un-openable until you first access their "goddess cube" triggers in the dungeons down below, which then mark the chests in the sky on your map that you can now open. On one hand, this is a good thing; afterall, who can resist venturing off the beaten path to collect treasure that's now conveniently marked on your map? On the other hand, this system provides little incentive to do any exploring until the game tells you to, since any treasure you find can't be opened until you first activate its corresponding cube on the ground. Skyward Sword also proves to be quite dated in a number of areas; there's still no Quest Menu to keep track of sidequests you've taken on, requiring you to head back to the character who assigned the quest to talk to him if you forgot where to go or what to do. The lack of this in a game made in 2011 is mind-boggling, as is the small size of Skyloft and the (too) few things to do in it. Though Skyward Sword provides many more "RPG elements" than action/adventure games usually do, it still feels laughably dated in these places compared to games like Mass Effect or Skyrim. Strangely, day to night changes have been mostly eliminated, with night time triggering only in Skyloft (with few exceptions) and only when you allow Link to go to sleep. You can't leave Skyloft and fly at night, which just seems lazy, and it's unfortunate, because I think it would have been a pretty cool sight.

In another decision that some fans will love and others will hate, combat has been revamped to take advantage of the Wii's Motion Plus peripheral. Now you actually control Link's sword, with the game giving you the ability to strike horizontally, vertically, diagonally, and to thrust forward, all of which comes from the motion of your Wii Remote. As far as combat's concerned, I definitely think the emphasis on motion controls have helped create much more strategic enemy encounters. Enemies will hold shields or swords out in certain ways, blocking your attacks unless you hit them in the other direction, so knowing which ways to attack enemies is a must for beating the game, and thrusting your shield forward with the Nunchuk, which must be done at exactly the right moment or your shield will take damage, becomes almost a requirement towards the end of the game. It's definitely not as strategic as the combat in a game like, say, Red Steel 2, where your arsenal of moves expanded over the course of the game, but it's fun and helps shake up the standard Zelda combat mechanics and it responds well, for the most part.

Many of the power-ups have also been mapped to motion controls, and from the amazingly fun Beetle power to the gust bellows to the usual whips, clawshots, and bomb gloves, all of it works incredibly well and benefits from the motion controls. That said, Skyward Sword's reliance on motion controls let it down it in a few key ways as well. As if we were back in 2006 again, this game attaches motion controls to almost everything, including actions that would have proven to be far easier with the analog stick. Flying through the sky is controlled entirely with motion (with no option to use an analog stick) which proves to be more than a little tiring. Diving is also motion-controlled, and though I got the hang of it eventually, it took me 10+ tries in a very bad tutorial to pull off a dive successfully. Triggering your skyward strike is also a very hit-or-miss process, with the game sometimes recognizing your motion and sometimes missing it, and the system involving drawing symbols on certain walls to recover items is laughably broken. Boss keys now must be inserted into the doors by twisting them and arranging them in the correct way to fit them in the slots, another task made more, not less, frustrating with motion control. The Motion Plus can also find itself off-center with surprising frequency, and though it's not a big problem to set the controller on a flat surface to re-calibrate it, these issues all make Skyward Sword feel unpolished at times, and rarely, even a little unfinished. I'm not going to go on about a glitch that can prevent you from progressing through the game (believe it or not, these aren't new to the Zelda series, and there is a fix available should it happen to you) but I did run into another bug when I had to restart a boss battle because the boss remained frozen in one position and I was unable to get the fight to progress to its 2nd part. It's not my intention to harp on these issues, but Zelda games have always carried a level of polish; I may have disliked Twilight Princess, but I couldn't deny while playing it that it was an incredibly polished experience that was clearly given the right amount of development time. This game, not so much.

But where Skyward Sword unquestionably triumphs is in its dungeon designs. Gone are the tedious and maze-like dungeons that made Twilight Princess a living nightmare at times, instead replaced here with dungeons that are designed so well that they hardly feel like "dungeons" at all; instead, they're almost all a total blast to play through. They make use of all the powers you've collected over the course of the game, and with the game's great menus, you can switch between them on the fly. Save points have finally been scattered throughout, meaning you can now turn off the game mid-dungeon and not have to boot it up again to find Link back at the beginning. The map system has been totally revamped, and while some may mourn the removal of the Compass (we just have the Dungeon Maps this time around, which have the functions of the compasses built into them automatically) I doubt anybody will miss the outdated map system of past Zelda titles. The fact that a lot of the dungeons in Skyward Sword also take place in outdoor environments (blurring the line between what is a dungeon and what isn't,) is also a nice touch.

It's certainly not without its flaws; hit or miss motion controls, an overworld with too few things to do, only 3 environment types that you continually return to, and a small hub town and an outdated sidequest system are things that prevent Skyward Sword from scoring higher. They make the game feel a bit less epic than it is, as well as making it feel like it could have used a few more months in development to iron some of the motion control kinks out. But the fast pacing, the incredible dungeons, the great powerups, fun sword play, and the always-amazing feeling of arriving in a new environment loaded with secrets and enemies that only Zelda provides make Skyward Sword a winner and one of the more fun Zelda entries.

Audio: Another triumph of Skyward Sword is its fully-orchestrated soundtrack, which is nothing short of incredible. I can't even say anything more about this except that you'll never want the series to go back to MIDI soundtracks again, it's just that amazing. Unlike in Twilight Princess, where I found myself missing the voice acting, improved cutscene presentation makes it almost a non-issue here, and as always with Zelda, some of the best moments are when the music's cut entirely and you get to savor the atmospheric sounds of the environments. Awesome as always.


Verdict: Well, Nintendo has done it again. Skyward Sword's proven itself to be worth the wait and more than lived up to the hype. There may have been some missed opportunities and a lack of polish here or there, but when it comes down to it, Zelda is Zelda, and it's something that Nintendo does incredibly well. A plot that manages successfully to pull at your emotions, a charming world, fun dungeons, a great sense of pacing, and of course all that there is to explore and experience makes Skyward Sword a must-play, not only for Wii owners, but for fans of deep action/adventure games that you can really sink your teeth into. Pick it up.

Presentation: Better storytelling with scenes that really pull at the heartstrings. Great item and equipment menus, a scaled back but still large world. Sidequest system needs an overhaul, though.

Graphics: Some moments of pure beauty, but it's hard not to feel that the developers lacked a concrete direction here. There are a lot of styles at play, and the game certainly has a unique look to it, but not one of the series' best.

Gameplay: Epic dungeons, great bosses, some cool new features (sprinting, those intense spirit realms) make up for a bit of a disappointing hub town and overworld. Motion control either works really well or provides some frustration depending on the moment. Awesome final boss fights. Some annoying repetition, fetch-questing, and backtracking.

Sound: Prepare to have your mind blown. A Zelda game has never sounded so good.

Replay Value: It's a little shorter than Twilight Princess (thankfully) but unquestionably the better game. Hero Mode is unlocked upon completion like always. While playing, lots to do and explore.

Overall: 8.5/10

Final Thoughts; Play it.

Note: My review scores go on a .5 scale.