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.

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