The latest Hylian adventure soars.
It is often hard to stay grounded when a new Legend of Zelda game is released for a console, an event which only happens every 5-7 years. It's easy to go into the game with rupee-colored glasses, or alternatively with sky-high expectations. With the latest Zelda adventure, quite possibly the best game released for Wii, gamers need not fear; the game will meet every expectation, and exceed many.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword begins in the floating town of Skyloft, the most impressive living, breathing town in any Zelda game to-date. Although Skyloft is a bit sparsely populated, the city is gorgeous, filled with fun and likable characters, and secret nooks and crannies. While exploring the town, as in most Zelda games, you will stumble upon a secret that leads you to a massive adventure which will take you to land, sea, and beyond. The world opens up piecemeal, even more so than in previous Zelda titles, and the lack of inter-connectivity between areas makes the world feel a bit segmented. There is so much to explore, however, and the areas are so dense with puzzles and secrets that even thirty hours in, you will feel like you have only barely scratched the surface of the game.
The areas are connected via locations in the sky which act as conduits to the land below. The sky, unfortunately, is not nearly as interesting as the areas the sky leads you to. There are small floating islands throughout the map, but most of them are uninteresting and only contain a single treasure or minigame. It is the same basic idea behind the overworld in Wind Waker, but whereas Wind Waker contained plenty of interesting explorable islands, the main quest areas weren't very complex. Skyward Sword leans the other way; there are fewer islands to find, but the main areas are huge and intricate.
The biggest change in Skyward Sword, of course, is the presence of precise motion control thanks to Wii MotionPlus. While not perfect, the controls work very well, and completely change the way you engage enemies in the game. The swordplay is very well done, and most of the combat in the game relies on this mechanic. Watching Link move his sword to mimic your remove movements is very satisfying, as is using motion control in a meaningful fashion for the first time in what feels like ages. Other mechanics are less successful; I found playing the harp to be frustrating. The game uses both the IR and the MotionPlus attachment to control the pointer, and at times the Wii's dreaded enemy, sunlight, got in the way of what seemed to be gesture-based controls. As I mentioned in this blog post, covering the tip of the Wii Remote helped with these troublesome areas.
Like other recent console Zelda games, Skyward Sword is brought to life by a lively narrative. Although some of the "Zelda formula" is intact, the story is largely unique amongst games in the series. The cut-scenes are well done, and add levity and emotion to the series in a way that hasn't been seen since 2002's Wind Waker. The localization is great, with lots of great references and jokes littering the script. In addition, the game's guide, Fi, is helpful and doesn't get in the way at all. She provides hints to help you through a tricky puzzle or boss fight, and can help you remember what it is you were trying to accomplish if you have to step away from the game for a few days and can't remember your objective. The story itself isn't anything that's going to win awards, but more important than the plot is the fact that it's well told.
The dungeons in the game are not quite as complex as they have been in recent Zelda installments. If this concerns you, understand that simply getting to the dungeon requires far more exploration and puzzle solving than in any previous Zelda title. In effect, although there are only seven "proper" dungeons in the game, almost any time you are not in the sky, you are in an area of the game that feels like a Zelda dungeon. The end result is that the entire game feels like one big long dungeon. Especially impressive is the desert area, which boasts one of the coolest mechanics I've ever seen in the series.
One way in which Skyward Sword deviates from the Hylian norm is the treasure and upgrade system. Unlike Twilight Princess and Wind Waker, which had you collecting many things that were specific to a certain side-quest, in Skyward Sword everything comes neatly together. The treasure you collect during the game directly correlates to improvements in your quest equipment. Not only that, but this is the first Zelda game which implements an inventory management system, giving you the option to carry as many bottles, shields, enhancement medals, and other miscellany on you as you have room for. You can carry more as you earn more adventure pouches, but you'll still need to balance your inventory with the area you're heading to next. Anything you don't need to carry can be stored for you in Skyloft. It adds an extra bit of challenge to the game, and makes you think about the best possible combination of items to bring with you as you proceed.
It shouldn't be any surprise that the game looks and sounds wonderful; Zelda games generally do. Skyward Sword leaps out at you with a fantastic watercolor-esque design that is sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, but usually great. There are a few ugly textures in the game that will remind you that you're still playing a Wii game, but the overall effect of the visuals in the game is nothing short of fantastic. The music, likewise, uses a mostly-orchestrated soundtrack and rarely fails to impress. The first time you hear the traditional "puzzle chime" played on a real string instrument, it feels absolutely magical.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is bound to impress all but the most skeptical of Nintendo and Zelda fans. It is a game that ties the last five years of Nintendo philosophy and development into a (massive, sprawling, epic) neat little bow. Skyward Sword is, quite simply, one of the best video games to come out of Nintendo this year.