Review, Part One: The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword

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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for Nintendo Wii is a worthy addition to the beloved Zelda franchise. In some in some ways, especially its emphasis on motion controls, release is one of 2011’s most ambitious games, although other elements of the title show Nintendo is not keeping up with current trends in game design.

The game’s positive aspects far outweigh its minor disappointments. At its best, Skyward Sword is a triumph of visual design and a game that delivers the most visceral combat experiences of any Zelda title. What causes the game to fall just short of greatness, at least in its early parts, are moments of outdated gameplay and occasional frustrations with the Nintendo Wii’s motion controls.

This review covers the experience of playing the opening stages of Skyward Sword. This reviewer will write a second review after completing the storyline.

Skyward Sword begins with series hero, Link, as a knight in training in the floating island of Skyloft. The game’s narrative tells players that Skyloft is a haven for the people of the mythical land of Hyrule, which is hidden below the clouds after being overrun by demons in the distant past.

Skyloft is a near paradise, and Link and other inhabitants can travel through the skies by riding giant birds. Players learn the arts of bird riding and swordplay during the game’s prologue, which establishes a friendship, bordering on romance, between Link and the legendary Zelda. When Zelda disappears to Hyrule’s mysterious surface, Skyward Sword’s adventure begins.

The game proceeds on a path that will be familiar to those who have played previous Zelda games. Link travels across a sprawling overworld, encounters unusual creatures and fights strange enemies. Completing tasks in the overworld provides access to a series of dungeons, where players must find hidden treasures, solve puzzles and defeat a monstrous boss.

Establishing Link’s character as a young outsider who is suddenly forced into adventure is a common theme in Zelda games, as is the practice of sending Link into forest, fire and water-themed dungeons. An apparent reluctance to shake loose of well-established Zelda formats is accompanied with the refreshing decision to introduce a new series villain and the daring decision to fully embrace the Wii’s motion controls.

Although Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006) also employed motion controls, Skyward Sword is the Zelda title built for Nintendo’s “Motion Plus” controller, designed to more accurately recreate players’ motions than the first Wii controller. In other words, players swing their arm and Link swings his sword.

The new bad guy, named Ghirahim, is a demon lord with an emo haircut and a saber. When Link encounters Ghirahim in the game’s first temple, players get the chance to use the Wii Motion Plus controls to engage in an honest-to-goodness sword duel with the villain, who eventually flees at the conclusion of his first meeting with Link.

When Skyward Sword’s motion controls work, they really work. Sword fighting can be an intense experience that raises a player’s heart rate and actually challenge players who must look for weaknesses in their opponents’ defenses instead of just mashing the “A” button.

Using the Wii remote to swing swords – and control Link’s flying bird and key game items – is usually a great idea. At other times, such as when trying to throw or roll bombs, the motion controls do not always respond as they should, and create frustration.

Another quibble with Skyward Sword is that the game includes a “dowsing” feature in which players must point the Wii remote at the screen to find hidden characters or items. Frankly, the feature feels clumsy as players must switch between the dowsing viewpoint and normal perspective to climb and clamber around obstacles. Dowsing comes across as a waste of time when players would have much more fun exploring the game’s beautifully-rendered world and dungeons.

From both a storytelling and visual perspective, Skyward Sword is very reminiscent of the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the 2003 Gamecube release that seems to have only received the appreciation it deserves in recent years. Skyward Sword’s watercolor-inspired visuals are much different from Wind Waker’s cel-shaded style, but Skyward Sword’s character and level designs are very reminiscent of Wind Waker’s. This is a point in the game’s favor, as the animation-style look fits the series blend of mythic storytelling and somewhat childlike humor. (Skyward Sword is a game where players can visit a saloon built inside a giant pumpkin in between fights with monsters.)

This reviewer’s only complaint with the game’s presentation is Nintendo’s apparent refusal to hire voice actors for a Zelda title. It may be best to keep Link as a silent hero, but there’s really no reason for Zelda and other non-playable characters to talk. The only character in Skyward Sword who has a “voice” is Fi, a spirit guide for Link who speaks in her own language, translated as text. Otherwise, characters may laugh or yelp, but do not talk. That would be fine if Nintendo released this game in the 1990s, but this is 2011. 

It is strange to see Nintendo willing to take chances on motion controls, but unwilling to add the kind of feature that became standard in games designed for the previous generation of consoles.

On balance, Skyward Sword is an impressive and enjoyable game. Given Nintendo’s record of success with the Zelda franchise, expectations for the series can only be high. In its first chapters, the game looks very good, this reviewer is not yet sure whether it rises to greatness. To be continued …

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Nintendo Wii
Rated E for Everyone 10+