The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword Review – Part 1

SSTime to sit down and look at the current flagship title for Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series.  Despite the fact that Hyrule Warriors comes out this week, we’re still waiting on the new Zelda title from Nintendo.  While “A Link Between Worlds” is the latest in canon game for the series on the 3DS, the Wii is still where the main flagship title game sits, so today let’s sit down and take a hard hard look at The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword.

If you’re wondering how this is going to go, the part 1 up at the top should give you a good idea.  I had originally intended this review to be a single post.  Unfortunately, there’s quite a lot to talk about.  So this week we’ll cover motion controls and gameplay mechanics and the problems and good things about them.  Next week, we’ll get into the plot of the game and determine if this is really a worthy incarnation of the series.

So one of the benefits that Skyward Sword had over it’s predecessor, Twilight Princess, was a full development cycle with the motion controls and hardware features that were part of the Wii available to the developers from the moment development of it began.  Remember many of the problems with Twilight Princess discussed here, stemmed from the mid-stream course changing Nintendo did with that title, and adapting the old Gamecube controls to the new Wii Remotes and nunchucks was one of those problems.  So since Nintendo had all this time with their new control scheme and was setup to make it work from the very beginning, how did Skyward Sword fair with those motion controls?

I never thought a game would make me miss Twilight Princess.  But no lie, I’d rather go back there than ever attempt to make use of what they did with Skyward Sword.  And for those that didn’t read that last review, I hated the controls in Twilight Princess.  Everything they did wrong in that game they did worse in Skyward Sword.  Everything you can do outside of walking and running was made worse by the motion controls.  Climbing is harder.  Fighting is harder.  Shooting is harder.  Swimming is harder.  Flying is even harder.  Flying!  How bad do you have to make a game to screw up flying????

But fighting gets the worst end of the motion control screw up.  Nintendo experimented and it’s just hands down terrible.  In this latest version of Zelda, in addition to swinging the sword with the Wii Remote you have to swing it in a specific direction.  Deku Babas can only be killed when they open their mouths and you slash your sword in the direction they open them in.  Enemies use shields and block with their swords, requiring that you aim your swings in directions that their weapons and shields aren’t at in order to hit them.  And the combat training is all but non-existent.  There’s a small section of the early game devoted to combat training and after the basics of swinging the sword, you are praised for your skill and sent out into the world, never to return.  With almost no idea of how to fight with the Wii Remotes, it made every combat a nervous difficult slog of trial and error attempting to figure out which way your arm needs to be in order to connect.  Not that big a deal, you say?  Not so bad that a game wants you to be skillful you say?  Well let’s talk about the real reason why this motion control stuff is the pits.

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The real problem with the motion controls is the lack of certainty in their use.  Combat feels like a total gamble.  You swing the Wii Remote and maybe it will swing the sword in the direction you want it to go, but if you’re not super precise and cognizant of when to move the Wii Remote and when NOT to move it, then problems occur.  Trying to swing a horizontal strike?  Better not be much diagonal to it.  Want to move the sword to the left because the enemy is blocking right.  Better make sure you move that Remote REAAAALLLLLL slow, or else a swing will occur and reset the sword back to where you started.  Once, I saw my son running around the game world without his shield equipped.  I asked him why he was running around unprotected and he told me it was because the game would sometimes go into the shield bash move while he was trying to move around.  You see shield bash was a move that you could only do with your shield equipped.  You simply shake the nunchuck controller slightly and Link, whether he’s got his sword and shield drawn or not, will immediately lock in his stance and thrust the flat part of his shield out.  It’s a combat move used to attack Octorocks and block incoming attacks from bad guys.  And my 7 year old had disabled the possibility of using the move because when he was just running around town or whatnot, any slight movement of his left hand with the nunchuck could trigger it, stopping all movement.

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You’d think with the new mechanics, fighting bosses would be different and interesting, but it’s an intense and terrifying experience.  The first time I fought Ghirahim, I died several times and when I did finally beat him I wasn’t ecstatic, I was exhausted.  My right arm hurt from all the sword swinging I had to do.  My hands were sweaty and I was desperate to save the game and turn it off so that I could get a break.  Here’s a hint Nintendo, when a game makes you happy when you power it off, that’s not good.

For this and no other reason alone (although there were sadly plenty others), the game made me want to finish it just so that I could say I was done and move on with something else.  And truth be told?  I never finished it.  In the next to last fight in the game, you take on Ghirahim again and in that fight you have to thrust your sword at his chest in order to beat him.  Thrusting wasn’t a sword technique that I had used for any kind of combat in the game up to that point.  The reason?  Thrusting was exceptionally hard to execute given the precise striking pattern you had to move the Wii Remote in, and I had never used it in a fight up to that point.  It was simply too difficult to try and execute with all the aiming and other moving I had to do.  So I gave up.  I’m a quitter!  I went ahead and watched the lets players do it for me. I regret nothing.  Skyward Sword is the only Zelda game I’ve never been able to complete and I don’t even care.  The control scheme was simply too much for me, and asking me to make use of a move that’s ridiculously difficult to execute in a practice setting, let alone a final boss battle was just a bridge too far.

Gameplay wise there are lots of elements from past Zelda games that are both good and bad.  You explore 3 different settings in the game world as well as the aerial land of Skyloft where this version of Link was born.  As you work through the game you open up more sections of those settings in a Metroid style, where as you get new gear you can reach areas you weren’t able to before.  Items were an interesting mix of old and new.  My favorite item was the Gust Bellows, a giant bag of wind.  (Yeah, yeah, save your comments.)  It was useful for unearthing buried treasure and clearing out sand and lava.  And my OCD took over with it and I removed ALL the sand.  ALL of it.  It was very satisfying to use.  The worst new item introduced in this game was easily the flying Beetle.  It’s an insect-shaped flying drone that you send out to do stuff.  It gets a claw attachment upgrade early on which it can use to pick up bombs to help you trigger traps and open doors and things.  I hated it because it became a real distraction when I had to use it.  It flies super slow and the camera switches to a 3rd person view of the drone while you’re using it.  It’s supposed to be good for scouting ahead and finding things and figuring out your next moves, but it takes the exploration aspect of the game and turns it into this weird scout and find game that really breaks down the flow of moving through the game world every time it’s used.

While I generally liked the layout and setup of the game world it still suffers some for the Metroid like approach to it’s play.  With only 3 areas in the game to explore, forest, mountain, and desert, going through the same areas over and over began to get old.  This was made worse by the fact that the desert and mountain areas look so much alike it can be difficult to tell where you are just from a screen shot alone.  It was a real shame too, because Snow Peak was one of my favorite dungeons in Twilight Princess and it’s sad that they couldn’t find a way to add more variety to the landscapes.  The sky zone where you fly around felt sadly, unfinished.  None of the flying games in the sky zone were fun (see motion controls again) and the islands were spaced really far apart with nothing of note in between any of them.  The Thunderhead, a walled off section of the sky, was just inexplicable.  A quarter of the sky zone map was walled off for this region and it was just as empty as the rest of the sky.  It was so frustrating, especially given the fact that The Wind Waker, a game with many of the same aesthetics as Skyward Sword did such a better job of populating the world with interesting and exciting things to do and see in it.  But the whole sky was just so damn empty.  There was room for so much more and it was just left there.  A huge disappointment.

The worst sections of the game world though were the small sections where you went into the Silent Realm. In other games the Silent Realm was the Twilight Realm, or the Golden Realm, or the Sacred Realm depending on what game you were playing.  It’s basically the home of the Triforce and in this game it was a dimensional cover that gave the developers an easy out to reuse the maps of the real world in a slightly different way.  At several points in the game, the game forces you into the silent realm to “prove your worthiness” as the hero of the Goddess.  Uhh….What???  If the Goddess didn’t want me as her chosen, why do I have this big ass sword that she gave me at the start of the game?  That’s right.  Your helper tells you the Goddess has chosen you and to help you on the way gives you the most powerful sword of all time.  It’s lazy writing but at least I can get straight to the fighting.  But no, all of your trials are tests to see if you REALLY are the Goddess’s chosen hero.  What, just in case she picked wrong?  WTF?

Chosen by the Goddess you say?  Sorry pal, no discounts.

Chosen by the Goddess you say? Sorry pal, no discounts.

Anyway in the silent realm you cannot fight or use any items you carry.  Once you step off of the starting platform you must collect 15 teardrops similar to the light restoration tricks that you did in Twilight Princess.  Once you collect one, you get a 90 second timer that freezes all the enemies in the area.  Did I forget to mention the enemies?  Yes, if the timer runs out, or one of the patrolling goons, spots you, or you step in a pool that alerts them to you, the music changes to a horror movie soundtrack and they chase you down.  One hit and you have to start all over at the beginning collecting tears these soul fragments, or tears, or my own lamentations as everything is reset.  It’s a way to reuse the maps while giving you a new different game play experience.  See how clever they are?

This is super frustrating too because the dungeons for the most part are the real high point of the game.  Well laid out and challenging, they are easily some of the best in the series.  My particular favorite was the pirate ship dungeon.  Nothing quite like going back in time to transform a desert into an ocean and convert the dead ship you’re on into a fully functioning pirate vessel you then have to storm.  Fun!

But gameplay wise, there’s just too much to try and overcome to successfully call Skyward Sword good.  It’s especially baffling given that the wikipedia page for Skyward Sword says:

Upon release, the game received critical acclaim, receiving perfect scores from at least 30 publications,[11][12] including IGN, Wired, Edge, Famitsu, Eurogamer, Metro GameCentral, and Game Informer. Much of the praise was directed at the game’s intuitive motion-based swordplay and the changes it brought to the Zelda franchise.

Well, now I understand slightly better about the complaint about games journalism being in developers pockets.  Perhaps I’m getting old, but this is ridiculous.  Motion-based swordplay is a good idea on paper but fails completely when the rubber hits the road.  Don’t believe me? All those gaming publications can’t all be worng, you say?  So why did Nintendo quietly abandon the Wii Remote in it’s latest console?  Still can use the Wii Remotes, you say?  That’s true but why is the primary controller on the Wii U (and thus the controller that all future games will be developed for), nothing more than a regular gamepad with a screen in it?

If the story had been great, a lot of this could have been forgiven, but sadly the story is so bad and in my opinion, badly handled, that I’m going to have to go over all the things wrong with that in a post next week.  More later.  Stay tuned.

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