Friday, April 28, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Review)

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
North American Release Date: November 20, 2011

I'll be honest (always am here). The Legend of Zelda is my favorite long-running video game series, and it is time for me to tell a certain story for the last time:
For my fifth wedding anniversary, my wife and I did dinner and a movie. In between, we hung out in Barnes and Noble and read magazines. The cover of a video game magazine I grabbed sunk my spirits. Nintendo was releasing yet another Zelda game. Five years before that moment, when my wedding coincided with the launch of the Nintendo Wii, and Twilight Princess, a corresponding Zelda game, I had decided that video games, my key hobby, were childish things that I should leave behind. In 2011, as I sat in that Barnes and Noble cafe, I felt a huge pang of regret. This new Zelda game, Skyward Sword, not only looked awesome, but would now put me TWO Zelda games behind. Would I ever play video games again? Truthfully, I had recently pulled out my old Sega Dreamcast and dabbled, but would I ever play new games that had come out post-2006? Thankfully, the answer was "yes." Shortly after that anniversary night, as my son gained interest in video games, my love for them was rekindled. I discovered something I think many gen-X'ers eventually come upon--just because you enjoyed something when you were a kid does not make it childish. While Millennials might never grow up, many of us Gen X'ers, dismayed by our hippie me-generation forebears, can get over-cynical about the worthwhile nature of our childhood favorites. It would be easier to say all that Atari 2600 I played with my dad was frivolous, if I hadn't recently experienced such fulfilling times playing video games with my own child. There's a difference between "childish" and "fun." (All you damn millennials still need to grow the hell up, though, and get off my lawn!)
Thus, five years after its release, I finally played through The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. My Skyward Sword play-through comes as the last of three console Zelda's I've completed over this past year, in release order, finishing The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess directly before it. I must confess, Skyward Sword suffers slightly, by comparison.

Skyward Sword is posited as a prequel to all previously released Zelda games. It begins in a small town on an island in the sky, creatively titled, Skyloft. Here we meet the very first incarnations of Zelda and Link, looking very teenager-ly, and not so epic hero-ly.  Skyloft looks like a cheery medieval town, patrolled by townsfolk soaring through the skies on large, furry birds. As you would expect, Zelda gets kidnapped, and Link, with the aid of a robotic, yet chatty blue spirit sent by The Goddess, has to dive through the clouds to find her. You might not expect the dive through the clouds part, I guess.
It seems that a land beneath the clouds is rumored, even though no living person has seen it. However, young, wet-behind the ears Link discovers there is indeed a land beneath the clouds, from which a clear, blue and strangely not blocked by clouds-sky is visible. He also discovers that this more modern, though ancient and prototypical Zelda is in little need of saving. Seems she has gone off on her own mysterious adventure with a strange woman named Impa. This leaves Link with the afore-mentioned blue spirit, who looks like an attractive, blue-skinned woman in a mini-skirt. Considering this spirit had previously greeted and introduced herself to Link in his bed in the middle of the night like a Succubus after Zelda vanishes, making him chase after her in the darkness before she inhabits his sword, the game has some interesting sexual subtext I'd rather not explore here. Actually, I'd rather like to, but my reviews run long enough as it is, so I'll just leave it at that.

The blue spirit's name is "Fi," and she becomes Link's companion for the entirety of Skyward Sword. Much has been meme'd about how annoying a companion Navi the fairy was in the seminal The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. She actually didn't bother me that much, but Fi drives me crazy. She is constantly popping up in your face (from your sword), telling you stuff you already know, or could figure out with simple deduction. If you do need help, her verbal assistance generally adds up to, "You need help." Curious about how to fight a certain monster? "To defeat this monster, you must fight it," is about par for the course. She also does this C-3PO-esque thing were she tells you odds of things all the time for seemingly no reason.  Unfortunately, there's no switch on the back of her neck to turn her off.
Anyway, you, as Link, are stuck on the surface doing seemingly random tasks, fighting monsters, and being sent on quests Link can't really comprehend, other than they will help him catch up to Zelda. Along the way, Link runs into a strange enemy named Ghirahim, a prancing, flamboyant foe who looks and acts like a tall, thin, androgynous screamo-revival band golem of re-animated rotten fruit thrown by the groundlings at The Globe Theatre. As in all other Zelda games, Link also has to duck down into complex dungeons, full of traps, puzzles, and enemies, usually finding useful items therein, like a bow, or a jar full of eternal wind, fighting a mini-boss halfway through, and a not-so mini boss at the end.
As not in all other Zelda games, Skyward Sword is the guinea pig for Wii Motion Plus controls. This means, when you play this game, you've got to get physical. Link's walking direction and geographic movement is handled with a Wii Nunchuk joystick, but his sword-fighting (the primary way enemies are battled), is controlled by waving the Wii Remote around like a sword. Swing to the left, and Link swings to the theory. Many other items in the game are wielded with these motion controls. The immediate feeling for most players used to traditional controls will be confusion and frustration. You know what you want Link to do, but getting Link to do it is another matter.

Meanwhile, the surface world you've landed in, a bland forest, is graphically unimpressive, and anything more than ten feet from you blurs with some strange impressionistic painting effect in order to keep the graphics engine running smoothly.  While you are running around in this world, the background music, an area in which Zelda games are generally an industry standard-bearer, is childish and simplistic.*^(1) 
When you finally make it to another area, a volcano, things don't get any better. You also find that, after four consecutive Zelda 3-D games where the interconnected overworld got bigger and bigger, you are in a smaller world where each respective region isn't even connected to each other!  I'd say "by this point, you'd be thinking," but I don't know what you'd be thinking, so I will say, by this point, I be thinking, How is a Zelda game this mediocre? This is supposed to be the greatest franchise known to video games, which has given me some of the all-time great highlights in my four decades of video-gaming life. Why. Is. This. So. Boriiiiiiiiiingggg???!!!
Then, suddenly, 10-15 hours into the game, something happens.
When Link arrives in Lanayru, the last of three provinces found under the clouds, the game suddenly opens up. I don't mean that you can now travel between the provinces freely--you still have to go back up to Skyloft, then dive back down to which ever respective region you want to visit. What I mean is that, all at once, the control learning curve, game design, graphics, and music all come together.
Lanayru is non-Alanis Morissette ironic*(^2), in that deserts are generally known for their vast emptiness, and Lanayru Desert Province is the best, most interactive region in any Zelda game ever, pre-HD-era. Tumbleweeds roll over shadows of windblown clouds racing across the desert floor, a beautiful ambient/percussive theme breezes out of the speakers, and the player, as Link, gets to explore to their hearts content. Lanayru's unusual hook, which I won't spoil here, is one of the most innovative in any Zelda game up to 2016. At the same moment in the game, the controls suddenly begin to seem intuitive, and the given tasks, fun. The next 30 or so hours of Skyward Sword are pure Zelda bliss, as the previous two areas, and then Lanayru, are expanded in creative ways, also making them more graphically satisfying, and somehow causing them to feature better music than what came before. Even the dungeons become more interesting, particularly one called The Cistern, which is a personal favorite.
This portion of Skyward Sword, which is truthfully, the majority of gameplay time, gives me everything I want from a Zelda game: the thrill of exploration, the joy of solving inventive puzzles, and the general feeling of being a hero while I fight huge, menacing bosses, and armies of wicked foes. Once I had the motion controls down, I often found myself standing to fight the trickier bosses, or when I came across mobs of lesser enemies. The fights involve quite a bit of strategy due to advanced enemy AI, and the direction you swing your sword, and the way you time defense maneuvers with your nunchuk-controlled shield, really matter. The experience is absolutely immersive. More than ever, the player truly feels like they are Link!

And then, for its last five hours, Skyward Sword comes back down to Earth, in a third back-tracking quest that just seems like filler, an insult to the player after the second time through felt so fulfilling.  Skyward Sword took me far more time to beat than any other Zelda game, neither because I was floundering (I don't think I remember ever dying), or because of wide-ranging exploration. It took me forever to finish because of filler quests. After all, in the time it takes just to make this game interesting, I would have been halfway through my perfect-all-the-way-through initial experiences with say, Ocarina of Time, or A Link to the Past.
And while I'm complaining again, I haven't even mentioned the sparse, barely there excuse for a connecting overworld. Anytime Link wants to head to another region, he has to take to the skies on his loftwing bird, fly over a whole in the clouds (one for each of the three regions), and sky dive down. The skies themselves feature a few small islands to explore, but for the most part, seem incredibly empty. The learning curve on flying the loftwing is high, as well, and even when you feel like you are pointing your controller in the right direction, you can suddenly veer in the opposite.
So with all that said (and in my generally long-winded manner, more said than needed...sorry Ernest), what do we make of this game? Certainly it is the black sheep of 3D home console Zelda games, especially as gamers seem to be adding a little more rose to the tint of the glasses with which they view The Wind Waker, with every passing year. Should Zelda fans who haven't yet give Skyward Sword a chance? Should anyone play it at all?!
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a great game! That 30 hours or so stretch between the first ten and last five hours is unbelievably good. Unfortunately for Skyward Sword. most Zelda games are near perfect in their entirety, and any criticisms leveled against them are generally nitpicks. Skyward Sword, while a great game, has some major flaws that are certainly not nitpicks.
I've already mentioned how long it takes to really get the game going, and also the annoying back-tracking it employs near the end. I've also hinted at the problem with the controls. When they work, they really work: the only thing more life-like would be giving the player a Wii Motion Plus controller shaped like a real sword. Unfortunately, when the controls don't work, they are maddeningly frustrating, and as the game developers went all-in with the motion controls for every aspect of the game, there are plenty of opportunities for frustration. For instance, the entrance to every dungeon's final boss can only be unlocked with a special, 3-dimensional key. You don't just need to find the key, though. You have to use motion controls to shift it around and around until it fits right. There are also times when you need to draw on walls with your sword that make you feel like a toddler attempting calligraphy. And finally, any time you need to steer something for an extended period of time, the controls will inevitably and unexplainably switch axis. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, another Nintendo franchise member that deeply explored motion controls, did so far more intuitively, and never seemed to use them just for the sake of using them. I wish the developers of Skyward Sword had taken notes from that game. Especially when it seems like every boss near the end is following the same "slash sideways at me to hit me...okay, now slash vertically," pattern.

There's also the matter of the game's dash meter. It was intended to give the player the opportunity to run fast for short periods of time with no item required...but, unfortunately, the developers applied the meter to moments Link has to climb, as well. I don't know how many times I reached two adjacent ledges, and attempted to make the "jump to the next ledge" motion with the Wii Remote, only for the controls to fail, and my dash meter to run out--sending me plummeting to my death. Previous games allowed Link to hang from ledges as long as need be, without worry.
Also, the passing of the day, a staple in Zelda games for more than a decade, is left out of Skyward Sword. The sun doesn't move. Link can take a nap to change the time of day in Skyloft, but he can't leave for the larger world until he sets it back to daytime.
Lest this just be one huge bitchfest about a game I actually like, I would be remiss to go back and pick on these flaws without going back to praise some elements I haven't yet mentioned.
Link's home town and island of Skyloft is very well-designed, and feels more lived in and homey then any previous Zelda location. Its citizens' daily routines are interesting, and they are fun to interact with. The town bazaar adds much depth to the game (in addition to buying stuff, you can collect materials to upgrade what you already have), and is fun to frequently visit. The plentiful sub-quests (not required to complete game), many taking place in Skyloft itself, are very engaging. Link's item list is quite exiting. The option to collect bugs is a fun diversion, and adds color. Also, for the first time ever, someone not named Link or Zelda receives a deep character arc. I am typing of Groose, whose development throughout Skyward Sword is surprisingly rich, full, and satisfying. A twist with another character at the end of the game caught me off-guard, but was well earned. The music really does improve as the game goes on--it's the first Zelda game to use a full orchestra throughout, and the soundtrack as a whole almost sounds like that of a Miyzaki film...actually, there's a Miyazaki influence running throughout all of Skyward Sword, from the music, to some of the boss, character, and terrain design, just as Twilight Princess seemed influenced by Peter Jackson's then-recent Lord of the Rings films. With all that said, and going back to music in a final fanboy rant...what does it take for Koji Kondo to compose a Zelda game again? Does he just feel like he is too old for the work? Is Nintendo holding him back? Is his supervisory job more satisfying? These games have been well-scored in his absence, but they're also like a John Williams-less Star Wars. Come back, Kondo! Also, I never want Link to talk in a game, but voice-acting for everyone else would have made the overall story more immersive. Also, make Link left-handed again!!!
Despite debuting to great accolades, critical opinion on Skyward Sword seems to have trended downward only months after it was released. I know I seem to be coming down on the game harshly, but I really am fond of it, despite its numerous flaws. With Breath of the Wild now hitting stores, and the Wii U passing into the night with a Skyward Sword HD update conspicuously lacking, I hope Skyward Sword isn't completely forgotten. The motion controls, while somewhat flawed in practice, are a great idea, and incredible when they work. The dream-like, storybook middle 30 hours deserve to thrive in Zelda legend. Hopefully, at some point, the best qualities of Skyward Sword will find their place in history.*^(3)

*1 I get that, as the Twilight Princess portions of Faron Woods take place far in the Zelda future, it makes sense that their music is darker and more mysterious, while Skyward Sword's less ancient Faron Woods' music should be more playful and fun...It doesn't mean I have to like it, though!
*2 By non-Alanis Morissette irony, I mean that I used the word "irony" correctly.
*3 This really brings things full circle for me. While there are still plenty of Wii, and while we're at it, PS3 games I'd like to play through, I'll consider those more like retro reviews and put them on my "Classic Video Game Reviews" website--I've now played all the games I purposely missed in that generation due to my stupid, self-imposed gaming ban. Glad, with this reveiw now complete, to not have to mention that again.

Blurry art style takes a while to get used to, and is sometimes strangely utilized, but overall, a good looking game for Wii, particularly in its latter portions.

Music and Sound
Soundtrack is a little uneven by Zelda standards, meaning the majority is awesome, but there are weak tracks--mostly in the beginning. Sounds are great and immersive, but it's time for some voice-acting!

The majority of the game is classic Zelda, re-contextualized with sometimes brilliant motion controls, tainted by a grindingly slow start, backtrack heavy ending, problems with said motion controls, and some odd gameplay quirks.

Lasting Value
About a 50-hour adventure, with multiple side-quests to stretch out that number even more...(just push past the beginning!)