REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)

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Name: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Genre: 3rd person adventure

Platform: Wii

Price: £34.90 from Amazon

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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword marks 25 years of slashing through dungeons in snazzy green tunics. Seen by many as potentially the Wii’s last hurrah, Skyward Sword puts a lot on the line with its heavy implementation of motion controls and unique visual style. Can it revive interest in the ageing Wii console, and re-affirm the Zelda series as one of gaming’s premier franchises? Read on to find out.

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All the Legend of Zelda games are good, without question. But are they all great? Wind Waker had a superb art style, but was let down by lengthy stretches of boring high-seas travel. Twilight Princess had the mature tone series fans had longed for, but had some clunky werewolf-like gameplay mechanics. Sure, A Link to the Past is the epitome of 16-bit adventuring, and Ocarina of Time is rightly regarded by many as the greatest game of all time. But the rest of them? Merely good, not great.

Now I’m not writing this to kindle the flamers or enrage the trolls out on the web. I assure you I’m a massive Zelda fan, having played all but the CD-i adventures extensively. I’m merely framing the series landscape that this latest adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, finds itself in. Too much of a good thing can lead to complacency, and while complacency can still deliver good results, it’ll never produce classic ones.

skyward-sword-1.jpgWith the Zelda series then, I feel Nintendo have too long rested on their laurels. I was ready to turn my back on the series, or at least accept that it perhaps wasn’t as important as it once was.

And then comes along Skyward Sword, a game that not only refuels my passion for the flagging franchise, but makes me re-think the merits of the ageing Wii console, re-evaluate my concerns with motion gaming, and remind me why Nintendo are still one of the greatest games developers on the planet. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is absolutely amazing.

Set many generations before the Hyrule that we’ve grown to know was formed, Skyward Sword is an origin story of sorts for the series. It also marks a rather impressive leap forward for Zelda games when it comes to storytelling. Link’s quest to save the world from evil and rescue damsel-in-distress Zelda remains the same, but the presentation is vastly improved. Though dialogue still plays out through text scripts (and Link is still a mute), Skyward Sword propels its narrative forward with breathtaking cinematic cutscenes, the likes of which have never before been seen in a Zelda game. In terms of direction, they rival Uncharted for spectacle.

These cutscenes are bolstered by a unique and charming art style. A strange fusion of the mature themes of Twilight Princess and the cel-shaded style of Wind Waker, the world of Skyward Sword has the light beauty of a Monet painting if peppered with creatures and locations as surreal as any of the series’ finest creations. The Wii isn’t capable of the scale or fidelity possible with the processing power of the PS3 or Xbox 360, but the art team at Nintendo has eked out every last drop of potential from the Wii to make a staggeringly beautiful game. From the joyous character models that bring the more complex storyline to life to the dark recesses of a dangerous dungeon, you’ll be constantly captivated.

skyward-sword-2.jpgAll this and we haven’t even touched on the gameplay. For a series that prides itself on perfect pacing and tightly crafted puzzles and combat, Skyward Sword feels so fresh, so innovative, that you’ll wonder what you ever saw in the games that preceded it.

A major part of what makes the game so excellent is the superb, complimentary use of motion controls. I’ve been a motion sceptic in the past, but with Skyward Sword and the Wii Motion Plus add on for the controller, Nintendo have finally justified the technology they risked so much of their credibility on. From 1:1 sword swipes that make every battle a tactical, memorable challenge, to steering a giant bird-like Loftwing above the clouds, it’s an ambitious, pitch-perfect, unintrusive implementation of a control method long labelled as merely a gimmick. You may find you’ll need to recalibrate your controller a fair few times, but there’s no waggling here, just perfectly natural gestures that reward skill and patience.

World design is also streamlined, and more richly populated with challenges. Soaring through the sky realm is great fun in and of itself, but there’s now also a quick-travel option to get to and from underworld locations more quickly. You’ll likely use it rarely however, as the land created here always offers something new to challenge you. Older Zelda games had lengthy, fairly basic paths between dungeons, but now you’ll have to be constantly thinking on your toes and using your arsenal of objects to explore every nook and crannie of your surroundings. It’s much more of a “Metroidvania” feel than ever before, as you find yourself regularly spotting treasures just out of sight, only to return later with a new skill in tow opening up a new path altogether to reach it.

skyward-sword-4.jpgDungeons are now smaller than their predecessors, but no less ingenious, with their difficulty scaling up perfectly as you progress. Tired Zelda puzzles like torch lighting and block-pushing are more-or-less a thing of the past here, with a greater focus on using motion-based items like flying beetles, and the use of combinations of skills and motion-combat in quick succession. Again, set pieces are far grander, often turning your ideas about a particular dungeon puzzle on its head by their conclusion. That’s before you’ve even reached the bosses, which are simultaneously terrifying, challenging and satisfying to conquer. You’ll have to revisit key areas multiple times over the course of the game in order to uncover all of the hidden treasures, making for an adventure that will push the 35-40 hour mark.

Were we to pick one minor fault with Skyward Sword, it’d lay with the audio. A voiceover track for the supporting cast, if executed correctly,would have seen the series make the final step towards cinematic greatness. And while the soundtrack is as stirring as any other AAA game out there, some of the recurring tunes just aren’t quite as catchy as the best that Zelda games have offered in the past. Other than that, every squeal of an enemy or clang of a sword sounds spot on.

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Verdict:

A series that has too long lurked in the impressive shadow cast by Ocarina of Time, Skyward Sword sees the Zelda games once again flying high. Innovative, colourful, with an evocative story and the best example of motion controlled gaming “done right” we’ve seen yet, it’s a fitting swansong for the ageing Wii console. Skyward Sword is not only the best Nintendo game to have hit their consoles in the past few years, it’s quite possibly the best Zelda game there’s ever been too.

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5/5

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Gerald Lynch