Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: The Legend of Zelda - Skyward Sword

Expecting me to write an uber negative review about a new Zelda game is like expecting me to write an uber negative review about a new kind of cheese: it's never going to happen because, even if I know that the new flavor is absolutely horrendous, I still remember how awesome cheese is in general. Blue cheese may strike me as being one of the ickiest things on the face of this planet, but I will never pass up a dish with blue cheese in it because...well, cheese.

That's not to say that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword completely sucks and I'm only writing a not-completely-terrible review because the larger Zelda franchise is pretty damn awesome. Rather, I'm fully aware of this game's's just hard for me to lay them out in my usual blunt style. Zelda is truly near and dear to my heart; my second earliest memory is of watching my dad play The Adventure of Link on our old NES, and my brother and I received an N64 with Ocarina of Time for our 10th birthday. This was the first console and game I could call my own, and to say that I adored them would be an understatement--I beat the game over a dozen times and had a hard time giving up our N64 gear at a yard sale last year. When Twilight Princess was released, my brother--always on the hunt for the best Christmas gift--visited over a dozen stores to snag me a copy, managing to luck out when a Gamestop employee realized he'd knocked his last copy behind a stack of boxes. And as soon I got my Wii, my first thought was, "Man, I can't wait until they release a Zelda game for this thing!"

Admittedly, I'm a bit late to the party. I was in graduate school when Skyward Sword (and a lot of other cool games) came out, and I barely had time to think, let alone purchase a game and play it. My brother actually bought me a brand spanking new copy in June as a belated birthday gift, which...ended up being a bad disc, so we returned it for a used one that works just fine. As soon as I started it up and heard the familiar fairy fountain music, I knew I was in for a treat. Multiple nuanced uses of the Wii's motion sensor? Expanding on the timeline of events prior to Ocarina? New NPCs, species, and overworlds that utilize current gen graphics? Finally! The Zelda game I've always wanted!

Well...sort of.

Let me back up a bit. I know that most of my readers aren't huge gamers or Zelda fans, so I'll avoid the nerdgasms and explain the story in general terms. This is a story about a boy named Link and his best friend Zelda. They live on a floating island called Skyloft, where people are apparently batshit insane, because they all gleefully leap off of cliffs and trust giant birds called Loftwings to catch their fall. Fuck that, says I; if I was forced to live there, my ass would be parked on that bird's back with a seatbelt and a safety net before I even thought of hitting the air. day, Link and Zelda are riding their Loftwings when a mysterious force attacks them, knocking Link out cold and sucking Zelda down through the clouds to the dreaded "Surface," a vast land inhabited by monsters, carnivorous flora, and surprisingly well-kept temples. It is quickly revealed that Link is the Chosen One, and he must therefore plummet to the Surface to save Zelda. Seriously. That's the starting goal. It turns in to something bigger, I assure you, but the plot that links the first few dungeons is literally just "LOL the princess is in another castle, keep going!" The second half of the game is, in my opinion, far more interesting and compelling than the first half, probably because everything you do is finally linking up to a broader, overarching goal. So the story won't earn awards for being complex, new, or--to a Zelda fan--a startling revelation in the overall timeline, but it's still an effective story. I just wish it had been more engaging, since Zelda is renowned for its twisty-turny stories and intricate timeline.

The new characters who flesh out this story are the real treat. I've always loved this franchise's way of creating quirky, cute, and funny NPCs with a variety of connections to each other, some more subtle than others. There are people with deep friendships and grudges, multi-generation families, and even a gigantic demon who just wants to be human. Link has a best friend, Zelda, but he also has a rival named Groose, a pseudo-older brother figure named Pipit, and a bazaar worker with a not-so-secret crush on him. The surface also showcases a ton of new monsters and races, some of them brand new and beyond adorable (Kikwis, pictured on the left), others revamped from previous Zelda games (Sheikah), and a good few returning in their original, extra-obnoxious form (Keese).

The overall environment was, however, a big letdown for me. While I don't expect any game to top Ocarina of Time (partially because of my nostalgia, but also because of how new and revolutionary that game was for its time), I do expect it to build on previous technology and be a general improvement. Twilight Princess had a few quirks that really bugged me, like the numerous potentially-interesting NPCs who were barely utilized and its non-existent learning curve, but I still felt like it was new, fresh, and current. The graphics were beautiful, the overworld was highly interactive, I absolutely LOVED the combat system, and your helper (Midna) was actually helpful. Skyward Sword...just doesn't deliver. It's been over 4 years since Twilight Princess came out, yet I almost feel like these games came out at the same time, or even that Twilight Princess is the newer game. There's a certain roughness to a lot of the graphics, especially around their edges, and I was disappointed with the way the different worlds were "chunked up." It ruins the epic feel that previous Zelda games have had. Yes, Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess both had teleportation, but if you decided to take the scenic route (and I often did), there was plenty to see, and the world felt fluid and connected. Skyward Sword lacks that feeling. It's especially perturbing when you consider the fact that the people of Skyloft never leave Skyloft, yet their homeland is relatively tiny and sparsely populated...don't most civilizations expand and grow over time, especially if they can't distract themselves by pestering other civilizations?

While I'm a little disappointed with the environment, I generally like how much you can interact with it. There are plenty of things to slash, jump on, and body slam in to. The flora swishes under your feet and the fauna flies away when you stomp too close. And with motion control comes a ton of new actions you couldn't really have in previous titles, like jostling a rope to knock off bombs and enemies or being able to drop, throw, and roll bombs. You travel around Skyloft by flying on your Loftwing, which you control via various Wiimote motions, and while I was initially terrified that it would be as tedious as the sailing in Wind Waker, I actually loved it and got the hang of it pretty quickly. I was also excited to see that Skyward Sword had a steeper learning curve and was more difficult than its predecessors. Skyward Sword isn't obscenely hard, but with fewer hearts and fairies available to replenish your health and a dozen different ways to twitch your Wiimote and alter an item's effects, it's not the arguable walk in the park that Twilight Princess was. And like any good game, there are tons of little side quests to complete in exchange for weapon upgrades, cash prizes, and new adventure gear, which adds plenty of flavor. (I admit to spending a little too much time trying to catch bugs, even though they're primarily used in potion upgrades, which I almost never bought.)

But while I was initially excited about the various ways motion sensing technology was used in gameplay, I soon realized that Skyward Sword sometimes overuses motion sensing. It makes sense that the swinging the Wiimote in different directions alters the stroke of Link's sword, for example. But you have to swing the Wiimote to perform a good 3/4 of your actions, and the endless swinging starts to wear your wrist and arm out after about an hour...and anyone who's played a decent RPG before knows that it takes more than an hour to finish your first play-through of most dungeons. To make matters worse, I found the sensors simultaneously touchy and wildly inaccurate. For instance: my vertical swings only registered as vertical sword slashes if I very deliberately straightened the Wiimote, then swung it down, which is nigh on impossible during a fast-paced sword fight; your enemies are bound to beat the shit out of you while you're carefully repositioning the Wiimote. Yet if I twitched my wrist the wrong way, Link swung his arm skyward to do his special "charge up the sword with mystical Highlander goodness, yeehaw!" move, sometimes interrupting other actions. It was frustrating and almost got me killed on several occasions. I also tended to do stupid things when it came to rolling and using my shield, which requires swinging the nunchuk; you don't really use the nunchuk for much else in this game, so if you're like me and you don't consciously think about how your controls work, your immediate impulse will probably be to swing the Wiimote instead.

I also had a bit of a problem with all of the heights. More specifically, just about every section of the game includes tightrope walking and death leaps over gigantic gorges. To make matters worse, the camera tends to swoop overhead so you can stare down at the abyss below you. Ok, yes, I'm personally terrified of heights, and the new vogue in video games seems to be putting everything on the edge of a cliff. This isn't necessarily Skyward Sword's cross to bear. But it's horribly frustrating when you consider that, again the controls can be a little finicky, and you may spend half an hour jumping from platform to platform, rope to rope, only to plummet to your doom on the last leap because you didn't tilt the Wiimote just so. In short, the constant need to wiggle your Wiimote is both invigorating and annoying. I was actually stupidly excited the first time I had to tilt the Wiimote back and forth to help Link swing on a vine...then irritated when I realized how easy it was for an involuntary twitch of my hand to send him careening in to a wall.

The way WiiMotion Plus has opened the franchise to quirky new weapons is a soothing bonus. I'm especially fond of the Beetle, a sort of flying pincher that can grab and carry things if a spot is unreachable by foot. There's something strangely satisfying about calmly arming your Beetle with a bomb and flying it over to an unsuspecting enemy for a very special delivery. Skyward Sword also introduces new levels of difficulty by requiring you to collect extra items to upgrade your weapons, which can take a lot of elbow grease, whereas upgrades in previous Zelda games were primarily quest rewards that you'd pick up while progressing through the main quest. I dislike that the targeting system the franchise is so well known for goes to pot when you switch to range weapons, but I have terrible aim and poor vision, so I'm more dependent on Z-targeting than most.

Let's not lose sight of the cold, hard fact that I honestly enjoyed this game. I played it for hours at a time, ignoring my burning arm muscles and my apparent inability to perform vertical sword slashes, and I truly enjoyed 90%  of it. But the 10% I didn't enjoy tarnished my final impression of the game and diminished its replay value. (I've beaten Ocarina too many times to count and plan on doing a third replay of Twilight Princess, but I doubt I'll play Skyward Sword again this year.) Overall, it's a good addition to the franchise, but it doesn't provide anything new or improve much on the old, beyond using the motion sensing technology religiously. The fact that incredible games that fully harnessed current video game technology, like Batman: Arkham City and Shogun 2: Total War, were released at relatively the same time just makes Skyward Sword's shortcomings all the more damning,

Rating: 3 out of 5

PS: Expect to hear about my quest for the perfect Kikwi plushie on Twitter. Cripes, those things are cute!

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