Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

OK, I’m going to start off this review by saying that I’m a huge fan of Zelda. I have been a huge fan of Zelda for a Very. Long. Time. But this review is going to come across as surprisingly negative, because Skyward Sword was a game that had far too much to live up to for me, and it didn’t manage it.

There are two ways of looking at this game, I can look at Nintendo’s mission statement, and judge it upon whether they reached that goal, or I can judge it on what I believe it should have, could have, been. So I’ll do both.

Miyamoto originally described Zelda, at it’s inception, as a “miniature garden that they can put inside their [the player’s] drawer.” In many ways Skyward’s mission statement goes back to this, which is both good and bad. The series has been drifting into an ever more open-world, expansive, ‘epic’ persona since those beginnings, epitomising at Twilight Princess. Which burned them. The series to me, felt as if it were going in the right direction, exploration. But Skyward Sword seems to go back, if I were a Nintendo PR rep, I would describe it as ‘refocusing’, a condensing of the formula.

Aonuma and his team have previously stated that they wanted Skyward Sword to be a refocusing of the series, the team felt that Twilight Princess was too large, and so too empty, too bland. This, in many ways, was true, in my opinion. Twilight Princess’ fields felt empty, but instead of trying to improve the fields… They took them away entirely. They also failed to realise there’s a certain majesty to open spaces,

This is Skyward Sword’s biggest failing to me, that it can be  described as
linear.

The world of Skyward Sword is incredibly detailed, incredibly well designed and… incredibly un-ambitious.

Don’t get me wrong, I have incredible respect on the team of people responsible for this game, I’ve done a little development myself, it isn’t nearly as easy as you think. the creator has to create everything, I believe Pixar has a saying, ‘nothing is for free’, which is true in games also, even more so. For instance, in a Pixar film, the artists/animators/writers design a whole scene, which is incredible in itself. Have you ever tried to write a screenplay? If you have, maybe you said that ‘this scene takes place parking lot’, so you go and film it in a parking lot, boom. If you’re making a serious animation, you go to twenty parking lots, you spend hours making notes on those parking lots, and you go back and design a parking lot of your own. Everything has to be made. Everything. And if you fail to nail the feeling, it feels fake…. Because it is.

Making an animation is about making a caricature of a scene. Making a game like Skyward Sword, is about making a caricature of a world…. Huge teams of people are needed, with huge sets of skills. It’s so easy to miss the mark here, with any creative work, so easy to disconnect the reader/watcher/player from the world. If they start thinking about something else for a second the artist has lost them.

So what the Zelda team did, is removed as many obstacles as they could from their path to certain engagement of the player, they took away the fields. Skyward Sword is linear because that’s the easiest, most straightforward way to engage the player, of course it is! If they go off the path the designer intended then the designer has no control, and the player could therefore have a terrible experience, which is the last thing the designer wants. The designer naturally wants to have certain control over the whole experience, the only way to do that is to increase linearity.

The care and attention to detail that has gone into this game is stunning.  The graphics are breathtaking, this looks better, to my eyes, than any HD-hyper-realistic-killfest there ever was. The pixels pop with colour, and the cell shaded polygons seem liquid on the screen, merging with each other like some watercolour painting. There’s a reason Pixar animation looks so great, it’s because the graphics are heavily stylized, not hyper-realistic. It seems at least one game developer knows this. This game will look good in ten years, the same way Wind Waker does now. In video games, developers seem to try and emulate live-action, but we could learn a lot more from animation houses, like Ghibli, Pixar and Disney.

In fact, the basic animation here is on a higher level than most games I’ve seen. Animations played when climbing up a wall, or losing an arrow, for instance give the game a stunning sheen of continuity, smoothness. The game engine has never been better, Link can run smoothly up ridges, climb smoothly up a ledge, leap smoothly off the edge of a platform and skydive, smoothly, and whistle for his bird to come and catch him. This gives off an incredible aura of polish, there’s seldom a jarring invisible wall, a problem which seems to exist in every game ever made, because walls are gracefully handled, and by that I mean that an invisible treadmill doesn’t appear underneath the player when he or she runs into a wall, instead the player bumps into said wall. This continuity makes the makes the gameplay seem far more natural, less like a video-game and more like a well shot, or drawn, film. Particles of red hot ash shimmer in volcanoes, water shines a wonderful deep blue and the grey-white clouds fluff-fantastic.

The controls are incredible, motion plus makes every fight dynamic and every item a joy to use. It helps again with the continuity, aiming a bow or a hookshot has never been smoother! It’s perhaps a little too sensitive at times, but it’s a small problem with an overall great world-interface. Opening the inventory no longer pauses gameplay, which is a fantastic effect, it adds even more to the immersion of the world by breaking out of it as little as possible.

The world looks and feels fantastic, but there’s a problem.

The world in Skyward sword is essentially a series of levels, strung together by an overarching sky. In Wind Waker, a Zelda game set in an archipelago, this worked fantastically, but Skyward Sword decides not to play the exploration card at all. It’s a conscious design decision made by the team, it’s easy to see that, but to me it’s a shame.

Where Skyward Sword falls down is in the authenticity of it’s overworld, the islands in the sky are few and far in between, and they mostly contain nothing worth anything. In Wind Waker, every island had some mystery, some lone traveller, some significant fragment of the world Link lived in, but here, in Skyward Sword, most islands serve the purpose of being a podium for a chest, in which is probably a heart container, or some medallion that makes rupees more likely to appear for you.

Then there’s the uninspired crop of sidequests, I think I did them all, fetch quests with rupee rewards, most of them. They didn’t help the game for me, but highlighted the game’s final real problem.

The non-existent economy. Previously, there have been plenty of places to spend my rupees in zelda games, buying some exciting new equipment from some eccentric merchant, stumbling upon an extortionate Beedle, or a new marketplace in some village or town. In Skyward Sword there’s only one market-place, besides Beedle’s (this time decidedly unadventurous) vessel, and barely a traveller to speak of. Skyloft’s inhabitants are also relatively one-dimensional, and even less adventurous than Wind Waker’s characters, where a being unadventurous with your life was a prevailing theme among them. The mostly only appear on one island, Skyloft, throughout the game, and only a couple ever leave the island at all. This makes the already somewhat boring islands in the sky, which sounds almost paradoxical in itself, less animated. There are some wonderful personas on Skyloft, all the shop owners for instance are just as eccentric as characters of the old games have been.

There’s also the new decision to make both night and day endless and give the player the decision to switch between them, but at night time you’re never allowed to fly, however close to saving the world you get, and so the night time quests are limited to islands with beds, of which there are only three.

The dungeon design seems to me stronger here than in Twilight Princess, where I thought it was lacking. For me the puzzles were all too easy, but some of the design ideas were fantastic, at one point you have to go back to a dungeon that’s already been ‘solved’, in order to find something hidden there, it’s a wonderful idea, despite the classic Zelda problem: underuse.

I enjoyed Skyward Sword, I loved the characters, even if they didn’t want to move, I loved flying on a bird through the sky, I loved skydiving on to a giant pumpkin and even saving the world. For all it’s bells and whistles Skyward Sword is a game so ‘flawlessly designed’ that it guides you perfectly through it’s world, it has some fantastic ideas and the last dungeon was a treat, but in designing something so perfectly structured to pull the player through it, it loses Zelda’s essential charm of exploring the unexplored, of finding your own way.

It’s a shame, because there are some fantastic design decisions here, but the formula feels stale to me, and I left the game wishing I’d enjoyed it more.

+ Fantastic controls
+ Beautiful world
+ Masterful level design
– Overly linear
– Uninspired side quests

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About bananaoomarang

Indie games obsessed, interested in how the medium is expanding, uninterested in how Call Of Duty still exists. On Twitter here: http://twitter.com/bananaoomarang
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