The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword ~ Memory Review

I apologise for how late this turned out to be.

One day I will do a review that puts the game in question front and center and doesn’t spiral into a narcissistic account of my experience writing the review.

Today is not that day.

Skyward Sword has a huge amount of features, areas, side quests and gameplay experiences in general to discover, at the kind of scale that’s hard to capture in a review, especially when you insist on writing said review several years late. Short of replaying the whole thing again like some kind of professional it’s very difficult to convey the range of these ideas in a meaningful way. What’s more, a pattern I noticed preparing for this review is that Skyward Sword reviews tend to be light on specifics about puzzles and items. I suspect this is to preserve the element of suprise and the experience of discovering new interpretations and uses for classic items as well new takes on both classic Zelda environments.

What the Zelda series does is take its well tested formula and make changes with each iteration and Skyward Sword likely made more than most, some of these modifications were met more enthusiastically than others. What I’ve done this week month past two months is read old reviews of the game to see what the main talking points and give my opinion on them, after all part of the goal of these memory reviews (aside from setting myself an achievable goal which I have so far fumbled twice three times) is to give an idea of where I sit on things. I’m going to stick with critic reviews because if you don’t write for a professional outfit then who gives a crap right? …… actually forget I said that.

The most obvious change is the use of motion controls to revitalise the game’s combat. I’ve never been a huge fan of combat in Zelda games because I’ve never really understood why it’s there. As in Psychonauts and arguably Contact enemies exist seemingly to waste resources and time, fights always get in the way of the exploration and puzzling and in my recent experience of playing Oracle of Ages really ruined the experience. The motion controlled swordsmanship addresses this by making the combat more layered then simply hammering the attack button when the moment is right 1. This point is discussed in greater depth by Giant Bomb. Sword-fighting feels like a skill and a core element of the game, a “more meaningful” moment, rather than something bolted on to navigating the environment. Also it has to be said that seeing your motions replicated on screen and cutting down swathes of moblins is good dumb fun. That combat is now so integral to enjoyment of the game is emphasised by the fact that SS’s (not a great acronym) lowest Metacritic score comes from a reviewer who really disliked the motion controls. GameCritic’s problems with responsiveness and very specific complaint about the shield put move cancelling the (admittedly tricky) stab move weren’t reflected in my own experience or in the reviews I read.

I seem to remember a certain amount of frustration directed toward Fi, Link’s companion in the game and it’s true that she/it/I-don’t-know does nanny more than her predecessors and delivers unsolicited advice at times that threatens to spoil puzzle solutions. On the whole however, I like Fi. I thought it was kind of neat that an artificial magical entity would behave similarly to computer and Fi’s deadpan logic provided some amusing moments. As a point of comparison I’m baffled by everyone’s fondness for Midna whose conversations with Link in Twilight Princess I never found especially charming or witty. Different strokes I suppose.

Keeping with the TP (another bad acronym) comparisons, because you can’t write a Zelda review without comparing it to previous entries, I much preferred the art style in this game to it’s dark, out of focus and bloom lit older brother. Character models in particular are a welcome change, the bright colours and cartoonish proportions are big step forward from TP’s slightly unsettling people. That being said the character’s lips seem a bit off, as they did in TP.  It seems to me that the graphical style was another bone of contention for some and an area of praise for others and there’s no denying that they’re not exactly high resolution. Personally I found they ranged from perfectly acceptable to very charming, especially in the case of the skies around the starting town of Skyloft.

In this installment, Link starts out an inhabitant of the town of Skyloft, an idyllic hamlet built on a floating chunk of earth. The residents are cut off from the mysterious world below by some proper thick clouds. There’s a school where Link is a student, a watch tower, ceremonial grounds, a shop (sadly no Malo Mart though, the music and bizzare vibe of which was one of the (if not the) highlights of TP), a temple and plenty of houses and other features. The town is of course made up by the usual array of colourful characters. The school yard politics of the admittedly quite long opening section is nicely done and the arc of jock Groose and his lackeys and a subplot about a romance between students are both well executed. On the whole though, Skyloft is quite sparsely populated (as has been noted elsewhere) but is very well liked by some. It’s got nothing to match the “splish guy” that’s all I’m saying.

When Link or indeed anyone in Skyloft wants to explore the surrounding skies you charge headfirst off special piers and free fall until you’re intercepted by your personal loftwing. Like Batman’s dramatic way of entering the Batmobile in Arkham Knight it’s a needlessly dramatic but consistently cool moment every time. Once airborne you can explore the rocks and other floating environments dotted around the skybox or plummet down to the surface if you’ve opened a suitable hole in the clouds.

In the skies surrounding the town are a number of other structures some of which are inhabited, such as the pumpkin bar and the circus platform manned by a slightly unsettling (aren’t they all?) clown. While it’s nice to fly around for a bit, the lack of fully fleshed out content eventually makes your time in the sky somewhat dull.  There’s a mechanic where beacons of some sort that are activated on the surface unlock their corresponding treasure chest in the sky which leads to many tedious journeys through the clouds.

The characters and storytelling have received a lot praise. Most notably IGN who throw around the words “powerful drama” and “stirring origin story” and that old reviewer’s favourite “the”. The AV Club were also obviously emotionally invested. Personally I wouldn’t go that far, the dialogue has a certain entertaining whimsy to it and villain Ghirahim is very well realised but I wouldn’t say I was deeply affected by the story of a mute elf collecting things, then collecting more things so he can eventually battle a great evil.  Admittedly it was nice that Zelda was more involved in the story from the outset. They also praise the framing of scenes which may for all I know be incredible, I played this game when it was released and I was still in the prime (such as it was) of my youth so I didn’t look for such things. It’s doubthful that Eye Moustaches of a few years ago would have rambled incoherently about how much he liked Birdman and it’s cinematography.

Dungeon design has also been overhauled. The focus has been moved from the enclosed dungeons of the past to incorporate more puzzles and exploration in what we might think of as the overworld. In the past getting to the dungeon door generally involved interacting with the NPCs in some way but here that journey can involve all kinds of puzzles and obstacles. Setting more of the game out in the open seems to have allowed Nintendo to aim for very grand environments incorporating many different play styles such as the journey up and down a mountain and its surrounding scaffolding and the section where you explore an ocean (of sorts) later on. As I recall most environments had a special ghost-zone-mirror-universe-shadow-realm thing where Link would be temporarily stripped of his equipment and have to collect some phlebotium to get him back to the real world. These sections work well and highlight the new more athletic (as mentioned here) Link. Overall the reworking of the overworld is a nice touch that keeps pre-dungeon sections interesting and the way the areas change between visits, offering up a fresh take often on a previous concept is wonderful.

The new suite of items (the motion controlled flying Beatle in particular sticks out as a great innovation) open up new puzzling avenues. Truth be told it’s difficult to remember specific puzzle moments when there’s so many of them, hence why this review has focused heavily on the broad strokes up to now. The sections that stick out the most clearly are the sections in the desert, where the time stones indigenous to the area cast out a field that acts as a sort of window to the past, where the rusted mechanisms of the present are lively machines enabling all kinds of trickery. That nothing else sticks out after a few years could be seen as a criticism, all I can really say is that I had fun working through them even if the specifics are a bit hazy now.

There’s a few other features changes such as the vastly improved save system, how neat the motion controlled bug net is, the forgettable item forging system and the way the Ghirahim fights differ from bosses of yore but I’ve harped on enough by now. Actually that reminds me, the musical instrument this time is a harp that I completely forgot about until just now.

I feel like what with the world at stake, orchestral score, good vs evil and the classic heroes journey associated with the series and its relentless sincerity that my final summation should have a sense of grandeur to it….

Skyward Sword. It’s lovely.


bollocks that went badly

1: As I understand it, Wind Waker’s combat had some depth to it but I’m speaking here from my time with Ocarina, Twilight Princess and top down Zelda games

And now the latest installment in our intern’s quest to get soundbites from Miister X about the games.

“From: /!// I know full well Moustachia isn’t a country, and if it is, it probably doesn’t have a royal family, and certainly not one with the degree of control you suggest as such regimes have long since been in decline. I don’t give a damn about any of the games you mentioned. In fact I don’t give a damn about any games. Or websites. Or music not made in 1995. Or men’s hair products. How did I get on this again? Oh yeah…. QUIT EMIALING ME. [sic]”

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