Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii) Review

Skyward Sword is quite the package, mixing many elements from past installments of the series and introducing many of its own creation.  It's an experience to remember and let's get right into the why and how of that statement.

As many have been quick to point out, this is the first game in the series to use orchestral music.  On the whole, the music of the game is quite beautiful.  There's little to complain about in the arrangements and, while I admitted in an earlier post to turning down the volume when it came to one particular track, it's a very good soundtrack.
Some problems start to come in the the volume mixing.  There are considerable jumps in how loud the game gets sometimes and it can be quite annoying.  I suppose one could attribute that to the game taking a more cinematic approach than the series has tried in the past, getting a realism out of the audio in that sense, but it is still quite troublesome if you happen to live in an environment not fond to sudden bursts of sound.
In general, the game uses exactly the kinds of sound effects you would expect to hear from what they're used for.  It's nothing too fancy but the Wii remote's built-in speaker does get a good amount of usage.

If you've played earlier 3D Zelda titles, you'll feel right at home with Skyward Sword; for better or worse.  Dialogue is still handled entirely through text boxes.  As usual, all voicework is made of generic gibberish, though some of it with a lot of character.  Early in the game, you'll find Zelda singing and, while the vocal track doesn't actually contain any real words, it sounds quite beautiful.
The heads-up display elements have been revamped slightly.  When first starting the game, you'll notice a bit of clutter thanks to the default display showing a transparent icon of the Wii remote to the right side of the screen with all the functions labeled.  After completing some of the introductory tasks, you get the option of leaving it as it is or either having just the buttons on-screen, or totally removing the HUD all together.
All of the game's cut-scenes use the in-game graphics.  You will not find any sudden jumps in the visual quality during dramatic story moments.  Due to the stylized graphics, this handling of cut-scenes works perfectly well.
The overworld has a somewhat "Wind Waker done right" quality to it.  Beginning the game in 'Skyloft', a floating island town, you go from one location to another by way of flying across the clouds on your pet 'loftwing' bird.  The sky is a large expanse, similar to Wind Waker's 'Great Sea', and is essentially a hub to enter each of the major areas.  While the series has, again, made the mistake of making an overworld hub that is too large for the content that's been put into it, the mistake is far less tedious this time around.  The disconnect between content and size has been reduced greatly.
In any case, the sky is enjoyable to travel.  It looks pretty and there's still a good amount of content to be found when you keep your eyes peeled.
Like most entries into the series, music plays an important role in Skyward Sword's plot but is severely downplayed when compared to previous Zelda games.  Playing songs no longer depends on you to input unique sets of notes and the songs themselves are only performed a couple times each at prefixed locations.
Story elements are treated very well, often with very fantastical imagery and accompanying music.  You'll never be at a loss wondering if what you're seeing is important.

Ever since E3 of last year, Miyamoto has been especially adamant about pushing how beautiful the game looks thanks to the "painted look" approach.  Miyamoto is, himself, a fan of impressionist art so it's no surprise that he seems so happy with Skyward Sword's visuals; they do look very good and very painterly.  However, E3 2010 also gave us some high-resolution screenshots of an early build of the game.  It's a bit sad to say that those are as good as the game has ever looked and ever will look so long as it's played on the Wii's native hardware.  The painted look has been pulled off well in the textures and the shading engine, but the effect is somewhat lost in standard definition.
The aforementioned screenshots were taken from developer's kits that were capable of displaying higher resolutions than the Wii itself outputs too and some of them came really close to actually looking like paintings.
Still, the impressionist look makes the most of the limited hardware and pegs the game among the Wii's best-looking titles.  While you might notice that some of the character models are a bit 'low-poly', there's certainly nothing that can be called outright ugly.

Without a doubt, Skyward Sword has the best-written story of any The Legend of Zelda title to date.  Plot-twists and engaging character development abound, this is a considerable step up for a series that hardly ever had bad stories to begin with.
The setup is more or less the basic setup you've heard before from most games in the series.  Zelda gets pulled from her usual life and it's up to Link to go rescue her.  However, when you really set out on your adventure is where you start to realize you're in for a whole lot more than you would previously expect.
From the beginning, you can start to see more care put into the story than usual.  All the characters you'll find in Skyloft have their own lives and Zelda and Link have their own history with each other.
A little bit into the game, you're introduced to Ghirahim, our central antagonist.  Ghirahim is a wonderfully disturbing villain and his character development is arguably the best to behold in the whole game.
Considering Skyward Sword (like Minish Cap before it) was intended as the earliest point of the Zelda timeline, it does a decent and somewhat ambiguous job of setting up the rest of the series.  In fact, the game even ends on a note that you could say gives a tragic quality to the series as a whole.

When the 'Codename: Revolution's' controller was first unveiled as a TV-remote-like device with a motion sensor, fans of The Legend of Zelda were thrilled to be able to play the next installment in a way that would actually let them swing the Master Sword around.  First, Twilight Princess was ported to the Wii from the Gamecube and actually released for the Wii before the Gamecube, and included motion control support.  However, swinging the remote in Twilight Princess equated to nothing more than a replacement for the B button.  You still needed to tilt the control stick forward to stab, and the angle of your swings could only be controlled in preset ways.
Roughly 5 years hence, Skyward Sword has finally given Zelda gamers the opportunity to truly control the Master Sword with their own motions.  Using the MotionPlus, you can control the angle of your swings just as you would using a real sword; by actually swinging at those angles.  Additionally, you can stab by actually performing a stabbing motion...and all of it works exceedingly well.
Before Skyward Sword, Red Steel 2 was pretty much the only game the Wii had to offer where you could get '1:1' swordplay but there were some glaring issues; motions never seemed like they were being translated perfectly and the MotionPlus itself needed to be calibrated far too often.  The newest Zelda title, on the other hand, has neither of these issues.
The swordplay truly is 1:1, and calibration of the MotionPlus is extremely rare, if needed at all.  About the only flaw that can be found in the MotionPlus's performance is it's occasional losing track of the pointer.  Unlike most Wii titles, the pointer in Skyward Sword is not handled by a combination of the sensor bar and the Wii remote's infrared camera.  When first starting up the game, you will be asked to calibrate the MotionPlus and the pointer and following that, you can unplug the sensor bar.  The MotionPlus handles the pointer which allows you to point away from the TV without the game totally losing track of your pointer.  However, this method also has the trade-off of having the pointer move much slower.
Sometimes, the MotionPlus will think you are pointing away from the TV when you're not however and this is the one actual problem here.  However, the game allows you to press Down on the Wii remote's D-Pad to instantly recenter the pointer if it appears to be out of alignment.  While the problem is a little annoying, the solution is extremely quick and easy.
Outside of the swordplay, you'll find that motion controls are actually used for just about every tool in your arsenal and it all feels very natural and refined.
Since this is a Zelda game, you're going to be encountering lots of puzzles and monsters and, since this game has been designed so heavily around motion controls, fighting monsters is often like it's own puzzle.  Many enemies will guard against certain angles of attack and you'll need to approach them accordingly.  Several enemies will also pay attention to your approach and attempt to change their guard before you attack.  Sometimes you need to be quick to hit them before they counter, others you need to wait it out for an opportunity.  Most every battle requires you to take a calculated approach and understand what you're fighting before you make your first movie.  Otherwise, you'll be losing some hearts.

Avoiding major spoilers, this is about as far as I can go talking about the game.  The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is, at least in my opinion, the best use of motion controls in gaming today, the best action-adventure title the Wii has to offer and, yes, the best title in The Legend of Zelda series.

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