Platform – Wii
Developed and Published by Nintendo
Here’s the thing; Zelda games have been stuck in something of a creative rut since the legendary Ocarina of Time, a game released thirteen years ago. That’s not to say that the follow-ups have been poor efforts, but they’re widely considered to be following the OoT structure. Enter Skyward Sword, on Zelda’s 25th anniversary year, to do something about that. For better and worse. And it really is that simple; SS is one of the most awkward games I’ve played recently because my emotions on it changed quicker than it takes to say ‘fu-‘. In attempting to do something different, Nintendo have kinda…I don’t want to say screwed up, but there’s so much wasted potential it’s disheartening and ultimately, a little disappointing. Let’s investigate!
SS is a prequel to the franchise, producing a fresh approach which has definitely helped in places: characters are more alive, with good dialogue, expressions, mannerisms etc. The characterisation on the main cast is satisfying and endearing. There’s a moment near the beginning that’s such a romantic tease I laughed hard enough to screw up the next bit of the tutorial. Ah yes, that tutorial. This tutorial supposes that you’ve pretty much never played a game before. Sure, let it be there for those who haven’t, but then also give an option for those who know how to push a box to not have to hear this nonsense. This is exacerbated to, at times, beyond Navi levels of annoying with your exposition fairy, a breath away from having a Wiimote flung at their head.
Worse still are the tip-offs of what to do next, occasionally ruining the puzzles! The few times I actually asked for advice, I got nothing of use. In fact the game has a fundamental belief that you need to be guided almost the entire time. Twenty hours in and you’ll still be reminded that being low on health is a bad thing. I know it’s a bad thing! Unless you can magically make some hearts appear, shut the hell up, you’re not helping!
Adapated from Wind Waker, gone is the overworld of Hyrule Field which is replaced with a vacant and utterly boring sky. It is not fun to be in, rarely anything happens. There is no life. Whilst the sailing in WW was maybe a little tedious, you still had things you could do, not to mention teleports. That isn’t available here, so you must fly between your hub town and three areas. Each time you visit these areas, they expand or change in some way, but they’re ultimately the same theme. The lack of connection between them and your hub and the sky just gives a distinct game-level feeling as opposed to a piece of the world resulting in everything feel rather isolated.
On top of this, the pre-dungeon paths can often be longer than the dungeons, but like the dungeons, are for the most part incredibly linear. I was surprised by just how guided the game was. It’s almost as if they need you to explore rather than allowing you to do it on the side. With the amount of linearity in some areas, I was really wondering why on earth there was still hand holding when the objective is made pretty damn clear.
There are exceptions to this; one of the three areas has a pretty cool mechanic that I won’t be spoiling and within it, its two dungeons are pretty cool and maybe the most thought provoking, but ultimately I never really had too much difficulty with any of the dungeons. Perhaps it’s years’ worth of Zelda experience, but they just felt simple. The times I got stuck subsequently ended up being when I missed something completely obvious because I was expecting something harder. Again, there are exceptions, but more often than not I’d be going through a puzzle-infested area and be done. It feels like they were playing it safe.
There are repercussions for this elsewhere too: fetch quests, padding and even repeated boss fights completely obliterated the pacing at certain sections. About three hours in, I was really forcing myself to play through and this happened at a couple of other points too. I reckon you could cut a good five hours from the game and you’d be left with a still-decent-length game with much tighter pacing with little feeling of drag. Again, disappointment; I don’t expect to be forcing myself to play a Zelda title. I should be playing them with an excitement equalled only by other Zeldas.
Whilst boss designs were interesting, with maybe a couple of stand-outs, certain techniques and strategies are not new and came very obviously. Honestly, ‘attack its weak point’ loses all meaning here. That being said, there’s a decent mix-up in the inventory leading to some pretty cool toys. Some are used better than others. They mostly all rely on the motion-plus controller though and with that lies my biggest issue with the game.
Control is the fundamental aspect of any game. You should never be fighting the game to have your inputs be made. The 1:1 sword movement/control is, on paper, brilliant and when it worked, it was pretty satisfying. So now you know that the ‘but’ is a mere second away. Without a 100% success rate, it can get frustrating. Incredibly quickly. For context, I have never hurled so much abuse at any other Zelda game than I have this. The first boss trounced me because it would not recognise my movement properly. Subsequently, I shove more energy into it obviously making it worse.
It doesn’t make things better that, although welcome, this is the hardest Zelda for quite some time. Enemies can come at you in large numbers, but what you need is precision with the time to properly execute. The more enemies, the more time you need, but the less you have. Often enough, flailing worked for me and precision went out the window. Other times, the game simply wouldn’t pick up on correct movement; I’d have to be incredibly lucky if my shield decided to work properly 80% of the time I really needed it.
What’s worse is how these controls are attached to other things. The worst offenders are for flying, swimming and key insertion. The thing is they don’t actually add anything. Instead, they’re just a different way of doing something that’s worked perfectly fine before. I’m not saying they’re totally awful, although swimming proved to be slightly cumbersome at times, but I am saying “If it ain’t broke”. Yet some times, movement was picked up absolutely fine and the game fell into a groove. Ironically, the biggest (only?) risk they took in the game was the one that had the most issues.
Aesthetics are good, although I’m not totally in love with the art style and although it’s lovely to hear fully orchestrated music, I’ll be damned if I can remember more than two songs from the entire game. There were a lot of changes that were safely done and needed to be pushed further. I suppose ‘playing it safe’ permeates even this, with the tempered art to appease the various fans, though that doesn’t explain the music.
There are clearly things that require a close examination, yet underneath all of this, there’s still this pervasive spirit, this…thing that makes you want to keep playing. At its heart it’s a Zelda game. When it has a stand-out moment (although again, I can’t really say anything was astoundingly awesome, something I could say about previous Zeldas) it becomes a great game, but too many times something stupid or silly comes up and the game becomes either frustrating or worse, bad. Still, it’s Zelda. There’s a lot to learn from this experiment, but I find the results so disappointing. There was the chance for so much more, but it was not to be.
Boring Stuff: From start to finish, it took about 32 hours. I dabbled in a few side quests, picked up a few treasure chest things (‘Goddess Cubes’, if you end up playing) and did some bug collecting, although I’m not sure why in the end. I also said a lot of not very nice things to some of the enemies, in particular one recurring boss. This game has, however, made the wait for Darksiders 2 that bit harder.
Boring Stuff 2012 Update: Having played OoT again recently, the companion in SS is miles ahead in annoyance. Darksiders 2, whilst flawed itself, also proved to be far more enjoyable.