Personal Score: 6.0
Skyward Sword has proven to be one of the most polarizing entries in the franchise. The reviews have been mostly positive, which is to be expected of a Zelda title, but it has been subject to a few precise points of criticism; specifically, the controls and the inclusion of Fi. Game Informer praised the controls in their review, while GameSpot found them “cumbersome.” Within the Zelda fan community, the polarization is even more apparent. Fans of the game love the controls, while detractors can’t stand them. Link’s traveling companion is also the subject of debate among fans. Fi is very robotic and stoic in her demeanor, which turned off a good portion of players. Additionally, Fi is constantly talking to Link, giving him statistical analysis and letting him know that the Wii-mote is low on battery life. Fi also adds another layer to the franchise’s lore, giving sentience to the legendary Master Sword, which has been a large part of the series since A Link to The Past. These factors and some others combine to put Skyward Sword in an odd place amongst the rest of the entries in the series. While it is a massive adventure filled with shining moments of gaming bliss, it is marred by design flaws that keep it from true Zelda greatness. Despite strong controls and a solid story, Skyward Sword is bogged down by lazy and uninspired design choices across the board. It has pretty skin, but it is almost completely hollow beneath the surface.
The first thing I’d like to address about Skyward Sword are the controls. I found them to be overwhelmingly well done, especially in the wake of the Wii version of Twilight Princess’ awkward motion controls. I found combat to be fluid and traversing Skyloft a breeze. Combat in particular felt great, as if I were actually participating in actual swordplay. A good example of this is during the first boss encounter with Ghirahim, the primary antagonist throughout most of the game. The encounter forces you to use specific strokes to penetrate Ghirahim’s defenses, and punishes you if you flail the Wii-mote about with reckless abandon. Successfully vanquishing an enemy is incredibly satisfying, even more so than the encounters found in Zelda titles that only require button-presses. Additionally, moving Link about the world (on land or in the air) is almost relaxing. Link and his Loftwing respond to the Wii-motion Plus almost perfectly. I had no problems flying the skies or rolling around the landscape. After experiencing the controls of Skyward Sword, it was almost a shame to return to the more traditional controls of previous entries.
The story in Skyward Sword is pretty solid fare, especially when comparing it to other entries in the franchise. In the official canon, Skyward Sword is the first entry in the series. There is no Hyrule kingdom established, and as such there is no Kingdom of Hyrule (go figure). This puts the responsibility of ‘central hub’ onto the shoulders of Skyloft, where the descendants of the Goddess Hylia reside. Zelda is the direct descendant of Hylia, and Link is the reincarnation of the very first Hero. Below Skyloft are the remnants of the original world that Hylia created and subsequently abandoned after the war with Demise. The lore included in Skyward Sword has spurred many discussions between players regarding the great war between the Goddess Hylia and Demise, the first great evil. Many, like myself, hope that Nintendo will pursue these story elements in future entries into the series.
Skyward Sword follows the standard Zelda formula: Link and Zelda are thrust into a conflict between the forces of good and evil and must obtain the triforce in order to contain the evil of Demise (who returns in subsequent entries in the canon as Ganondorf). Zelda finds herself in the position of ‘damsel in distress’ once again, but is not officially captured until the final moments of the story. More often, Zelda is traveling the surface world with her guardian Impa, driving the core plot forward a few steps ahead of Link (who is really good at showing up just after Zelda leaves the scene). Following the groundwork set by previous entries in the series, Skyward Sword is able to pen an interesting narrative without straying very far from the Zelda storytelling formula.
The core cast of characters stand out in the franchise as more fleshed out/developed. Link himself is the standard steadfast hero with courage to spare. Link has traditionally been mostly vapid and hollow, which allows the player to step into his shoes and make each adventure their own. In Skyward Sword, Link is given more of a personality, similar to the Link in Twilight Princess (albeit to a greater extent in SS). He’s a young man faced with countless perils, both domestic and foreign (that might not make any sense, but it made me chuckle, so I went with it). Link’s facial animations are very expressive in Skyward Sword. You can see the look of determination in his face when his eyebrows crease and his gaze intensifies. You can see his surprise when Zelda shoves him off platforms. Skyward Sword Link is definitely a welcome change from the walking mannequin seen in other entries. He carries himself like a hero would, brave and determined in the face of danger. The look he gives Demise before the battle begins would have been enough to end the fight against a lesser opponent.
I’m gonna make you SO dead…
Zelda is also more fleshed out as a character in Skyward Sword. The Legend of Zelda is not a series known for it’s complex or evolving characters, but SS Zelda is a standout in the series. She transitions from a carefree girl with a bubbly attitude to a reluctant participant in the fight against Demise, displaying visible difficulty with the massive burdens of saving the world. The difficulty of dealing with her inherited hardships shows in her face during the cutscenes. In one particularly touching scene, the look of pure joy on Zelda’s face when she’s briefly reunited with Link in Lanayru Desert is animated beautifully.
Despite my love for the controls, I did struggle occasionally. Some standout moments in the game that I found myself frustrated with the controls occurred in the game’s second dungeon and the final encounter with Demise. In the Earth Temple, there’s a segment that requires you to navigate a pool of lava with a large stone sphere. I frequently found myself unable to get Link to move forward carefully enough to avoid slamming into debris or avoid oncoming enemy attacks. This is an instance where traditional Zelda controls would have been appreciated. During the encounter with Demise at the end of the game, Link is required to use the Skyward Strike to attack Demise. The Skyward Strike is not the easiest move to use, and this boss encounter requires you to employ it quickly during the onslaught of your foe’s own sword strikes. The Skyward Strike is fickle, not always activating when you think you’ve got the Wii-mote just right. It took me a few tries before I could put Demise away for good, and it didn’t feel like it was because I lacked the skills to defeat my foe; it felt more like the controls weren’t allowing me defeat to my foe.
Where Skyward Sword really falls flat is in the design department. In terms of overworld layout and dungeon progression, Skyward Sword does nothing to provide a unique experience. You’ve got your forest temple, your fire temple, your desert wasteland, your water temple (which is actually the forest temple under water) and your ‘temple of the gods’…uh…temple. Even the color coding is cookie-cutter Zelda (green forest temple, red fire temple, etc). Progressing through these temples feels like a predictable romp through archived pages of the publishers drawing boards. Given the potential for a sprawling post apocalyptic world, it’s disappointing to see only one dungeon really explore a ruined and war-torn past. Instead, Nintendo decided to stick with tired themes that seem overdone and lazy.
More so than the design of the world, Skyward Sword feels lazy and lifeless in the character design department. Friend and foe alike appear to be soulless afterthoughts. The residents of Skyloft are all walking cliches with no distinguishing personalities. You’ve got the friendly teaching staff/mentors, town bully and his cronies, the over-achieving classmates, the vapid shopkeepers, and the token round-faced children that run around chasing bugs. Almost none of them are included in cutscenes, and they certainly do nothing to enhance the plot (with the exception of Groose, who magically turns into a good guy in the second half of the game). The enemies are even bigger offenders in this department. Moblins are bright red, cherub-faced goofballs that wouldn’t frighten a toddler. Even the large Moblins are simply obese versions of the standard Moblin. The boss designs are easily the worst in the history of the console Zelda games. Ghirahim has loads of personality, but instead of scary and villainous, he comes across as goofy and awkward. All the subsequent bosses look like preschool art projects (you don’t have the heart to tell them that they suck). The worst offenders are Scaldera and Tentalus. I literally laughed aloud to myself when they showed themselves to face Link.
PLEASE DON’T SQUISH ME WITH YOUR PLAY-DO ARMS! I WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FIND YOUR WEAK SPOT!
The laziness and uninspired design of the NPCs and enemies is a huge disappointment in a series that historically features very memorable and unique characters. The lack of soul in Skyward Sword’s characters contributes to what inevitably becomes a forgettable experience.
It’s time to touch on Fi. Fi is, quite literally, the worst thing to happen to the Zelda franchise since fan fiction became assumed canon (in my humble opinion). Not only is Fi intrusive and annoying, she complicates the Zelda lore in an unnecessary fashion. Fi is essentially the spirit of the Master Sword, and following the conclusion of the game, remains inside the Master Sword. This means she is present in previously released Zelda games that follow Skyward Sword in the series’ canon. This has lead to several theories about why Link can wield the Master Sword in every other game, including the theory that Fi is responsible for choosing Link as the Hero of each story. This is not a decision I’m very willing to accept. Before Skyward Sword, the Master Sword was simply ‘The Blade of Evil’s Bane.’ It was a tool of righteousness and justice, wielded by Link to strike down Ganon. Now, it’s a sentient being that can potentially make decisions. This is a shallow and unnecessary layer added to the Zelda lore, and one that I will consciously ignore as more Zelda games are developed.
The last thing to note about Skyward Sword is that it’s a very, very slow start. The first hour and a half are all about teaching the player the basics (which is a pretty common theme in 3D Zelda games), starting with moving. This isn’t much of an annoyance during the first playthrough, but it is very grating during subsequent playthroughs. I’ve only played through Skyward Sword twice, and I stopped playing after half an hour during my third playthrough. I simply did not have the stomach to hear an explanation of running and navigating the menu. On a similar note, Skyward Sword commits the Twilight Princess sin of repeating ‘item acquisition’ cutscenes. Every time you pick up a collectible bug, you get to read it’s description and see it added to your collection in the menu. This almost made me want to stop collecting bugs altogether, for fear of that damn mini cutscene.
Skyward Sword is a necessary step in the evolution of the Zelda series in terms of gameplay, but it is a definite misstep in terms of providing a unique, imaginative Zelda experience. Hopefully, subsequent entries in the franchise will take more steps to provide a unique experience with more personality. All in all, I wouldn’t call Skyward Sword a weak entry. However, I certainly wouldn’t call it a strong entry either.