While it enjoyed a lot of hype leading up to its release and marked a major point in the franchise, as it was quickly followed up and heavily featured in the Hyrule Hystoria, people don’t often talk about Skyward Sword nowadays. Even when I first played it I realized the game had a lot of issues, but it wasn’t until I started to replay it that I began to better understand where Nintendo dropped the ball. Perhaps the kindest thing one can say about Skyward Sword is that many of its better ideas were later employed in Breath of the Wild.
More holes than plot
While it wouldn’t be the first time a Zelda game takes place outside of Hyrule, never before has the reason been this interesting. Link and Zelda are students at the knight academy of Skyloft, a city built on a series of islands floating in the sky where people travel around on giant birds. While the people of Skyloft are aware of a land below the thick deck of clouds, none have seen it since the Goddess Hylia created Skyloft to safe mankind from the war on the surface. Things are well and good in Skyloft, until one day Zelda and Link are out flying and a storm knocks Zelda off her bird.
Once Link regains consciousness in his bed, a mysterious girl leads him to the statue of the Goddess where he finds a sword. The girl reveals herself to be the spirit of the sword, an AI-like character created by the Goddess to aid the chosen hero when the time arises. Together with the spirit, Fi, Link sets out to dive beneath the clouds and explore the uncharted surface in search of Zelda.
First off, I enjoy the idea of taking a lot of the status out of the story and making Link and Zelda simple classmates that are already together by the start of the story. Their relationship is cute and it helps get you invested in what is otherwise a standard damsel-in-distress setup. But whereas Midna ended up being Nintendo’s best companion character ever, Fi is perhaps their dullest effort. The attempt to make a dry, computer-like character succeeded and the result is a dry, computer-like character; Fi is boring to have around and instead of doing something to endear her she is instead used to handhold the player to a frankly absurd degree, usually by repeating information and directions another character just provided or by breaking the fourth wall to point out your health or batteries are low, for which the game already has built-in UI elements.
Throughout the game it fails to really establish an emotional tie for me, though I will admit I found some of the characters in Skyloft and below funny. I really appreciate Nintendo went out of their way to really make something new here, with all the different races having a culture not seen before in the series. The Kikwi and Mogma were fun inclusions and I enjoyed how well Skyloft clicked, but Nintendo still falls short when it comes to writing a consistent fantasy story. The sudden inclusion of Hylia in favor of the existing pantheon of Gods feels like a major, lore-altering action for what develops into a pretty silly reason.
The game also doesn’t do justice to the “legend” part of its title, with the plot feeling really unexciting. For much of it, it’s actually Zelda having the exciting fantasy adventure off-screen while Link just traces her steps if he’s not too busy catching butterflies. Zelda games are traditionally formatted around collecting mythical objects, but while the game is about as long as every other 3D title in the series, it feels like it drags on forever as repetition sets in. Every time it feels like you can finally pack it in the game conjures up a new reason for why you need to prove your worth or gather some more mystical souvenirs.
Zelda games have increasingly being pushed into the role of a fantasy epic, egged on by years of fans demanding a coherent timeline and glorifying the series’ story highlights, which has never been Nintendo’s forte. This pressure to do more with story ends up backfiring in various ways, resulting in a plot that some good ideas failing to meet their potential.
Story score: 3/10
Digging for gems
In my review of Majora’s Mask I talked about how Zelda games have dungeon time and downtime. Dungeon time is simple: it’s when you are in a dungeon, temple, whatever, and you solve puzzles puzzles to make your way through and beat the boss at the end. The opposite is downtime, when you are outside and can take on side-quests and explore, with the overall goal being finding your way to the next dungeon. Now, in that review I erroneously stated Majora’s Mask had the worst downtime in the series, but that is a feat that belongs to Skyward Sword.
The actual dungeons are fine, if a little on the easy side, but the stuff you do in-between is just boring. I have this tendency where, if a game just bores me for too long at a time, I’ll eventually just switch it off without saving. That happened waaaaaaaaaaaaay more in Skyward Sword than in any other game that comes to mind, because everything takes so long and none of it is particularly exciting. First off, there is no world to explore, you just drop into one of three questing areas from Skyloft where you have a walled-off zone to run around in. These are really small and only slightly non-linear, so in a way it’s just a path of puzzles and simple tasks to unlock the way to the dungeon.
When it’s not hopping around these questing zones you are either fighting The Imprisoned, a recurring and very obnoxious battle, or flying around Skyloft. As many have pointed out: Skyloft feels like an attempt to make the Wind Waker lightning strike twice, as it’s a large, open sea filled with islands to visit. While both are nice to look at, Skyloft is mostly just eye candy, whereas the islands of the Great Sea at least offered some gameplay. Skyloft has one city, one inn, one mini-game, and about 200 floating rocks with nothing of value to do on them. It could have just stuck the inn, city, and mini-game together on one rock and disregarded flying altogether in favor of another way to select the level you want to play in.
The controls work fine, though. Skyward Sword was one of the last games on the Wii and the first Zelda titled developed specifically for this machine, so emphasis is put on the Motion Plus attachment that improves the motion controls. Link’s Sword follows the Wii remote much more smoothly and combat heavily relies on directional attacks to exploit gaps in the enemy’s defense. You can’t just wail away on a foe, you need to strike with precision and care, only swinging with reckless abandon when their guard is broken. 80% of the time the combat is fine, but against some bosses that 20% makes for a lot of frustration as the game misreads your movements when you are naturally more frantic.
Besides the sword there are also motion controls in almost all the items you get. You start off with a slingshot that you need to aim, a little drone you need to fly, and even bombs now have to be thrown or rolled using motion controls; fun to see how the Wii started with bowling in Wii Sports and ended with bowling in Skyward Sword. Here the controls are generally fine too, but you need to recalibrate them an awful lot. It doesn’t take much effort, but especially in a certain boss fight that utilizes the bow it can be a real bother when the pointer stops responding multiple times. Kind of weird this wasn’t an issue in Twilight Princess even though that game wasn’t even made for the Wii to begin with.
A part I do like are the silent realms, where you need to run around a familiar zone and gather tears while being hunted by the realm’s frightening guardians. Gathering a tear will pause the guardians for 90 seconds, but they can be reawakened if Link is spotted by a watcher or touches water. These are really tense challenges because the guardians can knock you out in one hit and you have to seek out these tears on your own. You can gather a fruit that briefly highlights where they are, but getting there is half the battle.
Other small touches include the resources you collect and which can be used to improve your potions and items at the bazaar in Skyloft. It’s a small little extra to introduce more RPG elements to the series and I am not wholly opposed to it, but the game also doesn’t quite sell you on these and I got through the whole game without any upgrades at all. The stamina meter is also fun and puts a limiter on Link’s increased mobility, but I found that I quickly forgot about it. Most obstacles are perfectly tuned to match how much stamina you have, whereas I feel they could have introduced items that improve your stamina so they could gate off parts of the world with obstacles too high to climb with the stamina you start with, and give you a sense of progression when you can finally get past them. Just dropping green fruits everywhere that immediately refill the whole meter doesn’t really make the most of the mechanic.
When replaying some games there are parts I look forward to and parts I absolutely dread replaying, and in Zelda games this divide always varies. In Skyward Sword I enjoy some of the dungeons, the silent realm, and a few bits in Lanayru, and that is it. The Imprisoned fights, almost all the in-between stuff, Sky Keep, having to deal with Skyloft. The balance is severely skewed to one side, so despite the controls being somewhat decent and a few good dungeons, I did not have fun with Skyward Sword.
Gameplay score: 3/10
I believe Skyward Sword is the kind of game people actually wanted the controversial Wind Waker to be. Like Ocarina of Time it uses realistically proportioned characters (unlike Wind Waker) and a colorful, anime-like style of art (unlike Twilight Princess). The result is a game that looks good in theory, though the technologically-limited Wii does it few favors. I would have loved to see this game glistening in beautiful full HD, because the actual capabilities of the console don’t quite make the most of it.
While Nintendo made a lot of noise about the inspiration they took from 19th century impressionist painters, I must admit I don’t see the connection at all. Rather I find the game as a whole looks and animates more like an anime, with characters who are bursting with visual personality, like the cocky, fan-favorite Groose, who is presented almost like a jock with a ridiculous haircut. Even Link is occasionally very expressive and the kind of comedic timing used here is almost at the same level as Wind Waker. I could see this being turned into a lighthearted fantasy adventure anime, is my point.
A touch I particularly like is how Fi’s dull personality is turned on its head in her animation. Fi dances around the screen like a ballerina in cutscenes that look stunning and she will also burst into song when you play this game’s magical instrument, the harp. I just wish this side of her was more reflected in her actual personality.
The orchestrated soundtrack used here makes for great background noise, yet that also means few of its tracks are particularly memorable. Fi’s singing and some of the character themes stand out, but besides that I can’t name any songs I was particularly fond off.
Presentation score: 6/10
The power of Kindness
Like always, there are plenty of side-activities to take part in, including hunting for bugs and resources that can then be used to upgrade your equipment and potions with. You can also work towards opening all of the Goddess chests or relax with some mini-games that are spread around the world. There is, however, no fishing, which is a bit of a shame, but also not a first since this enjoyable pastime was introduced in Ocarina of Time.
While Skyward Sword has no overarching side-quests like finding the Biggoron Sword or completing Princess Agita’s collection, a lot of the smaller quests found in Skyloft are united under the goal of gathering “gratitude crystals” for a demon that believes it might turn him human. With currency being as useless as ever in the Zelda universe, using this guy to entice players to seek out all the optional content in Skyloft is a clever move, though I do remember that in my first playthrough I didn’t bother with it much.
Extras score: 7/10
I am particularly rough on Skyward Sword because I hold Zelda games to a high standard, which the conflicted storytelling and thrown-together gameplay doesn’t match at all. While the game looks okay, barring the Wii’s limitation and has some good music, this really is a game you play once, have a pretty good time with, and then never replay because nobody wants to work through its more dreadful parts a second time.