Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review

Gameplay (7/10): Skyward Sword (SS) is the first Zelda I've come across that I'd consider a mixed bag. On one hand, SS has what is perhaps the best level design of the entire series. The entire overworld of SS harkens back to A Link to the Past and the Oracles games in that it is a dungeon in itself filled with enemies and puzzles; all of which is very well executed in challenging the player to reach the dungeons. The dungeons themselves also have truly superb level design in that they have some of the best puzzle design in the series. The puzzles themselves have a flavor that is slightly different from those of past Zelda games save for maybe Spirit Tracks in that they are more than simply using the dungeon item in key ways to progress. This is aided even further by SS's execution of dungeon items, which are used throughout the entire game rather than only in the dungeon they are found in. SS also has the new factor of platforming placed in its gameplay execution, which allowed the developers to make even more unique level design. When in the overworld and dungeons, SS is a fun and enjoyable experience; that is, until motion control comes into play.

When approaching the combat in SS, Nintendo really wanted to utilize motion controls. In theory (and on paper) everything Nintendo wanted to do sounds great, but in practice it becomes more of a chore than an enjoyable part of the gameplay. Combat in SS can be either as simple and satisfying as it was in the Wii version of Twilight Princess, or it can become a trial of frustration and confusion. Simple enemies can be defeated with simple "waggle controls", while tougher enemies need more precision ... or do they? When it comes down to it, all one needs to do in combat is wait for the enemy to attack, parry that attack with your shield, and then essentially "button mash" an enemy to death. This method even works on a few bosses. This method is much easier than having to wait and look for a precise angle to attack the enemy, which by the time you've seen it, may be gone. Overall, combat is more of a chore, than an immersive gameplay element. It doesn't make the player "feel like he/she is actually sword fighting", it's more of a test of hand-eye coordination, something everyone may not be good at. Personally, I think Nintendo should have included some type of easy mode for younger children playing the game. I didn't find swordplay particularly hard, I simply found it to be more frustrating than fun. Then there is the element of swimming, which is also a gameplay element marred slightly by motion control. The difficulty in swimming is slightly confusing considering Super Mario Galaxt 1 & 2 had fine swimming controls. The added element of motion-plus feels uneccessary considering the actions needed to defeat certain enemies is usually never more complex than what the non-motion plus motion controls of TP offered (vertical and horizontal slashes, and the stab). TP didn't require one to be as precise as SS, and as a result, was much less specific about where the player needed to slash. Opting for TP's control scheme would have removed a decent amount of the frustration SS's motion controls had, as the player wouldn't have needed to be so precise. But, I digress, for overall I'll take a controller over motion controls any day.

As far as the execution of the adventure is concerned, it is quite disappointing, because the entire game is constructed of fetch-quests. And, surprisingly, these fetch-quests are what make up the 30-hour adventure. As a result of this quest structure, there is practically no sense of exploration or discovery. This is made even more clear due to there being only 3 areas of the overworld to explore, all of which are very linear. It's as if SS might as well have been divided into chapters/stages a la Super Mario.

Also, a minor gripe I have with the game is the 2-3 second load-time when entering the town of Skyloft from the sky. This load-time surprises me as Wind Waker didn't require such a thing for any of it's islands. Why couldn't SS have the same, especially considering it's on a (slightly) more powerful console?

Graphics (5/10): I understand that SS is for the Wii, and that Nintendo was going for a more artistic approach with the graphics, but that is no excuse for SS looking the way it does on a technical level. Outside of some key characters like Link, Zelda, Groose, Girahim, and some of the bosses; the character models look only slightly better than those seen in Majora's Mask. Furthermore, animations outside of the key character are disappointing as well. So much of SS just looks, for lack of a better term, old. These are all technical gripes though, but, unfortunately, SS doesn't do much better on an artistic level. The Zelda series has had some of the most beautiful and immersive set-pieces in gaming, and yet SS looks extremely bland and boring. The overworld is very plain and desperately lacking in detail. The result is a menagerie of forgettable set-pieces and characters. Dungeons have a stronger art direction than the overworld, but still lacks much impact outside of one Asian-themed dungeon. SS also uses a graphic "filter" that gives the environments far away from the player to appear blurry in order to evoke a sense of distance; this effect works for the most part, but there aren't many instances where this effect can be appreciated, and the removal of this filter would have probably benefited the game's graphics more in that it would allow the colors to be more pronounce. Nintendo systems have never been power-houses, but their games have impressed graphically as a result of strong art directions and little details. Unfortunately, SS is not one of the games that follows this trend, and after Nintendo has released the superb-looking Super Mario Galaxy games, there is no excuse for SS to look the way it does. Even TP, a game developed for the previous console generation, looks better than its big brother. Nintendo has said that more money went into SS than any other Nintendo game; I'd like to ask where all that money went, because it sure wasn't the graphics.

Music (5/10): Probably my biggest disappointment with SS. The Zelda series has some of the most memorable soundtracks in videogame history, and yet SS has some of the most forgettable and uninspired music of any flagship Nintendo series. The music isn't particularly bad, as it gets the atmosphere of the environments across, but it simply isn't memorable or good at really immersing the player into the environment as past pieces like Kakariko Village in ALttP or the Spirit Temple in OoT did for their environments. SS is also the first Zelda where I felt like voice acting would have truly benefitted the experience, especially with Girahim, who has so much dialouge in his scenes where he exudes grunts and screams, and it all comes across as unsatisfying because it's as if there was once voice acting, but Nintendo removed it.

Story (5/10): SS tries to create a bond between the player and its key characters, but ultimately fails in this execution save for one character. SS's iteration of Link is one of the most boring in the series, as there is simply little interesting about him and his origin, unlike past Link's such as those in OoT and WW who had emotional ties to their origins/homes; furthermore, SS's Link design looks far too similar to the one in TP, thus creating a feeling of "been there, done that" with the player's avatar this time around. SS's iteration of Zelda started off with potential, but is ultimately reduced to a Princess Peach role, which is a shame considering Zelda's have gotten stronger and stronger with each new Zelda game since OoT. Fi is by far, the worst partner Link has had in the series, for she has absolutely no personality and simply acts as a helper AI for the player and nothing else. Her ties into the story are there, but they're so subtle that it fails to save her character. At least her character design is good. Girahim, the antagonist of SS, is an exuberant and original villain, but one who doesn't have much of a presence by the game's end due to the fact that the player simply doesn't see him much. And a big surprise, is that the game's most likable character turns out to be Groose, a character I initially thought would be a simple stereotype. Groose receives more character development than any other character and ends up feeling like more of a hero than anyone else (in terms of character at least). One of the main points of SS's story was to give us the origin story of the series; this SS does, but with mixed results. The origin of "The Legend of Zelda" is pretty good, and helps to explain a few key elements in the series' lore, but the origin of Ganondorf just felt lazy. Nintendo has shown that a Zelda game can have clever and emotional stories filled with endearing characters with Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Majora's Mask, and Spirit Tracks; so for SS to have the story that it did, even after having a huge burden placed on its shoulders, disappoints me. Overall, a forgettable story.

Replay Value (5/10): The appeal of SS comes from its level design and puzzles. As a result, replay value isn't particularly high because the player will know how to solve the puzzles on the second playthrough, and since the story, music, and graphics are anything really special, there's not too much to come back to. There are a number of side-quests to take, but they're all mainly simple fetch-quests, and don;t require too much effort from the player. A more difficult mode opens up for the player after the first playthrough, but I imagine that would simply create more frustration than satisfaction.

Satisfaction (5/10): It is very disappointing to be so unsatisfied by a Zelda game, as this series is one of my favorites in gaming, but that it truly what SS has done. The story isn't compelling, emotional, or immersive due to weak characters and weak story execution. The level design is superb, and I had a lot of fun with the great puzzles and dungeon designs, but the combat created road-blocks in the smooth ride of the level design. For me, the most satisfying element of Zelda games comes from the atmosphere and sense of adventure they create through their use of graphics, music, and story, but, unfortunately, SS fell short in all three of those categories. SS was a fine ride while it lasted, but it's one I will quickly forget.


The score I should give it - (7/10): At the end of it all, gampelay counts the most, and SS did provide great level design, which simultaneously shifted itself away from the standard Zelda formula of past games. Nintendo deserves credit for trying to change their formula execution while also developing motion-gameplay to a more complex level. It simply resulted with a mixed result containing both fun and frustration.

The score I want to give it - (5.5/10): I loved some of the puzzles in this game, but it really wasn't anything too new, as Spirit Tracks provided puzzles that were just as clever. When it comes down to it, I find that Spirit Tracks shows the direction I want the Zelda series to move in, not SS. ST's level design may not have been as complex as SS, but its puzzles were just as clever, and ST also had superb story, characters, music, and much better boss battles. The Zelda series truly has potential to grow in both quality and execution; SS was Nintendo's attempt at that, and, imo, it failed. Nintendo has continually built the Zelda series higher and higher with each new console entry, save for Spirit Tracks, which easily rivals its console brothers; however, SS felt like a big step backwards in terms of presentation. SS may evolve the level design of the series, but the two previous Zelda games, TP and ST, easily outperform SS in terms of overall satisfaction.

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