Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
11th Nov 2011 | 08:00
SPOILER WARNING: This review contains minor gameplay spoilers related to items and dungeons. If you want to go in completley fresh, skip to the score.
There is a piece of cleverness at the heart of Skyward Sword's desert region that is pure Nintendo. Link discovers shards of timeshift stones; crystals that, once struck, create a temporary window to the past.
Within a five-metre radius the sand sprouts grass, rusted mine carts' wheels are greased and a race of automaton miners whir back to life. If enemies from the past accidentally leave the area they age to a pile of bones, and if enemies from the future accidentally enter, they revert to harmless infancy. Even the soundtrack rediscovers its oomph, as if what was heard in the present was some distant echo carried on the winds.
Isn't this the Zelda experience in a nutshell? Listen to the right audio cue or discover a certain item and we're engulfed in a temporary bubble of 1986, 1992, 1998 - or whenever it was you first entered Hyrule. For some it's the do-do-do-doo of an item get. For others, a yelping spin attack. For this writer, one blast of fairy fountain and he's back in his living room on Christmas Day, puking with joy over an Ocarina cartridge.
Detractors say Nintendo rely on these building blocks to a fault; nostalgia verging on recycling. Skyward Sword aims to quiet dissent for good by telling the tale of how some of these icons came to be, and by telling it in the most radical Zelda to date.
How radical? Try this on for size: 'light the torch' puzzles have been extinguished for good. A brutal ideas cull sees Nintendo HQ's skip piled high with pressure pads, boomerangs, crate conundrums, timed switches and coloured tunics. In their stead, Nintendo visit Puzzle Ikea and return with their car groaning under the weight of new level furniture.
Timeshift stones are joined by eyeball locks, wind-blown swings, Tarzan vines and thirsty doors. Yes, doors demanding a tasty beverage to unlock. It's the Samuel L Jackson of Zelda puzzles. Innovations continue late into the game, where impromptu spelunking and a misbehaved musical score wait to bamboozle puzzle-fatigued minds.
More importantly, ideas get the space to breathe. Rather than wither in dungeon crannies they underpin entire buildings. A disused mining facility becomes a showcase for timeshifts as Link clears present day debris while unwittingly rebooting the deadly production lines of the past. And a later fire temple revitalises the most hackneyed of settings by focusing on cooling magma canals with succulent berries.
It's great to see Skyward Sword's architects reject the old thinking that dungeons must be defined by the items found in them. That line of thought was exhausted by Twilight Princess, and Nintendo are wise to move on.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT
Skyward Sword mines such a rich ideas vein that many dungeon elements overflow, spilling into the field. Before descending into puzzling crypts (each entrance gets a cutscene where our hero steels himself for the horrors to come) Link has already raided volcanic strongholds, hunted camouflaged birds and cranked up ancient power generators.
One second-act highlight sees Link master rickety mine carts, climb a rocky peninsula and infiltrate a pirate hideout all in pursuit of a single dungeon entrance. That's enough adventure to fill an entire game; here it's just another peak in a game with little time for troughs.
Yet, for all its big talk, Skyward Sword is surprisingly economical with space. The Surface - a kind of proto-Hyrule where Link spends 80% of the game - is split into three unconnected regions. Coming from Twilight Princess' hulking continent it sounds stingy. What, no Hyrule Field to gallop across? Instead, every acre is crammed with purpose.
Link's dowsing ability - point the sword and follow the bleeps - is basically an excuse to pump the land with treasure hunts. By the end you're collecting so much tat - Goddess Cubes, upgrade materials, insects, heart containers, rupees, side-quest doodads - you'll wonder if the game was co-developed by Rare circa Donkey Kong 64.
And Nintendo make up for the smaller acreage - although, in fairness, the map dwarfs Ocarina's - by modifying landscapes for meaningful return visits. Some tweaks are small: increased enemy presence, perhaps, or new items hoisting Link to unseen heights. Others renovate entirely, turning safe ground treacherous and turning dry ground... wet.
Returning to trodden ground to find it sodden ground isn't just a great surprise, it taps into a surrealist beauty we'd typically associate with Mario Galaxy. In comparison, Hyrules of old feel stubbornly averse to change, preset locations destined to play out in an endless repeating loop. Skyward's Hyrule is a place where things... happen.
DEFENCE OF THE REALM
Link's trips to a temporary dual world, the Silent Realm, aren't quite the big deal we hoped for. In this world, you pacify masked pursuers by gobbling mystic fruit. The unusual blend of parkour and stealth is novel and diverting, but never a substantial challenge. What could be a devious design - the more fruit you grab the less fruit there is to save you - fails to ramp up to palm-moistening levels.
It gave us our fair share of heart-in-mouth escapes (the clanging industrial music is heaps scarier than anything in Wii's Silent Hill), but we never failed more than twice. No biggie - Silent Realm constitutes 30 minutes of a central quest that runs to 35 hours.
And that's a blinkered 35 hours. Get stuck into Link's home in the clouds, and the figure grows. Up here, Skyward Sword plays like Wind Waker in fast forward: fewer islands, closer together. What the sky lacks in breadth (you can flap from one end to the other in three minutes) it makes up for in height.
Dismounting into a tumbling skydive taps into that same brief thrill felt at the start of Wii Sports Resort, only here the sensation is on tap. Despite adding minutes to journeys, we found ourselves flapping to the invisible ceiling just to hear the wind whooshing past our ears as we fell back down again. If you remember to pull Link's parachute in time, even better.
Nintendo fill the void with big characters. Skyloftians are a weird bunch. Link rubs shoulders with saucer-eyed psychics, hen-pecked husbands and lovelorn school bullies. Best not rub shoulders with the clown on Fun Fun Island. Take a nap until the evening and you discover a buzzing nightlife: the local watering hole gets rowdy, shopkeepers drop their sycophantic grins and something odd emerges from the school toilet.
It's a sense of place to rival Majora's Mask's Clock Town. As in that game you end up running laps of the town, terrified of missing the cast's bizarro antics. Our favourite is the item check girl who may or may not be slapping on more makeup every time Link visits.
Skyward Sword's character work is flawless. Link's rivalry with school bully Groose fleshes out a franchise traditionally given over to sullen lone wolf behaviour (literally so in Twilight Princess). Likewise, the tomboyish Zelda is the first of her lineage we've genuinely wanted to save. Her touchy-feely relationship with Link is both fanboy-pleasing - releasing 25 years of pent-up sexual tension - and the beating heart of the most charming Zelda yarn to date.
We'll even admit to a few goosebumps as their fates dramatically ricochet off one another throughout the tale. Needless to say, this is the hardest we've seen her work for top billing.
Zelda faces stiff competition from Fi, Link's ethereal sidekick. Nintendo's localisation team put in a career best performance bringing this steely madam to life. Whether delivering horrible odds of survival or boiling fantastical wonders down to cold, hard statistics, she's an absolute hoot. But more than a depository for maths jokes, she contributes heavily to the sense of wide-eyed wonder that defines the best Zeldas.
Watching her ancient memories bubble to the surface as delicate dance routines are moments of unforgettable magic - like Twilight Princess' moonlight wolf songs, only without the urge to throw a shoe at the caterwauling mongrels.
If we've not talked much about the sword she sprouts from - and the motion controls that wield it - it's because we've spent the last year, and roughly 20,000 words, praising it. Simply put: MotionPlus swordplay is the death of the button. At least as far as Zelda is concerned.
Nintendo masterfully tread the fine line between one-to-one freedom and baffling simulation. Fact is, we're not master swordsmen. Give us a true one-to-one blade and we'd be vanquished by the first bush we encountered. What Nintendo do is massage amateur flailings into the dynamic cuts pictured in the mind's eye.
Building enemies with clear directional weaknesses - a vertical jaw flap, a horizontal armour chink - gives us targets to aim for. Cutting a robotic totem along a glowing blue seam doesn't feel like nannying, it feels awesome. How could it not: you just cut a robotic totem in half. Some duels require perfect precision blows, others champion nimble-footed flurries: MotionPlus handles both with aplomb.
Plenty of games call themselves role-playing, but very few ask us to play the role with such physical conviction. When you stand on the deck of a sinking ship lopping clean through a sea beast's tentacles, that victory honestly feels like it belongs to you.
As for the rest of Link's kitbag? The greatest trick MotionPlus ever pulled was convincing the world it didn't exist. Bar some moves borrowed from Wii Sports Resort - bombs can be rolled underarm with directional spin - MotionPlus provides invisible assistance. Gyroscopes prove capable of replicating pointer controls, removing the need to aim at the sensor bar. One D-pad tap centres the cursor and you're good to go.
Compare this to Twilight Princess' jittery, demanding controls - "aim at the screen, STUPID" - and you realise just how crudely that game was ported to Wii. These aren't just great Zelda controls, these are great Wii controls. And we need to keep the sensor bar, why?
Skyward Sword also addresses Twilight Princess' item bloat. Where that game's outlandish kit gathered dust after amazing dungeon debuts - spinner, anyone? - this toolkit is tight and tidy. Puzzles keep the majority of them in constant circulation (although the slingshot is inevitably superseded by the bow) and the odd surprise upgrade reinvents a couple in ways you wouldn't imagine.
Our only nit-pick concerns the game's more general upgrade system - the game is so delicately balanced for Link's core items, meddling with them seems totally uncalled for. Though we will admit that our reinforced shield saved our bacon many a time...
The fact that Zelda even attempts an upgrade system is an indication of the series' desire for change. More specifically, to step out of the shadow of Ocarina Of Time - a game whose legendary status has loomed over every subsequent adventure. In the wake of Twilight Princess - an unashamed Ocarina tribute act - Skyward Sword seems especially bolshy.
We wonder, in fact, if the game has gone too far: in rejecting the open world (or illusion of one), natural day/night cycles and - gasp - fishing minigame, it might upset a few people. Well, people will need something to blub about now there's no sunrise over Lake Hylia.
Us? We welcome the change. We'd shake it by the hand if ours wasn't busy batting energy projectiles into a parasitic worm's face. Zelda, a series primarily about stepping up and taking the hard path, was veering worryingly close to sitting back and putting its feet up. As we've learnt from the brilliant timeshift stones, the past has its uses, but dwelling there isn't going to help the princesses of the present.
Skyward Sword simply has the guts to practise what it preaches. Here is a Link of unparalleled courage: volcano-diving, pirate-duelling, dragon-outwitting, prison-escaping - and all for a girl he's too polite to kiss. And here is the game willing to keep pace.
Pitched early on as a Master Sword origins story, is Skyward Sword really where the Zelda myth begins? We can believe it. Nintendo have crafted an adventure to resonate through the digital ages: wide of eye, pure of heart and wavy of arm. Forget timeshift stones: Link's latest takes us back and forward. To icons we loved in the past, and new icons we'll love for years to come.
In every sense of the word: legendary.