Stuck in the Clouds
HIGH The boss in dungeon four.
LOW Inconsistent stabs AND falling off a ledge to be respawned next to a lantern ghost in the Silent Realm.
WTF To open the gate of time, you must attain the three sacred flames. To get the sacred flames, you must acquire the three sacred gifts. To get those, you must procure the fifteen tears of the goddess….
Way back in 2006 when the Wii was first unveiled, the first thought on every gamer's mind (besides the dirty jokes) was the idea of fully interactive sword fighting in a Zelda game. Now, more than five years later, we've been given The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword which supposedly fulfills that dream. Unfortunately, it instead demonstrates every single reason that motion-centric controls are not the future of gaming.
I've generally been a fan of Zelda over the years. The Link to the Past-Ocarina of Time-Majora's Mask arc is one of my favorite sets of games, and Wind Waker was still highly enjoyable, if a bit less so than its predecessors. Twilight Princess, while suffering from many of the same problems that Skyward Sword does, was still worthwhile as well. Skyward Sword sits well below these games on the hypothetical totem pole I'm illustrating here, and the reasons for this begin squarely with the controls.
Skyward Sword's motion controls are often sluggish and unresponsive. There always seems to be a slight delay between when I swing the Wiimote and when Link actually does something, and getting him to swing in the direction I want is usually a pain. This becomes the game's biggest problem, as nearly every enemy has some kind of blocking ability that required me to slash in a particular area. If I didn't do the motion just right, my attack just bounces off and I get to try again.
Motion problems aren't limited to swordplay. The aiming cursor tends to fly off the screen a lot, requiring constant use of the cursor re-centering button. However, when doing things like swimming or piloting the beetle flyer, re-centering isn't an option. In those instances, I just had to put up with the wonkiness until I was finished doing whatever I was doing. Bomb throwing is another huge problem, as the smallest tilt too far downward will cause Link to switch between throw and roll mode, which led to a ton of bombs going off in my hands.
Problems like this make playing the game much more of a struggle than it should be. The slightest twitch can cause an action to misfire, and sometimes it just does the wrong action altogether. Each successive instance where the controls failed me further seared the question into my mind: why can't I just do this stuff by pressing buttons?
None of this is meant to say that motion controls can't ever work. They've been used several times in ways that made the games in question better. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption used the Wiimote for its aiming system, resulting in an interesting hybrid of a controller and mouse/keyboard setup that worked well. Super Mario Galaxy used it for spinning or the collection of star bits. These games used motion to enhance traditional control methods in a very subtle fashion. They were added on top of the controller, but they didn't replace it. Instead of taking after these successful pairings of traditional controls and motion, Skyward Sword bludgeoned me with motion at every possible moment, as if it were desperately trying to justify the existence of the Wiimote.
The absolute worst instance of this occurred with one of the bosses, which required me to perform the "stabbing" attack to kill it. The stab is done by thrusting the Wiimote straight forward, but since my upper body would often move as well (the nunchuck with it) the shield motion would cancel out the stab, and I would get swatted. I was eventually able to compensate by disabling the shield and making sure to hold the nunchuck perfectly still, but it took me quite some time to figure out what was happening, and this is not something I should have had to worry about in the first place.
If the controls were my only real problem with Skyward Sword, I might be willing to forgive it (to a certain extent) and write it off as a failed experiment with motion gameplay. However, Skyward Sword falls flat even when the controls are removed from the equation. With the exception of a few sections that I'll talk about shortly, the game world comes in well short of the previous Zeldas.
The primary hub level of Skyloft has very little to explore outside of the main town, and while they are very pretty, the three main areas on the surface feel extremely confined. Even the majority of the dungeons are very transparent, and they were often far too eager to give me the solutions to their puzzles. Nobody would ever mistake any Zelda game as having a truly open world, but some more diverse areas to explore would have been appreciated.
The Silent Realm quests, a set of instant-failure stealth and time-based collection missions, are another instance of bad conceptual design. These segments consist of collecting a set amount of goddess tears without being hit by an enemy. Link is totally defenseless, so he has to avoid detection in order to succeed. If that sounds bad, it's because it absolutely is. Zelda games have never been well-suited to stealth missions, but here they're extremely drawn-out and frustrating to the point where its a serious problem.
Even in a more general sense, Skyward Sword is shallow, as everything is incredibly padded for play time. The vast majority of the non-dungeon content can best be described as "going to get a thing." This often consists of nothing more than going to a location, being given an item, then going back. Sometimes these fetch quests made me do something even worse, like the aforementioned Silent Realm missions or a dreadful aquatic scavenger hunt that occurs late in the game. Skyward Sword is hardly the only game (or even the only Zelda game) to have an abundance of fetching, but having it compose over half of the 47 hours I spent is just inexcusable.
On top of all that, travel is generally tedious, and there isn't much to do or see on the numerous runs back and forth. Forcing me to spend so much time "re-exploring" a world that isn't all that interesting to begin with is painfully boring, and a sign that the game lacks for interesting content. When stacked against the rest of the series (especially in terms of level design) Skyward Sword as a whole is dead last in my book.
I have to wonder just how much of the game's shallowness is due to so much effort being focused on the motion controls. I ask this because despite all the issues, there are some genuinely clever and creative things in Skyward Sword. Dungeons three and five are among the best in the series, and nearly all the time I spent in the Lanayru Desert was enjoyable. In addition, the fourth boss and the final dungeon were very pleasant surprises. Despite all my problems with the controls and a painfully slow start, the game did manage to hook me for a while on the strength of some of the mid-game dungeons.
However, the inflated play time is simply ridiculous, and dungeons one, two, and six come off as fairly hollow. The quality of the mid-game portions relative to the rest makes me think about what might have been if the focus had been more on the world itself and less on trying to demonstrate the supposed greatness of Wiimote waggling.
After finishing the game, I can say that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was not what I expected. I thought it would be a good (but not great) practitioner of the Zelda formula hampered by unnecessary motion controls, much like Twilight Princess was. Instead, I got a game that's cripplingly hamstrung by its controls and even falters when presenting the basic Zelda recipe. The game isn't a total loss thanks to a few great levels, and it's clear that Nintendo still has some incredibly talented and creative people working for them. Unfortunately, a couple of great levels aren't enough to save the game from a mountain of other problems. The good portions of Skyward Sword are left drowning in a sea of bad ideas that never should have left the drawing board.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 47 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time). There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains animated blood, comic mischief, and fantasy violence. Kids should be fine with it content-wise. I didn't see anything particularly objectionable, though I can see younger ones getting frustrated by the controls.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be OK. There are no spoken lines, and audio isn't a significant gameplay factor.
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