Skyward Sword, the latest and allegedly greatest game of the long-running Zelda series. It’s been 25 years since the original Legend of Zelda came out and started one of gaming’s most crucial and popular series, and Nintendo intended to cap that anniversary with one of the most ambitious projects in Nintendo’s history. But how good is it really?
This review might be a little overdue, now that I think about it. See, when I sat down to write this week’s article, I went over my list of article ideas, and when I saw “Skyward Sword Review” I thought “Aww, but that would be so boring!” Really though, it’s about time I wrote one. I’ve already talked quite a bit about Skyward Sword on the forums, in videos, and in my series of comparative articles about Skyward Sword and the Zelda series before it. Even though I’ve discussed the game a lot already, I’ve yet to compile all of my thoughts together until now, with this full review of the game. If you’ve read my thoughts about the game before, don’t worry; this will be a bit different.
Oddly enough, for a game that innovates with brand new motion controls and tells a story that’s a prequel to 25 years of Zelda games, the single most controversial and polarizing part of Skyward Sword seems to be the graphics. From the visual style to the art direction and even to the actual graphical quality, it seems many Zelda fans and critics alike cannot come to an agreement about Skyward Sword’s visuals, and this is a debate that began when the artstyle was first shown to the world, and has continued even now to discussing the game’s graphical quality. I can’t settle that debate, but I can offer my take on it.
Beginning with the visual style, I’m sure most of you have seen how the game looks by now. Skyward Sword’s combination of a serious look and a stylized, cartoony one was something I’d predicted before the game was actually announced. Regardless of personal feelings about the style, from an objective standpoint it’s a pretty good fit for the series. You have a whimsical adventure series, so you create a style with a lot of bright colors and imagination to fit the whimsy and fantasticism, while applying a grounded and serious element to the visuals so that the seriousness of the adventure is still portrayed, while also bringing the setting and story to a believable level. Skyward Sword is particularly benefited by this because of its focus on the combat; the realistic and serious aspects of the artstyle suit the combat-heavy game quite well without detracting from the bright colors and other fun aspects of the game’s look. If I were to sum up what Skyward Sword looks like, I’d call it a colorful Japanese anime.
One thing I didn’t expect in the artstyle was the impressionist aspect. I expected a degree of stylization and unrealistic proportions from all the character designs and the world in general, but Skyward Sword took this in an intriguing direction with how they dealt with the colors and the draw distance; a game cannot “draw” an infinite amount of objects during gameplay, and many games come up with ways around this. In Skyward Sword, the objects in the distance simplify and blur, causing the environment to resemble an impressionist painting. This coloring style is also somewhat present in the actual textures of the 3D models, and it lends the game a very striking, cohesive look that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I could say the same for the art direction of the game as a whole. From the artstyle to the colors to the area and character designs, the game is just great to look at. The creature and character designs are creative and enjoyable, and there are many times in the game where you just want to see new sights; it is a game that excels at giving you visual feasts, with awesome new things constantly showing up as you advance. For me personally, from the design standpoint, Skyward Sword is the most beautiful of all the Zelda games.
But how good are the graphics themselves? Well, despite all praise, Skyward Sword is a Wii game. While we may be looking at the best graphics of the Zelda series, they are certainly not the best graphics of this console generation and they aren’t necessarily the Wii’s best either. Regardless, at no point are the graphics of Skyward Sword bad. The art direction and style work well to cover up technical problems, allowing the game to look visually appealing at virtually all times. I’ve heard complaints about the graphics from people, but honestly none of the complaints I’ve heard have ever resonated with my gameplay experience in the slightest, with the lone exception of Fi’s singing animation, which looks terrible but is literally my sole complaint with the visuals of the game.
If you’re someone who’s bothered by light graphical imperfections, then Skyward Sword could potentially be an irritating game for you. If you’re willing to look past those faults, then you ought to have no problems with the visuals. Skyward Sword is not a technically impressive game, but what it lacks in technology, talented artists have creatively compensated for. It’s one of the coolest-looking games this generation. 10/10
While not controversial, the music of Skyward Sword is something that’s also had quite a bit of buzz ever since Nintendo announced that the game would contain orchestrated tracks. Unlike some people had thought, however, Skyward Sword is not a fully-orchestrated game, and this is actually something I’m happy about.
Skyward Sword’s music is definitely a little different than we’re used to from a Zelda game. For the most part, gone are the simple catchy tunes, and instead we have more complicated and lengthier tracks. Skyward Sword’s music has some more complexity than Zelda fans are used to, something more along the lines of what you’d hear in a JRPG. There are definitely some familiar Zelda conventions in the soundtrack, but there are plenty of times where you’re going to listen to the music and feel at least a little surprised that this is a Zelda game you’re listening to. This complexity has made some regard the soundtrack as less memorable or catchy, which is a natural product of adding more elements and layers to it, but I don’t think this does anything to diminish its quality (and I personally still find all the tracks to be quite memorable). No other Zelda game has music that so often and so quickly pulls me into the area or moment and makes me feel the intended emotion. This is one of the greatest soundtracks of the Zelda series, ever. It is most certainly my personal favorite.
The orchestration is excellent when it is used. Not all of the music is orchestrated, and plenty isn’t, but when its used it’s always appropriate. I’m happy that the game did not go all-out with this, because regardless of the increased quality it brings, orchestration always carries a change in style, and it’s not a style that would have fit every moment of this game. I’m glad Nintendo chose to be selective about this and it’s impacted the soundtrack perfectly.
Another element to the music worth noting is the dynamic soundtrack. Ever since The Wind Waker, it’s been pretty common for Zelda games to have a few songs that actively change during gameplay (mainly battle themes), and this was used most in Twilight Princess. Skyward Sword takes this a step further, and contains many variations of the same song. Changes occur when you enter battle with a nearby enemy, or when you’re almost dead, but they also occur as you go from room to room in a dungeon or activate special devices. At its best, the soundtrack allows the game to evolve with the gameplay in a dynamic way that allows the emotion of the moment to be captured perfectly, and at its worst it only forces the player to choose from a few unique versions to decide their personal favorite of the song. The implementation of this element is seamless, so whether you like it or not is going to be entirely dependent on your opinion of the concept of a dynamic soundtrack itself.
There’s very little to complain about with the rest of the game’s audio. Like most Zelda games, the sound-effect side of the audio is handled very, very well, with appropriate sounds for the right moments and no irritating, grating effects. The Zelda tradition of characters forgoing the spoken word in favor of grunts and other noises has returned, and has been taken a step further. Nintendo has given the characters more sounds than ever before to utter while you read their dialogue, allowing the scenes to feel a bit more realistic as the characters make sounds that you might actually hear during a conversation. At this point the only thing missing is full voice-acting itself. Unfortunately, just like in Twilight Princess, the absence of the voice-acting feels very strange since the characters’ mouths move as though they are speaking, and this creates a bit of a disconnect between the visuals and the audio. If Nintendo would avoid doing this, the absence of voice-acting would not bother me, but in this case it is an issue, especially because Fi behaves exactly like Midna from Twilight Princess, in that she fully speaks but says no discernible, intelligible words.
It’s irritating to play a game where everyone looks like they’re talking but no one does, except for that one person. This disconnect is distracting, but otherwise the audio of the game is flawless. Regarding personal style, some may like the music or dislike it, but from the perspective of quality alone, it’s some of the best of the series and has produced many of my new favorite tracks. Thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack and the rest of the audio is good as always. 10/10
The first half of this review was a lot of the same, because I feel that both the visuals and the audio of Skyward Sword are virtually perfect. This second half, consisting of the story and the gameplay, is just as consistent, because I think that both should have been perfect.
On paper, the story of Skyward Sword does not differ much from previous Zelda games. It’s a pretty straightforward heroic journey, with Link venturing out from his home to discover his destiny and rescue Zelda from a great evil. You can cut and paste that into pretty much any Zelda game review and it’ll work. Thing about Skyward Sword is it differs in a lot of minor ways that might not be immediately apparent.
I’ve talked about it before, but Skyward Sword’s storyline is a lot more active and involving than is the norm for the Zelda series. There is a constant sense of events transpiring, of the story and events moving regardless of you moving with them. This impression is the result of a few things. There’s a constant sense of urgency to your mission, whether it’s because Zelda’s in danger or because of some other looming threat. The world is also directly impacted by the other characters. Events transpire constantly away from Link’s eyes, and many of the other characters are doing things behind the scenes that can effect the main plot or just minor elements of the world. You get a constant sense that things are happening, that the world around you is organic and real. The gameplay itself might be partially responsible for this feeling as well, since the game definitely excels at prodding you forward through the areas and story and rewarding you for it. While they’re really only minor changes, these light alterations to the standard formula of Zelda storytelling are very beneficial to the game.
Another way the story differs from previous Zelda games is the writing and characters. Zelda games always have a charming cast of characters, ranging from the whacky to the cool. Skyward Sword is no exception, and for me at least boasts some of the best characters of the whole series. Each character — even Link and Zelda, who are often fairly basic in terms of personality — shows a lot of different dimensions and traits and it’s very compelling to see how these characters react to their surrounding and interact with each other. Character development throughout the game is generally handled very well, with many characters going through compelling changes throughout the game. This is especially true of the major characters… Link, who matures throughout the game, Zelda, who’s role in the events is slowly revealed, Groose, your incredibly rude but pure-hearted rival, and even Ghirahim, the mysterious villain pursuing Zelda who reveals different elements of his personality as the game goes on.
The characters rely greatly on the enhanced writing. This is some of the best writing of the series. All the dialogue is very believable and well-written. More so than any other Zelda game I’ve played, I feel like I’m taking part in fully believable and realistic conversations. I didn’t even notice this consciously at first, and it took me some time to realize why I was enjoying just the basic character interactions so much, but this level of care and detail in the writing goes a very, very long way towards making the characters believable and entertaining. At all the right times it allows the characters to be endearing, emotional, frightening, and funny (and on that note, this is easily the funniest Zelda game I have ever played). The storytelling quality extends past the writing and into the presentation itself; this game covers a wide variety of tones throughout, with silly and humorous moments, highly emotional and heartfelt character interactions, and truly dark and terrifying scenes. The game is funny and cheerful, but can be surprisingly dark at times, and the presentation throughout, as a combination of the story, sound, and visuals, is fantastic.
However, as I said, the story is an element of the game that I felt should have been perfect, not something that actually was. As I’ve stated above, the story had quite a lot going for it, but there are still areas where it unfortunately fell short. To begin with, there is one character who’s development is handled terribly, and that is Fi. Among all the well-developed characters in the game, Fi’s character development is virtually nonexistent, as she never actually goes through any changes within the story. Only at the end are the changes revealed, and it ends up being incredibly ungraceful and startling.
Then there’s something that is more of a legacy issue with the series as a whole, but is worth reiterating: There is a lack of detail in Skyward Sword’s storyline, and especially in the continuity between it and other games. There are going to be lots of times in Skyward Sword where it feels like there should have been more explained, with missing answers and generally overly simplistic areas of the plot, and this is especially bad in areas where Skyward Sword connects to the other games. You’d think that the prequel of the series, which intentionally addresses familiar elements, would make a little effort to explain itself, but it never does. Things like the dragons, Gaepora, the Goddesses, and the Sheikah tribe, are left completely unexplained.
These are missed opportunities. This is a running problem with Skyward Sword, and as I will discuss, it extends to the gameplay as well. It’s hard for me to fault Skyward Sword for it, considering how good the story really is (it’s easily one of the best of the series), but these are problems the game really should have addressed; coming so close to being perfect makes the flaws more apparent and grating than ever. Leaving mysteries is all well and good, but if the player is left wondering about large portions of the plot without any good reason or benefit, then you have a problem. Most will find Skyward Sword’s storyline plenty enjoyable, as did I, because it is excellent, but despite improvements, it does not manage to overcome running problems with Zelda storylines in general. A great story, but definitely missing something. 9/10
And finally we have the gameplay. As I said, it’s hard for me to fault Skyward Sword for its mistakes given how good it is… and this statement is most true when discussing the gameplay. Simply put, Skyward Sword’s basic gameplay is the best of any Zelda game I’ve ever played and is among the best of games in general. Just playing the game is incredibly fun. Running around, fighting, solving puzzles, traveling, doing dungeons, and even minigames, is all made into an incredibly fun experience.
Skyward Sword is a master at gameplay execution. The motion controls that we heard so much about are put to excellent use in Skyward Sword. I’ve heard a number of complaints about these controls and mixed opinions about their responsiveness, but I never once experienced any problems. I know I’m not the only one who had no issue either. I can admit that Nintendo didn’t do the best job of making all the tricks to the controls known, and if you aren’t particularly great at figuring out the nuances of a game, you may struggle with the controls. But make no mistake; the controls, when put to use as they were intended, are flawless. Take some time to practice with them and appreciate how they work, and you will probably enjoy them a lot.
I can apply much of the same praise to the dungeons, bosses, minigames, and areas. Dungeons break convention for the series a bit, in that they are shorter but highly detailed and well-designed areas, that culminate in some of the funnest boss fights of the series. They serve as top of the line climaxes to sections of the game, because the land areas themselves are designed with 2D Zelda design sensibilities in mind; the overworld and the dungeons are now fairly hard to distinguish between, and the only difference is that the dungeons are much, much more awesome. The game also has a decent level of challenge that I believe strikes the proper balance needed to satisfy most gamers, casual and hardcore alike. The minigames and other unique gameplay sections are just as well-designed, with things like the Silent Realm being incredibly fun.
Additional content is also highly entertaining. Bottles, shields, and other equipment are stored within a limited inventory space (that can be upgraded), which for the first time in a while for a Zelda game, creates a need for planning and forethought. The feeling of adventure is enhanced when you have to think about what gear you’re going to bring with you, and how you’re going to handle the challenging situations along the way. The upgrade system goes along with this. There are also many sidequests, much in the style of Majora’s Mask where you help people with their problems, and these are welcome additions to the game. Collectibles are also strewn about, allowing you to easily get rupees, upgrades, and material for making better items. It’s one of the deepest Zelda gameplay experiences ever, and while some late-game areas feel more like padding and filler, there’s still fun to be had in them, and thankfully they’re not numerous nor long.
So the execution of the controls and how the game itself plays is nearly perfect. The issues come in when you bring up the game design, and it’s ironic that the game is so incredibly fun to play but seems to have so many problems present.
First off is the missed opportunities. Like I said before, that term applies very strongly to the game, and truthfully most of its problems can be considered missed opportunities. It might seem odd to fault a game for something it could have done, but it becomes a legitimate criticism to the game’s quality when it feels like it should have been there. Skyward Sword has countless small things that feel like they are missing to me. I could go on at length about them but I’ll focus on the big ones…
Skyward Sword combines the overworld ideas of The Wind Waker with A Link to the Past, in that the Sky region above is an open and freely traversable area that is explored with your bird instead of a boat. The land below is dangerous and filled with enemies and puzzles and has a lot of content density — more stuff in smaller areas — much like A Link to the Past. However, it inherits overworld problems from both The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. My primary gripe with the overworld of The Wind Waker was how little there was to do on individual islands. I felt like there were no bulky, interesting land areas. Skyward Sword has these on the surface, but in the Sky the problem is compounded. I do not mind having the islands be small when there are other large areas to traverse, but the problem here is more a case of how little there is overall. Skyward Sword improves the sailing complaints by making the Sky smaller and your bird much faster, but the fact is that very few of the islands have anything worthwhile on them. When you first start the game and visit areas like Pumpkin Landing and Bamboo Island, you may get a sense that there’s lots to do in the Sky, but as time goes on you realize that most of what you’re going to do in the Sky is running back to town. Aside from the Goddess Cube sidequest — where you must strike a cube on the surface to activate a Goddess Chest in the sky — the vast majority of islands have nothing to offer at all.
It’s odd because it feels like both overworlds could have learned from each other. The land below has tons of content, with things all over the place (both mandatory and optional), packed into areas in such a way that it never feels cramped but there’s always something to do. However, the land itself is horribly linear. Describing it as a dungeon is extremely appropriate because you’re going to go through the game in a very strict order. There are no branching paths, there are no optional areas below. Every area will be visited as part of the game, and if you keep your eye out, you will probably spot virtually all of the optional items and treasures along the way. This is an issue Twilight Princess had. I can understand the appeal of linearity, and it has its place, even within the Zelda series, but when your entire game is linear and it’s an adventure game, you have a problem. “Adventure” and “straight line” are not good words to hear together, and as a result, Skyward Sword’s detached itself from what I — and I assume most — love about the rest of the series. Skyward Sword feels fresh compared to most Zelda games, but in some areas, like this, it actually begins to feel like it may not even belong in the Zelda series. Both overworlds should have learned from each other. The lack of freedom on the surface feels weird considering how easily they could have fixed it, and it would have been much improved if they had. And the Sky needed more density and content.
Another unusual issue with the game is weirdly a product of how amazing it can be. The first half of the game is masterfully executed in almost all ways. Amazing regions to go through, great story where things are constantly happening, and most importantly, great ideas and great execution. Up until the conclusion of the Lanayru Mining Facility (the game’s third dungeon; there are seven total), the game is pretty much the best Zelda game I’ve ever played barring a few flaws. There are new things to see in every area; no part of the game feels the same. Creative new ideas are employed in every new area, and all the dungeons feel like totally fresh experiences that are similar yet different from those of other Zelda games in all the right ways.
Unfortunately, that all changes after the third dungeon. The storyline dials down, and while it’s still impressive at parts, it’s less consistently active. The gameplay begins to rely on its own previous tricks, and the new areas you do visit feel smaller, more linear, and completely derived from the original area from the same region. And finally, the dungeons and gameplay as a whole feel more like what you’d see in other Zelda games. The Ancient Cistern is an excellent example, for it drops most new ideas and in almost every way it feels like any other Zelda dungeon. While it had amazing atmosphere and concepts, it’s the worst dungeon of the game for me. The following dungeons also feel like those of previous Zelda games, and while of course they are still good, it feels really awkward and disappointing after the first half.
I like how the second half of the game adds several things to the gameplay, like the Silent Realms and the Harp, but while the Silent Realms are perfect, the Harp has many areas in which it could improve. In some areas it is the best Zelda intstrument, but in others it is the worst. I enjoyed being able to play it freely, but it could have allowed you to replay the specific songs and just in general could have been used far more; it feels like nothing more than a key.
The game’s swimming is also ridiculously underused, to the point where it practically shouldn’t be in the game at all, which is disappointing for a mechanic that’s so fun. The exact same applies to the upgrade system, which is incredibly useful and fun (as I’ve said), but still lacks enough depth that it feels disappointing. There should have been more upgrades, and more options.
Fi, your helper character for the game, also has problems. I liked Fi a lot, and she’s my new favorite helper of the series (I especially love how many information options she has and how she can “scan” enemies again), but there are weirdly obnoxious design flaws with her, particularly regarding compulsory information that you cannot skip, and this is a design mistake that should have easily been avoided. The same problem is present in how the game deals with the text. Most games give you full control of the dialogue, allowing you to make an entire text box appear immediately or just skip though it rapidly, but Skyward Sword doesn’t allow that. The game’s second difficulty, Hero Mode, also suffers from problems. This mode is begun by reloading a completed save file, but if you complete Hero Mode you can’t do the same thing to restart Hero Mode, and that is a baffling design mistake. Hero Mode also cannot be selected from the beginning, so it functions purely as a second quest. This is an archaic design idea that needs to be changed to be selectable from the beginning; some of us who want a challenge do not want to be forced to play through the game normally — allowing us to practice at it — before taking on its hardest setting. This should be a choice given to the player.
So all in all, Skyward Sword is a game that lost steam. It excels in so many areas, but because of that, the parts that were not given as much attention feel particularly bad and it makes the game feel uneven and unpolished. It’s hard to fault this game for everything considering how much fun I had with it, but design flaws are still design flaws. Skyward Sword could have easily been a lot funner had more work been put into these elements, but it is still one of the most pure, fun experiences in recent memory. 8.5/10
Skyward Sword is my new personal favorite of the series. I have to give it that status considering how much I love the world and the characters, and how much fun I had with the game throughout. That said, it isn’t the best game the series has to offer. I can’t give it credit for that when so many other Zelda games have far less flaws. As I’ve said, as a video game, Skyward Sword is great but not perfect, but as a Zelda game it suffers ever so slightly more for defying the importance of polish and freedom in the series. Skyward Sword does not surpass the level of perfection of previous titles in the series, but it does mark an improvement over problems present in previous titles. Where it inherits flaws from its predecessors, it does manage to improve them, so I think an expansion on Skyward Sword’s design is definitely in order for the next major console release in the series.
Skyward Sword is definitely not perfect, so if it’s not the kind of thing you particularly enjoy, it won’t be your favorite Zelda game and plenty of parts are going to annoy you. But if you do like the ideas and style it presents, you are going to have endless fun. I wholeheartedly recommend this game and want everyone to play it, and I encourage Nintendo to expand on and improve its ideas to hopefully create a game that can surpass the series’ N64 entries.
9.5/10 as a Zelda game.
9.8/10 as a video game.