Skyward Sword perks and pitfalls.


Skyward Sword perks and pitfalls.


My introduction to the Zelda franchise.

When I pre-ordered The Leg­end of Zel­da: Sky­ward Sword as a Christ­mas gift for my part­ner in 2011, I wasn’t real­ly into Zel­da games. I’d played the orig­i­nal NES The Leg­end of Zel­da as a five year old (but at the time much pre­ferred its Wis­dom Tree reskinned Spir­i­tu­al War­fare). In 2010, I’d tried play­ing Twi­light Princess on our Wii and had even made it about a quar­ter of the way through before I got so unbe­liev­ably frus­trat­ed that I quit. Hav­ing not been a reg­u­lar gamer since play­ing the SNES as a pre-teen, I found the jump from 16-bit to a full 3D world to be over­whelm­ing and I just couldn’t get a han­dle on the con­trols, which is unfor­tu­nate when you’re try­ing to man­age Epona while keep­ing a wag­on full of your friends safe from fiery archers on boar-back.

Fast-for­ward to sum­mer of 2012, when my depres­sion was tak­ing a seri­ous turn for the worse. For some rea­son, I start­ed think­ing about the sto­ry­line and char­ac­ters of Twi­light Princess and how inter­est­ed I’d been in them despite my frus­tra­tion with the game­play. I decid­ed to give it anoth­er shot, and as I’ve writ­ten before:

I don’t think I’m exag­ger­at­ing when I say that The Leg­end of Zel­da: Twi­light Princess quite pos­si­bly saved my life. At the end of a long day, I would come home, put on the rat­ti­est sweat­pants and T-shirts I owned, wrap myself in blan­kets, and play Zel­da. For hours. And hours. The sto­ry intrigued me. The char­ac­ters were lov­able and com­plex. The bad guys ranged from hilar­i­ous­ly stu­pid to fright­en­ing­ly hard. (I may or may not have thrown the Wiimote and nunchuk across the room and gone into spasms when the boss of the Tem­ple of Time was revealed.) I was able to com­plete­ly engross myself in a world that wasn’t my world, and in this case a world that reflect­ed the dark­ness I feared and the beau­ty I longed for. I was able to lit­er­al­ly defeat that dark­ness. And that was so, so help­ful to me.

I’ve seri­ous­ly been play­ing Zel­da games ever since. I’ve gone through Twi­light Princess anoth­er time, Sky­ward Sword, Wind Wak­er twice, Oca­ri­na of Time, and Link Between Worlds (I’m hold­ing out on real­ly play­ing Majora’s Mask until there’s a 3DS or Wii U release of it). The sto­ry­lines and game­play and puz­zles and design are all just utter­ly delight­ful to me. In gen­er­al, my favourite Zel­da game is what­ev­er one I’m cur­rent­ly play­ing. Which right now hap­pens to be Sky­ward Sword. As I was wrap­ping up my first playthrough, I wrote about it on Zel­dathon: Because it’s Dan­ger­ous to Go Alone. But going through it a sec­ond time, I’m notic­ing a lot of dif­fer­ent things that I’d like to parse out. Spoil­ers abound, so be aware.

The basic story.

The sto­ry begins in a town called Skyloft, which is spread across sev­er­al islands in the clouds. A small set­tle­ment lives there, coex­ist­ing with large birds called Loftwings that serve as both pets and trans­porta­tion between air­borne islands and are the bird of choice for the knights of Skyloft. There are rumors that there’s an entire world beneath the clouds, but most peo­ple don’t believe it. Link is a stu­dent at the Knight Acad­e­my, and is best friends with his fel­low stu­dent, Zel­da (who hap­pens to be the daugh­ter of the head­mas­ter). It’s clear that Link and Zel­da are in love, though it’s nev­er been stat­ed. After Link wins a race that puts him at the top of his class, while he and Zel­da fly out togeth­er to cel­e­brate, a ter­ri­ble storm ris­es from the clouds and car­ries Zel­da below. Link learns that there is indeed a world beneath the clouds, called the sur­face, and that the god­dess has cho­sen him for a spe­cial jour­ney. As he trav­els through­out the var­i­ous regions on the sur­face in search of Zel­da, he encoun­ters a demon lord called Ghi­rahim, who is also search­ing for Zel­da with plans to use her spir­it to awak­en his evil mas­ter, whom the god­dess impris­oned thou­sands of years ago. In due course, it is dis­cov­ered that this is pos­si­ble because Zel­da is the god­dess her­self, rein­car­nat­ed as a mor­tal. Aid­ed by Fi (the spir­it of his sword), the cit­i­zens of Skyloft, a hand­ful of Gorons and a few drag­ons, Link ful­fills his mis­sion as the hero of the god­dess and defeats both Ghi­rahim and his evil mas­ter. He and Zel­da opt to remain on the sur­face togeth­er rather than rejoin Skyloft, and we leave them sit­ting hap­pi­ly togeth­er in the beau­ti­ful woods of Faron.

The perks: things I love about the game.

The sto­ry. I love hav­ing an ori­gin sto­ry, some­thing that explains where the mas­ter sword came from and why it seems that Link, Zel­da, and Ganon are inex­tri­ca­bly tied togeth­er. I love that Link and Zel­da start out as the best of friends, too. Their inter­ac­tions in oth­er games always seems pret­ty stag­nant (under­stand­ably, as a princess to a war­rior). But mak­ing their rela­tion­ship per­son­al like this makes her being the damsel in dis­tress a lit­tle eas­i­er for this fem­i­nist to stom­ach, since there’s a legit­i­mate emo­tion­al tie between them. Of course Link would risk his life to find and pro­tect her. Track­ing her feels like the nat­ur­al thing to do, and dis­cov­er­ing Impa (and her ini­tial dis­like of Link) is puz­zling and makes me feel even more deter­mined to prove her wrong about me. I like the dis­cov­ery of the god­dess Hylia and how she’s so cen­tral, even above the three god­dess­es. The idea of the great swords hav­ing spir­its with­in them is fas­ci­nat­ing to me, and I can’t help but think of Fi when­ev­er I play any of the oth­er games now. I just find the whole sto­ry poignant and engag­ing.

The cin­e­mat­ic nature of the cut scenes. Since sto­ry is one of the main things that draws me to the Zel­da fran­chise, I’m real­ly delight­ed with the qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of cut scenes in the game. So much is explained, and it’s done so well that it keeps my atten­tion and draws me into the sto­ry even more.The graph­ics and art style. Hon­est­ly, there hasn’t been an art style yet for any of the Zel­da games I’ve played that I haven’t thor­ough­ly enjoyed (oth­er than the orig­i­nal Oca­ri­na of Time. That shit was hard to look at it, and I seri­ous­ly couldn’t get a han­dle on it until I picked up the 3DS ver­sion). But the atten­tion to detail, the impres­sion­is­tic feel (seri­ous­ly, Faron Woods reminds me so strong­ly of Mon­et that it’s breath­tak­ing at times), the life-like­ness all around from char­ac­ter design to ene­my design to even the inclu­sion of the insects and birds. It’s gor­geous, and for me, as a visu­al per­son, it’s a huge perk and makes the game so much eas­i­er to play. My only com­plaint, which is so minor I’m not even putting it in the pit­falls sec­tion, is that some­times it’s dif­fi­cult to tell that vines are vines. That’s only a prob­lem I’ve run into in Lanaryu Desert, though, and my part­ner assures me that it’s just me.

The wealth of char­ac­ters and side-quests. I feel like this is some­thing Zel­da has done well ever since Oca­ri­na of Time, but it strikes me as par­tic­u­lar­ly strong in Sky­ward Sword. Form­ing rela­tion­ships with every­one on Skyloft and through­out the sur­face is intense­ly sat­is­fy­ing for some­one who likes to talk to peo­ple and explore as much as I do. Ful­fill­ing sid­e­quests (when it’s option­al) is equal­ly sat­is­fy­ing, I find, espe­cial­ly the dif­fer­ent quests I’m able to do dif­fer­ent­ly on a sec­ond play-through. Link is often giv­en a choice of action or response, and I love how this helps flesh out his char­ac­ter and changes the game­play slight­ly in dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios. I also real­ly enjoy col­lect­ing bugs and grat­i­tude crys­tals, and work­ing off my debt at the Lumpy Pump­kin after destroy­ing his chan­de­lier for a heart piece.

On that note, as I men­tioned in my review from last year, I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoy the char­ac­ter devel­op­ment of Groose, Zel­da, and Link. The jour­ney that they all go through, togeth­er and sep­a­rate­ly, feels authen­tic and helps me bet­ter con­nect to the game and the sto­ry.

I also appre­ci­ate the role that the Gorons are giv­en in the game. It seems con­sen­sus among Zel­da fans is Gorons are typ­i­cal­ly a strong but dimwit­ted race, and I’m excit­ed to see them por­trayed as anthro­pol­o­gists and archae­ol­o­gists, thirst­ing for knowl­edge and will­ing to share that knowl­edge with all they meet.

The mechan­ics and Motion Con­trols. Being able to sprint for short dis­tances is real­ly handy (and, of course, nec­es­sary for var­i­ous sec­tions of the game). Also being able to dash up walls to grab onto ledges and being able to dart up or down vines and lad­ders was awe­some. I find myself try­ing to do those things when­ev­er I go back to play­ing the Wii ver­sion of Twi­light Princess. I love the indi­ca­tor when throw­ing bombs, and espe­cial­ly that you can store bomb flow­ers in your bag. Zoom­ing in when shoot­ing arrows is real­ly help­ful when try­ing to take out ene­mies that are real­ly far away. These are all lit­tle things, to be sure, but they help make the game­play a lit­tle more seam­less for me, and I’d love to see them ret­conned in re-released of oth­er games.

I also like being able to recen­ter the con­trol when dows­ing or using items like the bee­tle or the whip, which I know is some­thing that many peo­ple real­ly despise. To me, it func­tions exact­ly like tar­get­ing, so it’s some­thing that feels pret­ty nat­ur­al to do (and makes it eas­i­er to play sit­ting in dif­fer­ent posi­tions, because I can just recen­ter the con­trols to work from wher­ev­er my arm nat­u­ral­ly falls). In some ways, I real­ly like how the motion con­trols make you work with the sword. Basi­cal­ly, I like feel­ing more engaged in the game by being more phys­i­cal­ly engaged with what I’m doing.

The Ancient Cis­tern. This is by far the best Water Tem­ple I’ve ever played. It’s based in part on the sto­ry of The Spider’s Thread, which adds a lot of back­ground to the tem­ple from a philo­soph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal stand­point, and the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the beau­ty of the upper tem­ple with the scari­ness of the bot­tom dun­geon is breath­tak­ing. (Seri­ous­ly, though, the dun­geon aspect puts me in mind of the Spir­it Tem­ple in Oca­ri­na.) It’s def­i­nite­ly a typ­i­cal water tem­ple in mechan­ics, as far as hav­ing to raise and low­er water lev­els, but it feels so fresh and inno­v­a­tive that I just can’t hate it. It also hous­es my favourite boss of the game, Kolok­tos.

The Timeshift Stones. While Lanaryu Desert is by far my least favourite sec­tion, I can’t help but love the inge­nu­ity of the Timeshift Stones and how they func­tion with­in the game. They make solv­ing puz­zles with­in the game real­ly sat­is­fy­ing, and see­ing areas trans­form instant­ly from the past to the present is fas­ci­nat­ing to watch. I love see­ing what’s changed and what hasn’t.

Ghi­rahim. By far my favourite vil­lain ever. (Zant had so much poten­tial. I think Ghi­rahim is what I want­ed Zant to be.) I love his sass, his rage, his play­ful­ness, and how ter­ri­fy­ing he is when you first come upon him as a boss. The bat­tles against him are frus­trat­ing but enjoy­able, and the music for him is just the per­fect mix of epic and ter­ror-induc­ing.

The music. I’ve heard lots of peo­ple say that they find the orches­trat­ed music to be lack­ing the char­ac­ter that the music of pre­vi­ous games had, but I couldn’t dis­agree more. I’ve always found that music is one of the strengths of every Zel­da game, and this game was absolute­ly no dif­fer­ent. Inspir­ing, haunt­ing, epic, and evoca­tive, it real­ly helps me con­nect to the sto­ry and the game­play. I espe­cial­ly like that they brought back the thing from Wind Wak­er, where the music reflects when you strike ene­mies. It’s just a lit­tle some­thing that adds so much.

The pitfalls: things that frustrate or enrage me.

The pac­ing of the sto­ry. Don’t get me wrong. By and large, I think the sto­ry is rea­son­ably strong. But the pac­ing feels so alter­nate­ly slug­gish and rushed that it’s dif­fi­cult to keep up some­times. The pro­logue, when rushed, still takes a sol­id cou­ple of hours. It seems like the game takes a while to get on its feet, and once it does, it flails through the for­est at break-neck speed only to fall on its face in a marsh for a few hours every now and then.

Okay, so that metaphor got away from me.

But hon­est­ly, my first playthrough, I lost inter­est in the game halfway through. That’s a game-killer. Hav­ing an invest­ed gamer lose inter­est in your game because of bad pac­ing is just real­ly not a good thing to have hap­pen. And even when I did play it reg­u­lar­ly the first time, I strug­gled with what I need­ed to do and how it need­ed to be done, and often for­got what my goal was to begin with. As I’m play­ing now, since I’ve been book­ing it through the game for the past few weeks, the pac­ing hasn’t felt quite as incon­sis­tent, but it’s still pret­ty bad. Oca­ri­na of Time and Wind Wak­er are def­i­nite­ly much bet­ter paced.

Extra­ne­ous cut scenes. Every time you pick up var­i­ous items for the first time after a save, there’s a cut scene that’s rel­a­tive­ly short, but just long enough for me to scream at the screen, “I KNOW WHAT A JELLY BLOB IS FOR THE LOVE OF HYLIA AND THE THREE GODDESSES.” It real­ly inter­rupts the flow of the game, espe­cial­ly for items that I clear­ly have a bajil­lion of already. This gets par­tic­u­lar­ly awful in dun­geons or tem­ples, when­ev­er you have a but­ton you need to step on, and a cut scene is trig­gered to show you what that but­ton does. The moment you step off, the cut scene shows you that the action is reversed. I get it, that’s a handy thing to do…the first time that I step on and off the plat­form. But to do it every time, espe­cial­ly when you change the cam­era angle (which changes the direc­tion the con­trols will turn me) just imme­di­ate­ly pulls me out of the game. I’m no longer an active par­tic­i­pant, I’m now a woman sit­ting on her couch yelling at Nin­ten­do for being so. freak­ing. tedious.

The Motion Con­trols. I know, I know. I said I love them. And I do, for the most part. But when they go wrong, they can go real­ly wrong and have frus­trat­ing con­se­quences. I’m a firm believ­er that con­trols should nev­er get in the way of a play­er enjoy­ing a game. And I think that Motion Con­trols are inno­v­a­tive, and I total­ly get that Nin­ten­do want­ed to cap­i­tal­ize on that. But this playthrough, I found the con­trols far less respon­sive than I remem­bered from my first time. I lost more than one shield to this, despite shield-bash­ing, and often had trou­ble using items like arrows and claw­shots. It was infu­ri­at­ing for me in my sec­ond bat­tle with Ghi­rahim that my shield didn’t work and I couldn’t get to him with my sword.

The tri­als in the Silent Realm. I have a love/hate rela­tion­ship with the tri­als. And the guardians. I think they’re quite inge­nious and prop­er­ly ter­ri­fy­ing. But it takes a lot of prac­tice and a lot of will-pow­er, and it’s equal parts ridicu­lous­ly hard and ter­ri­fy­ing. My part­ner actu­al­ly quit play­ing the game in the mid­dle of one of the tri­als out of frus­tra­tion. I only made it through the first time because we broke down and bought the guide, and I had him walk me through it. I mean…frustration is fine with a video game. If every­thing came eas­i­ly, it wouldn’t be a good game. But a game that has so many frus­trat­ing aspects, some frus­trat­ing enough to make a ded­i­cat­ed fan put down the game…that’s a prob­lem. Sec­ond time through, I did them all on my own, much to my plea­sure and relief. I only had to redo two tri­als, so they didn’t inhib­it my progress through the game.

Fi, hand-hold­ing, and inter­rupt­ing game flow. If you’re a Zel­da fan, you know how peo­ple com­plain about Navi. She’s con­sid­ered too insis­tent, break­ing into the game too much, forc­ing you to do things or acknowl­edge her in ways that make her a damn nui­sance. Well…I promise you, after play­ing Sky­ward Sword, you will miss Navi. It’s a bit frus­trat­ing to me, because I think that Fi has a lot of poten­tial. The con­cept of the mas­ter sword hav­ing a walk­ing talk­ing android spir­it is fas­ci­nat­ing to me, and I feel like that specif­i­cal­ly could have been explored more sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly. But as she appears in the game, to me she’s an unmit­i­gat­ed dis­as­ter. You can’t skip through her dia­logue, many times you aren’t giv­en the option to ignore her, and both of those are made so very much worse by the fact that she is incred­i­bly long-wind­ed. Her pres­ence and insights make the game feel so much more tedious than it might feel if she were a com­pan­ion more like Mid­na or even Tatl.

That brings me to the hand-hold­ing in the game. The hand-hold­ing is extreme. I under­stand it in the pro­logue, when you’re pre­sum­ably learn­ing all the con­trols and what to do. But it’s not uncom­mon to watch a cut-scene that explains some­thing, then have Fi explain the same thing back to you. When I say it’s not uncom­mon, I mean that almost every time a new quest is intro­duced, Fi pops up to let you know and pester you about it. There’s very lit­tle that you get to fig­ure out for your­self, because Fi and the rest of the world is pret­ty intent on mak­ing absolute­ly cer­tain that you have no doubts what­so­ev­er about what to do and how to do it and when to do it and why.

Sta­mi­na gauge. This is one that I’m nev­er sure how I feel about it. I real­ly like being able to sprint and dash and roll and jump up vines and lad­ders more quick­ly. And I under­stand that the devel­op­ers were try­ing to make it feel more like an RPG than your nor­mal Zel­da game. But over­all, the sta­mi­na gauge seems to add anoth­er lev­el of frus­tra­tion that removes me from the game­play, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the bat­tles against the Impris­oned. Speak­ing of whom.

The Impris­oned. I just…I can’t, you guys. I can’t with the Impris­oned. Run­ning into Ghi­rahim over and over again, even hav­ing to fight him 3 times, doesn’t both­er me in the least. He fur­thers the plot, he’s inter­est­ing, he’s fun­ny and thrilling and scary and unpre­dictable. He actu­al­ly says words. The Imprisoned…is a giant spiky mup­pet that does noth­ing but stomp up a spi­ral­ing hill while roar­ing, wait­ing for you to cut off his toes so he falls over, reveal­ing a spike you can smash into his head. I under­stand that he’s the spir­it of Demise, func­tion­ing much like Pup­pet Ganon to Ganon­dorf. But it seems that he serves absolute­ly no pur­pose but to give you some­thing dif­fi­cult to do. 3 times. You have to fight this face­less mon­ster in a one­sie 3 times, 2 of those times almost back to back. Sprint­ing to get ahead of him, or to stay close enough to him to reach his toes, hop­ing that there’s a sta­mi­na fruit near­by before you die and he reach­es the Temple…it’s tedious.

Ten­talus. Over­all, the Sand­ship is a pret­ty fan­tas­tic dun­geon. I find it annoy­ing per­son­al­ly, but I rec­og­nize that it’s well designed and func­tions pret­ty great. But the boss is the love-child of Mike Wazows­ki and Celia from Mon­sters Inc. Beyond that, he’s not orig­i­nal at all. Cut off his limbs, aim for the giant eye­ball. Got it, Nin­ten­do. You like ten­ta­cles and eye­balls. We total­ly get it. But maybe, when you do a real­ly smart dun­geon like this, make the boss just as smart?

Unan­swered ques­tions. There’s also  lot of ques­tions I have about the world, Skyloft in par­tic­u­lar. Where are the par­ents of all the stu­dents? We only know of Zelda’s dad and Pipit’s mom. Who are Link’s par­ents? Is Skyloft the only pop­u­lat­ed island? Why are there so few peo­ple there? If the god­dess sent the islands up there thou­sands of years ago, why are there only a hand­ful of peo­ple that seem to have ever died judg­ing by the grave­yard? How can Batreaux just show up after becom­ing human with­out peo­ple won­der­ing who he is and where he came from? Where do the Loftwings live? Are they bred, or do they breed on their own? What do they eat? How does their rela­tion­ship with humans real­ly work? Where does every­one live? Why is the Knight Acad­e­my the only place with a bath­room? Why can’t you go fly­ing at night? Why do you nev­er see the sur­face at night? Are we real­ly expect­ed to believe that Link does every­thing he does in the var­i­ous ter­ri­to­ries in the space of a sin­gle day when he’s there? Where is the spar­ring hall guy’s bed? Why does every­one just seem to accept that Link will sleep in their bed at some point? Why are grat­i­tude crys­tals in the weird­est most remote places? (I have my own the­o­ries, which would explain why there are grat­i­tude crys­tals in Link’s and Zelda’s rooms.) Why does the woman mak­ing soup in the bazaar nev­er, ever, ever fin­ish mak­ing her soup?!

Overall verdict.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the word I’d use to describe Sky­ward Sword is tediousAnd that’s say­ing some­thing from a girl who’s usu­al­ly a com­ple­tion­ist when it comes to video games. I like going through and get­ting every sin­gle lit­tle thing that I pos­si­bly can. I will spend hours col­lect­ing bugs and mon­ster claws and tum­ble­weed and rupees, and it won’t both­er me at all. But this game seems real­ly incon­sis­tent in its treat­ment of so many things. I can’t just play it. I have to make sure that the con­trols are aligned, that I’m sit­ting in a way that best allows me to use my items if I need to point at the screen. I have to play through an amaz­ing dun­geon to get to a sucky boss, or go on a mis­sion to do some­thing that seems oth­er­wise straight­for­ward. As @mattmccullar said to me the oth­er day as we were dis­cussing the game, “I do think there’s a good game some­where in Sky­ward Sword, but its buried beneath weird mcguf­fin quests and motion bull­shit.”

Don’t get me wrong. I still adore this game. I’m will­ing to put up with an amaz­ing amount of tedi­um for a Zel­da game, par­tic­u­lar­ly one that does have so many good aspects. But I’ll be even more excit­ed if they end up re-releas­ing it for Wii U with a lot of prob­lems fixed, as they did with Wind Wak­er.

What are your thoughts about Sky­ward Sword? What do you think makes a good Zel­da game?

Image from Gamepics.

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