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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
The first game in the continuity? Possibly. The last Zelda game on the Wii? Definitely. As epic as the series so far? Guaranteed!
By Nino Kerl (translation by Michael Heide)
Video games have reached the mainstream - be it casual schlock like karaoke, plastic guitar or fitness fidget schlock or huge productions with million dollar budgets that end up being just pretty graphics around a hollow core. The inevitable result: dumbing down of the actual content. What ends up missing is the charm, the magic, a chance to create an emotional bond to the heroic alliance or to identify with the protagonist. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Metal Gear Solid 4 or Red Dead Redemption are slowly becoming extinct. Be honest: when was the last time you sat through the credits in awe (unless you got an achievement or trophy)? In most cases, your attention disappears immediately after the last boss battle or the final shootout and gets transferred to the next title. Video games are turning more and more into a casual fling. You get to know someone, spend a few awesome hours together, but before you shamble into a cab, the memories of your short time together are beginning to fade. With Zelda, it's a bit different, though. With her, video gamers had quite a few unforgettable magical moments. It's hard to say good-bye and realise that the time you spent together is over. You want to see her again. At all costs. Zelda-Fans had to wait five whole years for this latest reunion, for Skyward Sword. It's about time for a few more magical moments, for video game charm.
According to Nintendo, there is a confidential Zelda timeline in which every Zelda game has its chronological placement. Details about the overarching storyline are kept secret by Miyamoto and company, though. At least Nintendo mainstay Eiji Aounuma (involved in the development of Majora's Mask, Wind Waker and other games) leaked that Skyward Sword takes place before Ocarina of Time. And indeed, this gets confirmed close to the ending of the first (and last) Wii-exclusive Zelda adventure. The action adventure starts with a prologue that happens centuries before the actual plot of the game. A non-specified country (Hyrule?) is haunted by a dark power. A huge monster that might as well have been designed by American artist Alex Grey (who did the cover art for cds by the band Tool, among other things) broke through the ground like a poisonous plant. Evil spread like a cancer, and the land that had been full of life drowned in despair, death and chaos. The dark powers were looking for the "Power of the Goddess", a power that the divine keeper of the lands had inherited from her ancestors. To prevent armageddon and to save the remaining people, the Goddess sent the survivors into the sky, into the sea of clouds. After that was done, she and her followers declared war and eventually sealed away the evil. After this long forgotten age, no human set a foot on the earth. The once existing peaceful world below the clouds fell to oblivion. Until now.
A familiar chosen one
At this hidden realm in the sky, the so called Skyloft, you'll meet protagonist Link for the first time, sleeping fitfully because of a recurring dream that the pointy-eared boy is having every single night. A strange voice is whispering to him: "The time has come for you, the chosen one. Awaken!" Suddenly, a huge bird puts his head through the window and wakes our hero. The guy almost slept through his big day. The day of the "loftwing rider ceremony", a traditional contest in which participants ride on the feathered backs of loft birds (a cross between a chocobo and a parrot, it seems). This year marks the 25th anniversary of the ceremony (easter egg alert!). Not only does the champion get to have a romantic date with the girl Zelda, he will also be given a loft knighthood. Link jumps out of bed, and you take control of the young Skyloftian.
Accompanied by a typical Zelda score, you navigate Link from the usual 3rd person perspective through the knight school (an academy for loft knights in training) and into the open. When the wooden gates of the knight school shut behind you and you feel the first breeze of fresh air, fans of the series are already experiencing that warm feeling of homecoming. Although Skyloft is a brand new Zelda scenario, everything seems familiar. The unparalleled Zelda magic puts a spell on you immediately.
Flight sequences being a main element of Skyward Sword, you use the upcoming bird race to get comfortable with the controls for Link's feathered friend. You move the wiimote left and right to navigate the loft bird, shake it to make him flap its wings and gain height. Tilting the wiimote down makes your "Crimson Red" nose dive. Additionally, pressing a button grants you a short boost (feather icons at the bottom of the screen indicate how often you can use it, comparable to Epona's carrots in Ocarina of Time). The flight controls seem sluggish at first, but feels natural after a bit of practice. The actual race shouldn't be too challenging. The "Time Attack" races on the Lon Lon Farm (N64 owners will remember) were a completely different caliber. Once you won the loftwing rider ceremony, you'll receive the first key item of the game, the so-called parascarf, a kind of parachute that will come in handy numerous times, preventing you from breaking your bones. After that, you fly with Zelda into the end of a seemingly perfect day. The romantic flight ends abruptly, though, when a tornado comes out of nowhere and starts chasing the turtledoves. While link gets thrown off his bird and only gets a few bruises, the storm swallows the helpless Zelda like a hungry predator and drags her down into the abyss. Down to the Earth realm.
The mysterious being that had whispered to Link in his sleep meets him face to face the following night. In a hidden sanctuary, our hero learns from "Phi", servant of the Goddess, that Evil is trying to get the power again and that Zelda's disappearance must undoubtedly be related to this looming threat that you will have to fight off now. Obviously every chosen one needs a fitting weapon. In this case, it's the Sword of the Goddess. But this blade is more than a mere weapon, the shiny metal also harbors the shelter of Phi, who will accompany you through the whole game, similar to Midna from Twilight Princess, offering you precious hints. The traditional sword pulling ceremony happens surprisingly early in Skyward Sword, but it's celebrated more epically than ever: First, you steer Link in front of the altar. Then, the game asks you to turn the wiimote (as if you'd be holding the handle of a sword that is sticking in the ground). Now you make the movement you would make if you pulled an actual sword out of an actual stone and pointed it at the sky. Granted, to neutral spectators that might look through your living room window, the sight of a dude in sweatpants that triumphantly holds a wii remote over his head might appear strange. But be assured: Not later than this inconceivably epic moment, pleasant anticipation of the upcoming hours will flow through you like a fever rush!
Skyloft and the Earth Realm are separated through a holy seal that you and your bird can't break. That's why the goddess creates a portal, a green glowing pillar of light, reminiscent of the life stream from Final Fantasy VII. This portal is a link between the two worlds. To get to the Earth Realm, you move (the by now in his traditional green colors garbed) Link on his bird over the portal and jump down at the touch of a button. After a soft landing (thanks to the parascarf), you'll find yourself at the Seal Grove in the Earth Realm. The surface is full of enemies (bokblins, keese, stalfos, skulltulas, lizalfos, etc). But why do you think you carry that sword with you? At the touch of a button, you aim for an enemy with the familiar lock-on function. The always excellent camera is now focused on the foe. With the right timing, you will run for cover, perform a backwards flip or wait for the right moment to charge forward. Wii-Motion-Plus makes the annoying flailing of Twilight Princess a thing of the past. Every movement that you perform with the Wiimote-blade are transferred to the screen simultaneously. Be it vertical or horizontal strikes, blows from bottom left to upper right or vice versa, the motion detection is extremely precise and better than in any Wii game before. But the Plus controls are anything but a neat add-on, the skillful use of your blade is essential to the whole game. You break your enemies' defenses with certain attack patterns for example, like the obligatory Deku Babas, whose mouths open horizontally or vertically, always revealing a specific weak point. If the maw opens to the side, you can only wound the greedy green with a vertical slash. If you just shake your wiimote around uncontrolled, you stand no chance! Other monsters cover their faces with shields and are impervious to vertical attacks. In their case, you strike at them horizontally if you want to do any damage. Some very tenacious opponents change their cover dynamically. With them, you are going to want to locate their vulnerable spots within fractions of a second and hit them with a well-directed strike. Compared to Twilight Princess, you don't bash them to the side carelessly, you must downright defeat every single one of them.
Phis powers make it also possible to locate the auras of certain items or characters. First you choose the aura of the desired object in the ring menu. Depending on the distance between you and the respective aura, your sword gives an acustic signal like a metal detector. Additionally, you can follow some kind of crosshairs that give you the general direction of the location. This way, you can locate hearts, treasures, persons or key fragments over the course of the game.
Now of course you don't want to neglect your own cover. To use your own shield, you raise the nunchuck (like you would raise an actual shield). That way, you can block your opponents' attacks or return projectiles to their sender. But be careful: Just like in the PSOne classic Soul Blade, there is a shield bar. In other words: Defend too many attacks, and your shield will break apart! Now you are faced with two options: Either you are prepared and carry a second shield at all times (yes, that is possible!). But because the items you can carry are limited like the amount of bombs or rupees in your bags (the rest will be stored in your item stash in Skyloft), that isn't recommended. Or you can use a new gameplay element and let the scrap show owner fix your shield. To get it repaired, you visit his shop in Skyloft. For a mere 10 rupees, he will restore your shield. Additionally, you have the option to upgrade your items. For that, you'll need rupees, along with certain items (bones, horns, slimes, etc) dropped by defeated enemies or hidden all over the world. This turns a wooden shield into a more robust version, and the slingshot can be upgraded to the scattershot. The same principle applies to potions. A heart potion then refills all hearts instead of just the common six. To get the wonder cocktails brewed, you need the respective base potion and certain insects that are crawling and flying everywhere. This makes the bug catching net which you can buy in Beedle's store a recommended asset!
Especially in the not very rare situations where you are confronted by a boss or are surrounded by meanies, attention and the proper use of sword and shield are mandatory. Once you know the motion patterns of Wiimote and Nunchuck by heart, the battles in Skyward Sword are a really immersive gameplay element that blur the line between you and Link's fictional world. Under fatigue in your wrists (by the way, never forget to wear the strap!), you defend yourself relentless against the slimy, scaly or scary enemies as if you were facing them in real life. Fantastic!
When the rush of enemies doesn't slow down and the last heart in your health bar at the top of the screen starts beating heavily, you can run away and automatically use a new gameplay element:At the touch of a button, Link can sprint now. Especially handy: If you steer towards a wall or a crate, Link (like the hooded assassin Ezio in the Assassin's Creed games) will perform a wallrun, push himself off and grasp a ledge, from which you can shimmy to safety, assassin-style. The new wallhanging and sprinting elements give you a lot more freedom in the game's areas, but they come at a price. Link's constitution is represented by the endurance gauge. That is a circular green icon that pops up during especially exhausting actions (sprint, climb, carry heavy objects around) and depletes itself clockwise. Once the endurance is exhausted, Link catches his breath for a couple of seconds and you are unable to act! Over the course of the game, you can expect numerous parts and sequences where the precisely rationed endurance is of utmost importance. When you run out of air on your run from a treehigh boss enemy, you are helpless. If you climb on ledges in vertigo-inducing heights and your endurance wears off, you will fall down. The new endurance system fits perfectly into the gameplay and demands foresighted actions, creating suspense. Expressions of panic or relief like "climbclimbclimbclimbclimb" or "Dude, that was close!" are inevitable.
The numerous dungeons and temples in Skyward Sword (Cave Sanctuary, Vulcan Temple, etc) are not as sprawling as the ones in Twilight Princess, but that is evened out by a dense amount of puzzles. You often make it through those with the right use of motion controls. After a few steps in the first dungeon of the game, the Skyview Temple, you are standing in front of a closed door, over which you will see an eye that watches you. Now if you think that one of your ranged weapons (slingshot, bow, etc) is any help, you're wrong. The huge eyeball follows the movement of your blade. If you put the sword away, the eyelid closes. So you lock on to the thing and make a few fast round moves with the wiimote. The eye is getting dizzy and the door opens. Genius! Handling the wiimote highly sensitively is mandatory. Another great example: To cross a gaping chasm, you balance across a rope with cautious movements of the wiimote. Just one sudden jerk, and Link loses his balance. Naturally, there is a huge offer of typical Zelda-style puzzles as well. You need to move crates, detonate fragile walls and press buttons. Like in earlier games of the series, the right item is often the key to success. Very cool and massively useful is the remote controlled beetle that you find early on in the game. With the Wiimote, you can move the robotic insect (like your loft bird) through narrow airducts to collect rupees, cut ropes, activate switches or just explore the dungeons. Later on, you can even upgrade the beetle with a useful grappling arm. With that, you can fly by a "Thorn plant" (bomb) and switch to a bird's eye perspective. Drop the explosive sphere onto your enemies or into a cup to activate a mechanism. By the way: You can pluck the thorn flowers (as usual), but this time, you can store them in your inventory. Another new option is the possibility to roll the bombs like explosive bowling balls. For example, this feature gets used in the boss battle against "Beradama" (the flaming variant of "No Face" from classic Studio Ghibli movie "Spirited Away"). To leave the burning beast behind, you can roll a couple of thorn flowers between his legs. The explosions chip away at the boss's armor, revealing his vulnerable spot. After a few strikes at his weakness, the lava lad is defeated.
All dungeons (and their keepers) are diversified, as usual for the series, and they impress with a healthy mix of enthralling fights and extremly inventive puzzles.
The Earth Realm is divided into three main parts. But Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano and a third area - that we aren't allowed to talk about yet - are no connected areas, but separate parts of the map. That means that you can only reach these areas with the corresponding portals that are opened over the course of the game. On the Earth Realm, you will discover liberally distributed bird statues. Not only do these statues save your game, you can also use them to travel back to the sky. Here, you can search the cloud ocean for numerous small islands or visit Skyloft. In Link's home, you can score the shelves of Beedle's flying oddity shop, buy magical potions (the heart potion restores your health as usual, the armor potion repairs your shield) or visit the Shiekah Stone that gives you useful hints in the form of "Visions" (mini walkthrough videos) if you don't know how to continue. The kicker: Upon your return to the Earth Realm, you can land at every statue you've discovered in the respective area. That spares you from annoying backtracking. This fast travelling system is an elegent solution, but it doesn't distract from the missing (interconnected) overworld. A ride across Hylian Fields (like in Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess) is as absent as extensive exploration or a dynamic day/night shift that added to the atmosphere of earlier games. Of course you always have the option to head back for the clouds or temporarily stray from the main quest to play minigames or solve side missions. You can visit Bamboo Island to break the record in bamboo slashing, deliver hot soup to a swordmaster in a race against the clock or travel across the whole world looking for "Jewels of Compassion" (crystallized human gratitude), to help a benign demon with his transformation into a human.
Despite those optional side elements shake things up, the gameplay appears highly linear thanks to the strict division into three areas that you visit one after the other. The exploration usually follows the same pattern. First you fight and puzzle your way to the end of the area. With the help of the aura search, you locate forest dwellers, key fragments or hints at a code combination. Once you reached the end of the area, you're at the entrance of a dungeon. Once you've fought through the dungeon and against the boss, a cutscene in ingame graphics moves the plot forward and you open a new portal to reach the next area.
Earth exploration, part two
After about 15 hours, all three areas should be cleaned. That's when the plot takes a serious twist that we won't to spoil here and now. Whereas you're looking for Zelda in the first half of the game, the second half is dedicated to three "Divine Flames" to forge your sword. With the Lyra of the Goddess (a harp you'll receive at a certain point of the game), the pattern is repeated and you explore a second, previously unreachable areal in each of the three main areas, one after the other. Your beautifully depicted harp play grants you access to a test in each of the areas. You sneak through a location like in Phantom Hourglass, collect tears in the soul jar (the equivalent to the Vessel of Light in Twilight Princess). Once you passed the test, you'll receive a key item - like the scale of the water dragon - that gives you access to the new part of the area. That way, you make your way to Lake Floria in the Faron Woods, for example. The test shake things up a bit, but the repeated journeys through the main areas not only means annoying backtracking, but it also means that you have to go through several dungeons repeatedly! In order for the divine water dragon Faron to give you access to the fourth dungeon in the game, you need to give him a bottle of holy water first. To get the miracle brew, you fight again through the Skyview Temple, where different puzzles and new enemies are waiting for you. The recycling of the dungeons pads the game artificially, a different approach would have been more than welcome. In this particular case, the water dragon could have helped us in advance, granting us access to the fourth dungeon, from which we would have brought him the holy water. But no, the miracle soup has to be found in a spring inside Skyview Temple.
Following the series' tradition, you will encounter a lot of dialogue over the course of the game. In several of them, you will have different choices in how you answer. As opposed to Xenoblade Chronicles or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, your answers don't influence the gameplay, though. You can spot pedestrians in Skyloft or the creatures of the Earth Realm (like the wood dwellers known as the Kikwi) that have information relevant to the plot by the thought bubbles over their heads. The absurd, comical characters are once again convincing because of the loving designs, but don't expect any voice acting. Yet another Zelda game that lmits itself to whimsical (and anything but contemporary) "Heh"-, "Hey"- or "Hihi"-samples and a gazillion of text captions. Charme and tradition are fine, but at least the main characters in a 2011 game must have a voice. Even Link doesn't manage to bring more over his lips than his obligatory "Huh?", "Ugh" and "Hiyaaaaa" repertoire. Visually, the game stagnates as well in mediocrity, compared with his predecessor Twilight Princess from 2006. The view into the distance is handled very elegantly: If you climb the Tower of Light at Skyloft and the whole sky presents itself to you, it appears as if Link was standing in front of a huge water color painting. Up close, the buildings, rocks, trees or the giant statue of the goddess aren't very pleasing, though, their washy textures and flickering edges are reminescent of Link's time travel adventure from 1997. On the other hand, the cartoony look is very consistent and appears in the level design as well as the character or monster designs. The wonderful soundtrack offers a healthy mix of familiar Zelda tunes and jingles (like an opening treasure chest) and numerous new tracks and always captures the mood perfectly.
In the time of CoD and company, it's far from usual that a game with naive graphics and coloring like Skyward Sword appears. The storytelling isn't genre-redefining as well, instead settling for familiar (and outdated) tropes. Still, the game sticks out of the programmed mainstream schlock. Once again, a Zelda game managed to wake the adventurous child within us. And when our date with Zelda -that we had to wait for so long - was over after about 40 hours and the credits rolled, we sat there staring at the screen. Like we did in 1991, when the townspeople of Kakariko waved at us for a final time. Or in 1997, when Navi the fairy disappeared through the window of the Temple of Time. Once again, we were happy, sad and touched all at once. Not many games manage to create so many emotions. Especially in recent years. Indeed it was about time for a bit of video game magic. And we're sure: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will enchant you all as well.