Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review: Legend of Zelda-Skyward Sword

Yup. Thrust upon us once again is another Zelda game, released at naturally the worst time of the year for people who wish to do things like accomplish work, see loved ones or even play other video games. How long has it been since a non-Bioware, non-Bethesda game was released that was over 30 hours long? I mean a game where all 30 of those hours were dedicated to the main story. I feel like Nintendo dedicated Skyward Sword to my 12-year old self, the person who was only getting one game a year and was going to play that one game after school every day for the next three grades (the life of a Nintendo 64 owner was a simple one). There is enough content in this game to last many missed English assignments. How many games can get away with claiming that without riddling themselves with sidequests about rescuing and escorting hookers? (Oh Saint’s Row the Third, I masochistically love you).

So I chose to put off Skyrim until I finished Skyward Sword, which is the equivalent of putting off a CN Tower stair climb to do the Terry Fox Run. This is a lengthy game. Link will traverse dungeons. He will explore far away lands. He will pick up small keys. He will engage in a fetch quest. I may have had small complaints about the sailing fetch quest in Wind Waker, and I have thrown many violent, hysterical fits over the many annoying fetch quests in Twilight Princess. Skyward Sword is the kind of game that isn’t afraid to make you revisit some old areas in the name of buying the game some time before it’s finished and left to die on the used shelf at Gamestop. But except for one repeated-too-often boss fight and one brief but extremely annoying fetch quest (which is more annoying because it involves swimming, the bane of most every game), Zelda at least earns the right to be redundant by spicing up its treaded ground. An area that you forced to revisit may suddenly have vicious archer goblins that require some tactical elven sniper skills from your bow to proceed.

The next obstacle you’ll have to cope with is your own sense of pacing. Years of playing non-Zelda-styled games may have gotten you adept at a certain pacing structure. You know, the “doing things will progress the game” style of pacing that kind of defines, well, storytelling. Here’s an example of how a normal video game would progress.

You need to be at Burger King because you want an Angry Whopper. You run across your street. You may have to fight off some hoodlums in a test of your combat abilities, but your path to the Angry Whopper is clear. When you reach the Burger King, there is a cutscene of you buying the Angry Whopper.

Now, in Skyward Sword, the scenario plays out differently.

You need to be at Burger King because you want an Angry Whopper. You run across your street. You may have to fight some hoodlums and run over some quicksand because running is the best way to avoid quicksand. When you get there, you learn that the store manager locked himself out and you need to travel to three different dark, hoodlum-filled alleyways to collect the three parts of the key. Once you’ve gone out of your way to collect the key, you enter the Burger King, where the manager asks you to travel across three different, perilous dungeons to obtain the bun, ground beef and fried onion rings needed to create the burger that vanquishes evil.

What I’m trying to get at is that Skyward Sword has no qualms about leading you on, for as long as it thinks it can get away with it. This isn’t to be mistaken with the game having drawn-out fetch quests, but rather that you will not make as much progress in a single play session as you think you will. I learned quickly not to set time goals; you can’t say to yourself “I’m going to reach and finish the water temple by the time the turkey’s done” without risking a burnt bird and a very ungrateful Thanksgiving. Play the game at your available time, and don’t set goals.

But I found that I rarely minded that. Past Zelda games felt like they were checking marks off a checklist on a tourist guide. You knew Link was going to visit Death Mountain, hang with his Goron homedawgs and throw a few bombs in a Dodongo’s mouth. Been there, done that, played that nostalgia card so much the edges are worn down. So I was pleasantly surprised to see Skyward Sword grant players some new sights and smells. There are new tribes of wildlife that need aiding, new items to create, new gameplay mechanics, creative new dungeon ideas and puzzles, and some of the best boss design since, oh, I don’t know, the pro wrestling match in Saints Row the Third. Even Ganon has been replaced by a new and appropriately creepy surrogate force of darkness that wants to destroy the world because that’s what forces of darkness do.

Though Zelda fans will still find plenty of ties to their beloved series… Of course there’s a Link and a Zelda here. Of course there’s a recurring character here and there. You know, story-vital characters like Beedle the shopkeep with no self-esteem. Of course you’ll keep fairies in bottles the way PETA hates you for. Actually, Zelda fans will appreciate this game the most on account of how there are a handle of reveals explaining the nature of things. There is still enough of a standalone story as for new players to not be left in the dark, but one can assume Skyward Sword precedes the entire story, offering little bits of insight into the land and lore.

Speaking of, the land here consists of a civilized floating land mass called “Skyloft”, and an unexplored plane of wild land called “the rest of the f#@king world.” The sky is the main hub, and Link’s equivalent to a horse or talking sailboat is a giant-assed red bird that responds to motion-controlled orders. The game does well to tap into the Wind Waker mentality of giving a wide-open expanse to encourage the player to explore, while trumpeting a powerful orchestral soundtrack. You’ll find sidequests on the other lands and treasure chests that you unlock via smashing blocks on the ground, and feel kind of awesome for nose-diving across the sky on your sweet ride of a PETA-Flash game waiting to happen. Also, the game taps into Wind Waker’s light visual style by presenting the world in colourful, painterly colours as to give the world some personality. It doesn’t go all the way silly like Wind Waker, and doesn’t get as straight-laced and boring as Twilight Princess. Skyward Sword finds the best of both worlds.

I guess I should talk about the motion controls at some point, being that they kind of are the centre of this game’s marketing. You will need a Motionplus adaptor or Wiimote Plus to play this game. I feel less like an idiot now for buying the Motionplus to play Tiger Woods Golf on the Wii (hey, if you haven’t played Tiger Woods on the Wii, you are missing out on the system’s best implementation of motion controls. I’m not even joking). Now, the second best implementation of motion controls is Skyward Sword. You will need to move your remote around to fly your bird, aim your arrows, whip bombs around, turn strange-keys that locksmiths must’ve spent centuries designing, and so forth.

I was partially at odds with the game, largely because I’m a sloth trying to play a motion-controlled game lying down. There were moments where I had to position my arm off my bed so I could tilt the remote down. There were times where I froze on a tightrope because the mechanism for balancing requires you to hold the remote horizontally and my arm was too busy holding up the weight of my upper body. First world problems, I know. You learn to be deliberate with your actions, as the game is smart enough to discern the difference between throwing a bomb and holding a bomb in the air as to say, “hey look I have this bomb it goes BOOM, BOOM, POW check out my hyrule swagger.”

And then there’s the swordplay. You swing your remote in different directions and Link will respond accordingly. Like with other control mechanisms, you have to be deliberate and precise with your motions, or else Link will think you’re doing cartwheels and respond with a goofy backflip sword attack. A goofy backflip sword attack that the final boss outright mocked me for doing over and over out of my adrenaline-soaked intensity. Enemies are designed to respond to different sword attacks; the guy who just happens to be holding his sword up in the air leaves his belly open for a horizontal c-section from the Skyward Sword. A very early boss is designed to lick his lips at the thought of players who “waggle” the controller and can only be thwarted via skillful wristmanship.

Like every combat action game, the challenge becomes in learning enemy behaviours and responding with the according sword swipes. This is not to be mistaken with, say, every Kinect game, which gives players insane amount of leeway to commit to a complex motion. Enemy plants will only leave their maws open for short periods of time before mocking your slow wrist and taking a chunk off Link’s face. So I feel comfortable in saying Skyward Sword is the first plausible case of a motion-controlled game designed for the “core” group of gamers who think motion controls have dumbed down the industry in a swarm of mini-games and Rabbids.

Actually, I feel comfortable recommending Skyward Sword to anyone short of the most abject Zelda franchise haters. You could think about playing it because the motion controls are the closest we’ve gotten to realizing that dream of “holding a lightsaber for a Wiimote”. You could think about playing it because the world it creates is an exciting place to go adventuring in. You could play it because it has no shortage of content. You could play it because you like collecting bugs and there’s an entire mechanic dedicated to catching bugs with your one-to-one controlled bug net. I can at least confirm that it is the first, second or third-best “Sky” related game to ever come out (can’t speak to Skyrim’s quality, but I can say Crimson Skies on the Xbox was pretty sweet). You should probably play this.

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