Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - Zelda for the Modern Gentleman

The hype for the Wii's true Zelda game has been going on for a while; ever since the Electronic Entertainment Expo of last year. Twilight Princess, the Zelda title released at the start of the Wii's lifespan was actually a Gamecube title altered to work with the Wii's unique control scheme. Now we near the end of the Wii, with the WiiU on the horizon, and Nintendo has put all their knowledge of how to best use the format, steering Zelda in a direction away from its tried-and-tested staples.
And lo, Skyward Sword was born.
Okay, I'm being overly-dramatic here. Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a Zelda game for the current generation, taking design aspects from peers that themselves were based on older Zelda titles. It shrugs off some outmoded traditions and is all the better for it, but in doing so, some new bad habits have been acquired.

From the moment the game loads, Skyward Sword charms with its improved characterisation. Traditionally, Link is normally a blank slate in a green hat, and Zelda is normally a mysterious and distant damsel to be rescued. Here, they've been best of friends for years – Zelda is a lot more outspoken and pragmatic, Link is more boisterous and emotional - and they play off each other in a way that reminds me just a little of 90's high school sitcoms. It's a bit hackneyed, but comparatively refreshing. Giving you the time to actually care about a character before they're snatched away does so much more to make things personal for the player.

In another stark difference to previous Zelda titles, the game world is split up into isolated areas with a much smaller 'overworld'. It's an improvement - it never takes long to get where you need to go, and although the game flow follows the traditional pattern of finding and clearing a series of dungeons; the process of actually getting to the dungeon entrance is more involved - the game map itself is a set of puzzles and hurdles. It keeps the action constant, and feels a lot less claustrophobic than confining all the action to ancient tombs.

Link's movement abilities have also seen a change. A new stamina gauge means for a limited time Link can sprint, wall-run, and lift heavy objects. A lot of the game puzzles now revolve around using Link's stamina as an obstacle, rather than just physical barriers. It's a nice variation, but there are areas that overuse the idea, and risk tediousness.

Mechanically, the most outstanding element is the mandatory motion control. The Wii as a format has taken a lot of flack for introducing motion controls to gaming; and although the complaints have not always been justified - there's always the problem of having 'waggle' included just for the gimmick, which can often make a game imprecise and frustrating. Skyward Sword... largely avoids that problem.

Everything short of moving Link around requires some form of motion gesture - a great method of immersion. Waving your sword about and manipulating the many many tools at your disposal is satisfying for as long as the game wants to co-operate with you. It doesn't take much for the sensors to go slightly out of alignment, or to misinterpret what direction your sword swipes are in. It's not too much of an annoyance when you can take your time to solve a puzzle, but in the heat of battle the game is all too willing to punish you for not slashing in the (clearly shown) direction it asks of you. Seeing what you need to do laid out in front of you, but struggling to get Link to act it out is often jarring.

Also jarring is the game's hint system. Your sword has a guardian spirit named Fi, standing in for Navi or Midna from other Zelda games. In a contrast to the personality and characterisation of the rest of the cast, Fi has the literal personality of a computer program (her dialogue is filled with 'progress reports' and probability percentages). Not so terrible on paper, but in practice she bothers you frequently, often with information you already know about. If you're taking too much damage, or your remote batteries get too low, she'll notify you; and it's profoundly irritating. There is a difference between being able to ask for hints when you need them (which the game offers and does a very good job of pointing you in the right direction without solving puzzles for you), and stopping the game to tell you precisely what item you've just found on the ground.

While these setbacks are hard to ignore, they don't (or can't) ruin the great experiences that Skyward Sword has to offer. The characters are endearing, the locations are beautiful and distinct, and the game's villain, Ghirahim, has now become my favourite Zelda antagonist - he makes an incredibly cool first boss.

Nintendo have definitely shown that they can embrace modern game design sensibilities while still keeping the stylistic flair that makes them distinct. If Skyward Sword is a preview of the large-scale games Nintendo has in mind for the WiiU; consider me damn excited.

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