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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

"Skyward Sword was lovingly crafted, [...] and is the benchmark by which future Zelda titles will be judged."

Began in the late 19th century, the Impressionist art movement was a style that didn't follow traditional rules. It emphasized the feeling of a work of art over its resemblance to reality. The artists who embraced the techniques of Impressionism – Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and many others - would apply daubs of differently-colored paint side by side with little mixing. What this achieved was artwork that didn't try to recreate the details present in real life or other art at the time. Instead, these artists left us with works that, through their amalgamated use of vibrant colors, allowed us to see the essence of The Cliff at Étretat, or the soul of a Woman with a Parasol.

While it's true that the people who created The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword looked toward Impressionism as an inspiration for the game's art style, I feel it runs deeper than that. The Wii's technical shortcomings compared to its competition are a well-known fact, though Nintendo has long maintained that better graphics don't necessarily make for better games. Skyward Sword is proof of this mantra. Certainly, the title's polygon count and resolution can't compare to the HD games on other platforms, but it more than makes up for this in pure style. Visuals are a gorgeous blend of those that came before – the vibrancy of The Wind Waker and mostly-realistic proportions from Twilight Princess, specifically. Most textures in the game are sprinkled with dashes of intermingling colors, the most obvious interpretation of the Impressionist style. While most games use techniques such as blurring background areas to get the most out of the console it runs on, Skyward Sword does something interesting: Areas farther from view are not simply blurred, but they too take on traits of Impressionist paintings, morphing backgrounds into glistening canvases. It's something that – like Wind Waker's cel-shading – isn't immediately apparent in still screen shots, but works beautifully in person.

Aside from the painterly texturing, pulling away from Twilight Princess' realism also allows for more whimsical character, monster, and locale designs. There's a distinctive style at work here, and it goes beyond what you see and into what you feel when playing. The world is a joy to explore – from the Skies of Arcadia-esque skies where you can roam free atop Link's loftwing to the intensely-hot Eldin Volcano, and everything in between. Every area is also much more interesting and interactive; gone are the empty expanses from Twilight Princess. There's no shortage of things to see, secrets to uncover, and challenges to overcome.

A lively world can only feel so believable if it's filled with compelling characters, and Skyward Sword is no slouch. Zelda games always put gameplay first, story second, and that doesn't change here. But the story and characters that we're presented with this time around are easily the series' best. I won't give any story details, and while it's perhaps still not as deep or involved as those of many traditional RPGs, it's at least an interesting tale that you'll want to see unfold. For longtime series fans, the history and mythology here is deeply satisfying. While the ever-elusive official Zelda timeline is unknown outside of Nintendo, we do know that Skyward Sword is now the "oldest" in the series, taking place even before Ocarina of Time. This makes this version of Link the first known hero in the bloodline (at least until another game is potentially placed earlier in the timeline).

The most important component of any story, of course, is its characters, and the relationship between Link and Zelda is at the heart of Skyward Sword's story. If you ever felt that our two protagonists needed a stronger bond, you will love this game. Their scenes play out with dialogue from Zelda and facial expressions and gestures from Link to great effect. I would always be accepting of a silent protagonist if they were all as expressive and brimming with emotion as Link. Zelda herself is so vital to the ongoing plot that this is perhaps the first game to truly deserve the title "The Legend of Zelda." The rest of the game's cast is by no means the focal point, but each is unique and memorable, with a little story or sidequest of their own (which are, in turn, part of another over-arching sidequest). Link's helper, Fi (pronounced "fye," I hear) is perhaps the opposite of Midna: Ever-helpful and more than a little detached. She may not be as entertaining as Midna, but she's full of knowledge and advice that assists us in accomplishing Link's mission, frequently citing the chances – in percentages – that we're on the right track.

It almost didn't happen, but Skyward Sword is the first Zelda title to feature an orchestrated soundtrack, led by Super Mario Galaxy composer Mahito Yokota. The results are lovely: the music of Skyloft is appropriately light-hearted, and dramatic moments and boss fights are just that much more emotional when backed by a real orchestra. It's of course a shame that Nintendo didn't see fit to release a soundtrack for the game.

(A complete aside, and one that has no bearing on Skyward Sword itself, but the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony CD included with all initial copies of the game is nothing short of fantastic, and covers key Zelda themes from the NES original up to Skyward Sword.)

When it comes to gameplay, Skyward Sword is the game we all wanted Twilight Princess to be on the Wii. The requirement of the gyroscope-enabled Wii Remote Plus is no gimmick; besides the nearly 1:1 sword mechanics simply being fun, the game was designed in a way that truly takes advantage of the enhanced Remote. Whether it's the many puzzles that require specifically-angled sword swings or the Stalfos that block all but one angle of your attack, Skyward Sword is software that is so intertwined with its hardware that even Apple would be proud. The only negative I can find with the controls is that it saddens me a little that Nintendo didn't fully capitalize on the Wii's control capabilities until five years into the system's life.

Zelda has been around for 25 years now. For much of that time, the flow of the games has more or less followed the tried-and-true formula of venturing into a dungeon, claiming a new item/tool, defeating a boss, and claiming a key trinket at the end. Repeat this about eight times and throw a few mostly-optional sidequests in there, and you know what to expect. Much has been said of Skyward Sword's ability to completely break this formula, and it's generally true. You still get new items in dungeons that prove vital to progression, and you still revisit past areas with these items to open up new paths. What's different is the overall flow of the quest, as there are a multitude of scenarios that break the old mold; you're not just hopping from dungeon to dungeon anymore (although it's worth noting that the dungeons are brilliantly designed). There are several unexpected events and battles that take place in the time spent between dungeons. You'll revisit each of the game's main areas multiple times, but each time you're taken down a new path or new version of an old path. Each visit offers an experience different enough from the last that you never feel like you're doing the same thing twice. So, it's still classic Zelda in several important ways, but with all-new pacing that's well-executed and wholly refreshing.

And yes, there's plenty to do besides the important stuff. There are bugs to catch and materials to acquire from the game's many foes. Bugs can be sold to help you afford the game's more expensive purchases (the abundance of money issue from Twilight Princess is completely gone – you'll want all the Rupees you can find). Bugs are also used to enhance the game's many potions. Materials, meanwhile, are used to upgrade several pieces of Link's arsenal. Each subsequent upgrade requires more – or rarer – materials, and the results are stronger weapons or more durable shields. Yes, your shields have a durability meter now and can break if used to block enough incoming attacks. A quick visit to the Scrap Shop repairs them, though you'll find yourself wanting to upgrade that durability to reduce those visits. Expanding your ammunition – bombs, arrows, Deku seeds – is partially done through upgrades as well. With the new limited-space (eight slots once maxed out) Adventure Pouch, you can tailor your on-hand equipment as you see fit. For example, if you're a big fan of the bow, you can amass a few quivers and upgrade each, and have an ample supply of arrows always on hand. It's a system that allows for more customization and strategic planning than Zelda is usually known for, and that's a good thing. The best aspect of all this equipment though? You'll find yourself using all of your items throughout the entire game, instead of being armed with a handful of limited-use tools by the end.

Another strategic addition to gameplay is the stamina meter. As with you and me, lifting heavy objects and other strenuous activities take a toll on Link. You have to consider stamina when doing things like wall-climbing and sprinting – continue too long and Link needs to stop and take a breather, leaving you vulnerable. Skillful use of stamina-draining actions are key to success, and I have to say that the ability to run and leap while climbing ivy and ladders prevents even the tallest walls from becoming mundane. Of course, if you find yourself needing extra stamina to go even longer, there's a potion for that...

I discussed general gameplay already, but I didn't get into the sheer joy of combat. With the Wii Remote Plus being integral to gameplay, that means no longer can you waggle your way through battles, even with some of the simplest enemies. Bokoblins are one of the most common enemies in the game and come in various flavors. Each of these is skilled at blocking your sword with its own. Flailing your sword won't win the day, but careful examination of your enemy's stance informs you from which angle to attack. The boss fights all take this up several notches, and each of them offers a unique challenge to overcome if you hope to emerge victorious. I won't go into details, but the bosses in the latter half of the game are some of my favorite in the entire Zelda series.

When game developers discuss game length – particularly in RPGs and big adventure titles – we always take the number with a grain of salt. When we heard in September that Skyward Sword would be 50-100 hours in length, it was both exciting and suspicious. I can't honestly see anyone nearing the 100-hour mark here, but my final playtime did clock in at 51 hours. And that's 51 hours of normal-to-intense playing, not casually roaming the countryside. There's still enough optional gameplay left that I expect to easily hit 55-60 to complete everything. Your mileage will vary of course, but there's no doubt this is the largest and most content-packed Zelda title to date.

Like Monet and others before them, producers Eiji Aonuma, Shigeru Miyamoto, Satoru Iwata and nearly 100 other team members sought out to do something different with both the Wii and Skyward Sword. Instead of trying to replicate reality with excruciating detail, they focused on the broad strokes that bring a fantasy world to life. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was lovingly crafted, a fact that you can't overlook as you play it. The story may not hold any true revelations, but this is the kind of game in which solid gameplay and overall stellar presentation are more important, and eclipse this shortcoming. Being able to experience games of this caliber is why we play them in the first place. It's easily the best game I've played in a long time and the benchmark by which future Zelda titles will be judged.


© 2011 Nintendo. All rights reserved.




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