If I know review readers, I know a lot of you have already zipped down to the bottom of this page to see how I scored Skyward Sword. If you haven't yet, here goes…
I mention that now because bits of this review come off in such a positive way that an 8 will almost seem bonkers. The internet is filled with folks that follow the "too long; didn't read" philosophy to a fault. I'm counting on that principle applying here. So, despite the positive nature of my critique that peppers this review, there are several problems with Skyward Sword that keep it from perfection.
Zelda, as a franchise, has always had the capacity to rock the gaming medium to its core. Look no further than Ocarina of Time to see one of the industry's first widely agreed upon gaming masterpieces. This franchise has always defined the way gamers explore worlds, interpret plot points, defeat dungeons and quest with items. It's a rule maker and a standard setter.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword sets, perhaps, only one standard with its core mechanics and presentation. That nod goes to motion control. This game is the best excuse for motion control that I've ever had the joy of experiencing. I find myself routinely questioning the desire to swing when I can button press or twist and turn when I can steer with a stick. Skyward Sword had me loving the action of motion control, and this is the first time I'll ever officially say that.
It's because of the swordplay. You'll encounter enemies that require you to slice in specific directions. That takes the hack and slash notion away from this game and forces players to calm down and move economically.
The Wii MotionPlus mechanics will come with some oddities, however, so this isn't a seamless experience. You'll need to recalibrate frequently, and it can, sometimes, happen in the heat of battle. This isn't a major gripe, but more a point of note.
The look of this game, which is likely the first thing that you will notice, is probably one of its best features. Rather than trying to recreate the almost realist feel of Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword operates like a reverse-impressionist painting…objects nearby look precise and well rendered while the distance is smeared and blurry. It works very well here as the vivid color selection for the world is the main focus, rather than things like draw distance or environmental effects.
Traveling between locales is done by way of bird. Skyward Sword's premise is that the world has been broken up into, basically, two separate planes of existence. There are those that live above the clouds and those that live below. Only the wisest of each world seem to know that there are, in fact, others. Link becomes the go-between.
You'll fly from sky island to sky island on bird-back. When you want to head to the surface, you'll have to make a hole in the clouds (as part of the plot) and dive down off of your bird. Once you approach the ground, after a skip from game to cutscene, you'll open up a cloth and use it as a parachute.
The act of flight is one of the only motion control elements that I could have done without. While flying itself from point to point is an experience that doesn't necessarily tire, you're forced to mechanically fly by twisting and turning the Wii remote. You'll shake the remote up and down to flap your wings and ascend, while pointing down will cause the bird to dive and pick up speed. At this point, unlike swordplay, I'd rather just steer with a stick.
In terms of storyline, this is actually one of the most interesting and relatable Zelda tales ever told. Link and Zelda come together as characters that I actually like and want to help. Rather than this being a story of a weak, trapped princess, Link is sent to accompany Zelda on her own quest to save the world. The two get separated and Link's ambition becomes reuniting with her.
The way this tale fits into the overall Zelda universe is equally as exciting. I will not give away any single specific point for the sake of keeping the story intact for your play-through, but Nintendo has discussed that the plot in Skyward Sword is the first chronological happening in this universe.
Fans of Zelda dungeons may cite Skyward Sword as their favorite quest in the franchise. First of all, the actual dungeons themselves are genius this time around. It's not that the puzzling elements are so hard that it takes a genius to solve them (though there are doozies), it's that the dungeons are each uniquely built around a genius premise. For instance, the first fire temple forces Link to make use of a boulder as a transport vessel through a massive pool of magma.
Furthermore, dungeons don't rely so heavily on one single item anymore. Yes, there's still the theme that the item in each temple will help you beat it, but the reliance on said item isn't nearly as complete and obvious as before.
More than that, and this is why dungeon fans will love this game, the overworld itself plays like a giant dungeon. Getting further in each area requires completing dungeon-esque puzzles. While that works, it does actually hurt one of this franchise's biggest selling points…exploration.
And there begins my biggest problem with this game. It's more linear than any Zelda experience I've ever played. Exploration here is handled almost like an afterthought. You can do it, yes, but there simply isn't much of a compelling reason to explore. Areas are inaccessible or devoid of reward for so much of the game that stopping the plot and going out on your own brand of adventure simply doesn't happen.
In the best Zelda games, I am always able to boot up and have fun for the sake of having fun. Between dungeons, there's this certain element of screwing off that works so well in this franchise that it's become one of my favorite features. Here? Not so much. You'll be sent plugging away on your quest constantly.
When you are visiting areas, it's often for the second or third time. Get ready to back track. There's a lot of it here, and it often comes at pivotal plot points. You'll turn a corner on the story and hear from Fi, your escort, that it's time to head back to three areas you just beat in order to find three more temples. Find three in three mantra repeats three times and ends with a final backtrack that borderlines ridiculousness.
Exploration? Not so much. Treading the same 'ol ground, yup.
This is a good, good game. It's one of the best efforts on the Wii console to date. It's a great entry in the Zelda universe. For fans of that franchise and this console, Skyward Sword is a must buy.
However, there are a lot of things that will frustrate you about this experience. They'll center around the repetitive nature of the journey itself and the forced linearity. The problem is that those two things are such a massive draw to this brand that it actually hurts the overall game in a way that it struggles to overcome.
I had a good time with Skyward Sword, but that came with a lot of head shaking.
Full Disclosure: CraveOnline was sent a review copy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword well before the game's release. We spent the last few weeks playing through the game from start to finish. We did not collect all of the heart pieces, damn it.