Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Once upon a time, getting about in a Zelda game was such a clear-cut process. You had your dungeons (anywhere from four to 12, depending) and you had the overworld that linked them all together. Aside from the occasional spin-off (Four Swords Adventures was broken into levels, and Majora's Mask centered around the hub of Clock Town), that's how it always worked. You'd wander around, maybe poke into a cave for a Heart Piece, clear away some scrub, fight some bad guys, and eventually work your way to the next subterranean puzzle labyrinth. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is mixing things up, and the results are pretty great. Skyward Sword's design makes the distinction between overworld and underworld much muddier than in past games. Perhaps that's appropriate, since this adventure divides its world into three layers rather than the usual two. Above the dungeons, you have the overworld; meanwhile, above it all is the realm of Skyloft, best described as an aerial take on Wind Waker's sea. At the heart of Skyloft is a large city held aloft by (one assumes) ancient magic or technology or something, but the skies are littered with floating islands, and Link travels between them on the back of a huge red bird.

Dive into certain points in the cloud barrier below, though, and Link plummets from the world of the skies to the earth below. This is where the game's dungeons are located, but it's not a straight shot from the sky to the underworld. Players have to work their way through an in-between space, one that doesn't simply divide the areas physically but also sits between them in terms of function and structure. Skyward Sword's external ground-based areas link the game's dungeons, but they also stand between the player and his objectives. Unlike Ocarina of Time's Hyrule Field, the first of Skyward Sword's overworld portions we've seen (Faron Woods, an overt reference to Twilight Princess' Faron Province and the goddess Farore) is an open but convoluted space crammed featuring puzzles to navigate and quests to complete.
Reaching the temple itself requires the completion of a small sidequest which sees Link tracking down cowardly birds called Kikwis with the aid of a secondary ability of the Goddess Sword, a divining function. This also reveals an interesting fact about Skyward Sword's controls: It's now possible to move around in a first-person view, aiming with Motion Plus. The first-person perspective isn't ideal for more than simple, brief tasks, but it's an option.

Faron Woods isn't structured exactly like a dungeon; the Deep Woods area features a handful of rooms intricately designed to force extensive backtracking and puzzle solving. In contrast, the outer woods are more spacious, with a layout not unlike that of a Metroid game. Divergent paths loop back on one another, and Link can push logs from ledges and employ other similar tricks to create shortcuts through areas that were initially inaccessible. Not every trick here is perfectly designed; particularly annoying are a handful of tightrope sections that require players to balance Link with Wii Motion Plus and could use a few rounds of fine-tuning before the game goes gold. Still, even these sequences reward clever players: Tightropes are often guarded by goblins eager to pummel Link and knock him into the pits below, but you can draw them out and preemptively knock them to their doom instead. 

Neither Faron Woods nor the Deep Woods dungeon is brimming with concepts that haven't been explored in a Zelda game before. Fetch quests, hunting for keys, raising and lowering water levels to reach new areas it's all tried and true material. What makes it all feel fresh in Skyward Sword is the manner in which it's presented. It takes longer to reach the Deep Woods than to clear the dungeon itself, and for the first time the path to a dungeon is obstructed by the intricacy of the landscape rather than sheer distance to be covered or arbitrary plot-key tasks gathered in a nearby town. The means to working your way through way through the woods are found in the woods themselves; the area is a self-contained puzzle. In that sense, it really does play out like a dungeon. You even acquire a new tool, the slingshot, in the course of locating the Deep Woods. Skyward Sword's entire lower world could arguably be seen as a series of nested dungeons. We're not talking Celtic knotwork levels of intricacy here, but there's a sense of purpose to the world outside of Skyward Sword's dungeons that is usually lacking in Zelda games.

Producer Eiji Aonuma's team has reportedly been working on Skyward Sword since Twilight Princess launched five years ago, and the unusually lengthy development has paid off. The game is loaded with detail on both a large and small scale. Complementing the re-envisioned game structure are dozens of minor details that really make the adventure shine. Everyone seems smitten with the fact that Link can skewer pumpkins with a quick jab of the sword, but that's hardly the only throwaway detail you'll find in Skyward Sword. From the Skyloft-obsessed Goron archeologist whose mind Link repeatedly blows with his habit of performing magical sword strikes and activating ancient devices to the fact that heeding the game's constant prompts to sit allows Link to regenerate his health in unexpected places, Skyward Sword feels as artfully crafted as Wind Waker's best moments... but those moments feel far more frequent here, with far less filler in between.
Zelda fans love to present their personal opinions on which chapter of the series is best as cold, hard fact, and nothing will ever change that. But by the looks of things, Skyward Sword seems likely to join the short list of top contenders. 

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