The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword review: Such great heights

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a game that is going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For the base which took hold of Nintendo's initial vision for the Wii console, imagining future games where the controller in your hand was -- hey! -- not a controller, but the Master Sword itself; it is that. For those who simply imagined a narrative evolution of the long, long-stagnant Hylian franchise, it is that, too. For Wii owners who just want something to play, it is that as well. It must be that.

As the flagship component of the Zelda franchise's 25th Anniversary, you couldn't ask for a better identikit of the series. As it moves through the all-too-familiar cycle of temples, tools and time-travel, it touches on the franchise's lowest points, adopts its most stellar attributes and, at frequent intervals, taps into a kind of magic that no game ever has before.

... as a franchise-long veteran, I wasn't anticipating how long some of these temples took me to solve.

That magic doesn't come in the form of a bold reinvention of the formula that's served as a backbone for the entire series. You, as the emerald-clad savior of the golden-haired apple of your eye, are still going to make your way through temples, collecting relics and handy tools while dispatching final bosses. That's set in stone, as is most of the order of these dungeons -- can you guess what treasures you'll find in the forest and fire-themed temples? If you answered "a slingshot and bombs, respectively," congratulations, you've played any Zelda game ever.

Part of the wonder comes from, as ever, the Variations on this Theme. Take, for instance, the main form of locomotion for the citizens of Link's levitating hometown, Skyloft. They dive brashly off the decks of their aerial island, only to be swooped up by their soulbound, gigantic bird mounts mid-plummet. Every time I did this (and boy, did I do it a lot), I fell a little more in love with the conceit. It's one part Evil Knievel and one part office retreat trust falls, a combination which is equally delightful the first and hundredth times you execute it.

You'll do a lot of traversal between the sky realm and surface world, which you can only access through gradually unlocked holes in the cloud barrier that divides them. There are a few other hovering islands to explore as well, but as a whole the overworld (a term which applies quite literally here) of Skyward Sword doesn't nearly rival the size or density of Wind Waker's. Which might not be a bad thing, if said game's lengthy transit times left you more than a little seasick.

Though the order of the dungeons hasn't changed, their content has been largely refocused on puzzles rather than exploration. They're not linear by the strictest definition, but few times did I go into a room and realize that I wasn't ready to be there yet. Instead, I would go into a room and be greeted by a clever, oftentimes devious puzzle to be solved. This ethos is by no means new, but it's never been as refined as it is in Skyward Sword -- as a franchise-long veteran, I wasn't anticipating how long some of these temples took me to solve.

"Refined" is an apt descriptor of the whole experience; many of the constituent, familiar elements which compose Skyward Sword are the best the series has ever seen. Its temples are the smartest. Its boss fights are the most satisfying. Its characters are the most endearing, and the best-written, to boot. Its fully orchestrated and expansive musical score is by far the greatest accompaniment in the franchise's history, and as a result, possibly the best video game soundtrack of all time.

Even its RPG elements have been expanded in robust and meaningful ways. In addition to his main items, Link also has an Adventurer's Pouch, which can be expanded and filled with non-essential items that will make the journey a bit easier. You can store and equip tools like bomb bag expansions, empty bottles, shields and medals which increase the drop rates of treasure, hearts or so on, effectively adding a deep and rewarding loadout system to the game.

These bonuses, as well as a handful of your other tools, can be upgraded in any number of ways at the Skyloft Bazaar, your one-stop destination for self-improvement. Want to make your shield stronger, or your potions more potent? Trade in some loot you found on fallen monsters or bugs you've caught to enhance them. Straightforward though they may be, these systems are addictive. More than once I caught myself going back to the surface world, looking for that one last component to upgrade my bug-catching net.

And, of course, the Wii MotionPlus attachment is implemented both frequently and perfectly through the course of the adventure. The 1:1 swordplay not only works, it turns every fight into a dynamic puzzle requiring pattern recognition and swift, decisive movement. Fights against fellow swordsmen feel like proper duels, moreso than any motion-based game ever has before.

It is a game punctuated by near-constant moments of genuine exhiliration, dishing out a stream of physical and mental satisfaction which moves between taxing and rewarding the player with an almost flawless equipoise. It is, however, a stream that's tragically interrupted by the filler which has reared its ugly head in so many of the series' past iterations.

Link is forced to pay his dues before entering each new dungeon, and while this requirement is hardly a new one, it's never been so egregious as it is in Skyward Sword. A few of these interludes introduce new mechanics and provide valuable hints as to how they'll be used in the near future. A vast majority, however, require hours of backtracking, fulfilling fetch quests which do nothing but stuff a few more insubstantial hours into a game that, without them, would still be 25 to 30 hours long.

It's so rare that a game can be added to by subtraction, but some of the biggest offenders in Skyward Sword simply have no reason to exist. The fetch quest which has you re-traverse the majority of a completed dungeon to secure an item from the final room? The third time you have to beat the same boss, with a few minor changes between each encounter? I cannot believe sequences like these appear in a game with such unsurpassed polish.

Somewhere within Skyward Sword slumbers the best Zelda game of all time. It is choked by a dozen hours of needless cruft; but it's there, a masterpiece entombed by a misguided ambition to be the lengthiest game in the franchise's history. It's still an incredible game, but it could have been the greatest game ever made, and the moments that keep it from doing so are absolutely going to break your heart.

That being said, that buried brilliance of Skyward Sword is given plenty of time to shine through its excess, and when it does, it will completely consume you. It's a vessel for concentrated feelings of adventure and heroism, frequently reducing the barrier between player and protagonist to an imperceptible sheet -- and in those moments when you let it, it can even remove that barrier altogether. Brace yourself.


This review is based on a retail version of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for the Wii, provided by Nintendo.

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