The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword finds itself in an unenviable predicament. In the 25 years since its inception, the franchise has picked up a few bad habits. Chief among these are a predictable structure and fetch quests that force you to trudge through hours of ho-hum content before you reach the good parts. However, changing these aspects would require a complete overhaul of the tried-and-true formula, and it could ruffle the feathers of those who seek familiarity. What's a gamemaker to do? In the case of Skyward Sword, Nintendo has kept the elements that have hung like an acidic cloud over past iterations while crafting a new control system to keep it from feeling like the same old game. Unfortunately, the combination is not successful. Inconsistent controls continually torment poor Link, and the predictable structure does little to distract you from these faults. Thankfully, other staples, such as exquisite dungeon design and enticing collectibles, are also present, and the clever storytelling keeps you invested. Ultimately, Skyward Sword commits many of the same mistakes that its predecessors have made, but it still provides enough engrossing content to keep you hooked.
In the opening moments of Skyward Sword, Zelda is seen penning a letter to Link. However, this is not a plea to rescue her from the clutches of evil. Rather, it's a wake-up note for a boy who relishes sleep above all other activities. Zelda and Link spend time together in Skyward Sword where they enjoy the sights of Skyloft, the peaceful city in the clouds they call home. Although Link is his usual mute self, the two have an endearing rapport that makes you hope things work out for these two kids. When a twister plucks Zelda out of the sky, events are set in motion that only Link has the power to rise up against, but this is not your typical Zelda story. There is no damsel in distress here. Zelda is every bit Link's equal, and as the pieces of her own quest slowly come into focus, you appreciate the stirring sacrifice that both of these characters make. The supporting cast members--made up of an absurdly evil villain and one-note citizens--don't resonate in quite the same way. But this is still a well-written story that calls forth a variety of emotions on your quest to free the world from evil.
It's only when you enter your first combat scenario that things begin to falter. Link's sword mirrors your hand movement, so whether you thrust forward or swing horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, you see your actions play out onscreen. In theory, this should open the door to a wealth of exciting possibilities, but in practice, there are enough noticeable issues to keep you from enjoying the sword-swinging fun. The most pressing of these problems has to do with the fact that the game doesn't force you to move with precision. The first time you face a lizalfos, you may circle around until you see an opening and then unleash a horizontal strike when it lets its guard down. Once it recovers from being dazed, the lizalfos charges toward you; once again you circle and dodge until it reveals a weakness. There is some satisfaction in a battle cleanly won, but going through this elaborate charade is both time consuming and ultimately pointless. Instead, you can parry its opening attack and then flail away at its prone body until it's vanquished. By either using a shield parry or landing one sword strike against most enemies, you can stun them and then proceed to waggle your way to victory.
If you decide to be slow and precise rather than quick and efficient, new problems arise that ensure combat does not go smoothly. The Wii Remote has trouble recognizing your different swings. Often, you thrust forward in real life only to watch Link swing feebly in the game or just stand completely motionless. The sensitivity varies wildly so you're never quite sure how much force you need before the game recognizes your actions. As in the aforementioned situation, you may swing your arm while Link ignores you. Other times, you might adjust your grip so you go from holding on your left side to your right, only to see Link lash out at an enemy when you didn't want to do so. Most troubling of all is how the aiming works. There are certain items that require you to aim at the screen. However, the calibration is frequently wrong, forcing you to tap down on the D-pad to recenter. This happens with alarming frequency, and when you find yourself in a heated battle looking directly at the ground, you'll curse the game for damning you with such a cumbersome control scheme.
The control issues don't end with the combat, either. When Nintendo released the first 3D adventure in the series in 1998, Ocarina of Time set a number of standards (such as Z targeting) that are still used in a variety of games today. But that was 13 years ago, and many ideas that worked back then feel downright clunky now. For instance, your camera control is very limited. You can tap Z to center your view or lock on to an enemy, but this is a poor solution because you can't freely scan the environment without switching to a first-person perspective. There are times when you square off against giant foes but your view is almost completely blocked, placing you in a frustrating situation that could have been avoided. Automatically jumping when you run toward a ledge is also included in Skyward Sword, and combined with the troubled camera, you may find yourself accidentally jumping off of a cliff or taking inadvisable angles.
It's a shame that you spend so much time fighting the controls in Skyward Sword because the content is quite enjoyable. Dungeon design is particularly impressive. Recent entries in the series got into the predictable habit of introducing a new item in each dungeon that you would subsequently use to solve most of the puzzles and defeat the boss. Thankfully, that's no longer the case in Skyward Sword, and the experience is much better for it. Now, you need to dip into your bag of tools to figure out the best way to advance. You may need to use your beetle to scout the environment or roll a bomb into a hole, and the unpredictability of the obstacles forces you to carefully consider each scenario. Though you rarely die in combat, there are more than a few situations where you might find yourself stumped. You can solicit advice from Fi, the companion who travels with you, and this advice is usually vague enough to point you in the right direction without spelling out exactly what needs to be done.
A fearsome boss waits at the end of each dungeon. These duels comprise a variety of different combat techniques and make you use your full repertoire. There are times when your swordwork takes center stage. Here, you stab and swipe with the precision offered by the motion controls, and though the actions don't always correspond to your own movements, it's still a rush to chip at an enemy's defense until you bring it down. Other times, you may have to utilize your clawhook or shoot a few arrows, and trying to decide what the best tool for the job is makes these battles feel like fast-paced puzzles in which you could die if you take too long to solve things. As good as the boss fights are--and all of them do test your wits and skills--it's a shame you have to fight two of the bosses three times each. Part of the appeal of The Legend of Zelda and other adventure games lies in seeing the grotesque enemy designs. By presenting the same foe more than once, predictability sets in and the shock factor is diminished.
Predictability crops up in the quest structure as well. You repeat the pattern of fetch quest, dungeon, fetch quest, dungeon so many times that it starts to feel like you're just going through the motions. Thankfully, there are a few diversions that add a hint of variety to the been-there-done-that trappings. The silent realm forces you to tear through previously explored areas with a slight twist. You must collect scattered tear drops without being seen, but you have to use different techniques from what you would normally use because you don't have any weapons. Granted, by the fourth time this situation crops up, what was once fresh begins to feel a bit stale, but it's a nice detour from the meat-and-potatoes progression that the rest of the game encompasses.
Repetition exists not only in what you do but also in where you go. There are three main areas in Skyward Sword (a desert, a volcano, a grassy plane), and you visit each of these on three separate occasions. Your objectives do change, but you often have to walk through the same environments you've already visited. Considering that revisiting the same area was one of the most maligned aspects of Phantom Hourglass, it's odd that Nintendo would once again reuse places to pad the length of this adventure. And in no place is this more troubling than in the final few hours of the game, where your last trip to the volcano world thrusts you into an unusual mission that plays unlike the rest of the game. The levels are meandering and illogical, and the artificial intelligence is laughably bad. Not only does this section feel out of place--it just isn't fun on its own terms.
When you're not questing through dungeons, you can take part in plenty of side missions. Your main mode of travel in Skyward Sword is on the back of a bird. You're free to travel anywhere in the sky your heart desires, and the stirring music does a great job of making you feel like a soaring adventurer. Quests are usually handed out by the needy citizens of Skyloft, and these encompass a great deal of different activities. Some of them, such as carrying pumpkins for a tavern owner, are quite lame, but most of them are fun in their own right. One quest lets you decide the proper use for a love letter, while another sees Link in the role of unassuming steroid pusher. Both scenarios trigger side stories that are not only funny but will entice you to finish them just to see how they turn out. Still, the overworld is not without its faults. First, flying through the air is a slow process, and once you test the limits of your bird's diving ability early on, there's little to demand your attention on the long flights. Second, although there are many islands in the sky, few of them contain anything worthwhile. It's a far cry from the rich world of The Wind Waker where you were never sure what you would encounter next.
A few of the new elements introduced in Skyward Sword are positive additions to the series. An upgrade system lets you use collectibles you scrounge up in your quest to improve your tools. For example, you can turn your slingshot into a scattershot that fires three pellets at once or improve the healing powers of your potions. This is a great addition to the franchise because it gives you a purpose for collecting things, with a tangible result when you acquire enough goods. Link is also more agile than in past games. He can now sprint through worlds and shinny up short walls, and this allows the labyrinthine design to be more robust. A stamina meter ensures you can't abuse this, and there are clever situations where you must run precisely, lest you run out of breath and fail your mission. There's also a motion-controlled segment onboard a minecart, and though it only lasts a few minutes, it's a thrilling detour from the main actions. These elements are worthwhile additions to the franchise, but it's a shame that there aren't more of these features to really set Skyward Sword apart from previous games.
The good elements do outweigh the bad in Skyward Sword, creating another engrossing experience in this venerable franchise. Strong visual design meshes the cartoony world of Wind Waker with the more realistic approach offered by Twilight Princess, and the riveting orchestral soundtrack brings back many classic tracks while offering a few tasty new ones. However, the formula is beginning to show its age. There just aren't enough new ideas to separate Skyward Sword from its predecessors, and the few additions come with mixed results. Even with many bright spots, Skyward Sword still feels like a nostalgic retread. Those yearning for something new will be disappointed, but anyone thirsty for another exciting adventure will find plenty to enjoy here.
Editor's note: This review originally stated that aiming was handled through the Wii Remote's infrared sensor, which is incorrect. The review has been amended accordingly. GameSpot regrets the error.