Now I’ve beaten Skyward Sword, I want to follow up on my previous post with some concluding thoughts. Although I stand by my earlier opinion – the game is awesome – I have to admit that Skyward Sword is also a flawed game. And funnily enough, the game’s strengths magnify its flaws.
As I said, this game gets so much right. The mechanics are fantastic, and the game puts them to excellent use in the overworld and dungeons. The puzzles are brilliantly designed, head-scratching but always manageable. It’s not even that they’re so ingenious or anything, what’s amazing though is how consistently well put together they are. Despite finding the game hard I never had to look at a walkthrough for a solution – this isn’t even a humblebrag, it’s purely down to the brilliant level design. The clues are always there, but they’re subtle. I can only imagine they playtested this thing to death to make every single puzzle/challenge the right balance of doable and difficult. That level of polish coupled with the satisfying mechanics mean that, moment to moment, Skyward Sword is the most fun Zelda game and maybe even one of the best games I’ve ever played.
But, when all’s said and done, the game doesn’t quite come together. Why? Believe me when I say it has taken a long time – one whole year actually! – for me to reach the conclusion that often it’s one key element that can make all the difference: the story. Not the plot, per se, but the story. The motivations for the characters are ambiguous, the world isn’t cohesive, and the pacing is poor. And each of these issues has a negative impact on the game as a whole.
Let’s go through each aspect in turn: motivations. What do these characters want? It’s so muddy – the first half of the game you have no idea what is going on, and then in the second half you get too much info… I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t played it, but for anyone who’s completed the game, can you explain just what the hell Zelda is by the end? I couldn’t make head nor tail of it.
Second: lack of world building. Now personally I don’t have any problem with the clear separation between the land and the sky, and the relatively small sky area and few areas on land. What did bother me was how the game handled dragons. Minor spoiler (but not really), there are dragons in this game. But unlike every RPG ever featuring dragons, where NPCs would talk about legends, myths and fables that talk about dragons, only to conclude that dragons don’t exist, Skyward Sword ignores the existence of dragons until you’re directed to find one. It’s just plain weird and it contributes to the bizarre feeling that certain portions of this game were rushed and not especially well thought out – even though that may not necessarily be the case, it feels that way, and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by other people who’ve played Skyward Sword.
Third is the pacing. This is kind of similar to what I talked about earlier with the character motivations. The pacing is weird because, like everything else in Skyward Sword, there’s a disconnect between the world and the dungeons – the dungeons are extremely well paced. (I mean they are superb, the way everything builds on what has come before, the way new elements are introduced right up to the end of the game, it’s a marvel) But outside of dungeons and the more puzzle intensive moments on the land, the pacing is a lot worse.
The problems start after a certain point in the game (specifically, once you’ve collected the “flames”). Suddenly the game loses its way in terms of pacing – the ending of the game feels imminent, but in reality there are many hours of gameplay still to go. Rather than building tension and excitement for the finale, the lack of any clear signposting about when the game is going to end gives this final stretch of the game a distinctly rough and meandering feel that could’ve been easily avoided. Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuinely interesting and cool gameplay ideas and twists that happen during this section of the game, but the lack of clear direction made everything feel like a fetch quest, an arbitrary distraction to keep from reaching the end of the game.
So those are my issues with Skyward Sword. Obviously it doesn’t entirely spoil the game for me by any means – Skyward Sword remains awesome. But if any game has showed me that excellent mechanics and gameplay can’t stand alone, it’s this one. They need to be married to characters with clear motivations, strong pacing and a cohesive, inspired world. That’s why I always go back to earlier titles in the Zelda series, titles like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Link’s Awakening, which have all of the above and great gameplay to boot.