The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Review – Drifting on a Familiar Breeze
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HDJuly 16, 2021
Not every Zelda game is equally beloved by fans, but with time almost every entry in the series finds a passionate audience. Games that divided fans at launch like Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker are now considered beloved classics. One game that hasn’t really benefited from such a re-evaluation is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Response to the game was muted when it was first released back in 2011 and its reputation hasn’t improved much since then. If anything, it’s declined further, particularly given the enthusiastic critical and fan response to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Despite the continued mixed opinions, Nintendo is about to launch The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD this week. Could this be the beginning of Skyward Sword’s reassessment? Or were you right to file it away in the closet with your Wiimotes and Balance Board? Time for a flyover of the pros and cons…
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD purports to be the first game in the series’ much-debated timeline, and indeed, you do get to witness important events like the creation of the Master Sword, although don’t expect too many explicit connections to other entries in the series. This game’s Link and Zelda reside in the floating town of Skyloft, where it seems they’re destined to live a peaceful life until Zelda is whisked away to the mysterious surface world by a dark tornado. Thus begins a quest to save Zelda and stop the villainous Demon Lord Ghirahim from resurrecting a dark force known as Demise. So yes, the game hits a lot of familiar notes, but overall, it tells one of the series’ better tales. Skyward Sword’s Link and Zelda feel like real characters rather than broad archetypes, and, shock of shocks, some actual romance between them is hinted at. They’re backed by a colorful cast of supporting characters, some of which, like the blockheaded Groose, eventually reveal hidden depths. At its best, Skyward Sword’s world and story have an almost Studio-Ghibli-like endearing quality.
Unfortunately, while this world’s characters are likable, its construction leaves something to be desired. Skyward Sword HD is essentially a big triple-layer cake, consisting of the Sky, Surface, and the game’s dungeons. Soaring around on the back of your feathery Loftwing is fun, although the world above the clouds is limited and largely empty – essentially a less-interesting version of Wind Waker’s vast ocean. The real problems arise when you head down to the Surface. Prior to its 2011 launch, Nintendo boasted that much of Skyward Sword’s overworld would be almost as dense as the game’s dungeons, and they weren’t lying, although in hindsight I’m not sure if it’s much of a selling point.
The Surface is divided into three regions, the leafy Faron Woods, red hot Eldin Volcano, and dusty Lanayru Desert, each of which does feel like an open-air dungeon. That may sound like a good idea in theory, but as games like Breath of the Wild have proven, a certain amount of freedom is a key component of the best Zelda games. With the exception of short jaunts to the sky, Skyward Sword always feels frustratingly hemmed in. Every bit of progress on the Surface needs to be earned and eventually starts to feel like a grind due to the game’s inordinate amount of padding. Every one of the three Surface regions must be tackled at least three times – an initial visit, a stealth-focused “Silent Realm” trial, then a final challenge that remixes the area in some way. As if that weren’t enough rehashing, you’re forced to replay a certain boss battle (one of the least fun in the game) multiple times. At times Skyward Sword feels less like a Zelda game, and more like a repetitive collect-a-thon platformer.
It’s a shame because once you get past unintuitive overworld design and excessive padding, Skyward Sword HD serves up some truly excellent dungeons. From the earthy Skyview Temple to the Buddhist-inspired Ancient Cistern and swashbuckling Sandship, most of the dungeons have their own look and feel and will test your brain in unique ways. As a bonus, many of them culminate in some of the most epic, entertaining boss fights in Zelda history.
So yes, there’s still a lot to love here, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Skyward Sword is a bit of an evolutionary dead end. It represents the culmination of a lot of trends that had been building over the course of several previous Zelda titles -- most notably, an increased focus on structure, repetition, and gimmicky control schemes. It was no accident that Skyward Sword was followed up by games like A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild, which focused on freedom and accessible gameplay. This game clearly pushed the needle too far in a certain direction.
Of course, this is a review of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, so how do Nintendo’s remastering efforts stack up? The game now runs at 1080p and 60fps, but overall, the game’s graphics haven’t aged particularly well. Nintendo opted for a visual style inspired by Impressionist paintings for Skyward Sword, likely because they felt it would look good running on the underpowered Wii hardware and standard-def screens, but it doesn’t really hold up blown up to full HD on a 50-inch TV. Smudgy textures and low-poly objects abound, and a lot of the game’s character and enemy models are just…odd.
Ultimately, Skyward Sword HD’s biggest new feature is the addition of standard button-based controls (the original featured compulsory waggle), but it’s not the clear-cut win you may be hoping for. When playing with standard controls, your sword is now swung in different directions with flicks of the right analog stick, which works quite well, but means there’s once again no second stick to control the game’s camera. You can hold down the left shoulder button and move the camera freely with the right stick, or even adjust the camera using motion controls, but both options feel a bit too fussy to be useful. Most of the time you’re stuck just tapping the ZR button to center the camera behind you. Yes, that was your only option in the original Skyward Sword, but frankly, it sucked then too.
Of course, you can still opt for motion controls using left and right Joy-Con, which gives you access to a second free analog stick and full camera control. Unfortunately, while the motion controls themselves work well enough, they don’t really improve on the original Skyward Sword. If anything, they may be slightly worse as I feel like I had to recalibrate more often (particularly when aiming my slingshot or bow) and the Joy-Con just doesn’t feel as satisfying to swing as the weightier more sword-shaped Wiimote. Instead of one unequivocally better control scheme, Nintendo forces players into a Sophie’s choice – play with buttons and limited camera control or fiddly gestures and full camera control. Personally, I opted for the former and found it to be an overall improvement compared to the original game, but I can’t help but feel Nintendo should have figured out some way to let players have their cake and eat it too.
In addition to uprezzed visuals and new controls, Nintendo has added a variety of other small features to the mix, including autosaves, skippable cutscenes, and optional Fi advice, all of which is welcome, but not exactly game-changing. Frustratingly, one of the game’s best new features – the ability to jump between the Surface and Sky any time or place you want – is locked behind an expensive Amiibo. It’s a stingy move and one that feels emblematic of the ethos behind this package. Skyward Sword was a game in need of some extra love, but Nintendo isn’t giving it away for free.
This review was based on a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD provided by publisher Nintendo.
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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD is a conservative update to one of Link’s less-heralded adventures that’s unlikely to change many minds one way or the other. The padding, control limitations, and other issues fans have long bemoaned are still in full effect. That said, there’s really no such thing as a bad Zelda game, and this one still shines at times thanks to a strong story, excellent dungeons, and some intense boss battles. If you’re impatient for Breath of the Wild 2 and have never played Skyward Sword, by all means, give the game a shot, just keep your expectations slightly grounded.
- Engaging story and characters
- The Sky is fun to explore
- Top-notch dungeon design
- A few nice quality-of-life changes
- The usual great soundtrack
- Tons of content
- Visual style hasn't held up
- Restrictive, repetitive structure
- Controls still aren’t optimal
- Key feature tied to Amiibo