The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is everything that’s brilliant and terrible about the series condensed into possibly its best offering to date. You still control the silent hero Link while trying to save princess (or sister or goddess or whatever form she takes in the various releases) Zelda from some spiritual evil. If you’re looking for innovation in story or writing, Skyward Sword is not it. The most-hyped revelation was the realization of the Wii’s initial promise, that of one-to-one motion with swords, slingshots, etc. But this is really a tool to enable the game’s crowning achievement: level design.
Though it also acts as a governing system for how long you can play Skyward Sword in one sitting, every single environment in the game is a puzzle. Though that may seem common for frequent Zelda players, I’m not just referring to specific dungeons that you’re forced to work your way through. Instead, any progression through the game, be it thematic or physical, is achieved through the solving of a new puzzle. Skyward Sword owes as much to Tomb Raider as it does, say, Ocarina of Time.
As the story goes, Link’s native land Skyloft was floated into the sky centuries ago, distant enough that no one on the floating island town has been to or can even remember earth. Through the forces that be, Zelda is carried away and Link has to descend beyond the clouds to try and save her. Everything on earth is new to Link, so winding forests that, in previous Zelda iterations might just be chock full of baddies, are instead perplexing environments that require specialized tools and techniques. (This alienness allows the introduction of traditional Zelda items/tools–slingshot, bug catcher, bombs–to be truly impactful and realistic.) Not only are the dungeons themselves full of your standard Zelda puzzling fare, but the massive environments leading up to them are similarly taxing.
This is both a good and bad thing. While it adds weight and a sense of purpose to the exploration of these widespread areas, it’s also difficult to put in a significant amount of time in any one sitting. When playing Skyward Sword, you’re always on, which is to say that your brain is being constantly taxed. By the time you arrive at any of the predetermined “dungeons”, you already feel like you’ve done the heavy lifting. Now I get to fight the boss, right? Instead, the dungeons–at least at the point I’ve progressed to, about 16 hours–introduce yet more environmental dynamics to interact with.
This constant relearning and appropriation of your existing tool kit is draining. However, it also speaks to the game’s depth. While the one-to-one swordplay is fun (mostly; I still have significant issues with its response to my motions, causing much frustration and cursing), the most impressive feat is how the game appropriates your tools. Each tool that you earn has an obvious use, but as your immediate surroundings evolve, those tools prove to have more unique functionalities. So while you’re constantly toiling through puzzles with a fairly limited tool kit, it’s a testament to the game designers that none of those puzzles ever feel repetitive.
All of this innovation, combined with the games RPG tendencies, encourages exploration. In previous Zelda games, there were only a few things to do: find rupees, kill bad guys, save Zelda. With the introduction of customizable weapons and tools, thoroughly exploring your environment is no longer reserved for people interested in finding a few Easter eggs. Finding and catching bugs or uncovering new relics act as an incentive to look around. But the exploration is intuitive. Since the entire game is built around puzzles, most exploration is born out of habit: I’m going to have to solve this puzzle eventually, so I’ll complete and interact with all the features of this area. It’s brilliant level design and player interaction that essentially force this exploration.
Ultimately, the puzzling gets a little life-sucking though and you have to put the game down. Whether it’s figuring out what sword swing a particular enemy can’t block or trying to open those oft-gated doors, Skyward Sword is not for the casual gamer, which is why it’s unfortunate that the user interface and discovery of new items is treated like it always has been: like you’re a 12 year old. That’s not enough to really harm the game’s style or enjoyability, and the innovations in level design make Skyward Sword both the most innovative game in the series and its best.