Link's new adventure changes the formula while retaining Zelda's spirit. Impressions of the first major dungeon.
The more time I spend with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the more I'm convinced this adventure captures a sense of originality and freshness for the series that I haven't felt in a decade, maybe more. What's curious is how the game manages to achieve that tone. It's not as if Nintendo is throwing what makes Zelda so unique out the door. Link is still exploring dungeons, still fighting bosses, still fetching mystical items… he's even still finding boss keys. But it's how all those things are designed and managed in the context of the overall adventure that makes Skyward Sword considerably different than its predecessors.
The introduction to the game's mechanics on Skyloft, though different, is still rather by-the-books for a Zelda game. It's faster, it wastes less of your time, but you're still going through some similar motions. You meet key characters, discover critical plot information and are sent off to save Zelda, the world and everything else shiny and wonderful.
It's once you learn how to sky dive to the wicked surface world that things change considerably. In previous Zelda adventures, the bulk of the game's challenge and sophistication stemmed from dungeons. Puzzles, enemies and major challenges were neatly packaged into one area, with transition segments generally consisting of finding characters and objects, largely removed from the more strategic and intense design elements to come.
Skyward Sword changes that considerably. When Link dives below the clouds, he lands in an area called the Sealed Grounds, just south of the Faron Woods. The game, largely through the sword spirit known as Fi, then gives Link a tutorial on a mechanic that's new to the franchise - dowsing.
Dowsing is an ability that allows Link to go into first-person mode and use the Goddess Sword as a sort of interactive compass. When Link aims the sword's "cursor" in the proper direction, he'll get a variety of visual and audio clues, including a directional arrow of sorts that points at the desired object. Link is able to tune the sword to look for different items or creatures, such as lost members of the small, furry Kikwi race that inhabits the woods. As Link searches the forest, he'll not only fight enemies and navigate obstacles but also seek out these creatures, which will eventually give him access to the Skyview Temple as he searches for Zelda.
Link's search ability is just the beginning of how Skyward Sword layers challenges into an overworld that feels radically different than its predecessors'. The journey to discover Kikwis isn't an easy one - the little bastards are hiding in some pretty discreet places. In fact by the time the "proper" dungeon started, I found myself feeling like I had already progressed through one. Much like the introduction, the game seems aware of how the franchise has typically dragged out quests or artificially extended sequences with tasks that didn't seem to inform the story or truly engage the player. It's as if Nintendo realized the greatest elements of Zelda games were the dungeons, and has now attempted to take elements of those areas and spread them throughout the entire adventure.
That's not to say Skyward Sword relies too heavily on dungeons. Not once did I feel the game was becoming repetitive. Don't think of Faron Woods as having the same qualities as Skyview Temple. Each has different puzzles, tones and aesthetic qualities. Once Link has sorted out his Kikwi problems in the bright green forest, the dark, moody, haunting temple provides a more focused challenge, one very different from the woodsy adventure he just left behind. Despite battling hordes of Bokoblins and figuring out how to scamper up a ridiculously tall cliff, Link will find himself squaring off against a sword-wielding Stalfos skeleton, dozens of skulltulas and Skyward Sword's big bad guy Ghirahim.
Once again, Nintendo toys with what would seem to be conventional Zelda logic. Completing the Skyview sequence won't take long. A few short puzzles, obstacles and battles later and Link will find himself at the boss room. Factoring in the experiences with Faron Woods and you have a sequence that feels about as long as a traditional "game opening" dungeon. In other words, Nintendo seems to be spreading traditional Zelda mechanics out into varied storyline situations, applying the ideas we all love in fresh ways.
It's everything you'd want to see the franchise do with another sequel. It's what the franchise should always be doing. It's what it used to do but perhaps forgot as time went on.
The way Skyward Sword approaches its dungeon and world design is emblematic of everything that makes this latest game so captivating and addicting. The controls are fresh yet familiar. The visuals are both technically clever and artistically gorgeous. The story takes convention and turns it on its head. And then comes the actual experience beyond the introduction, which uses everything you know in subtly different ways. It makes you wonder why Nintendo didn't try and do this before now.