The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD | Review | BDG

  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release date: 16/07/2021
  • Price: £49.99 / $59.99
  • Review code provided by: Nintendo UK

Introducing: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD review

When sitting down to review Skyward Sword HD, a moment of existential dread overtook me. Despite my own affinity for the original Skyward Sword, my impressions of this HD upgrade during the promo period were insipid. Graphically, it looked akin to the original, with texture work being left to a minimum and many angles still looking rough, jagged and unrefined. I also questioned why the slew of QOL improvements were only revealed in the week leading up to the release of the game.

Perhaps even more than anything, I questioned how a return to the traditional 3D Zelda formula would compare to the masterpiece that is Breath of the Wild. With Skyward Sword HD resorting to the tried and tested tropes of the Zelda franchise, would the linear and story-driven approach be restrictive? Let’s take a deep-(sky)dive into this review of Skyward Sword HD and find out.

Sky-ho silver, away

Skyward Sword HD review

Here’s a fun fact before we get started-started. Skyward Sword is the latest all-new traditional 3D Zelda title to release. It originally came out ten years ago to mark the series’ 25th anniversary. As I’m sure you’re all aware by the numerous and exalted celebrations (and simple maths, given the previous sentence), this year marks the series’ 35th anniversary. In a roundabout way, my point is that Skyward Sword offers the most modern example of 3D Zelda design (BOTW aside, obviously) and triumphs because of this.

Skyward Sword HD tells the tale of a boy named Link and a girl named Zelda, living happily above the clouds in a place named Skyloft. After a basic introduction to the game’s characters and NPCs, which also doubles up as a tutorial section to acclimate yourself with the games motion controls (more on those ‘ron), an event happens that sends the wheel of destiny into a dizzying spin and sets events into motion that will serve as this grand title’s stellar story. And make no mistake, Skyward Sword offers the most compelling and comprehensive story that the series has seen in the entirety of its rich 35-year history.

I won’t spoil it, in case you’re yet to experience it for yourself but what I will say (and what I assume to be common knowledge in the year of our Lord 2021) is that its position as the starting point in the fabled Legend of Zelda timeline is a worthy inception for a series filled with such rich and fascinating lore. In classic The Legend of Zelda fashion, there are side quests aplenty and through them, you’ll meet an array of weird, whimsical and whacky characters who further serve as catalysts to develop and nurture Link as a silent protagonist. I’ve seen people say that it’s high time that Link has lines of dialogue, but in much the same manner as Wind Waker, Link 1.0 is emotive and expressive and his empathy shines as brightly as ever in Skyward Sword HD. Link’s masterful range of emotive expressions makes his perpetual silence deafening.

Delectable design

The design choices of The Legend of Zelda titles are often dissected and derided, and Skyward Sword was no different a decade ago. Familiarity often breeds contempt, but exploring Skyloft, the surrounding islands and the land below feels fresh and, in a sense, new. This is all aided by the solid 60 FPS that this remaster employs. Everything flows organically and there is real fluidity to proceedings.

While exploring the Îles flottantes isn’t as expansive as sailing in Wind Waker, it offers a more refined mode of traversal that never outstays its welcome. In Skyward Sword HD, the extra draw distance means you can see more of the action in the background, with islands and the sky alike bustling with activity and movement.

In truth, the watercolour effect employed allowed the modest Wii hardware to offer a cromulent visual experience that was accentuated by sublime audio design. Music has always played a huge part in the series, but in Skyward Sword, everything is raised higher than the hub-world of Skyloft. This isn’t a basic bombastic offering either but instead a fully orchestrated realisation of 25 years of midi-mastery. Both familiar melodies and reverse-engineered offerings a-new sound as good as anything that Nintendo has, even to this day, produced and the orchestra of the Goddess does a wonderful job in enriching these iconic melodies.

Mechanical melancoly and QOL aplenty

It’s not all butterflies and rainbows, however. Despite the fresh lick of paint that Skyward Sword HD has received, it still shows some worrying signs of age, most of which are mechanical. As an example, I went to jump from a ledge and swing on a rope. I positioned myself at a 45° angle, held down B to run and… ran up the side of the wall, never actually attempting the jump. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Despite the introduction of a free camera – something that wasn’t available in the 2011 original – there are moments where Skyward Sword HD feels just a little bit, for want of a better word, awkward.

The aforementioned camera is perhaps the most welcome QOL update present in the remaster. The option to peruse your surroundings at your pleasure is hugely welcome, no more so than during the dreaded Trials. These are segments of the game where, above all else, stealth is required. Being able to plot your course, before leaving the safety of the light circle, is hugely beneficial in making these previously perilous sections a little more amicable. I saw sections of the Internet deride the mapping of camera controls when playing with button inputs, but in all honesty, once I grew accustomed to it, it became second nature and a seamless experience.

Speaking of button controls, perhaps the biggest addition to Skyward Sword HD is the option to use a traditional controller, instead of motion controls.  As a side note, motion controls are still present and account for and offer a cleaner representation of what the original Wii Motion+ tried to achieve a decade ago. While the Wiimote only had the scope for a handful of button inputs, the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller or Joy-Con have far more button availability. With combat being at the forefront on Nintendo’s Skyward Sword showcase, the most logical interpretation of translating sword movements from full-motion swipes to sofa-friendly gamepad inputs was seemingly to utilise the right analogue stick. Thankfully, Nintendo agreed and controlling Link’s faithful companion is as simple as a flick of the thumb over the right stick. It’s worth pointing out that these inputs are akin to smash moves in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, with a little more vigour and accentuation required. Much like the camera, once it clicks it becomes second nature.

As well as camera control and alternative control options, the remaining QOL improvements, while more minute, further streamline the experience making Skyward Sword HD the definitive way to experience this masterpiece. Gone are the days of an intrusive companion named Fi and instead, she’s far more agreeable and barely pipes up unless it’s relevant for the progression of the story. She’s still available if you get stuck, but if exploring at a leisurely pace is your jam, she won’t be popping up every few minutes to piss on your strawberries. It also delights me to let you know that you won’t be informed of the value of a rupee or treasure each and every time you pick one up upon loading your save file. Although, every time you receive a gratitude crystal you will be informed so. Whether this is an oversight or conscious choice remains to be seen but can become irksome if, like me, you decided to run through the related side quest in one sitting before rolling credits.

K gon’ give it to ya!

Skyward Sword HD review

It would be impossible to wax lyrical about Skyward Sword without offering the highest praise for the dungeon design. Each and everyone feels intricate and meticulously planned out, highlighting the unique item acquired within. Some of the best dungeons from the series’ prestigious past are present within Skyward Sword and if I had to rank my top Zelda dungeons of all time, Ancient Cistern, Sky Keep and Sand Ship would be on the podium.

Even the game’s overworld feels like an elaborate open-aired dungeon, with environmental puzzles required to progress to the next area. While the sky is a minuscule open game world, with Skyloft acting as a central focal point with a bustling bazaar (for all your retail therapy needs) and notable NPCs galore, the land below the clouds is much more calculated. In fact, Nintendo even borrows from the playbook of one of its other stellar, if not quite so popular franchises, Metroid, with backtracking and re-exploring areas with upgraded items a regular occurrence. While there are only three areas – Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano and Lanayru Desserts – each one offers more than initially meets the eye and is expansive and filled with secrets and treasures.

It’s as far-flung from Breath of the Wild’s opulent open-world formula as imaginable, but given the sheer excellence of the game’s design, it’s a spectacular juxtaposition.

A Link to the future

While not specifically relevant to this review of Skyward Sword HD, its influence over facets of Breath of the Wild is interesting to consider. In Skyward Sword, in order to track rare treasures, quest items or Goddess Cubes (mythical spheres that when struck with a Skyward Strike, awaken a treasure chest on an island in the sky), you can utilise your sword and scan your environment in a first-person view, employing a technique called dowsing. While not directly used in 2017’s perennial masterpiece, its roots are firmly planted. The Sheikah sensor in Breath of the Wild is a clear iteration of Dowsing. The stamina gauge, climbing and even a breakable shield are all concepts trialled in Skyward Sword that were refined and reiterated upon in Breath of the Wild.

Conclusion

Skyward Sword HD review

Skyward Sword is an exceptional title that was due to its late release on the Wii, missed by the masses. Skyward Sword HD on Nintendo Switch is one of the console’s very best titles and a sheer delight to review and thanks to the hybrid system’s exponential commercial success, will hopefully find the audience it deserves.

Despite its slightly dated demeanour, Skyward Sword HD remains not just a thoroughly enjoyable video game experience but also a hugely important one. It is the best traditional 3D Zelda game, the last original traditional 3D Zelda game and, much like the Wii U was for the Nintendo Switch, an essential antecedent for Breath of the Wild. And who knows, maybe it’s an essential play prior to Breath of the Wild 2.

Pros

  • Wonderfully woven narrative
  • Dungeon design of the highest order
  • Fully orchestrated soundtrack
  • QOL enhancements by the truck load

Cons

  • Shows signs of its age at times
  • You still have to do that one thing, twice in a row

Verdict
Skyward Sword HD marries a Goddess-tier story with unrivalled dungeon design in perfect harmony, the fully orchestrated score and eclectic cast of NPCs being the children that elevate and enrich the entire experience.