It’s difficult to know exactly how to handle a new installment in a franchise that’s been around as long as The Legend of Zelda. Stick to what made the series great, and you risk feeling stale, but break too far away from expectations and long-time fans may feel betrayed. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the perfect tribute to its impressive lineage, honoring its predecessors while maintaining its own identity. If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise, you’ll love it. If you’re brand new to Link and Zelda, you’ll love it. Even if you’ve felt like the series had become tired and stale, you’ll love it. It will make you believe the Legend will continue for another 25 years.

The sky island of Skyloft serves as the hub for Skyward Sword as well as Link and Zelda’s home town. The Goddess brought humans to Skyloft long ago, to protect them from the monsters that were invading the surface, but the time has come for Link and Zelda to embrace their destinies and take up their roles as Hero and Spirit Maiden. Not that Link really cares all that much about such high-minded concepts like being chosen by the Goddess – he just wants to get his life-long friend out of danger and back to Skyloft where she belongs. Making Link and Zelda school pals puts a different spin on their dynamic and makes his quest to find her less about prophecies and more about personal concern. He’s not cutting his way through enemies and navigating dungeon traps to satisfy a set of mystical requirements, he’s doing it because he’s worried about his friend.

Once you’re on the surface, you’ll meet new creatures, kill some of them, and puzzle your way through a series of increasingly complex dungeons. The dungeons of Skyward Sword are incredibly clever, really forcing you to be observant and think your way through obstacles. As you play, it’ll become very obvious just how other games hit you over the head with answers or clues. You may feel like you already know all of Skyward Sword‘s tricks because you’re a longtime Zelda fan, but don’t be too sure. There are certainly familiar mechanics, like finding small keys to unlock doors, or bombing your way through cracks in walls, but these dungeons have plenty of new ideas.

You’ll probably be baffled more than once, but Skyward Sword has a few tools to get you back on track. Using your sword like a divining rod, your new dowsing ability helps point you toward important items like key pieces, hearts, or your little blonde friend. Your spirit companion, Fi, can give you intel on your enemies or hints about puzzles, though her advice usually boils down to “look around, dummy.” A stone back in Skyloft even provides video clips spelling out how to make it past particularly tricky sections. The hints are a nice fallback for newer players or for when you become truly stuck, but getting out of a dungeon and back to the stone is enough of a pain that you’ll really have to want that clue.

Skyward Sword still has all the familiar aspects of a Zelda game, like Link in his green outfit, slingshots and bombs, but they’ve all been given just enough of a twist to feel new. You’ll visit a volcano, but instead of Gorons, you’ll run into subterranean treasure hunters with bad haircuts. You’ll get a net to catch bugs, but instead of just being one more thing to collect, now you can use them to upgrade your potions. Even the dialog feels like someone took a fresh look at it. You can occasionally choose which response you’d like to make to a question, and people will react appropriately to your responses. If you agree that yes, the little girl in town was definitely spirited away by monsters, you’ll be chided for your overactive imagination, but act unconcerned about her disappearance and you run the risk of appearing uncaring. Choosing the correct response might open up a new quest or give you a hint for a current one, but the wrong answer won’t do any permanent harm. Rather than just mouthing the same overwritten threats, Skyward Sword‘s villain vacillates between charmingly amusing and genuinely unnerving. His distinct personality makes him more than just the Bad Guy You Have to Vanquish – he’s a creep you genuinely want to defeat.

If you need a break from the surface, there’s plenty to do around Skyloft. There are treasure chests to track down and minigames to find, neighbors to help and a batguy who wants to turn into a human. Even just flying around on your Loftwing – the giant birds used to navigate the clouds – is a lot of fun as you master the technique of flapping, climbing, and diving to gather speed. Nothing feels pointless and all of it is fun, though occasionally the controls do their best to mess up your good time. Swordfighting with the Wii Remote is enjoyable, but the mushiness of the Nunchuk’s thumbstick will frequently send Link off in the wrong direction. Simply getting the camera straight can be agonizing; jumping into first person perspective will help you take a look around, but that’s not really practical in the middle of a boss fight. Skyward Sword is easily one of the best games to grace the Wii, but you can’t help but wonder how much more refined it could’ve been.

Bottom Line: Skyward Sword manages to honor 25 years’ of gaming history while simultaneously feeling relevant for anyone new to the ways of Zelda – or those who’d perhaps grown a bit tired of hanging out with Link.

Recommendation: If you have a Wii, you should own this game. It’s beautiful, inventive, inspiring, goofy, and brilliant. It will make you a believer.

[rating=5]

What our review scores mean.

Game: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform(s): Wii
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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