Look Skyward, So That I Might Sneak By
[one_third]Though The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s stealth section technically asks Link to remain out of sight, he can only do so by following a pre-determined path…[/one_third]
Don’t let people convince you otherwise – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of those weird Zelda games that plays with structure and progression much like Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker. Though mechanically similar to previous games, Skyward Sword is bloated with new gameplay systems that are intricately tied to other systems and fold back in on themselves. Yeah, it’s a bit like that.
Take, for instance, the Adventure Pouch, which lets you hold a limited amount of non-essential items like bottles, shields, and various medals that act as buffs and debuffs respectively. Not only can you increase the capacity of the pouch, but you can also put an item in it that lets you find more rupees and treasure at the cost of being unable to interact with it. Outside of the Adventure Pouch is Link’s collection of items he finds in dungeons that, unlike previous games, are used consistently throughout the adventure instead of being relegated to one specific dungeon and rarely used afterwards.
With the entirety of Skyward Sword so focused on adding a whole slew of new features to the franchise, it’s a shame that no effort has gone into the now all-too-familiar stealth mechanics developed throughout the series, especially after their near total absence in Twilight Princess. In many ways, the enforced stealth section of Skyward Sword is a step back from the innovation found in The Wind Waker. While the set up is inspired, with Link returning to Eldin Volcano to find it overrun with enemies, and the environment significantly changed, his progression is intensely limited and developer-mandated – unlike the more freeform exploration of the Forsaken Fortress in The Wind Waker.
While the set up is inspired, progression is intensely limited and developer-mandated.
The volcano erupts as Link is falling to the land below, causing his little makeshift parachute to veer out of control, sending him tumbling down to the ground below and resulting in his capture. He awakes inside of a cell, stripped of his equipment, and must escape and retrieve his lost items before heading on with his adventure. The complete lack of Link’s traditional items is a wonderful surprise and suggests that the inevitable stealth section to come will be significantly different to the ones before (Link went on a manic cart ride earlier on in the game that resembled a 3D platformer, of all things!). Anything was possible. Unfortunately, when you reach the main area, the realisation dawns that Nintendo is content with the status quo and so what follows is a disappointingly familiar sequence.
That’s not to say there aren’t some fantastic ideas here. Firstly, you have to collect your items one by one, and they’re scattered all over the map in hard to reach places. This set up also means the level design had to be significantly changed in order to accommodate a now item-less Link, which means each subsequent challenge revolves around using the item Link last picked up. This breaks up the challenges into bite-sized pieces that revolve around using one item in different ways, but solutions are instantly highlighted and don’t support player ingenuity.
When a searchlight is in your way, you simply have to look for the nearest hole to dig underground and bypass it. If there’s no nearby hole it means you need to bomb the tower and make it fall down… never mind the illogical premise where a searchlight can spot a human figure but not a lit bomb. When you finally pick up the slingshot, all sense of vulnerability and worry has evaporated, as you’re left with a horrendously overpowered stealth-breaking tool.
Using the slingshot only serves to further trivialise the enemy AI – Nintendo has mistaken being stunned as a synonym for unconscious. An enemy can be hit with a pellet and simply run past, seemingly forgetting that he was stunned or saw a green blur dash past him.
If enemies aren’t just being dumb, they’re also being unobservant. Link can be remarkably close behind them – or make as much noise as he likes dashing from cover to cover – and they will be completely oblivious to his presence. You need to actively try to be caught, and unlike Link’s previous stealth adventure, the fail state for being caught simply drops you at a nearby checkpoint. There’s still the prevailing design sense of “do it right or not at all,” but the punishment for failure is so minor that it’s not even noticeable.
By the scenario’s end, stealth in Skyward Sword fails to be representative of stealth in games at all. Other than the single rule of not being spotted, the rest of the scenario involves following very obvious developer cues in order to avoid detection. You’re not using a single mechanic, controlled by yourself, like the barrel in The Wind Waker to manoeuvre around patrolling guards, and you’re not sniping from a distance with the bow and arrow to thin their ranks and walk around them like in The Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
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There’s no ingenuity or skill of your own in order to succeed; you’re just putting a circle shaped object into a circle-shaped hole, and if you try to deviate from that, you get less than a slap on the wrist. True stealth promotes player initiative and thought and, while you are doing stealth-like things in Skyward Sword, you’re not using your own mind to do so. You’re simply solving puzzles with specific puzzle-solving tools.