At times, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword feels a bit like a dream, one of those vivid ones that's all colours and sunshine, freedom and flying. Earlier this week I played the first several hours of the game at a Nintendo press event and came away impressed with the complexity of the controls, the richness of the toolset, and the gorgeous visual design of the game.
Totilo is our resident Zelda expert; he's already had a lot to say about his time in the game's first dungeon at E3, and he can speak more fluently than I can about how Skyward Sword stacks up against its many predecessors. What I can do is talk you through the opening hours of the game, and share a few things I noticed. I'll keep it light on too many details, and provide more of a general overview of the game's opening chapters. Here we go!
I said that Skyward Sword has a dream-like quality to it, and so it's appropriate that it begins with a dream sequence. Link is alone in the darkness, a huge black mouth rearing up in front of him, screams and cries ringing out… and then he awakes in his room, a giant blue bird nudging him through the window.
Climbing out of bed to meet the day, Link (and this is a teenaged Link, as opposed to the child-like Link of Wind Waker and the DS Zeldas) was dressed in ordinary clothing, not his trademark green tunic and cap. He's a citizen of a floating city appropriately named Skyloft, a series of interconnected airborne islands that hangs suspended under the blue sky and above a thick floor of clouds. As is so often the case at the start of fantasy adventures, this day was the day of a Big Important Ceremony. Namely, Skyloft's Wing Ceremony.
The blue bird had dropped off a note from Zelda, telling Link to come meet her before the ceremony. Heading out into the town in control of Link, I found myself awash in gorgeous visuals. The Wii takes so much flack for its graphical prowess (or lack thereof), but the art direction of Skyward Sword is impressionistic and vibrant, like a Monet painting come to life, or perhaps something from Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. Pressing the C button switches the view to first-person; it's possible to walk around in first-person mode, taking in the richly drawn detail of Skyloft.
After heading out the door, one of Link's friendly mentors took me through the requisite basics of motion and environmental interaction. Most big actions that Link undertakes -- sprinting, jumping, climbing, swinging -- deplete his stamina meter, so it's best to perform more athletic movements in moderation.
The controls in Skyward Sword are surprisingly complex. In this section, for example, I noticed that shimmying along a wall, I was able to use the Motion Plus controller to make Link leap along from left to right. After getting my head around a handful of moves, I continued on to meet Zelda.
I came upon her at the foot of a great statue looking out over Skyloft; she was playing the harp, and was excited to tell Link that she had been chosen to play the part of "the Goddess" in the Wing Ceremony. By now, I had gleaned that the Wing Ceremony is a yearly tradition where the young men of the city (or at least, it appears to be only men) compete for honour and earn their way towards knighthood. The main competition is a sky-race, with each competitor taking flight on the back of his own personal flying bird, known as a Loftwing. Skyloft citizens are each bonded to their own personal Loftwing: it's a lot like Avatar only everyone isn't blue and the birds are a lot cuter.
So, this is pretty cool -- a floating city in the sky, where all of the citizens have their own personal giant flying bird to ride. Sounds like my kind of place. Zelda's Loftwing is the blue bird that woke Link up at the start of the game. Through a conversation with Zelda's father, it became clear that Link shares a special bond with his Loftwing… a bond the likes of which no one has ever quite seen before. Hmm… this smells a bit like Very Special Destiny…
Through a series of events that I'll leave unspoiled, it becomes clear that Link's Loftwing has been kidnapped, most likely by a fellow Wing Ceremony competitor named Groose. Groose is… a fairly awesome character. He is essentially the Zelda universe's equivelent of Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future movies, albeit with more womanly lips. Seriously, the dude has some decidedly sensual, feminine features for a lunkish thug.
Through some detective work and a lot of chats with townsfolk, I determined that Link's crimson Loftwing had indeed been kidnapped by Groose and was being held nearby -- but to reach the location, I'd have to get a sword. It's dangerous to go alone, dontcha know.
I headed to the sparring hall to see the knight there, who was kind enough to let me grab a practice sword and go to town on some logs. Skyward Sword requires the use of the Wii's Motion Plus controller (either the original Remote with the MP peripheral or the new Remotes with it bundled inside). Because of that, the swordplay is able to be detailed and responsive. I found the controls to be immediately welcoming and comfortable. Sword swings mimic the direction and angle of the Wii remote, so control becomes a simple matter of following your instincts.
The onscreen HUD is large and crowded -- fortunately, there are three settings that should keep everyone happy. "Regular" shows the entire Wii Remote on the right-hand side of the screen, complete with all of the buttons. "Light" shows only the buttons and inventory items, and "pro" removes all trace of the Wii Remote and allows players to rely on their memories of what does what.
I worked my way through a cave, fighting some bats and blobs. I came across Link's red Loftwing, which was being held in a cage boarded up with long planks. At the same time, Zelda arrived on the back of her bird to help Link. She tells him that she's been hearing something calling out to her, a voice from far away... and she mentions the fabled "surface," a land beneath the clouds that stretches as far as the eye can see. Hmm, wonder if I'm going to have to go down there at some point...
After looking over the cage for a minute, I realised that I could cut through the ropes at the ends of the boards -- this might sound like an obvious video-gamey thing, but the specific location of the ropes made it so that I had to use some Motion-Plus finesse to cut through them. It gave the distinct impression that puzzles in Skyward Sword are going to require a fair amount of precision to solve.
With my bird free, I was finally ready to try out the skydiving move I'd seen other characters doing around town. All around Skyloft are wooden air-docks, ramps that jut off into nothing. To take flight on a Loftwing, all you have to do is run up to the end of one and jump, before pressing down on the D-pad to whistle for your bird. In no time, you'll be whisked away, and quite literally, the sky is the limit.
Flying in Skyward Sword isn't too difficult -- the only thing that requried some getting used to was the fact that in order to get my Loftwing to flap its wings, I had to wave the Wii Remote up and then down. The timing threw me at first, but as I adjusted to it, it wasn't a problem. Pressing A causes the Loftwing to dive forward, and pressing the B trigger prompts it to slow down. Steering is controlled with the Wii Remote, and feels organic and flowing.
Shortly after making sure my Bird was OK, I landed and made ready for the Loftwing ceremony. I'd have to race Biff -- I mean Groose -- to grab a trophy from a flying golden bird. The build-up to the race was suitably exciting, and it became clear that Groose was head-over-heels for Zelda, which was why he wanted so badly to beat Link. Silly Groose.
But of course, Link won -- Link always wins. (Note from Totilo: how would you know, Kirk?) I didn't fly all that well, but the trophy seemed to hang just out of Groose's reach, even when by rights he should have had it. After winning the ceremony, I met with Zelda atop a giant statue, where she gave me a sailcloth that she made herself. With the sailcloth, Link can fall from any height and pull his chute at the last minute, sort of like a more cartoony version of Just Cause 2.
With the ceremony over, Link and Zelda went for a romantic day-trip aboard their Loftwings… but, as is usually the case, their happiness is short-lived, and soon Zelda falls away, lost into a strange, dark mist.
Later that night, Link was drawn away by a floating, fairy-like presence, which he follows around waterfalls and up cliffs to the top of a mountain near Skyloft. Upon arrival, a blue fairy popped up and accosted him in a voice that sounded less like Ocarina of Time's's Navi and more like… Portal's GLaDOS?
Her name is "Fi," and she quickly determined that she was to accompany me on my great journey. All right! A fairy helper who is nowhere near as annoying as Navi was! At least, she hadn't become annoying yet. Fi talked quite a bit like an artificial intelligence, with a dry and sardonic tone and a fairly haughty demeanour.
Fi guided me to a familiar Zelda sight: a sword in the centre of the temple, half-buried in a stone anvil. Being the chosen one with the great destiny, Link was OK to go and pick it up -- by finagling the Motion Plus controller down and then up, I removed the sword.
You can probably guess what happened from here -- it was time for Link to venture into the world below on a quest to find Zelda, to don the green vest and hat of a knight of Skyloft and see what mysteries lie in the lands beneath the clouds. After stocking up on supplies in the town bazaar, I leapt aboard my Loftwing, soared towards a newly opened hole in the clouds, and leapt through it, plummeting in free-fall towards the earth.
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