The world of Skyward Sword will be wonderful. That's the main feeling left by the first three hours of gameplay, witnessed in a Nintendo showroom in the heart of Madrid.
With much more artistic and narrative value, and leaving aside the puzzle and combat mechanics (already tested extensively in both this and last year's E3), the opening section of the game sees you engaging in beautiful and fun sequences.
This new Zelda is also the oldest, chronologically speaking, with Nintendo finally tempering the wild excesses of the franchise's erratic timeline to a degree. But it's also the Zelda that's representing more than just this one entry - an idea the game takes very seriously.
First, it assumes the pressured and prominent role of commemorating the 25th anniversary of the series, emphasised by the logo's appearance on the title screen, and there's no coincidence that the people of Skyloft, the village in which the game opens, is celebrating the 25th edition of their Bird Riders tournament.
Second, Skyward Sword plays a dual role in the series: the narrative and chronological origin of the series proper. Clearly this decision, which brings more weight to the plot and hints in the artistic choices in the design, is a response to fans clamouring for firm fact as to the world's background. It'll be the most logical and representative entry in the Zelda universe, and something fans will love.
Following the style of Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time or DS entries, Skyward Sword opts for an introduction heavy with quasi-static imagery, detailing an intriguing narrative written in the tone of legend.
But then a powerful sweep of orchestrated music - which we'll discuss in detail later - cues the first appearance of a dynamic score, and gives a hint of the compelling audio that waits you in the game proper.
Drums and backing vocals recall the tragedy of the "fiercest and bloodiest battle ever seen", as the hosts of evil disgorged themselves from the ground to spread death and destruction. Who, or what, is this evil, and who is this Goddess of Lyre and Sword with the absolute power to grant any wish? But the fact is she won, and the good people were took to the sky, safe from the horrors they lived on the lands below.
The intro highlights the fact that human storytelling is an error-ridden enterprise, omitting details and inaccuracies increasing or shifting in the telling - a sentiment echoed by a character later in the game, and perhaps a self-referential nod to the franchise's twisted and taught timeline. If so, it's a clever, and knowing wink between Nintendo and its fans, and will delight.
We're writing these words 11,000 meters above the earth's surface, our flight darting through clouds. It's easy here to realise how Nintendo have captured the feeling of soaring through the sky so well. During those first walks around Skyloft and with every
Loftwing flight (the imposing and brightly coloured bird steeds that'll carry you between islands), you're immediately hit with the freedom and vertigo that such a wind-reliant culture would bring.
Villagers, each with their own Loftwing, are totally accustomed to throwing themselves off into the abyss, the feathered creature picking them up mid-drop after a whistle. Before cheerful melody is piped, the only sound is the rushing wind. Wind motifs and gadgets cover clothes and buildings.
If you played Ocarina of Time recently, you can identify many of the special things about Link, who obviously is the Chosen One. At the game's start, the Hero of Time had no fairy and was dogged by nightmares of some future evil. Expect something similar here, and remember the film Avatar when you meet the majestic Red Loftwing tied to your protagonist, or that red talking ship from Wind Waker...
While the first two hours of play is more dialogue than adventure, the truth is that compared to Twilight Princess, Skyward knows how to get to the point way faster and has much more substantial dialogue. There will be several response options, trivial at first and later related to quests or main plot. Yet at this particular point of the story, humour is abundant throughout conversation, almost all the time in Skyloft dedicated to comments on the two lovebirds flirting and adolescent jokes, something that both hero and player will surely miss a few hours later.
Travis Touchdown style, Link refills health by visiting the toilet. The characters are even more risqué and bizarre. There are jokes and kidding for everyone, almost touching the cheesy style from anime series. It also seems that this game wants to laugh at itself more than its predecessors: it's about time someone said something to Link on his usual and untimely triumphal poses.
ON THE WORLDS
The mandatory tutorial during your first time in Skyloft is more reminiscent of the first island in Wind Waker, with that cheerful and colourful atmosphere. Also because of the floating islands, Skyward Sword feels divided in two levels: islands to navigate and explore above and the huge, uncharted lands below. Reminiscent perhaps of the two-world setup in previous titles - though interconnectivity, if any, between the two is something Nintendo has yet to discuss or reveal. Yet the opening quote, taken from a song played and sung by Zelda early on, could be read literally...
The Priestess and her knight are more expressive and believable than ever. More friendly. In addition to the superb animation that gives life Zelda's ruffled hair, the body language and clothing that marks Link as hero to be, the opening two hours are highly cinematic. A movie style pioneered in the series by Ocarina of Time is embellished, and surprises, here. A low-angle shot of Link when he's the focus of attention, and beautiful zoom-out of the two lovers standing in the square at the foot of the Goddess, flanked by their spectacular Loftwings.
These shots, designs and movements, along with abandoning the "realistic" browns which did so much harm to Twilight Princess and the return to the colourful tale of adventure, promise a happier Zelda experience, and offer starker contrast when we approach the darker sections.
But above all these virtues there is a value that covers everything and we can almost guarantee to the final game: delicacy. Skyward Sword has been built very finely, with artisan care.
ON THE MUSIC
During the demo we regretted only two things: that Nintendo had not installed a full-scale surround sound system - we had to settle for shoddy TV speakers, and that we can not go to The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony right now.
We can't place the point at which we heard a dozen different melodies in such a short time. Almost every scene within the village we hear perked our ears, and our enjoyment, that little bit more. In flying, the rhythms are exciting. In moments of tension, you'll instinctively grit your teeth.
Expectation then for the Symphony's performance - the London show of which Gamereactor will be covering - mounts. If these tracks make it into the live show, it'll amaze even more.
We've little new to report on controls. But that does not mean it's less exciting. It will certainly be innovative, letting us submerge ourselves completely in the role of Link thanks to Wii MotionPlus.
It's more subtle and clever than ever, and there are a number of actions mapped to slight gestures that are completely logical. Small gestures to climb, swing, somersault... lift any object and shove the Wiimote skywards to launch, point to the ground to roll it.
The joints of the wrist and arm Link have improved significantly since E3 2010, while hitting in every possible angle is more accurate and fun. When you play The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for a while, you feel like building yourself a wooden sword and go down to the neighbourhood park to pretend you are a knight. Can you imagine how thou shalt bring the sword out of the pedestal? Prepare for an epic He-Man moment.
In the absence of advanced enemies during the demo, together with the first trials of combat with sword and shield, focus was drawn towards the new Link agility when moving. Link is a hero, but not a machine. If the stamina meter is depleted, Link will be exhausted, panting, exposed to everything. And not only by running: when you climb or travel a ledge, after some enemies' attacks, unleashing your most powerful blows with the sword.
Questions of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword winning any Game of the Year awards are wrong. Only in so much as its the wrong line of questioning to take. After seeing the game's opening, how the mechanics work and the wider structure of the world and its inhabitants, a much more momentous question arises:
Is this the most innovative and evolved Zelda? Is it the pinnacle of the series?
We think we already know the answer. Next month, we'll know for sure.
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