E3 2011: Zelda: Skyward Sword Hands-On
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was easily one of my most anticipated titles going into E3 this year. They’ve got a brand new build and new content to show on the floor, so I dug in at my earliest possible convenience. There were three sections to play: An aerial race, a small dungeon, and a boss fight. I dove straight into it, and you’re definitely going to want to hit the jump and see what I thought.
First, I checked out the flying section. It began with a short cut scene featuring a green tunic-free Link and some of his chums being tasked with a flying challenge by some sort of sky village elder. He told us to pilot our birds to capture a small statue held by a fifth bird, and the winner would be rewarded with a special surprise from the lovely Zelda (note that the “princess” title was conspicuously absent). This intro gave me a good look at the idyllic floating town this iteration of Link calls home, though I’m still extremely curious as to how it all fits into Zelda lore. Worth noting: another old man next to the speaking character looked extremely owl-like. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing (and hearing) more from him in the full game.
The citizens of this cloud city are clearly very brave, because as soon as the elder’s intro was finished, all four boys leaped off a cliff, free falling into the clouds. When falling, the game prompted me to press down on the d-pad to call my bird, who very gracefully caught me and sent me seamlessly into a flying sequence. Naturally, all the flying in Skyward Sword is handled using Wiimote tilt. If that sounds a little scary to you, I’m happy to report that it works much better than the similar navigation scheme found in the Wii version of Twilight Princess. Clearly, requiring the Wii MotionPlus in this title was a good choice. The bird could also dash, with wings at the bottom of the screen indicating its stamina, similar to Epona’s carrots in previous Zelda titles. “Flapping” the Wiimote up and down caused the bird to ascend quickly, which is critical to getting to your prize and avoiding the projectiles that your so-called friends decide to start tossing once they decide that they won’t be losing to you this time. I caught the statue, of course, although Zelda’s reward was kept secret.
Next I hopped into the dungeoneering section of the game, and that’s where some of the major changes start to reveal themselves. We were already aware of the strategy-focused swordplay enabled by Wii MotionPlus, and the equipment selection wheel, but there are some very subtle alterations to gameplay. Specifically, there are two brand new UI elements: A shield health bar and a stamina meter. The shield bar is fairly self explanatory; when you deflect things with your shield, it loses health. When the health is gone, so is your shield. It remains to be seen exactly how the game will balance an increased frequency of shield destruction, but losing your shield at a critical moment definitely ramps up tension in the game. The stamina meter appears only when it’s being used, either by sprinting or using exhausting sword techniques.
The dungeon section showed off lots of the game’s various enemies: modern takes on the classic bokoblins, keese, skultulas, and stalfos. Each requires their own very intentional swordplay to defeat, and the stalfos in particular employed some very different defensive techniques, making simply flailing your sword in its direction a very ineffective strategy. Upon defeating it, link receives an upgraded beetle item, a remote-controlled mechanical flying insect that can hit switches, slice through ropes and webs, and grab items. Interestingly, upon grabbing it, the very ambiguous “sword girl” from the early concept art emerged, and analyzed the item to explain its properties to Link. It was actually pretty perplexing.
I ran out of time before I was able to play the boss fight section of the demo, but I did at least get to watch several other folks play through it. He introduced himself as a “demon lord”, who rules the land underneath Link’s city. His dialog was incredibly cryptic and punctuated by several flicks of his unreasonably long tongue, and the bossfight itself proceeded with lots of him teleporting around and throwing dark projectiles. Upon defeating him, he said that he only lost because of “that sword”, and retreated from the battlefield, leaving, of course, a heart container.
The look of the game is clearly set in stone at this point; the fusion of Wind Waker‘s color palette and unique character design fused with Twilight Princess‘s more realistic look and feel might be the most crowd-pleasing aesthetic decision yet, and so far it’s looking spectacular. And with a promise for a Holiday 2011 release, this is shaping up to be yet another stellar Zelda release.