Let me be clear: I’m more excited for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild more than I have ever been about a Legend of Zelda game. I have never been a huge fan of the series, having attempted numerous times to play through Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and the 2D iterations A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds. They never connected with me to where I felt sufficiently motivated to continue to spend time completing dungeons and wandering the world. However, Breath of the Wild brings significant and welcome changes to the Zelda formula that I believe has been holding the franchise back for quite some time.
There were two timed demos I was able to play through on this year’s E3 show floor. The first was a free play demo where Link was already equipped with some good items: a sword, shield, bow, arrows, bombs, and some crafting items. I was able to simply walk about the green plateau section of the map and find treasure, gather more crafting items, sit at a camp fire, climb trees, battle Bokoblins, visit the ruined Temple of Time, or engage in the shrine (a miniature dungeon).
The second demo began at what I assume will be the first playable section of the game. A female voice, most likely Zelda, calls out to you. As Link, you awaken in a tub of bright blue water, encased in a rock altar. You are also clothed only in what I assume are The Legend of Zelda‘s version of boxer-briefs. You exit and find some travelers clothes in two chests outside the room and pick up a Sheikah slate, which bears a striking resemblance to the Wii U gamepad. You quickly exit the hallway and are let loose into the over-world: and boy, what an expansive world it is.
Like with most open world demos, the presenter asked me to bring up the map and zoom out, and then zoom out more, and more, until the section I was in that I thought was quite sizable compared to other Zelda games, became but a small section of a much larger map. I also had the option to bring up the Sheikah slate and use it as binoculars and place a waypoint anywhere in view. I did so, aiming at the tallest mountain I could see and then brought up the map. Sure enough, that is a place I will be visiting. I did the same with an airship in the far distance and yes, that was also right on the edge of the map as a location I could work my way towards.
The question then became, “How do I get there?” An answer came in the story demo, which introduced the only other human character, an older traveler who enjoyed spying on me and inferring my quest. Link is given dialogue options to respond with, sometimes you can even choose to continue the traditional silent protagonist route. The older man gives some context as to the current state of the world, explaining about how a hundred years ago, Calamity Ganon entered Hyrule and nearly destroyed it before it was sealed inside the Hyrule Castle location.
However, it has been gaining power and will soon break free to finish its work of destruction. Zelda, who is most likely the shining light Link sees from within the castle, has called upon him to save Hyrule from the calamity. To continue on my adventure, I needed a way to get down from the elevated plateau, which the old man had a solution for: the glider seen in multiple videos for Breath of the Wild. He wouldn’t give it away for free though, and wanted whatever treasure lay within the nearby shrine in exchange for it. This particular shrine held puzzles that required me to use a magnet item, which I could use to select metallic objects in my proximity and manipulate their placement or just move them out of the way.
While the story has a set route it will bring you through, you can at any time choose to ignore it and instead wander the forested area or Temple of Time. There are a ton of new mechanics introduced in Breath of the Wild, which are easy to understand individually but overwhelming to process when you are trying them all out for the first time.
Combat is a little different in this iteration, mostly due to item degradation and statistics. Each item, whether it be your trusty sword, bow and arrow, axe, or club, can potentially break through use and misuse. Each weapon also has a different attack style and damage statistic attached to it: swords will slash, two-handed items take longer to prepare for a swing, and spears will pierce and give you longer reach. Find a weapon you don’t think you will ever use? Keep it just so you can throw it at an enemy for more damage than the regular attack. When using the bow and arrow you can recover arrows that miss their intended target, whether it be an enemy, a boar you want for food, or an apple on a tree branch you can’t reach.
Link’s jump attack is still intact and usable from the second you find a sword, as is his spin attack which uses a certain amount of stamina depending on how long you charge it. The Z-targeting system is still used, letting you focus on one enemy as you jump side to side or move close to attack. If you jump backwards right as an enemy strikes, time will slow down and you will be prompted to mash the Y button for a Flurry Rush which strikes multiple times.
Once defeated, the enemy disappears in a puff of smoke and leaves behind an item or weapon for Link to add to his inventory. Weapons can be quickly selected without having to go into the menu, as can his item pouch, from bows to bombs, which now can come in both a classic and remote variation. Link can also bash his shield at the correct moment to parry an attack and leave the enemy stunned, or to reflect a projectile when timed correctly.
The main enemy that I fought were Bokoblins, who had their own camp on the edge of the plateau. I could clear the encampment, which I assume means there would be less Bokoblins spawning in the general area, but due to the time limit I could not test this theory.
Locations you visit will have on-screen text informing you of their name for future reference, whether it be a shrine, an encampment, or a key location such as the Temple of Time, which has taken a significant beating since you last saw it. The temple itself is bigger than ever, with a grand staircase entrance ruined by the elements and battles from long ago. Guardians, the being featured prominently in Breath of the Wild‘s marketing, were scattered around the temple, having passed long before I arrived.
The art direction of the game cannot be praised enough, though I do believe that it lacks some of the sharpness I have become accustomed to with this latest generation of consoles. It is not that the game looks bad, just that it has that blurry look overall, whether in motion or when still. Despite that, the color and style of textures makes it stand out. It also has the Zelda charm, with poofs of smoke when you cut down a tree or defeat an enemy, and musical cues any fan, casual or hardcore, can recognize.
Some of the controls made me feel right at home, such as the right trigger bringing up your bow, and the map and inventory being assigned to select and start respectively. Although the decision to map dash to B and jump to X is a bit odd. The buttons are vertically opposite, which makes it awkward when I want to perform a sprinting jump and usually led to me bringing out my sword instead. And yes, it is nice to finally have a Legend of Zelda game where Link can jump at will.
The stamina gauge returns, and will be drained from certain moves during combat along with dashing (sprinting) and climbing, which is another new feature. Push Link up against pretty much any surface and he will begin to ascend slowly. You can jump up which reduces stamina further, or just let go and fall back down: you can climb walls, rock faces, and even trees. Since it is tied to Link’s stamina, don’t expect to be climbing up the Temple of Time in one go. Instead you might have to rely on temporary boosts gained via consuming cooked food.
Materials for crafting and cooking will have to be picked up in the world or hunted down, as you can freely shoot boars and deer with arrows in order to obtain meat. You can forage for mushrooms and other fruits or vegetables to cook to gain a bigger recovery or boost than if you were to just eat them raw. You can even use an axe to cut down a tree and obtain wood. I asked if the tree you cut would regrow over time, but it appeared that no one at Nintendo’s booth had a clear answer at the time.
Some of these materials and items were already on my character when I began the free play demo, but because you start with nothing at the beginning of the actual game, the inventory will be filled with things you either earn, find, or create yourself. While previous Zelda games have always had a sense of progression, they mostly focused on expanding your item collection and heart containers. This time around, there are so many more weapons, materials, and equipment to collect that the ascension from naive young boy to master of Hyrule will be much more satisfying.
A feature taken from other open world games is filling out the map, which in Breath of the Wild is achieved by climbing towers scattered throughout the over-world and syncing your Sheikah slate with them. The first is done for you, as you cause the towers that were once submerged in the ground to appear in a montage of varied and exotic locations. As this is done, the familiar “Open Treasure Box/Item Catch” tune plays as a piano medley in the background.
I’m happy that Nintendo is finally taking the premise of the Zelda series — a young boy grows, completes dungeons, and defeats the Big Bad while saving the land from evil — and is applying it to a different genre. Most of the mainline console Zelda games have been the same linear pathway down a wide hallway since A Link to the Past. Each has tried to do its own thing to differentiate it from from the previous games, whether it be the mask system in Majora’s Mask, an ocean over-world in Wind Waker, or the wolf transformation in Twilight Princess: however, none have truly revolutionized the series. I’m not certain enough to say Breath of the Wild will, but it does make substantial changes to the series. This is the first Zelda game since the original where I’m in an over-world that feels vast and huge.
Some of the annoyances of past Zelda titles continue, such as pop ups appearing each time you discover a new item. Thankfully, this isn’t done every single time you open a chest and find something you already have. Instead it just appears, does a jingle, and tells you what it is. It might also only be an annoyance due to the fact that at the beginning, basically everything is new.
There is also a clear story path for you to follow, which already started to lock up progression in the world behind completing its quests. The obvious example being the shrine having to be completed before you can obtain the glider and move on to another section of the map. This is something I hope, again, is restricted just to the beginning of the game. I’m not sure if dungeons will be available to tackle in any order, or if locations will be locked behind item progression, but I am more hopeful than ever that this is a Zelda game I will want to spend lots of time in.
Moments after finishing up both demos, and even now, I’m thinking about the game and wanting to spend more time in it. What if I had tried to climb the Temple of Time after eating some stamina boosting meals? What if I had sped through the story content to see how far I could get? What if I just tried to run as far as I could from where I began? These questions and more are persistent, and I hate that we have to wait until next year to find out the answers.