After waking up from a hundred yearlong slumber, I think even Link was surprised to see that the first weapon he had in his hand after such a long intermission ended up being a rather plain, simple branch. “Well, what am I really supposed to do with this?”, I asked out aloud, as the Nintendo representative cheekily grinned next to me while I played through the opening section of a game Nintendo has been keeping close to the chest for years.
I spotted a nearby apple tree, and immediately zeroed in on the gorgeous red fruits hanging from the branches. Food is life in Zelda, and having easy access to not one, but two apples this early was certainly something I couldn’t pass up. I whacked the tree with my feeble branch, and the apples didn’t budge. Instead, my “formidable” weapon was now damaged nearly beyond repair. “Wait, that’s new”, I exclaimed. A phrase I would end up repeating again and again during a rather extensive demo that completely adjusted the way I think of The Legend of Zelda.
Breath of the Wind is a Zelda game that has been a long time coming for Nintendo. It’s in fact been in development far long than I’ve even really been a fan of the series, kicking off its cycle before I ever touched the likes of Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker and the ever-classic Ocarina of Time. It’s been a frustrating wait too for fans, with Nintendo simply asking for more time on countless association to deliver the most ambitious Zelda experience they’ve ever crafted. And I’m inclined to believe them after today.
The first thing that’s immediately striking about Breath of the Wild is the sheer size of it all. The short 15 minute free-roaming segment I had at the beginning of my time allowed me to explore what seemed like a sizable portion of the map. I roamed around to enemy camps, hunted for nearby treasures and surveyed the vast, breath-taking landscapes without ever wondering where its limitations were. This floating landmass was expansive, so it was a delight to learn that it only made up roughly 2% of the game’s entire map.
The shift to open-world seems complementary to what The Legend of Zelda has always wanted to be, and it’s evident in some of the small touches that are already so engrossing to experience. Wielding a giant axe instead of a sword, I was able to chop down nearby trees for fire wood, scavenge for food in some trees and use flint to light a fire to cook it all. Keeping a healthy supply of food is what keeps Link’s health topped up at all time, and it’s only one of the many survival inspired elements that this sequel is bringing to the table.
Players will have to monitor a range of different attributes, such as Link’s body temperature for example. A small dial at the bottom of the screen keeps track of this, making it clear when the green robed adventurer is feeling the cold or just wants to jump into an ice bath. Changing up the gear you have equipped affects the stats as you’d now likely guess, but it goes far deeper than that still. With a massive world to explore, loot is generally far more plentiful, and before long I was switching between multiple melee weapons, bows and clothing to best suit the Link I wanted to be.
The biggest change however came in the form of a small, contextual energy bar, which kept me informed about how much stamina Link currently had in the tank. All of the usual actions like sprinting, swimming, climbing and fighting drained stamina, and linking (heh) these features took a little more thought than I anticipated. Early on I made the dire mistake of sprinting head first into a lake, only to see our hero drown from tiredness. It impacts combat a little less than the likes of Dark Souls (stamina only comes into play with charged attacks), but it has the potential to make standard platforming a far more complex affair.
This permeated through to combat, which sees a massive overhaul. The standard Z-targeting system is still present, but everything just feels a lot more refined than before. Pulling off satisfying headshots with a bow and arrow was easy with a combination of analogue and motion controls, chipping away at the health bars above enemy heads. When Link gets more up close, the sword (or club or axe or anything really) play truly shines.
Keenly timed dodges reward you with slow motion, up close flurries – while standard strikes feel weighty and impactful. So much so that repeated attacks on an enemy would knock weapons straight from their hands, allowing me to scoop them up before my foes had a chance to regroup. Of course direct conflict isn’t the only avenue anymore, and I found the new stealth mechanics to be incredibly satisfying too. Nothing matched being able to surprise an enemy camp and watch them scramble to collect their weapons before I brought swift justice upon them.
These aren’t unique or ground-breaking elements to open-world gameplay, but layered over on an already well established formula and a much, much bigger world lend them to making a much bigger impact on the overall gameplay. Simply put, Breath of the Wild is shaping up to be the definitive Zelda experience – the one game that fans of the series have been dreaming of ever since the dawn of truly capable hardware. Nintendo is taking their time, but their ambition is making a strong case for it all being well worth it.
Last Updated: June 16, 2016