Seriously, how has that headline not been used more? Nevertheless, it’s true – after getting a taste of the vast expanse that is the world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at the Nintendo Switch Premiere Event in London, there’s a feeling that the series will never be quite the same. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Eiji Aonuma and his team stepping back to the more restricted areas we got used to in Skyward Sword.
Zelda is different now. From the oh-so-brief 20 minutes supplied in the demo, the Ocarina of Time gameplay formula – dungeons, main event, more dungeons, finale – seems to have been torn apart and replaced with something fresh. The Wind Waker brought massive visual change, but Breath of the Wild is more seismic in how it changes the inherent structure of the game.
It’s evident in the first few minutes. Link wakes up from his cryogenic-style pool, naked but for the shorts (calm down, girls), and you’re put in control from the off. These first few rooms brilliantly teach you some of the core changes Breath of the Wild makes to the Zelda series. You’re introduced to the Sheikah Slate (which is suspiciously like a Wii U GamePad…), which will act as a multifunctional tool to help you around the brutal open world (think map, waypoints, and so on). You pop open a couple of chests, and see how the gear affects your stats in much more of an RPG fashion; yet, more important is how you get out of these initial rooms. The core way you move through the environment has been dramatically changed with the introduction of jumping and climbing techniques.
Jumping? In Zelda? What is this?! In all honesty, using the X button to jump feels a little unnatural at first. Games have often taught us to use a lower button for jumping, and so having it at the top of the ABXY diamond takes getting used to. Furthermore, the climbing – which is limited by a meter, not the surface – is a really nice way to give an extra feeling of freedom in the open world ahead. To the player, the limitations seem to be only what you can traverse yourself, rather than any route laid out to you by the developers; if we look back to Skyward Sword, we saw the beginnings of this there. The meter used for sprinting and other physical tasks has been fitted into an open world, subtly pushing the idea of exploration further.
It really is an impressive and typically Nintendo introduction. By the time you majestically run out of those secluded rooms onto the cliffside, you know the basics of how the controls have changed and how to move about this massive sandbox ahead of you. It feels like the first level of Super Mario Bros., or the introduction to The Legend of Zelda on NES. The gameplay has taught you, not a dull typographic tutorial; as players we are being taught anew what a Zelda game can be as we play about in the world.
What a world it is, too. Even if there is a rough route that Nintendo’s talented developers wanted us to follow, it’s indistinguishable. The open world spans in all directions, with the mystery of each pulling you around. The 20 minute demo barely allowed us to get accustomed to it, but one thing that came out of that was how exciting the prospect of getting the full game is. Just in that 20 minutes alone I had genuine stories to tell my friends about afterwards, whether it was managing to acquire a sword, meeting the old man who is so reminiscent of the King of Red Lions in The Wind Waker, exploring what appears to be the ruined Temple of Time or, er, getting one-hit by an enemy.
Yeah, that last bit didn’t go so well for me. It’s refreshing, though, to have a game take the training wheels away and push you out on your own. In the case of my humbling Game Over screen, I was methodically taking down a cave of Moblins until their leader, with a particularly lethal-looking weapon, got tired of my acrobatic moves and swiped all of my hearts away. It’s a strong callback to The Legend of Zelda on NES, when half of the time you are walking into unknown environments and getting wiped out. Yet, there isn’t frustration in either Zelda title – my anticipation to get Breath of the Wild in a relaxed scenario and not only wreak justice on that cave, but also explore what is beyond it, is palpable.
Before I end, a couple of more technical things. My demo was played half on a TV, half on the Switch’s own screen. On the TV, there was some notable frame issues when – for example – encountering groups of Moblins, but we were assured by the staff that this was an earlier build and these would be fixed in the final edition. On the Switch itself, the game ran much better, though this may be down to the 720p quality it transition to (on the TV, Breath of the Wild outputs at 900p). On that point, 720p on the smaller screen was very impressive; the stylistic art style was stunning on a crisp, small display at that resolution. The Switch’s buttons are much smaller than those on the Pro controller, but I am confident that these will be easy to accustomed yourself to.
Breath of the Wild is great in leaving you alone to work things out, but things like the aforementioned X to jump are a bit unusual. I found a bow in my demo, just through exploration, but wasn’t able to use it because it wasn’t immediately obvious to me how to equip it. It wasn’t listed as one of my weapons (like a sword or axe is), and in the time limited environment of the demo I couldn’t find it easily. This may well be less of a problem when learning all the button inputs at home.
Combat itself is one of the major areas of change, with the swords, axes, and similar weapons having a wear rate on them. This means you are constantly thinking about your supplies, giving the game a bit of a survival feel. Engaging enemies has a Wind Waker vibe, with rolls and dodges helping you to dance around opponents and slow-mo really making certain attacks satisfying. This area of the demo was one of the best for me, and spin attacks with the axe became a move of choice in my short time. Watch out, though, as big attacks like that can leave you vulnerable; there is a distinct strategical element to the combat. The only reason I survived so long against the Moblin leader was because of evading and chipping away, but when he managed to get a hit in? Yeah, that was the end of me.
At least I didn’t nearly burn all my hearts away in a fire of my own making (Josh). Or, y’know, drowned (Dem).
Overall, Breath of the Wild is shaping up to be a masterful reinvention of the series loved by so many. There’s so much we don’t know about the world (despite the many reveals for the game) and that’s tremendously exciting. Who knows what secrets Eiji Aonuma and the many other developers behind this game have left for us to discover? Oh, and the story looks epic and emotional on another level from what Zelda has done before – but more on that next week…