One of the biggest highlights for a lot of people at this year’s E3 didn’t come from Microsoft or Sony, but from one of the lowest key offerings at the trade show. Nintendo had quite deliberately played down their E3 showing, with two days of their yearly Treehouse live stream being their only real showing. However, they used that stream to staggeringly good effect, showing off hours and hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Compared to what little we’d seen of the game before, fans of the series were suddenly given a huge amount of video to pour over and see just how transformative a game this truly is.
Simply put, Eiji Aonuma and Hidemaro Fujibayashi are presiding over one of the most modern, forward looking Legend of Zelda games in quite some time. In fact, it almost doesn’t feel like a Zelda game in a lot of ways, despite always reminding you with a familiar little jingle or the cartoonish look of the enemies. You’re just afforded so many more and varied ways to interact with the broad open world environment, that it feels unlike anything that’s gone before in the series.
Of course, it takes a while before you can really uncover all of the complexities and the nuance of what you can do. The game opens with mystery, as Link is woken from a long slumber by a woman’s voice. He’s been asleep for a long, long time, and the world outside has been made desolate by the actions of Calamity Ganon – a pretty great name for a Prog Rock band. Where many Zelda games open and show you peace and happiness amongst townsfolk and the citizens of Hyrule, before the descent of evil powers tears it asunder, all you have to relate to here are the disembodied voice and an old man with whom you can converse. There’s some light frivolity, depending on how you act around him and respond to his questions, which shapes his responses in return.
That’s a playfulness that permeates what could otherwise be a bleak and deeply foreboding world. Whatever you choose as your goal and objective, there’s a few different ways about how you can take them on. Dotted around the world are little camps of Bokoblins, whether it’s two or three huddled around a campfire or a slightly larger group making use of guard outposts. Naturally you can take them head on, diving into combat with sword and shield, just as in previous games, but you can also think outside the box. You might espy a large rock that you can push down a slope onto some exploding barrels, taking them out in a blink of an eye, snipe at them from afar with a bow and arrow, set fire to the grass and burn them, or perhaps wait until night time and catch them while they sleep.
Similarly, the open world is designed so that you can get to where you want to go in a number of different ways. Looking at the world map, you might notice that getting to a shrine demands that you go through the freezing cold, which will gradually sap Link’s health and energy if you’re unprepared. You can find some warmer clothing – unless you’re taking on the challenge of doing the game entirely with Link in his pants – brave the weather and keep your health high by cooking healing foods or those that prevent you from feeling the cold. Yet, if you think outside the box, you might spot that you can chop down a tree to bridge a chasm and climb up the side of a cliff face that doesn’t feel the chilly winds.
That same flexibility pervades the game, with different elements interacting with each other nicely. Setting fire to grass with fire arrows lets you light your torch, which you can then use to cook apples while they’re still on a tree if you get close enough. It’s a roundabout way of doing this, but it’s pleasantly amusing nonetheless.
Of course, it helps that Link is simply a joy to control. His actions are precise, he can jump (which is a surprising first), parry and dodge in combat with well timed button presses, surf down the rolling hills on the back of his shield, paraglide from up on high, climb up practically any surface for as long as his stamina holds out – the possibilities are endless.
In fact, a Demi-boss in the open world, a rock monster which pulled its hulking form out of ground when I approached, was best tackled by avoiding it’s attacks, getting close and clambering up its rocky body, to be able to strike at its weak spot. Shades of Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus struck me in this particular encounter.
Admittedly, there’s this twinge throughout, this feeling that this is Zelda married to some fairly common action RPG conventions that we’ve seen arise over the last few years. What might make Breath of the Wind truly stand out is just how effortlessly it all seems to hang together and how big a step forward for the series it is.
The only real failing of this preview build was that the Gamepad touchscreen was only used to display the control scheme. The Sheikah Slate that Link picks up soon after waking from his slumber can be brought up in game, letting you view the map, look at and mark a location, manage your inventory, and so on, but while they’re far from clunky as it is, I wanted to see these elements on the Gamepad, to streamline the process further.
The Sheikah Slate is also your gateway to some of the most exotic powers and abilities that a Zelda game has seen. It’s this which lets you use Sheikah Magic to spawn in spherical and cube bombs with only a cool down timer restricting you, but it goes well beyond that. Magnesis lets you pick up and move metallic objects around the world, Cryonis lets you create platforms out of water, while Stasis lets you freezes moving objects and enemies. There’s some rather exciting possibilities to use these to play within the open world, but also with the kinds of puzzles that are being created for the dungeons and the 100 shrines dotted across the landscape.
It really is an impressive feat bringing all of this to the Wii U’s hardware. Just the Grand Plateau is a large area to explore, but the world stretches off into the distance, weighing in at twelve times the size of Twilight Princess. In tandem with a delightful art style, it looks gorgeous at every turn, but it comes at a cost. At this point, it often dips below 30fps, even if it remains eminently playable at all times. Though it’s yet to be revealed, the Nintendo NX will surely help in that regard and boost the resolution.
And really, with just half an hour of play time, I’ve only been able the scratch the surface of the possibilities. I barely managed to explore the different types of weapons available, from swords and two handed axes to fire rods which I saw others using to spew out balls of fire in all directions, I didn’t experiment with cooking foods, and I ran out of time before being able to venture out to one of the shrines. But I can’t wait to get an opportunity to do so.