E3 2016: Breath of the Wild is Zelda of the Purest Form

Easily one of the largest reveals this year at E3 is none other than the next major entry in the fan-favorite Nintendo cornerstone: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. At first, many who see the game will notice the grand expanses of the lush fields, trees, and distant places foreshadowing the adventure to come. This is an open-world game, an open-world Zelda, where players are fully capable of bee-lining straight to the final area almost from the get-go and just as capable of spending hours upon unending hours exploring its exhaustively dense Hyrule landscapes for all their secrets. On paper, fans and non-fans alike would agree that there is essentially a Zelda “formula” of sorts. There are dungeons, puzzles, items for said puzzles, simple swordplay, a princess, evil magic, and a hero. Yes, on paper, The Legend of Zelda isn’t nearly as interesting as its old pedigree and unwavering legacy would imply. But fans of the series could argue that there is a magic to Zelda – real Zelda, that’s difficult to put into words. Perhaps it comes from the idea that most action-adventure games arguably draw inspiration from the design of the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. Perhaps the series is actually overrated and people love things that are familiar. Or maybe it’s just because a good Zelda game is like any other good game in that it’s greater than the sum of its parts. No matter what your stance is on The Legend of Zelda, if you felt any form of Zelda magic, you’re sure to feel some here in Breath of the Wild.

After a relative series departure in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo has gone back to the drawing board with Breath of the Wild. In fact, they may have pulled out the original drawing board, because Breath of the Wild shares a remarkable amount in common with the very original Legend of Zelda. In a hands-on demo of the game, the beginning tutorial portion opens like Zelda games of old: quickly and with little hand-holding. Immediately, the game provides information on interactable objects and an expansive addition: loot-able equipment. The game starts Link with a classic RPG setup: bottom tier clothes. Shortly after, it is quick and easy to proceed out of the closed Resurrection Shrine Link awoke in, and out into the world. This moment was when it clicked, as Link steps out of the Shrine and into the sunlight, he runs up a hill to the top of a cliff and gazes out into the horizon. The subtle musical score swells and Link peers into the distance, into the land of Hyrule. In the years since Wind Waker, nothing had felt more simultaneously inspiring, magical, and like Zelda, as this moment did.

First Glimpse of Hyrule

What followed was the rest of the gently delivered tutorial. In great contrast to Skyward Sword’s obstructive instructions and hand-holding, Breath of the Wild actually lets Link veer off the beaten path immediately – kind of like the original Zelda. But assuming players head toward the easily discernible man standing down the hill, they will essentially usher themselves down a path of encounters that seamlessly teach the following things: eating food heals hearts (HP), food can be cooked for added effects, Link is special and an excellent killer, weapons can be picked up and degrade with use, fighting and killing enemies yields loot like food and weapons, and Link can climb nearly anything like Spider-Man. In the first 15 minutes of the game, it is pretty natural to go through many different weapons, ranging from sticks, clubs, a two-handed axe, shields, bows, and a basic sword. Even then, Link organically encounters a single Bokoblin, then a pair – one with a loot-able bow and arrows – which is then followed by an obvious little Bokoblin camp right next to the main objective marked on the mini-map. This of course spurs immediate experimentation with the combat, which works better than ever. Link has sneaking and sneak attacks, accented by a noise indicator by the mini-map, for those interested in a more calculated approach. In a frontal confrontation, Link’s arrow skills aren’t perfect but his draw speed and accuracy are reliable, while his defensive capabilities actually impress. When locked in close combat, a well-timed dodge and a well-timed block will initiate a Perfect Dodge or a Perfect Parry respectively. A Perfect Dodge initiates a somewhat long window of slow motion, allowing Link to rain a flurry of strikes on his opponent, while the Perfect Parry can disarm or deflect projectiles back at their source. Link’s stamina and skill with weapons will improve over the course of the game, though it was not clear how. Needless to say, it was an absolute pleasure to keep finding new things to fight and new tasks to do and explore, picking up loot and food all the while. There were new discoveries and rewards all over the place, and it all came together in motivating more exploration and messing around. There is an active and passive fun to it, which speaks volumes for what Breath of the Wild has done with all its many moving parts.

Bokoblin Hospitality

Then there are the Shrines of Trials, which are this game’s puzzle rooms. This time, Link primarily uses rune abilities which manipulate the world or produce something that effects the environment, like a bomb. The first available Shrines serve as tutorial rooms for how to use and unlock new rune abilities. The most significant difference about the puzzles this time around is that they seem primarily physics-based. The physics built into the game perform pretty well, making for a surprising amount of fun when just playing with the different rune abilities or solving puzzles. For starters, there is a magnet ability which makes grabbing far away chests, and using large boulders as weapons, a proverbial flick of the wrist. There is a stasis ability which stops time but allows Link to interact and build up influences on an object which combine into a single motion like freezing a stone in stasis, and then hitting it a bunch of times to build up the combined kinetic force of all the hits so that the stone will move. Even in this initial reveal, the physics in the puzzle-solving are interesting and promising for players who favor the puzzle elements of the series. With over a hundred Shrines to go around, Breath of the Wild has no shortage of these puzzles, which for many, are a load of what Zelda is all about.

From what’s been shown so far, however, there are a few causes for concern. For instance, since the game can be finished pretty quickly with a final area which is reportedly accessibly from the beginning, what then is the point of the metric ton of content found throughout its giant world? Sure, most players will delight and benefit from exploring the great plains, mountains, and caves of this new Hyrule, but will that ever stop being worth it? How many people will actually beat the game? How many will simply tire of treading the distances through the world and just finish the game out of boredom? Breath of the Wild could find itself at the mercy of all the issues open-world games have risked before it. Motivating players to keep playing through loot and interesting upgrades is definitely effective, but in a series where there are such ultimate weapons as a Master Sword, it will be interesting to see if there is a clever integration there to keep the loot-able weaponry worthwhile even after getting the Blade of Evil’s Bane. Without the introduction of towns, there is no telling right now of the role side quests will play in how players interact with the world. Just as well, whether or not series newcomers will be willing to jump into Breath of the Wild along with a Wii U or NX purchase around next March, remains to be seen. After all, this game’s latest, larger entry could feel significantly different to someone who has never played a Zelda game before.

Shrines of Trials

One thing that must be noted is that this felt like Zelda. Despite the wide open-world, despite the heavy amount of loot, despite the lack of a green outfit or even a hat, this played, animated, looked, acted and felt just like Zelda. In many ways, this sensation may be due to the fact that the very first Zelda game had many open elements where, while going anywhere is not exactly recommended, it was totally possible for the most part. Finding the way through the game and being more self-sufficient has been a series staple since the beginning. The open, explorable Hyrule is a Zelda norm as well. Shrines scattered throughout the world yield Runes, or Spirit Orbs which can be spent on other upgrades and items. Cooking food gives buffs and can extend max HP, items can be combined to craft different gear or objects, different armor has different uses when faced with differing enemy types and environments, the temperature plays a role in Links health so gear must be changed accordingly, there are many different weapons ranging from swords to magic wands, throughout the land are large monsters just hanging out, and the sound design contributes subtly and profoundly to the experience. The game is also quite large, sizing just under that of Xenoblade Chronicles, while also being dense and populated even in the starting central region of the demo. At first, it may seem like a departure from the Zelda formula, but in actuality, it’s more like a natural progression in a way that feels like how Zelda was meant to be. This isn’t even to mention the apparently fully decked out Hylian language found in the game, the multitude of different areas, the towns and people, and probably much more that has yet to be revealed about the game – or is even already present in the demo. Regardless, Breath of the Wild is visibly made with no small amount of love and care; and it may have the potential to be the greatest Zelda game to date.