In our second Hands On piece for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mitch Vogel shares his analysis of the demo experiences offered at E3. You can find a link to our first article by Morgan Sleeper at the end, while Alan Lopez will pitch in with his thoughts in our third impressions piece very soon.
When Nintendo made its initial announcement for this year's E3 and it was revealed that The Legend of Zelda would be the only playable game from the company, the reception was understandably mixed. At the time, it looked like a sign of weakness and retreat, a backwards step by a company with "no games" to try and cover up massive gaps in its release schedule. While it is still true that Nintendo has some pretty slim pickings to offer fans over the next several months, the reason for devoting this year's show to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild became immediately clear upon playing the demo. Simply put, this game is far too large and intricate to warrant a segment in a Nintendo Direct, it demands that attention be paid to all of its many parts.
The Legend of Zelda was once an undisputed leader in the action-adventure genre, with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time still standing to this day as one of the highest rated games in existence. However, over the years, its peers have caught up to and even eclipsed the series in some regards, while Zelda has continued ticking along with little change to its gameplay between each entry. While this ensures consistency, it also is in danger of becoming too stagnant, as each successive entry takes baby steps forward in terms of new additions to the IP's basic principles. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the wakeup call the series was in dire need of hearing, casting off long held traditions established by its predecessors in lieu of features and game mechanics that point to an exciting new direction for the franchise.
The largest and most obvious change to the design is found in how choice reigns supreme over player actions. Zelda games have always been open-world of course, but never in the same sense as Breath of the Wild. Previous entries locked you into a specific pattern of events and while there were ways to break free of storyline, it was largely a gated experience up until the very end. Rather than give players the feeling that all of Hyrule was at their fingertips, it felt like only certain parts were offered at certain times. In Breath of the Wild, the leash has been taken off almost completely, allowing players to roam free and to craft their own adventures as they see fit. In all seriousness, it plays more like The Witcher III: Wild Hunt than it does like Ocarina of Time.
After an opening cutscene depicts Link waking up in a mysterious cave and receiving a Sheikah Slate – Link's in-game GamePad – he stands upon a hill overlooking a vast landscape, which is evidently twelve times the size of the map from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. From this point, if you can see it, you can go to it. You don't need a certain item to cross an obstacle, the story will not force you to go down a certain road, what you do next is entirely up to you. Now, it's given that there will be places where enemies may be too powerful for you or where it makes little sense to deviate too far from the path, but the presence of the choice here is what's important. For example, perhaps you could technically take on a boss without ever engaging the story. It would take an eternity and would certainly be a very unfair fight, but you could do it if you wanted to and were talented enough. Zelda games have always given you choice, but never before could you opt to pass over massive swaths of gameplay just because you didn't feel like it. And that's just the tip of the iceburg.
One of the newest and most shocking changes to the Zelda formula is the introduction of a loot system of items, bringing it more in line with modern RPG adventures. Gone are the set items and upgrades of the previous games, Link is now more customizable than he's ever been, by a long shot. Weapons are breakable and have a certain attack power, with experimentation being encouraged as you continue finding new things to hit enemies with. Armor is constantly being swapped out for a newer, sturdier variant. It's a very un-Zelda-like system that competitors have been using for years, yet feels surprisingly at home in a Zelda game. While it is a bit disappointing that you don't get the standard zooming in on Link's face as he excitedly opens a new chest, it's a lot more exciting finding chests knowing that you'll likely be getting something more interesting than some rupees or extra arrows.
While it is a bit disappointing that you don't get the standard zooming in on Link's face as he excitedly opens a new chest, it's a lot more exciting finding chests knowing that you'll likely be getting something more interesting than some rupees or extra arrows.
Another great new change is a revamped combat system that encourages the player to think and consider their approach to conflict with enemies. You can just rush in with a claymore and butcher everyone, or you can sit on a hilltop and pick them off quietly with a few arrows to the head. In one instance, we chose to eliminate an enemy camp by pushing a boulder off of a cliff which crushed the sentry before accidentally setting off explosives in the camp, killing the rest within. Naturally, we looted the remains afterward, taking a juicy steak and a battleaxe from one of the fallen. Also, enemies now have health bars and there's an increased focus on dynamic combat, particularly with an interesting new dodge mechanic. Borrowing from Bayonetta, dodging to one side at the right time can initiate a flurry attack, wherein time slows down and Link can toast the enemy that missed him. Combat has come a long way from the standard spamming of the old games and has been modernized, in a sense.
Fortunately, the GamePad is utilized to a degree that is both helpful and intuitive, enhancing the experience without coming across as gimmicky or forced. Tapping a button allows Link to use it as a scope which can be used to mark objectives you see in the distance, perhaps so you can come back to them later after you finish whatever you're doing. Naturally, gyro controls make an appearance, but mostly to assist in firing arrows and other projectiles. It's nothing groundbreaking, but this is arguably where the GamePad shows its greatest potential; it makes things streamlined and easy to keep track of.
Of course, some subtle survival elements are now present, too. Cutting grass and breaking every pot in sight will not once yield hearts in this game, as they have been effectively replaced with food. Different types of food will heal so many hearts, with a fairly elaborate cooking system allowing Link to mix several ingredients together to make items that have greater healing capacity or bestow buffs. For example, certain items may temporarily add a few extra hearts to your max amount or give you limited resistance to cold. Climates will now play a role in certain areas, and if Link is either too hot or too cold, he begins to take damage. No doubt players will have to bear this in mind when choosing the equipment they'll need as they explore certain areas of the map.
It hasn't been made entirely clear how dungeons will unfold in this game, though we'd bet our money that they won't work quite like they have in any of the predecessors. What has been made clear is the new idea of shrines. There's over one hundred shrines in the game and these could be effectively described as miniature, optional dungeons. Like dungeons, shrines are usually designed around one basic idea or concept, which is riffed upon a few times before you reach the end and find a cool new treasure. These seem to do a good job of breaking up the exploration of the overworld and giving players something a bit deeper to delve into as they traverse it. If nothing else, they'll act as nice sidequest content and offer up an extra to dungeon crawling.
Lots of soft colours are used to give things a serene and fantastical look, and the world feels very much alive as you watch deer roaming over hills and birds flying above.
The new art style is also quite easy on the eyes, effectively continuing that which was seen in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Everything has a simplistic, cel-shaded look, and objects that are far in the distance blend together and look like a painting. The simplistic look actually has some gameplay application as well, the environment is intentionally kept simple so that object and points of interest can have more detail that sets them apart from their surroundings. Lots of soft colours are used to give things a serene and fantastical look, and the world feels very much alive as you watch deer roaming over hills and birds flying above. There was some noticeable pop-in of elements in the distance, but hopefully this will be optimized out ahead of the final release.
Interestingly enough, the new soundtrack also breaks significantly from series' tradition. Instead of the great, victorious swells we're used to, a subtle piano tune plays quietly in the background. That's if there's any music at all, multiple portions of the game only had the sound of swaying grass and birdsong. Some may not be entirely sold on this change, but the presence of music honestly would ruin the immersion of the experience and be a jarring change from the atmosphere that's so meticulously crafted.
In summary, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is shaping up to be a bold new direction for the series. It takes all the good parts of your favourite modern open world games and applies a distinctly Zelda-like quality to them. It's been a long time coming, but this one seems like it will have been especially worth the wait; only time will tell, but this is looking like it will do just as much for the series as Ocarina of Time did back in 1998. This is the first Zelda which has felt entirely distinct and unlike anything that's come before it, and that's something to be very excited about. Bravo, Nintendo.