A common (and fair) request often made of us is to share multiple perspectives on major releases beyond the main reviewer. While not always possible, in the case of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild it's been on the cards, with a couple of members of our team tackling the adventure in order to produce plenty of coverage once the relevant embargoes have passed. It so happens that both share plenty of positivity around the release, but it's also clear that this is a game that is approached very differently by individuals.
Your humble scribe has already written a preview, and the chat below was subject to the same restrictions in terms of what we can talk about. Nevertheless we considered the mechanics of this game, the experience they deliver and the evolution of the franchise. Please note that we've both been playing it on Nintendo Switch, though we plan to check out the Wii U version when it lands.
Chatting it over were site editor Thomas Whitehead and recently appointed reviews editor Steve Bowling.
Thomas: So, we've both played the opening hours of Breath of the Wild (and more, but we're limited in what specifics we're allowed to talk about at the moment). First off, what was your general feeling when you put the controller down after your first stint?
Steve: I came away a tad overwhelmed, but excited. Despite reading (and writing) tons of stuff about the game, I still had my expectations locked on what I considered to be a "traditional" Zelda game. Breath of the Wild just isn't that, you know?
It's familiar enough to not leave you feeling like it's not right, but it's new enough for even experienced fans to have to relearn some stuff.
Even the comparisons to The Witcher and the like aren't quite apt at describing what we have here.
Thomas: Yeah, I think the key for many will be to roll with the punches early on, because it's a game that demands a lot of multitasking and, actually, patience. Even that opening area is so big.
The comparisons to other open-world games are interesting. They're valid, but Link's moveset and the Legend of Zelda vibes are pretty unique for the genre, I think.
Yet at the same time, Nintendo has certainly picked up structural ideas from strong third-party efforts.
Steve: Yeah. After playing quite a bit of Breath of the Wild, I can say it feels like a game that pushes the open-world RPG forward in some significant ways.
Thomas: Movement is one. I'm not sure people realise what a game changer it is that, for example, mountains can be carefully climbed. In many first- or third-person open-world games that mechanic just isn't there.
So exploration is very vertical; you're encouraged to get a high view, with the first tower emphasizing that.
Steve: This is the first game - not just a Zelda game - where I've had to carefully plan out how I'm going to traverse the environment, even.
I can't think of anything else where I've actually surveyed a mountain to determine the best way to climb it. You find yourself carefully considering the environment. At some points I found myself saying "Well, there's snow on that side, I may need to make sure I've got the appropriate amount of elixirs to survive that climb."
And even though that's just not what I've ever thought of a Zelda game, it feels so very natural, like an extension of what they started with Skyward Sword.
Thomas: Exactly, yet it becomes instinctive too.
Steve: You're right, it does. Before you know it you're eyeing the weather and plotting courses to give yourself the best chance at survival.
Nintendo's careful design and attention to detail really shine through in the game's mechanics.
Thomas: It's interesting that you bring Skyward Sword up. It feels like what we have here is a continuation of what Nintendo wanted that game to be. I suspect that time and hardware restraints prompted the cutting up of the Wii title's world.
Steve: Right. I remember in the interviews leading to Skyward Sword's release, Miyamoto talked a lot about exploring areas in depth and finding new things when you return.
The Wii obviously didn't have the power to do something of this scale, but it feels like Skyward Sword may have been the beginning of a shift in design philosophy surround the series. We saw the introduction of crafting and stats. A lot of people are pointing to Zelda II: Link's Adventure as the obvious predecessor to Breath of the Wild, but I see Skyward Sword as something of a prototype for this much larger adventure.
Also, while we're talking about Skyward Sword, it was an excellent game!
Thomas: I agree, I'm a fan of Skyward Sword for sure. I think one thing I didn't address much in my preview (because I didn't want it to be novella length) was the combat. I think a key point to make is that, like much about the game, it's dynamic. You can fight in a variety of ways, it's not just spamming sword attacks.
Steve: Absolutely. It's really important to note that in this game, especially early on, Link is incredibly fragile. That's a good thing! Enemies are legitimately threatening, many can take you out in a single blow!
I spend more time in stealth trying to sneak up on enemies than I do just about anything else.
Thomas: And there's a 'sneak attack' too, which was a nice surprise!
Steve: My first few encounters I charged headlong into, only to meet my demise. The sneak attack is wonderful! If you have the opportunity to use it without exposing yourself to unwanted attention, you should always use it. Many enemies will die from one strike, but even when they don't, they usually will remain grounded long enough for you to go in for the kill.
Thomas: Nintendo's done a pretty good job with the UI too. Lots of information that's visible without cluttering things up - the weather, temperature, the noise you're making etc.
Steve: They've also done a great job removing it! As pretty as Pro mode is for screenshots (hiding some of the on-screen information for a cleaner look), I can't live without the UI. I need the weather info most of all.
Thomas: You're right about knocking enemies down in combat, too. Enough hits and they got pushed back and sometimes drop their weapons, so that becomes a vital tactic.
Steve: Right. Unfortunately the same thing can happen to you, too. When it does it's really, really bad usually. It's interesting to see how well enemies work together, too. I've noticed a number of times where weaker peons will put more effort into notifying the big guys than they do into actually trying to kill me. If it does go wrong I also like the fact that the game holds the seven most recent saves, so I never lose much progress.
Thomas: Yeah, the AI is pretty smart with enemies, they work in teams, throw stones at you when high, scrabble for weapons if they catch you sneaking up on them at night. That said, the AI is relatively modest at times, some bokoblins seem to have terrible hearing!
Steve: True. As long as you're not running toward them, you're probably okay. Those lookouts on the towers have a pretty long line of sight though; far longer than I initially expected.
Thomas: Lookouts are a nuisance, in a good way... All told, I haven't played any open-world games without iffy AI moments.
Steve: Right. Bethesda is pretty notorious for what many affectionately refer to as, "Bethesda jank."
Thomas: In terms of the opening, I think it's nicely structured to teach the basics, after that though guidance is very limited, and the world is incredibly big. Based on the stuff we're allowed to talk about, do you feel there's enough narrative structure for those used to the 'normal' Zelda games?
Steve: I do, which I was surprised by. I think Nintendo has done remarkably well considering how open-ended Breath of the Wild is. For instance, you and I are both at exact same spot in the game right now, but we've taken wildly different paths to that point.
Thomas: I think it's a game that requires a cerebral approach from players though, a willingness to take their time, even in the first half dozen hours. Look at the trailers actually, showing very relaxed players chilling with the game.
Steve: What I find interesting is how the game almost subconsciously encourages that behavior from the player. I bailed out of The Witcher and Fallout 4 because the pacing didn't work for me, but with Breath of the Wild I find myself okay with taking my time and going off the beaten path. If I see a tower off in the distance, I'll abandon whatever I'm doing to go activate it. Or if my Sheikah Slate tells me there's a shrine nearby, I'll seek it out.
Speaking of shrines, they're incredibly pleasant. It's hard to believe these bite-sized dungeons weren't designed with the Switch in mind from day one. If I know I have some off-TV time coming up, I sometimes opt to pin a shrine's location on the map and save it for later, since they're so much less complex than a typical Zelda dungeon, albeit in a good way.
Thomas: Yeah, they're nice little breaks and provide the conventional Zelda-style puzzles. Even if I don't plan to play one I activate it, travel points are everything!
I agree on the pacing, and what I'd add (but not go into specifics) is that the world throws up lovely surprises sometimes, sequences and events that happen out of nowhere. It's all very fantastical.
Steve: Right! Travel points have saved me incredibly often. Especially when a lightning storm rolls in!
Nintendo has done a wonderful job making the world a joy to explore. No matter how many times I see it, I'm entranced by watching blades of grass sway in the breeze. Speaking of wind, and I know Nintendo has promoted this themselves, but the physics in this game are phenomenal. As annoying as it can be, I'm always impressed when I get hit and Link goes sliding down a hill. Or better yet, when I do the same to an enemy and their limp body gives way to some treacherous terrain before they fall to their doom.
Thomas: And the damage keeps coming as you roll...
Steve: Yeah. The first time I realized that I panicked! I had to scramble to eat something before I died!
Thomas: We've been gushing with positives, are there any negatives for you that come through in the early game? I think inventory management is so-so, though I've gotten better at quickly throwing away unwanted weapons, for example.
Steve: I'm a bit more of a packrat; I'll hold onto unwanted junk just to have a full inventory of weapons to do battle with, but I do agree inventory management is tough. When I go to cook, I often feel overwhelmed with just how many different options there are. I've become a pro at making dubious food.
It's hard for me to find fault early on, but one major annoyance is how few shields I can carry and how easily they burn or break! In my first few hours I almost never had a shield, while I was still trying to learn the timing of how to dodge. I do find further in that I had to start being more selective about what I grab, however.
Thomas: Inventory slot limitations aside, the destructible equipment is interesting. This game makes scrabbling looting thieves of us all.
Steve: That it does. I find myself robbing my enemies constantly. Overall I like it much better than games that require me to repair my loot. One point that has me really happy is how robust the armor system is. It's par for the course for the larger RPGs Breath of the Wild is cribbing from, but it's something entirely new for a Zelda game. There are some neat mechanics for people to discover.
Thomas: Yeah, but I actually think it's one area that's not overwhelming. There are limited options early on, there are varieties to suit different scenarios, but it's not head-spinning.
Steve: Right. They really showed just the right amount of restraint in offering options.
Thomas: Rather like with food, a nice touch is that some clothing has buff effects, so you're constantly on the lookout for various options to help in specific parts of the world.
Steve: Yeah, there are a few options we're allowed to talk about now, like the Flamebreaker armor set, which one can imagine the use of. It's also nice to see Link be able to have different looks, honestly. It adds a dimension to the character that wasn't there previously.
Thomas: Yeah, there is undeniable scope for a fashion sense.
Steve: As we've both said so many times, it's another layer of things to consider, but it's done so well that you never feel like it's too much. You have a single defense stat, and you'll get shown whether the total is going up or down based on what you're wearing. I like that a lot.
Moving on I'd also be a bit remiss in my duties if I didn't mention the frame rate.
Thomas: Yeah, performance is an interesting one.
Steve: As much as I love this game, and I really, really do, the framerate is a bit all over the place at times. The majority of the time it's a solid 30 frames per second, but there are times where there are significant dips, and oddly enough it usually seems like it's all about that beautiful grass.
I do have to disclaim this statement though, as we're playing on unpatched firmware and an unpatched version of the game. I don't know if the Switch day one update or if any patches to Breath of the Wild will change its performance at all, but it's definitely within the realm of possibility.
Thomas: Yeah, I don't think I've ever played an unpatched open-world game that hasn't had issues (on console, anyway).
Steve: Ain't that the truth.
Thomas: The drops rarely affect play, but there are brief chokepoints as you say with some weather / grass effects, sometimes explosions and general alpha effects. They're not happening constantly, but they are certainly noticeable.
Steve: Right. I've never had an issue that caused me to get hurt, let alone die. It's easier to forgive this go around, because, as we've mentioned, this is a massive world with so much to see and do. Where did you head after the Great Plateau?
Thomas: I headed West a tiny bit, but mainly North to the story objective, then East. I was generally following the story but getting distracted.
Steve: I was about the same. I really like exploring and looking for references to other games.
Perhaps the most interesting narrative element (that we're allowed to discuss) is the focus on technology. Technology isn't really a new idea for Zelda, but it's the first time it's been so prominent.
Thomas: Yeah, that's quite a departure. It's technology with a magical angle, I guess, but it's right at the core of what's going on. It wouldn't surprise me if the writers are making a few social commentary points, actually, but players will need to play it and decide for themselves on that.
Steve: Heck, the idea of technology dates back to the original Zelda, though it never made it off the ground. Having these technological aspects make Breath of the Wild feel really distinct. Not to mention those Guardians!
The Guardians scare me...
They remind me of the first time I saw Nemesis in Resident Evil more years ago than I care to admit. Every time I see one I feel my pulse quicken. I need to get away from them. Everything from the way they skitter around along the ground to their incredibly aggressive nature is unsettling.
And of course, they're very, very strong.
Thomas: I guess something else we should consider is the map. You unlock it in segments, of course, but you're very much expected to figure it out for yourself, using 'pins' and 'stamps' to set notes and reminders. I think it's a simple system done well, and reminds me of some major triple-A titles of the past few years.
Steve: The map, which I happen to be looking at right now, is very interesting; it's central to planning out how you're going to do things. Often times objectives pop up in completely unexplored regions. Unlike most open world games, the objectives aren't just dotted all over the map immediately, either. You need to discover the objectives themselves.
I'm reminded of how much the Assassin's Creed games like to burden the player with too much info at once. Nintendo seems to have learned from those missteps and slowly reveals elements.
Thomas: Yeah, a lot of details simply 'happen' to you through the natural order of things. I like to imagine the biggest whiteboard in the world with 1000 post-its on it as the dev team figured out the structure of quests.
I think the biggest thing players need to know going in is that small stuff matters. If you see acorns, pick them up. Speak to NPCs. Check out areas that look quiet from a distance. It's not like previous titles where it was really only the big stuff that matters.
Steve: Yeah, absolutely. You will need those items. If you see a downed guardian, search it. Ancient tech is super valuable. I'm not allowed to tell you why, but just know that every single item serves a purpose.
Thomas: Exactly. I think one sticking point, if there is one, is that those that would run through a 'normal' Zelda game in 20-30 hours will be hard pushed to do that here, so it's a real investment in time. Nintendo can talk about technicalities all it wants in terms of tackling the ending whenever you want, but that's just not the reality (unless you're an outrageously talented speedrunner). In my first 5 hours for the preview I only got a little bit off the Plateau.
Steve: Yeah, that's right. 5 hours isn't going to get you far in this game. I tend to try to run through games quickly, such is the life of a reviewer, but this is a game that demands you take your time. Even when you do take your time, you're going to die a lot, running straight to the end doesn't seem possible for the average player.
Speaking of the first five hours, I think that's about where the suggestions from the game end. After that the world is really opened up, even from a narrative standpoint.
Sadly, we're not allowed to go there just yet.
Back to your point though, NPCs all seem to offer much more valuable information than they have in past games. Even if it isn't spelled out for you, most have at least some tiny nugget of info to share, be it how to make a good dish or even offer a sidequest.
Thomas: Yeah, to say it's 'non-linear' is an understatement. I would add, though, that for those willing to work through this over a number of weeks, that could make it an incredibly enriching experience.
Steve: Right. For those saying Breath of the Wild won't hold folks over until Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, I'd argue that those that are done with the game by early April would be the exception rather than the rule.
Thomas: I guess that's the big thing to take away at this stage - Nintendo's evidently worked hard on balancing, so that less skilled players can make progress and improve with practice, and even veterans have a long but manageable journey ahead. For those that want a 30-40 hour narrative, at a push it may be possible (something to tackle in the review), but I can see it being a game players gradually work through over weeks, not days.
Steve: Overall I'd say Nintendo has done a great job distilling the essence of more complicated RPGs into something that feels like them, yet completely unique.
Thomas: All of the elements and mechanics have been carefully plotted out, it seems, which bodes well. And as you say, the essence of the series is still there.
Steve: Most definitely. How long the adventure lasts remains to be seen, but for now, early in though we may be, all signs point to this being a high water mark for the series.
We hope that little chat gives some interesting extra perspective. Let us know whether you're planning to start your journey in Breath of the Wild on 3rd March; our review will go live on the appropriate embargo prior to release.