Preview: Zelda Breath of the Wild
Breathing life back into the franchise
It seems surreal to say that I've already poured hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that has up until now, been shrouded in secrecy outside of those Nintendo Treehouse sessions which seemingly only showed one, very small portion of the entire game. Now having played that portion, and having seen the surrounding areas, I can indeed confirm that what we've been shown thus far, has been very, very little.
I won't waste your time recounting the early stages of the game since that's been shown to death now, mainly by Nintendo. Needless to say, you wake up, find an old man, beat a few shrines, acquire some sweet runes and then make your way in basically any direction you want.
This is probably one of Zelda's newest strengths, as it gives players the unbridled freedom to explore. Take the original Legend of Zelda for example. In that game, the very first screen you see is a cave, and three directions to pursue. Which way do you go? Do you check out the cave? Do you head North? Perhaps East? Each of those directions has a different challenge. Breath of the Wild is similar in this design, it trusts the player to make a decision on where to start exploring first. Even though the game does give you hints and waypoints to destinations with vague descriptions, and even giving you the game's end-goal quest right after you leave the first main area, you'll have to make an educated guess on whether to pursue the almighty Ganon right away, or perhaps set off to become just a bit stronger.
What's great about this sense of freedom is that you often stumble upon very cool locations that you never planned on going to. All of a sudden, that little quest marker that you were heading to becomes a secondary objective because you just have to see what these ruins you came across are, and that's pretty amazing.
Sure, the freedom to go anywhere certainly harkens back to the very first Zelda, the game that didn't provide any sort of hand holding, it's obvious that Nintendo has adopted some more modern mechanics from popular games, and oddly enough they don't feel out of place here. One of the more obvious ones is climbing the Sheikah Towers, which upon completion will allow you to uncover a certain portion of the map.
What was more surprising are the elements of survival that are present in the game. It's not as hardcore as other "true" survival games which task you with ensuring your character is well fed and well rested, but there are elements of those games here for sure. For example, every killed enemy drops some of its "resources" or its "parts." In no time at all, you'll be walking around with Moblin guts, Keese wings, and Octorok tentacles. These can then be used brew all sorts of elixirs and potions as well as make some tasty meals within the game's cooking mechanic. Then there's the numerous fruits and vegetables that you'll find trekking across Hyrule, all with different properties that will produce some new concoction. This is important because it also directly ties into another aspect of the survival element: warmth.
There are certain portions of the map that are either cold like snowy mountains or extremely warm like the desert. You have to either manage your body heat by the articles of clothing you're wearing, or by making various meals that either raise or lower your body's temperature. It's not overly complicated, so those freaking out that Zelda has gone full crafting/survival can rest easy knowing that's not the case, but the influence from that genre can definitely be felt here.
And then there's the Stamina meter, which governs nearly everything Link does. Slashing your weapon won't take up your stamina, so don't expect Dark Souls-style stamina management, but charged attacks, climbing, gliding and swimming all drain that stamina circle. That means you can't even rely on gliding your way to safety in case you run out of stamina climbing a big mountain since gliding also drains it. If you miscalculate your stamina when you try and swim toward an island, you'll end up drowning. It's daunting, knowing you have this limitation that you always have to be mindful of. Of course, there are ways to increase your stamina and your heart meter either temporarily with cooking or permanently through completing shrines, but so far, even after a few upgrades, it's still something I have to keep an eye on constantly.
After you leave the initial "tutorial-ish" area, there's one thing abundantly clear: Breath of the Wild will kick your ass mercilessly. I've never felt so anxious coming up to an enemy camp like I do in this game. Trying to dispatch an entire camp of Bokoblins head on is a suicide mission, unless you're extremely adept at dodging and tracking enemies all around, all of which attack you at once, and don't wait for their friends to attack first. Here, the better suggestion would be to crouch and sneak up to enemies, or perhaps whip out your arrow for some long ranged headshots, or better yet, a fire arrow into a red barrel if the camp happens to have those.
This difficulty also extends to actual exploration as well. While you can go anywhere you want, some areas are clearly more difficult thanks to tougher enemy placement. After I entered one area, I was quickly surprised by the size of Moblins that caught me off guard and killed me in a single hit. Clearly, I needed to be a little better prepped to be here.
In stark contrast to the massive open world, the Shrines are a brief respite from it, if for only a few minutes at a time. Shrines present the player with bite-sized challenges in tiny underground areas, some straight forward like defeating an enemy or creating ice pillars with one of your runes to cross gaps, and others way more complicated. One such more complicated one relied on using blocks and other items available, moving them with my magnet into very specific areas to create a power circuit which would then unlock doors. This one probably took me the longest to complete, around 5 minutes, which should also tell you just how short these challenges are. Granted, it's possible they keep getting more and more complicated as I move through the world, but I believe they were always designed to be quick.
I don't really have any bad things to say about Breath of the Wild, except maybe that the world might be a little too big. This might be music to people's ears, and I also tend to be a connoisseur in big open-world games, but in Zelda's case it's gargantuan, or at least it feels that way. Monolith Soft helped Nintendo in creating this world, and after playing Xenoblade Chronicles and its non-sequel, it's clear that's the case. Thankfully Shrines and Sheikah towers offer fast travel points, which are extremely appreciated, but sometimes even running to your next destination feels like a daunting task. If you were hoping for the world to be giant, well then trust me, you got your wish.
I still have a lot more to explore, shrines to complete, dishes to cook and a Ganon to defeat. You'll have to wait just a little bit longer for our final verdict, but what I can say right now is that the wait for Breath of the Wild was worth it.