This The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild preview contains spoilers.
At this year’s E3, Nintendo made the unconventional decision to forgo a big presentation to unveil its new console, the NX, before its 2017 release. Instead, the Big N spent several hours showing off gameplay from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After what I saw in my 45-minute demo of the game, which introduced me to both the story and the title’s emphasis on exploration, I’d say focusing on the game was the best move Nintendo could make in terms of creating excitement for its new console. Because Breath of the Wild will be the defining game of the Wii U era and possibly of the NX.
As the only confirmed launch title for the Nintendo NX, Breath of the Wild carries a big weight on its shoulders and a lot of baggage—several delays haven’t helped the game very much in terms of PR, after all—but the demo easily exceeded my expectations, as I was introduced to a new way of playing Zelda that will push the 30-year-old franchise forward.
A new emphasis on survival and open-world exploration is at the forefront of this sequel. From the moment the game begins, you’re tasked with scavenging for clothes, hunting for food, and searching for weapons. With nothing but a tattered shirt and pants (and perhaps a branch to use as a weapon, if you’re lucky) to your name, you must explore a mysterious plateau full of peril. Breath of the Wild also introduces several new systems to Zelda, including a stamina bar, noise meter, and a thermometer, all of which are vital if you plan to survive. There’s also a jump button!
All of these changes are implemented perfectly into the fabric of what has always made Zelda so great. Both combat and puzzle-solving benefit greatly from Breath of the Wild‘s more open-ended approach. For example, Link now has the option to sneak up on enemies and take them out without instigating a big sword fight. This comes especially handy when approaching a Bokoblin camp with a sentry that is more than happy to warn all of its friends that you’re on the way. On top of not being seen, you have to worry about not being heard. The noise meter on the bottom right of the hud tells you how much noise you’re making as you approach unsuspecting enemies.
Combat is dynamic, as Link jumps into any situation with whatever weapons and tools he can find on the field. A higher level of strategy is demanded of you, especially when it comes to fighting enemies that are better armed than you. Luckily, Link now has the ability to disarm opponents with his shield and snatch up their weapons. But weapons also degrade over time, which means that Link’s swords and shields can break in the middle of a fight. Breath of the Wild forces you to adapt to these situations, making every encounter feel unique and important. Besides the weapons Link can find in the field, he’s also able to craft things from resources he finds on his adventure.
The process of regaining health and earning power-ups is a bit more involved than in past installments, too. Link has to scavenge and hunt for food, such as meat, mushrooms, and truffles, which he can either eat raw to regain health or cook over a fire pit for even more bonuses. He can also concoct potions that give him valuable power-ups.
Link has a new tool called the Skeikah Slate, which uses runes that give Link special abilities, such as the power to manipulate metal objects. This adds a new dimension to the puzzle-solving. The Sheikah Slate comes especially handy during platforming puzzles or fishing out treasure chests from the bottom of lakes. I only had a chance to play with one ability, but there are tons more to be found in the world.
One of the most impressive things about the demo was the size of the playground. The Great Plateau, where the opening moments of the game take place, is a wide open space full of ruins, enemy camps, treasure chests, and shrines—the mini-dungeons that hold those useful Sheikah Slate runes. The area is bigger than most single areas in past Zelda games, but only takes up 1% of the entirety of Breath of the Wild‘s map! I found it pretty easy to get distracted from the main story path, as I spotted treasure chests from the corner of my eye or gorgeous landmarks in the distance. I was also told during the demo that every single mountain range, castle, or landmark in the far-off horizon is a place that Link can visit on his journey. Nothing is just for show.
While I was very impressed with the gameplay and the setting, I was most captivated by the story. Or perhaps “intrigued” is a better word. The opening 30 minutes of story present more mystery than actual answers. The game’s opening scene, for example, might knock players out of their seats. There will be serious speculation regarding when in the timeline Breath of the Wild takes place and whether this particular Link is a new incarnation or one we’ve met in the past. The campaign drops subtle hints through familiar equipment and landmarks as well that only serve to tease the player further.
The beginning of Link’s new adventure is actually uncharacteristically quiet. Our hero isn’t witness to a great catastrophe or the return of a dastardly villain. Instead, he is awoken by a soft voice in a cave that tells him that “he must remember.” What he must remember isn’t clear, although it might have something to do with the great darkness that’s enveloped Hyrule Castle in the distance. I was introduced to the game’s main antagonist towards the end of the demo, and I have to say that Nintendo is delivering a villain on a scale never before seen in the franchise.
It’s clear that Nintendo went back to the drawing board for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in an attempt to mix up the formula that has brought the franchise countless successes over the years. And while there’s a lot of new, this is still the Zelda you know and love. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a pretty safe assumption that Breath of the Wild will be one the best Zelda games ever made, one that will entertain, challenge, and make you tear up more than a few times.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is out in 2017.