We have now played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild twice — once on the Wii U and once on the new Nintendo Switch — and seen loads of video footage throughout the last year. Nintendo doesn’t usually show so much of its games, but seems very proud of what the latest installment of the Zelda series has to offer. It may be the most ambitious and epic game that the company has ever produced, and it comes out March 3 for the Wii U and Switch.
The impressions below come from a new 15-minute timed Nintendo Switch demo of the beginning of the game, a 35-minute timed demo on the E3 show floor last year (Wii U controller), and some extensive Treehouse live-streams from Nintendo. We’ve played in a wooded area in the middle of the game, which showed us gameplay once Link is more kitted out, as well as in the very intro a few times.
Wide open spaces
Breath of the Wild‘s open-ended nature is its most immediately striking feature. After a compellingly sci-fi-themed opening where Link wakes up from some kind of high-tech stasis bed, he is simply dropped out onto a plateau with no specific imperative other than to go out and be the hero that Hyrule once again needs. In a lot of ways, it actually harks back to 1986’s original The Legend of Zelda for the NES, where Link was similarly just sent off into a monster-filled world to find his own way without any sort of narrative context.
Technological advances allow for the world to be immediately more compelling this time around. Right outside the cave where Link awakens, he is treated to a gorgeous vista of the huge environment sprawling in front of him like the Serengeti kingdom promised to The Lion King‘s Simba. Rolling hills, mysterious forests, a smoking volcano, and crumbling ruins all invite exploration. If you’re the kind of gamer who sees an objective marker on the map and prefers to defiantly go everywhere else first, then Breath of the Wild is the Zelda game for you.
Crafting, gathering, and a far more extensive loot system than in any previous entry are the dangling carrot to reward you for this exploration. In our 20 minutes of exploring the game’s opening area, we went from having nothing to wielding a stick, a club, a spear, a bow, and two different swords. We don’t know the full extent of the loot that will be available over the course of play, but the impression from just this brief taste is that there will be quite a lot.
Bodies in motion
Adding to the sense that this is a huge, living world for you to explore — instead of a series of levels for you to complete — is a greater degree of physicality than in previous Zelda titles. Link’s newfound abilities to jump and climb change the way to approach the environment. A cliff is no longer an obvious barrier, but rather an opportunity for you to find out what’s on top. Maybe it will be too high for you to make it up before expending your limited stamina, but you won’t know until you try! The game’s play space is still circumscribed ultimately, but the huge environments, added verticality, and expanded means of traversal creates an immersive sense of open-endedness that the series has never provided before.
The rest of the game around Link also benefits from a greater grounding in physics. For example, in the streamed Treehouse footage, we found boulders to roll down cliffs onto unsuspecting enemies, as well as trees that could be chopped down. In the mid-game section of our demo, we faced a boss-like enemy in the form of a giant earth elemental made of boulders. A smaller, dark rock jutted out of the creature’s head, which was its only weak point. At first we pinged away at it with arrows, but that was slow-going and we quickly drained our quiver.
Eventually we remembered that we could climb, and so ran around behind the creture, jumped onto its back, and made our way up until we were standing on its head to slash directly at the weak spot until we were bucked off. The Zelda series has always had Link face off against giant foes, but the ability to climb up onto them in the style of Shadow of the Colossus adds a new sense of scale, gravity, and immediacy that’s especially exciting.
“If you’re the kind of gamer who sees an objective on the map and defiantly goes everywhere else first, then Breath of the Wild is the Zelda game for you.”
In that same middle section, we also had access to a few more tools, including two types of bombs that were clearly designed to take advantage of the more robust physics simulation. Spherical bombs would roll around freely at the mercy of gravity, while cubic bombs resisted. You can trigger both bombs on command, removing the need to time your throws and instead allowing for easier, more tactical application.
Additionally, where previous games had you buying or finding bombs with a finite carrying capacity, these were simply on a recharge timer. Their bright blue glow and remote detonation capability indicate that they are probably related to the advanced technology of the Sheikah Slate that Link is given at the start of his adventure. We also had the previously shown magnet with us, but weren’t able to find any metal objects with which to use it during the demo.
Update! Gameplay is similar on the Switch
After trying Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch in January 2017, we can safely say that it looks and plays identically to what we played on Wii U in 2016. This is a good thing. The Switch has roughly the same control scheme as a Wii U controller, except you can play on a TV or on the go. You can also use a Pro controller, or yank off the sides of the Switch (called Joy-Cons) and snap them into the Joy-Con Grip, again forming a traditional control setup. Or you can pull them off and hold each side of the controller separately, playing the game wirelessly in each hand.
The buttons on the Switch are on the small side, much like playing a 3DS game or Game Boy, but we did get used to it after a few minutes and didn’t have much trouble after that.
The only complaint we have so far is that the menus and on-screen displays do not appear to scale up in size when you switch to handheld mode, making things like the radar and noise indicator difficult to read. The 1,280 x 720 pixel resolution looks nice enough on the small screen, but we’d love to see some adjustment of menus.
At the very end of our first play session, we finally made our way over to the objective indicated on the map by our slate (fortunately, unlike the pestering Navi from Ocarina of Time, the game only bugged us once to go where it had asked us). Finding a pedestal, we slotted in our slate, setting ancient machinery whirring to life as an enormous tower rose up from the ground beneath our feet. A brief montage showed similar towers springing up simultaneously all over Hyrule. What narrative or gameplay purpose will these towers serve? We have no idea, as the screen immediately faded to black, but we are eager to find out.
Breath of the Wild demonstrates remarkable confidence on Nintendo’s part, drawing from the Zelda series’ long history while also throwing half the playbook out the window to pull in tropes from other open-world RPGs and make them its own. The game doesn’t hold your hand. Instead, it just presents a rich and inviting world and trusts in your desire to explore it. Consider us hooked, Nintendo. We can’t wait to continue this adventure.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a launch title for the Nintendo Switch. It comes out March 3, 2017.
- A brand new take on Zelda
- Largest world in a Zelda game
- Open objectives, many items to try
- Beautiful graphics and visual style
- Available on the Wii U and Nintendo Switch
- Menus don’t scale to the Switch’s small screen
- Will the game be too aimless? We don’t know yet
- Controls and menus are complex for beginners