When Skyward Sword arrived for the Wii U in 2011, I remember queuing for several hours in the cold and rain to try the demo. Fighting Ghirahim with his lolling tongue, it was an intense, inventive and fun battle. I felt giddy from the experience. Once again, I experienced that same feeling when playing through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild demo last month. Now, just shy of six years later and alongside a string of lengthy delays, Breath of the Wild is no longer just a demo concept, it’s actually here. And boy, was it worth the wait.
After five hours of exploration, blowing up Bokoblins and generally acting like a common pot-breaking, axe-stealing, treasure-poking thief, I still haven’t lost that sense of excitement. Like many fans, I had my reservations about Breath of the Wild. Nintendo were changing things, almost too many. No more lawn-mowing for rupees in the grass, no more rolling and seeing everyone hating, no more hearts in pots. There’s also voice acting, the art of combining food to heal, and Link shivering from the cold in sub-zero temperatures. By the end of these announcements, I was genuinely concerned that the Zelda series had lost its identity with this new venture. But it hasn’t, and I’ve never been so glad to be proven wrong.
Breath of the Wild is a Zelda game to its core. Produced by the legendary Eiji Aonuma and directed by Hidemaro Fujibayashi, the action adventure game is absolutely stunning to roam freely within. You really get a sense of the wild and beautiful, sometimes feral ways of nature with foxes padding through the grassy, hazy fields, bucks placidly grazing in the forest, and wild goats bleating in the background. Link can even mount any wild horse and deepen the bond between them by riding and soothing in equal measure. Hyrule – though broken and torn – is still a living, breathing world with a real sense of history. The remnants of the Guardians, the glowing Shrines and the Temple of Time’s crumbling ruins all add to the sombre beauty of Hyrule.
Exploring the areas around the Great Plateau is your first main mission. With your Sheikah Slate, you’ll be able to scope and pinpoint new Shrines to tackle, plus you’ll have to work out ways to get there too. Between climbing up a rock face, battling ice keese upon Mount Hylia, and running into stalchildren in the dead of night, you’ll have to pick your fights carefully. In previous Zelda games, players could tackle any enemy without a second thought. But without a sturdy weapon to rely on, you have to use a keen sense of judgement. Armed with a boko club and a wooden shield, you have to question whether you can really take on that camp of Bokoblins. And, if you can, maybe it’s worth blowing up some highly explosive barrels while they’re sleeping instead of going in all guns blazing.
But before you even think about arming yourself with a traveller’s sword instead of a useless tree branch, you’ll need to get used to the rather intricate control scheme. While Breath of the Wild’s controls aren’t complex by any means, there is a lot to remember. In your first hour of play, you’ll be equipping lots of different weapons which means trawling through your inventory menu (with slots for weapons, bows and arrows, shields, armour, materials, food, and key items) on the pause screen. Then you’ll have to get to grips with your bow by cycling through different bows and arrows, both of which are on different buttons. And of course, your stamina depletes quickly as you run and jump up cliff faces. Once you’ve got the control scheme under your wing though, you can start thinking more tactically.
Given there’s very few dungeons, Breath of the Wild presents Shrines which are much smaller, more intricate ten-minute puzzles. Getting to each Shrine is probably the biggest hurdle you’ll have to face in the opening hours of the game, simply because you don’t have access to a horse. However, once you are within the Shrine’s four walls, you’ll get to experience some classic Zelda puzzles. Each of the four you encounter during the tutorial stage will give you a different ability – or known as runes in the game – to use to solve the puzzle at hand. Between freezing water with cryonis, stopping time with stasis, levitating objects with magnesis, and throwing remote bombs, the Shrines are a superb way to satisfy your hunger for riddles. Each of them also has one chest to find and open too, which greatly adds to the appeal. Of course, these abilities can be used outside of the shrines as well, making them into a weapon you can count on.
The inspiration taken from open world games such as Skyrim has certainly changed the dynamics of Breath of the Wild, but the combination of food has certainly been heavily borrowed from Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise. While there’s no wild felynes dancing at the table, there are many similarities with food; it’s not only a form of healing, it’s also a way to elevate your defense, stamina and resistance to heat or cold. Unfortunately there’s no recipe compendium, so when you begin to combine food you’ll hear echoes of Forrest Gump; you never know what you’re gonna get. I’m sure the prospect of eating a mushroom stew is a much better alternative for Link than eating a pulsating heart.
While playing Breath of the Wild on the Switch in handheld mode is largely unproblematic, issues start to arise when playing the game in docked mode. There are frequent dips in framerate, usually when panning the camera over large expanses of land, and there is also odd connectivity problems with the Joy-Cons. According to Nintendo though, they are aware of this issue and are beginning to investigate. That can only be a good thing for poor Link, who is unequivocally fed up of falling to his death when in Shrines.
I’ve merely scratched the surface of this vast, open Hyrule. But the giddiness is still there and likely will be in many more hours to come. If this is Nintendo’s way of revitalising the Zelda series, I’m certainly on board, with or without Link’s somersaults.