I went into this year’s E3 with one game on my mind: the new Legend of Zelda. Though I enjoyed both Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds, I’ve since wished for a Zelda game that went back to the series’ roots. Growing up as a young NES owner, the original left an indelible mark on me. With little fanfare or direction, you were ushered into a world with a grand goal in mind, but you had the freedom to plot your own course. It was daunting, but the more I explored Hyrule, the more I became enchanted with that world.
When I got the opportunity to play the beginning of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild earlier this week, those familiar feelings rushed back. Link’s latest journey begins as he awakens in a tomb after 100 years of hibernation. After a brief tutorial-like obstacle course, I was left on my own to explore Hyrule. I had a lot of room to explore, but it was a mere fraction of the game–one percent of a map that’s 12 times the size of Twilight Princess’ world.
As I surveyed the vast landscape in front of me, my imagination ran wild and wanderlust set in, but I had one question: who is the lone figure I see in the distance? I approached, and discovered that it was a strange old man, shrouded in a hood and overgrown facial hair. He offered some guidance, and even had a few questions for me. However, this interaction grew more interesting than I initially expected; I could choose whether or not I trusted him; I could choose to keep my mouth shut.
He was the only human connection in sight–wilderness had taken over everything I could see–so it was tempting to gain an ally, but I couldn’t help but wonder: how had this old man survived by himself in a veritable wasteland? Was his benign demeanor a red herring? My suspicions got the better of me and I kept quiet in the end, setting out into the wilderness in search of a purpose. Had I missed an opportunity for direction? Maybe, but a Nintendo rep also told me that I could have just ignored the wandering stranger altogether.
As I explored Hyrule, the plight of the once great kingdom lay before me. Ganon–known in this game as Calamity Ganon–overtook Hyrule Castle a century ago, leaving the surrounding area to the whims of nature and time. Buildings that once stood tall and strong have crumbled to the ground, where they now lie covered in overgrown grass and moss. Thanks to Link’s newfound abilities to jump and climb cliff faces and buildings, it was easy to get sidetracked as I trotted across plains, forests, and mountainous plateaus. Producer Eiji Aonuma wasn’t exaggerating when he said that if you see something, you can get to it. That likely rings true for curious landmasses in the distance, but being able to clamber up steep terrain felt freeing and encouraging in its own right.
It didn’t take long until I encountered a camp of Bokoblins–the familiar dopey monsters introduced in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. My first taste of combat was immediately challenging due to my weak equipment. But, when I knocked a club out of an opponent’s hand and picked it up, I was able to win the battle in no time. Then it struck me: I just stole an enemy’s weapon in a Zelda game.
I was similarly surprised when I began to use bombs. Traditionally, bombs were items that needed to be replenished, but for this new incarnation of Link, they are like a spell that refreshes with a cooldown timer. Link can also control when bombs explode; with the push of a button, you can remote detonate bombs as soon or as late as you want.
Breath of the Wild is vast, with lots of open spaces, but it’s filled with things to do beyond combat and exploration, and it all plays into the need to survive. Rather than collecting hearts to replenish your health–as was the case in all previous Zelda games–you now need to scavenge your environment for items like fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, you can hunt animals for meat. While you can eat ingredients raw, cooking them allows you to combine items for greater potency, or, to unlock temporary stat boosts. The act of killing innocent animals for food feels notably dark for a Nintendo game, but it undoubtedly made me feel in tune with Link’s need to survive.
I never made it into any of the game’s dungeons–known as shrines–before my timed demo came to an end, but I was told that you can tackle them in any order you wish. As a massive fan of the original Legend of Zelda, this fact, and the impressively open Hyrule, spoke to me. Despite playing the game for less than an hour, I’m already convinced that Breath of the Wind is shaping up to be the best Zelda game in years. Time will tell if that comes true, but for all of the classic elements in the game and the new survival-based mechanics, there’s every indication that Nintendo has something special on its hands.