Moving with the times.
I’m standing in a luscious expanse of nostalgic beauty. It’s called the Great Plateau, and it’s an analogue of Hyrule Field from all those years ago; its soft greens and browns have been lovingly smudged in a morning mist. At the edge of the map, there is a sheer drop to a vaster world below. I’m told this plateau comprises between four to six hours of play. It’s a proving ground wherein you’ll hone your skills before breaking free.
This is the first truly open-world Zelda game. Previous entries, while offering freedom, have been a non-linear series of inter-connected levels. Breath of the Wild is different. Nintendo moves with the times with one foot, while keeping the other planted on traditional ground.
Seeing Link bound through this huge, organic place looks odd. Everything he does is expressed with rigid, angular movements; every step, swing, and leap feels measured and exacting. The result is an adventure that feels tightly controlled and satisfying to play. Take climbing, for instance. Link is able to scale sheer walls, but that isn’t the part that concerns you – his depleting stamina is. Meting out this stamina to scale cliffs rewards exploration not with shiny things – though they are here in abundance to be found – but with the act of exploring itself.
Combat follows the familiar groove first orchestrated by Ocarina of Time and polished periodically ever since. L-targeting keeps your attention focused on one foe at a time, and allows you to deftly leap out the way of oncoming attacks and deal damage with a collection of weaponry. I found a two-handed axe and wielded it defensively, evading enemy blows to minimize my wind-up, and then sending them flying through the air on an almighty swing. It’s a simplistic system, but one that allows for elegant movement and cleanly-defined combat. There’s no all-encompassing counter button that will win you the day; every move is yours to make. It’s not challenging, but it is satisfying.
Then, of course, there is the brand new. Crafting and scavenging, the trademarks of the modern RPG, have burrowed their way in Zelda’s core. There is plenty to be found, chopped, cooked, and created in Breath of the Wild. This has the wonderful effect of diluting the cathartic rush of the series’ treasure chest rewards into something more organic. Your eyes filter the landscape for what can be plundered: trees to chop for wood, animals to hunt for meat, materials to make weapons, and food to cook. Cleanly implemented, and with no fuss, the crafting and gathering are fun and are elegantly embedded into the series’ trademark exploration.
As I roam, there’s the distinct sense that the time is out of joint in more ways than one. Firstly, the remnants of the kingdom of Hyrule lie in ruin, and the land is populated by monsters – familiar ones. Secondly, Link himself is out of joint – there are a number of details I won’t go into for the sake of spoilers, but he is a stranger here, and not the sleepy, naive farm boy he has been before.
There is a definite technology vibe coiled through Breath of the Wild like a wire. It all comes to a head with Breath of the Wild’s new central gizmo: the Sheikah Slate. This “mysterious tablet” does a couple of clever things. Aside from providing gauges that measure the noise you’re making and the temperature around you, it gives Link a map-and-waypoint system, and it opens very large doors. Further clues lurk in inventory descriptions. The Sheikah Slate reads, “You’ve never seen this device before, and yet… there’s something familiar about it.”
The Sheikah Slate will organize you. You can use it to follow quests from NPCs, or as a way to make the vast world more navigable. At one point I dropped a marker on a random point and went to see what I could find, free to explore without the worry of getting lost in it all. That gadget of yours will also raise a series of gigantic Sheikah towers which, along with filling in map information, grant you access to the Shrines of Trials. There are over a hundred of these in the game; they act like miniature dungeons, comprised of traps and puzzles, and bearing various rewards for completion.
These towers are robotic, and their appearance clashes with the natural beauty all around. Their interaction with your Sheikah Slate makes you feel powerful, as if you’ve arrived from the future. This clash between natural and technological is everywhere in Breath of the Wild. It’s a dynamic that traces back to Skyward Sword with its robots, lasers, and mechanical dungeons; and even farther back to Phantom Hourglass, with the brass-and-wood beating heart of its steam-boat, chugging across The Great Sea. This common thread was needled by director Hidemaro Fujibayashi, and Breath of the Wild is the final piece of his technological Triforce, his themes reaching fruition with a flourish.
Architecture and decay underwrite Hyrule with history. A Church stands in crumbling majesty. When I approach, the title fades in: Temple of Time. It’s familiar from Ocarina but new details emerge: battered masonry, signs of destruction, of violence? This reverence for quiet, fragmented storytelling infuses your exploration with wonder, and layers environments with extra details for your eyes to pour over. There are traces of Dark Souls in the way Breath of the Wild does this: the world has little whispers of history and stories bound up in ruins. They’re yours to unpack.
In the 30 minutes I played of it, Breath of the Wild is a fascinating game, and one that shows Nintendo’s heartening ability to reinvent its beloved series. It’s a humbling show of artistry, but it’s more than that. With all of the new tricks the game has learned, and the rebirth of Hyrule into the enormous sprawl it is now, the most staggering achievement is how distinctly Zelda everything feels. Breath of the Wild demonstrates that even the oldest master never stops being a student at heart.