Link becomes a survivor in the new open-world Hyrule, but Zelda's trademark charm is everywhere.
An open-world survival game, Nintendo-style. We have seen the company's studios experimenting with resource and inventory management before in games such as Nintendogs, Animal Crossing and Pikmin, but the truth is that fans could only imagine what the platform holder's vision of survival might look like. And now that we've played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for almost an hour at E3, we can see why Hyrule and Link are the most fitting world and hero for the task. Of course we still want and expect to see the other modern tropes of the series in there (storytelling, quirky characters, unique combat and bosses, lively villages, and above all, memorable dungeons), but now we're once again discovering what it means to be alone in a Zelda game, at the same time as learning how to keep Link alive while he's out in the wild.
The new Zelda demo that Nintendo showed in LA was made up of two parts. The first was gameplay-focused in order to let you get to grips with the (many) new features and items you have to factor in when exploring The Great Plateau, a central area in the map and the first you'll discover in the final game. The second was story-driven, dropping some clues on setting, characters, points of interest and the potential timeline, and at the same time suggesting a couple of the main objectives that'll be in there on top of the free-roaming experience. But, cutscenes from the latter aside, the truth is that both were very similar, and the demo was mainly about having fun in the new world (Aonuma-san himself noted the nod to the world in the game's subtitle, after previously featuring characters or items in the subtitles of past games).
The world feels truly alive from the very first moment, and invites you to explore your options and see what happens as you do so. There are distractions galore, and on several occasions during the demo we ended up leaving one task incomplete when something else captured our attention. This, along with a new, more complex and busier control scheme, took the pace out of our first steps with the new Zelda, adding to the feeling that we hadn't seen anything yet.
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As a survival game, Link now has to take care of some necessities. It's important to keep an eye on the two new meters at the bottom-right corner of the screen. One is a thermometer (Link loses health when his temperature is too high or too low) and the other is a noise meter, handy for the alternative (and occasionally mandatory) stealth approach to some situations, such as assaulting enemy camps, avoiding noise-based traps, or taming wild animals (as Epona is no longer your only or main means of transport).
Are you wearing an outfit too warm for the sunny weather? Are you properly attired to enter into a frozen environment? Did you know that brown water means an insta-KO? We've seen occasional rain, wind and storms (and we were told that the weather can change randomly), and conditions are impacted by both the day/night cycle (one minute of play is one hour in-game) and sudden environmental changes caused by the player, enemies, or even third-parties. What if that mech-spider shoots a laser ray at you and starts a fire on the grass nearby? What if it's you who sets the ground on fire by holding the torch near the surface and walking around? All of these things open up new possibilities for both puzzle and combat.
Building on the upgradable weapon and item system that debuted in Skyward Sword, the inventory (+) now offers a whole range of different options. This is split between several shields mapped to ZL (use left on the D-pad to freeze time and select your shield), weapons (right on the D-pad) and both normal and special items (up on the D-pad).
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Weapons (Y for attack, hold for other uses) range from a simple stick to a knife, an axe, a rusty sword or the Master Sword, which is also shown rusty in the game logo (for some mysterious reason). Every one has its own attacking stats and almost every one has a limited use, so you might as well throw it (R) whenever you please for a ranged attack. And you can add to this a collection of bows that are at your disposal on ZR: we tried two different ones with differing range and power, and we also lit the tips of our arrows on a nearby camp fire.
Regarding the combat itself, it seemed pretty similar to the system found in Skyward Sword (sans the 1:1 sword controls, for obvious reasons), if a bit more agile and responsive. In a more RPG-ish touch, it also implements life bars to the enemies and a chance to perform critical hits and headshots. There's a cool slow-mo dodge move if you can time it right, opening up enemy defences for a deadly final blow (or even combo). That said, we were hoping for something more from these perhaps slightly outdated systems.
Special items are those we have typically assigned to several buttons since Ocarina of Time, but now are fixed to L. In this department, and taking advantage of the Sheikah technology that's replacing the more traditional magic-infused items, we enjoyed the new bomb types. One is cube-shaped and comes in handy during certain puzzles and structures, but our favourite is the one you can detonate via remote control. The more imaginative items are linked to The Sheikah Slate and come in the form of the Magnesis (a huge, U-shaped magnet used to move metal parts around) and the platform-creating tool shown in several videos.
These reminded us of the dungeon-specific items found in earlier entries, but let's underline here that Aonuma and his team are getting rid of the good ol' dungeon structure. We expect some major temples, but the way you enter them, the tools needed inside, or the order you can approach them, might vary this time. Besides, the only main buildings revealed so far are the so-called Shrines; impressive towers that grow from the ground once unlocked and can be used to quick-travel in order to uncover the whole map. There are more than 100 Shrines, and these can be surrounded by puzzle-filled areas with dungeon-like elements.
As for the standard items, they're both collectibles and daily-use objects and materials. We needed a flint in order to ignite up a fire, which at the same time required some kindling (you can chop down trees to build new platforms or alternatively turn the wood into this useful resource). Then you need a pan to cook your boar steaks or tasty recipes that involve mushrooms and peppers... unless you want to simply chew some slimy yet satisfying insects? Each food item shows the number of hearts it'll replenish, as you'll no longer get those by cutting the grass. And if collecting and surviving isn't enough, there's going to be a trade system in place so that you can get rupees after selling the most valuable objects.
The stamina meter also comes back from SS, although it's now better contextualised with all the survival trimmings. In a somewhat surprising change, you now can press X to jump and grab onto walls in order to climb them (press again for a final push), with rocky environments part of the scenery more than ever.
With all these actions and many more to come, you'll be ready to explore the massive landmass of Hyrule. The map itself (-) shows some unique Zelda touches, and we've found the stamps feature to be rather useful. You have up to nine icon stamps and five coloured symbol stamps (at least in the demo), and you use these to mark points of interest. You can use the icons to manually signpost battle encounters, treasures, sniper points, camps... The coloured stamps signify other important objectives, and are then shown on-screen to guide you in-game. The Shrines are of course marked once discovered.
We've been told by a little owl that these demos were actually trimmed down in terms of content. They removed NPCs and potential objectives that'll be present in the final game so that they were more straight forward and focused. And perhaps less spoiler-ish? In terms of the potential storyline, we still know very little. Link wakes up after 100 years of sleep. We assume it's Princess Zelda who's delivering the first voice acting heard in the series. Zelda or not, the voice is asking our hero - "the light" - to return that light to the realm. It's all very cryptic. We approached a ruinous church. It was the Temple of Time. It contained the Statue of the Goddess, with the very same shape and look as the one from Skyward Sword. There was a new contextual action here: "pray". We learnt about a hog-shaped ancient evil...
We want the whole experience to look a bit more polished, and inventory/pickup actions to work faster and more smoothly (with less delay and fewer interruptions), but so far the experience is feeling fresh, fun, and it had us captivated. We can picture the development team struggling to cut off these two 15 minute slices and turning them into E3 demos. It worked before for more focused sections and mechanics, but with the new massive open world of Hyrule not even two hours would have been enough. That said, both demos actually manage to convey the need for survival by using a selection of fun and interesting new features (which are presented here with the same humorous charm the series is known for), and an updated feeling of free-roaming exploration that actually resembles that one we felt all those years ago with the first entry in the series. We're eager to see how all this finally comes together in the full game next year.