Link's latest adventure is shaping up to be both the standout Switch launch title, and a fitting farewell for the Wii U.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a generation-spanning game, and it's landing on both the Switch and Wii U on March 3. Whether you're a seasoned veteran, or even a relative newcomer to the Zelda series, Breath of the Wild looks like it has something to offer thanks to some innovative and carefully considered design choices made by the team at Nintendo. There's a lot in there for long-time fans, but it's also an ideal jumping on point for those unfamiliar with Hyrule and its storied past. This latest entry in the series offers a huge open-world to explore, plus a raft of new mechanics that change the dynamic when compared to earlier entries, however, there's also the odd wink to the past and it includes plenty for long-time fans to enjoy.
Things start off on the Plateau, a small area with four shrines (here instead of dungeons) that need to be unlocked before Link can head out to explore the wider world. It's here that the scope of Breath of the Wild becomes apparent, but some of the game's niggles also come into focus during this introductory chapter. We've written about the game's opening before; Nintendo showed off this part of the game extensively during E3 and again at the unveiling of the Switch earlier this year. Thus, we'll keep this brief.
In the four aforementioned shrines - of which there are 100+ in the whole game - Link unlocks abilities that he can then use to solve dozens of environmental puzzles that are littered throughout the world. Link can move metal objects, freeze water, drop bombs, stop time, and even take selfies. To do all this he uses a Sheikah Slate - an item that looks like a throwback to the game's Wii U origins - to interact with the ancient technology that's dotted around the world just waiting to be discovered.
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It's the combination of these powers, as well as Link's ability to interact with the world in a number of intuitive ways, that seems to drive the gameplay in Breath of the Wild. The game's visuals might not compare favourably to those of a modern triple-A production, and some of the trappings might feel archaic when compared to other contemporary titles that exist in the same genre, but in this new Zelda gameplay is king. How? We'll give you an example.
As part of the process of leaving the Plateau, Link has to venture up to snowy mountaintops to access one of the four shrines. In the clothes that Link is wearing at the start of the game, you'll quickly freeze to death. So how do you access the shrine? We spent more than an hour looking for warmer clothes to keep Link snug during the ascent. That's one way. Another might be to cook up some peppers on a stove to eat, thus granting a resistance to cold for a short while. A third option would be to take a burning torch with you and keep yourself warmed by the flicker of its flame. This little puzzle, like so much in this world, is not directed; rather it's left for the player to use their own intuition and creativity to solve the challenge before them.
Breath of the Wild's biggest draw is shaping up to be the way that its various systems interlink, and how they can be used to overcome a mixture of clever puzzles and emergent situations. Upon completing the four shrines, Link unlocks a paraglider that lets him float down into the wider open-world, and there his adventure really begins. Enemies of various shapes and sizes populate the landscape, and Link must pick up weapons as he finds them and use them to dispatch his foes. These weapons degrade and break easily (perhaps too easily) so there's a constant flow of new items to sort through. Combat feels organic and unscripted, and enemy AI is just another system that can be pushed and pulled about by the player as they experiment with homegrown tactics, mixing stealth and aggression as each situation dictates.
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The cel-shaded visuals do enough to illustrate the world around you, but there's a lack of detail to Link's face that means he's not the most emotionally charged character you'll ever meet. This is made worse when you take the Switch out of its station and play on the small screen, where it's even harder to see the detail on our hero's face. Conversely, the rest of the world arguably looks a bit better when viewed this way. The overall look is relatively simplistic, true, but it's elegantly done and we've already seen plenty of interesting environmental design that makes good use of the stylishly spartan aesthetic.
We played both on the big screen using a controller, and in portable mode, and it worked superbly for the most part, although there was the odd frame-rate dip. One of the shrines had us rolling a ball around on a giant marble run, and we wrestled with the gyro-controls for quite a while (full disclosure, someone else picked it up and completed the challenge almost straight away). Our takeaway from this was that the detachable controllers are good, certainly, but they're not perfect, and some people will take to them more easily than others. Reports that some users have struggled with connectivity and control of the left Joy-Con point to a potential issue, but we experienced no such problem. Plugging in the Pro Controller changed the feel of the action a little, and many people will prefer to use one of these expensive peripherals when playing on the big screen, but even the Joy-Cons mounted on the Grip worked fine.
At this stage our complaints are relatively minor, and we've thoroughly enjoyed our early exploration of the open-world. There looks like there are lots of different biomes to discover, and environmental changes should make different demands of the player. It seems as though much will come down to quick thinking and innovative manipulation of the game's systems. What remains to be seen is whether the world and its systems can sustain the adventure for the 40+ hours it'll take to complete the game. Is there enough variety to keep the player surprised? At this stage it's hard to say, but nonetheless the systemically driven gameplay impresses, and there's potential here for an organic and immersive adventure to unfold. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has the potential to be fantastic, but we won't know for sure until we've invested a few more hours into discovering its many secrets. What we do know is that we can't wait to find out what's in store for us in the adventure ahead, and that's usually a good sign.