The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is less than two months away, we found out today, and will be a launch title for the Nintendo Switch. I got the chance to finally play Nintendo’s next huge RPG in Tokyo today, taking control of main character Link for what appeared to be the first 20 minutes of the game — essentially a playable version of the demo we saw at E3 last year. What I found was a game that felt like a classic Zelda, but was also more clearly influenced by trends elsewhere in the games industry than other 3D titles in the series.
It takes place in an obviously open world, for one, and isn’t shy about throwing players into the mix. Link wakes up in the safety of a glowing cocoon inside a dark room. Two minutes later, and armed with nothing more than a raggedy shirt and pants combo, and the bare minimum of advice, he’s sent out into the vast expanse of the world. From Breath of the Wild’s title screen to reaching its version of Hyrule Field took me about five minutes. Compare this with the most famous 3D Zelda — Ocarina of Time — which spends an hour or two introducing the player to Link and his abilities in the relatively safe confines of the Kokiri Forest.
Breath of the Wild boasts a larger and — appropriately — wilder space than Zelda games have had before, the landscape studded with rock formations and clumps of tall trees. There are ruins on the horizon, too, marks of a civilization that’s faded or moved on, and far off in the distance, the grand Hyrule castle, guarded by a writhing, smoking snake monster that Nintendo has inexplicably decided to call as “Calamity Ganon.”
I didn’t get to the castle in my short time with the game, though. Just down the dirt road from my starting point I got sidetracked by a partially destroyed church, watched over by an old man with a lantern on a stick and an interest in insects. From there, I made my way to a strangely symmetrical outcropping marked on my map, and inserted my “Seeker Stone” — the cryptic-looking rectangle of rock Link pockets shortly after waking up from his glowing cocoon nap.
The Seeker Stone acts like a primitive smartphone. It’s got a camera for snapping pictures of the various monsters that inhabit the land, as well as map functionality. It also seems to have some kind of contactless payment system — Hyrule’s version of Apple Pay. On tapping it against the outcropping’s central point, the entire structure burst from the earth, revealing itself as a previously submerged tower. Raising this structure gave me a view of my surroundings — a fact that was reflected on my in-game map. Previously, it had shown the shape of the area but nothing more. Now it showed topography, water features, and points of interest.
The concept of climbing towers to unlock more detailed map readouts will be familiar to anyone who’s played an Assassin’s Creed game, but Breath of the Wild reminded me more of another kind of game during my time with it. The twinkling music, the far-off castle, the portentous volcano in the distance — these Zelda staples are all present. But the effect of being set free so quickly in a visibly vast world felt more like the opening to an Elder Scrolls or Witcher game than the more prescribed path of previous Zeldas.
That effect’s compounded by the sheer amount of stuff Link can pick up. Mushrooms grow in the shade under rock outcroppings, apples can be found in the branches of trees, each item marked with a “???” until Link picks it up and works out its use. For most of the items I found during my 20 minute demo, that use was restorative, with food items like cooked meat and apples adding to Link’s health bar. But weapons, too, can be taken from the environment, and used until they break.
In just 20 minutes with the game, I armed Link with a sharp stick, a club, a bow, and a wicked two-handed axe, with each one either broken on the face of a foe or discarded for a better option. Combat is much the same as it has been in 3D Zelda games: I locked on to red-skinned, man-sized moblins with the left shoulder button, dodged with a stab of the A button, and swung my current weapon with X. Each weapon’s handling was noticeably different, however, with the axe slow and cumbersome compared to the stick’s rapid whacks.
To go with his adaptable fighting style, Link is also far more nimble than before. He has a dedicated jump button, can sprint, backflip, and hop around during fights, and — the biggest change for the character — can now clamber up rock faces like a fairy version of Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio. Link was able to climb up any vertical wall I hurled him at, but he couldn’t cling on forever: climbing, like jumping and sprinting, is governed by a little on-screen stamina gauge. When that runs out, Link will lose his grip and fall, making extended climbing sessions inadvisable.
As well as a stamina gauge, Link has on-screen indicators for his temperature and the amount of sound he’s making. These are features more commonly found in more hardcore survival games, but I didn’t get to test their impact on the game at length — the starting area is temperate enough that Link was never uncomfortable, even in a thin sack cloth shirt, and the few enemies I fought spotted me in the broad daylight. They do indicate, however, that Link will have a greater connection with the land he’s living in, and will need to consider the climate he’s romping around in, as well as how to avoid some fights.
The land in question is imbued with a nice physicality: grass sways as you move through it, and many objects can be pushed around at will. That’s not to say you can only move specifically marked blocks as part of puzzles, as in previous Zelda games. Barrels, crates, and boxes will shift with a quick shove, leading to some fun improvisational moments in the open world. Observing a moblin camp from a nearby hillside, I spotted a boulder precariously balanced on a dais above a pile of explosives. Rather than fight the two moblins hand to hand, I snuck around their impromptu base and shoved the rock off the edge, causing an explosion that immolated the critters.
It’s hard to tell from 20 minutes, and it’s not clear whether the final game will keep the demo’s cold open, but it feels like Breath of the Wild’s world is ripe for these kinds of moments. As well as planned puzzles in intricate dungeons, it has the tools to offer off-the-cuff moments of ingenuity put together by a creative player, or unscripted surprises in a wild-feeling world.
Nintendo has a history of taking gaming’s hot topics and trends — in this case open worlds and survival elements — tweaking them, and then buffing them until they shine. It feels like they’ve done it again here: Breath of the Wild has an open world that feels polished and survival elements that feel welcoming, brand new elements for the series wrapped up in a package that’s unmistakably Zelda.