The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (opens in new tab) knows that you just think it’s just going to be Zelda. Breath of the Wild waits for you to underestimate it from the moment it starts, when Link wakes up in a stoney tomb after 100 years of sleep while Hyrule crumbled and became a wild place again. I sauntered up to a haggard treasure chest, tapped a button to open it and saw Link wind up to kick it open like he’s done in Skyward Sword, in Twilight Princess, like he’s done for years. Instead he kicks it and immediately winces. Because he’s not wearing pants or shoes yet and the world can hurt you. Hearts aren’t in the grass waiting to heal him; he’s got to find food. Rupees aren’t in the boxes so he can buy a potion; there’s no one left in Hyrule to buy them from. When I jumped off a cliff to cut a short cut on the huge plateau in Nintendo’s E3 demo, I didn’t lost a teensie bit of life and plumb forward. Link died and I had to restart. "I am familiar," says Breath of the Wild, "but I am very different." And that is the most exciting thing I can imagine a Nintendo game saying in 2016.
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Open World Zelda is the impression Breath of the Wild’s given in the scant trailers and demos Nintendo’s shown over the past two years, but that’s misleading. Nintendo themselves refer to it as an open air adventure, referring both to its approach to modern player freedom and its colorful, en plein air (opens in new tab)-inspired visual style. After Link’s century-long nap, he stumbles out into the world where everything just stretches out into the distance. Breath does draw your attention to things - a strange old man appears in your line of sight from Link’s tomb looking like some kind of warrior Santa and the woman’s voice in Link’s head suggests he go to a highlighted location on his Sheikah Tablet for map and item/spell management - but doesn’t force you to pursue them at all.
If you just want to run around, chasing wild boar and picking up mushrooms you can. I spotted a shallow pool of water with an island in the middle, testing out how quickly Link’s stamina meter peters out as he swims, jumps, and climbs rocks, all of which feel far smoother here than in past 3D Zeldas. At the top of the island was a rusty sword which promptly broke after used it to beat on some mokoblins who were barbecuing nearby. Lost the sword, but I got a steak and learned how the stealth and temperature meters, tiny icons next to the mini-map, work. (Turns out I made too much noise, signaled by a jittery waveform, to sneak up on the freaky monsters. Also, pro-tip: Link gets too hot and loses health if you step in the fire.)
At no point did Breath of the Wild stop me for a long, expository explanation of the world or to herd goats or participate in some ridiculous sky festival. When I finally did drift over to the spot the voice wanted me to check out, the game did reveal one significant nod to contemporary open world games like Assassin’s Creed. Using the Sheikah Tablet caused a Resurrection Tower to erupt out of the ground and I was treated to a quick scene of others waking up across the world, near forests, a volcano, and a dessicated castle surrounded by a roiling cloud with a tusked face. (Warrior Santa informed me later that the cloud is actually Calamity Ganon, who caused Hyrule to turn into the abandoned natural world here.) The towers actually fill in chunks of Link’s map, which is apparently 12 times larger than the one in Twilight Princess, just like old Altair’s Eagle Points. The big difference, though, is that it isn’t littered with icons pointing to repetitive open world game chores like, say, the blockades in Batman: Arkham Knight. Just topographical features, treasures when you find them, and shrine and temple locations.
That isn’t to imply that there isn’t much to do in Breath of the Wild. Just in the demo here I had a blast wandering around and testing things out. Finding an axe and chopping a tree down to try and cross freezing water to reach a raft (didn’t work), trying to sneak up on a wild boar with a lit torch (never got close), and trying out Link’s new snowboarding on his shield skills (I broke the shield) were just a few of the things I got up to. I even started, but didn’t complete, one of the shrines.
Not full scale dungeons with bosses which I was told are in fact in the game, shrines are small structures full of puzzles, enemies and treasure. They poke out of the landscape like the ruins at Machu Picchu, elegantly woven into the world not unlike the dungeon entrances in the original NES Legend of Zelda. Inside I found a rune, one of a few Link can carry, that let me magnetically pick up and manipulate metal objects like a chunk of the floor hiding a path under a locked gate. It’s worth noting yet again, that Nintendo seems to have learned its lesson about belaboring its lessons about how to play. After a brief explanation about the magnetism rune, I was left to figure out how it worked on my own. No fairy popped up to needle me into listening to some drawn out explanation. "USE THE MAGNET NOW LINK RIGHT HERE NOW NOW NOW!" Fi didn’t emerge to tell me the probably that I could lift this metal block with the magnet was 99%. It just let me play.
As effervescent as my time with Breath of the Wild was, it ultimately raised more questions about Link’s first new 3D adventure since 2011. It’s beautiful in action, an understated wash of Studio Ghibli color and swooning orchestral music, but will this Wii U version receive some kind of visual upgrade on the NX next year? The freedom to explore is exciting after years of rigidly guided Zelda games, but can it fill up such a huge space with challenges and action that feels as expertly crafted as the few but memorable temples in Wind Waker? Just what the hell is Link and why has he been asleep for 100 years? Why is Warrior Santa hanging out? Will Link’s limited stamina system, breakable armor and weapons, and need to cook to regain health get annoying? What do the three new amiibo do in the game? All I wanted to do was keep playing to answer these questions, listening to Zelda breathe in and out in inspiring ways.