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E3 2016 Hands-on: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (And Why I'm Terrified of It)

Jonathan Higgins

Nintendo surprised more than a few people when they said the new Zelda would be the only playable game they bring to E3 2016. Whether or not that was the best approach for them, or overall, will be the subject of many thinkpieces for some time to come, I imagine. But one thing“s for sure: impressions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are highly sought after by show-goers and series fans alike.


Those of you at home have likely seen Nintendo Treehouse Live's presentation of the game, and y'all definitely liked the initial trailer too. Here on the west coast -- well -- the line completely filled up in six minutes. It took six hours of rigorous standing for me to finally reach the collective experience of Nintendo“s booth. And gosh, is it ever a sight to behold. But, I'm here to talk about how the game plays, not the journey it took for me to get there, right?


I'll get to that. But I think it“s important that I first address a series of prejudices I have, so you know exactly where coming from. I rarely couple hands-on previews with caveats, but I feel like I was and still am in the minority of people -- who reacted to Tuesday morning's big reveal with trepidation, not unrivaled glee.


Here's the thing: the Internet affectionately referred to Breath of the Wild as "The Legend of Zelda: Skyrim" before we learned a lot about it. However, I've never once played Skyrim, or ever completed a single Western-developed open-world "sandbox game" like what inspired Breath of the Wild because -- almost everything about how open-world RPGs work has consistently intimidated, overwhelmed, and ultimately shunned me as a player. I feel they don't respect my time, or more importantly my level of anxiety.


The basic philosophy of modernizing the first The Legend of Zelda on NES to create a seamless, living world to explore forever is not why I play Zelda games, and not something I was attracted to from the onset. I waited for as long as I did not because of unrivaled excitement, but because of unrivaled worry.




Why We Play


The Legend of Zelda, as a franchise, is something I can usually turn to in order to help introduce non-gaming folks to how great games can be. I can pick any title from the entire series and heartily recommend it to anyone who“s never played a video game before in their lives. Because of how they instruct the player from the beginning and teach them how the basic controls work each time -- any given Zelda title is simple to learn, but hard to master.


The reason the first Zelda worked so well as an introduction to gaming was because... well... the NES controller had two buttons, and the world -- while ultimately open for exploration and map-drawing -- was pretty tiny and manageable. This one has a billion buttons and things to do -- and just the area you could explore in the E3 demo was but a tiny spec of dust in the grand scheme of things. This is definitely the first Zelda in thirty years to leave newcomers completely in the dust. Its lack of direction and ultra-focused realism is terrifying to me, in ways that most modern open-world games are. It didn't sit well with me in the reveal, and it still doesn't sit well with me after I“ve played the demo. So it goes.


And that“s where my perspective comes from. I don't play these games for the same reasons most of my Twitter feed seems to. I enjoy the sense of exploration and figuring stuff out that most of Link“s adventures provide, but there's always been a certain degree of linearity to tell me where to go when I“m done. If the guiding hand that leads you forward isn't specific enough -- it could lead to folks getting lost in this hugely vast Hyrule, where literally everything you see is a place you can go.


I think there are two types of Zelda players: the ones who enjoy the more 2D, Link to the Past-style Zeldas where both the world and narrative are small, manageable, and enjoyable -- and those who absolutely pine for "The Legend of Zelda: Skyrim" to be a reality. As you probably gather by now, I'm in the former camp. And there are many people who are like-minded here; I'm not on an island. Plenty of the 3D entries have provided a perfect balance of linearity and complexity. But gosh, if it“s not too careful, Breath of the Wild could leave this type of person behind -- leave me behind.




Two Demos


The collective experience in Nintendo's booth is the summation of two demos. They gave me fifteen minutes of being dropped in a world with no direction or place to go, so I could just explore and see what happens. Then, I got to play from the very beginning of the game, where Link wakes up and first begins his new adventure. Now that my prejudices are out of the way -- I'm just going to tell you what happened during each of my sessions, not necessarily how I feel about them (yet).


Despite my fears -- there is something immensely satisfying about taking a Bokoblin“s club and mashing his friends with it. Everything you've seen from Treehouse Live is as fun as it seems. The enemies are more alive than we've ever previously seen in a Zelda game. The sounds you make will tip them off. They'll summon their friends and make your life really difficult, really fast. You've got to micromanage even the tiniest bits of exploration you do if you're not confident about your combat skills... because there were no hearts to be seen in the demo, only food to find and eat.


The standard skull-type enemies that used to haunt the nights in Ocarina of Time can now be chopped apart, and they summon the rest of their body and put themselves back together if you fail to destroy the head. You've got to make sure you completely eradicate your foes if you don“t want an overwhelming situation. Breath of the Wild is definitely not going to be "too easy" -- far from it.




I wandered the earth for a bit, and didn't really discover anything too noteworthy. Collected a few materials, dispatched a few foes, scaled a cliff or two. One thing about the basic gameplay, for those who haven't really paid much attention to all the streams: the systems first introduced in Skyward Sword, like stamina and weapon durability, are back. You've got to keep every single aspect of Link's health in mind if you wanna survive for longer than five minutes. In previous games, falling from a cliff might lose you a heart or two. In this one -- if you scale to the top of a super-high cliff, then lose your footing because you run out of stamina -- you“ll die. It's a big bad world to explore -- the big is evident, but the mercilessness didn't really sink in for me until I played the demo.


Back to my wandering: I was minding my own business, chucking bombs at things because I wanted to see how satisfying the explosions were and I honestly felt like some of the simpler weapons I picked up didn't get the job done (especially when it came to destroying the heads of those dang persistent skeletons). And then, a gigantic rock titan boss appeared. My peers playing the demo around me didn't find that, so I all of a sudden had an audience -- and I didn't have the means to kill him since I'd wasted all my bombs! It was an opportunity lost, as my "Exploration Demo" ended.




From the Start


The second demo started you off at the very beginning of the game. A practically naked Link wakes up after being submerged in water to find himself in a deserted temple. You find some clothes in a few chests and can choose whether to put them on or not. I used the Sheikah Slate to find my way to the outside world -- and with very little words exchanged, the title appeared on the top right corner as Link ran to the edge of the cliff, as seen in the initial trailer.


It's extremely reminiscent of NES Zelda -- seeing that in action will delight series fans in every way; that can't be overstated. You even get to follow an old man to a cave, like in the first game. He seemed pretty indignant, and he scolded me (at first) when I snatched an apple from the stick he was roasting on an open flame. If every NPC reacts the same way the old man did, I can surmise that this Zelda will have just as memorable characters as ones that came before it, despite being heavily inspired by a game whose narrative was ultimately held back by hardware constraints.


What little story I did see gives me the impression that the narrative could end up being relatively solid. I was a little worried they might phone in the story, after hearing things like "you can skip right to the end, if you want." But it seems like the story's there if you“re willing to follow the game's lead -- it's not necessarily something you'll have to dig out, like some quests in Xenoblade Chronicles and games of the same ilk. That's definitely comforting to me, since narrative is always an important part of my personal Zelda experience. Rest easy if we're in the same boat.




Here's the thing about following the game's lead, though. I got lost, right from the beginning. As soon as you discover the Temple of Time (that's noticeable, and the game points you towards it from the onset), the guiding voice tells you to "follow the Sheikah Tablet", which marks an objective spot on your map. There were two objective spots marked on my Gamepad -- one, I assume, was to continue the narrative, and the other must have led to something else -- or would have.


I worked my way over to the first marked spot on the map, which led me to a mountain with a curious structure poking on top of it. I inspected the poked out structure, looking for a way to interact with it. And when I found nothing, I gave up and went to the other marked spot on my map, assuming my objective was there instead. The person working the booth had to tell me where to go, and when I went back towards the poking structure, I saw the giant cave underneath the mountain that I'd climbed from the other side before.


I“m not dumb -- I've played every single game in the series. The objective point of "follow the Shekiah Tablet" wasn't specific enough. I missed my mark, and wasted what precious little time I had with the demo wandering aimlessly back and forth. Without more specific directions for folks who don't wish to wander -- it could leave many feeling like their time“s been wasted. I know I was sad, and I kind of wanted a do-over. But that“s the way the ball bounces.


Something like that can be an easy fix during localization, though. "Follow the Shekiah Tablet... to the cave" gives you something to look out for, as you explore. It's not too late for them to consider changing something like that, so the folks who approach this brand new kind of Zelda scared out of their darned minds can feel a little more at ease when they know exactly what it is they're looking for.




And Overall...


I've fully outlined how aware I am that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and I don't agree philosophically, at all. I know I'm an outlier when it comes to how my impressions read overall. But I hope I've clearly articulated my point of view, after all this.


The new Zelda terrifies me, and as a result of that -- I got way lost and squandered away my limited demo time with the beginning of the game. If the development team (and particularly localization) doesn't work extra hard to provide a much better sense of signposting to the objectives at hand, it could sour someone's experience of what the game is trying to accomplish.


I know the game is trying to articulate a sense of harsh realism to make Hyrule feel more alive than ever before. But the objectives in a Zelda game should be crystal clear, so that folks who prefer to take this gigantic experience in more manageable chunks don“t get lost and waste time along the way.




That“s the end of my experience. If you've got something to say or questions to ask, I“m more than happy to hear you out. Please, please share your thoughts below.


In case you didn't know, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is slated for release on Wii U and "NX" sometime in 2017. We'll offer more information as it comes.

Edited by Jonathan Higgins

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