The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild towers as the Nintendo Switch’s most anticipated title for good reason. In addition to being a new Zelda, thus being a big deal by default, the latest entry in the long-running franchise expands on the series’ formula by featuring a vast open world for players to explore freely. After much anticipation, I had the opportunity to spend roughly 20 minutes of hands-on time with Breath of the Wild. It felt like a fraction of that time because I was completely enamored with Hyrule’s wealth of possibilities.
From what I understand, the demo I played was identical to last year’s E3 demo, so the opening events are likely familiar if you’ve read impressions for that version. Link awakens within an ancient temple, beckoned by a mysterious voice. After being bestowed with the magical Sheikah Slate, a multipurpose tool that serves as Link’s map, among other functions, I found and equipped basic clothing. Breath of the Wild’s vibrant world welcomed me with open arms as I exited the structure. There was only one question: Where do I head first?
I could have immediately veered off on my own path, but I opted to follow a mysterious hooded man. After catching up with him and absorbing some sage tutorial advice, I embarked on my journey. My first order of business was to climb everything. Link can scale virtually any surface, his actions dictated by a stamina meter ala Skyward Sword. The ability to climbing vastly opens up exploration options. Instead of seeking out a main path, I just scampered up cliffs and improvised my way through areas. Link’s stamina drained rather quickly in the demo to the point of becoming a mild nuisance. Hopefully, it won’t take too long to for players to build up his strength in the full release.
I quickly procured my first weapon: a branch. Not quite the Master Sword, but I had to start somewhere. It was a fortunate discovery, since I immediately encountered my first adversary in a lone moblin. Combat itself felt largely identical to previous Zelda games. I slashed, rolled, and leapt in and out of engagement with my foe. The controls felt smooth and responsive as we clashed. The presence of weapon degradation was the most prominent new wrinkle, as it forced me to monitor the state of items. Unfortunately, my branch splintered into pieces before I could finish my adversary, forcing me into a hasty retreat. In an unexpected and humorous moment, the persistent moblin gave chase for several yards. It even followed me down a sheer cliff drop. Even the Nintendo representative guiding me through the demo was taken aback at the beast’s determination.
After a lengthy pursuit, the moblin finally decided I wasn’t worth the effort and backed off. That wasn’t the end of my troubles. I turned to discover that I’d accidentally stumbled upon a camp teeming with moblins–and I was completely defenseless. In a stroke of intentionally designed luck, though, I noticed a bow and quiver of arrows laying by a log nearby. There were also a few more branches. Now that I had a larger arsenal, I messed around with Breath of the Wild’s inventory system. Players can quick select weapons in-game on the fly by entering a separate menu. Additionally, hot key options also streamlined selection. I adapted to this new system swiftly, swapping items with ease.
Before I tackled the enemy base, my Nintendo rep instructed me to slide the Switch out of its dock and continue playing in handheld mode. The transition from big to small screen was as quick and seamless as advertised. Best of all, the performance didn’t skip a beat and looked great on the smaller display. With my new bow, I took aim and sniped distant enemies, drawing their attention. As the now-alert moblins hurtled towards me, I spotted a nearby shield and quickly equipped it. With my beat-down stick and shield ready, I fought my way through the remaining horde, rolling and collecting additional arrows and sticks mid-fight.
Once the last moblin fell, I began collecting the spoils. Among the loot was an actual sword. Hooray, no more branches! That sense of improvement defined much of Breath of the Wild’s experience. Every time I nabbed a new item, I eagerly compared it stats to my existing inventory and wanted to continue searching in hopes of finding greater riches. That’s a fun and necessary incentive to achieve in an open world game.
After clearing the area of its riches, I decided to continue towards the main story objective. The waypoint led to a small ruin with a plate to insert the Shiekah Slate. I placed the relic, which triggered a scene where a massive tower emerged from the Earth. Interestingly, the Nintendo Rep pointed out that during this cinematic, moblins are typically present since the structure sprouts near their base. However, since I wiped out the camp before summoning the tower, the moblins were absent. I always appreciate little touches of continuity like that. I’ll have to wait for the full release of Breath of the Wild to see what follows after that tower arose from the ruins as my demo wrapped up shortly thereafter.
Although I barely scratched the surface of the tip of the iceberg, I left the demo anxious and excited to get my hands on the full experience. Roaming the open world, discovering items and locations with little to no guidance felt like playing a big-budget remake of the NES Legend of Zelda. It’s a freedom that’s been lacking in the last few console entries, and the next logical leap after A Link Between Worlds (a personal fave) began the shift towards a less linear direction. Breakable weapons largely irritate me in most games, but Zelda tempers that annoyance by sprinkling items all over the place. I was always picking up new equipment, and even though most of them were fragile branches, I had a supply of them to rely on until I found something better.
Most importantly, Breath of the Wild was just plain fun. Combat works fine, the picturesque world was a joy to run around in, and the loop of exploration and loot has its hooks. If the gameplay continues to evolve in positive ways, and if they story is up to snuff, Breath of the Wild could be a Zelda game for the ages.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launches for Switch and Wii U March 3.