What We Can Tell You About Our Time With the New 'Zelda' So Far

What We Can Tell You About Our Time With the New 'Zelda' So Far

'Breath of the Wild' is as vast and open as 'Zelda' has ever been. Nintendo

The Glixel team has questions – our adventurer has (some) early answers

The Glixel team has questions – our adventurer has (some) early answers

The embargo for reviews of Nintendo's Switch console – and its latest epic, open-world addition to the Zelda franchise Breath of the Wild – is March 2 and Miguel's been hogging the full retail versions of both this week. There's a lot we can't discuss just yet, so we decided to have the Glixel team lob their questions at Miguel and see how far we could get before Reggie Fils-Aimé sends us to Nintendo jail for breaching the terms of the embargo.

Simon: We've all just come off of playing Horizon: Zero Dawn – an open world sort-of-fantasy game that borrows a lot from The Witcher 3. So far, how does BotW measure up, structurally as well as in terms of how fun it is?
So after binging on Horizon for basically all of last weekend, I felt a tinge of legit anxiety about starting Breath of the Wild this week (a first-world problem, and yes, I am the corniest person alive). I was afraid I simply wouldn't like it as much, but that I'd insist on playing it anyway. How could I not? It's the new Zelda. But beyond the superficial similarities – sprawling worlds pockmarked with points of interest, complex crafting economies that require that you root frantically through them – they're really about different things.

At the risk of being reductive, one is about battling giant robot beasts via a system that requires attention, precision, and, at its best, imagination; the other is about solving environmental puzzles – clever ones for sure, and probably the best ones available – but ultimately, environmental puzzles. I'm just way more interested in the robot-battling, and that's where my head was at going in.

And after a few days of play, I can confirm that Breath of the Wild is absolutely about solving those kinds of puzzles, at least for the first several hours. But just like how Horizon is about much more than precision-shooting crafting mats off of robot dinos, that doesn't really speak truth to the experience.

Before I go any further: if it sounds like I'm talking around stuff as we go on, that's because I am. Nintendo's list of restrictions on what we can discuss prior to release is comprehensively absurd. I can tell you, for instance, that villages exist in the game, but if I describe them, I get the feeling that Wario's thugs will pay me an unpleasant visit. Same with dungeons, shrines, and anything to do with the story. I can tell you about the leg and chest armor I'm wearing – Hylian tunic and trousers – but not about the cap.

In any case, once you get out of Breath of the Wild's lovely, vacant newbie pool – where you cram a whole lot of rudimentary puzzle-solving in what feels like a Zelda Dungeon 101 class – the world's real scope hits you. To answer one of your questions, Simon, there are definite structural similarities to Horizon, but the experience is much more deliberate. Things feel like they're spread further apart, so there's more solitude to this world. But it doesn't feel empty by any means. The world frames its vistas in a way that feel grand and mythic, effortlessly evoking the landscapes of storybook fantasy. We've trained ourselves to approach buildings in these sorts of open games with a bit of dismissiveness; there's surely nothing in that fort but some shitty bandits guarding garbage loot, right? But yesterday, as I followed trail along one of Hyrule's grassy ridge, I spotted a squat ruined keep off in the distance that I honestly felt could've contained anything. I had achieved immersion and wonder, and I'm never not appreciative when that happens. Maybe – probably – Breath of the Wild will reveal its mundanity during the next few hours. But until it does, I'm going to enjoy this.

Simon: So can you go anywhere you can see? Can you just head off towards Mordor...I mean, Death Mountain?
It definitely seems like it, yeah, at least once you clear the Great Plateau, the game's starting area. That said – and I think I'm clear of committing Nintendo treason by saying this – you're told in no unclear terms that making a beeline towards, uh, the last boss, isn't the best idea once the game takes off the training wheels. Not sure if it's possible – I've mainly followed the main quest like a faithful and valorous Hero of Hyrule – but I suspect it is, at least to a degree. And it bears mention that even while sticking to the confines of the main quest, I've spent plenty of time just getting lost. There is vastness to these spaces.

The main barrier against exploration I've encountered so far is Link's stamina. Every second you spend climbing or swimming, your stamina ticks down, and Breath of the Wild seems to love its natural boundaries. Due to my newbie Link's meager stamina bar, I've encountered plenty of surfaces too sheer to scale and bodies of water too vast to cross. Meanwhile, the mechanism by which you improve your stamina, which I'm afraid to describe on pain of stoning-by-Ocktorock, doesn't seem to occur all that frequently.

My hunch is that it'll get more conventionally Zelda as the game goes on when it comes to this stuff. Per screenshots that are going around, there appears to be a raft in the game. I already have the "paraglider," which makes it real easy (and thrilling) to come down off of high places. And there was an NPC I met who had some real interesting things to say about the wild stuff you have to do get access to some of the world's more far-flung places...

Simon: Does the game seem to run about as well on the Switch in handheld mode as it does on the TV, or are there differences?
I've mainly played it on my TV, and yeah, the framerate can drop sometimes. That sort of stuff doesn't really bother me that much unless it's excessive, but if you're the kind of person who gets set off by that, you'll definitely notice it. As you've noted, Simon, it actually looks really good in handheld mode. It's astonishing how nice a game like this looks on a small screen.

Rachel: Has the series evolved in terms of RPG mechanics? Can I craft things? I noticed Link cooking at one point.
I don't know if I'd call this an "evolution," but yes, there's a whole lot of cooking! Pretty much everything you kill drops parts – meat, horns, teeth, guts, viscera – that you can throw in a pot and boil into something. Monster parts generally yield elixirs, which grant you buffs to armor, stealth rating, speed, and such, while meat from other animals and plants you collect yield food, which sometimes buff you, but heal you as well. It frankly strikes me as a little over the top just how much the game focuses on this. Am I wrong to think it decidedly un-Zelda-like? Isn't the drudgery of foraging and crafting beneath Link, the wordless avatar of Zelda's mystique? In any case, it's a huge part of the game. You'll spend plenty of time keeping your pantry stocked. It isn't really that difficult, though. Hyrule is a land of plenty, and you'll find apples by the barrelful pretty much anywhere you look.

I suspect there's more to crafting than simply cooking, too. I found a giant hammer early on that allows me to harvest rocks and gemstones from mining nodes in the world. There must be something going on there, right? I sure hope so; my weapons are always breaking, and if I have to improvise a farmer's implement in the heat of battle one more time, I may give up this hero gig altogether.

John: Not to keep bringing it back to Horizon: Zero Dawn, but one of the criticisms we had of that game was how flat and sort of one-dimensional the NPCs seemed. Zelda has always had such great characters – is that the case here? Do they feel as if they're alive?
You're putting me on thin ice here, John! I think we're OK if I say that, yes, the characters are possessed of that Zelda charm, and there are plenty of them. They're all over the villages (that I'm not allowed to describe), and you encounter them frequently as you ramble around the world. I haven't trod that far in the grand scheme of things, but I've already noticed that quite a few of them of them have set routes. It makes the world feel alive, and so far, it's always been a pleasant surprise whenever I've encountered someone on the loneliest stretches of road.

Now that Zelda exists in an open world, I think it has more of an obligation to feel like a real place, inhabited by characters that do naturalistic things and simply exist in ways that make sense in that grander context. From what I've seen so far, it's doing that, but without robbing Hyrule of its mythic weight. That is no small thing.