It’s time. Prepare yourself.
Hello everyone, and welcome to the DigitalChumps preview of everyone’s most anticipated title. I’m pleased to report that I have spent, to date, over 20 hours (close to 25) with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—and it truly feels as though I have only barely scratched the surface. While I am prohibited from going into specifics about my progress and most of what I’ve seen, in this preview article, where I can discuss items from the first five hours of play, I will do my best to provide my honest impressions and thoughts about the game thus far—without spoiling anything for those of you who are hoping to preserve the excitement for first-hand experience of your own (good idea!).
In a word: wow. This game is big. Without a doubt, the first few things going through everyone’s minds after picking up a controller and spending fifteen minutes with the game are:
- This world is massive.
- The dynamic environmental effects are breathtaking and shockingly realistic.
- This game is hard, and while it’s accessible, the controls are not simple.
That last item isn’t a judgment of any particular aspect of the game’s quality… it’s just the very first thing that comes to mind after having played (and completed) literally every other Zelda game in the past leading up to now. Zelda isn’t a series that usually dabbles in the complex. Sure, the dungeons can be large, the campaign sprawling and lengthy, and the collectibles many, but it’s still generally a simple approach to gameplay and even puzzle-solving. That latter point is part of the series’ brilliance; while the puzzles can indeed be tricky, they’re never outright unfair or baffling to the point of frustration. So far, Breath of the Wild maintains that quality.
But it’s a deep game. Deep. It’s literally overflowing with content—and while that’s obvious from the outset, after spending a few hours with it, it’s even more so. One of the biggest concerns that I (and many others) had voiced about the game is that the open-world (er, “open-air”… sorry Nintendo) would feel either artificial or sparse in its attempts to achieve the scale which Nintendo has been championing.
However, after just a few hours with the game, it’s clear that this isn’t the case at all. For starters, the distribution of landscape features and attractions seems—so far—to be very well-managed. The density of attractions you encounter during exploration—such as monster camp sites, curious eye candy, and NPCs—varies, as it should, between heavy and light depending on the environment. For example, in the grassy plains environments or forested areas where the landscape is relatively tame, you’ll run across quite a few interruptions if you choose to embrace them. But in the desert or mountainous regions, you’re far more likely to spend long stretches of your trips alone, with not much to stop and explore along the way (though you will be attacked). Rather than dilute the experience, however, this approach to varying levels of density actually enriches the sense of exploration with a greater sense of realism and natural pacing.
Each area truly possesses its own attitude, its own feel. The game has a personality, and that personality shifts with the landscape. The various environments we encountered during the first few hours of gameplay were lush, detailed, and convincing. Whereas at first Link is exploring grassy green meadows and clearwater ponds, he’s soon venturing into marshy territory, or desert, or snowy mountain ranges, or beaches. And along with each new environment comes the little touches which help to drive home the atmosphere: footprints on sandy beaches, your ankles sinking into the snow, animals leaving visible trails of matted grass behind them, the myriad sounds of indigenous creatures specific to that climate and region.
Equally impressive has been the weather system. When Nintendo promised that dynamic weather and day/night cycles would be a part of Breath of the Wild, they truly meant it. The level of detail associated with this is—as with nearly everything else in the game—breathtaking. Rainstorms arrive with varying intensities and notably affect visibility—and they change to snowstorms in higher-altitude climates where the temperature is naturally lower.
Speaking of temperatures and weather patterns, that’s another item I was worried might seem cumbersome—or oppositely, half-baked—when first enjoying preview footage of Breath of the Wild. I’m happy to report, however, that neither of these is the case. This is the first game in which I can actually recall being forced to make travel and strategic decisions on account of the weather and other current conditions, and it’s an incredibly enriching layer of complexity. You see, while the world is already massive enough, even a similar trip from location A to location B subsequently is often entirely different from before due to challenges and opportunities posed by such factors as the time of day (at night, it’s much more dangerous), weather (during rainstorms, rocks are slippery and difficult to climb—and as we all know by now, lightning poses a hazard sometimes), and temperatures. That last item had me perhaps most concerned, but I haven’t found it to be any sort of nuisance at all. On the contrary, I actually appreciate having to equip warmer clothing (with less supplemental defense) or eat spicy dishes, the latter of which introduces a timer to the equation, which is even more interesting in my view.
Other aspects of the environment also exude a seemingly limitless attention to detail by the developers. The wind changes direction and speed frequently, and nearly all other elements of the environment—everything from grasses to foliage to trees to fires/smoke—react accordingly and realistically. The clouds move in ways corresponding to the weather and the winds. Shadows are cast by distant objects such as towers and mountains, trees and enemies, and they’re directly affected by the angle of the sun and moon. It’s these sort of little touches which are perhaps not all that obvious when poring over footage taken from timed demos during events such as E3, but that is what you have in store for you in Breath of the Wild.
Pacing and direction is just as I would wish it to be. The game presents very clear destinations as you progress, and you can choose to either pursue those or carve your own schedule and path as you see fit. Although you can literally travel just about anywhere from the moment you depart the Great Plateau, the game does instinctively seek to mitigate your progress through later regions by way of much more powerful foes. Of course, you can still choose to defy this and progress through these areas if you think you can handle them, just as—as the game will directly inform you and as we’ve all heard already—you can head to the final boss apparently within the first hour or so of the game. Risky exploration does come with its own unique set of benefits, also, as you’ll absolutely encounter and collect more powerful weaponry (and, in the shrines, better apparel and accessories) in these “later” or “more advanced” areas.
A few more words about shrines: for the most part, they’re pretty cool. It is a little bit of a bummer perhaps to know going in that (probably) all of them will look and feel very similarly, with nearly the same music as well. But they most certainly do build in terms of their complexity and the level of challenge posed by the puzzles within them, and—at least, to the point at which we stopped the clock at our fifth hour of gameplay—they do all present unique challenges. There’s also always a treasure chest or two which is particularly difficult to reach, so for those players who choose to go above and beyond, they will be rewarded (often with valuable loot).
Difficulty in general is thankfully much higher than in previous games. In some of the preview footage from Nintendo, we all recall witnessing Link having seven hearts subtracted while fighting some Lizalfos. That’s perhaps slightly extreme for an average encounter (provided you’re wearing sufficient armor), but it is indicative of an overall much less forgiving natural environment. It’s this sort of unhinged danger which also grants exploration a heavier and more exciting feel—though checkpointing is indeed generous and frequent, there’s still nothing fun about staring at a load screen for ten seconds. However, you don’t even lose any equipment or other collected items when you die—you just return to the exact state you were in at the point where the autosave was created… so the punishment, while inconvenient, is rarely infuriating (although Breath of the Wild is hard, Dark Souls this is not). I’ve been accosted by a fair share of electric Keese (bats) that have really wreaked havoc on me, so I’ve come to appreciate the level of care which must be taken when approaching a new encounter or region.
It’s also true that the game rewards thoughtful and deliberate approaches to enemy encounters. Since enemies are so much smarter than in any previous Zelda game, you really are encouraged to plan ahead to try and pick off the watchmen first, or at the very least to do as much damage as possible before the enemies can run to grab their weapons and come to attack you. There are some enemies which have attacked Link from probably half a mile away during his DigitalChumps explorations… and killed him. That’s nuts.
Yet another concern I had going into this experience was that the new weapon durability mechanic would frustrate me. After all, who would appreciate the tedium of having to constantly monitor your weaponry and switch to a new tool every dozen or so enemies? Well, surprisingly, this has actually become second-nature during my time with the game—and I actually have come to appreciate it. You see, the absence of a solid bedrock of tiered/progressively-stronger weaponry (and shields) simply opens up the diversity of gameplay experiences that much more. Because now, rather than defaulting to your newly-upgraded sword, you’re forced to plan and manage your usage of items to preserve the more powerful ones for tougher situations. In other words, it’s survival. And, against all odds, it’s fun.
It’s fortunate that we can’t yet provide any information about the game’s dungeons, because as of five hours into the game, we hadn’t seen even one of them, or even heard about their existence, for that matter.
I mentioned above that the game world is massive. It is. It’s truly impressive in its size, and rarely does it ever feel mundane, algorithmic, or artificially large. Within just the first few hours of play, it’s obvious that this game is far bigger than any previous Zelda game. In fact, it might be twice the size… seriously. We’ll have to wait for our final thoughts to confirm or deny any suspicions regarding the true length of the adventure, but this much is immediately obvious after leaving the plateau that serves as the game’s tutorial of sorts.
The last thing I’d like to spend a few moments discussing in today’s preview is aesthetics and presentation. While it’s long been debated whether a game should or needs to run at 60 frames per second or 1080p+ resolution, there are few if any reservations I have thus far regarding Breath of the Wild’s presentation. I don’t miss the resolution on my 65-inch 4K Samsung KS8000 LCD television, and the frame rate doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Drops are occasional but quite rare, and really never bothersome. I only have ever experienced one really odd technical issue, and it was a strange hang-up for around a full second when hang-gliding between distant regions. That’s it.
Apart from that, this game’s appearance is absolutely dazzling. It’s not uncommon that I will stop for a moment, pause on a mountain peak or hilltop, and gaze at the stunning sunset. I enjoy being in the environment precisely because of the environment. The game and the objectives are obviously the driving force, but the environment is the catalyst. It doesn’t feel like a hindrance, but rather, a playground—a challenge. And there’s so much to explore and find that I even find myself reluctant to fast travel to reach my destination… even if I’ve already made the trip before. Is that amazing? I think I’d qualify it as such.
Much fuss was made also about the choice in musical style and the approach to integrating it into the gameplay. In a word, the overworld music is minimalist—in fact, it’s absent, as the music only plays at particular times, and it’s specific to the location and other factors. But it’s also unobtrusive, and moody. It configures the emotion of the particular scene so that it is as intended. And it’s really never repetitive—which is perhaps the most fortunate aspect of this approach. In the overworld, the music consists predominantly of piano with occasional accompaniment by other instruments. It’s slow and quiet, and it stays out of the way. As you approach a serene vista, it might offer a happy melodic statement for the player to subconsciously digest as they explore. By contrast, as danger approaches or night falls, dissonant notes begin to play, unpredictably, softly.
Conventional music still exists in specific other areas, and from what I’ve heard, it’s very good. It also changes—actually, it fades seamlessly—between day and night versions of each theme. Many of you who know me know that I have long been a follower and enthusiast of game music (I’ve been to the Symphony of the Goddess concerts not once, but twice)—and I can tell you that I am quite satisfied with what I’ve heard so far from Breath of the Wild.
That just about wraps up my swath of initial impressions about Breath of the Wild. I hope you’ve enjoyed my spoiler-free preview approach favoring analysis over specific examples—and I hope you’ll look forward to my full, honest, and comprehensive review which I will be publishing in the coming days. Thanks for reading.