The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the most recent entry in the Legend of Zelda series, has me quite concerned.
The Nintendo Wii U (and NX, the yet-to-be-revealed next Nintendo system) game, which Nintendo showed off at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles last week, is shaking up the series and challenging a lot of long-held Zelda conventions. In some ways it almost feels like the least “Zelda” Legend of Zelda game, but that’s a sword that cuts both ways, and can be a good and a bad thing. It brings a welcome breath (pun intended) of fresh air to a series that could use it, but it also brings some radical changes that I’m not sure the game will be able to support as deeply as it hopes.
Breath of the Wild is, on the one hand, Nintendo giving in to trends in Western-developed games like Skyrim and filtering them through a Zelda lens. BOTW presents a massive open world—one giant map where you can explore without loading screens and can walk from one end to the other. It’s taking Link to places he’s never been before. All these are good things.
But I’m more skeptical than most people seemed to be (reactions to the game have been overwhelmingly positive so far). I’m concerned because the new Zelda’s world is large, but empty. It’s also open-ended: you have wide open spaces to explore, but the demo gave very little indication of why you’d actually want to explore this world. And if this is what the final product will be like, I’m very concerned about Link’s next adventure.
A few words on this topic could ease my fears. But in an interview with IGN, game producer and long time Zelda steward Eiji Aonuma wouldn’t talk about towns, because, uh, spoilers. Other games at E3—like Sony’s upcoming Horizon: Zero Dawn—felt like better examples of open-world games. Giant open worlds with nothing to do aren’t fun, and exploration simply for the sake of exploration doesn’t make for an enjoyable game.
The bigger problem is that two of the past three Zelda games—Wind Waker for the GameCube and Twilight Princess for the GameCube/Wii—both suffered from having giant and empty worlds that weren’t filled with enough interesting things to do. It’s a problem Nintendo will hopefully have fixed by the time Breath of the Wild is complete, instead of presenting a world that is empty like the demo is. But given how it’s a problem the Zelda series has faced before, I’m nervous about trusting Nintendo to figure it out this time, with an even bigger world.
It also still needs to feel like a Zelda game to be a Zelda game. Playing the game did ease my fears a bit—at least at first—but after several times through the demo I’m still not sold on this direction for Link and company.
There were two E3 demos: one taking places in the same area as the reveal trailer, starting off with Link waking up in a blue pool of mysterious origin and following a loose story; while the other focused more on open-ended exploration. It has elements of science fiction and a surprising technological vibe, which I’m also not sold on—the series has almost always been grounded in fantasy.
Link has new abilities: I jumped, I climbed trees, I balanced on my shield and slid down a hill, I shivered in the cold. Some elements seem ripped right out of games like Monster Hunter—cooking meat on a BBQ spit immediately brings to mind the popular Capcom series.
This Breath of the Wild demo also has a much different feel from past Zelda games. It’s a more quiet and tranquil affair, and a down-to-earth adventure. It almost reminds me of what Link would look like as a boy scout: he’s (mostly) alone in this wild, open space, doing menial tasks like preparing food, chopping fire wood and hanging around campfires just to pass the time. Even heroes need vacation time, I suppose.
Was it fun? Sure, at first. I smiled—and got chills—at certain moments playing the demo, even despite my preconceived concerns. There are also some graphical, technical, and control issues in the game (and I’m still not in love with how the art style looks, to be honest) but there is a core of something here. The million rupee question is how much of a something.
Getting bored with an E3 demo is never a good sign. BOTW lacks some of the punch of one of the Wii U’s other big open-world games: Xenoblade Chronicle X’s giant open world both looks better and is much more distinct, vibrant, and brimming with life. (Worth noting that Xenoblade’s developers, Monolith Soft, are reportedly helping with Breath of the Wild.)
There is something interesting about a Zelda game with just Link versus the world and taking things slowly and at your own pace. But being an open-world game just for the sake of being an open world and giving players too much freedom is a problem on the other extreme, and one that BOTW doesn’t seem to have an answer for, at least as far as we’ve seen.
For example, the game can be beaten without doing any of the story—which makes me wonder how vital the story or the weapons can actually be if the game can be finished without them.There’s something to be said about past Zelda games being unwilling to trust players to explore at all, but I fear BOTW may swing the pendulum back too far toward the other side of the spectrum and giving players too much freedom to explore—and not enough reason to do so.
Zelda is a series that does need to be shaken up, and it seems that Nintendo is really not keeping anything sacred. And that could be good or bad. We’ll have to see as they reveal more and more about the game, but I was very much not on board with the new direction after my three demos, and I’m really concerned about how BOTW will turn out.
Anouma said in a Polygon interview that he knows that some fans will react this way to Breath of the Wild, and he may have to win them over on the open-ended elements of the game. And that’s exactly what Anouma and Nintendo need to do: prove me wrong on this one, Nintendo. Prove me wrong.
RELATED: Gamers Next Door Pam and Amelia are Never Leaving Nintendo’s ‘Zelda’ Booth at E3