Release Date: March 3 on Nintendo Switch (version tested) and Wii U
Nintendo has pretty much cleared the slate for Breath of the Wild. Criticisms of the Nintendo Switch launch lineup as being short in both breadth and depth have been justified, which only serves to intensify the focus on what is already arguably the most-anticipated Zelda of all time. Getting to play the game on the new console, some (though not all) of Nintendo’s seemingly bizarre decisions start to make sense. The software lineup is small because everything is likely to pale in comparison to the journey awaiting us and Link, and it feels a perfect match for the Switch.
I start the game in TV mode with the snazzy new Pro Controller – which, by the way, is one of the best and most comfortable controllers Nintendo has put together – and the first striking thing is the dialogue. Hearing spoken word in a Zelda game that isn’t meaningless garble with accompanying text is strange, but a welcome addition. Rather than detach me from these characters, like when a cherished book becomes a movie, I find myself more invested. I can now understand the emotion behind the script, and the voice acting, from what I’ve seen, is very good.
Related: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe preview
This demo is the same as the one at E3, so we begin with Link awakening in a cave, confused as to what is happening. The graphics look excellent, with the game presented as a visual evolution of Skyward Sword. Although, as is the case with most of the games I’ve played on the Switch, there are aggressive jaggies thanks to a lack of anti-aliasing. It gives everything a sharp edge, making Zelda’s body look like it was designed by Skoda in the 1970s. It doesn’t overly impede thanks to the beautiful and vibrant art style, but again it's likely to offend some people.
Unlike previous Zelda games, it's a matter of minutes before we’re in the land of Hyrule proper. Breath of the Wild takes just a few moments to introduce the player to its RPG mechanics – here are some clothes, put them on as they provide protection, and so on – a few control tutorials and before I know it I’m out of the cave and enjoying the gorgeous scenery of Hyrule.
Again, this is a Zelda unlike any previous game, so don’t expect to find a happy village where people hand you swords and shields and lead you by the hand to the first dungeon. This is post-apocalyptic Hyrule, and Link must forage to survive. At first I’m armed with just a stick and have a bunch of apples for sustenance. After fighting some local Bokoblins I now have an axe and some mushrooms too.
Related: Splatoon 2 preview
En route to the first objective I discover a group of Bokoblins stood near a fire, which is conveniently littered with exploding barrels. On the fire is a roasting leg of meat, which would be great for the journey ahead. I decide to sneak up on the enemies (which you can do now), pick up a barrel and toss it their way, awaiting the big explosion. However, I then realise Link’s throwing arc is incredibly short, and instead the barrel rolls to a Bokoblin's feet – he then picks it up and returns it with a plume of flame and smoke, zapping half my health.
During the more intensive combat sessions the framerate did take a noticeable hit, but having played it on two consoles it was more pronounced on one Switch than the other. With this being a preview build of the game this margin of error is understandable, and outside of intense combat with multiple enemies it maintained 30FPS, so I'm hopeful the final game can get closer to a locked framerate.
It’s at this point I decide I want to play the game on the Switch itself, which is done literally just by picking up the console from the dock. That’s it, the game is already running on the console's built-in screen and no longer on the TV. The speed at which this is done is brilliant – the transition isn’t noticeable at all. The game looks as vibrant and beautiful as it does on the TV, and the shrink in display size doesn't cause any problems at all. It’s at this point where once again Nintendo’s genius shines through: thinking about the potential of this being the new way to play games makes it the only way I want to play.
I think of all the times I’ve had to end a gaming session early because I’ve had to head out for a doctor’s appointment, to work or, as a kid, being told to turn off the game because it’s bed time or we have to visit that second cousin twice-removed whom nobody is really fond of, losing precious progress thanks to dodgy save systems. This won’t happen with the Switch. Zelda will now come with me wherever I go, and I will use every spare moment to play it, because this 30 minutes has been some of the most captivating and enjoyable in one of my favourite franchises. It feels so inviting and exciting because everything is so new.
Related: ARMS preview
This is like a Zelda Dark Souls game – something I fantasised about years ago but never considered really possible. Not in terms of its difficulty, but in autonomy. Link is free to explore literally any part of Hyrule, whenever he wants. How exactly Nintendo has weaved the story through this new freedom of exploration I don’t know, but I can't wait to find out more.
I played the demo twice and both times sighed when the “Thanks for playing!” screen popped up. I didn’t expect the game to be this good this soon in.
Yes, compared to other launch lineups the Switch has a very thin offering, but no console has ever offered anything close to the punching power of Breath of the Wild from day one. In Zelda Nintendo is bringing a true system-seller on March 3, and based on what I’ve played it has the potential to somehow exceed even the loftiest expectations.
Being free to explore the world of Hyrule however we see fit is a truly exciting prospect, and one I’m desperate to play more of.