This is the third in a series of posts about the instructive first areas in games. Prepare yourself for a longer one, because this time, we’ll be taking on the expansive Great Plateau from last year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
On a first glance, this may seem absurd. Breath of the Wild is, in the words of its developers, an open-air experience, where the world is available for the player’s exploration. Yet even here, there are designed areas intended to instruct and provide examples of the game’s mechanics and common manifestations of them.
After a brief cutscene, the player takes control of Link, the protagonist, within the Shrine of Resurrection. Right at the start, a glowing pedestal brings attention to a backbone item of
the game: the Sheikah Slate, a sort of magi-tech tablet with useful features unlocked throughout the player’s journey. These abilities are the forefront of the instruction on the plateau, and we’ll cover them in more detail later. For now, suffice to say that the Sheikah Slate is required to exit the cave, as a pedestal in the next room opens the door.
Also in the next room is the first instance of a series staple: treasure chests. These chests contain the first equipment in the game, which encourages the player to explore the interface and utilize it. On using the above mentioned pedestal, the door comes open, and the player is left to stare at the light streaming in over a cliff face. This is one of the only cases in Breath of the
Wild where something is required to proceed; unless a player is familiar enough with the game already to find a workaround, they will have to climb to get out of the cave. An early introduction like this is a good tell for a significant mechanic, and climbing is one of the primary means of transportation in the rest of the game.
As soon as the player exits the cave, after a dramatic panoramic shot overlaid with the game’s logo, there’s another subtle introduction of major mechanics. A tree branch is laying on the ground right in the obvious path forward. This first weapon
introduces both collectible objects and weapons themselves, and it sparkles to draw the player’s attention. Similarly within view is a Hylian Shroom, one of many native plants the player can collect and use for cooking, healing, or other purposes. A little ways down the path, an old man sits at a campfire with a baked apple nearby, to provide an example of the cooking itself. Continuing on down the path leads to a few more weapons and collectibles, as well as some enemies to introduce combat.
On picking up an object for the first time—or reaching certain locations, such as the base of the cliff leading out of the shrine—the controls for acting on the new discovery pop up, sometimes coupled with dialogue to give them narrative context. However, to a great degree, this story content can be skipped entirely, as the suggested path down from the shrine is just that: a suggestion. There are exactly seven things required on the Great Plateau before the player can proceed: exiting the Shrine of Resurrection, activating the Sheikah Tower to the northeast, completing each of the four shrines around the plateau, and returning to the Temple of Time for the reward. A story quest guides progression through them, but it can be almost entirely overlooked until returning to the Temple of Time, leaving the player to find the tower and the shrines independently.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on the steps to complete this objective, then look back at the various encounters scattered about the plateau. The first step on exiting the Shrine of Resurrection is to find the tower. The old man will point the
player in the right direction if talked to, otherwise it’s a fairly large landmark, even if “tower” isn’t a fitting word to describe its appearance just yet. The tower begins mostly underground, with the top level to the ground. This makes it significantly easier to access while still effectively introducing the concept, because it raises up on activation, leaving the player to climb down and not have to worry about ascending. As soon as they reach the ground, a conversation—however brief they want to make it—frames the closest shrine in view of the camera, making it a good next objective.
The four shrines on the plateau are all quite similar in structure: introduce a rune—one of the abilities of the Sheikah Slate—then demonstrate its utility through a few puzzles required to reach the end. This first shrine, Oman Au, introduces the Magnesis rune, which—as the name may imply—allows the player to move metal objects around. As soon as the rune is introduced, the player must use it to move metal slabs and reveal a tunnel. The rest of the shrine utilizes the rune in order to open doors, bridge gaps, and knock down walls, but it leaves room for optional use as well. The player can grab a metal treasure chest, and, by the same logic as knocking down walls, batter an enemy with a box to defeat it. These are all significant ways of solving puzzles later in the game, and the shrine introduces all of them as possibilities to add to the player’s understanding of their own skill set. Various metal objects are lying around outside the shrine as well, along with visible treasure chests at the bottom of a pool of water, so the test for these skills comes immediately and has a clear, tangible reward.
After completing one shrine, the player is encouraged to return to the top of the tower—via the introduction of a fast travel system—to scope out the rest of the shrines. The next closest is the Ja Baij Shrine, which is surrounded by ruined structures and guarded by one of the game’s most prominent enemies, the aptly named Guardians. Even stationary as they are in this location, they’re a near insurmountable threat, and the ruins provide the cover needed to avoid their fire on the way to the shrine.
The Ja Baij Shrine introduces the Remote Bomb rune, which is reminiscent of the bombs present in other Zelda games, but with the added benefit of manual detonation rather than a set timer. For anyone unfamiliar with the series, the cracked walls at the shrine’s entrance may not stick out on their own, but juxtaposed with a new explosive ability, they’re a clear first target. The rest of the shrine makes unique use of the two shapes of bombs to demonstrate their application—cubic bombs, which can’t roll, and spherical bombs, which can. Outside the shrine, a cracked wall greets the player, and the bombs deal enough damage to take care of the formidable Guardians, with enough patience and effort.
The next shrine we’ll be discussing is the Owa Daim Shrine, which stands on a large cliff overlooking the plateau. The
cliff face leading up to it has several wide ledges which the player can use to rest and recharge their stamina, and most of them are indicated by a particular type of collectible mushroom growing next to them. The Owa Daim Shrine plays host to the Stasis rune. Stasis allows the player to stop time for an object, which can then either be passed with ease or hit repeatedly to build up kinetic energy for release when time resumes. The rune is the least immediately intuitive, but the shrine presents puzzles to serve each of its major functions to add skills to the player’s repertoire. Immediately after leaving the shrine, a rock sits above a treasure chest, just waiting for the player to use their newfound ability to launch it away and claim the treasure inside.
We now come to the final shrine, Keh Namut, which sits atop a frigid mountain. I say last, but again, the four shrines can be taken on in any order. The Keh Namut Shrine introduces, appropriately enough, the Cryonis rune, which creates pillars of ice when used on the surface of water. It is first used to ascend—significantly, the majority of the terrain in shrines cannot be climbed on, but ice pillars can—then to lift a gate, create cover from an enemy, and engineer a way to the end by lifting up a plank to create a ramp. A ways down the mountain from the shrine is a frigid lake, which will kill the player near-instantly if touched, but can be climbed over with Cryonis to reach a treasure chest.
The final thing of great note in the main objective itself is the location of each shrine. Visible on the map, the four create an X centered on the Temple of Time, the final objective for the
plateau. Within the temple is a Goddess Statue, which accepts the Spirit Orbs received from the four shrines in exchange for more maximum health or stamina. On ascending the temple and viewing another plot-laden cutscene, the player is presented with the paraglider, a safe means of leaving the plateau and exploring the rest of Hyrule.
Before ending the article, I want to touch on some other elements found around the plateau. Enemy camps are a common sight, but several of them—particularly those closest to the Shrine of Resurrection—have “easy solutions,” so to speak. Some have rocks or lanterns which can fall onto explosive barrels, and others are near beehives or boars to distract them; all these things tend to make the enemies easy pickings for a new player. It not only showcases how systems interact, but that there may be alternatives to close-quarters combat when approaching enemies. Many of the camps also have treasure chests which unlock on defeating all of the enemies, another common sight off the plateau.
In several places around the plateau, the old man shows up and will talk to the player about various mechanics, like cooking food for healing and passive buffs, or cutting down trees to make a way forward. One such place is one of the two easiest means of accessing the cold region with the Keh Namut Shrine, both of which provide Spicy Peppers and a cooking pot. While only one location explicitly states it, both encourage the player to cook something with the peppers, which creates spicy food that protects them from extreme cold for a time. Also found on the plateau are a Stone Talus, a rocky behemoth that acts as an overworld boss, and an area with a campfire, dry grass, and strong winds to demonstrate how the three interact.
The Great Plateau overall acts as a sort of Breath of the Wild lite, with most of the game’s primary elements and mechanics demonstrated in its relatively minimal reaches. There are a great many things this writing doesn’t describe, as it would take hours
to find everything even in this area, less than two percent of the game’s map. The introduction makes clear how the rest of the game will look and gives the players the tools they need to experience its expansive world, exactly as such an introduction should be.