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A whale dungeon in Nobody Saves the World Image: Drinkbox Studios

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Nobody Saves the World scratches a Zelda itch I never knew I had

I am now ready for a combat-focused Zelda game

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

I’ve never played a Zelda game for the combat. Even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game whose countless overlapping physics systems encourage creative violence, remains in my memory for the puzzle-solving and pure joy of discovery. But Nobody Saves the World, the recent release from Drinkbox Studios, shows me what a combat-centric Zelda game might look like. And I’m enthralled.

Nobody Saves the World which is available on Xbox Game Pass right now — puts you in the shoes of a shapeshifter named Nobody as they travel from dungeon to dungeon across a sprawling map, all the while unlocking new corporeal forms with which to defeat hordes of bad guys. You can be a rat; you can be a mermaid; you can be a bodybuilder, a stage magician, or a slug. You can eventually combine their abilities, playing chemist as you grant the ranger’s poison effects to the horse’s “gallop” attack. As Owen Good wrote in his review, it’s a concise, coherent, steady dopamine drip of a gameplay loop.

It may seem odd to compare a bizarre action-RPG to the comparatively restrained Zelda series, but structurally speaking, the two are extremely similar: The hero traverses a large overworld, meeting an array of disillusioned characters with their own discrete side quests. Nobody’s map itself strongly mimics those in several top-down Zelda games, most notably that of A Link to the Past, with a castle in the center and various surrounding biomes. Crucially, the protagonist also delves into minor and major dungeons, the latter of which contain story-critical collectibles.

two player combat in Nobody Saves the World Image: Drinkbox Studios

It’s what you do within those dungeons that sets the games apart. Whereas Zelda’s temples rely on environmental puzzle-solving, Nobody’s interiors place their emphasis on crunchy, satisfying combat. There are swaths of enemies with different elemental and physical barriers, and half of the fun comes from testing new ability combinations with which to counter them.

But despite the chaos unfolding, Nobody’s fighting is almost completely relegated to the Xbox controller’s face buttons. Some might even call it button-mashy. For all of the min-maxing and ability synergizing that later dungeons require, the combat is, at least on a mechanical level, incredibly simple.

It’s worth noting that several Zelda games have taken a more violent approach. The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons, Capcom’s Game Boy Color entry that was released simultaneously alongside The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages, features far more action than its logic-oriented counterpart. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword tackled more nuanced sword fights, even if they were proof-of-concept for the new Wii MotionPlus, and felt more like a nuisance than a boon. (Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link is basically just combat, but it’s a two-dimensional side-scroller, and thus, not relevant here.)

Link faces a Skulltula in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Image: Nintendo via Polygon

Even so: While Zelda combat often feels ancillary to the overall experience — a mere distraction along the way — Nobody Saves the World gives me a vivid glimpse into what a well tuned, action-oriented Zelda might actually feel like. The frantic dungeon skirmishes don’t detract from the overworld exploration, and the simple mechanics don’t hinder the character-building depth. In other words, the combat doesn’t feel like an afterthought, but rather, a loop that ties the game’s systems into one strong knot.

Nobody Saves the World is one of those deceptively simple games that reveals more nuance with every passing minute. It may not be as challenging as my favorite Zelda games, or as cerebral in its design themes — but it is excellent nonetheless. And it has me aching for a Zelda that can mine as much gold from its combat’s depths.