Fifteen years ago, an Italian artist named Fabio Capone dreamed of making a game that captured the soul of beautiful, whimsical films like Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky. Now, that dream is closer than ever to finding form in Baldo — a new action-adventure that has drawn comparisons Studio Ghibli and The Legend of Zelda.
First announced back in 2019, Baldo quickly grabbing the attention of mainstream fans with its gorgeous artwork, casting players in the role of a young villager and his companion adventuring through a lush world filled with talking animals and trap-filled dungeons. After being conceived in the days of the Game Boy Advance, the original concept was initially shelved, but was later revived as better cel-shading techniques were developed. It has gone through several iterations over the years, with the current version incorporating recognizable elements from Breath of the Wild and other more recent games.
Last week, Capone offered me the opportunity to play some of Baldo for myself in an early hands-on preview. My interest piqued by the “Zelda meets Ghibli pitch,” I spent several hours delving into its dungeons and exploring its world. My main question going in was whether gameplay would match the art — whether it would be a pretty but ultimately pale imitation of The Legend of Zelda. The answer, at least so far, is that Baldo more than holds its own against its more famous cousin.
But of course, the visuals are ultimately the biggest star, taking the form of a rich anime fantasy painted in vibrant watercolors, its cel-shaded characters looking as if they would fit right in with Ni No Kuni — itself an adventure produced in collaboration with Studio Ghibli. It’s framed in a fixed isometric perspective, with foreground elements such as trees and chains being used to lend the visuals depth. It makes for some wonderfully detailed environments, enticing you to delve deeper and deeper into its expansive world.
For his part, Capone has made no secret of his admiration for Studio Ghibli. In a separate interview, he talked about how he was inspired by the famous Japanese animation studio’s unique style.
“I love Studio Ghibli and Ponoc’s style, so this art direction was an easy choice for me. I knew I had to make something like that, it’s something I always wanted to do,” Capone told Red Bull in 2019. “I’ll admit that it was quite hard to reproduce that feel and it took me a while to get the right mood. I had to go through so many test runs due to how every texture is hand drawn. It was an undertaking.”
As for its connections to Zelda, they are plentiful. Aside from the obvious structural similarities, Baldo features an instrument called the Guardian’s Horn, which bears a suspicious resemblance to Zelda’s famous ocarina. And like Ocarina of Time and Links’ Awakening, it also has a talking owl, which spurs the heroes of both games to adventure.
Where it differs is mainly in the way that it brings these two elements together. We’ve had Ghibli games, and we’ve had Zelda games, but we’ve never really had a Ghibli Zelda game. To its credit, Baldo manages to make the combination feel seamless, with a design sensibility that demonstrates a clear understanding of what makes those two individual properties work on their own, as well as how they can fit together.
And while it clearly borrows from Breath of the Wild — just look at the minimap — fans will be happy to know that Baldo’s dungeons are very much in the old-school mold of the series. Even the first dungeon, which takes place on an abandoned pirate ship, is a dense multi-level affair that would fit perfectly in Wind Waker or Skyward Sword. Its puzzles are relatively simple to start, usually requiring that you move a crate or throw a pot at a switch to advance, but they still demand a certain amount of spatial awareness as some of them can extend over multiple rooms. Later, they become much more complicated.
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Once you’re in the wide world, Baldo begins to open up, inviting you to take on numerous side-quests as you get to know its quirky collection of NPCs. In total, Baldo will have about 11 dungeons, with more than 50 additional Owl Towers — smaller-scale dungeons similar to Breath of the Wild’s shrines. In that sense, Baldo may unite the best halves of both Zelda experiences.
It’s more than just a Zelda clone, though. Speaking with IGN before the preview, Capone pointed to Monkey Island as a major influence, as well as more obscure games like Robin of the Wood. Baldo will have branching paths, dead ends, and secret rooms, and some of the dungeons won’t even give you a weapon. “Players will have to face a dungeon without knowing what to expect,” Capone said.
Whatever Baldo’s inspiration, it all adds up to an intriguing and massive adventure spanning close to 50 hours — a labor of love that also has the potential to be so much more. It’ll be out on PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PC on a date that has yet to be revealed.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN.