I remember when I first played The Legend of Zelda. “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” the bearded man in a cave told my green-tunicked, pointy-eared hero. I took the sword he offered, and with little in the way of direction, set off to save the world.
I hated it.
I was quite young then, and the game offered nothing in the way of direction, even in an era where games routinely gave you very little information. I learned how to play Super Mario Bros because it was designed in a way to be instinctive. You could only move Mario right, and you had to press a button to avoid falling prey to the approaching anthropomorphised mushroom. The Legend of Zelda did nothing like that. Instead, it dropped you in to a top-down 2D world, and let you loose. A very young me had no idea what to do, so I abandoned Link’s cause – and didn’t discover love for the series – for many years.
The Legend of Zelda games have since – especially since Ocarina of Time set a mould – mostly been as guided and even formulaic as they’ve been good. You’re the hero Link, taking up your sword and shield to save Princess Zelda, tackling puzzle-laden temples in a pre-determined order before heading off, Master Sword in hand, to best the big bad. As improbably good as most Legend of Zelda games are, they follow a now well-worn template. Breath of the Wild doesn’t do that. It’s a bold, fresh reinvention that, paradoxically, is also a return to its very roots.
There’s still a familiar foundation. You’ll still play as Link, the hero of Hyrule, and it’s still your job to save the world. Link wakes up, confused, 100 years after a Great Calamity has left Hyrule in peril. He’s lost his memory, forgotten his friends and the gear battle that’s resulted in his century of undisturbed homeostasis. What follows is a journey of both discovery and rediscovery. Link needs to rediscover his past, while you as the player get to discover…well, everything.
To say that Breath of the Wild’s open world is large would be a severe understatement; it’s positively monstrous, and the largest open world Nintendo’s ever created. It’s got a breadth, scale and scope that evoke wide-eyed wonder. Unlike many sandboxes that seem to have been generated, just about every corner of its vast world seems meticulously crafted, and carefully placed. If a mountain has a craggy outcrop, it’s very probably there for a reason. If something looks out of place, it probably is – and a bit of prodding is likely to unveil a chest, a hidden passage or one of the game’s genuinely useful collectibles.
The world is so densely packed with things to do, but so lean on the mindless filler content that plagues so many games of this nature. It avoids the pitfalls of so many games of this sort, that checklist of chores that start to feel humdrum. Interactions and the side quests are meaningful, as are the rewards they offer. It’s one of the many things that makes exploring Hyrule’s undulating, verdant fields, its rocky and vertiginous mountains, and its snow-capped peaks so incredibly rewarding.
As with the first Legend of Zelda, you’re left in the world with close to nothing, and it’s up to you to figure out what to do and where to go. Eschewing many of modern gaming’s staples, Breath of the Wild refuses to hold your hand, and after a tutorial area, you’re given just about every tool you’ll need to survive. Four starter Shrines – smaller puzzle rooms – give you all of the abilities Link needs to succeed: remote spirit bombs, a magnetic power, the ability to freeze objects in time, and the ability to freeze water in to handy, climbable columns.
They’re the same tools you’ll use in increasingly creative ways to figure out the puzzles contained in 120 shrines that litter the map – which range from laughably easy to maddening. You’ll want to find those shrines too. They’re not just a fun thing to look for; each offers up a spirit orb, and you’re able to exchange four of them for either a heart container or extra stamina. It’s just another way the game deviates from the Zelda formula, taking the series’ old ideas and either throwing them away, or revitalising them in interesting ways.
They’re the same core tools you’ll use for the eventual, larger dungeons, which have you contorting giant mechanical beasts to create pathways through them. They’re impossibly clever and immensely rewarding, even if they’re not especially challenging. As a departure from the established Zelda norm, they don’t reward you with new gear that lets you advance. It’s your choice how you wish to save the world from its impending apocalyptic catastrophe. Want to skip seeking the aid of your friends and storm the game’s big bad? Go right ahead – just don’t expect it to be easy.
That’s something that’s true for the rest of the game, too. This is by far the most challenging Zelda game since the very first. The game will no doubt draw comparisons to games like Dark Souls, where death could be lurking around every corner. Though the comparison may be unfair, death is something you’ll come to expect. I can’t count the number of times I died at the hands of a middling enemy – where a single swipe from a sword or stab from a spear whittled my heart store down to zero. As with Souls games though, it’s tough but fair, and every death was always my fault.
I went in to Breath of the Wild with a sense of trepidation. Over the years I’ve grown both wary and weary of open world games, especially ones that incorporate survival and crafting mechanics. It turns out I was just bored of bad open world games, and Breath of the Wild is anything but. The crafting mechanics I was so worried about ended up being an unexpected joy, and coming up with my own stat-booting recipes was a delight, and absolutely necessary for survival.
There’s no book of recipes to teach you which ingredients blend for the best rewards, so you’re forced to experiment. Different ingredients result in different outcomes, and the right mixtures offer more than just replenished health. Some might offer increased resistance to colder climes, which Link will need when he has to face off against Hyrule’s icier elements. Others may provide an increased pool of stamina, letting Link climb higher, swim faster, run farther or paraglide for longer distances before succumbing to fatigue. Learning which recipes work best for a given situation is key.
Other aspects that I thought would grow tiresome, like the degrading, breakable weapons (your melee weapons, shields, and bows all have limited durability) weren’t as tedious as I’d feared. Most RPGs have you finding better weapons as you progress, forgetting about or selling the ones that hours ago were your very favourite. Here, all but the most durable weapons shatter after a few encounters, forcing me to regularly switch. Basic weapons are so numerous that it became second nature to use weaker ones to clobber the stuffing out of regular enemies, using the stronger ones for more fearsome enemies. The combat lets you be creative, too – and sometimes a stealthy, well placed arrow is a better tactic than going in, buckling swashes.
It all just comes together with such finesse, such grace and aptitude that it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call Breath of the Wild one of the best games that’s ever been made. It effortlessly slips from set-piece to sandbox and back again, evoking and instilling wonder like nothing before it. It feels like the perfect culmination of decades of open world game design. It ditches so much of what makes a Legend of Zelda game, but manages to remain one, unmistakably.
Is it perfect? No. Nothing is. There are a few frame rate issues that exhibit, particularly when the Switch is running in docked mode. I’d also have preferred if the horses were magic, able to hear your calling whistles from anywhere on the map, instead of having to be within earshot. For me, that made equestrian companions nearly useless. Some of the voice overs can also be a tad overwrought – but they’re all minor issues that hardly detract from an exemplary gaming experience. I’ve spent 40 or so hours in Hyrule, and though the credits have rolled, I intend to spend 40 more.