My first few hours with Breath of the Wild were fraught, at best.
“My weapons break after killing literally one enemy!” I proclaimed. Enemies were brutal, and the limited stamina coupled with the temperature gauge system seemed perplexing. This was too hard. Everything was so unforgiving. I was seeing the ‘Game Over’ screen more often than I was seeing the beautiful, rolling landscape of Hyrule. This wasn’t the Zelda I’d grown up with. I wasn’t sure what it was trying to be, but I didn’t like it. I despaired at the sheer cacophony of adoration for the game; the endless 9s and 10s it’d scored on Metacritic. I just couldn’t see it.
Thankfully, I had the sense to persevere through the game despite my reservations. And, oh, how glad I am that I did.
No, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is not perfect. it’s not without its flaws nor is it without tiny niggles that we wish were different. But once Hyrule truly has you in its all-encompassing, powerful grip, there’s no getting out of it. Breath of the Wild is a marvel of design; it’s a wonder of ingenuity, and it has completely changed the standard when it comes to open world game creation.
A Link to the Past was the first game of my ‘own’ I’d ever played. I was seven years old when my parents gifted me a SNES one Christmas; I was no stranger to video games having played my older brother’s Commodore 64 and Amiga 500 since I was old enough to toddle into his bedroom, but the Super Nintendo was mine. For the first time, I was in charge of when and what I played. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past came bundled with my console, and it didn’t take long for it to become my favourite game. It’s the first game I ever completed by myself, and, along with a select few others, is one of the games I hold most highly in nostalgic regard.
I’ve played several other Zelda iterations since then – Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy Colour, Ocarina of Time on the N64, Phantom Hourglass on DS and Twilight Princess on Wii. I expected something similar from Breath of the Wild: a formulaic yet wondrous journey across multiple lands, very prescriptive in where and what it leads me towards. Yet, what I actually got was a completely blank canvas. At first, the sheer scale of Breath of the Wild is overwhelming; when you’re used to carefully laid-out paths marking your route and not-so subtle nudges in the direction you’re meant to go, having complete freedom over where to go and what to do feels alien. Initially it was unwelcome; I longed for the comfort of guidance but it was nowhere to be found.
Actually though, this very thing is what becomes the beauty of Breath of the Wild. Unlike many games of today, it doesn’t question your intelligence as a player. It trusts that you’ll eventually know what to do and it sits back while you make your own decisions. What has always felt a little like a young person’s franchise – a “My First RPG” if you will – has finally grown up. It’s for the people like me, who played Zelda as a youngster, now adults in their late twenties and thirties, needing more from their video games. It’s for the newcomers to the series – and even to gaming in general – wanting an accessible yet sophisticated, epic adventure with no boundaries nor restraints. It’s for everyone, with any type of play style catered for in its vast, open arms.
Breath of the Wild begins by easing you in gently. You’re given a small section of the map to get your bearings before being let loose to explore the far reaches of Hyrule. Even this starting section feels daunting at first. You’re given several objectives, but how and when to complete them is entirely up to you. That’s a theme continued throughout the game. You always have a main goal to work towards – if you want to. You can run straight to fighting Ganon, the final boss, if that’s what you want to do. Or you can do what the game intended you do, and savour every last second by exploring all the nooks and crannies; talking to every townsperson you come across and celebrating every tiny secret that your own curiosity has helped you uncover. More than it is an adventure or a action-driven story of good versus evil, Breath of the Wild is a game about discovery and exploration. And in one of the most rich, varied and exuberant landscapes I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time in, you haven’t truly experienced the game until you have thoroughly explored the vast array of what it has to offer.
In almost every way, Breath of the Wild is absolutely breathtaking. Its art style screams renaissance watercolour; beautiful but subdued, and yet begs to be admired. It’s easy to lose hours simply taking in the scenery. From grassy knolls high above quaint villages to snow-covered mountains, the locations are constantly evolving around you. As you run through valleys and across rivers, seasons change in front of your eyes; night becomes day; a blizzard becomes a thunderstorm before transforming into a beautiful summer’s day. Despite how desolate and dilapidated the world can feel at times, it’s actually teeming with life. From tiny bugs hopping through the grass to majestic deer grazing atop a hill, everywhere you look, Breath of the Wild literally breathes life.
While some areas can feel barren, you’re never running for long before you stumble across something of interest. Maybe a lone enemy, or perhaps an enemy hideout with treasure waiting for you to steal. There’s towns and villages to explore, each one brimming with activity and people waiting to give you side quests or clues about places to visit. Everywhere you go you’re always only a stone’s throw away from some kind of puzzle, too, with over 100 Shrines dotted all over the map and, allegedly, over 900 Korok seeds to find, each hidden via a small puzzle in the environment. If you wanted to do everything that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild throws at you, you could spend several hundred hours in the game and still not run out of things to do.
With the typical dungeon pattern of older Zelda games a thing of the past, the new Shrines make up the bread and butter of what’s missing. Each Shrine contains a puzzle – or occasionally, the puzzle is in locating the Shrine – and for solving it, you’re rewarded a Spirit Orb. Get four Spirit Orbs, and you can unlock a new heart container or an upgrade to your stamina wheel. The puzzles are very reminiscent of what you may have found in a traditional Zelda dungeon; a series of switches or environmental blocks to get around. Occasionally there are enemies to fight, but usually, these are tests of your ability to think logically. The vast range of puzzle types on offer is quite a feat, and the majority of them are a pleasure to solve – with some being much more fiendish than others. As are most things in Breath of the Wild, the Shrines are completely optional, but you’d be wise to dive into as many as possible.
Closer still to the typical dungeons of past games are the Divine Beasts – four mechanical giants that form part of the main storyline of the game. Although intrinsic to the story, their completion is still optional – but you’d be a fool to skip over them. Each Divine Beast is a protector of one of Hyrule’s towns that has been overtaken by Ganon’s evil power, and your task is to enter its giant mechanism, solve the puzzles inside and defeat the evil form that’s possessed it. You’ll experience the rich cultural diversity of Hyrule as you make your way along a Divine Beast’s questline, each interaction a reward in itself. Once you’re inside the Beast, your logic skills will be taken to their limits as you rely on ingenuity and trial and error to proceed through a number of intertwining and well-designed puzzles.
What initially seemed like negatives as I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild actually ended up being integral and important parts of the game design. Breaking weapons felt like an unnecessary annoyance – why not just give me upgraded weapons as I advance through the game? But in a game that allows you complete freedom over your own progress, that wouldn’t be entirely feasible. Link’s short stamina supply is important too; you can climb absolutely anywhere in the game and your only limit is that little green circle of stamina. Paying attention to it means you need to think carefully about how to access particular areas, and makes the reward of reaching that high mountain peak, or the other side of that lake, all the more sweet. Enemies that one-hit killed me, or initially felt too difficult to beat were soon enough greater victories as I improved Link’s health and armour. If enemies in a particular area seemed too hard, it was soon a good indicator that I should perhaps travel in a different direction for a while.
I’d be merely nitpicking if I drew attention to anything that was less than perfect in the game. Yes, there are occasional drops in framerate when you’re playing in docked mode. Sure, the draw distance isn’t the best and you may not see an enemy outpost until you’re already too close to avoid it. In the grand scheme of things, the sheer brilliance of everything else that makes up Breath of the Wild‘s whole far outweighs the bad, and to focus on those few issues would be doing the game a genuine disservice.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece that’s been 30 years in the making. Every Zelda game so far somehow feeds into its rich tapestry; with familiar names and places popping up to remind us of the game’s rich heritage. The amount of love and care that’s gone into creating Breath of the Wild flows from every tiny detail. It’s perhaps the most carefully thought-out open world we’ve ever encountered; not only is it vast and beautiful, but everything has a purpose. It’s almost a giant sandbox for you to explore and experiment with in any way you want. The number of ways you can interact with your surroundings never fails to astound me, and even after 80+ hours with the game I’m still finding clever little nuances that I didn’t know were there.
Every moment spent with Breath of the Wild is pure joy. It’s the sheer delight of discovering something new: the first time you accidentally hit a cuccoo, or the first time you throw some ingredients into a cooking pot. It’s the incredible reward of reaching the top of that tower and seeing fresh, unexplored land laid out before you. It’s the feeling of exhilaration when you land a killing blow on a colossal Hinox or a brutal Lynel. It’s the sum of all those things; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is yours to experience however you want. It’s a new generation of Zelda, and it’s a whole new breed of open world gaming. And it’s brilliant.