The Legend of Zelda has, at multiple points in the history of games, redefined both itself and a lineage of games that would follow in its footsteps. All of this comes with the extreme caveat of the direction the franchise would eventually move in, one of holding the player’s hand in an attempt to show them something that is far better to discover for yourself.
The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild isn’t only a masterpiece because of what it accomplishes, but because of the courage it signifies from a company that myself and just about everyone else out there was starting to doubt had it in them. The courage to take the handholds off, to trust the player, and show them something worth seeing. Breath of the Wild is important, not because on its own merits it is one of, if not the best, open world video games today, but because it is both that and a new stepping off point for a series that has been important to gaming for over 30 years.
It starts with a tutorial, a word that should make any learned Zelda player hesitant. The tutorials of the past 10 years in Zelda were the crutch that brought the experience down, but Breath of the Wild outdoes itself. The Great Plateau, the opening section of the game, and one of the many vast areas of Hyrule you get to explore, acts as a sort of “safe-space” that you can experiment and learn in. It isn’t a tutorial in the traditional sense of the word, but can be if you need it to be. You’re introduced to how things have changed, like how you can climb almost any surface, equip armor to heighten defense, and just straight up jump; then, are given your first objective: climb a tower. That’s about the beginning and end of it, but for those who want to see the beaten path before jumping off of it, it’s there.
The Great Plateau introduces you to the main powers of the game, the runes that serve as your tools to complete Shrines, which themselves are several-dozen scattered mini dungeons, replacing what was once your puzzle-driven overworld dungeons of Zelda’s past with these physics-based “challenges” that absolutely never get old. The plateau shows you, on a very surface level, the systems in place in the game, like weather, climbing, physics, and weapon durability. None of these things have ever really held any standard in Zelda games of the past, but make up the building-block rules that all push Breath of the Wild to be special.
After completing those base tasks, you’re given a paraglider to leave the high-up plateau and are told to Destroy Ganon (the first objective given to you as you leave the tutorial), and… that’s it.
From there, Link is off on his adventure, and you get to spend as much or as little time scouring the massive and sprawling world of Hyrule as you like, before ultimately deciding it’s time for you to approach Hyrule Castle and put an end to the scourge that is Calamity Ganon.
What Breath of the Wild does well is the exact opposite of what most games in the Zeldafranchise or the open world games that Nintendo must have painstakingly examined in making this did so well in the past. It doesn’t ever really force you in any direction, something the series hasn’t done since Zelda 2. It never tries to overpopulate your map with objectives or collectibles to find, the staple of the western-style open world. It’s not easy, something that definitely throws you off course when as soon as you leave the plateau, you’ll probably die a handful of times. Oh, and if I forgot to mention: it is very much an open world game.
When you hear open world, there is a preconceived notion that you’re looking at something that mimics the staple open worlds that have defined video games in the past: Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto, or a Ubisoft world. Breath of the Wild somehow finds a fourth interpretation in an already crowded genre, but beyond that makes exploration and adventure feel fresh in a world that requires you to traverse it.
There are towers to climb, placed in fifteen sections of your massive map of Hyrule. You can climb these towers to reveal those parts of the map, but unlike games of the past, it only reveals the geography, the names and places of the part of the world around it, which leaves you to explore instead of being able to create a checklist of to-dos. This is such a small and novel change, but goes so far in encouraging the player to stand on top of a tall place and just look to figure out where you want to go. The obligation, the part where you feel like you need to go do something, you need to check something off some big list, is just completely removed. Instead of overwhelming the player, taking all the constraints off, it actually feels like a friendly reminder that hey: you can do whatever you want here.
All of this is accompanied by an easy to understand visual language that Zelda uses to convey to the player what is possible, which ends up being almost anything you can think of. As easy as it is to see a cool spectacle in front of you and feel confident enough to go over there and inspect it, the same applies for enemies, puzzles, and dungeons. Everything uses the ruleset I mentioned above to ground things down to rules that feel like they belong and make sense. If the weather is bad, if it’s raining, then walls are too slippery to climb, and you’ll need to find a new way to problem-solve to get to where you want to go. If an enemy is too hard, maybe you can use the magnet tool you’re given in the opening section of the game to lift a metal crate high up above said enemy, and let physics take it from there. If you’re in the desert, it will shift from extreme cold at night to extreme heat during the day, and you’ll need to find a way to keep yourself resistant to these major shifts or you’ll get punished for it.
All the reactions to the world make sense, and it goes a long way to making the world feel real, feel polished, and feel like a place worth exploring. Just as much as problems like bad weather need to be solved creatively, the same applies to quests, to weapons, to just about everything in the game. Weapons break, so you need to be picking up and using everything at your disposal constantly. Rupees don’t really drop on the field, so you need to find new ways to make money, either by mining for ore and selling it, or completing sidequests, which for the first time are organized in an actual quest log.
And all of this doesn’t even touch on how genuinely exciting it is to simply go exploring. I spent my first twenty hours in Breath of the Wild just walking around a massive section of the world. The reward for doing this isn’t just more shrines to finish, which by doing so you’ll get closer to upgrading your health and stamina, but also just incredible pockets of environmental storytelling, interesting characters, and tucked away villages that are far and away the best towns ever seen in a Zelda game. Almost every hour I spent exploring Hyrule is a reward in itself, because the world is so beautiful and full of little touches that make it feel like a place. For example: the travelers who journey between villages, which is their whole life. They live as traders, and you see them on their route, sometimes with things to sell, sometimes with stories to tell. Those stories can lead you to small corners of the world you may not have seen before, leading to a new and rewarding little prize, like a shrine, a sidequest, or a cool piece of armor.
All these little pushes and nudges in the world help lead you to discover something, and all blend so well into the background that it’s near impossible not to fall in love with this Hyrule. It may seem like an odd step forward, but making an open world interesting and actually fun to explore is Breath of the Wild’s greatest achievement. Rumors, visual puzzles, hidden stories, and bits and pieces of the main actual story all fill the massive fields of Hyrule, all creating a sense of fiction, of history. Hyrule feels like a place that both has had stories to tell, and has more to tell to this day.
Part of that is accentuated by the main narrative of the game. The less that is said the better, but what I found most impressive were the lengths made to make not only Zelda feel more like a character that existed in the world, but to do the same with Link. Walking through the villages and fields of the many provinces in Hyrule, Link almost feels like a ghost, remembering and revisiting old friends in a way that is intimate and fresh for both him as a character, and you as a player. The inclusion of four major races, all holding their own corners of Hyrule, all with their own traditions and culture, round out each province of Hyrule with a realized beauty that is grounded by traditions and concepts made possible by the 30-year lineage of the franchise.
These races extend out to the four dungeons of the game, which, much like everything else placed in the world of Hyrule, are optional to you in your adventure. Each dungeon is alive in a way that is best not to spoil, and circulate around a mechanic of movement that makes them all truly masterful. While some are easier to understand than others, the intricacies of each design is truly awe-inspiring, and how they all fit into the world, both physically and narratively, are incredible. Some of the highest highs in Breath of the Wild emulate masterful stories like Shadow of the Colossus, its sense of scale, and every time I found it is truly breathtaking.
But Breath of the Wild is difficult to narrow down to any of it’s own parts. The way they all fit and speak to each other is where it truly shines. It’s not perfect, not without faults, like a rough frame rate* anytime you’re in any forested or heavily-grassy area, or the stutters to performance when fighting larger enemies. Yet somehow on the other end of things Breath of the Wild still feels polished. The performance issues, which make up maybe less than 1% of my time spent with the game aren’t forgettable, but can’t come close to tarnishing what is still unlike any other video game I have ever played.
Boiling things down to comparisons, to other worlds and the way they approach design, still doesn’t capture the coalescence of ideas and pure charm of Hyrule, as see through the eyes of The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. It is proudly a game that is beyond comparison, an aspect that makes this Zelda title one for the history books.
The Legend of Zelda means many things to many people, generations, developers and players alike. Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece in a way that many of the other Zelda games that might have been considering masterpieces aren’t. It’s somehow so vehemently Zelda, with its world, its characters, its goofy charm and is awe-inspiring sense of mythology, while being something wholly new and different in a franchise that has spanned 30 years. It is a constant joy and surprise to play, with moments in games that are both personal to me, and also intricately designed to encourage exploration, and it’s a game that may be discussed and referenced back to for generations to come. It’s been a long time since an adventure about a hero destroying evil was this exciting, but The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild has brought that story home to Hyrule once again.
The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild was reviewed with a copy purchased by the reviewer on a retail Nintendo Switch.
*Some framerate concerns were addressed in a later 1.1.1 patch issued on March 31st, 2017.