A large part of the success is the open world. So many games promise a “truly open world” and deliver on half of it, gating areas away from you, funneling you towards the objective. But Link’s adventure is up there with The Witcher 3 in offering an open world that is just so full of things to do, as well as emergent moments that will distract you for hours on end. I can’t quite say “nowhere is off limits”, because there are certain locations that require an ability to access, but the world map is open, inviting, and breathtaking.
Hyrule has never looked or sounded this pretty. Instead of bombarding you with sweeping orchestral themes (though, yes, of course those songs are included), you’re allowed to hear the ambiance. Link’s footsteps are audible (and things like rain storms will mask your footsteps), and grass will whoosh in the breeze. Occasionally a deep, foreboding piano will chime in, letting you know there may be danger ahead. But the world is allowed to breathe, just as you the player can too.
Visually it’s as though a watercolour is being painted before your eyes. There is so much to take in, from the icy cold mountain tops, to the deep rivers that can sweep you away. There are villages to explore that are full of NPCs who will offer up wisdom and quests, and there are optional boss encounters that will test you to breaking point. All of these things take place in a verdant, intoxicating world. Shooting a fire arrow into a red barrel to immediately clear out a bandit camp sends blistering fire colours everywhere, it’s like a nuclear explosion of beauty, and there’s literally no point where the visuals allow you to pick your jaw from the floor. If you can see it, you can go to it. Sometimes the size and scope causes issue, and there will be minor texture fade in. It seems like a case where some optimisation will fix things, because there are frame drops as well. They’re not going to ruin your experience, but they are frequent enough to be noticeable.
This is a mature Zelda game, but it’s one that completely respects the player. Instead of an extended tutorial, Nintendo accepts that you have played a video game before. It starts as it means to go on: quickly, without lengthy setup, and in fact it’s a few hours before the story really makes itself clear. I won’t delve too far, suffice to say that if you’ve played a game in the series before, you know what to expect. There are dungeons and boss battles, and you will collect heart containers to increase your health. This time you also have a stamina bar (or circle, as it actually is) which controls how far you can run or climb. Smartly, this stamina doesn’t affect your standard battling, so don’t worry about that.
It’s also a harder game, and probably the hardest Zelda to date. Enemies are not messing around, and while you can go anywhere, that means you can run into things that you perhaps aren’t ready for. A generous auto-save means that you’ll never lose too much progress, but there were many times I would find something that was too strong for me, and almost instantly die. Similarly, the weather can kill you: a lightning storm is one of the most visually arresting moments in the game, but that lightning can strike you dead.
Despite being an enormous game, Breath of the Wild keeps combat fresh by allowing you to use pretty much anything from a Soup Ladle to a Sword to fight with, and each changes up how you fight. Traditional sword and board is an option, but you could also go double handed with a larger, more powerful weapon. Your bow and arrow is useful for stealth, but all of your weapons will expire with repeated use – even the bows. One thing that may annoy some people (but I didn’t find to be an issue) is the lack of inventory space for weapons. Given that they lose durability pretty quickly, it’s a good thing you can upgrade your storage space, but it can sometimes become a game of managing your space.
Elements play a larger part, because enemies have specific weaknesses and strengths. It’s nothing new to the world of gaming, but it plays into the cooking aspect. Around the world you can forage for foodstuffs, bugs, ore, and items that enemies will drop when slain. All of these can be combined in some way to buff you. Maybe you want to be more stealthy, or stronger (temporarily boost your heart counter by one), quicker (haste), or perhaps you just need to up your heat resistance or freeze resistance – regardless, you can make potions and food that will both heal you and buff you.
There’s plenty of surprises hidden off the beaten path, but the main dungeons and the shrines are the biggest overall draw. Shrines are puzzle based mini-dungeons which offer a reward at the end. They vary from combat tests to puzzles, and every four shrines completed allows you to upgrade either your heart count, or your stamina bar. The main dungeons, as you’d expect, are larger affairs and are story based. One early (relatively early, anyway) dungeon had me pretty stumped, so they’re not easy. Runes that you get early on are usually required to solve the puzzles, but they can be a bit fiddly sometimes.
As well as being mature, this is also a very modern take on Zelda. You can still get a sword out and cut the grass, but instead of random Rupees, you’re more likely to find a cricket or grasshopper to catch for your tea. Everything feels very smooth and responsive, even down to the slow motion you can use if you pull your bow out while jumping. A menu system that lets you choose quests and side quests (and more) make it feel right up to date, and you can even look through your Sheikah Stone (it’s basically a tablet, but obviously not, because that’d be weird) to tag things in the distance you want to come back to later.
But really, I’m scratching the surface here. You can train your horse so that it is more responsive in the wild. You can search out items that will help you buy better weapons. Christ, there are even simple bandit camps that, if cleared out, will reveal a treasure chest. There are towers that are a challenge to climb; they require stamina management, and will reveal the map and give you a fast travel point when assailed. Some of this might seem like standard open world fare, and it is, sort of, but it’s the cohesion to this Hyrule that makes it all stick together.
This a world you will want to get lost in, and take your time doing so. I want to tell you more, I want to talk for hours about this game, but I also want you to experience as much of it as fresh as you can. It’s hard to pinpoint why Breath of the Wild hit me so hard, let alone brought a lump to me the first time the visual style was revealed to me, but this game is pure magic – Nintendo magic. The difference, though, is this time it’s a modern game, and yet somehow also one of the best I’ve played in a very long time.
I do not say this lightly: Breath of the Wild is an absolute masterpiece, and may well be the best The Legend of Zelda game ever made. Having grown up playing those first games as a child on a system I remember fondly, it feels extra special to be playing a new Zelda on a new console; that I can’t deny, and there are flaws (it’s not perfect), but otherwise, this is everything I wanted it to be and more. I won’t forget Breath of the Wild for a long time, because it’s a memorable, beautiful, stunner of a game.
Entertaining for every second
Stunning to look at
A completely modernised take on Zelda
Some texture fade in