From its mysterious opening to its action-packed conclusion, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a revolution for Nintendo’s revered series. It’s both a return to form and a leap into uncharted territory, and it exceeds expectations on both fronts. The game takes designs and mechanics perfected in other games and reworks them for its own purposes to create something wholly new, but also something that still feels quintessentially like a Zelda game. It’s a truly magical work of art that embodies Nintendo’s unique talents, and a game that everyone should play regardless of their affinity for the series’ past.
More than a typical Hyrule fantasy, Breath of the Wild is a daunting survival game that forces you to think in entirely new ways. You have to be cautious, creative, and resourceful in your efforts to battle the wilderness. Outside of armor, you have to source everything from the field. You earn new weapons by stealing from enemies and prepare restorative meals and elixirs by combining resources found in the environment. Death comes quickly, and whether it’s at the hand of a formidable enemy or because you charged unprepared down a treacherous path, you’re forced to reconsider almost everything you’ve learned from past Zelda games. There’s so much to see, to accomplish, and to learn that you never feel like you have control over the world. This is a great thing. Where so many games front-load excitement and wonder, Breath of the Wild sustains the thrill of unexpected discoveries throughout.
Amazement sets in immediately after emerging from a tomb-like cave where the familiar hero Link has spent the last 100 years in hibernation. When he trots to the edge of a cliff and the new, massive Hyrule comes into view, you’re faced with the striking scale of the world, which is by far the largest the series has ever seen. You will cross vast plains and towering mountains to achieve your goals, all the while contending with harsh weather and Link’s physical limitations. Despite a few instances of frame rate dips, Hyrule is consistently impressive to behold, triggering bliss and excitement in equal measure.
You begin your series-standard quest to defeat Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda with little more than a tree branch to defend yourself from roaming goblins. However, it doesn’t take long to build up a diverse arsenal. Nearly every enemy carries a weapon or a shield, and if you can beat them, their gear is yours for the taking. This is also a godsend given that every weapon has finite durability. You will blow through dozens if not hundreds of weapons during your adventure, which no doubt feels strange at first, especially since gear often defined your progress in previous Zelda games. It can feel crushing when a particularly cool weapon is destroyed mid-battle, but you learn to move on. There’s no shortage of new gear to discover, and though you aren’t able to utilize a consistent stable of familiar weapons, you learn to expect that for every one you’ve lost, there’s something better coming down the road.
In practice, the weapon you wield is important but not necessarily as important as how you control it. Enemies are intelligent and utilize wildly different tactics that force you to diligently study every aspect of their behavior. Basic enemies can be toppled through careful use of a shield, but there are harder enemies that will destroy this defense in a single hit. In these cases, it’s imperative that you parry or dodge an attack at just the right time, which will trigger a moment of slow-motion that allows you to unleash a flurry of attacks against your vulnerable foe. These moves are your last line of defense when the going gets tough, and they require precise timing to execute. Given the myriad enemies and weapons you’re up against, mastery feels almost unattainable even with substantial practice. However, that also means you are constantly learning in the face of unforeseen challenges.
There are innumerable unexpected events that can happen. The game never teaches you, for example, that holstering your shield after blocking enemy arrows will add them to your inventory. You’re never told that grazing an enemy’s wooden weapon with a fire arrow by accident will set it ablaze, thus making the fight harder for you in the long run. These occurrences fuel exciting stories between players, which feels like a rarity in a world where games go so far out of the way to ensure that you know how everything works. Even 50 hours in–and after you’re capable of bringing down Ganon–there are still intimidating enemies to be found and intricate rules to study. Your power and wisdom grow as you progress, but you never feel totally invincible, which allows even late-game exploration to be feel tense and rewarding.
Beyond weaponry, Link gains access to magical skills known as runes. These include the ability to move metallic objects with a magical tether, which can be useful for, among other tricks, dropping large iron boxes on unsuspecting enemies. Link can also freeze enemies and objects in place for a limited amount of time. When an object is frozen, it absorbs energy rather than reacting immediately to whatever force you lay into it. And when time unfreezes, all that collected force is exerted in an instant. This allows you to move objects that are otherwise too heavy for Link to control, and gives you a chance to strike a defenseless enemy multiple times without fear of reprisal. Runes prove to be a wonderful source of creativity and problem solving, both in combat and when managing puzzles.
The game’s four main dungeons are primarily puzzle focused, with only a few enemies sprinkled throughout. They are a bit unusual compared to dungeons in past Zelda games in that you aren’t focused on finding keys to open doors. Instead, the goal is to manipulate the dungeon itself, to literally change its form in order to access important areas. It’s a wonderful break from tradition, while you still get a challenging boss battle to look forward to at the end. Gone are the oddly charming bosses from Zelda’s past; they’ve been replaced with dark and twisted fiends that are powerful combatants. Like your fights against normal enemies, you have to move and act deliberately, or suffer for your cockiness.
Breath of the Wild’s big dungeons are important, but they are almost less of a draw than the smaller shrines that dot the world. There are reportedly 100 of these mini-dungeons strewn across the map, and the vast majority of them feature puzzles that test your understanding and mastery of Link’s rune abilities. Some can be completed in a few minutes, but there are plenty more containing extensive, multi-step processes. Compared to roughing it in nature, these brain teasers are an excellent respite, and make great use of Breath of the Wild’s impressive physics system. Figuring out what to do is only half the battle. The rest comes down to precise execution. Therefore, solving even simple puzzles can feel immensely rewarding.
When you look across Hyrule in search of your next destination, the faint orange glow of a new shrine is difficult to ignore. They are one of many distractions that cause you to veer off track. Seeking them out won’t help you complete the game any faster–not that you should rush through Breath of the Wild in the first place–but they are rewarding opportunities that expose you to the far corners of Hyrule, where you often catch whiffs of something new and mysterious laying in wait.
Somewhat surprisingly, exploration often proves far more challenging than combat or puzzle solving. Link travels primarily on foot, and he can sprint as long as his stamina meter allows before having to catch his breath. Link can also climb vertical surfaces like cliffs and walls now, but again, he’s at the mercy of his physical strength. Exploration may be a struggle at times due to Link’s limitations and harsh weather that hinders his capabilities, but to avoid long treks is to rob yourself of some of the best moments of discovery in Breath of the Wild, and the sense of satisfaction you feel for overcoming its most foreboding environments. Equipping metal weapons and armor will turn Link into a veritable lightning rod, and if you’re climbing a mountain when it starts to rain, you won’t be able to climb more than a few feet before losing your grip and sliding back down. Bring a wooden shield to the fiery slopes of Mount Eldin, and watch it set ablaze on your back while Link’s health slowly slips away.
Hyrule is a beautiful world to behold from the top of a mountain, but perching Link on high has other benefits. In addition to runes, Link obtains a paraglider early on in the game, which he then carries with him at all times. It’s useful when you fall off a tall building or cliff, but it’s also a source of levity after taxing fights and daunting hikes. Your reward for scaling a mountain or tower is the opportunity to soar through the sky and cross large tracts of land with your glider. And if you’re skillful, you can use your shield as a veritable snowboard to glide down grassy hills and frozen slopes. Granted, Link can surf down hills at any time as long as his shield can handle the wear and tear, but it’s especially gratifying to drop onto a slope after flying over a massive canyon or a dense forest and coast into a town in style.
The few towns that exist in the new Hyrule mimic the understated and rural qualities seen in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. Equally charming are the hikers you meet on trails. These lonely yet upbeat adventurers offer humorous quips, or perhaps a side quest with a quirky premise. You spend so much time fighting to survive, all while under the cloud of your impending fight with the dark and powerful Ganon. By contrast, your interactions with NPCs are opportunities to slow down and help out a friendly stranger in need. Though you have an overarching goal in mind, Breath of the Wild’s delightful distractions often prove to be its most memorable moments.
If you’ve ever hiked deep into the wilderness and found yourself awash in wonderment and perhaps guilt for living a life steeped in modern indulgences, Breath of the Wild’s reverence for the natural world will strike a chord. It’s the way the rising sun graces blades of grass as you climb a steep hill. It’s the flutter of a few well-timed piano notes that dance in your ear and harmonize with your internal childlike amazement. And it’s the unwavering delight and excitement that each new discovery brings. It can come when you reveal a new portion of the world map and find a curious landmark, but there’s an almost endless stream of smaller discoveries to make as you move about Hyrule.
No matter how gorgeous its environments are, how clever its enemies are, and how tricky its puzzles get, the fact that Breath of the Wild continues to surprise you with newfound rules and possibilities after dozens of hours is by far its most valuable quality. It’s a game that allows you to feel gradually more and more empowered yet simultaneously manages to retain a sense of challenge and mystery–which, together, creates a steady, consistent feeling of gratification throughout the entire experience. Breath of the Wild is a defining moment for The Legend of Zelda series, and the most impressive game Nintendo has ever created.
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