There are many questions I was expecting to ask of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. How have Nintendo expanded beyond the increasingly regimented boundaries of their second flagship franchise? How will our hero, Link, fit into a world of Witchers and Far Cries, which have perfected their open worlds over the past decade? There was one question, however, I was not expecting to ask: Is this the greatest video game ever made? For a hundred-hour game, the broader story is simple. You, Link, wake up after a century of stasis, to find that the world of Hyrule has fallen to calamity – namely, Calamity Ganon. Hyrule Castle has been subsumed by his swirling horror, and you are asked (by a mysterious Old Man, of course) to make your way there to find Princess Zelda. Along the way, Link must re-gather his memories. Lots of people seem to remember him, but he’s a little hazy, to put it mildly. Zelda games aren’t defined by their overarching narratives; always, their appeal is in the detail – the small and tall tales of the strange minor characters – and this is one area where Breath of the Wild doesn’t deviate from previous offerings.
Previously these subplots were implemented by herding the player through a series of quests with strict boundaries. But Breath of the Wild’s open world is truly open. The most apt comparison would be none other than The Legend of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto’s groundbreaking top-down action-adventure from 1986. That game was famously inspired by Miyamoto’s walks in the Japanese countryside, and the thrill of discovery he experienced. Three decades later, Nintendo have finally achieved Miyamoto’s vision. Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda game since the original to hurl you into a world and simply let you explore. You really can go anywhere. You can set off, in shorts and jerkin, straight to the Calamity himself, if you wish. The lack of hand-holding is remarkable. But what’s even more impressive is the way the game somehow manages to let us loose without overwhelming the player. There are no experience points to grind. No skill trees. Your progress is defined purely by the equipment you pick up along the way.
And you will be picking up a lot of weapons. Every weapon has limited durability. A tree branch will break within a couple of swipes across a Moblin’s head. A metal sword will last a couple of skirmishes – assuming it isn’t rusty, that is. Spears do a little less damage than swords or clubs, but they have a greater range. Boomerangs are great – but don’t forget you need to manually catch it upon its return. All of these facts I learned myself through playing; through picking up on the thousand tiny details Eiji Aonuma’s team is asking us to discover for ourselves. It’s this sense of discovery, I think, that turns what can often feel like open world busywork – a game of numbers – into a constant pleasure in Breath of the Wild. At every turn we feel we are being rewarded for our curiosity.
One morning, having finished my tasks at a mountain village, I climbed a steeple. From the top I saw a great creature on the horizon. Some kind of worm-like dragon. I leapt from the tower and paraglided to the coast. As I made my way along the cliff edge toward the dragon, I noticed a wisp of smoke below. I descended and found a cove. The temperature warmed and the buzz of insects increased. I was in a tiny jungle paradise, and I had found a hidden fishing village, full of its own little stories. Maybe one day I will resume my search for that dragon again. Breath of the Wild is full of these moments, which feel entirely personal and are just begging to be shared with fellow players. Apparently random, they are of course the product of exquisite game design: the calibrated balance between an overfilled world and a lifeless expanse. The gameplay is the world, and the world is the gameplay.
Naturally, the game is bound to the lore of the series, so fans can expect to fall in love with Kakariko Village and be confounded by the Lost Woods all over again. It’s how you get there that’s really changed. The journey to Zora’s Domain – an hour-long trek up a rain-soaked mountain pass – makes the final destination all the more exhilarating to behold. Not since vanilla World of Warcraft have I witnessed such a commitment to wonder and awe in a game. And like Blizzard’s sprawling masterpiece, the game’s openness invites wrong turns. Breath of the Wild is hard. Stray from the beaten track – which you will – and you are likely to awaken some stone giant or electro-shocking archer capable of a one-hit goodbye.
Thank goodness, then, for Link’s inherent manoeuvrability. He can sprint, jump, paraglide, and even climb. Approach any surface and Link will begin to crawl up it like a spider. If it’s wet he may struggle, but otherwise he is limited only by his stamina gauge. As with hearts, stamina can be upgraded through collectible orbs, which are obtained by visiting Shrines. Dotted across the landscape, Shrines are mini-dungeons containing increasingly challenging logic and physics puzzles. Solve the puzzle and you get the orb. In order to solve the puzzle you usually need to make use of a Rune power. These are rechargeable skills that affect the environment, ranging from throwable bombs to stopping time. Notably, the player is given all of these core skills within the first couple of hours of the game. Gone is the gameplay conceit of artificially blocking progress until we are handed a bomb bag or a bigger wallet.
Along with Shrines there are Towers, which once unlocked will reveal large sections of the map. Such structures are a staple of modern open world games, although of course Nintendo bring their own twist. Each Tower is a highly defended monolith; a quest in itself to reach. And that’s before you need to actually climb the thing, which may be done under the laser-guided duress of the dreaded Guardians. Once Towers and Shrines are unlocked, they can be used as fast-travel points. But much of the time I’ve found myself eschewing fast-travel, preferring instead to saddle my horse. That’s right, you can claim your own Epona: steeds can be grabbed in the wild, worn in, and registered at stables.
I haven’t even mentioned dungeons yet. You may even doubt their existence for the first 10 hours. But then you hear rumours of a Giant Beast abroad. The Hyrulians put all of their hope in you, proclaiming you a champion before you’ve even pulled your bowstring. Before you know it you’re fighting a behemoth the size of a mountain. It doesn’t end with their defeat – oh no, now it’s time to climb inside the colossal clockwork beast and manipulate its very structure from within, bending it to your will. Every time you think the game design has peaked, there’s a new surprise.
Aesthetically, not to mention topographically, the influence of Monolith Soft (the geniuses behind Xenoblade Chronicles) is clear. The view distance is staggering – and also necessary in such a vertically-inclined game. The painterly style of the graphics is a natural progression from the ‘toon appearance of Wind Waker and the watercolour wash of Skyward Sword. The sound design is richly atmospheric, shifting with the climate, geography, and time of day. The musical score arrives in subtle strokes, particularly in the quieter opening hours, limited to the occasional drifting piano plink. Sometimes we hear a motif from a previous Zelda game, like a melody half-remembered. The theme of memory is embedded in every visual and aural aspect. It’s a world in ruin, and your presence is returning it to life.
Finding negatives isn’t easy when they’re so quickly swamped by positives, but they do exist. The inventory system is inflexible and simplistic, like it’s a relic of Wii U-exclusivity, where touch input would have circumvented its clunkiness. This renders cooking quite a chore at times, however adorable the music and animation might be. Voice work is occasionally employed in cut scenes, but the acting quality is poor, to the point where it feels like a tickbox rather than an enriching addition.
There have also been complaints about the game’s technical performance, citing framerate drops in more luscious areas. I have to report that these drops are few and far between and haven’t drastically affected my playthrough. And in Switch’s handheld mode they are basically non-existent.
If you have a Wii U, buy Breath of the Wild; if you don’t, it is worth spending £300+ to play it on Switch. It’s that good. It is the zenith of Nintendo’s videogame mission. When they’re not innovating, they’re refining, here stripping the open world adventure to its barest essentials – exploration, combat, emergence, atmosphere, and the simple joy of discovery – and focusing on those core elements, perfecting them. After dozens of hours, it’s a grand gameplay loop that still intrigues and surprises; and ever since Link’s awakening on the Great Plateau I have found I can think of nothing else. I’m the kid who played The Legend of Zelda in 1986 and was transported. 31 years on and the world has changed and gaming has changed but Nintendo have gone and done it again. They’ve created a classic that’s not just a step forward in the Zelda series; not just a step forward for open world games; but a step forward for gaming as an artform.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is out now on Nintendo Wii U and Nintendo Switch.