The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the best videogame ever made. It is lovingly put together across the board, infinitely, fractally ingenious and, despite the amount of hard graft and technical mastery, full to bursting with personality and character and wonderful, brilliant stupidity. Breath of the Wild is the game which finally delivers on the promise, not just of Zelda, or even of adventure and open world games, but of the medium as a whole.
It is going to be very difficult for me to write anything new or interesting or noteworthy about Breath of the Wild. This a masterpiece and a revelation which has already been lauded, explored, investigated and extrapolated by a thousand better writers than me. I’ve avoided reviews and discussion for the most part, wanting to finish it and gather my own thoughts first, but it has been impossible to avoid soaking up the feelings surrounding this game just via social osmosis.
Going forwards from here, this game will be such a benchmark that when someone asks me my favourite game, and I answer Zelda, it won’t tell them anything about me. This is the best game, the pinnacle of the art, and of course it’s my favourite.
This a different Nintendo than we saw in the Wii and Wii U era. There is no Fi to hold the player’s hand, no prompts to go outside and no magical way to skip a hard mission. Instead, we are plonked into one of the biggest world ever put to code and, after a brief tutorial, given absolute free rein.
One of the first things I did in this game was switch off my mini map and my shrine locator. This, more so than any game I’ve ever played, is not a game about rushing towards the next objective. By freeing myself from that mindset, I realised that every little bit of the world was as much the destination as the journey.
With a vague idea that I want to head to this village or that tower, I would move across the map constantly being distracted by combat encounters, ruins and woods to explore, mountains to figure out a way up and rivers to traverse. Every few steps, I found a new goal I wanted to accomplish; I saw an animal I wanted to ride or I spoke to a character who presented a mystery for me to solve.
Despite the marketing spiel describing how big this game world is, it never feels like an empty expanse created by a computer. Every inch of the map feels like it was made by expert game-makers at the peak of their craft. This is genius level design writ large. This is the game that discovered the one trick to making an open world game. It wasn’t an automatic enemy character generator or a world-building algorithm: it was time and effort. There’s a reason this game took Nintendo so long to make.
To try to explain the accomplishment that is Nintendo’s open world, without spoiling too much, I’ll turn my attention to a small moment early on. One of the starting shrines, more on those later, is at the icy tip of a mountain. Climbing towards it, the player is informed that Link is too cold and will take damage.
Turning back to another challenge, I later found some spicy peppers which could boost cold resistance when cooked into a meal. When it was time to head up to the shrine, I cooked myself some dishes and ran up while the cold wasn’t bothering me. So far, so Zelda.
When I later spoke to friends about this moment, they all had a different story. One tried to power up the mountain anyway, and a kindly old man took pity and gave Link a warm coat. Another explored the old man’s hut and found the coat for himself, while others lit a torch on fire and held that for the duration of the climb.
Each of these solutions seemed like “the correct one” in the moment, and each was adequately explained when searched for but never spoon fed to the player. This trust in the player and more open form of puzzle solving is spread through the whole game, and makes even the most elementary overworld traversal feel like a fantastic dungeon.
The individual dungeons of old are replaced by two new takes: the epic, story heavy battles with and explorations within the “divine beasts”, and the ubiquitous shrines which contain small, self-contained puzzling. That Zelda dungeon feeling is there, but whereas before every dungeon would be defined by one item or mechanic, here you have all the tools from the first area and all that’s being tested is your lateral thinking in applying them.
Structurally, the game is much more classic Zelda than it at first appears. Visiting villages, unlocking gear, finding the Master Sword and rescuing the Princess – it’s all in there but the player isn’t funnelled into it by a linear plot.
Speaking of plot, it’s in there. Characters are abundant and worth talking to, Hyrule’s tragic recent past is etched into the world around you and the relationship between Link and Zelda can be uncovered by visiting the locations of memories the two share. Some scenes are voice acted, and while sometimes the actor’s stumble over exposition, the voices do add to the emotion of key scenes and I was glad to have them.
This is the archetypal Zelda plot, with a reborn Ganon threatening the kingdom, told through the heart-wrenching lens of heroes who failed. When Link awakes at the start of the game, he and Zelda have already lost to Ganon once and the kingdom has suffered 100 years of ruin. The game is played in the eye of the storm, allowing the world to perfectly walk the tightrope between Twilight Princess’ sense of dread and foreboding and the lighter, more lovable world of Skyward Sword. The result is a perfect mix of a world worth saving that feels like it needs it.
Obviously, a big part of this world’s charm is the look. A lot of games are touted as “beautiful” at the moment, just for featuring some countryside and a lighting engine that can do sunsets. Zelda does all of this, of course, but in a painterly art style littered with wonderful design and beautiful details at the macro and micro levels. While contemporary games grow old, I feel Breath of the Wild will maintain a timeless beauty.
The music, though appropriately sparse, is wonderful when it rears its head. From the low-key piano introduction through to the sweeping orchestral climax, via the jaunty incidental battles and tense chases along the way, Zelda’s audio future is safe in Manaka Kataoka’s hands.
All of this has been grand, sweeping discussion, but the real beauty of the game is in the little details. The animations of animals and enemies as they react to Link’s actions. The flowers and murals and posters that decorate areas as you get closer. The characters, with their humorous conversations and touching backstories. The ingenious way that whatever mad plan you come up with, the designers have probably gotten there already.
Combat scenarios are much more open than in previous Zeldas. Multiple weapon types are littered throughout the world, and the much-discussed durability system forces a player to mix and match and experiment rather than picking a favourite and staying with it. Swords aren’t upgrades but ammo, and ingenuity is more effective than sticking to one tried-and-true tactic.
With the bow on its own button throughout the game, mixing long-range attacks into encounters feels natural. With the open approach to enemy encampments, there’s even an opportunity to stealthily pick off guards from a distance and scope out a best course of attack. With a single sword lasting all through the game, there wouldn’t be the incentive to discover mad little mechanics or clear out an inconsequential gang of monsters to raid their gear.
This is a huge game. After 70 hours and a successful assault on the final boss, I know there’s a wealth of material I’ve not even touched upon. It has taken a conscious decision and effort to put the game down and live my life for a couple of weeks. If I switch the game on again to try to do a few more shrines, I know I’ll be hooked all over again and lose myself in Hyrule.
I lost weeks of my life to this game just to get as far as I did, and I couldn’t be happier. Here’s to jumping right back in!
By Luke Summerhayes