The legend of Zelda franchise is now in its 30’s. While it would be understandable if not acceptable for conventions of the series to not only be industry templates, but influence countless game developers who grew up finding master swords, fairy fountains and cows down wells. Skyrim, the witcher, fallout and even the similarly cross console predecessor LOZ Twilight Princess strive for open world glory. Unfortunately, for so long, Zelda games have relied on a more linear progression dictated by an increasingly predictable formula- the sense of having no set goal, wandering and creating ones own path has made way for the mutual dependency on finding new weapons in imposing dungeons scattered throughout Hyrule et al. While there is a degree of freedom in previous games, the refreshing yet nostalgic nods of a link between worlds, and now BOTW more so, glaringly demonstrate that true freedom and discovery has been declining in the franchise since its 1986 inception. From the outset and even the title card, the player is encouraged to examine, experiment and endure. Be prepared to answer your own questions- ‘what do I do?’, where do I go?’ ‘How do I reach that?’. After achieving the initial goal- completing 4 (of the 120) shrines and leaving the introduction area- the great plateau, you are limited almost only by your ambition. Sure, you’ll come across enemies much bigger, stronger and better equipped than you, but your progress is never halted on the condition of defeating them. Failure is as much of a lesson on your journey as success. Blades break, shields wear out and stray arrows can be retrieved. You can take your time learning recipes, gathering food or trinkets, hunt for meat or pick mushrooms. The procurement of weapons is no longer restricted by dungeons or puzzles which is wonderfully organic and satisfying. Steal from dazed foes, loot after big battles or even use nature as your ally. You will feel completely exposed and unequipped one minute, ready, willing and able the next. An ominous mountain and Hyrule castle itself are initially out of reach, and while the player will look forward to getting there, it’s very easy to get distracted and I did on countless occasions. Every single square inch of this vast, vast landscape deserves to be explored, and while western open world games like the Skyrim series and the recently released Horizon Zero Dawn battle it out on the ‘HD’ twins, the gorgeous anime art style, signature charm and magic makes this unequivocally a Zelda and Nintendo game.Every subtle, contemplative drop of music hints at a new discovery. Wind howls, unpredictable weather swirls in and out, NPC encounters and events can occur almost at any point. Lightning crashes with terrifying proximity. At one point i was impressed with the Lightning effects, yet comforted by its distance. Next thing I knew, a bolt had completely destroyed a nearby tree. A few seconds later, another bolt hit the broadsword in my hand, killing me instantly. Approaching a gang of enemies way stronger than me, they even had shields and helmets, I was pretty much helpless, until the lightning started taking THEM out. Patience can be as much of a virtue as ambition in BOTW. Another scenario involved a bridge showdown against a group of enemies with fire arrows. The game didn’t tell me I wasn’t ready, but that I wasn’t prepared. Never has a game respected my strategies, rewarded my perseverance or punished my presumption like this. I encountered a group of enemies before I even had a weapon during my first hour with BOTW, and I have found myself with nothing but a branch, venturing into the unknown. Surviving can sometimes be the name of the game, but never has it been unfair or the fights overwhelming or bottlenecked to the point of frustration. Clever enemies can catch a thrown projectile and attack you with it. Some pick up nearby objects as shields or even scarper and call for help. I’m having as many moments of quiet contemplation as I did in, say, shadow of the colossus, and after 10 hours I reached my first dungeon- describing it any more, including the journey to it, would be spoiling a truly spectacular sequence and the most incredible scenes in any Zelda game.
Visiting each settlement or terrain in BOTW can be a puzzle in of itself, whether it be heavily guarded towers, pools of ‘malice’ infecting the landscape or allies, or even extreme heat/ cold. Sandstorms obscure the map, and the satisfaction of traversing a high mountain is matched only by equipping a suitable shield and ‘snowboarding’ all the way back down. The game will unashamedly inform you if you are unprepared for whatever you’re attempting or wherever you are.
Adopting from more recent western RPGs, the main quest is a staple of the franchise- take down the antagonist Ganon, yet a wealth of side quests and story snippets or ‘recollections’ are optional, and stumbling upon them accidentally is unobtrusive and addictive.
The inclusion of mini puzzle or combat rooms known as Shrines far outweigh the number of the games dungeons, that serve as more of a narrative thread than before, and while not quite as tense or as multi layered as previous games, they are giant mechanical puzzles within themselves and when the full sense of scale is realized, they are awe inspiring.
Along with completing shrines and collecting orbs to boost either health or stamina to climb, the rest of your time will likely be consumed by gathering and cooking food- whether it be mighty rice balls or even disgusting ‘bizarre’ concoctions so vile they are pixelated. Every little helps and learning the best recipes adds to your repertoire going into battle or a random fight out in the open.
I believe that this is not only the true realization of what miyamoto intended Zelda to be (early concepts were even planned out using an engine similar to the original 1986 game) but almost resets the conventions so that future games can be selective from this or previous games features. Early on in my play time, I wrote this-
‘As I look out of the train window on my commute home, after playing breath of the wild for 4 days, I realise why it’s so special. I look out and a see a silhouette of Mount Fuji, and I remember a summer evening 4 years ago, when I climbed and after 8 hours, reached the summit. Zelda is as much about the discovery of secrets, treasure and landscape as it is discovery of ones self. Ingenuity, endurance, patience, perseverance, determination and glorious spence of accomplishment. The legend of Zelda, breath of the wild is a special game, not just because of the destinations, nor the journeys, but your own stories and experiences that you cherish and want to share with others.’
60+ hours later and after seeing the credits roll, I admit to seeing a few cracks appear. Pop in and frame rate drops have now been patched, and while the dungeons might be too similar and sparse for some tastes, the frustrating, yet logical physics and weather hindering your progress occur almost too often. These are minor gripes, though. The legend of Zelda- Breath of the Wild is the perfect launch title for Nintendo’s new console. Over half my time was spent playing in the go, and the ease of use and the transition from portable to home and back again was seamless and never a novelty. This is an exciting new direction for the franchise, Nintendo’s most ambitious game ever, and a bona fide system seller. Now the credits have rolled, I still have over half the shrines to find and I haven’t even started the side quests, let alone the planned extra content for later in the year.
If you have any interest in open world games or the Nintendo switch, you will only see a small handful of games that come anywhere near the quality and scope of this one.
Your move, Rockstar.