Hyrule Castle is in ruins, and evil has already won.
If the premise for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild doesn’t entice you – telling a tale that’s bleaker than any before it – then the open-world game surrounding it certainly should. Taking cues from others in the genre, while also carving out its own unique niche, Nintendo have managed to create a beautiful open-world that begs to be explored. More than that though, they’ve captured the sense of wonder and danger that the first game in 1986 instilled in a generation.
Within the first hour of Breath of the Wild, you’re given the toolset you’ll be using throughout the entire game. There are no lengthy tutorials or preamble for you to button through; it respects your time and intelligence. Every puzzle can be solved using bombs and magnets, alongside stasis and water freezing powers. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the way that a traditional Zelda title doles out its progression, but more importantly it opens the entire world up from the get-go.
That world is expansive. I explored everything from hilltop plains, to snowy mountains, and massive deserts – and even by the time I hit the credits, there was still uncharted territory on the map. Each area presents its own challenges, with survival not simply being relegated to combat encounters. To make it through blizzards or heatwaves, you’ll have to outfit Link with appropriate gear, or craft some food and potions beforehand that will grant protection from the elements. Each foray into a new area is a learning experience, and if you get complacent for a second, you’ll die. In fact, Breath of the Wild may be the hardest Legend of Zelda game to date, but every hill you crest and mountain you climb feels earned.
The difficulty also extends to combat – you won’t be wailing away through swarms of Bokoblins. Enemies will deplete your entire row of hearts in a couple of swipes, meaning you must take down camps a little more methodically. Stealth is an option here, as is using the environment to your advantage; chopping down trees and rolling them down a hill, or starting forest fires are all valid approaches.
When you do get into scuffles, Link can parry strikes with his shield and dodge. Timing either of these perfectly activates a slow-mo window for you to freely swing at your enemy without fear of reprisal. It’s hard to get into Breath of the Wild’s very different rhythm of combat, but overcoming its obstacles through experimentation only adds to the sense of accomplishment that the game’s survival aspect already invokes.
Weapon durability is a consistent, uncompromising part of the combat however. For the first 10 hours, it’ll be a hassle – you’ll have perfectly good swords break, meaning you’ll have to pick up enemy clubs and spears off the ground. Some weapons you gain through exploration or as quest rewards are a little sturdier, but you’ll want to save them for the tougher named enemies that roam the world, or scripted boss battles.
But you’ll also be doing more than exploring and fighting. Side quests will present themselves as you interact with weird and cheeky townsfolk, each of whom add a layer of humour and humanity to your journey.
Side quests range from cooking up a spicy meal for a curry-connoisseur, to finding the hidden stash of a bandit warlord. In a rather bold move, a lot of them don’t have map markers tracking them, instead offering prose in place of explicit directions. Side quests are realised through towers that dot the land. Climbing to the top and activating one shows the geography of the region, but finding points of interest is entirely on you. Breath of the Wild’s open-world isn’t a laborious checklist of activities – it’s a prompt for you to strike out and make your own experiences.
Your curiosity will routinely be awarded with Shrines. These are bite-sized puzzle dungeons, and a perfect distillation of the game’s many features. Completing them grants you Spirit Orbs, which can then be cashed in to increases your health or stamina. Their length also fits in nicely with the Switch’s portable aspirations.
Interspersed throughout the main campaign are your large scale, classic Zelda dungeons, with their own unique spin. Each one tasks you with boarding a giant mechanised creature in spectacular fashion. Once inside, you’ll be putting all your knowledge to the test. They’re rewarding, and their scale and structure provide nice beats to the slower-paced wanderings that makes up the bulk of the game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has forever changed the franchise – a feat accomplished by looking to the past. Nintendo have captured the sense of wonder, danger, and awe that they created in 1986, and embedded it in a vast, enthralling world.
Keith received a physical copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from Nintendo Australia for review.