It’s easy to lose yourself in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s a game that stretches out in every direction, inviting you to just saddle up and explore, dig up secrets, battle monsters, and just immerse yourself in this utterly gorgeous world. It’s a game that, while it definitely feels like a Zelda game, is unlike any that have gone before. It makes sweeping changes with one hand and pays homage with the other. It’s brilliant.
Hyrule once again lies at the mercy of Ganon – Calamity Ganon this time – as Link wakes from his century-long slumber. A great war was fought to a bitter stalemate, with what remains of the kingdom left in a state of limbo as Ganon gradually regains his power. Of course, you’re Link, the eternally fated warrior, and so you embark on a grand quest to defeat Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda.
In essence, it’s a fresh twist on the classic Legend of Zelda storyline, but how the story unfolds from this point onward is entirely up to you. There are quest lines to follow, side quests to accept and little secrets to find, but you don’t have to follow the path that’s set out before you. You can pick your own direction to take, tackle shrines and dungeons in any order you like, and even on the Great Plateau, you can tackle the shrines in any order. If you really want, you can simply head straight to fight Ganon.
The world that you encounter is one that’s more dynamic and open than ever before. Legend of Zelda games have long featured the concept of passing time – most memorably in Majora’s Mask – and inclement weather at various points, but it’s all handled dynamically in Breath of the Wild, with shadows creeping across the landscape, and every gorgeous sunset matched by the foreboding gloom as rain starts to pour and the wind kicks up.
The wind is just one of many ways that the game makes use of its new physics engine, as it blows certain items around the floor or pushes you when you’re paragliding. Physics also has a surprising effect on combat, letting you send enemies flying with strong attacks or by swatting them out of the sky as they leap towards you.
Even without the physics, combat is nice and fluid in a manner that will feel familiar to fans of the series. Lock onto your target, while remaining wary of other enemies, and either strike or wait for an opportunity to dodge and pull a slow motion counter that unleashes a savage flurry of attacks. Firing an arrow is as simple as holding the right trigger to aim and loosing a shot, though you’ll have to be wary of physics and arrow drop over long distances.
Through all of this you have to be mindful of the deterioration of your weapons, as swords, shields and bows will all break over time. There’s no way to repair them, so you need to simply be aware in a fight and be prepared to switch on the fly. Thankfully, enemies drop their weapons and other things when they die, but you can suddenly find yourself with just basic weapons to use, amping up the difficulty a few notches as you deal much less damage. Holding D-pad buttons pauses time completely and lets you take a second to switch weapons in the heat of battle.
You’ll bump into more than a few camps of Bokoblins, Lizalfos and much worse as you journey, but there’s also the shrines and dungeons. Having long been the backbone of the series’ progression, dungeons have been thought of very differently here. There’s fewer of them, taking the form of Divine Beasts, but they’re accompanied by over 100 shrines dotted around the world that you have to find and discover for yourself. These are effectively miniature, bitesized dungeons, focussed around a single kind of puzzle or ability. Sometimes simply finding the shrine in the environment is enough to reward you with a chest and Spirit Orb.
It’s in these dungeons that the Sheikah Slate’s abilities, or Runes, come to the fore. Whether it’s conjuring bombs, freezing objects in time, manipulating magnetism, or other abilities, they’re integral to the game’s puzzling. The Divine Beasts offer the opportunity to test you with some more complex puzzles, certainly, which helps make up for the concluding boss fights being a little on the easy and simplistic side.
Scouring the land for resources and cooking are both major new additions to the game. Scavenging and hunting for food and items can potentially be tedious work if they’re your sole activity, but it fits neatly with the manner in which you traverse and explore the world. You can catalogue practically everything in the game and use an upgraded Sheikah Sensor to detect more than just shrines, if you need something very specific, but there’s a lot of crossover and knowingly placed plants that it doesn’t feel particularly necessary.
Cooking food and brewing elixirs have a delightful simplicity. You can simply pop an apple, mushroom or bit of meat into the pot on its own and have it give you slightly more health when eaten, but combining up to five ingredients lets you create much restorative dishes, often with status effects. It’s all very common sense in a childish sort of way that means you don’t need a recipe book. Chillis are hot, so they’ll keep you warm, “Staminoka Bass” will boost stamina, and so on. It’s difficult to cook a bad meal, but you might accidentally override one temporary with another.
Sadly, cooking becomes a chore as you have to go through the same steps over and over to get a good store of meals ahead of a challenging section of game, and you lack the ability to save recipes for later. There’s similar niggling annoyances elsewhere, such as the steps to simply discard items, the slow pace of climbing walls, and how you’ll often be on foot, as your whistle can only call your horse if they’re close enough – I actually like this, but it’s forced me to continue on foot on numerous occasions. Perhaps the strangest point is with the occasional cinematics and the voice acting, which falls just the wrong side of cheesy animated films.
They’re small complaints when Nintendo gets so much right, adopting, adapting and improving upon so many ideas. There’s the touch of Dark Souls in the difficulty, the ability to meet enemies that kill you in one hit, but you can save wherever you like and enemies only regenerate at certain times, not whenever you die.
I also simply adore how packed full of secrets and tips the world is. Yes, you climb towers to fill in the map, but marks next to no points of interest for you, forcing you to find things for yourself and bucking the trend of open world games. Find a stable or visit one of the handful of villages and you’ll often find someone willing to share a tip on where a Great Fairy might be, note a strange patch on a cliff wall, relay an old myth, or more. Because of this, it’s a game you’ll want to talk about with friends, sharing moments, sharing little pointers and ideas.
Playing on Nintendo Switch, the game has two modes. With the console in your hand, it looks simply gorgeous on the built in 720p display, running with nary a hitch, but dropping the console into the dock bumps the game up to 900p. It still looks great on TV, with the strength of the art style and the sweeping landscapes sucking you in, but what’s more troublesome are the occasional frame rate drops. They only crop up on occasion, but are a somewhat sour note. Another slight disappointment is the lack of touch screen controls that could improve the menus.
What Nintendo manage to do with this system – and conversely with the Wii U – is genuinely incredible, though. Yes, there are times when the landscape looks bland, where you can see enemies and NPCs popping in as you race towards them at pace, but these moments are far outweighed by the beauty of the lush grass covered fields basking in the light of the setting sun.
I’d be remiss as well if I didn’t mention the wonderful soundtrack. Again, it takes a new direction, with variations on familiar themes re-orchestrated with a piano almost always playing. My personal highlight is the light and playful motif that dances across the keys to accompany a horseback ride across the countryside.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild dramatically updates this venerable and beloved series, bringing new ideas into the fold which, while seemingly taking inspiration from others, seamlessly adapts them to fit and never loses its own identity. It’s refreshingly new and familiar at the same time, making for both one of the greatest launch titles and the sweetest swan songs any console could wish for.
Version tested: Nintendo Switch