The Leg­end Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher Nin­tendo (EPD) For­mat Switch, Wii U (both tested) Re­lease March 3

Switch, Wii U

The shrines, it turns out, are just the be­gin­ning. Ever since our first play of this sprawl­ing ad­ven­ture, we’ve been work­ing to the as­sump­tion that these short, taut puz­zle dun­geons would be Breath Of The Wild’s fo­cal point. And that’s true, to an ex­tent. Nin­tendo has stud­ded its largest-ever game world with over 100 shrines; they’re self-con­tained, sub­ter­ranean cham­bers that are a vi­tal com­po­nent of Nin­tendo’s first open-world game, serv­ing as tu­to­ri­als, pac­ing de­vices, fast-travel points, sign­posts, land­marks – and puz­zles. Yet they are by no means the sole ex­pres­sion of Breath Of The Wild’s de­sire to tax the grey mat­ter. There are puz­zles, by the dozen, above ground too.

That hoary old open-world cliché now needs to be up­dated. See those moun­tains on the hori­zon? You can go to them, yes, but it is not a sim­ple mat­ter of set­ting a map marker and fol­low­ing a GPS route. Head­ing to a moun­tain-top shrine you spot­ted from a mile or two away, you find your­self di­vided from your des­ti­na­tion by a large ravine. Do you cross it us­ing the bridge you can see on the hori­zon off to the west? Do you paraglide across and grab the cliff on the other side, gam­bling that your stamina wheel will last long enough to take you to the top? Could a cliff­side tree be chopped down and serve as a bridge? Or do you head east, where the land­scape might el­e­gantly curve round, along a moun­tain path straight to the sum­mit?

Which­ever route you choose, chances are you’ll get dragged far­ther off course along the way. There might be a ban­dit camp to clear out, a wild horse to break, an ir­re­sistible peak to scale, or a cu­ri­ous ar­range­ment of stones that you sim­ply can’t leave un­in­ves­ti­gated. A trav­eller might hint at a nearby treasure; a bard, stand­ing on an out­crop play­ing an ac­cor­dion, may sing of a se­cret shrine that only ap­pears un­der cer­tain con­di­tions. Per­haps you’ll hap­pen across a sta­ble and spend some time by the stove, cook­ing restora­tive meals and brew­ing stat-buff­ing elixirs, sell­ing un­wanted in­gre­di­ents to Bee­dle, the no­madic mer­chant who has a re­mark­able habit of al­ways know­ing ex­actly where you’re go­ing to pitch up. Then maybe you’ll stay the night in a comfy bed for the tem­po­rary health boost it gives you. The next morn­ing you’ll sad­dle up, head off and, with any luck, re­mem­ber what it is you came here for in the first place. This is a game where you al­ways have some­where to go, and some­times even make it there.

Dozens of hours later, we’re still not quite sure how Nin­tendo has done it. A land this full of puz­zles, se­crets and in­nu­mer­ate dis­trac­tions should, by rights, feel con­trived, as if it has been built ac­cord­ing to met­rics, rather than in­stinct. A shrine here, a sta­ble there, a bat­tle there; lather, rinse and re­peat un­til player reaches ob­jec­tive marker. Yet this colos­sal game world has been given room to breathe, de­spite the vol­ume of things to do it con­tains. And, for all its fan­tasy, it feels nat­u­ral. It snows on high ground, is hot in the desert, and rains in the wet­lands, while wind buf­fets the coast­lines. It feels like a place, al­beit one in which cook­ing up mon­ster parts yields an elixir that qui­etens your foot­steps, where you can fry an egg on the vol­canic ground, and where tree sprites hide be­hind eas­ily missed, bite-sized puz­zles, ex­pand­ing your in­ven­tory when dis­cov­ered. This world is an ab­so­lute, and un­remit­ting, plea­sure to get lost in – but at some point you’ll get around to tak­ing on the main quest. Calamity Ganon has been sealed away in Hyrule Cas­tle for 100 years, but his power is grow­ing; he’s taken con­trol of the four Divine Beasts, hulk­ing me­chan­i­cal con­structs that, cor­rupted, are caus­ing merry hell in the re­gions they once pro­tected. One has caused in­ces­sant rain to fall, and a lo­cal dam is about to over­flow; down in the south­west­ern desert, cit­i­zens live un­der con­stant sand­storms. At the urg­ing of the four tribal elders, Link must free the Divine Beasts of their cor­rup­tion, re­turn­ing them to their right­ful own­ers so they can as­sist him in the fi­nal as­sault on Calamity Ganon.

Each in­volves an er­rand or two, a set-piece mis­sion to gain en­try to a Beast’s in­nards, a smartly de­signed – but short – dun­geon, and a boss fight. The in­side of a Divine Beast, while cer­tainly big­ger than a shrine, is no tra­di­tional Zelda dun­geon. The spa­ces are big­ger, and more in­tri­cate, than they first ap­pear, since Link has con­trol over them – one ex­am­ple has three cen­tral sec­tions that can be in­di­vid­u­ally ro­tated, chang­ing the lay­out – but they’re hardly the sort of com­plex net­work of puz­zle cham­bers we’ve come to ex­pect from the Zelda se­ries. And it means that this, the big­gest game Nin­tendo has ever made, can be bro­ken down into just five con­stituent parts – re­claim­ing the four Divine Beasts, and the fi­nal as­sault on Hyrule Cas­tle. The con­certed player, with a laser fo­cus, could rat­tle through that lot in 20 hours.

Yet that merely speaks to the ex­tent to which Breath Of The Wild casts off the shack­les of its se­ries’ his­tory. Nin­tendo has spo­ken of its de­sire to hit the re­set but­ton with a se­ries that had be­come too rigidly ad­her­ent to a decades-old tem­plate. Link’s 3DS out­ing A Link Be­tween Worlds hinted at the com­pany’s de­sire for a change of struc­tural pace, with an item-rental sys­tem let­ting you take on the dun­geons in the or­der of your choos­ing. Here, Nin­tendo goes even fur­ther. By the time you’ve com­pleted four shrines in the Great Plateau start­ing area and used your re­ward, the paraglider, to float on the breeze to the world be­low, you’ll al­ready have ev­ery power you need to go any­where and do any­thing. The Sheikah Slate on Link’s hip will let him con­trol metal­lic ob­jects with Mag­ne­sis, freeze oth­ers in place with Sta­sis, or sum­mon bombs on a cooldown. He’ll have a sword, a shield, a bow and ar­row. Nin­tendo’s Zelda

This colos­sal game world has been given room to breathe, de­spite the vol­ume of things to do it con­tains

de­sign ethos has for decades in­volved a slow dripfeed of new, mis­sion-crit­i­cal items and abil­i­ties build­ing up to a fi­nal bat­tle dozens of hours later. In the weeks and months to come, speedrun­ners will work on find­ing the quick­est way to sail down from the Great Plateau, and head straight to Hyrule Cas­tle to face Ganon.

Tak­ing your time is, of course, re­warded, and not just with the many de­lights that are hid­den around this im­prob­a­bly large stage. Free a Divine Beast, and you’ll be granted a new abil­ity, each on a lengthy cooldown de­signed to off­set the way it fun­da­men­tally breaks the rules of the game­world. To say much more is to spoil the sur­prise, but suf­fice it to say that one sud­denly makes tra­ver­sal a (lit­eral) breeze, while oth­ers thumb their noses at a sur­pris­ingly pun­ish­ing com­bat sys­tem, where even seem­ingly low-level en­e­mies can rob your life bar of half-a-dozen hearts. There are other, more gran­u­lar ben­e­fits to be found else­where: com­plet­ing a shrine nets you a Spirit Orb, four of which can be ex­changed at prayer sites around the world for an ex­tra heart con­tainer or ex­ten­sion to your stamina bar. And through­out you’re slowly amass­ing more pow­er­ful gear, dis­cov­er­ing the NPCs that will power it up still fur­ther, and build­ing up a healthy stock of restora­tive items. Weapons will break and tough fights will burn through your heal­ing items, but there’s a steady sense of pro­gres­sion, how­ever you choose to or­der your jour­ney through this re­mark­able world.

There are prob­lems, in­evitably, but none is dis­as­trous and all can be mit­i­gated by the game’s gen­er­ous suite of sys­tems. The fram­er­ate on the Wii U ver­sion is a lit­tle un­even, drop­ping into the teens dur­ing par­tic­u­larly busy scenes – float­ing down to a vil­lage dur­ing a rain­storm, for in­stance – but rarely in­trudes when it counts. Com­bat, mean­while, can be un­pre­dictable, the tim­ing win­dow for a per­fect dodge os­cil­lat­ing be­tween a tiny open­ing and a gen­er­ous chasm. You’ll be hit by things you swore you’d dodged, or when the cam­era po­si­tion in­ter­prets your in­tended back­wards jump as a side­ways one. But if the melee stuff is prov­ing a chore, just chuck a bomb in there. Use Mag­ne­sis to smack them silly with a big metal box. Use Sta­sis to freeze them in place; draw your bow and pick them off with el­e­men­tally em­pow­ered ar­rows; or re­treat, move to higher ground, glug a stealth elixir, then sail down be­hind their de­fences and pick them off one by one from the shad­ows. The magic of be­ing given all the tools within the open­ing hour is the knowl­edge that the so­lu­tion to any prob­lem is al­ready at your dis­posal, and that you can al­ways change tack. And if all gets too much, you can sim­ply turn around, point your­self in the com­pass di­rec­tion of your choos­ing, and go some­where else. There, chances are, you’ll find magic.

The re­sult, for all the longevity of its se­ries and the fa­mil­iar­ity of the open-world genre, is a game that evokes feel­ings we haven’t known for 20 years. Not since Oca­rina Of Time have we set foot in a world that seems so mind-bog­glingly vast, that feels so un­err­ingly mag­i­cal, that proves so re­lent­lessly in­trigu­ing. Plenty of games prom­ise to let us go any­where and do any­thing; few, if any, ever de­liver on it so ir­re­sistibly. Nine­teen years on, Oca­rina is still held up as the high-wa­ter mark of one of gam­ing’s best-loved – and great­est – se­ries. Now it may have to set­tle for sec­ond place.

Paraglid­ing is the best way to get around. Horse travel is fast, sure, but nags can’t fast-travel with you. You can pick them up at any sta­ble, but the last time we saw our steed it was hang­ing around half­way up a vol­cano

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