The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild
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