This ‘Zelda’ will take your breath away

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - BY HAROLD GOLDBERG style@wash­post.com

At its best, “The Le­gend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” the mag­i­cal, open-world in­stall­ment of the lauded role-play­ing-game se­ries, in­spires you to re­mem­ber some of the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing ad­ven­tures you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced or read about.

Through Stu­dio Ghi­bli-like an­i­ma­tion, it re­calls the bru­tal, frozen jour­ney in Ian McGuire’s hy­per-real “The North Wa­ter” and the sense of feel­ing com­pletely, fran­ti­cally lost as in B. Traven’s “The Trea­sure of the Sierra Madre.” Ap­pro­pri­ately, it is the last great game for Nin­tendo’s Wii U and the first for its new Switch con­sole.

What Nin­tendo has cre­ated is an all-en­com­pass­ing mind-body pos­ses­sion in which you find your­self in­side some­thing un­usu­ally, haunt­ingly en­gross­ing. The oth­er­worldly, ver­tig­i­nous awe I felt after climb­ing a moun­tain and look­ing down into an area full of aquatic hu­man-fish crea­tures was, of course, fic­tional. But as far as as­ton­ish­ment goes, spot­ting this At­lantis-meets-“Avatar” ham­let was un­can­nily sim­i­lar to stand­ing high above the Cape of Good Hope while on as­sign­ment for a travel story, look­ing be­low to see a pride of os­triches run­ning across the beach through a weft of fog. It’s not sim­ply won­der. It’s the feel­ing of be­ing gob­s­macked. And, in “Breath of the Wild,” it hap­pens quite a few times.

It does take some time to ramp up, how­ever. At the be­gin­ning, I awoke as Link, a silent Rip Van Win­kle-type war­rior who’s been asleep for 100 years — ex­cept Link is younger and blon­der. We bonded like old friends, yet I have to con­fess a per­sis­tent feel­ing of an­noy­ance after this meet­ing con­cluded. I felt swin­dled by a chuck­ling, hooded “Old Man” a black cloak who promised me a paraglider to get around the vast world of Hyrule if I found a spirit orb for him. Once I brought it to him, like a con­niv­ing politi­cian, he asked for three more orbs, which would be found in shrines hid­den in the far-flung cor­ners of the Great Plateau.

Also de­flat­ing is the di­a­logue, which is trans­lated from Ja­panese. Mostly pre­sented as read­able text, it’s rarely very good, with one-di­men­sional char­ac­ters and one-trick voice ac­tors sel­dom pro­vid­ing nuance. The best lines are quirky, cute or hu­mor­ous like the words es­poused by the lov­able odd­balls in Nin­tendo’s “An­i­mal Cross­ing” se­ries. But that’s some­how not enough here, in a world that’s so painstak­ingly made and de­cid­edly gi­gan­tic. You need to be moved. you aren’t moved enough. You want char­ac­ters’ mono­logues to shine as brightly as the full moon you dis­cover in the for­est. They al­most never do.

For in­stance, the Zo­ran Lady Mipha might ig­nite sparks of sym­pa­thy dur­ing her self­less speeches. But it’s never em­pa­thy be­cause the voice ac­tor’s tone evokes mar­tyr­dom as much as it does hero­ism. Nar­ra­tive in games has got­ten so much bet­ter in the past decade, but “Breath of the Wild” does not move it for­ward.

The plot? To save the king­dom of Hyrule, Link must quash the hor­ri­ble Calamity Ganon, who is the main an­tag­o­nist in this se­ries. Shown first as a fanged, boar-faced mon­ster made of em­ber-stip­pled black smoke, he’s larger than the king­dom’s bi­gin gest cas­tle. You don’t as much see him in the dis­tance as be­hold his mas­sive malev­o­lence. He’s a mega­lo­ma­niac bent on de­stroy­ing Hyrule, and he holds Princess Zelda hostage.

Thank­fully, the var­ied game­play and an­i­mated splen­dor of this world make up for the story’s weak­nesses (and fa­mil­iar­ity if you’ve played other games in this se­ries that’s been around since 1986).

It’s so as­tound­ing at times that you feel you are part of a dra­matic sword and sorcery sa­fari where en­chant­ment holds you tightly in its clutches. In one par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult sce­nario, you stand atop Vah Ruta, a colos­sal stone ele­phant who is cap­tive in the mid­dle of a reser­voir. Out­side and in­side, it’s more like a ma­jes­tic Angkor Wat temAnd ple than the usual sprawl­ing dun­geons seen in pre­vi­ous games. Even­tu­ally you try to search, with­out fall­ing off, for a hid­den ter­mi­nal switch at the very tip of its trunk. Flick­ing enough of th­ese switches frees the ele­phant.

Bal­anc­ing like a Wal­lenda brother clad in a me­dieval suit, I was tem­po­rar­ily dizzied by the sheer height and the po­ten­tial of fall­ing to my doom. But, after get­ting my bear­ings, I started up the ter­mi­nal and mused upon the beauty of Hyrule be­low be­fore us­ing the paraglider to find the next switch on Vah Ruta.

Al­though it’s the most com­pelling game Nin­tendo has made in its 37-year his­tory, play­ing is never an ef­fort­less en­deavor. You can­not change the dif­fi­culty set­tings to weaken its mon­sters. Early on, swords, spears and bows break after min­i­mal us­age. So, just as I did in the ma­tur­erated “Demons Souls” game, I died more than a hun­dred times in the 30 hours I played, rolling my eyes and spew­ing “C’mon, man!” along the way. And just as I did in “Skyrim,” the seem­ingly end­less epic from Bethesda Soft­works, I crafted elixirs and cooked herbs, meat and root veg­eta­bles to keep up my stamina.

I was de­feated again and again by a ver­sion of the leer­ing an­tag­o­nist called Waterb­light Ganon, who wielded blocks of ice, a yards-long frozen sword and a deadly red laser. Even as the dif­fi­culty frus­trated me, I kept com­ing back for more. And, when I fi­nally fin­ished him off, I was re­minded of a line from Stephen Ch­bosky’s “The Perks of Be­ing a Wallflower”: “And in that mo­ment, I swear we were in­fi­nite.” There would be hur­dles ahead, but Link and I, to­gether, had many more roads to travel.

NIN­TENDO

The plot? To save Hyrule king­dom, of course — and save Princess Zelda.

Nin­tendo Switch, Wii U

THE LE­GEND OF ZELDA Breath of the Wild

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