How do you plan on dying first in Breath of the Wild?
Maybe your wooden club will shatter at the wrong moment and a Bokoblin will shank you into an early grave. Perhaps you’ll get stuck in thunderstorm, step into a pond of water and end up electrocuted. Or you could just tumble off an enormous cliff-face after running out of stamina mid-climb.
Whatever the case, your biggest enemy in the latest Legend of Zelda is Hyrule itself. It is vast, unrelenting and boy do I wish I was flirting with oblivion again instead of writing this review.
More than any other installment in this franchise’s illustrious history, Breath of the Wildgrants you the freedom to truly go on an adventure. And get yourself killed many, many times in the process. It’s an utterly intoxicating experience and the best reason to go out and buy a Nintendo Switch right now.
HYRULE IS THIS GAME’S STAR
Breath of the Wild might be the first Zelda to go open world, but it’s certainly not the only game out there to offer questing on an epic scale. Skyrim, The Witcher III and even this week’s Horizon: Zero Dawn promise different variations on an almost identical theme. You start a game in some small corner of a vast landscape and must become its master in order to reach the end credits. The original Legend of Zelda might have invented the concept, but sure has taken a long time to catch up with its current incarnation.
So, what makes Breath of the Wild so special compared to all those games it’s cribbed from? In a word: Hyrule.
Anyone can make a massive realm for you to schlep across over the course of 50 or so hours. It’s easy if you’ve got the time and budget. Do a bit with ice, a bit with lava, a bit with loads of lush forestry, and then sprinkle a load of icons over the end result. Bosh!
Despite being quite enormous, though, the latest incarnation of Zelda’s storied realm never feels populated at random or sprawling for the sheer sake of it. Every corner of it has been crafted to reward your curiosity.
Step off the beaten track and you could be greeted with a new power-up, weapon or material for crafting. Or there could be a giant beastie that you have to leg it away from like there’s no tomorrow. Still, there’s only one way to find out right?
AWKWARD FIRST STEPS
It’s this refusal to hold your hand that marks Breath of the Wild as the Zelda series’ finest game for quite some time. Certainly, it stands up to Ocarina of Time and A Link To The Past in a way that few recent installments have.
For its opening three hours, Breath of the Wild feels like a knee-jerk about-face from the nagging companions and endless tutorials found in both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. It ushers you outside the so-called Cave of Awakening and says, ‘Go on then! What are you waiting for?’ The Great Plateau you start on may well be a tutorial area, but it rarely tells you what to do or how to survive. That’s all to be sussed out on your own in what is often a quite brutal fashion.
While I'm not talking about a Dark Souls difficulty level here, this game is built to be tough - and that’s kind of alienating at first. Especially since its controls for jumping, fighting and rifling through your inventory are persnickety and tough to master. You'll get there eventually, but not without mistakenly lobbing your best weapon into some long grass and losing it first.
Persistence is the only guarantee of success and those moments will be especially fleeting to start out with. Despite its steep learning curve, Breath of the Wild’s harsh cycle of trial and error has a point. And that is to create a story that's unique to you and no one else.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Of course, this Zelda does have a plot of its own and it's a good one: filled with intrigue and genuine emotion. Link has awoken from a 100-year snooze, remembering nothing of how he fell asleep in the first place. What's clear is that he must defeat the all-powerful Calamity Ganon before it destroys the world around him.
How you avert this apocalyptic catastrophe really is up to you though. You can chase the main quest line with relentless haste, doss about for ages trying to cook up the perfect fish stew or head and face Calamity Ganon from the moment you step off The Great Plateau. Actually, don't try that last one - it won't end well.
Besides, there is a ridiculous amount of fun to be had roaming free in Hyrule itself. Despite being about 20 hours into Breath of the Wild, I feel like I've barely scratched its surface and still have a litany of happy memories from a time that was often spent having my arse handed to me. What ties most of these together is how Nintendo has created an environment with genuine character.
My absolute favourite moment so far was watching several Moblins chase right past the long grass I was hiding in and away towards the poor wild boar they'd marked out as their next dinner. Honestly, I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard at a game. That was no set piece either, just one example of how Breath of the Wild is alive with possibilities. The more you see of it, the more you want to experiment and find a new way to transform Hyrule into your playground.
CHARTING A JOURNEY
As open-ended as this game is, it does have a clear structure. Not just through the quests that make up its story, but in the Shrines that help you chart a course through each fresh area. These are essentially mini-dungeons that enable fast travel and each offer up a puzzle to solve.
Some are a piece of cake and some we've abandoned in frustration. All that I've tried so far are reassuringly varied, and reward you with Spirit Orbs (one per Shrine) that can be cashed in for an extra heart and added stamina.
Alongside Sheikah Towers, Bokoblin camps and stables, Shrines act as a waypoint in unknown territory. They also act as a good testing ground for your rune powers, such as magnesis and the ability to freeze time. If you're really stumped, it's usually one of these you need to turn to. Or you'll have to craft something instead.
Since the best recipes for temporary effects and health restoration are rarely spelt out to you, you're constantly toying with new concoctions. Sure, some steamed mushrooms sounds nice enough, but what if I stuck some meat in there next time? It's through this combination of landmarks and crafting that survival never feels arduous. In fact, every tiny achievement takes you closer to becoming the master of your epic surroundings.
A TOTAL STUNNER
Such is the quality of Breath of the Wild that you're often too busy charting a course across to notice just how sumptuous it looks. Just when you think you've had your fill of gorgeous vistas and sweeping landscapes, it'll floor you with another one.
The cell-shaded art style works an absolute treat and does well to make the most of the Switch’s graphical oomph. While the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One S may have oodles more power, Link’s latest romp is the handsome equal of both Uncharted 4 and Forza Horizon 3.
Combined with an engrossing soundtrack that swells in moments of high tension and otherwise recedes into a gentle hum of nature noises, this game seems purpose-built to leave you slack-jawed in wonderment.
As fabulous as this window-dressing is, it works because it frames your story so well. When you’ve ascended halfway up a mountain only to spot a distant village pop into view, the scale of the task before you is that much more impactful. It really is you against a truly colossal world - even though it occasionally suffers from frame rate dips below 30fps through the Switch Dock.
LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD VERDICT
There is so much more that can be said about Breath of the Wild. Ultimately, all you need to know is that it’s brilliant.
Once you’ve set aside the changes from Zeldas of old, adjusted to the initial challenges and gotten your first foothold in this new Hyrule, you’ll be hooked for good. Eager to roam free and see as much of this spectacular world as possible. It’ll take you hours and hours to do so, but it’ll be worth it.
The Switch needed a game of this quality to carry its launch. Boy, has Nintendo delivered.