Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Format: Nintendo Switch
Released: March 3, 2017
Copy purchased

Putting it mildly, Breath of the Wild has reached near universal acclaim for the short time it has been available. I decided to take a slightly different approach discussing my time with this, particularly as it’s proving to be quite the departure from previous entries in The Legend of Zelda. Shedding the heavily controlled scripting of previous Zelda games, Breath of the Wild seems determined to instead become one of the greatest examples of player freedom in modern games. From Assassin’s Creed to Horizon: Zero Dawn, open world games are quite a popular genre, though the degree of freedom provided to the player is often far more restrictive than the name would suggest.

I want to look at how Nintendo handles shaking up a formula that has kept this series consistently beloved for so many years, almost completely rewriting the formula for The Legend of Zelda. I very much plan to avoid revealing major spoilers, but for those who want to enter this world with a completely blank slate I’d recommend you stop reading here. I am nowhere near completing this game, and as such do not intend to give you a score or a recommendation at the end of this. With the sheer scope of the world that Nintendo has created in Breath of the Wild, I instead want to discuss how this game has changed the Zelda formula, replacing a firmly guided tour through Hyrule with the absolute freedom to enjoy yourself in almost any way you care to attempt.

I don’t often go out of my way to fight the directions given to me in a game, particularly if doing so does nothing to enhance the experience. I’ll certainly stray off the beaten path given the chance but many games find ways to restrict your ability to properly explore until you’ve progressed further through the games primary story. These roadblocks are sometimes literal, but can just as often be enemies that require a special power or a vastly higher level to defeat. Breath of the Wild is taking the promise of an open world game and pushing it so much further. Within seconds of walking out into the land of Hyrule I’d promptly ignored the gentle directions the game had given me and instead started testing how much freedom the world allowed for. It’s not often that a game can make a mandatory tutorial zone feel like much more than a chore yet I could have spent a dozen hours poking my nose into every nook and cranny of the Great Plateau, a testament to how this game embraces the unabashed joy of the simplest little discoveries, and the freedom to do almost anything you care to try.

As soon I took my first steps out into the great wide world it was hard not to marvel at the beauty of the vast lands presented to me. After spending a few minutes simply taking in my surroundings I found myself wondering if the mountains in the distance could be explored, or how far I could go before I hit an impassable barrier.

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I climbed down the nearby cliff to explore a pleasantly tranquil forest.  The game didn’t bat an eye as I simply watched pollen drift through the dappled sunlight.

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I tried climbing a tree, just to get a better view of the vast plateau I had awoken on.

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And then I ran off in entirely the wrong direction and met some friendly locals!  Sadly they were a little too rowdy for my taste.

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This game is absolutely breathtaking.  It’s not photorealistic by any stretch, but Nintendo’s artists have created a style that suits the world they’ve created perfectly.  So much of Hyrule is lush and green. The vast majority of the world revels in bright, bold colour while even the inevitable desert and snow biomes still feel strangely welcoming. Subtle landmarks and mysterious ruins giving you countless reasons to explore areas that in other games would often be the low-point of your adventure.  Every area I’ve discovered has been brimming with little secrets and treasures to find. Sometimes my endeavours amounted to nothing more than a neat little collectible, but still filled me with the brief glow of success regardless.

Part of this comes from the sheer lack of hand holding this game provides. Breath of the Wild doesn’t fill up the map with markers for every little collectible that you can hunt for in an explored region. If you want to collect magical Korok seeds to upgrade your carry capacity, you’ll actually have to pay attention to your surroundings, hunting for the short puzzles you must solve to find the tiny mischievous tree spirits.  Some of their puzzles are as obvious as a glowing marker on the ground or a ring of lily pads in a pond, while some are so well hidden that I solved them without even realizing the puzzle was there. It’s so wonderfully refreshing to bring up the world map and only see markers that I’ve intentionally placed, reminding me to go back and investigate something that piqued my interest as I’ve travelled. In my time so far I’ve marked strange formations on mountain peaks, extremely powerful foes to challenge later, and many well-hidden shrines that I’ll need to return to once I’ve stopped exploring.

Heavily structured and often densely populated open world games currently dominate this genre, but Breath of the Wild revels instead in the feeling of isolation. This isn’t a Hyrule that’s been left devoid of life, but there are still plenty of untamed areas in which nature has overtaken what vestiges of civilisation may have been left behind. The game does delve into why so few settlements remain inhabited, but I’ll avoid going into the specifics as they do form a fair portion of this game’s early storytelling. After wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, a chance encounter with a small encampment or even a fellow traveller was always a refreshing change of pace, particularly if they offered up a helpful hint or even an unexpected side quest.

Some of the largest divergences this game has from the modern Zelda formula comes both from its open-ended design and its intentional lack of scripted guidance. If you speak to someone who mentions an ancient relic or adventurer’s treasure horde, there will very rarely be a convenient marker on the map to tell you where to go. You’ll instead need to rely on the hints the NPC’s provide as well as your own skill to find the spoils. For example, listening in to a pair of treasure hunters reveals they’re trying to solve a riddle that leads to the cache of an infamous bandit lord.  If I hadn’t already been wandering around the surrounding valley I’d have no doubt been totally stumped as to the solution, but having my own eureka moment as I realized exactly where I needed to go nearly had me shout out in triumph.  Despite this earlier success, suffice to say I have many side quests listed that I’ve decided to leave until later, as I cannot figure out what on earth I’m meant to be doing. Perhaps it’s a little unusual, but I love that the game isn’t simply handing me the answers. Instead, its expecting me to actually sit down and devote a decent chunk of time and effort if I want to uncover its secrets.

Despite being so distracted by side quests and my freedom to wander, I have made some steps to actually completing the main quests of the game. My next plan is to make further headway in saving Hyrule, as well as finishing off the side quests I’ve accrued. Part of that process will involve me being a little more methodical in my travels since I’ll need to activate map-revealing Towers and start working to hunt down the many hidden Shrines to help increase my health and stamina. It will be interesting to see if these end up being tedious endeavours, or whether the magic that’s made my first dozen hours such a blast continues to entertain me even as I settle into some proper tasks.

To finish things off, I want to show off some of the pictures I’ve taken in my first few hours. It’s hard to explain, but even though I’m sure countless players have done exactly the same things I have, the joy of finding something new in Breath of the Wild still gives me such a fantastic feeling of discovery.

Eventide Island is one of my favourite challenges this game has offered! I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I’d advise waiting until you’ve got a few extra hearts under your belt before heading too far from the main island.

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I saw a huge dragon!

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I conquered an elephant!

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And I figured out how to take selfies with my new best friend!

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Next time I’ll talk about the “midgame”, and how I feel after actually setting myself some tasks to accomplish. This is where I find many open world games start floundering to find purpose in having so much open space, but I’m hopeful Nintendo can keep me entertained as I trek back through places I’ve already visited.

Writer: Jack Soric
Editor: Tristan Venables

 

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