Format: Nintendo Switch
Released: March 3, 2017
At the time of writing, I’m over 60 hours into Breath of the Wild and although I’ve “finished” the story, there is so much I’ve left behind in my decision to push for the grand finale. I’m frankly astonished at how low my completion percentage was when the final credits rolled. Despite that I have no intention whatsoever of pushing myself to reach 100 percent. I don’t doubt there will be plenty of people out there who will tirelessly pursue every little secret that Nintendo hid away in Hyrule. Yet even knowing I will be back to explore further, I have no plans to do more than continue my gleeful wandering of the countryside. Previously I discussed my initial dozen or so hours with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which, despite the cliché, took my breath away. I finished my last article just as I entered what could most accurately be called the “mid-game”, having defeated one the main bosses and revealed most of the enormous world map. My biggest concern was that the wonder that had infused nearly every aspect of Breath of the Wild would begin to fade given the sheer size of the world that I could wander in. To avoid any concerns, I’m getting close to over three full days of playing this game and nearly every moment I spend in this world still feels as magical as the first few hours.
Part of the reason that I had those nagging doubts was how easily I can find my attention wandering if a game begins to rely on boring gameplay loops, especially as an excuse to justify an oversized world. I’ll point to Dragon Age: Inquisition as a personal example and although I’ll happily admit it to enjoying that game overall, the amount of resource gathering and grinding required to make any progression was frustratingly reminiscent of the worst MMO gameplay loops. Many more recent open world games have quite capably avoided relying on such lazy methods of padding out the experience, and Breath of the Wild feels like a masterclass in avoiding filler for the sake of filler. Other than your currently active quest, the only markers you’ll see on the map will be ones you’ve chosen to place down, and the icons to show the secrets you’ve already discovered. I delved into my appreciation of this gameplay decision in my last article, and I find this is part of what kept my constant travels over Hyrule from growing stale. Rather than seeing a point on the map telling me distinctly what could be found in a particular place you’re actually expected to remember why you marked a position on the map, which led to plenty of pleasantly surprising discoveries and just a few accidental mini-boss encounters.
Despite intending to push myself towards completing the main quest goals, the thought of hidden curiosities frequently distracted me, even when the game less than subtly encouraged me to begin helping to actually save the world. A rather intimidating cutscene of an ancient and powerful artefact terrorising the land clearly indicates there’s some questing to be done, so of course I direct myself towards the nearest city, and promptly spend the next few hours zigzagging between points of interest on the way to my actual objective. When I did finally make my way to a particularly intriguing quest it was always much easier to focus on my current goal. These particular times are usually when I built up the most markers on my map, wanting to resolve my current quest, but not wanting to miss out on little secrets and treasures I knew I’d inevitably forget about within minutes. When my goal was to stop one of the four Divine Beasts, I knew I’d actually have to spend some time focused on a single objective. To the credit of Nintendo, I don’t think I’ve come across a single quest that outstayed its welcome despite usually having quite a few sitting unfinished in my logbook.
This mindset of keeping most activities short and sweet even extends to Zelda’s most notorious time-sinks, the dungeons. From the conveniently short but varied Shrines to the intriguing puzzles within the mechanical bodies of each Divine Beasts there’s none of the frustratingly long and tedious dungeons that The Legend of Zelda is more than a little infamous for. There have certainly been some truly excellent dungeons over the years, but I’m sure plenty of people will remember the frustrations of the “Water Temple” from Ocarina of Time, or the “City in the Sky” that haunts my memories of Twilight Princess. Those Ooccoos still haunt my dreams with their cold, alien eyes.
The decision to replace a dozen sprawling dungeons that could individually last for hours with countless bite-sized Shrines works wonders for the flow of this game. The only repeat Shrines I came across were combat challenges against adorable little scout Guardians, which thankfully are still quite rare. Every other Shrine revolved around thoughtful use of the various tools the game provided you with, ranging from using metallic objects to complete electronic circuits with your Magnetism power, to navigating three-dimensional obstacle courses using wind currents and your trusty paraglider. While avoiding spoilers, the largest “dungeon” in the game is probably Hyrule Castle itself, and though it is riddled with exciting secrets and deadly foes you could quite happily find your way through to the final chamber without hitting the hour mark. Having said that, none of these relatively small challenges feel like throwaway attempts to fill out the world with useless clutter. Instead, they each feel like the distilled essence of a particular aspect of Breath of the Wild’s gameplay.
While dungeons in previous games would often be an extended tutorial for a new ability or item here you have all your special equipment handed to you almost straight off the bat, with only four extremely brief “Tutorial Shrines“ to give you a basic idea of your new powers. Every other Shrine expects you to think for yourself in a manner that feels strongly reminiscent of a test chamber in Portal, with there sometimes being multiple solutions for more creative, eagle-eyed players. A fairly early example I came across was a giant floating marble maze which relied on you using your controller to tilt the marble through to the end. But with a bit of sneaky angling, I was able to get the “marble” to drop straight into the last portion of the maze, with no penalty whatsoever. Other players have taken it even further, flipping their controller upside down to “solve” the maze. There have been quite a few other puzzles I’ve solved in ways that were probably not initially intended but the game does not punish or restrict you for thinking outside the box.
I think this is why I continued to grin like an idiot every time I conquered an obstacle. The world doesn’t feel designed to restrict what you can accomplish with your tools and imagination, but instead leaves it to you to make every encounter as challenging or simple as you decide to make it. I’ve watched my brother play this game, and was quite interested when I watched him navigating a deadly pathway while escorting a friendly Goron. It was rather entertaining watching him consistently provoke the rather violent attention of a nearby foe whenever his companion wandered into roving spotlight drones. After a gruelling uphill battle, he finally made it to the other side where I promptly told him that he could have told his companion to wait behind, while he snuck around to drop boulders and crates onto the flying spotlights to remove the threat. That he could completely negate the challenge had not occurred to him since previous Legend of Zelda games have rarely if ever rewarded such lateral thinking.
Personally, this unyielding freedom is what makes this game such a masterpiece. Where even the most lenient open-world game will still have systems and restrictions to pull you in the direction it wants you to go, Breath of the Wild kits you out with everything you need, tells you where you need to eventually go, and then promptly lets you loose on the entirety of this beautiful, vibrant world. After over 60 hours of exploration I still come across breathtaking new views. I still madly dash to collect mushrooms growing in the cool shade of a nearby copse of trees even though I don’t really need them. And I still find myself enveloped in that euphoric feeling of freedom. I’d been worried that the game would let me down once the initial excitement had worn off but instead I’ve found myself drawn deeper and deeper into this world with each new discovery. I’d struggle to think of many other games that can elicit the same feeling of unabashed wonder as frequently, or one that works so tirelessly to ensure the game is as easy or as hard as the player makes it.
It feels only reasonable to finish this with another slideshow of some of my favourite moments through this game. Firstly, we have a genuinely intimidating labyrinthine island, patrolled by ominous flying Guardians.
A long abandoned battlefield, painful memories hidden buried just beneath the surface.
A far more pleasant reunion in Korok Forest!
A serenade orchestrated by everyone’s favourite Rito bard, Kass!
Accidentally summoned Shai-Hulud in the Dunes.
And after the time I put into this game, the final scene felt well worth it.