In an interview with series producer Eiji Aonuma and Nate Bihldorff of Nintendo Treehouse, they discussed how even the subtitle Breath of the Wild was different from past Zelda games. Usually a Zelda game is named for a character like Twilight Princess, an item like Ocarina of Time or a key plot mechanism like A Link to the Past. This game could easy have been named for the Sheikah Slate, the Silent Princess, the Guardians, the great Calamity or a whole host of other elements in the game. But they settled on Breath of the Wild because of how the world itself was the soul of the game; rather than simply the framing for story and characters it’s the world that truly dazzles.
It may seem trite to say these days but the vast open air landscape of Breath of the Wild is the main character of the game. Never in my experience has the simple act of random exploration and discovery been more openly encouraged and better rewarded – the world feels impossibly large and yet incredibly detailed at every turn. It’s as if the developers are watching over your shoulder dropping little goodies to those curious enough to investigate the breadcrumbs placed throughout the map. The level of detail and nuance put into each little area is truly astounding – each aspect of the world feels hand crafted rather than recycled. The game gently guides you along the road toward new areas with discoveries big and small. Take Linebeck Island for example. On the surface it’s just a neat nod to Phantom Hourglass. But if you recognise the reference and go there, there’s a Korok to be found. If you don’t recognise the reference, there’s an NPC somewhere in the world that’ll nudge you in that direction. Those little hints are scattered all over this world.
While the vast openness of the game has been rightfully lauded (and more on that in a second), it overlooks the subtle brilliance of this game’s tutorial. The Great Plateau is Breath of the Wild’s way of teaching you the rules of the world. It teaches you how combat works, it teaches you about cooking, about the adaptive environment and how you can freeze to death, about climbing, Shrines as well as how all those new-fangled runes work. But most importantly it does so in an environment that allows experimentation and failure. Rather than a support character shouting at you about what button you press to jump, the Shrine of Resurrection can’t be escaped without doing so. You can drown, fall from a cliff, get blasted by a Guardian, crushed by a Talus or clobbered by a Bokoblin. You learn all the skills you need to survive in the world from the outset.
And then the game unleashes you out onto a world larger than it even appears. At the start the game pans out over all of Hyrule and you’re like “Whoa, it’s huuuuuuge!” but that doesn’t even capture a fraction of the map. It wasn’t until around 30 hours into the game that I looked at my map and realised just how big the damn thing is. I hadn’t even revealed 50% of the map never mind actually explore most of it. This is a game that lets you charge the final boss from the beginning. It allows you to complete as many or as few of the dungeons as you like. You can unearth every little scrap of the story or ignore it altogether. You can climb anything if you have the perseverance and ingenuity. This game doesn’t hold you back in any way. If you want to do a shirtless vegan run of this game, you can. But equally if you want to murder ever swan, duck, pheasant, goose, or stork – feel free. This game offers practically no restraints on what you can do and when you can do it. You ask a question of the game, it usually has an answer.
There are two primary design decisions that were integral to making exploring this incarnation of Hyrule work. The first, and perhaps the most divisive feature in Breath of the Wild, is the destructible weapons. In the game your weapons are finite. After sustained use they break and the only way to get them back is to find another one. This creates a feedback loop essential to incentivising exploration. While Shrines, Koroks and story beats offer reason to look over the next horizon, weapons are often a frequent reward for finding a new little nook or cranny. They also serve as the bonus challenge in most Shrines. So you explore to find new weapons, breaking your current weapons in combat causing you to want to more weapons. And so the process begins again.
It also adds an extra layer to combat as it makes fights seem a little more dynamic causing you to have to adjust on the fly to changing conditions. It is especially important considering the game opts against utilising any sort of EXP system. If your weapons didn’t break you could just find the best ones and run through the game. Rather instead even long after you’ve finished the game certain enemies can destroy you if you’re not careful. The breakable weapons are fundamental to the balance of the game and it’s remarkably elegant. It avoids you becoming drastically over-leveled or overpowered because you were too busy doing your own thing. You just gotta get used to not getting attached to your fancy Icesword.
The second fundamental design choice is the decision to leave the map blank. As with many open world games, you climb large towers to fill out your map. But rather than fill your map with dozens of icon you just get a rough sense of the area. All you’re given to work out points of interest are place names and topography. So finding new Shrines and towns feels less like simply ticking off a checklist and more like a discovery. Your discovery. The map only fills out as you find things. The game instead encourages you to find high ground, look around and paraglide to something interesting. The experience is less Link as follower and more Link as cartographer. You chart the path. And that subtle little choice drives a great deal of exploration in Breath of the Wild.
The music is a change from Zelda’s past too. Gone is much of the bombastic sweeping grandeur that characterised the older games’ scores and in its stead a more atmospheric feel. The music reflects the degree to which Breath of the Wild is content with stillness. And there are plenty of quality tracks, though on balance I prefer some of the older Zelda music. Puzzle design is less A Link to the Past and more A Link Between Worlds. By that I mean the solution to puzzles is rarely going to another room to find the right key, but rather providing you with all the tools necessary and asking you to work it out. The games’ main dungeons are also a particularly clever take on the old Zelda staple. There are some very finicky gyroscope controlled Shrines but they don’t feature prominently. The characters are weird and memorable and live out their own daily routines and the side quests are mostly filler and can in many cases be ignored entirely. Except the Tarrey Town side quest. Because that’s fantastic.
As the final game on Wii U and a launch title for the Switch, it’s somewhat fitting that Breath of the Wild is most comfortable serving as a bridge between past and present. Taking cues from the openness of the original Legend of Zelda and the more free form nature of A Link Between Worlds, this game takes what worked about Zelda’s of old and reinvents it for a modern era. Gone is the formula but the usual Zelda charm and polish remain ever present. You can talk about the story and mechanics, the physics and the chemistry, the design and the freedom and yet somehow none of that seems to capture how this game feels. You’re going to be hearing an awful lot about this game for years to come because it’s very difficult to capture everything this game does well, the way all the elements I just mentioned layer on top of each other in a way that feels seamless, almost intangible even. I didn’t want to put this game down. There was always just one more thing to do, one more place to go, one more Shrine to complete and one more little clue to investigate – and each time a neat little reward at the end of the journey. This game feels special. And that’s why I’m giving it a 10 out of 10.