Available On: Switch, Wii U
I was incredibly fortunate to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time when it launched for the Nintendo 64 around Thanksgiving 1998. While most game developers were struggling to make the awkward transition into 3D graphics, Nintendo blew everyone away with a fully 3D Hyrule to explore and adventure in.
While Ocarina of Time could be considered the prototype for open-world adventures, the genre really didn’t take off until MMORPGs and RPGs like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series embraced giant 3D worlds. These days nearly every big game is an open world adventure, and it’s become more of a rote expectation.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild redefines what it means to be an open-world adventure, creating a vast frontier of possibility. Ocarina of Time remains one of my all time favorite games, and I’m here to tell you that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the best 3D Zelda game ever made.
Hyrule Today, Gone Tomorrow
A chief complain of recent Zelda titles were lengthy, boring intro sequences which taught players the basics of one of the most well-known and intuitive game series. Breath of the Wild smartly eliminates all that. Link awakens from a 100-year slumber and within minutes you step outside for the money shot – a breathtaking vista of the gorgeous world of Hyrule.
The early game confines you to a central plateau, which teases the wider world around you. You have to complete a series of shrines and learn the basics of solving puzzles, using your rune magic, and exploring in harsh environments.
You’re always given a main quest to pursue, but after finishing up your early shrines and obtaining the glider, the world is your oyster. Instead of blanketing your map with endless icons and pointing neon signs, you have to physically climb trees and mountains to look for interesting places to explore.
The world is divided into several regions, and each region contains a central tower. Climbing and activating these towers reveals their portions of the map, but you still need to actively look for shrines, villages, stables, enemy outposts, and hidden treasures and boss fights.
Finding and completing shrines is the main side objective, all but replacing the traditional large Zelda dungeons. There are over 100 shrines scattered around the world, some in plain sight but others incredibly well hidden. Shrines are very short, often one-room dungeons designed around a single puzzle or puzzle concept, such as stacking blocks using your Magnesis rune or tilting a board using the Wii U or Switch’s motion sensors. The bite-sized puzzles work particularly well with the Switch’s portability.
Completing shrines is how you earn new hearts and stamina. Stamina is particularly critical in Breath of the Wild, as Link can climb literally anything. That makes the world even more open than most, and allows you to approach areas in multiple ways. For example, enemy outposts consist of a horde of baddies with sentry towers. You could stealth behind rocks and snipe them from afar, swoop in from above, shoot an exploding red barrel with a fire arrow, or maybe find a nearby rock on a cliff to roll down on top of them.
The freedom and exploration are second-to-none, but some of Breath of the Wild’s other new mechanics are less appreciated. Instead of gaining and using the same few weapons, you pick up weapons from everywhere: swords and clubs from foes, farming hoes and pitchforks from town, a glowing electric sword from a shrine.
None of them last very long. Weapon durability is an odd thing to add to a Zelda title, and it’s particularly egregious here. Melee weapons, bows, and shields last for maybe a dozen hits before they permanently break and disappear. No wonder Hyrule fell into ruin!
You’re forced to constantly scavenge and find new gear rather than hold on to favorites. Love quickly striking with spears but all you’ve found lately are warhammers? Too bad! It’s not a horrible concept but durability is way too harsh. Some weapons may hit like a truck, but they all feel like they were built out of spit and sealing wax. It doesn’t help that you start with a frustratingly low number of inventory slots, and getting more is tied to a lengthy world-spanning collection quest.
Cooking is another new feature for a Zelda title. Other than catching faeries, cooking the various bugs, plants, and monster parts you find is your primary method of restoring health.
While I appreciate that you have to experiment to find new recipes, cooking a large amount of food is unnecessarily time-consuming. You have to put ingredients into Link’s hands as he tosses them into a cooking fire, hoping for the best. Once you’ve hopefully concocted a Haste Elixir or Simmered Fruit you can look up the recipe – provided you still have the finished item in your inventory.
I would have killed for the ability to craft food and elixirs from my learned recipes rather than having to go through the arduous process every damn time. Even just a database of recipes would have been super helpful. Cooking is an interesting feature, but it could’ve been so much easier to use.
The Legend of Link
Open world games often struggle with story-telling. You can’t control how long the player takes to get from one major story beat to another, and Breath of the Wild certainly doesn’t try to force you into any one direction. In fact you’re given the primary main quest directly after leaving the intro plateau area – defeat Link’s old foe Ganon. The end game Hyrule Castle is open to you from the beginning, which should delight speedrunners. For the rest of us, you’ll need to follow the story to weaken Ganon’s hold and empower your chances to defeat him.
The story does a great job of encouraging you to visit new areas. You will travel all around Hyrule’s forests, ruins, caves, deserts, and snow-capped mountains as you meet with its colorful denizens. Voice acting is much more limited that what we were lead to believe from the trailers, and Link himself remains a silent protagonist.
Princess Zelda is disappointingly a damsel in distress yet again. She’s fridged right from the beginning, locked in battle with Ganon while Link healed up over 100 years before setting upon his epic adventure. Her role is mostly seen through Link’s memories, which can be found after unlocking the camera.
The memories and the way they’re activated is nothing short of brilliant. Your camera roll comes with a number of distinct pictures, each one corresponding to a memory of Link and Zelda in their past. You have to find those spots in the world based on the pictures, a daunting but enjoyable feat, and you’re rewarded with a compelling cutscene. Taking pictures (and selfies) in open world games is always fun, but actually building a rewarding, character-driven quest out of it is excellent.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is rated E for Everyone by the ESRB. While most battles involve Link locking blades with goblin-esque creatures, there’s no blood or gore, and enemies disappear in a puff of smoke when defeated. There’s a few suggestive jokes in the dialogue but they’re pretty tame. If you’re searching for an open world adventure for a child, Breath of the Wild should be your primary go-to game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made Hyrule great again. It also broke a lot of conventions of open world games, creating a vast frontier that’s incredibly fun to explore and get lost in. Despite my niggling annoyances with weapon durability, Hyrule truly feels like an untamed land full of possibilites, whether it’s hunting for shrines and Korok seeds, gathering new ingredients, or helping a village with their problems. Sure, you can climb that mountain. But Breath of the Wild makes you actually want to.