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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Link has never been set so free

The Guardian logo The Guardian 02/03/2017 Alex Hern
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Nintendo tricked us all. For years, it gave the impression that it was content to live in its own little corner of the gaming world, making well-received updates to its own franchises, without really caring about what the wider industry was doing.

Now we know that for all that time, it was watching and learning. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the result of that examination: a game that marries the best bits of the franchise’s long history with the best bits of the rest of the gaming world, and produces something even greater than the sum of its parts.

At its heart, Breath of the Wild is an open-world exploration game, in the vein of titles such as Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and FarCry 4. After completing the small starting area (and these things are, of course, relative: that area feels about as large as the entire Hyrule Field from Ocarina of Time), Link is thrown into a world scattered with quests to complete, people to meet and monsters to defeat.

Zelda fighting a one eyed beast: Each of the beasts have their own radically different storyline leading up to the confrontation. © Nintendo Each of the beasts have their own radically different storyline leading up to the confrontation.

He can find and climb towers to mark new areas on the map and travel at speed between them. He can break in wild horses and ride them, collect foodstuffs and cook them, collect new weapons and kill new things with them. He can also find, hidden or in plain sight, shrines which expand his life pool for each four completed; he can attack, or be attacked by, boss-level monsters wandering around the world, and solve environmental puzzles to collect Korok seeds that will expand his inventory. And then there’s the other stuff dotted around the place that defies categorisation: the Great Fairies, the rare non-boss monsters, the small hints at the past of the world of Hyrule, and the strange characters you’ll sometimes meet, half way up a mountain playing an accordion or in the middle of a ruined castle being attacked by Bokoblins.

There’s a danger, when describing a game of this scale, to get lost in the checklists. Yes, there’s a lot to do, but that’s meaningless if doing it isn’t fun in its own right. Thankfully, that’s not a problem Breath of the Wild has. In fact, I can’t think of a previous Zelda game which gets the core gameplay loop so right.

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Let’s pull back for a second, though, and look at the overall structure of the game. Once Link leaves the Great Plateau, in short order he finds the heart of his quest: to find and free the four “divine beasts”, techno-magical creations that are key to defeating regular series villain Ganon and saving Princess Zelda and the land of Hyrule from destruction. As Zelda plots go, it’s fairly standard, considerably enlivened by the cast of characters involved, and the fully voice-acted cut scenes interspersed throughout (Link himself, however, remains a mute protagonist).

Those four divine beasts are located at roughly the four corners of the map, encouraging full exploration even before the completionism and sidequests kick in. They occupy roughly the same role in as the classical dungeons and temples of previous Zelda games, with a series of puzzles culminating in a boss fight, and form absolutely spectacular set pieces.

The first of the beasts I fought – and you can approach them in any order you see fit, but the game gently nudges you to tackle them in a roughly anti-clockwise order – started with a trip to Zora’s Domain, battling through a long path to reach the land of the fish people. Once there, Link is enlisted to collect lightning-infused Shock Arrows (the Zora, being a watery folk, can’t even touch them), before he teams up with the prince of the Zora to attack the divine beast, using the arrows to take out weak points on its outer shell and calm it enough to land on it. And that’s only the beginning of the fight, which draws a clear inspiration from titles like PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus and manga hit Attack on Titan.

Each of the beasts have their own radically different storyline leading up to the confrontation, and even in a more conventionally-structured Zelda, they’d be noteworthy for their impeccable mixture of puzzles, combat and flair.

But Breath of the Wild is not conventionally structured - at least, not for this series. Gamecube-era classic The Wind Waker comes closest, with its seafaring world, but where the open ocean that game offered was largely a wide blue expanse with the occasional semi-random encounter, Breath of the Wild’s world is, and I can’t repeat this enough, bursting at the seams.

If you’re thinking, for instance, that four dungeons seems slim – even Ocarina of Time had nine – then let’s talk about those shrines. Nintendo says there’s 120 of them, dotted all around the map, and each of them is a complete mini-dungeon in its own right. Some are simple one-room puzzles, offering everything from a test of timing with your bow and arrow to a motion-controlled game of pachinko. Others expand that, up to a full multi-room series of Zelda puzzles, taking an idea (“transport the fire”, for instance) and iterating on it. There are combat-focused shrines, with one singular boss-tier enemy, and there are even shrines where the entire puzzle is simply finding the damn thing, or making your way to its front door.

If you’re matching the description to your memory of Zelda games past, you’ll notice something: those shrines aren’t – and can’t be – ability gated. If you can do anything in any order, the game can’t require items that drop from one dungeon to complete the next, as almost every previous Zelda game has. Instead, you’ll secure the vast majority of your skills in the opening area, including bombs, a time-freeze skill, and the ability to manipulate metal objects.

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There are still times you’ll find yourself in a shrine and unable to complete it, particularly some of the harder combat shrines, but even that happens less often than you might think, thanks to the game’s unique approach to collectibles.

Every weapon (and shield) is breakable. Not in a World of Warcraft, or Witcher 3, way, where they have durability scores to encourage you to head to a blacksmith periodically. No, these weapons will break, permanently, after a certain amount of use, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That means rather than a steady power increase, common to most RPGs, you’ll find yourself yo-yoing around: a brilliant sword dropped by a boss will give you a huge burst of damage, but only until it shatters. It’s a canny concept, which has you playing around with a far wider proportion of the game’s armoury than most of its peers, which forces you to treat the vast majority of loot as junk.

The downside is pairing that approach with an extremely limited inventory space, and the rapid desire to keep a few types of weapon on hand for specific uses (a metal blade for making sparks to light fires, for instance, and an icy weapon for killing fiery enemies), can quickly feel cramped. At times, I’ve found myself with only one weapon I was actually comfortable using against common mobs, rapidly having to pick up a new club every time my old one shattered lest I wear down my Ancient Sword++ or Giant Thunderblade.

Just as your weaponry and inventory no longer act as a constraint on where you can go, so too does the world itself offer few barriers. “You can go anywhere” is a common selling point in open world games, but it’s rarely so true as here. Every wall, cliff, and tower can be climbed, with only Link’s stamina limiting how far you can go. And that stamina can be refilled, with food eaten halfway up a mountain, and enhanced, with items won from shrines, meaning that the sky really is the limit. And you’ll want to climb high, because the other major addition to Link’s motability is a paraglider, similar to the Deku Leaf from Wind Waker, which can take him a considerable distance if he jumps off a high-enough point.

All these things combine together to form that best-in-class core gameplay loop. In the back of your mind, you know you should make your way to the Zora Domain, to find the divine beast. So you climb a mountain to see if you can spy the way to the tower that will give you the map. You do see the tower, but you also spot a shrine halfway there. Pausing only to consider the landscape – it really is pretty, isn’t it? – you mark the shrine’s location, jump off a cliff, and float towards it, but find your way blocked by a camp of Bokoblins. Fighting your way through them shatters the claymore you’ve been carrying, and costs precious arrows, but the chest at the end contains a hundred rupees, and you pick up a spear one of them dropped, so it nets out. Once you find the shrine, you complete the puzzle by setting your own wooden spear on fire, and then leave, with the intention of heading on to the tower.

But the shrine is a fast travel point, offering you the ability to divert from the trek and easily resume it at a later date. And now you’ve got a hundred rupees, you can entice a Great Fairy out of her hiding place. So you head over there, and chat to her, discovering that she’ll enhance your armour. But you need a few more Hightail Lizards to do so – and so you put the trip to Zora’s Domain on hold again, just for a few more minutes …

You look up, and it’s five hours later, and you don’t care.


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