‘Breath’ is right. Not long after starting The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild do you get the first of what will be thousands of magical moments: the horizon dips below Link’s eyeline, and the glorious expanse of this new world stretches out as far as you both can see. It will happen again and again, often when you least expect it. Cresting some ridge after an extended clamber, a hidden discovery takes the breath away. Turning a corner after a long and arduous trek, you’re dwarved by fantasy architecture on an epic scale. There are so many other moments in time, small and large, that just transfix your being.
Breath of the Wild is beautiful in a meaningful way. Not for Nintendo the vast waste of so many AAA games, where endless ingenuity and technology is thrown at bland aesthetic style and flat topography. This world is enormous but it is also hand-crafted in a way that almost no other open-world can compete with - the maniacs at Rockstar North notwithstanding. It is crammed with life and wildlife, fringed with verdant grass that sways in the breeze, constantly-changing under a dynamic weather system, and moves from day to night as Link undertakes one of the countless journeys you’ll make together.
The reason it is hard to encapsulate what BotW achieves is that it’s so radical. Not in the sense that no-one’s ever made this kind of game before, though no-one has really, but in the sense that it actually delivers on some of the genre’s unfulfilled promise. We all know that the marketing lines for a game usually bear little relation to the experience of playing that game: ‘Live the legend’, all that junk. BotW executes the open-world action-RPG in a new style, and in the process of doing so changes almost everything about how 3D Zeldas have been until now. At the same time, it feels like the most Zelda game ever made.
This game looks like a Turner painting at times
Out goes the steady dripfeed of new gadgets with precise functions, and in comes an opening hour that provides most of the key puzzle-solving items you’ll require – and these themselves have a new physics-based nature. Traditionally Zelda’s items and puzzles are of the lock-and-key variety, with there being a ‘right’ solution that has to be executed appropriately. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, though it is a product of its time, but BotW is confident enough to abandon this template and with it the level of fine control its designers have.
What the incorporation of physics means, in other words, is that Link’s new tools have a freeform quality to them that comes into play again and again. This can be in solving a puzzle by half-fudging it, getting the solution right up to a point then brute-forcing the rest with a bit of ingenuity. It can be climbing a waterfall by building a shoogly ladder out of ice blocks. When you find an enemy camp with anything metallic nearby, it is often the sweet-but-clumsy clang of justice as you swing a giant gate through their gobsmacked ranks.
And at the centre of these new abilities is Link himself, reborn as a supremely adept athlete and climber, both capable of awesome physical feats but exquisitely fragile. Climbing in games I generally find a turn-off. The Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed models just don’t do it for me – I hate looking up at some beautiful piece of scenery, and seeing the obvious route of handholds leading up. Nintendo’s solution is mind-blowingly simple. Botw has no handholds, just sheer topography of different gradients – the steeper it is, the more effort required to scale it.
This is brilliant because, while the interaction remains simple (guiding Link’s climbing direction with the left stick), your focus switches to the actual cliff-face. Is that outcrop large enough to stand on, and catch a breather? If I climb between that gully up to there, will I have enough stamina left to heave up the last few, sheer metres? What’s in that divot? And this continues for the duration of every climb, with these mountains so perfectly-calibrated that making it by the tips of your fingers is a frequent joy. This is a landscape like no other, where a sheer rock face isn’t saying ‘route off-limits’ but ‘fancy your chances?’ The mountains are challenges, playgrounds almost, and their omnipresence throughout regions – as well as the simple usefulness of being up-high in any given area – probably make Botw the first game about a legendary mountaineer.
To zoom back-out a second from the climbing, what this shows is the unusual quality that runs right through Botw – for Nintendo, at least, which is often criticised for a perceived insularity. This game takes enormous inspiration from the competition, which traditionally the series has shied away from, and finds gold in the most unlikely places. Take Bethesda open world games, for example, which are always beautiful and expansive and freeform - but also buggy, mechanically boring, and full of half-implemented ideas. BotW is Nintendo looking at and acknowledging what other developers have done well in the genre – many more than just Bethesda – then coming in, re-thinking their ideas from first principles, and throwing away all the crap bits.
Let's drill-down on one unexpected mechanic, how it is implemented and how it develops: weapon durability. This is a core part of BotW, and on this scale a new addition to the Zelda series. Where do you see weapon durability? It’s either rubbish F2P mobile games where the intention is to frustrate the player and make all good gear eventually waste away, or some slightly-botched implementation like the Souls series where you constantly have to visit a smith and spend some trivial amount of currency. Weapon durability in games is, generally, an awfully-implemented idea.
So Nintendo has looked at weapon durability and thought, wouldn’t it be fun if the point of this mechanic is that the world is full of different weapons, and you just cycle through ’em as a matter of course? In practice what this means is that Link feels like a warrior-scavenger, beginning by beating tiny goblins with tree branches before graduating onto wooden spears, swords, halberds, axes, hammers and countless other weapons that continue to scale as you explore the world.
The player is constantly switching between weapons, saving up really good ones for when they’re needed, and what this creates is a variety of tools that are actually meaningful. Let’s return to Souls for a minute. I don’t have a bad word to say about that series, but I would say that a lot of its players (myself included) tend to pick one or two favourite weapons from its vast selection and just stick with them forever. But BotW makes the player experience the variety it has, simply because part of the fun is in finding new weapons and using them for a few minutes before they shatter – incidentally, Nintendo even made the breaking point a mechanic. The last hit before a weapon breaks does critical damage which, yes, you do end up factoring-in to how you use them.
One final aspect of weapon durability shows how smart BotW’s overall design is. Durability is really the levelling system. Link does increase his heart containers and stamina bar gradually, by completing dungeons and shrines, but the way this world is gated is through equipment. If you tried to go to some of the later areas straightaway, toting a wooden spear, it would break before doing any damage to these enemies (that doesn’t mean, of course, you can’t stealth in and steal their weapons).
The effect isn’t just to allow Nintendo a little bit of directorial control – yes, this world is absolutely open, but there’s definitely bits you should go to first – but allows them to pace the mechanic itself. So at the start, you cycle through low-damage low-durability weapons – and as the game moves on, the tools get better and better. As you become more familiar with weapon-switching, you need it less, but by this time you’ve used every class of weapon in Hyrule extensively. I know this might make me sound crazy, but it even makes those later weapons feel higher-quality, because you’re so used to low-durability swords that you instinctively understand the value in a good one. A system that, if over-used, would have eventually become irritating instead slows down in pace after it has fulfilled a certain purpose. It’s ingenious.
This richness of thought underpins everything in BotW’s world. Throughout this journey, Nintendo introduces new mechanics, places great importance on them for a time and then - once you've shown you clearly understand what's going on - the game allows you to bypass that need. BotW is comfortable with setting challenges, letting you meet them, and then leaving that particular flavour behind. As well as being a great reward system, it's another way in which progression here is made concrete.
Many open world games leave me cold. We are spoiled for choice these days, and almost all of them are jammed with stuff, but so few entice me. I’ve spent time on climbing and weapon durability but I could equally have discussed the stealth system – a simplified but surprisingly robust take on Metal Gear Solid’s mechanics that applies across both enemies and hunting for dinner. The world feels so good to explore because all of these systems overlay one another and, while playing, you change seamlessly from one to the other.
These are the fundamental loops here that underly everything else. Climbing a mountain is one thing, but this often includes stop-offs halfway up – maybe a little plateau with some deer, where you stealth for a minute to score up some raw meat. Maybe a bit of mining. Maybe finding one of the hundreds of Koroks placed in otherwise-unremarkable locations that somehow just look suspicious. Then you resume climbing, and eventually reach the top. You’re only halfway through this little sequence because the next step – always – when you’ve conquered some great mountain is to jump off the top of it with Link’s brilliant paraglider. From the ground to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and all the way back down, the player has been dipping into and out of all these parts of the world.
This is why BotW is an enticing place. Other open worlds make you explore to find quests or collectables or secrets, and of course it has this quality. But the actual exploring here is so much more engaging, so much more like a bodily journey, that it makes a landscape like Skyrim feel flat and one-note.
Across this world you find Shrines - a hundred in total. They crop up all over the place, both on your path and out of the way. Each of these contains a single puzzle, or perhaps a test of strength, or some other one-off. Zelda’s brain-teasers have always been brilliant, but also tied-up within the larger byzantine structure of dungeons.
BotW has the 'dungeons', too, but these Shrines are another example of how it distills brilliance. You see a Shrine and instantly mosey over, knowing it means a bitesize puzzle and a Spirit Orb. You never know what to expect, and every one feels so different. In doing this BotW incorporates more pure puzzling than any Zelda before it, with a lightness of touch that means you barely notice. It wouldn’t even be going too far, when you get to stuff like using rafts and soaring through the skies on the paraglider, to say BotW just includes whole other Zelda games. That’s how roomy and various this structure is.
My reaction, when I hit a town in huge games like Final Fantasy XV, is “oh no.” Then I go in and dutifully hoover-up the quest givers, maybe buy a few things, and get out of dodge. That world didn’t win me over, I wasn’t interested in the minor parts of it. Personal taste, of course, but BotW is the first open world since GTAV that I’ve wanted to just spend time in, soak up the atmosphere. When I find a new town here, I’m delighted. I want to speak to everyone – and, because this is a Nintendo game, there are countless surprises in store here too.
The surprises are a little difficult to extol, because I’m not going to ruin anything. But two points about this world, small and large. The first is that it’s full of low-level local encounters that come out of nowhere, good and bad, which often catch you completely off-guard and give this place a dynamic feel. The second is that there’s a scale here that Nintendo has never attempted before, and a certain visual style that owes an enormous debt to Xenoblade Chronicles (the developer of which, Monolithsoft, worked on BotW). There are things in here you just wouldn’t expect to see in a Zelda game, but they’re all the more fantastic and beautifully-incorporated because of it. This adventure is an epic, and visually lives up to that.
Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s greatest pure videogame in a long time, perhaps since Super Mario 64, and certainly of the standard that sits alongside the Mario Galaxies, Wii Sports, and Ocarina. It is a magical videogame that shows why, for many of us, Nintendo remains such a special developer. There is a level of invention, polish and imagination here that is exceptional, married to a generous spirit that allows players to discover these wonderful things for themselves. If I'm being brutally honest, it's also the kind of game that I didn’t know if the Zelda team could still make – because it completely abandons the structure that, since Ocarina, has dominated their output.
It was the only way. Few games deliver on their concept like this, a glorious reinvention that sets a new standard. We look to Zelda for something original, something beautiful, something different, all wrapped-up in a grand adventure. Breath of the Wild is all of these things, and far more besides. It is simply a brilliant videogame. The thought of where Nintendo can go from here boggles the mind.