The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an exercise in curiosity. At every moment, you are filled with wonder. Can you do this? Can you do that? Will that actually happen? Once you step out into the wild blue and lush green yonder, you’ll find that the answer is almost always yes, yet never quite in the way you would expect.
The game is also an exercise in surprise. Set in an open world of a Hyrule under the dire influence of Calamity Ganon, it is best described as a chemistry set. (Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi calls it “multiplicative gameplay.”) There are systems upon systems that never feel like a game designer’s machinations on display and instead are more a cartoonish realism that simply makes sense. Every single interaction surprises you while making complete sense in retrospect.
It’s sort of like when you first learn about what happens when you combine baking soda and vinegar. It blows the back of your brain off with possibilities. What else can you mix together and get a reaction? In Breath of the Wild, the answer is pretty much everything. If you attach the corpse of an Octorok, for example, to a crate, it’ll lift into the air. Well, what happens if you attach it to a bomb instead? And then detonate it over a Bokoblin camp?
The answer, as you would expect, is you blow them to kingdom come. The same goes for if you shoot an enemy’s wooden club a fire arrow to light it aflame and then throw an explosive barrel at it. And once the grass is on fire, you can use the smoking hot updraft to launch into the air with your Paraglider.
Even 58 hours into the game, it is still surprising me. There so much to discover yet I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Did that shooting star look like it landed just over the hill? Maybe it did. Does it sound like thunder and lightning is approaching not just the area but you in particular? Maybe they are.
This is the majesty of Breath of the Wild and it is also the single hardest part to distill into words. It feels fully aware of the modern wave of game trends (e.g., survival mechanics, open world staples, etc.) while bucking them completely. After playing games for so long, it felt natural to assume that the intuition of design made components apparent in a Neo–code or Emmet Brickowski–build vision. There simply is nothing left to stun you.
And then Breath of the Wild comes along. It captures that intangible, indescribable sensation of falling in love with games for the first time. There are meters and inventories and boxes and slots, but it is an armory of systems all pointed towards the singular goal of making you curious. It sounds like perverse overstatement—and to an extent, it certainly is a toxic nostalgia bomb—but it is also precisely the right sentiment to extend to those yet to lay hands on the game.
There was a lot to worry about going into its release, too. It looked superficially like a Zelda game what with a Link, a Ganon, a Zelda, and a whole mess of swords and shields, but it also read like nothing you’d ever expect from the series. Ragdoll physics, equipment durability, gathering and crafting? Come on. You don’t even get Rupees when you cut the grass!
We can, however, boil down that usurping of the standard to one factor that has ended up being a revelation. You have to climb towers, for instance, to clear up map fog of new regions. You know, like any open world game that’s been made in the past ten years. Except you don’t get landmarks put on the map. Instead, you climb up there to—shocker—actually get a better vantage point of the land.
Then you’ll pop open your scope, drop pins and stamps, and then actually walk your little tunic’d tush over there to find out what you marked. It’s a seemingly small thing, but it fully envelopes you in the philosophical crux of the game, which is to say you have to want to explore. You have to indulge every whim that dances across your periphery, bopping you on the nose as it flits in and out of your domain. Take note, other designers: even genre hallmarks can be improved to bolster your themes.
Consider, then, what it does with its own staples. Rather than go about dungeons for the entire game collecting bombs and boomerangs and whatnot to finally access and defeat the lingering evil of the land, you get everything you could possibly need in the first hour. You can, in fact, head directly to Calamity Ganon (dammit, that’s such a good name) and try to whoop some malicious ass.
But in doing that, it fully frees you up to pursue whatever you desire. It lays out its broad strokes so incredibly and deliciously clearly—your only objective for the longest time is to just defeat Ganon—that everything else is up to you, up to and including how to get there, how to do it, and when. There is not guilt for going off the beaten path and there is no expectation that the road will end in a bauble. It could, for all you know, end up in several more roads and so on and so on.
It is so absurdly well-designed in that way. I’m finding it hard to keep up with my brain in typing these words. The opening of the game, for example, finds Link waking up in a tomb, armorless and weaponless. There’s really only one way forward—to collect the Sheikah Slate and open the door—but along the way, you’ll see two chests containing a shirt and some pants. They aren’t, however, necessary and easily missed. And that tells you everything you need to know: you can go head and do what seems obvious, but if you don’t go wayward every so often, you’ll miss all the good stuff.
You can especially see this academic ease of design come through in the 120 shrines, which are just mini dungeons that earn you a Heart Piece-equivalent Spirit Orb. Each one is dedicated exploring a particular facet of the game. One might have you expand your understanding of where you can place Cryosis platforms and another might show you how they can be used to leverage physical objects. They are logical, consequential, and just the right amount of challenging, teaching you to use your own abilities by asking you if you can figure out the puzzle within.
The game even takes that same concept and squeeze the combat through it. The first “weapon” you get is nothing more than a tree branch. You know what a tree branch feels like, how it moves. And then as you encounter your first enemy, you step up to a club, and by fighting those Bokoblins, you learn how the club moves and the weight it has. By allowing you to pick up all the armaments your downed foes leave behind, you are teaching yourself how best to use these new spears and hammers and swords simply by defeating them yourself.
With the rapid degradation of your weapons (the average sword will last maybe three encounters), the idea of exploration is built into that constant swap meet aspect, too. You have to learn how other weapons work because you have to be vigilant about trading up and down. You have to constantly switch up your tactics because you have to fight with whatever you have. You even have to plan around active breakage with its double damage bonus as you shatter a halberd on a Lizalfos’ dumb craggily head.
There’s something immensely satisfying, too, about planning ahead here. The crafting mechanics largely revolve around cooking (though you can also upgrade equipment) where you can combine raw ingredients and their natural bonuses to create more powerful dishes. An apple that merely restores half a heart can be baked to restore three quarters of a heart. Add a Stamella Shroom and then it’ll also restore part of your stamina cycle.
So then when you know you’re about to delve into a major conflict or attempt to summit a major peak, you’ll find yourself in a village and stirring up a whole pot of tasty delights. It feels like a lighthearted gearing up scene from a 90s action movie, especially when you examine your weapons piece by piece to make sure they’re ready for a brawl. It’s just the right amount of upkeep and reward.
It can’t be helped mentioning that this game also looks damn fine, regardless of it coming from a tablet-sized console. This is a smooth (when undocked; dumping out to a display had common but sufferable frame rate issues), colorful, lively world that evokes Hayao Miyazaki’s art style but blended with just a hint of both Wind Waker and Skyward Sword. This is the peak of Nintendo doing what Nintendo does, which is using unparalleled art to overcome any technological limitations.
And you can’t argue with a bare-chested Link wearing a bandana and swinging around a giant iron hammer. Link has looked cool before, but this might be the first time he’s looked badass, and the immense variety in music somehow always seems to fit the scene. Even the franchise’s first foray into voice acting is done well. Visually and aurally, this game is doing it right.
In fact, that can just be said about every component of Breath of the Wild. This is the first time in a long time I’ve felt something for a game that goes beyond an academic or narrative appreciation. It dives deep into you and revives something you might have long forgotten or even forsaken to the years of hardening cynicism. It can’t be missed.
+ Looks and sounds incredible
+ Fosters a sense of wonder and curiosity in the world
+ Shrines teach you to think differently with things it has already given you
Final Score: 10 out of 10
Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Release: March 3, 2017
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Available Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U