The Nintendo Switch launch title takes the Zelda franchise to a whole new level, producing something even greater than the sum of its finely honed parts
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 franchises 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.
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 theres 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 youll sometimes meet, half way up a mountain playing an accordion or in the middle of a ruined castle being attacked by Bokoblins.
Theres a danger, when describing a game of this scale, to get lost in the checklists. Yes, theres a lot to do, but thats meaningless if doing it isnt fun in its own right. Thankfully, thats not a problem Breath of the Wild has. In fact, I cant think of a previous Zelda game which gets the core gameplay loop so right.
Lets 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, its fairly standard, considerably enlivened by the cast of characters involved, and the fully voice-acted cutscenes 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.