Words by Andrew Webster, The Verge.
The moment I realized The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild might actually be my favorite Zelda adventure ever struck me like lightning — literally.
While running through the picturesque green fields of Hyrule, a massive storm unexpectedly rolled in. As heavy rain began to pour, a strong wind rustled the tall grass, and in the distance I could hear the crack of lightning. The sharp sound rapidly came closer and closer until zap! I was electrocuted to death by a bolt. Every time I restarted, the same thing would happen. I couldn’t understand why the lightning was targeting me, the helpless hero, until I realized that both the spear and shield on my back were made of metal. With the steel unequipped, I was able to safely make my through the storm.
Breath of the Wild has something that’s been missing from the series for years: surprise. Most recent Zelda adventures have become formulaic, abiding by a rigid and proven structure that offers nostalgia and familiarity, but little room for revelations, either big or small. Breath of the Wild is more open and natural than its predecessors, letting you discover things — like how lightning works — through experimentation. It isn’t always as curated and cinematic as other Zelda games, but the unpredictability makes it feel like a true adventure, where you’re uncovering your own path, instead of hitting your marks and following the script.
Zelda games have always been large, but Breath of the Wild feels uniquely grand, a massive open world filled with so much to do that I suspect most players — even those who complete the main story — will miss large swaths of the map. The scale could have been daunting, but the joy of discovery and the satisfaction that comes from finding your own way make it inviting instead. I want to go the places I’ve yet to discover. I want to uncover new secrets and abilities. I want more.
At 50 hours into the game, I still haven’t reached the end of Breath of the Wild. In some ways it feels like I’ve only scratched the surface. But even still, these bold changes have profoundly altered my expectations of what a Zelda adventure can be. And I’m entirely convinced that this is the best Zelda game I’ve ever played.
This review contains light spoilers for the early hours of Breath of the Wild.
Breath of the Wild opens with series hero Link awakening in a dark cavern. A mysterious disembodied voice guides him to a tablet that has a passing resemblance to both the Switch and Nintendo’s maligned Wii U controller. The tablet helps to navigate this version of Hyrule — the fantasy realm that has long been the heart of Zelda adventures. As you learn in the very early parts of the game, a century ago, powerful evil destroyed much of the world, allowing nature to reclaim castles, and littering the land with abandoned machines of war. People still exist, in small towns and stables, but much of Hyrule is beset by hordes of monsters who have bivouacked into the hills. This is a dangerous place. Naturally, your job is to set things right.
One of the game’s greatest strengths is how it goes about explaining how you will do that — or just as often, not explaining it. Breath of the Wild rarely gives you explicit directions as to what to do. Instead, it tells (or shows) you what needs to happen, and lets you fill in the rest. One line of quests tasks you with uncovering shrines (more on those later) using only lines from a poem or a riddle as guidance. Another presents a series of images of scenic Hyrule locations from before the calamity, and asks you to find them as they are now. In order to defeat Ganon you’ll need to first uncover four “divine beasts” scattered throughout the world. Of course, the game doesn’t even tell you what a divine beast is.
This lack of direction can be disorienting at first. I played Breath of the Wild immediately after finishing another huge role-playing game, Horizon Zero Dawn, and it was a jarring transition. After spending 40 hours playing a game that literally pointed me in the right direction at all times, now I was forced to fend for myself. But it very quickly turned into a liberating sensation. Instead of worrying if I was following the correct path, for the first dozen hours or so, I largely ignored the story altogether. Instead, I trekked across Hyrule activating the specific towers found in each region, which not only help fill in the details of the map but also provide crucial fast-travel points.
Even the act of filling out Breath of the Wild’s map instils a deep sense of adventure. In most open-world games, particularly Ubisoft titles like Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed, your map is overburdened with icons from the very beginning. You can spot where everything from a city to a treasure chest is located before you even start exploring. It can feel overwhelming. Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, does the opposite. When you first start out, the map is almost completely empty. You can see the dividing lines between the various regions that make up Hyrule, but none of their details. It’s only once you start exploring that it fills out. A town won’t appear on your map until you actually go there, which you can only do by finding it on your own. Discovering a new place or thing truly feels like an act of discovery.
Breath of the Wild features two significant additions that completely changed how I viewed the world around me. In addition to the usual methods of traversal — foot, horse, and fast travel — Link now also has the ability to climb nearly every surface you come across. If you spot a mountain, a castle, or virtually anything else, you can climb it. The only restriction is Link’s stamina — which expands over time and can be augmented with things like potions — but even then there are ways around it if you’re clever. This marks a fundamental shift for the series. Instead of an impediment, walls and mountains are now just another potential pathway. Often I would bypass monster-plagued roads altogether and simply climb the comparatively safe mountain instead.
Link’s climbing ability is made all the more useful and important by a seemingly innocuous paraglider, which lets Link temporarily soar through the air. In short order, it became a pivotal part of the game, and my main method of transportation. Instead of walking or riding to a new location, I would climb the nearest high point — a mountain, or maybe a tower — and then glide in the direction of where I wished to be. The act of getting somewhere became exciting in and of itself. There’s a certain pleasure that comes from just having enough energy to reach the top of a tower before losing your grip, or sailing peacefully above enemy camps as the monsters sleep below, unaware.
Not only is Breath of the Wild’s map large; it’s also dense. I was constantly discovering new places and puzzles, both elaborate and diminutive. One of my favorite additions to the game is the shrines — glowing caverns scattered liberally across the map. Each one is like a miniature, self-contained Zelda dungeon. Early on these shrines serve as tutorials, showing necessary details about Link’s powers — like his ability to temporarily halt time or use bombs — but later they essentially become puzzle boxes, which approach Portal-levels of cleverness. The shrines also simplify the Zelda dungeon formula in an almost mobile game-like manner, resulting in satisfyingly quick puzzles that can usually be completed in less than 15 minutes or so. Even better, unlike typical Zelda puzzles, those in Breath of the Wild’s shrines often have multiple solutions.
Many other additions help bring Breath of the Wild in line with contemporary open-world games like The Witcher or Skyrim, while also contributing to its overwhelming focus on adventure and discovery. Link can now cook, for instance, gathering ingredients in the wild, using them to make food that replenishes health or buffs abilities. I found myself especially taken with this feature, scouring the world for new vegetables and meats, and seeing what I could make of them. Again, cooking isn’t really explained, making it all the more compelling. Whipping up a tasty mushroom rice ball or meat-stuffed pumpkin using guesswork instead of a recipe is satisfying. I especially love the way ingredients dance and jump in the pot as you prepare a meal.
There are also survival elements, forcing you to protect Link from extreme heat and cold. You’ll often find him shivering or sweating because of the weather, his health depleting. Weapons, too, give way. For the first time in a Zelda game your swords and shields degrade as you use them. But weapons are everywhere. You can even pick up a downed skeleton’s arm to bludgeon beasts, its fingers still twitching as you swing it about. Using your best equipment becomes a risky choice, not an assumption.
Even though Breath of the Wild introduces RPG-like elements such as crafting and a greater focus on gear, it’s missing a very distinct kernel of the genre: experience. In most RPGs, numbers determine almost everything you can do. If you’re a level 5 character in a typical RPG, you definitely don’t want to head into a dungeon filled with level 10 enemies, and there’s a whole range of items and abilities you can’t use until you grind long enough to meet the appropriate level. This effectively walls off large portions of the world until you’ve achieved a numerical level of success.
Breath of the Wild scraps this logic. Link gets more health and stamina as you progress, and you can acquire stronger weapons and armor, but he never gets stronger himself. He doesn’t learn to swing a sword or shoot a bow any better. But you do. Breath of the Wild offers a more open and expansive world to explore, but it also demands more of its players than other Zeldas, forcing you to get better and smarter to survive. It’s the most challenging Zelda I’ve played in many years, but also the most satisfying. (Though it never approaches the daunting difficulty of games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls.)
All of these many changes fundamentally alter the Zelda formula. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about Breath of the Wild is that it still feels like a Zelda adventure — and it’s more than just the familiar setting and characters, or the stirring rendition of the Zelda theme that plays in the background. Breath of the Wild may be the biggest Zelda game to date, but it’s also an experience that distills the essence of the series into something more pure. More recent Zelda games have become bogged down with needless hand holding, an overabundance of tutorials, and overly complicated narratives. Breath of the Wild gets away from that. It changes the Zelda formula in dramatic ways, yet paradoxically it feels more Zelda than almost any game in the series before. By going big and open, Breath of the Wild gets at the heart at what a Zelda game should be.
This new direction, and shaking up of the age-old formula that has come to define the series, helps Breath of the Wild return to what made Zelda so beloved in the first place. More so than just about any game series, Zelda’s heart lies in exploration, that moment of seeing a towering mountain in the distance and realizing that eventually you’ll be able to reach the top. Breath of the Wild takes this idea, cuts out the fluff, and expands upon it. It pulls ideas from other games, like crafting or survival, yet makes them feel perfectly at home in its beloved universe. It’s exactly the Zelda game I’ve been waiting for.
Just watch out for lightning.