A shrine, perfectly placed at the top of a mountain with carefully placed ridges dotted up the cliff face begging for me to climb. I set off, climbing agonisingly slowly and manage to hoist myself up onto the first ridge to regain my stamina. I’m just about to make for the next ridge and it happens. It starts spitting with rain. Knowing that attempting to make it to the next ledge would be a fruitless endeavour, I paraglide back down and think about setting up camp for the night when I notice an oddly-shaped rock, perfectly placed in the centre of the clearing. Approaching the anomaly, the ground begins to shake and a gargantuan golem rises from the earth, hurling its own arms at me as I dodge from side to side. A few minutes (okay, nearly half an hour and 3 attempts) later and the golem is finally defeated. After harvesting its corpse for valuable minerals, I head to the nearest town and sell everything I have and purchase a bundle of bomb arrows. Oh, and what about that shrine?
Zelda Breath Of The Wild is a game to get hopelessly and relishingly lost in. It’s virtually impossible to solely focus on a mission without being distracted by the various events and discoveries you’ll encounter along the way. Whether it’s coming across a shrine not visible from one of the many towers dotted across the map or a mysteriously placed pinwheel fixed to a tree stump, your curiosity will undoubtedly be piqued and the next two hours will be spent wandering around the region, your initial reason for visiting well and truly forgotten.
Within minutes of starting a new game, you’re thrust into the centre of Hyrule, the whole world wrapped around you just waiting to be explored. The sheer size and scale of the game is unprecedented, even with today’s open world obsession, but unlike previous Zelda games in the franchise, you’re forced to fight or fly. The endless tutorials and pop-up hints have been replaced with a respect for the ability of those playing and you’re positively encouraged to make mistakes, die and learn from them; the generosity of the autosave feature certain evidence of this.
That said, the game does offer you a ‘starter area’ which comprises a large plateau, four uniquely located puzzle-dungeons known as shrines and a handful of low-level enemies. You’re free to complete the shrines in any order you wish and the reward for finishing each one is a core ability you’ll still be using a hundred hours into the game. The way in which Zelda Breath Of The Wild refuses to hold your hand throughout any part of the game is unprecedented, not only in the Zelda franchise, but in the video game world today, and after a couple of hours, with a skill tree completely absent from the game, you’re as well equipped to face the other 116 shrines as you’ll ever be.
As for shrines, there was quiet apprehension amongst Zelda fans when traditional dungeons were rumoured not to exist in this instalment of their favourite franchise. However, these mini puzzle-dungeons, which rarely require combat, are as challenging as they are rewarding and add a gross sense of satisfaction upon completion. The shrines, doubling as fast travel points, are speckled throughout Hyrule and completing each one, often using your abilities in a unique and ingenious way will reward you with a spirit orb. Find four of these and you can choose to increase your number of hearts or add a fifth to your stamina wheel.
Stamina plays an important role in your adventure through the world and with the exception of walking and horseriding, all acts of movements require it, creating restrictions without placing an invisible barrier for players to bump into. As with obtaining specialised clothing that enables you to climb snowy mountain peaks or traverse the sweltering heat of the Gerudo desert without an elixir, increasing your stamina also gradually opens up more of the world, enabling you to glide, swim and climb further than before. Failing to manage your stamina can be exceptionally infuriating, especially if you’re inches away from the lip of a ledge and you run out, forcing you to fall back and either start again or approach the obstruction from a different angle. As the game progresses, this becomes less of an issue but there have been many times when the game felt grossly unfair, especially when it starts raining mid-climb and you find yourself sliding all the way back down a cliff, unable to start over until the storm has passed.
Another source of frustration when playing Breath Of The Wild is the durability of each weapon you find. Regardless of attack level, your regular melee weapons, bows and shields will rarely last more than three or four fights before breaking, and unlike games such as The Witcher or Bloodborne, once they’re gone, they’re gone. The upside is that you’re forced to adapt and experiment with various weapons . Rather than button mashing the weapon you’re most comfortable with, you’ll find yourself more inclined to be more careful with how you kill an enemy and which ones to spend time and resources on. Despite the constant turnover of weapons, a lack of finding them is never an issue. Not only do you find at least one in every shrine or at every stable, each enemy you manage to kill will drop their weapon, often creating hilarious situations where you attack a skeleton with his friend’s arm or cause a bokoblin to stomp his feet in a tantrum as you beat him over the head with his own club.
The Hyrulian landscape presents a veritable smorgasbord in terms of geographical features and weather. In addition to the extremes found in the deserts and mountains, rain, lightning and wind will buffet the landscape, often interacting with whatever you’re carrying. Should you decide to run across an open plain with a large steel blade or an iron bow on your back during an intense electric storm, you can expect to be struck down within seconds unless you unequip the conductive items. This poses a further challenge to navigating Hyrule and along with the way NPCs react to the dynamic weather (vendors running for the nearest town, villagers moaning about the rain), the detail to which this game has been crafted left me feeling incredibly impressed.
Zelda Breath of the Wild reinvents the open-world wheel when it comes to exploration design. When you open up your Sheikah Slate (a Wii U gamepad-like device used for a map, photo album, quest log etc) the map is completely blank. Climbing to the top of a tower will download the topographical data of the region, leaving shrines, quest-givers, hidden items and such like only discoverable by you. This is aided by the ability to mark locations on the map, noticed from the top of a tower or mountain, or with a description somebody gives you when talking to them. Finding a shrine or hidden item through a conversation or stumbling across one by accident feels infinitely more rewarding than having tens of exclamation marks spread over a map and also encourages you to explore other regions a lot more quickly than staying in one place, completing all the highlighted side quests before moving on.
Only an hour or so into Breath Of The Wild, the quest ‘Defeat Ganon’ is added to your activity log, presenting you with the option to march over to Hyrule Castle and (spoiler alert) save Princess Zelda right away. This is obviously no easy feat as you leave the starting plateau, although speed runners have already taken advantage of this and completed the game in under an hour. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people playing Breath Of The Wild will, in addition to completing shrines and exploring the far reaches of Hyrule, feel compelled to finish the four main dungeons before converging on Ganon’s location. Without giving too much away, these four quests are of similar difficulty and typically involve a series of puzzles in which you must complete a series of tasks and defeat a final boss. Each mission has a unique story to follow and the dungeon itself only becomes available once you’ve undertaken a quest for the people of the city where the dungeon is situated. Defeating the boss will grant you access to everything the city have to offer – shops for arrows, food ingredients, crafting materials, armour with specific features and numerous side quests.
If the thought of cooking elixirs and food to replenish hearts or give temporary buffs fills you with dread, then I’m afraid I don’t have any words to calm you. With a lack of hearts found in the open world and an inability to store recipes or bulk-cook, you’ll often find yourself cooking meals just before facing a boss to ensure you don’t run out of health or to give you a temporary buff. Even so, this isn’t as essential when exploring Hyrule due to the fact that even during battle you’re able to teleport to any shrine or fast travel location, making dying avoidable.
That said, dying is something you’ll do a lot of when playing Zelda. Hugely powerful guardians and centaur-like creatures called Lynels are littered around the map and will one-shot kill you if you dare to stray too close. This can make exploring a region incredibly challenging, yet not impossible if you approach with caution, careful planning and preparation. Zelda is a game that rewards your level of risk – some heavily guarded shrines can present you with weapons that are nearly 10 times the attack power of regular ones found in the region and some of the best weapons in the game can be accessed by sneaking into Hyrule Castle before you’re supposed to.
Despite the incredible world that Nintendo has built, it has some very noticeable flaws – the main being the performance on the Wii U and Switch when docked. You’ll often find the framerate dipping into the twenties when running through long grass or when the rain falls in a number of towns, something I can only imagine is due to the game being a Wii U port delayed to coincide with the release of the Switch. Had this game been designed for the Switch from the ground up, there would have undoubtedly been various changes to the finished product we see today, not least the fiddly inventory system when cooking and dropping or picking up weapons.
In spite of all this, The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild will find itself amongst the crème de la crème of a market saturated with open world games. Nintendo has taken a risk in redefining exploration and storyline linearity, yet still manages to produce an experience that feels as epic a story as you’ll ever find. No two people will ever take the same path through the game and even upon completion, the human desire for discovery and intrigue will lead many to venture back to Hyrule in search of many more shrines, korok seeds and random encounters.