An evocative and exhilarating open-world adventure game.
By Jose Otero
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s sheer freedom and sense of adventure is a remarkable achievement. Right from the start, the vast landscape of Hyrule is thrown completely open to you, and it constantly finds ways to pique your curiosity with mysterious landmarks, complex hidden puzzles, and enemy camps to raid for treasure and weapons. The fact that you can tackle any one of these things at your own pace and almost never get pulled to the main path is liberating, but the way all of Breath of the Wild’s systems fit elegantly into complex light survival game is even more impressive. I’ve been running around for over 50 hours and I still have plenty of mysteries left to track down and lots of wonderfully crafted puzzles to solve. I’m in awe of this scope and scale of this adventure, and I often find myself counting the hours until I can get back in.
The untamed, post-apocalyptic, techno-fantasy land of Hyrule is the main character in Breath of the Wild. Not only is it vast, beautiful, and filled with a diverse set of locations from grassy fields to craggy alpine mountains, but it follows surprisingly realistic rules that let you pull off solutions so intuitive that you might be surprised they actually work. The trees bear fruit, grass fields can be set ablaze, and even enemies and animals behave in a believable manner, based on the skittish and aggressive reactions I’ve seen in the wild. But the realistic touches don’t end there. Each object you encounter, from sticks to apples to rocks and metallic blocks, is made of a material, and those materials usually respond to forces like fire and magnetism as you’d expect.
It all sets up a surprisingly fun and responsive sandbox to interact with, and one I’ve rarely seen executed so well in an action-adventure game. If you think something should work, it usually does, and that led me to all kinds of fun and hilarious experimentation. You can stand under an apple tree with a torch and bake the fruit into a quick-healing snack before you even pick it, or drop a metal sword in front of a weaponless enemy and watch it get fried by a bolt of lighting. Meanwhile, Link needs warmer clothes to survive the cold and flame-resistant gear to near the volcanic Death Mountain. It’s consistently amazing to learn how all of these systems interact with each other while you play.
What elevates Breath of Wild above its contemporaries is its sheer freedom.
But what elevates Breath of Wild above its open-world contemporaries is its sheer freedom, both in its non-linear questing structure and in your ability to climb almost any surface and travel in any direction once you leave the starting area. It is the heart of what makes this action-adventure game truly special and addictive. Like many open-world games it delivers on the implied promise that if you can see it out in the distance, chances are you can eventually reach it – but here, figuring out how to get there is more often than not a satisfying puzzle in itself, and one that never gets old. For instance, a tantalizing island far off the coast of the mainland was just out of my paragliding reach for the first several hours until after I’d upgraded my abilities. When I finally did, what took place when I finally reached my objective was a great twist that blew my mind – including finding an easier alternate route I’d missed.
That paraglider is easily one of the most useful tools in Breath of the Wild because it’s so versatile. You can use it to effortlessly glide across lakes and gaps or ride updrafts into new areas, and I often used each long trip across the map as a way to scan the marvelously lit horizon in search of clues or meditate on what I need to do next.
From overhead you get a glimpse of what’s even more evident from the ground: each individual area has its own little ecology, and systems built around extreme hot and cold temperatures and high altitudes mean you have to take the time to think and prepare in order to travel safely through them. It doesn’t matter, for example, if you can glide into the chilly mountains if you’ll freeze to death before you hit the ground. Going in with the right equipment makes all the difference.
As you continue to improve Link’s stamina meter and skills you can reach even more of these varied locations. But no matter how much stronger you get, the world and its resident Mother Nature is always more powerful than you will ever be. Random events like rain and thunderstorms slow down your movement across slick surfaces, and dangerous lightning bolts can strike with little warning if you’re wearing any metal. Additionally, the day/night cycle is constantly running, and makes meaningful differences: nighttime brings monsters that spring up from the ground, it’s easier to spot some useful bugs and plants, and other secrets that are best discovered for yourself. These are all constant reminders that you are always at the mercy of the world itself.
Yet there are still pockets of serenity and beauty spread throughout the gorgeous, tantalizing landscape. In these moments, subtle music queues matched the tempo of my adventure, swaying between playful piano melodies and ambient sounds of wildlife. In the foreground, Breath of the Wild’s anime-inspired art style is colorful, remarkably lively, and beautifully animated, but it comes at the cost of brief framerate hiccups and object pop-in that’s most noticeable when you’re playing the Switch in TV mode, where it renders at 900p, and when there are a lot of physics particle effects flying around the screen. The issues are less frequent playing on in portable mode on the 720p screen, but regardless of where I played the performance problems never significantly soured my gameplay. (Check back soon for what we thought of the Wii U version, which we haven’t received it as of this writing.)
The light and flexible cooking system offers lots of opportunity to experiment.
Unlike a lot of survival games in which every item you use must be created from felled trees and dug-up minerals, Breath of the Wild focuses all its crafting systems on cooking. It’s a light and flexible system that offers lots of opportunity for experimenting with different ingredient combinations to help you survive. Raw food and quick-and-dirty snacks cooked by a fire will replenish a small amount of health, but the most interesting and stat-boosting dishes come from tossing ingredients into a pot to make a hearty meal. I’ve spent many hours figuring out the best recipes by using clues noted in the ingredient descriptions to come up with effects like stamina boosts and elemental resistances of various potencies, and I loved that whenever I got a little carried away with the my recipes I ended up with a censored-out dish appropriately called Dubious Food that’s apparently too disgusting to even look at. Making buff-imbuing potions is equally as flexible, and you’ll find plenty of bugs and monster parts with which to mix up a special brew.