Breath of the Wild just might be the most ambitious Zelda game yet, transposing the traditional dungeon puzzles all across an open world map. While trying on this new form, The Legend of Zelda manages to maintain its colorful style. And despite all the space, the central cities are among the most populated places in the series. Like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, this is an open world game which never feels empty or lifeless.
In classic Nintendo form, Breath of the Wild sets itself apart by capturing the large scale of an open world game while maintaining a simple focus. The grand majority of side quests in this game revolve around shrines, which reward the player with orbs which can be exchanged for increased health or endurance. By letting the player know what they stand to gain by completing each shrine, BotW offers a straightforward sense of progress despite its open nature. While some might deride the lack of complexity, this simplicity separates this experience from its endless competition.
The puzzles themselves are expertly designed. Many are built around Link’s unique tools and end up being ingenious timing or physics puzzles. A few more offer challenging battles. The best go a step beyond and involve the outside world. Some involve finding the right thing to gain access, like one shrine demanding Link approach while riding a buck. At the far corners of the map are a few labyrinths which feel like mini-dungeons. My absolute favorite is Eventide Island, hidden in the southeastern corner of the map and only accessible with a hefty stamina wheel. This sequence operates as a microcosm of the full game, stripping Link of his armor and items and forcing him to make do with what he finds until he manages to find and place three orbs.
Navigating the world itself can be its own puzzle. Each major location has a tower which must be climbed to reveal that section of the map. This again offers some form of a guided experience, as the tower will usually be the first place the player will want to tackle. Each of these have their own dangers to overcome, adding to the sense of this game being a series of micro-dungeons. Yet travelling is never a hassle – the game offers fast travel to any of its towers and shrines.
Each corner of the map has its own immersive gimmick. Cold mountains and an active volcano require the right gear to safely navigate. The Lost Woods are as dizzying as ever, while the Gerudo town requires Link to pass as a woman to enter. Adding flavor to many smaller locations is a bardic bird named Kass who will sing songs hinting at hidden shrines. BotW has a dense cast for a Zelda game with many heroic figures, yet this wandering accordionist stands above the rest thanks to being the one recurring face among the wilds.
The art style might be The Legend of Zelda at its best, mixing the vibrant colors of The Wind Waker with the more realistically proportioned designs of the other games. Anytime I climbed to the top of a tower, I had to take a moment and look around to take in the sights. The Hyrule Compendium encourages taking a closer look, letting Link keep track of every creature, enemy, and item he stumbles across by taking a picture. Everything from the mountains to the wildlife to the trees is a wondrous sight.
This Hyrule is a partially ruined world, and nothing quite reinforces this like the guardian stalker. These mechanical, spider-like beings hunt down anything which crosses their line of sight. Areas like Hyrule Castle Town remain largely inaccessible due to their presence, and the reward for finally crossing the field is a saddening glimpse of what was lost. The stalkers also have a simply anxiety-inducing theme anytime they begin their hunt, with most encounters devolving into a mad dash behind cover just to make the music stop. There will be several times you abandon all current goals just to panic and dive off a cliff, and there’s nothing quite as fulfilling as finally learning how to take these suckers down.
This game is filled with some surprising emotional depth, especially once you unlock a feature on Link’s Sheikah Slate (the legendary ancient iPhone) which allows him to regain lost memories by visiting certain places on the map. These moments really help build the otherwise distant relationship he now has with Zelda, who’s been busy warding off Ganon during the 100 years that Link was unconscious. This is absolutely Zelda at her most complex, and the reversal of her being the one trapping Ganon this time is a perfect note.
Yet the most powerful moment comes completely out of nowhere and largely by chance. Link has a tendency to climb all over everything to try and get to new locations. When he climbs onto the railing of a certain bridge, an NPC will mistake his unthinking heroics for a suicide attempt. What makes this moment so compelling is its unexpectedly organic nature. Most conversations with NPCs are prompted by the player, and the few who reach out are usually there to block access to certain areas. No one expects an interruption in this particular location with this particular trigger. It’s a small moment, yes, only accounting for a few lines of dialogue. But Breath of the Wild is all about hundreds of small yet brilliant moments stitched together.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers the same scale as any massive open world game. What makes it stand out is the vibrant Zelda charm mixed with Nintendo’s penchant for simple yet expansive creations. Skyrim can feel like several distinct episodes while The Witcher 3 is firmly divided into acts. The unique aspect of BotW is that Link conquers these many shrines to gain better favor with the goddess before confronting Ganon. Even taking down the Divine Beasts is in purpose of that central conflict. By shaping every action around this battle, Breath of the Wild manages to feel like one distinct journey from beginning to end; the only difference is how you get to that end.