The Legend of Zelda series is one of the first and most indelible memories I have about the NES era, the first console I ever owned, and a series of games I’ve had a waning love for due to several lackluster entries in the series starting with Twilight Princess (the wolf sequences in that game KILLED any enjoyment I had, well that and waggle combat). I played a good chunk of A Link between worlds on the DS, which came closest to capturing that “classic” feel the series had seemed to lose over the years. There was a lot of skepticism regarding the latest entry, and when the big N decided yet again to launch a game on both their “current” and new platforms simultaneously, I was again worried that perhaps the desire to cater to both the current and potential new user base would make for a game that was missing something. Long story short, Nintendo had brought a smile to my face that touches on those memories I have of countless hours wandering the land of Hyrule unraveling the mystery.
In stark contrast to recent entries (Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword) the game instead gets you into the game in mere moments, with almost zero tutorial to speak of. The game then spends the next several hours slowly easing you into the game mechanics, but it feels anything but a structured sequence. You’re more than free to go wandering off the beaten path to explore a random ruin or climb a mountain, but just like in similar games of this ilk preparation is the key to survival.
Long standing traditions of the series are well out the window, like extensive dungeons to explore and numerous power-ups to find. The former has changed to an obscene amount (I’ve read 100) of bite-sized dungeons in the form of shrines, each with a few puzzles to solve, one or possibly a few treasure chests, and an end of dungeon reward for completion in the form of spirit orbs, which in this game translate to either an additional heart container or if you choose a stamina meter boost, which is used for climbing the hills, walls, and mountains of Hyrule and also for special weapon attacks. I was wondering if the stamina meter would be a natural “progress wall” that I would hit periodically to halt my progress into an unknown region, but in practice so far NOTHING has really been out of my reach even with the base level stamina.
The same cannot be said for the combat, which brings me back to my earlier point about preparation. I would describe the combat as brutal but fair, and early on in the game you will find yourself dying *very* quickly to what seems like even the lowliest combatants, fighting off groups of Bokoblins with a tree stick and a pot lid as your sword and shield. But once you best that group of enemies you can plunder their corpses for a much more effective weapon and shield. Don’t get too attached to that shiny new weapon/shield though, since they will soon decay and break, generally after 1 or maybe 2 combat encounters. There will be people who see this and think “That’s not Zelda!” and they’re totally right, but this change alone makes every combat a choice rather than an obligation, and I’ve found many times in my early play just avoiding combat altogether if I’m already loaded for bear. While the early game seems to be mostly fire and forget weapons/bows/shields, the late game seems more like finding & using the right gear for a particular situation, whether that is scaling a frozen peak or finally deciding to go toe-to-toe with one of the terrifying Guardians you see early on in the game. At my current point, I’m actually farming them for materials in order to upgrade my equipment.
You can of course follow the critical path set before you, or you can literally go in a direction and start exploring. While you won’t get very far without engaging with the main quest, you aren’t punished for seeking out the corners of the world, unless you come across one of the many enemy groups just looking to ruin your fun. It’s here where I’ve spent a majority of my time, wandering the lands of Hyrule in search of something; be it a tower to unlock the general outline of an area on my map, finding shrines to help increase my stamina or hearts, or mostly just looking at something on my map or through the scope and just thinking, “I want to go there and see what’s going on.” It’s in these moments that I get lost in the world and hours pass before I realize I never actually got to my “destination”. Amazingly though, this game is one that works in both a short and long play experience. I can sit down for 15-30 minutes and knock out a shrine or two, or I can spend several hours exploring an entirely new area top to bottom, collecting weapons, materials, and completing sidequests. Both styles of play feel satisfying, and reminds me of the bite sized experiences I was able to enjoy in Metal Gear Solid V, but which can’t work with a game like The Witcher 3, which requires a certain “ramp-up” when you play.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the best game I’ve played since I finished The Witcher 3, and is continually moving up my “all-time” list quickly. From the depth of combat, the massive open world, and the surprisingly moving story it all comes together to create the kind of magic Nintendo used to be synonymous with back in the 8 & 16-bit eras of gaming. It’s truly a joy every time I boot up the Switch, and I’m going to be sad once I finally decide to make a “real” run into Hyrule Castle and battle Ganon for the first time. But until that time comes, I’m just glad I have a ⅓ of the shrines left to discover, more armor to upgrade and even a new bustling village to visit that I helped establish as part of an extended side quest.
See you in Hyrule.