With a focus on exploration and experimentation, the Nintendo Switch's most important launch title is my favorite game in years.
Header and all screenshots courtesy of Nintendo.
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On the morning that I committed to finishing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—which launches alongside Nintendo's new Switch console tomorrow, and which is also available for the Wii U—I set out from a small stable in one of Hyrule's most picturesque regions, a forested stretch of hills up against the eastern sea, caught in a permanent autumn. My goal was to find a few final secrets before heading towards the center of the continent where I'd find the ruined and corroded skeleton of Hyrule Castle, and face the game's ultimate challenge.
Instead, as I pulled my horse over a ridge westward, my eye caught something on the top of a low mountain across a valley. There was movement I hadn't seen before. I checked my map, and found an oddly shaped pond marked on the flat top of the summit, and something about the shape resonated with me. Maybe a short detour?
My curiosity was rewarded—as soon as I reached the peak and saw what was there, I realized that the shape of that pond seemed familiar to me because a dozen hours earlier, in a town on the other side of Hyrule, another character mentioned her desire to come to this exact place. And now there were two people here, staring at each other from across the water, and it was my job to… well, I'm trying to avoid spoilers.
From that peak, though, another glint in the distance caught my eye. And then from there, another. A banner blowing in the dust-filled wind, or a single sword driven into a hillside; a glow emanating from the grassy plateau; a ring of massive, deteriorated statues looking inwards at each other. A rock in the wrong place. Two rocks in the right place.
There is always something new beyond the next hill in Breath of the Wild: At one point, fifty or sixty hours into my time with the game, a man told me that he had some bananas for sale, fresh from a village I'd never heard of. (I stumbled headfirst into the place soon after, and was glad I did.)
If you're skeptical of all of this, I don't blame you even a little. Over the last decade, many games—and their marketers—have made the same promise: "See that mountain? You can go there." Too often, this has been a promise about sheer scale; a statement of the fact that there are mountains in the game, but rarely about why you would ever want to go to one.
So when Nintendo made this exact same promise when it first debuted the latest Zelda game, I was skeptical, too. But what I've come to learn was that Breath of the WIld isn't about "sheer scale," it's about scope. Not just a general sort of largeness, but a largeness that is really leveraged to produce a variety of feelings and experiences. I want to go to every mountain in this game because each one feels like it holds something fresh.
While a large part of this feeling of scope comes from brilliant art and environmental design, it's what you do when you get there that lifts Breath of the Wild even higher.
Over the last 31 years, the Zelda series has been incredibly innovative but also frustratingly stubborn in its devotion to its own conventions. Barring some great experiments in structure in "side" games like Majora's Mask and A Link Between Worlds, the major Zelda games always offer the same basic shape. You spend some time in an overworld, but the bulk of your most serious play is spent in dungeons, where a newly unlocked special item allows you to traverse a handful of obstacles before finally beating the boss and getting a McGuffin. Rinse, repeat. It's reliable, but it's also predictable.
Breath of the Wild swerves away from that structure. You are outfitted with nearly all of your "special items" within the first couple of hours of play. By the time you leave the first area, you'll be able to summon magical bombs, lift and swing metal objects with a rune of magnetism, lock moving objects in place using a stasis power, and lift columns of ice from any surface of water. You'll also understand the stamina and climbing mechanics, have a pretty good handle on the basics of combat—including weapon durability, hard hitting counterattacks, and critical hits with the bow—and have at least a limited understanding that things like temperature and weather matter in Breath of the Wild, too. A cold Link is an ineffective Link.
Because it front-loads all of this (and because it trusts players to be able to follow along without a mind numbing tutorial), Breath of the Wild can immediately begin challenging you to do incredible things.
There are a hundred "shrines" spread across Hyrule that offer puzzles and other challenges and reward you with rare equipment and the divine currency needed to give you more health and stamina. Those Shrines also work as free-form, nearly wordless tutorials of their own: An early Shrine I found taught me that if you hit objects after you use Stasis on them, they retain (and build up) the kinetic force you put into them, blasting off into the distance the second your stasis ends. Twenty hours later, I'd use this trick to send a boulder into the face of giant ogre.
And that's the thing about Breath of the Wild. I have a hundred stories like that:
• I once spent an hour looking for a certain type of sword because a nice boy in one of the game's more bustling villages wanted to see things from the outside world. By the time I'd finally found it, it was sailing through the air and skidding down the side of a massive cliff: I'd knocked it from the hand of a skeletal foe (and I'd knocked said foe's head down the cliff soon after). I hopped on my shield, using it like a snowboard, and followed after it, only to be slowed down by a different skeleton which had picked up and put on the head I'd knocked down there moments earlier. After dispatching that enemy, I looked down into the deep ravine to see only fog and the faint outline of a distant river. "Why not," I told myself, and leapt, gliding down and looking for the telltale glint of the blade. Nothing… until there, in the grass, a few feet away from the river that would've stolen it away, a shine. The blade.
• At a seaside dock, I find myself under attack by a pair waterbound lizardmen and a boulder spewing octopus. While the lizards could close distance with me, they were content to snipe away safely. Unable to get an angle on them, I retreated from the dock to the grassy bay while they fired in artillery arcs at me all the way. Suddenly, the ground shook, and a massive beast pulled itself from the earth. The second I was distracted, the lizards closed the distance and surrounded me, poking with spears. I panicked and let loose an arrow—except, whoops, I had my fire arrows equipped. The grass beneath us all caught fire, and in my alarm I tried to jump away. That's when I realized it: Fire creates heat, and heat lifts air. My paraglider caught an updraft and I lifted away into the safe distance. I'd use this trick for the rest of my time with the game.
• Everything that happens at Eventide Island. Just.. Go find Eventide Island.
There's the time I saw an enemy put his back to the wall so that my boomerang would be unable to return to me; the time that, lacking any fire arrows and desperately needing some, I made a fire with a piece of flint and some wood, and dipped my regular arrows in the resulting flame before letting loose; the time I realized that it can, now and then, be good to be thrown from your horse.
For all of these reasons, Breath of the Wild feels like a descendant of games like Far Cry 2 and Dragon's Dogma, games that emphasize making player expressivity joyful even (especially?) when things are going poorly. It lets me "break" the game with my nonsense in a way that reminds me of Morrowind's spell creation, and it rewards me for internalizing how the enemies and environment work the way Shiren the Wanderer once did. I do not make any of these comparisons lightly. It does not just aspire to be like these games that are in my personal canon of favorites, it does not only remind me of them, it belongs with them.
Breath of the Wild spent sixty or so hours letting me execute on (frankly) terrible plans, and it never got old. It generates the sort of spiraling, self-driven stories that pulled me into games to begin with. And even all that many hours in, I still believe that it keeps its greatest strength: Breath of the Wild will constantly surprise you and let you surprise yourself.
Yet all of this misses something. There is something about Breath of the Wild that is not going to be captured in a list of the game's features, a breakdown of its systems and mechanics, or even in rollicking anecdotes. This is also the "something" that has made the handful of technical hiccups—including some serious frame rate issues—feel so pointless to complain about. There is an air about Breath of the Wild that is hard to capture in words—and I suspect critics and fans will spend the better part of the next month trying to pin this down.
Here is my best effort: A few hours into playing, I'd headed east, away from central Hyrule and towards the "Dueling Peaks," a massive pair of mountains that seemed as if they were cleaved in two. Through the soft patter of the rain and the calming streamsounds of the river, I heard a song in the distance, and through the fog saw lights. I climbed a hill to get a better view, and there I saw a massive, wooden horse head lifting up from the top of a small structure. Gliding down, the music got louder, and I could hear the murmurs of speech.
A dog barked, and at that moment the sun broke through the clouds, lighting up not only the stable, but also the field of horses and ruins and strange machines that lay beyond it. I ended my first night of playing by just lingering there at this stable. I fed the dog and cooked up some new recipes for myself. I spoke to the the characters there and laughed at their jokes (and sometimes, at their egos). I watched as a thunderstorm slowly rolled in across the field. It's the first time that I've ever felt like an adventurer at rest.
This effect—the joy of just being there—runs throughout Breath of the Wild. And however magical it feels, it is clearly the result of an incredible amount of talent and hard work. Someone—or a group of people—realized at some point that it was deeply important to include sightlines that let you see major landmarks of Hyrule from across the entire continent, and then they worked on that until it was just right. People labored over the expressivity on character faces. People designed the grass to catch the wind and light just so. Writers and localizers massaged this familiar story—a Princess, a Hero, an Adversary—until it was something uncanny and unsettling, a story about the failure of a prophecy, hubris, and—seriously—the unreliability of drone warfare.
In marketing material, Nintendo has been calling this game an "open air adventure," the sort of unique genre description that is invented alongside so many big budget Japanese games. When I first heard that term, I rolled my eyes a little. The power of the term "adventure" has been diminished through use in the games industry. A term that once conjured a feeling of momentum and danger, intrigue and bravery has become generic. But Breath of the Wild managed to revive the term for me. For the first time in years, I don't just feel like I'm fighting enemies or searching for loot, like I'm "questing" or "exploring." I feel like I'm adventuring.
And there is more distance yet to travel. In Breath of the Wild, you can never fast travel directly to a village or ruin or other specific location, but only to a nearby shrine. That means that whenever you arrive, you always see your destination ahead of you, framed carefully: A buzzing town on a hill, a desert oasis obscured by blowing sands, a labyrinth out in the sea, a little fishing village where bananas grow on tropical trees, a strange movement on a low mountain. There is always distance to be traveled.