Nintendo, in particular with the Zelda series, has already flirted with open-world design and adding little RPG touches here and there, and with varying degrees of success. If you look closely enough you can see that Breath of the Wild is something that they've been building up to over the course of 30 years, since that very first NES entry (a game that encouraged you to freely explore and where inventory items, the way you traverse the map, and the natural elements it contained, were all in place before you took those first steps). But the franchise kept growing, getting more complex, focused and, as the technology allowed, receiving new game mechanics and improved visuals, which led to more elaborate storytelling and a more cinematic approach. It stuck to its core conventions throughout; nothing wrong with that, as this was the series that established them.
However, when some of those conventions started to grow old (the progression and designs based on magical items, the combat systems from the past 20 years, the all too familiar secrets, the by-the-book settings), while others (the excellent design of dungeons, puzzles and bosses) had been mastered to such a degree that it was getting really tricky to come up with something really surprising, thankfully someone had the courage, the wisdom and the power to step up and call for a complete reinvention of Zelda. Let's go back to its open-world roots, let's remove or upgrade many of the series' conventions, and let's boost the RPG elements with a fitting survival element, all the while maintaining Zelda's identity and personality. After more than five years of development, they've finally delivered Breath of the Wild, and given the radical change it entails, along with the many risks that have been taken, we're all the more impressed at how well-rounded it turned out.
The precedents in terms of RPG elements came from things such as the weapons and shields system in Skyward Sword, where you could upgrade them with the resources you had collected. Then there were fears over what Nintendo might consider a fun open-world, fears brought on by the emptiness of Hyrule Field in Twilight Princess (with its tiresome treks) and the clear constraints both it and its predecessor (Wind Waker) had to deal with. But if you thought Breath of the Wild was going to be an expansion of Wind Waker and a correction of Twilight Princess, we're happy to confirm that you were wrong. This new entry is so well designed and put together that it somehow manages to find an almost perfect balance between activities (exploration, combat, puzzles), narrative pacing, and distractions found on the map, that it actually feels like a fresh start, a reboot of the franchise from the ground up.
In recent previews (that by no means could anticipate the massive adventure that came thereafter) we had been praising things like the level of freedom given to the player, and the different approaches you can use to solve every situation (again, be it exploratory, combative or puzzling). Well, these positive elements are maintained and/or enhanced during the rest of the journey, with new resources and tricks at your disposal, ensuring that it never gets stale. It's a funny and rewarding feeling that, instead of just traversing the world, you're constantly playing it, that every nook and cranny of that seemingly infinite piece of landmass is there for you to engage with.
This is not a modern, open-world RPG, with great bustling cities filled with NPCs on hand to present you with side-quests to solve along with elaborate plot threads. No. This is about Hyrule being a credible natural world, with interesting geography, specifically its amazing landscapes, that not only offer a convincing environment, but that combines structures, creatures, buildings, treasures and challenges, inviting you to try things and experience its world. This Zelda is all about gameplay.
The key to its success is combining a refined version of the traditional systems with a significant physics simulation and a plethora of interactive elements. You'll carry your weapon, perhaps your shield and your arrows, and you'll use some magic powers and gizmos, but the thing that will captivate you here is how your actions relate to such a dynamic and reactive environment. In the past you pushed a box along a predetermined path, mechanisms followed strict behaviours and only occasionally could you try more than one or two solutions. Now you have to improvise, keep several factors in mind, give things a try and see how the systems respond.
Above all, it's something you'll notice in the natural elements. You're not advised to shoot a fire arrow if the surroundings are flammable, just in case your enemy's weapon is also set on fire by chance and then ends up hitting your wooden shield. Don't try to glide down to that island if there's a strong headwind. Keep in mind that if you lift a huge metallic box and miss your attack, physics and a rebound could mean that it crushes you instead. You better unequip your metallic gear when an electric storm hits, but perhaps lightning will help you with a group of enemies standing in a puddle. If you're climbing, do it when the weather is nice, as rock walls get slippery when it rains. However, that downpour is great if you want to mask the sound of your footsteps when you're trying to sneak around.
With the introduction of the semi-realistic physics and the huge change they bring about, there's also an interesting (trial and) error aspect that makes everything more fun, and in this case it's not just the elemental weapons, but also the special rune powers of your Sheikah Slate (bombs, magnesis, stasis, freezing water), which are cooldown actions that are given to you at the very beginning, thus pretty early on you can devise strategies and come up with your own solutions.
And acting as the main driver of exploration, besides traversing the world on horseback (you need to tame them, and there's customisation, stables and a brand new autopilot), both climbing with your bare hands and soaring downhill with your paraglider become two methods or transport that are just as important as walking and running around. Both are linked to the stamina meter (and as such can be buffed by expanding the green meter either temporarily, or permanently via food, elixirs, costumes and upgrades), and both are ever present options on how to approach each location and situation.