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.
Getting back to weapons and the always-variable character progression for Link (which depends a lot on your own decisions), you might find it shocking at first or even annoying that your weapons wear down and break so quickly, some times even after just two or three hits, but as the hours wear on, you will see this as just another fun mechanic. Don't fall in love with that powerful broadsword, because finding, upgrading and readying new weapons is all part of the game, and it also allows you to adapt and mix up your play-style.
Navigation and exploration of every area of the map has its own purpose beyond the pleasure of it or the resource/item gathering. In reality, a big part of the fun you'll have with Breath of the Wild involves finding and reaching the majority of the 100+ Shrines and Towers that are scattered around the world. The developers said they wanted the fun not only in the game's many destinations, but also in the journeys between them, and for the most part they nail it.
And this takes us to the inevitable topic of puzzles and dungeons. We finished our last preview wondering whether those hundred or so trials of logic and skill would at all compensate for the removal of the more traditional temples, and we have to say that they not only do that but, as you play more and more, it's easy to see that the new, wider layout for these challenges makes more sense. Of course some of you will miss the multi-tiered dungeons and temples and spending three-four hours exercising your brain, but suffice to say that with Breath of the Wild they've managed to add another twist to the formula, mainly due to the physics, but also thanks to some extraordinary designs. Some Shrines are really challenging, rewarding, and memorable, with trials that might take you a full hour to complete. Add to that the fact that there are indeed a handful of traditional dungeons that take longer, even if they're somewhat smaller than those in previous games, and puzzle fans should be well catered for. These dungeons are tricky, surprising, and add another distinctive element to the mix by being based on ancient mechanisms that could've been taken from a Metroid title.
That's how they manage to elevate Zelda, once again, above the competition; the puzzles and those moments where you have to reflect and take time to try and work out how to progress. The feeling of achievement and the sense that the hero is actually being tested is much greater, and this is where Breath of the Wild had to get it right. If larger temples would've contained all the ideas of the Shrines, it would've been almost impossible to keep things coherent, and the pacing that means you've always got a puzzle challenge nearby wherever you are, would have been broken. Besides, Shrines are actually thematic and not standalone rooms, so they're usually related to their surroundings anyway.
Finally in terms of gameplay, we have to highlight the interesting cooking system, which tasks you with creatively blending the ingredients you've gathered and not prefixed recipes (and it's absolutely needed to progress), and the neat idea of the Kolog, perhaps the most adorable and at the same time elegant collectible we've ever seen, with an almost endless number of mini-puzzles or secrets scattered around the world. In this regard, side-missions and story threads don't shine as brightly as the rest of the game, despite the legacy of games such as Majora's Mask. However, we have to say, as with Majora's Mask, it's good that this game has darker moments, some creepy ideas and stories, while at the same time always maintaining its usual sense of humour.
Another great feature is how basically all the lore from the Zelda universe has been integrated in one massive map. The developers have allowed themselves to take creatures and references from the whole series, and as it's not an 'illusion' anymore, but a real world, other than those traditional areas there's more than enough space to include the fantasies of 30 years of adventuring. By design, Breath of the Wild becomes a huge encyclopedia of the whole Zelda universe, but it now make sense when you learn about where certain beings live or why you find some weapons in specific places.
This takes us to the narrative, and more specifically, to the main story. We won't spoil it for you, but we think that the simple idea of telling a story that happened 100 years ago by means of recovered memories is used here to deliver a non-linear retelling of events without fault, and at the same time it makes Link more interesting as he's now someone with a history. The script, even if it's not the main takeaway, has a couple of nice twists and a lot of traditional flavour. It's supported here for the first time by voice acting, giving it a more convincing anime finish, even if those voices can make certain less likeable characters all the more irritating.
And to be honest, it's surprising that the game doesn't freeze or break more often, as sad as that may be to have to say that. It has its share of frame-rate drops (ironically, this seems to happen more often when the Switch is docked), but other than some sudden pop-up, we've seen almost nothing in terms of glitches or serious errors. Keeping in mind everything that's going on behind the scenes (and how much that could go wrong), and remembering the shape in which huge open-world games tend to ship these days, Nintendo EAD deserves credit for how polished Breath of the Wild is, and for how it stoically it handles all the crazy things and tricks you can experiment with thanks to the various dynamic systems at your disposal.
This is the biggest and most ambitious game Nintendo has ever created, and the best part is that it's not just a matter of increased scale and production, it's because of the brilliant gameplay. Breath of the Wild changes the series forever, simultaneously making its predecessor feel tiny in comparison while also making it impossible to imagine Zelda taking a different direction in the future. The leap from scripted adventure to non-linear open-world is perhaps not the milestone that it was when Zelda transitioned from 2D to 3D, but it's a new masterpiece in the genre, surprisingly brilliant and unique in many respects, with plenty of personality and challenging, rewarding gameplay. You could compare this or that element with any of its contemporaries, you could ask for better performance or more interesting errands to run, but, from the moment you leave the cave of the Shrine of Life, until you gather the courage and experience to enter Hyrule Castle and face evil, you'll experience one of the best adventures ever made.