I am officially Late to The Party on this one, but over the past few weeks, I have been obsessively playing a little-known indie game called The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Everyone raved about how amazing this game was when it came out in Spring 2017, but I didn’t own a Switch, so I just watched videos of other people playing it and thought about how one day, I’d play it too. Well, one day is finally today, and, in a shocking plot twist, this game really is quite good.
Understatement, of course. I am obsessed.
I got a bit stressed out by life in general recently, so I gave myself a week to mostly just play Breath of the Wild — we’re talking 50 hours or so in seven days. Most large open world RPGs have an adjustment period, where you need to play for several hours and get invested in the characters before the game becomes truly compelling. With Breath of the Wild, I picked up my controller, turned on the game, and within ten minutes I was in love. And I cannot stop.
I’ve been a Zelda fan since I was a kid. My first one was Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy, before I discovered Ocarina of Time and then spent many afternoons sitting with my friend with the Nintendo Magazine, reading the hints and walkthroughs for Majora’s Mask. I love Zelda games, but after twenty years of my life, they’ve also become a little bit tired. Ride Epona, find the master sword, solve dungeons, defeat the boss using whatever new item you found inside said dungeon. If there are unlit torches in a room, light them. If there’s an eye on the wall, shoot it. The games changed things up a little over the years, but the basic Zelda logic remained the same.
So it’s both very strange and very satisfying that Breath of the Wild basically throws all the familiar Zelda formulas out of the window. It offers you hints of that old familiar Zelda, just enough to bring out the fan girl in you, but it does so very sparingly, only when it needs to. You’ll hear the familiar Zelda music, but mostly only whispers of it — until you finally get to the end game, and freak out with excitement when it breaks out into that full familiar tune. You can find both the Master Sword and the Hylian Shield, but they’re entirely missable, and you only get Link’s iconic green outfit if you go above and beyond and solve every one of the 120 mini-dungeons in the game.
Starting the game with literally nothing, you’re forced to scavenge and begin to build your own version of Link — because this Link has lost all of his memories, and has no idea who he is or what he is supposed to be. And, if you like, over the course of 100 hours of gameplay, you can slowly begin to develop him back into the hero he was destined to be.
Almost nothing in the game is permanent. Weapons all break fairly quickly, and all dead enemies are revived every few days under the blood moon, so you’re forced to ration your resources and think carefully about when to engage an enemy, when to stealth, and when to just run away.
The game gives you the barest amount of direction for the main plot. Everything else is up to you. You get “defeat Ganon” as a quest very early in game, and you can immediately run over to him and kill him if you’re feeling particularly skilled and don’t really like much game in your game. It’s up to you when you face him, and how you face him. Do the quests to help you defeat him, or don’t. Solve shrine puzzles to increase your strength, or don’t. Find your memories that will tell you what happened 100 years ago, or don’t. It’s all up to you.
All this means that while I do spend time trying to save Hyrule, I’ve also sunk many hours into becoming Link, Hyrule’s Greatest Wildlife Photographer.
This philosophy applies to enemies too. Traditionally, Zelda enemies have a clear weakspot, and you often have to kill all of the enemies in an area to proceed. Breath of the Wild encourages you to improvise. Come up with a strategy, use elements in the environment to help you, and even decide whether it’s worth engaging in a fight at all, or whether it will just use up some of your precious resources without any real game. I’ve played most of the game as a sneaky coward, only engaging when necessary, and it’s really kept things fresh and fun. It also means I’ve maintained a healthy fear of most of the bigger enemies, not because they can still utterly crush me (although some can — damn Lynels), but because they did once and I learned to avoid them rather than taking the unnecessary risk.
In another valuable change from the formula, Zelda is a fully realised, emotionally complex character with a story arc of her own. Zelda has barely ever been the true damsel in distress, acting as Sheik in Ocarina of Time and being a pirate captain in Wind Waker, but her relationship to her destiny is the most developed I’ve ever seen here. Even though you mostly only see her in brief flashes of Link’s memory, you really get to know her as a person here, full of dreams and fears and flaws.
But the best thing about Breath of the Wild is how it challenges my approach to open world games in general.
Nintendo games have never had achievements, and that contrast between other RPGs really stands out here. I expect the game to give me a list of Things To Do via the achievements page — the things the developers have declared relevant to truly completely the game. Kill these people, collect these things, discover this side quest. Without achievements, Breath of the Wild has no checklist. Exploration must be its own reward. You do things because you want to do them, not because you think the game wants you to do them, or because they’re the “true” experience.
Breath of the Wild is a huge, expansive game, with almost endless things to find. And, importantly, you’re not supposed to find them all. You’re intended to have your own, unique experience of the game. You can go all completionist about the game’s shrines and get all 120, but you can complete them in any order, and most people are likely to just do the ones they stumble across in the course of the game. It’s the same with side quests. There’s no big marker on the map saying, “hey, check this out!” You’re just meant to explore and stumble upon things.
Your little collectathon reward for exploration is korok seeds, given by little leaf creatures you find hiding in unusual places out in the world. There are 900 of them, hiding at the tops of mountains and inside tree-trunks, and collecting some of them will get you useful extra item slots. But there are over 400 more korok seeds in the world than you can use, and if you go all completionist and hunt them all down, you literally get given a golden poop as a reward. Hundreds of hours of minute exploration, scouring every inch of a ginormous map, and your congratulations is as a poop — admittedly just as useful as any other reward you get at literally the very very end of the game, but with a pointed message along with it. Don’t be a completionist, it says. Just explore and have fun.
Having defeated Ganon, I’m now perfecting my shield surfing technique and sneaking up on sparrows to take pictures for my photo album. I also just learned that you can apparently buy a house, which I missed entirely in all the many many hours of play so far. Breath of the Wild feels utterly expansive, never ending, but in a good, freeing sort of way — I don’t feel like I have a checklist to “complete” the game, because you’re not meant to “complete” the game in that way. The game is set up as your playground, ready for you to do with it what you will. And after a hundred hours of gameplay, I’m not anywhere near finished with it yet.