Into The Great Wide Open
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been out for about three years now. If you are interested in games at all, you've already read that it is yet another sensational outing by Nintendo. I had. I hadn't bought it, though, since I hadn't gotten a Switch because ... reasons. Too many games in my Playstation 4 queue for a few years, and then I was waiting for them to update the system. We've also had too many open-world games – I was a bit open-world'ed-out, to tell you the truth.
Ye of little faith, I can hear Satoru Iwata sigh.
Even with three more years of open-world game development, with bigger teams trying new things on what are probably larger budgets, Breath of the Wild still impressed me. The gorgeous simplicity of its systems, its characters, how it embeds details into the environment – it packs many improvements over its competitors into an impressive experience.
It starts with you as Link, waking up in what looks like a tomb, from what you learn has been a long slumber. It all went wrong, a hundred years ago. We lost. The world has been living in the ruins of our last failure. Now we need to fix it.
So its genre is action-adventure, but that's not the core of the game. That's about discovery, exploration, the delight of figuring things out, finding new people, unearthing a new area. Its fun is in your interactions with not only the environment but the people you meet, with quests that are thrilling, adorable, humorous, poignant – often simultaneously.
Let's talk about the systems and world first.
A lesser game would need tutorials everywhere, and we would be talking about how well-spaced or info-dumpy those are. Breath rarely needs a tutorial for anything other than timing-related controls.
For instance, there is a cooking system. You can prepare ingredients by themselves, or combine them to make a recipe. The game doesn't explain how to right away, but neither does it stop you from trying. I kept picking apples. Their description read that the health effects would be more potent if cooked. I didn't find any cooking options, anywhere on the menu. But then I found a campfire and decided to throw some apples into it. The apples caught fire, briefly, then they turned into baked apples and me into a delighted, clapping six-year-old.
Its distinctive visual designs enhance the discovery factor, letting the game afford choices it otherwise couldn't. The game doesn't just set waypoints for your next objectives, or give you a route on the map. Instead, it gives you a description of a place, maybe a general direction, and lets you figure things out for yourself. You pick your route, whether by road or climbing or paragliding or any combination, finding new areas and places and secrets along the way.
For this to work, you need the environments to be distinctive and memorable, and by Hylia does it work. It is a vast open world, with areas that you can approach in (almost) any order. Yet, after you have been there for a while, it feels like you can remember every area of it.
“Ah, those jagged peaks. I remember them being by a river, with a cave behind the waterfall. That's probably ... here.”
“Hmm, the snowy, jagged peak. One of these three, up north.”
“Of course, the land dragon! That's the sculpture I saw two weeks ago!”
And what an expansive world it is. I am not sure how many hours I put into the game. Still, even near the end, when I was looking for a missing temple or exploring an area I didn't remember well, every so often I happened to make a left turn that I somehow had never made and run into a completely new vista.
That's an achievement by itself.
Then there are its people, cute, colorful, charming. You don't have to spend time on most of the side quests, grinding to make Link stronger, as they rarely add anything ingredients you can't just pick up by wandering. But you do get to interact with the people who are living in this world you are trying to save, get an idea of why your actions matter, at the individual scale.
In just one small town, I met:
A girl, trying to find her mom, who I played hide-and-seek with; and her sister, learning how to cook, who taught me recipes when I brought her ingredients.
A woman, afraid to go out in the forest where she used to play with fireflies, who missed them, and who was delighted when I caught and released some for her to see.
A painter, who had traveled the world and help me find some places I wanted to visit.
An elderly woman, who I'd met over 100 years ago, who was waiting to deliver a message from the past and to guide me to the future.
A stern guard, worried about his prized roosters having run off everywhere, who need help retrieving them.
A man, being blackmailed by evil from his past, killers who had murdered his wife (the two girls' mothers) and now threatened to do the same to the entire village.
That's just one small village, one of your most likely stops along the way, with some connections to the main quest. There are places that exist just to round up the world – from a sleepy fishing village to a town you help build up yourself – all just trying to cope with a swirling threat that literally looms over the horizon.
Because yes, there is an ultimate evil to defeat, Ganon's latest incarnation, this time coming back as a force of pure malice, the Calamity. Link is light fantasy's Eternal Champion, fated to fight Ganon over and over. You have to defeat him here one last time before Princess Zelda's own strength fails, and she can no longer hold him back.
It's a gargantuan, epic closing to a game made of moments large and small. When you get there, after all you have overcome, the final clash feels like the crowning achievement of everything that happened; a blow struck for everyone you have met. You haven't just toppled a monster, stopping a calamity from expanding and removing a menace that has hung over the kingdom for a century. You have made all these people's lives better.