There is a moment about 90 minutes into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild where the game comes together.
Link has already awoken from a long slumber and been informed he’s in the fallen civilisation of Hyrule. He’s discovered his Sheikah Slate, a mysterious glowing tablet which unlocks doors throughout the world (it’s an iPhone, basically). He’s explored the Grand Plateau on which he’s marooned, and been promised a paraglider to leave – but only if he solves the puzzles in three more shrines dotted around the plateau.
So you begin to wander. You find one shrine guarded by an enemy which, you realise sooner or later, you simply cannot kill in your current state. You may die several times in this process of discovery, which is odd: it’s a Zelda game. You don’t die in the first half hour of a Zelda game. Do you?
Another shrine is halfway up a cliff. Again, you can tell there’s something different here: rather than the cliff being conspicuously marked out as climbable, with large vines winding their way up, it’s … well, it’s a cliff. It’s climbable only because everything is climbable (although go too high up and Link will get tired and fall off).
As you explore these, you gain new powers for your Slate: the ability to summon bombs at will, to stop time, and to manipulate metal objects. Like previous Zelda games, these act as keys, in effect, allowing you to explore further. Unlike previous titles, you get them all in the first hour.
But it’s on the way to the third shrine that something odd happens. Link begins to shiver, and take damage, as you climb the mountain. You realise soon enough that it’s the cold itself that is hurting you. But how to warm up?
There are several possible answers to the question. You can make yourself a hot meal; find warmer clothes; build and light fires on the way up; or even just bring enough healing items along to brute force your way through. But the answer isn’t really the point. Instead, the struggle to top Mount Hyrule – because that’s what you’re climbing – is the moment you realise that this Zelda game, more than any other, feels like a solid whole.
The puzzles, the world, the exploration and the combat glide seamlessly from one to the other, rather than being separated into disjointed experiences. Solve a dungeon, fight a boss, wander through the world, find a new dungeon … That’s not to say there aren’t dungeons, or bosses, in Breath of the Wild. But just like the puzzle of the cold mountain, which sits outside the dungeon-like shrine rather than inside it, much of what you’ll spend your time doing in the new game is more like guided exploration than straightforward puzzle solving.
Once you do complete all the shrines and escape into the world proper, it becomes clear what this means for the game: Breath of the Wild isn’t really about Link, or Zelda, or “Calamity Ganon” at all. Instead, it’s about Hyrule. It’s perfectly possible, and even desirable, to completely ignore the main quest line, and wander off in the direction of the most exciting looking environment, solving shrines along the way, and gradually increasing your strength and skill.
The most obvious comparator is Witcher 3, which offers a similarly open world from the start, with its own plethora of things to do and see. But where Zelda differs to it matters hugely, and ensures that the Switch’s launch game very much feels like its own thing.
For one, the world, like so many Zelda games, focuses on nature, not people. While you’ll spot villages around the place, and meet a colourful cast of characters, you’re not pushed on by interpersonal drama in the same way Geralt is Instead, your motivation is to see the world, unlock its mysteries, and, er, kill and eat its fauna.
Yes, the crafting system, focused on meals and elixirs, is deep, complex and surprisingly carnivorous. But the more interesting aspect of the game’s enormous item list is how it approaches weapons and shields, and it’s there that Breath of the Wild takes its most original tack.
Every weapon you get will break. Some, quickly, others slowly – if you whack a skeleton on the head with its own arm, it’ll shatter in a few blows, but a gigantic iron hammer will be with you for an hour or so – but they all go in the end. There’s no durability score and no repair function (that I’ve found, at least), but the effect of that choice is wonderful. It shifts the game from a collect-em-up, where swords and spears are acquired and discarded for better ones, into a more careful game of picking the most efficient way of dispatching any given foe. You don’t want to break an enchanted sword over the head of a common Bokoblin, after all.
It’s easy to get lost in the nitty gritty of what makes Breath of the Wild so great, and miss the bigger picture. This game is beautiful. It’s engrossing. It’s the best opening of any console launch title I’ve ever played, at least back to Super Mario 64. And I can’t wait to spend 100 hours in its world.