I finally feel at home in the land of Hyrule. My Zelda history goes back a fair way (as I alluded to in my Nintendo Switch review), as far back as Ocarina of Time and I’ve always gone in wanting to enjoy it but for some reason it's never been my game. Whether it’s losing momentum once I became adult link in OOT, or failing to find the sail in Wind Waker, I never appreciated the magic. It was only Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy that I ever got through to the end (with help), so I went into Breath of the Wild with some trepidation.
While it isn’t heavy-handed, there are story missions to drive you through the game if that’s what you’d like to do, which introduce you to a colourful cast of characters, most of which seem to have gone a bit mad while just living their lives for the past 100 years while you snoozed. Let’s just say they have character.
As time goes on, you follow Link’s journey in rediscovering what happened in his past by tracking down specific memories, often tied to specific points on the map which you need to uncover with a combination of exploration and chatting to NPCs. This is just one example of a fairly natural way the game introduces depth to its story and world, which you can either invest yourself in and really find out more about or not, depending on your favoured playstyle.
What really shines in all of this is the gameplay. It doesn’t break the mold, in fact in many ways it stays close to what players are familiar with from previous Zelda titles (rupees, fairies, sound effects), while at the same time embracing the modern era of gaming, most notably with its stamina meter, which feels like a delightfully Zelda way to approach something familiar.
There’s a definite glee in finding a boomerang for the first time, but, tragically, it’s too slow and underpowered to prove very useful in most encounters - though getting the knack of catching it is extremely satisfying. Otherwise, there’s a fair selection of standard weapons available, though it takes some time to find any which you start to get really attached to. Of course, you can’t get too invested as each has a finite amount of slashes, prods or twangs (that’s a bow and arrow FYI) before it shatters, which adds a certain anxiety to encounters and makes you hesitant to really make the most of the fancy weapons.
Another weapon in your arsenal is bombs, which now exist in infinite form thanks to the handy, magical tablet device known as the Shiekah Slate. This iPad wannabe has a myriad of functions, a few of which are unlocked as you progress through the story. The most important function is your map, which you unlock in sections by reaching the summit of Shiekah Towers - each of which has one of a few challenges to it - and you can customise by putting stamps in noteable areas.
As you explore, you’ll come across shrines. There’s 120 of these, each of which are puzzle or battle rooms which hark back to a more traditional Zelda dungeon experience, giving a bite-sized challenge which rewards Spirit Orbs, four of which you’ll need to boost your health or stamina meter.
Stepping out of the starting shrine, where your adventure begins, you can’t help but be blown away by the visuals. In true Nintendo fashion, the art style suits the game perfectly and, though there are some quite noticeable framerate issues when the Switch is docked, particularly during weather, it just about gets away with it.
There’s a lot of variety to the terrain in a way which feels natural, despite the game’s fantasy setting, and the weather alone can quickly transform a familiar area into a treacherous one as night falls or a storm swells up, bringing deadly lightning with it. In rain Link struggles to keep hold while climbing, making escape attempts more perilous, though luckily there’s always the handy fast travel option to get you out of a tough spot.
It will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time great Zelda titles, and, possibly, the greatest Nintendo title ever made.
If you do want to stand and fight, you might find a boost in strength in the form of Elixirs, potions cooked up from ingredients including horns and bones of felled enemies, which boost Link’s abilities for a limited time. Perhaps you need to get through an area unnoticed? A sneaky elixir is your friend. Or you need more attack power as an enemy you’re facing is just a bit too powerful for the weapons you currently have at your disposal? Then it’s a strength elixir. A combination of these things can really turn the tide and make your life considerably easier.
The other, more common element of combining ingredients which you’ll need to master is cooking, which boosts the amount of hearts you can recover from eating foods and can add elixir abilities as well. The catch is that, generally, it isn’t immediately obvious what ingredients combine to create actual dishes, though with a bit of experimentation and liberal reading of NPC diaries you can find some. Fortunately even a bad combination of ingredients will create ‘dubious food’, which will only recover a few hearts.
Items will be essential as you start to take on the game’s tougher enemies, which tend to be larger (and scarier) and you’ll find yourself dying more often than you might expect, even when you aren’t caught unawares. As a result, this isn’t a game for the faint of heart. Its graphical style might somewhat give the impression of being a game for children, but some areas (and puzzles) can be very challenging - thankfully stopping well short of controller-throwing rage.
Breath of the Wild is a moment in time. At the launch of the Nintendo Switch it is, undeniably, the must-have launch title, and on the WiiU (which I’m sure Rob will fill you in on) it’s the console’s swansong. As a result it’s a very special game, and will be an entry point to the series for many new players as they start their adventure in Hyrule for the very first time.
Of course, there are some niggles. The framerate issues aren’t something you’d expect, especially after paying a AAA price (although having seen them even with the recently released Pokemon Sun and Moon, they weren’t too unfamiliar an experience), the camera can be very unhelpful at times and the fact that there’s only a handful of stables dotted around the map make horses far less useful than they should be.
Considering all that, Nintendo have still made an extremely memorable game. The fact that two people can start and play for five hours and have vastly different experiences with the same ingredients at their disposal is impressive, and not something many games can pull off. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time great Zelda titles, and, possibly, the greatest Nintendo title ever made. Is it one of the best games ever made, though? That is much trickier to give a straight answer. At the very least, it’s one which deserves your undivided attention - even if you don’t think it’s your cup of tea - and that is the mark of a masterful game, which this definitely is.