No two Legend of Zelda games are alike. In one, the moon falls, threatening to destroy all of Termina; in another, the Wind Fish dreams of a fading island; in yet another, haunted train tracks crisscross the land. Regardless of circumstances, the same spirit burns at the heart of each game: when evil threatens, a hero of indomitable courage will rise up and adventure across the land to defeat it. Breath of the Wild doesn’t follow the standard Zelda formula, but it may be the best expression yet of that Zelda spirit.
Unlike many of the more recent Zelda games, Breath of the Wild won’t hold your hand at all. There are no lengthy tutorials or lingering cutscenes—in fact, there’s barely an introduction sequence at all. Link awakens in a cave, clutching a mysterious tablet called the Sheikah Slate, and emerges onto a vast plateau. Immediately, that entire plateau is open to explore, and you can go where you want and do what you will. Link’s new stamina meter lets him climb up nearly every surface, so walls, mountains, and even sheer cliffs are no obstacle to exploring every inch of the land.
Of course, there is one obstacle at first which is far too high for Link to climb down safely: the plateau itself. To get down, you’ll need to complete the challenges inside a few mysterious Shrines that appear around the plateau. While there are only a few of these in the starting area, you’ll find over a hundred more dotted across Hyrule as a whole. Each one presents a unique challenge. Some are bite-sized dungeons, with a room or two full of puzzles to navigate; others present riddles or combat challenges; still others are entirely hidden away or located in such difficult-to-reach places that merely getting to them is enough to complete the trial.
Each completed Shrine will grant Link a Spirit Orb, four of which can be traded in for an extra Heart on your health bar or an extra chunk of your stamina wheel. The first few Shrines on the plateau, however, unlock something even more important: the Runes on Link’s Sheikah slate, each of which grants Link a new ability. Remote Bombs come in both sphere and cube forms, and can be detonated at-will; Magnesis allows Link to freely manipulate metal objects like chests and metal doors; Stasis allows Link to freeze an object in time (and comes with all the fun physics of applying extra force to a frozen object to send it flying); Cryonis allows Link to create pillars of ice, given that there’s a supply of water.
In other words, these Runes make up most of your arsenal, and they’re all accessible right from the start. You don’t have to hit a certain point in the story to get access to bombs—you have them from the beginning, and they never run out—and you won’t ever be denied access to a room because you don’t have the right item to solve a puzzle. Once you’ve completed those first few Shrines on the plateau, you’ll be gifted with a paraglider, and from there, the entire massive world of Hyrule is your oyster.
Plenty of recent games promised open worlds where you can head off in any direction, but Breath of the Wild may be the first that actually delivers and makes it fun. There is simply so much to explore—high mountain ranges, deep crevasses, hidden fishing villages, crumbling ruins—and you really can go everywhere. There’s always something more to do, another glimpse of something intriguing around each corner, and it’s strangely addicting. You always want to reach the top of one more cliff, complete one more shrine, or take a quick detour to investigate that intriguing glow in the distance.
The world itself feels alive, and you’ll have to constantly adapt to it. Unlike past Zelda games, there aren’t any magical hearts or rupees that pop out of the grass. Instead, you’ll need to hunt wild game, lift rocks to look for critters, catch fish, gather fruit and mushrooms, and harvest herbs to cook and sell. Find a cooking pot or light a fire, and you’ll be able to toss your ingredients in to create dishes. These are entirely freeform, with what you make depending on what you throw in. Depending on what you need, you’ll be able to create food to boost your attack or defense, grant extra hearts, boost your stamina, or even provide protection against hot and cold weather.
That’s right, the world has weather, and you’ll have to be adequately prepared for it. For example, the type of heat found in the desert is different from the searing lava in Death Mountain. Venture somewhere too warm, and your wooden weapons will catch fire. Jump in a freezing lake, on the other hand, and you’ll die before you get the chance to swim to the other side. Wear too much metal in a thunderstorm, and you may be struck by a devastating bolt of lightning. You’ll need to plan your excursions up mountains around rain that can make rocks too slippery to climb, and wet weather can also extinguish cooking fires and torches.
People live in this world, too, gathered in a few villages, scattered stables, and bands. Link’s able to bargain with the people of Hyrule for rare ingredients, stable space for the wild horses he can tame, and occasionally region-appropriate clothing. You can also customize your clothing to a degree never seen before in a main game, swapping up hats, shirts, and pants for different benefits (including increased climbing speed, weather resistance, the ability to see enemy HP, and stealth), and that gear can be dyed to your specifications.
Weapons, too, are extremely variable, and range from simple clubs to far-reaching tridents and heavy, two-handed swords. You can easily steal arms from defeated foes, and use every weapon that you see in the game. However, if there’s a single aspect of Breath of the Wild that I disliked, it’s how easily these weapons break. Early-to-midgame weapons are often single use, only lasting long enough to kill one or two enemies. Against some of the game’s tougher enemies—and there are plenty of those—the question is often not whether you’re skilled enough to take it on, but whether your weapons are durable enough to last the entire length of the fight. I had to restart a boss fight at one point because I’d broken all of my bows whittling down its HP, and was forced to find a different way to fight it. Even the special weapons you’re awarded at certain points in the story will break eventually, and outside of some very rare exceptions, there’s no way to check durability or repair a broken weapon.
On the other hand, this does force players to give thought to every battle and come up with more creative strategies. If there’s one thing Breath of the Wild allows, it’s creativity. Battling straight through a monster camp is almost never the best option; instead, it’s best to use the land itself to your advantage. Maybe there are boulders on a high hill that can be rolled to squish a few enemies, or perhaps the wind is blowing in just the right way to send a flash fire sweeping through the grass toward the camp. Perhaps there’s a nearby cliff to launch off with the paraglider, allowing you to stealthily drop bombs from on-high. You could wait until nighttime and attack while the camp is sleeping, or sneak in and steal weapons to catch your enemies unawares. Beware, though—enemies, too, know how to improvise, and will grab whatever’s at hand to attack you back.
Taken together, though, this means that Breath of the Wild is one of the most genuinely difficult Zelda games in recent decades. You have the freedom to go anywhere, but the game will unapologetically wreck you if you’re unprepared. Even regular monsters can take down a huge chunk of Link’s health with a casual swipe—if they don’t kill him outright—and monsters stronger than entire bosses from past games can be found out on a stroll around the fields.
If I’ve spent this entire review talking about the land and not the dungeons or the story, that’s because simply exploring Hyrule is the bulk of the game. There are no rails, no set track that will take you from setpiece to setpiece. The story is told through flashbacks of Zelda and Hyrule as it used to be, which can be tracked down by finding very specific locations captured in photographs, and it’s haunting and atmospheric—but if you so choose, it can also be ignored. There’s a whole land out there to explore, with secrets around every corner, and Breath of the Wild hands you a paraglider and tells you to just get out there and go.
Somewhere out there is the Master Sword. Somewhere, there are Divine Beasts with entire mechanical dungeons locked inside. Somewhere, there are Great Fairy Fountains, and wild horses to be tamed, and accordion-playing Ritos, and Castaway-style island challenges, and thousands and thousands of puzzles. But in the midst of it all, you’re just a young man with a lot of courage, setting off on an adventure to defeat evil, which is what Zelda games are all about—and none prior may have done it better.
While Breath of the Wild doesn't follow the standard Zelda formula, it may be the quintessential example of the Zelda spirit. With a stunningly beautiful and interactive world, surprising difficulty, and a dizzying amount of riddles and puzzles, there's no end to the secrets hidden in the vast land of Hyrule.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is available on Switch, Wii U. Primary version played was for Switch. Product was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.