How do you update a 30 year franchise? One whose tropes have been copied innumerable times across a million games. One where various entries frequently appear on “Best game of all time” lists and whose structure helped form a large part of the language of video games.
The answer seems to be ‘make it bigger and throw that structure out’. Breath of the Wild (BotW) forgoes the formulaic nature of previous games and sets you on a path, but crucially, how to get to the end of that path is up to you. One of the first quests you receive is “Defeat Ganon”, and from that point on your are pretty much on your own.
The designers have taken what works from other open world games and cut away everything but the very core, crafting something that has all the familiar elements but doesn’t fall into various open world traps. There is almost no ‘jank’, where the systems interact in unexpected ways the game isn’t prepared to really handle.
It does however contain towers which allow you to expand the map, but rather than filling it with these towers so they become a grind, there are only a few, one per very large area. Once you activate one, the area unlocked isn’t suddenly filled with icons to check off either, which is actually a brilliant decision.
The trap here is that such things can become a check list very quickly, making exploring the world a slog and dumbing down the excitement of thinking you will find something new and unknown around every corner. BotW does this excellently, at no point did I feeling like it was a grind to play, and I knew that there was always something waiting to be discovered.
Those discoveries came in various forms, from enemy encampments to small villages, stables or one of BotW’s greatest achievements, a Shrine. The shrines provide bitesize pieces of gameplay outside of travelling around the main world, each with a various hooks that may or may not utilize one or more of the new powers given to link at the start of the game.
Link is the proud owner of the Sheikah Slate, basically a modern day tablet that allows him to access the shrines and towers, but also grants him a few powers such as magnesis, stasis, cryosis and remote bombs. The shrines might have you using magnesis to lift up and carry metal boxes around to make paths or activate switches, or they might have you use stasis to stop an object, smash it with your weapons to have it build up a charge, then launch it into a hole, or any number of combinations.
Each one is only a few minutes long and can net you weapons, armour and shields, along with the main prize: an orb that allows you to purchase heart and stamina metre upgrades, and with a hundred and twenty to find and beat, you build up stamina and health quite quick. Some of the shrines are straight up combat arena’s, tasking you with defeating a fairly powerful enemy, but these are rarely very tough and give you access to some of the most potent weapons in the game.
Those weapons range from boomerangs to single handed swords to massive bone clubs, each with its own damage rating and durability. Yes, they will break on you, which for some will be a massive point of contention. However, weapons are not hard to come by, every enemy drops at least one and it isn’t a challenge to find a fight, so this doesn’t actually prove much of a detriment, though it can be frustrating to burn through weapons in a shrine trying to get a ball into a hole to activate a switch.
The combat itself is fast and satisfying, never getting old no matter how many times you beat the snot out of a bunch of Bokoblins. It can be annoying to have your weapons break halfway through a fight, but you rarely, if ever, get to the point where you have no weapons at all, so making your way around the world and fighting everything is always a pleasure and never a chore.
The point of traversing this open world is to, as previously stated, defeat Ganon, or in this case, Calamity Ganon, an entity that has taken over Hyrule Castle 100 years previously. The story is an interesting take on the Zelda format, but it boils down to the same thing every single entry in the series has: rescue the princess, defeat the bad guy and save the world.
The story portions weren’t super interesting, but it is probably the most interesting version of the tale to date. The voice acting (yes that's a thing) is actually pretty good, and the writing is decent, but after a couple of hours with the game, it's not something I cared about, I just wanted to go tool around the world.
You can actually complete the game without doing this, that quest to defeat Ganon is completable almost from the second you get it, with speed runs of the game already coming in at around forty minutes. My play time is currently over seventy hours and I haven’t by any stretch of the imagination done everything.
That is the beauty of it, it allows you to finish quick or take your time, and both are perfectly valid, though it's my opinion finishing it in forty minutes does the game a massive disservice. Every inch of it is perfectly designed, but probably the most ingenious thing BotW does is climbing.
It might sound stupid, but you can climb pretty everything at anytime. No upgrades or new kit required, Link can just climb stuff until his stamina runs out. The stamina metre, depending on what you’re doing and if climbing how steep the wall is, doesn’t run out after 2 seconds so getting up mountains isn’t too much of a challenge after a couple of upgrades, but it seems that getting stamina upgrades rather than health is more important in the early stages.
More games need to do this, it adds to the feeling that the game actively wants you to explore its world and discover its secrets, from the random Dragon’s floating around the skies to hidden villages and shrines, you can literally go anywhere you want, it just might take some preparation to remain there for a period of time.
This preparation comes in the form of cooking. Around the world are various herbs, plants, fruit, spices and meat, as well as critters and monster parts that allow you to cook up various dishes. You can eat them without cooking (except for the monster parts and critters), but by throwing on the old apron and chucking a few things a cook pot you can get meals that increase your maximum hearts, let you move silently, temporarily increase stamina, refill your stamina meter or allow you survive longer in the games harsher climates, such as mountain tops.
This is a very cool mechanic and you can carry plenty of meals at once, the only problem with it is that cooking pots are only located in villages or stables, so you might have to head to one of those then back up to where you were if you run out. It's not a huge thing (like all the problems with this game) but it can be vexing.
The critters and monster parts create elixirs rather than meals, but do pretty much the same thing, it's just less likely you will receive hearts back from these, and you can’t brew attack boosting or damage reducing elixirs, but they prove useful nonetheless.
Ultimately, Breath of the Wild is the open world game to play if you don’t like open world games. While it is not absolutely perfect, it is so close it's scary. The frustrating elements of other similar games have been carefully analyzed and discarded or refined to near perfection, the concept of ‘Open world Jank’ is completely absent and all the systems at play work together to create the emergent gameplay that is a stable of the genre but with that feeling that the game just broke for no reason at all.
Nintendo have redefined what an open world game is, while simultaneously giving the best Zelda in years, one that revitalizes the series in a way no one expected. Playing on the Switch (it's also available on Wii U) makes this even better, as you can literally take it with you and play anywhere, and since the game has so much to see and do, it is the perfect launch game. To be honest though, it's a damn near perfect game, if you want or own a Switch or Wii U, this should be on your must have games list without question.