Above image: Nintendo
By Christopher Santee
Any player of the "Legend of Zelda" series has come to expect a world filled with adventure, colorful characters and challenging puzzles, and the new installment in the series, "The Breath Of The Wild," delivers all of these in a new completely open-world format.
Previous games in the series have always followed a more restricted structure when it comes to conquering the many obstacles, whether it be completing dungeons or finding a lost dog for a reward of a precious shield. This jumping through hoops has been replaced by small challenges that constantly pop up throughout the world that give tactile rewards. This is the key to the success of "Breath Of The Wild." For an open world game to do away with fetch, follow or expository story quests that act like filler is truly freeing. After the brief introduction that teaches you how the game works, you are set free as Link to explore every corner of Hyrule at your leisure. This sense of freedom could easily give way to uncertainty given the sparse direction the game gives the player.
No obstruction the game places upon the player feels arbitrary. The only obstructions to be found are inherent to the nature of the world. Mount Lanayru is freezing cold and covered with snow, so warmer clothes are required to survive. A volcano visible from anywhere on the map emanates heat so intense that Link will literally catch fire if you stay too long, and the desert in the south fluctuates daily between the two!
These obstacles are easily overcome through exploration and experimentation within the world. The natural laws within "Breath of the Wild's" world establish a sense of play within the game that is incredibly rewarding. Every time I think "Oh it would be neat if I could climb that, or if that could catch fire on accident, or if lightning would zap me in this thunderstorm," it happens and cements that reality just a bit more.
The naturalism created in the game is directly reflected in the main form of challenges the player faces as Link. Placed throughout the world, about every 50 feet it seems, are micro-dungeons called "Shrines" that require cunning to complete their physics-based puzzles and reach their treasure at the end. These mental challenges provide a great respite from whacking moblins with a tree branch, and they are available widely throughout the world.
The numerous shrines, dynamic weather system and changing climates combine with the durability system new to the Zelda series to create a sense of constantly searching for the new. A new sword because that one just broke, a new coat because this one isn't warm enough, a new dungeon because this one is too hard. Hyrule is a transient world that constantly propels the player on to the next location.
Directly at odds with this implicit encouragement of exploration is the ability to fast travel from the map screen. The world is peppered with shrines and towers reminiscent of those in Monolith's "Shadow of Mordor" that Link can teleport to whenever the player desires. While convenient, it undercut my connection to these places and all but makes the horse companions useless. What need does one have for a beautiful royal steed with special saddle gear if they can teleport away from any situation, including right off the bejeweled saddle itself? Not much.
That being said, the teleportation is just another way the creators have opened up the world of Hyrule and stood out of the way of the player. The open world design is not something that fits every genre, or type of game, and I was extremely hesitant that "The Legend of Zelda" series had moved in that direction. It could be argued that since "Ocarina of Time," the series has been making strides in the open world category, and "Breath of the Wild" sets a new bar. CD Projekt Red's "The Witcher 3" populates its open world with deeply engaging side quests that bring real people to the fore, and "Zelda" populates its world similarly. The side quests are less involved from a story perspective with the focus on the characters themselves.
This is where The Breath of the Wild starts to fall short. Although the colorful characters are engaging, their sparseness makes the world feel very small. The lack of people throughout the world (admittedly probably due to the cataclysm that sets up the plot) and the ability to teleport anywhere anytime makes the world feel very small.
The durability system is also bittersweet. Finding items that seem epic and unique is completely spoiled by the fact that they are destroyed and have to be reconstructed through the use of rare materials. The same system that keeps the player striving and moving toward newer items can instill moments of rage when one accidentally uses that ancient inherited sword they had been saving.
"The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" releases the player into the world of Hyrule to be their own style of hero. Through physics puzzles and dynamic combat, the protagonist Link is challenged constantly to gain power in the form of hearts, weapons and armor in his wrecked and monster-filled world. Joy is found through experimentation and interaction with the game's unpredictable systems. The open world is delightful and promising and filled with danger, but "Breath of the Wild" is not immune to the flaws of the open world design: getting lost, feeling pointless and loss of a sense of scale through the convenience of fast travel. But "Breath of the Wild" shines brightly because it embraces all of these things and rewards the player through emergent gameplay that teaches creative concepts at every turn without getting bogged down in instruction.
"The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" is an ingenious game that rewards the player constantly through the creation of a believable and lived-in world that reacts exactly how you expect, and delightfully, how you don't expect.