If you play video games at all, at some point in the last 30 years, you've probably played a Legend of Zelda title. Or watched a sister, brother, cousin or next-door neighbor play. It's one of those franchises that's been around so long that it's almost impossible not to be aware of it.
And the strength of the series is this: Though Zelda games have always had a pretty similar thread running through them—a princess is in trouble, and a sleepy-headed guy has to drag himself out of bed, solve dungeon puzzles, and bash baddies to rescue her—each has found its own lush forest pathway to déjà vu-like freshness. So even if those adventures always felt comfortably familiar, you were never exactly sure how you'd get from A to Z this time.
Well, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—perhaps the biggest release title for Nintendo's new Switch hybrid gaming system—certainly shakes up that paradigm in a big way. In fact, it takes a gigantic, too-heavy-to-carry sword to that time-tested template and sorta restages and reboots the whole affair.
For one thing, this game's story is a longer, more open-world campaign. It's a considerably more challenging Hyrule adventure than Zelda fans have ever experienced before. And it's pretty free-flowing too. There's no figurative arrow-pointing guiding players to the next linear step or story point. Instead, you can go where you like, explore, experiment and do what you want to from the very beginning. You want to grab a stick and head right into the belly of the final big boss beast in pursuit of Zelda? You go for it.
Of course, you'll be flicked away like a gnat before you get within a mile of the place. But hey, you can try if you want.
A Kingdom Tale of a Different Color
OK, so what's the story this go 'round? Well, our hero Link is still something of a sleepyhead, but in a different way. He wakes up in an underground shrine after pulling a Rip van Winkle for a 100 years. What happened? Who is he? Why is he lying in a pool of water?
Don't ask Link. He can't remember a thing. All he knows is that he hears the strange whispers of a girl's voice echoing in his aching noggin. And as he finds his way up to a ruined world, he senses that he has a job to do, to regain his lost memories and … to save someone?
Without giving too much away, the vast map that Link explores and learns about is dotted with exotic tribes, scores of shrines and fantastic vistas. It was once the kingdom of Hyrule, before a foul entity called Calamity Ganon used the kingdom's own mechanical inventions against it. The result was the destruction of much of the kingdom and the death of nearly everyone.
Link is tasked with traveling the land, piecing his past back together, increasing his skills and regaining those ancient devices and weapons. Each new area along the way reveals a necessary, memory-focused piece of the story puzzle. But he needs to hurry, for you see, the weakened Ganon is growing strong again, bolstering himself for the final coup de grâce.
A Legendary To-Do List
What that boils down to gameplay-wise is a whole lot of small activities and duties that will eventually prepare Link for the end goal of freeing Zelda and facing off with that dastardly evildoer.
Sure, there are treasures and weapons to find. There are hundreds and hundreds of robotic and goblin-like baddies and bosses to slash. And there are tons of environmental and logic puzzles to work through. But what you'll end up doing most of the time is a whole lot of foraging and crafting.
You're constantly trying to craft the best supply of arrows, bombs, specialty swords and the like. And you also have to be continually aware of finding sources of meat and veggies for your next nourishing meal; it's vital to have a rucksack full of chow to recharge with during a heavy battle. And since you start out not having a clue what elements will actually mix well over a campfire, you'll do a lot of experimenting to simply hone your recipes.
That small detail side of play is vital because, in truth, Breath of the Wild is all about management and balance. You have to watch your stamina levels, as well as being able to quickly switch between various axes and arrows. Enemies can be brutal, some delivering blows that cut Link's life force in half with a single thwack. You don't want to find yourself in the heat of a tough skirmish and realize that you neglected to craft enough ice arrows or failed to stock up on enough boar-meat-and-mac-and-cheese to restore your dwindling heart supply.
What's Blowin' in that Wild Breath
There's no blood or guts mess in the mix here. But battles with enormous baddies can still feel intense. And our trusty, pointy-eared champion can feel much more breakable than you'd expect, even with all the right magically enhanced armor and protective clothing in place.
Speaking of magic, I should also mention that that sort of fantasy world mumbo-jumbo is very much a part of this Hyrule experience. A Blood Moon unleashes dark beasties, for instance. And Calamity Ganon feels much more like a swirling demonic force than some physical dragon or beast. His red, glowing essence imbues a number of dastardly mechanical bosses. And there are several instances where Link must defeat that festering evil in order to release the spirits of long-dead champions defeated by Ganon's power eons ago.
In addition, a syncretistic blend of Eastern mysticism and Western mythology permeates the milieu as a whole. There are many fast-travel shrines that offer up puzzle trials and reward gamers with something called a "sprit orb" that is used to upgrade Link's health. These shrine trials end with a printed-out message, "May the goddess smile upon you," a salutation that could be seen as a prayerful benediction. That magical mix also involves a variety of creatures from centaurs and skeleton-like critters, to magicians and a giant talking tree, to a full-figured fairy goddess clad in something resembling body-painted leaves. (All of this spiritual content could well be worth a worldview conversation with any young players who venture in.)
Of course, all of that is kept within E10+ rating standards. Which means that even in this much-expanded tale, the problematic bits aren't overtly dark, negative or nasty. That's one part of Link and Zelda's legacy that, fortunately, hasn't changed a bit.