The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming's longest and most beloved franchises. It is one of Nintendo's flagship properties, and they seem to take more time and care with each entry than almost any other game they produce - and it shows. While I have not played every entry, my own gaming past has several highlights filled with Zelda games, including the 8 and 16 bit classics, and other notables like Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. While not a perfect game (is there such a thing?) Breath of the Wild may just be the best Zelda game I have played.
Breath of the Wild starts out with Link waking from a 100 year slumber, after a previous failed attempt at saving Hyrule from an imminent attack from Calamity Ganon. In the early days of the Zelda franchise, Ganon was a corporeal wizard/warrior or beast that Link (or whatever you named him) would defeat. As time (and the timeline) progressed, Ganon became a powerful evil force for destruction that evolved beyond physical form, and has been terrorizing Link, Zelda, and Hyrule for many thousands of years.
Over one hundred years ago, signs that Ganon was returning became evident, and the Kingdom of Hyrule spent many years preparing for his return, based on ancient legends and technology that was rediscovered in the years before. Despite what was perhaps the most prepared Hyrule in millennia, their preparation was all for nothing as Calamity Ganon was able to defeat their best plans. In a final act of desperation, Link was placed into slumber, and it took him 100 years to fully recover from his injuries.
Link rises to a world that has gone a century without a ruler or much of a kingdom. The people are happy to be alive, mostly keeping to themselves, while trying to avoid the constant and rising threats of monsters and beasts all around them. Hyrule castle is unapproachable by most, as Calamity Ganon's power is centered there. Link remembers nothing of what happened, and has to piece together what is happening as he explores the plateau he finds himself on.
Eventually, he is freed from the confines of the starting plateau, and is greeted with by far the most expansive Zelda game ever created. Link can not only walk around his surroundings, but he can also swim, climb, glide, or shield surf virtually anywhere that he can see in person or on the map. It's an incredibly vast game area, with a variety of scenery, including mountains, plains, forests, deserts, tropical regions, and winter wonderlands. It's a truly amazing world to get lost in, as there is almost always something new that is yet to be uncovered.
The game world is also lovingly hand crafted, despite the massive scale. You can tell this because of the incredible amount of secrets contained here. There are 120 shrines, which are somewhat like bite-sized dungeons, scattered throughout the world. If that wasn't enough, there are 900(!) Korok Seeds, which are little secrets littered everywhere. They end up becoming a rather useful currency later in the game, so collecting as many as possible is very handy. It is very rare to go exploring in a new area and not find some out of place rock, strangely aligned trees, or other environmental mystery that does not lead to either a well placed treasure, a shrine, or a Korok Seed. Each little reward after reward entices you to keep playing like very few games I have ever played before. I suspect other open world games will be borrowing ideas from Zelda for many years to come.
Of course, it has to be said that even the development team has admitted that they took heavy inspiration from The Elder Scrolls series, particularly Skyrim. I don't consider that a bad thing at all, and has led Zelda down a new road. My only wonder now is if they can surpass what they have done here the next time, or if they have made for themselves a hill that's too difficult to climb. Especially if it's raining.
You see, in this 3D third person open world adventure, weather and a full day and night cycle play a significant part in your experience in game. It's kind of a running joke among Breath of the Wild players that as soon as you decide to scale that large mountain peak, three quarters of the way up the weather will change, and a rainstorm will ensue. Rather than just being a visual effect, there is significant gameplay impact. For one, sneaking is much easier, and the rain tends to drown out sounds. Fires are also put out, which can both work for and against you. But the real kicker is when you are trying to climb a steep cliff. On a dry day or night, you can scale nearly anything from anywhere as long as you manage your stamina properly. But when it's wet? Yeah... I hope you weren't too attached to that climb, because it's time to slip and fall. While quite realistic, it can be very frustrating.
This is not the only system that is well designed. There is the day/night cycle, as well as the blood moon that resets the whole world every time it happens. I believe it's monthly, but I never actually counted the days; it might be weekly. It resets all drops and enemies, but not treasure chests. The physics and temperature model is also amazing. There is so much attention to detail it's frankly mind blowing.
For example, you can go fishing by electrifying water. When grass catches on fire, it causes an updraft that you can use with your paraglider to fly high into the air. Once you get Zora armor, you can swim much better, and combining that with the Cryonis rune, you can get almost anywhere with water. Depending on your elevation, the air may become too cold for long term survival without a warmer outfit, or another means to stay warm. You can eat food for warmth, or even hold something that has natural or magical fire - there are many ways. The desert becomes cold at night and hot during the day, which requires different means to manage it. There is also fire that has to be dealt with.
Honestly, there is so much nuance to the world systems that I could go on all day - and that's the point. There is such an incredible attention to detail that even Nintendo said that they cannot predict the many ways that ingenious players can use and abuse the game systems to maximum effect. Even now, over a month after release, videos are coming out almost daily with some new amazing feat where someone managed to do the seemingly impossible. From flying rafts and levitating carts to floating bombs, amazing bow and arrow stunts, and so much more, there is seemingly no end of things to learn and do while playing this game.
Cooking is another major system that is crucial to success. There are many combinations of monster parts, food items, and other things that makes various dishes or elixirs that can give you many temporary boosts. You can also find the four Great Fairies and upgrade your equipment and receive set bonuses that can make you even more powerful. Of course there are also special bows, arrows, weapons, and shields that also contribute to your success.
Those items, bows, arrows, weapons and shields, are all consumable and must be gotten anew every time one of them is spent or lost. This is perhaps one of the many reasons for the blood moon mechanic - a common way to replenish your weapons is to defeat the monsters who carry them. Some are weak or not very durable, though sometimes you get some pretty nice ones as well. Regardless, any weapon is better than none, unless you become a pro at throwing bombs - which is a totally legitimate strategy, as you have unlimited bombs in this game.
Other than battle strategies, there are also a ton of things to do outside of that as well. There are the many shrines as previously mentioned, as well as various main and side quests to accomplish. Monsters roam the land, and many have valuable drops, that either can be sold, used in elixirs or food, or needed for various quests or item upgrades. You can find many horses throughout the land, and once mounted, can be ridden for greatly increased speed or better battle prowess. Some boss-like enemies can be fought, including Hynoxes and Lynels. You can also buy a house and customize it. I am sure I have missed some here, but again, there is a ton to do, and a fantastic map to explore.
Graphically, it is very good, despite a clearly lower than optimal resolution. The Switch version is 720p in portable mode, and 900p (upscaled to 1080p) in TV mode. While there are times that the frame rate dips, many of those have been greatly mitigated by a recent patch. The art style does a good job of hiding a lack of detail, which is a typical and proven Nintendo tactic with their commonly underpowered hardware.
The sound effects are very impressive. Most of the audio is occasional ambient effects with the rare theme for a town or area. Despite this, if you have a good surround sound system, you are in for a treat. The first time I turned, heard an effect pan with my movement, and was able to quickly and easily find my target quickly, I knew that the audio was done quite well. Frankly, at times it is breathtakingly well done. If you don't have such a good system, it should still be enjoyable.
When it comes to appropriateness issues, there really aren't any surprises compared to previous Zelda games. There is clearly animated violence, as you would expect. When creatures die, enemies vanish in a puff of smoke. The ESRB notes a scene with strewn bodies including some impaled ones. Ganon is still a dark evil spiritual force. Other enemies include human, monster, and undead foes. Reincarnation is present, and a foundation for the Zelda story. There are several goddess statues that you have to pray to throughout the game, unless you are doing a minimum heart/stamina run. There is a horned statue that trades life essence for money; very useful, but it was a demon who was cursed to that statue by the goddess Hylia. Both the player and enemies use magical wands.
There is a clearly effeminate man named Bolson, who wears pink and earrings, sounds funny, and calls you 'studly'. Of course Nintendo doesn't go to much farther than that, but it does make you wonder. There is a bar where alcohol consumption is mentioned, and the bartender will not sell you a drink because you are too young. There are some characters who wear clothing that exposes midriffs, cleavage, etc. In one section of the game, you interact with a man who is clearly cross dressing, and prefers to be referred to as a woman. You also have to dress as a woman in order to progress in the game in that section as well. A few women subtly hit on you, or at least admire your physique. The ESRB notes a line "If I have to have something pounce on me, why couldn't it be a lady?"
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is in many ways the perfect Nintendo Switch launch title. It's a fantastic game in its own right, and a perfect system seller. As of this writing, I have put in over 80 hours in this game so far, and I am still only about halfway into what I want to do before I am truly done (and that doesn't include any DLC that might be worthwhile). There are memories, divine beasts, shrines, and other main and side quests that I want to complete before I feel like I have seen all I want to. I feel like this is one game that is easily worth Nintendo's full asking price, and one I will not completely put down for quite some time. It is a strong game of the year contender and highly recommended.