The Legend of Zelda has always been a franchise that best typifies Nintendo's desire to create memorable, substantial adventures. If Mario is all about precise mechanics and pure enjoyment, Zelda is a series that focuses on storytelling, world-building and classical tropes of good against evil, Hero against returning villain. Since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time first brought the series into three dimensions, however, it can be argued that evolution has been minimal. Nintendo has made attempts to move the franchise into new realms, but technology limitations and no doubt other concerns slowed that progress - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, though fantastic in its own right, didn't live up to its pre-release billing as a significant shake-up of the IP.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild delivers the revolution that has undoubtedly been desired within Nintendo and, it seems, among many fans. This is still quintessential Zelda, but the old formula has been drastically overhauled to the point that it's almost been ripped up and re-written from scratch. What we have, then, is the most ambitious title in the history of the franchise; most importantly it delivers on its staggering potential.
In opting for a true open world, a key question for this title was how it would marry together freeform exploration and spontaneity with a narrative structure; worry not, we won't get into plot spoilers here.
The series as a whole has stuck to a template partly due to its storytelling approach, with the returning Hero tackling evil across multiple ages, a cyclical process that gives impressive scope for lore and - of course - timeline theories (though Nintendo eventually produced an 'official' timeline). The good news is that this entry maintains a notable primary narrative, which actually kicks into gear sooner than we'd anticipated. Reflecting on the core story after the credits have rolled, what we will say is that it's not only well written but it is, also, a slightly more 'grown-up' approach from Nintendo. The trademark quirks of the IP are still present throughout a playthrough, but the manner of the storytelling and the tone continues some of the progress seen in the past couple of generations.
Nintendo, importantly, found a clever hook for working in stylish cinematics without them being disruptive. Some sequences will run for all players regardless of their approach, but many come through optional work; it's a testament to the developers that we wanted to explore these additional segments. In addition, the concept of generational battles, not only with Link 'waking up' but also going back to that cyclical history, is told through seemingly inconsequential moments. If you speak to the right character that happens to be a bard, for example, you can learn all about the history of Hyrule. Find the right areas in the world and Link's memories are triggered. For those happy to take their time, there's depth to be discovered.
Our final point on storytelling relates to the idea - espoused by Eiji Aonuma in particular - that players can in theory dash to the end right away. Technically that's correct, but to be blunt it's not a realistic or desirable option. There will be a handful of extremely talented speedrunners that pull it off, but they'll be an exception to the rule. The structure of the tale is carefully crafted by Nintendo to ensure that the tools needed for the job take plenty of work to obtain. Even those seeking to simply blitz the story are looking at a substantial playtime.
The reality of the experience, of course, is that this is truly an open world title. The initial 'Great Plateau' area, so familiar from all those demo videos, serves as a solid introduction to the challenges you'll face. You can wander off and experiment, of course, but even following objectives will take you to a point where you must choose your own way; it's a microcosm of what's to come. It's likely an area that had a great deal of focus from Nintendo; in those opening hours you're taught - often indirectly and with some embarrassing failures on your record - about the arts of survival, exploration, combat and puzzle solving.
In the initial Shrines - small puzzle-driven challenges - you gain access to Link's abilities, which provide him with bombs, magnesis and stasis on tap. You learn about inventory management, and the limitations on how many swords, shields and bows Link can carry. You begin to hunt and gather, and then cook obtained ingredients to create meals - a baked apple will recover more health than a raw apple, but the experimentation goes far further. Your weapons and shields will start to break, and you'll come to areas where you need to compensate for tough conditions either by wearing the correct clothes or, more likely, cook a meal with a timed resistance to the elements.
Importantly, despite the inherently daunting nature of the freedom you're given and the systems you must control, the light-touch instructions do a sterling job of helping you grasp these mechanics. The depth is manageable, and when you fail you learn from your mistakes. This is a game where all players will need to get used to the Game Over screen, with Link's early weakness and initial mistakes all prompting frequent deaths. Yet the auto-saves (and one manual save per user on the system) mean you rarely lose more than a minute of progress. You fail, adapt and try again.
Once you swoop into the wider world Link enters another realm figuratively and literally. The 'Adventure Log' truly comes into play at this point, which is Nintendo's take on the objectives / mission structures seen in other major open world games. A parallel with a title like Skyrim is that you're given the end goal as an objective very early; as mentioned above, however, targeting it right away amounts to suicide. As you explore, interact and take actions, however, your list of 'Main Quest' objectives expands, and a dizzying range of side- and Shrine-quests also emerge.
For those willing to invest weeks and perhaps months of their gaming lives into Breath of the Wild, the incentives are there. Nintendo has created the biggest Hyrule yet, and it's also the most engaging and varied. If you pick a direction and run you will eventually find enemy encampments, towns, stables (where you can 'board' and claim ownership of the horses that you tame from the wild), and wanderers (friendly and otherwise) that you can engage with. You'll also find sweeping vistas and mountain ranges that, much like the real world, are only populated by nature and abandoned property - if you see it, you can get there, even if tricky climbing is required. Nintendo's creation of a Hyrule under a looming threat, and with brutal battles in its not-so-distant past, is extraordinary.
The sheer scale of the world not only means you can discover interesting side-quests and lore in the most unexpected of places, but you'll also need to manage your map - even when focused on story objectives. Adopting an approach used in so many games of the genre, Nintendo tasks you with finding and climbing towers in each region, in the process revealing that map segment. Whenever a new area is touched upon a tower should be a priority - not only is the map information invaluable, but the elevated view helps you to spot areas of interest. There's a certain thrill in gazing over Hyrule from on-high, spotting an interesting building, assigning a 'pin' or 'stamp' on the map and setting forth. These tools also mean that you can mark places of interest to address later on, if you're not keen on being distracted every time Hyrule throws up an intriguing landmark.
Part of the joy of Breath of the Wild is the ability to do as you please, assuming you're well prepared and equipped. Every step of the way you'll be gathering food, items and valuable ores as resources, and you'll be selling and buying goods to enable further exploration. Perhaps you'll sell a lot of monster parts or ores to buy special clothing that allows you to traverse a harsh environment, or you'll attempt to make do by cooking meals and elixirs for temporary effects. What is fundamentally true is that those that don't engage with these mechanics, don't scavenge and place survival top of the list, will have an extremely tough time. This game is all about embracing nature, local economies and allies, while preparation is a fundamental requirement in order to give Link a fighting chance.
Beyond these open-ended mechanics, the conventional Legend of Zelda design can still be found, bubbling under the surface. You may upgrade areas such as health hearts differently to before, but it's still a key part of progress. You'll also find an extensive cast of characters that are relevant to the story or, in some cases, are simply there to further the sense of a living, breathing world. At times, particularly after a long stretch of climbing to high points and exploring barren and cruel mountain ranges, the world can feel unwelcoming. Yet follow beaten paths and roads and there are structures, multiple towns, villages and islands to be found. Some are extremely optional, and can in theory be completely ignored. Yet such is the humour, innocence and occasional cuteness of the Hyrule inhabitants, the urge to meet as many characters as possible is hard to resist.
It was actually quite late in our playthrough - primarily targeting the story due to time constraints - that some of the most memorable moments emerged; for others, these could arrive earlier in the experience. The broad range of mechanics and Link's athleticism to dash, climb and glide are worked into fast-paced and unexpected sequences, or the ability to change clothes becomes important in unexpected ways. In one scenario we searched for conventional solutions before realising that boldness was needed to sprint through a treacherous area. We stockpiled health-giving meals and elementary elixirs and engaged in a mad dash to a safe spot. It was fantastically constructed, and even the reactions of the locals as we arrived at their abode was delightfully comedic, reflecting the unconventional route we'd been forced to take.
Those small moments stand out, but this title hasn't lost its flair for the theatrical and high-stakes scenarios. There are a small number of dramatic scripted battles that add even more variety to proceedings, and beyond the 100 puzzle-like Shrines there are a small number of conventional 'dungeons'. By the time we reached the denouement of the core story we were - in a literal sense - on the edge of our seat as we played. We're giving away as little as possible here so that further details are optional for you to find online, but we ended the game satisfied with the collection of memories we'd accumulated. The character development, the atmospherics - all of it delivered. From quirky light-hearted sections to world-defining events, we'd spent tens of hours becoming utterly immersed.
Moving on to the foundations that hold that extraordinary world and experience together, we have what is quite likely the most complex set of control requirements yet seen in the series. Every button on the two Joy-Con or Pro Controller is put to work in some way, but by the time you're done in the opening area you should have a good grasp of how to manoeuvre Link to your satisfaction. He's particularly agile, so you'll be far more interested in his stamina than you ever were in Skyward Sword; steep climbs - looking for footholds in which to gather breath and energy - are like a mini-game in themselves.
Combat is also satisfying, with the breakable weapons and the ability to quickly steal and use items dropped by enemies adding an extra level to strategy. Some enemies use long weapons that you need to dodge around, others opt for melee that encourages you to backflip away. Time a dodge well and you can execute a 'Flurry' attack for increased damage, and the systems-based mechanics also make for fun ideas - you can push boulders onto foes, crush them by using magnetism on metal objects, or pick them off with bombs and arrows (motion controls can also be used for precise aiming). The AI is generally smart, too, with enemy encampments often having look-outs that sound the alarm if you've failed to implement the stealth mechanics properly. That said, it's not ground-breaking artificial intelligence, as enemies can still be slightly dim on occasions.
As an obligatory mention of amiibo, the various Zelda ranges unlock useful items - oddly you have to enable amiibo in the menu and it appears as a 'rune' ability, which is a cute way to try and integrate it into the world. Some figures deliver some particularly neat weapons and throwbacks (scan a Smash Bros. series Link figure, we beg you). Ultimately, it's unremarkable implementation that's easily ignored, though the idea of a Wolf Link as a daily companion is a nice exception to that rule.
Aesthetically, Breath of the Wild is beautiful; at times its Wii U origins show and, at this stage, we're yet to see what the Switch can truly do. Nevertheless, some modest textures are counteracted by terrific art design, which isn't particularly surprising. The overall image is attractive, and it's also the incidental touches that catch the eye - lizards will scamper away, you'll spot flocks of birds and groups of wild horses in the distance, and features like grass and water look gorgeous. The changeable weather (days are 24 minutes, for those wondering) is also a highlight, with rain impacting your ability to climb, and lightning striking Link if he has any metallic gear equipped.
There are a few cracks in the world's logic that we should point out, though they're relatively minor. Occasionally the code will prompt a pursuing enemy to simply disappear (though this is rare), and a few NPCs seem to forget previous visits and repeat their "let me show you something" moments. In general the world is a masterpiece of design and craft, but like many open-world games there are occasional slip-ups, fleeting moments when the immersion is weakened.
Moving on to the merits of handheld and TV play, the game naturally shines when the Switch is docked and you're getting the 1080p output on your larger screen (though the game is native 900p, we should add). As the Switch supports full RGB range (finally) the visuals really pop and appeal on a quality TV; in this case the draw distance and graphical effects are at their best. Playing on the 6-inch 720p console screen is perfectly acceptable, though, and can certainly be pleasurable when spending some time exploring or completing side-quests. The system's screen is nice and sharp and it's the best-looking portable title we've played to date (including tablets etc), but we still suggest enjoying the big moments on a TV.
It terms of performance, we have a mostly solid 30fps throughout. There are dips and chokepoints, however - occasionally there's very brief stutter that's likely related to the game streaming assets, but there are also a small number of areas that are more consistent in their drops. Alpha effects and some visual flourishes seem to blame, though in almost all cases slowdown happens at non-critical points - in key battles or tricky areas Nintendo seems to have prioritised a smooth framerate. We don't think these drops are particularly damaging to the experience but they are there, and those playing on a shiny new Switch may feel pangs of disappointment when it happens. Open-world games typically have performance issues at launch on consoles, the question will be whether Nintendo mimics a studio like CD Projekt Red in diligently patching out dips like these.
Audio, meanwhile, is a real high-point in this title. To address the voice-acting question, there's not as much as you'd expect based on trailers, so you're still reading plenty of text. Musically, we have orchestral performances in sweeping moments and atmospheric, subtle sounds when exploring a quiet area of the wilds or moving somewhere sacred. It's impressive sound design, designed to blend with your actions and the world rather than define them. Play with good speakers or headphones.
Beyond that, when it comes to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild there's almost too much to say, and some will feel we've rambled on too long already in this review. The main point is this - it's an incredible game, and may come to be considered as the best in its series.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a landmark release for its franchise and Nintendo. It's the first time that Nintendo has truly taken on the open-world genre in a current-generation sense; in arriving late to the party, though, it embraces some strengths from top-of-the-class games while also forging its own identity. This game is a revolution for the franchise, but the Legend of Zelda essence is still there - its soul remains.
The end result, then, is a captivating experience. This will be in the running as the best game in the IP's history, and it will likely be discussed as a leading contender in the broader open-world genre. Nintendo has bravely taken one of its biggest franchises in a new direction, and it's delivered a triumph.