The Zelda franchise is one of Nintendoís (and the gaming world's at large) biggest, and the wait for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (herein referred to as Zelda: BOTW) has been a long, tough slog for some. With the launch of the new Switch we were lucky enough here at TDF to be able to check out Zelda: BOTW on the Switch for around a week now, clocking up a whopping thirty-five plus hours tackling the main quest lines and a number of side activities. There is however an awful lot more of the game left to play - more on that later.
The story is typical fantasy adventure fodder but that is by no means a negative. Enchanting, intriguing and seemingly taking some nods from older titles, the narrative is in our opinion a big improvement on previous Zelda efforts. Over a hundred years ago the people of Hyrule lived in relative peace, the Sheikahís blue aura providing oodles of life to the lands, sadly though this peace was blown into chaos by the beast Calamity Ganon as he assaulted the lands. Link, our hero, along with Princess Zelda attempted to stop the evil but failed. As they tried and failed, the Sheikah in one last ditch attempt to destroy the vile monster awoke a secretly made army of machines known as Guardians along with four divine beasts. In the final battle our heroes managed to seal Calamity Ganon inside Hyrule Castle with one key side effect - the mechanical army awoken to save Hyrule was turned against it. In panic. The King banished the Sheikah from the land.
Back in the modern day, a century later, the game begins with you, playing as Link, waking from a long slumber, with only the voice of a mysterious woman guiding you in these early moments. Upon meeting an old man you are introduced to the Great Plateau and given the awful news that a hundred years have passed, Calamity Ganon is still sealed with Hyrule Castle, growing in power with every day that passes and it is up to you to defeat the beast once and for all before he breaks free and destroys the world.
Within the first few hours of Zelda: BOTW, the game slowly introduces you to the core fundamentals of the gameplay with a very light touch. It is clear from the first isolated plateau area that this Zelda isnít going to hold your hand, and whilst it does introduce the core systems to you, the rest is left for you to figure out through discovery and exploration. The old man who provides you with this guidance, which he provides in exchange for some spirit orbs you are tasked with finding, he also promises to provide you with the useful and downright fun paraglider upon completion of this tutorial area.
This opening few hours do a great job of setting you up for the giant adventure that Zelda: BOTW holds within. As you get to grips with the game's multiple systems it introduces you to your Sheikah slate - an iPad Mini for want of a better comparison. This little gem of a device has a camera which can zoom, a map which you can place multiple markers on and helps you access a lot of key areas on the map. An example of these key areas is the shrines. There are a set amount within the first area and whilst they act slightly differently to the shrines which come after the opening map portion, the principles remain. There are three shrines within the opening area, all acting as small easy puzzle dungeons which give Link a new power along with a single spirit orb for completion. Completing these three shrines grants Link the majority of the powers available and enough spirit orbs to grab that paraglider and jump down into the full map of Hyrule. As you continue the adventure you realise these shrines are all over the map, there are one hundred to be precise, they all present a tough challenge and reward spirit orbs - out in the big wide world four of these will grant you an increase in health or stamina, providing a lot of motivation to tackle them, and itís worth noting you can tackle them in any order. The shrine puzzles themselves range from simple to very tricky, mixing up such things as physics puzzles, special power puzzles and combat trials.
This leads us on nicely to some of the fundamentals in Zelda: BOTW which may catch a few people off guard. Even within the tutorial section the game mocks you if you attempt to ask it to hold your hand at all, and it is highly amusing. This Zelda is not a simple RPG romp, it is a thought-provoking, rewarding adventure and it is tough, not Dark Souls tough but itís certainly getting there. Dark Souls prides itself on its ďYou DiedĒ mantra and trust us when we say you will die a lot in Zelda: BOTW. That said though it is not punishing or unfair in the slightest, it is a logical difficulty which can usually be overcome with some forethought and planning. This all feeds in nicely to the way in which the game doesnít babysit you throughout. Once you have completed the initial area in a few hours you can quite literally go anywhere and do anything - fancy heading straight to gameís main big boss, you can, weíd say ďgood luck with thatĒ if you tried it but itís possible. Zelda: BOTW is a massive open world game, Skyrim massive and within holds intrigue and adventure at almost every turn. Setting you up for success in the opening few hours and effectively sending you out into a harsh punishing landscape to both figure out how to defeat the main boss and allowing you find out the rest of its systems through trial and error is tough to adjust to at first, particularly if you are used to playing most modern games of this ilk as sparkly lines donít mark your way here and instructions donít pop up three times for the same things just to make sure you got it, but once youíve figured out that this is in essence a gigantic survival-based RPG then it will click. Once it clicks you will realise, it is glorious.
Missions are distributed through conversation and after the first few main quests are provided the stabilisers are taken off and itís on you to find new areas, new side, shrines, villages and everything else this wonderous world has to offer. Go forth explore, interact and good things will happen, in between dying as you didn't prepare enough mushroom skewers to get through the battle. Combat is slow but not marred by sluggish animations, itís thoughtful and fun; expertly combining fun with challenge is a fine line and Zelda: BOTW walks that line with assured confidence. Just in case you didnít think it was tough to begin with, a giant red blood moon will appear periodically. Not only is this graphically striking, but its appearance will mark the respawn of slain enemies across the land and they will be waiting next time you wander back. Of course, thereís more than this to contend with as each area has a wealth of enemies to tackle; these range from giants made of rock, to swarms of bats, all the way to a secret society of assassins hell -bent on surprising you whilst you try to engage in a civil conversation - Hyrule is not a safe place!
With a true open world, hard-hitting (sometimes one hit kill) enemies, an RPG like this is not all plain sailing. As mentioned previously you will die often, and there is no shame in that. Being able to go anywhere and do anything brings a multitude of challenges as itís an absolute certainty that you will wander into a part of the map that you just arenít ready for. For some this would be disheartening and again as mentioned Zelda: BOTW is unapologetic when it comes to holding your hand through this. The game pulls no punches with regards to the fact that itís a survival RPG - in time, though, you regroup and you learn. You'll beat shrines to get those orbs which boost health and stamina, learn how to cook using ingredients found strewn across the landscape, improve your gear and utilise weapon drops. At the same time, you'll take in some quick win side missions for their rewards, or simply move to a different area to see what secrets it holds and whether you can progress through it at that time. The environment is also not necessarily in your favour either, mountain ranges will deplete your health unless you manage to find and in turn cook some spicy flavours in to your food supplies - rain will also impact your ability to scale mountain paths and drain your stamina quicker. Stamina isnít just something to be considered in combat either as stamina is used up quickly when paragliding, running and climbing. Enemies are brutally tough in some areas and as weapons degrade the challenge becomes harder still, but itís just never unfair, or rage-inducing - no pads were thrown during our play time and not just because the Switch Joy-Cons are really expensive. To ease the pain slightly the save system is very friendly, you can pretty much save anywhere and on most occasions if you do die, the game will have autosaved very close to where the deadly encounter began - thus feeding into the tough but fair experience that it has to offer.
Graphically, for what is essentially a game running on a small handheld tablet (or the old underpowered Wii U) the game is beautiful, marrying light pastel colours with some really well done special effects like cold blustering winds and roaring fires - it looks really welcoming and just begging to be explored. There are some muddy textures when looking off into the distance and minor pop in is present but it rarely diminishes the experience. When you add in the often quiet, borderline relaxing audio of the title it genuinely propels you forward, enticing you to just check out one more area before saving and going to bed - it fast becomes one of those titles that is so pleasing to play that you get a little bit lost in its huge new world. The little touches throughout reinforce this feeling with such subtleties as the noise your weapon and shield make when running around and how it changes the audio when you change the weapon. The quality of the work here and the subtle nuances that litter the many hours you will enjoy here, all feed into this desire to keep going. Game time if you want to fully complete absolutely everything will be in the hundreds of hours, not tens for this one.
The game is available on both the Wii U and the Nintendo Switch, on this occasion we were lucky enough to enjoy the adventure on the Switch and can confirm what everyone has been predicting; itís simply a delight to pause the game, pick up the Switch and take it with you wherever you are going to continue your adventure on the go. Such flexibility is welcomed with such a vast game as this, especially one that is so hard to walk away from.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a phenomenal achievement. A truly huge open world adventure that gives you all the tools you need within the first few hours, politely suggests what you should do next and then just steps back. At its heart itís a survival RPG set in a gorgeous, intriguing world backed up by a multitude of puzzles and a difficulty level that is as tough as it is fair. Having played numerous RPGs over many years, itís tough to think of one that was so spellbinding and so moreish, despite its difficulty, that just kept you coming back for more.