Breath of the Wild's Hyrule Sets A New Standard For Open-Ended Adventures

My limited demo with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild last month had me worried Nintendo was imitating other open world and open-ended games too closely. The game has climbable, map-revealing towers from Assassin's Creed, cooking and crafting like Minecraft, nonlinear dungeons a la Skyrim, all mixed in with a lonely world occupied by the last human, Link. The last Zelda game I truly loved was the N64's seminal classic Ocarina of Time. While I've checked in with the series over the years (Wind Waker! Twilight Princess! A Link Between Worlds! Hyrule Warriors!), Ocarina's vision of Hyrule was the last time I was obsessed.

My first impression was mistaken. Thirty hours in, Breath of the Wild's setting and structure occupy my every thought. It has redefined the possibility of open worlds for me.

Like a lot of gamers, I've grown somewhat leery of this genre. Years of Bethesda-style universes and Ubisoft models of open world make me wonder whether or not I'm bored with this type of game. A lot of them feel like time sinks, limiting the interactions you can have in these vast spaces: the invisible walls, the superficial story progress, the repeating NPC dialogue, the slow movement in big environments, and the infinite looping fetch quests.

Breath of the Wild breaks away from this methodology. The developers approached building Breath of the Wild's Hyrule like a physics and chemistry issue; everything you do has an equal and opposite reaction. I stalked a camp of Bokoblins I approached early in the game, only to have one of the sentries spot me. With the guard alerting the others, I run and approach their camp differently by climbing the top of their skull-shaped hut and lobbing bombs at them to dwindle their numbers. The enemies adapt too: one Bokoblin kicks one of my bombs back at me before I have a chance to detonate it. I could have also used arrows to pick off the sentries, a lit torch to set fire to the dry grass to weaken them, or pushed a boulder into an explosive barrel. It's the kind of encounter I might see in other open world games, but usually my options are limited to fighting my way through, talking my way past enemies, or avoiding combat altogether.

Exploration is also more spontaneous than the waypoint checklist or breadcrumb trail of markers other games provide. Yes, climbing to the top of the tower unlocks more of the map, but it gives you a topographical view, not all the points of interest. The challenge shrines, dungeons, and other activities are meant for you to uncover, either by seeing it off in the distance and marking it on your own map or stumbling across it in your travels. I find myself taking a lot of detours from one place to another. Sometimes, I'll jump off a mountain and glide down in my paraglider, just to get a lay of the land. There's a real sense of wonder here.

Puzzles, one of the defining features of previous Zelda games, also often have multiple solutions. Unlike other Zelda games, solving riddles in Breath of the Wild isn't a matter of having the specific tool for the themed dungeon. After unlocking the core abilities in the first area, I'm free to use the Sheikah Slate's runes to magnetize bowls to move balls, stop time to put force on a normally immovable object, freeze water to create platforms, and use bombs in and out of combat. The shrines I've encountered so far really test the limits of these powers, imitating the Portal's test chambers with how inventive you may have to get. The main quest's dungeons are more straightforward, but still offer creative uses of your abilities.

The characters you meet out in the open are also lively, and for all of the time you will spend roaming the plains of Hyrule by yourself, the touches of Hylian culture and scattered villages you'll encounter make the world feel lived in. Not all characters are voiced, but the ones that do speak are brimming with personality. The music cues fit the game's experimental vibe. The developers manage to pay tribute to older Zelda games while making this Link's timeline feel like its own individual branch. All of these little touches, the aspects of Zelda that fans obsess over, are remixed to perfection.

There are aspects of its design that Breath of the Wild doesn't get right. Inventory management is more of a slog than it should be, as durability on weapons, bows, and shields means I'm constantly scouring for new tools. The stamina meter seems like an arbitrary gate to more exploration opportunities. Cooking recipes aren't saved to any sort of list for you to recreate needed food items.

The game is also pretty challenging for a Zelda title, which while welcome may frustrate fans used to breezing through prior Zelda titles or other games in this genre. However, these quibbles are often worse in other games. I still can't believe that managing inventory, abilities, and skill trees in The Witcher 3 and Skyrim is such a drag for how many items you can collect in those worlds. Plus, Grand Theft Auto V still hasn't managed to get intuitive gunplay or overall controls. Breath of the Wild succeeds in spite of the failings it borrows from other games in this genre.

As it is, this version of Hyrule is looking like the one I will spend the most time with. I want to get lost in its hills and valleys, take pictures of every monster and item to fill the compendium, to collect all of the Korok seeds to expand my inventory. This is a large world that I'm invested in seeing every nook and cranny. If you have the means to play Breath of the Wild either on the Switch or the Wii U, and are burned out on the mass market open world game, you should seek it out. It's a refreshing take and a high bar for this style of adventure.