Breathe it in

Okay. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Here we go.

I’m not gonna hold back on spoilers, so maybe ignore this post if you’re concerned. Probably the only person who’s going to read this is me five years from now, though, so it’s likely moot.

It’s far too early to actually say, but this may be my favourite Zelda game ever. All I know for sure is that I am enjoying it thoroughly, and even the few little things I don’t like about it pale in comparison to all the things that it gets right. The other sure thing is that this will likely be the one Zelda that I never replay, because it’s just too damn huge. I could probably wrangle up a guide to speed up a subsequent run, but still, a lot of the joy is in the excitement of discovery, and not knowing what lies around the next corner or over the next hill. And you just can’t replicate that feeling.

First up, and something you’ve probably heard a million times now, is that this game is Hard AF. Even I, often playing very conservatively, am finding myself dying over and over and over again. But it’s not a bad thing! There’s very little penalty for a death, often less than a minute of backtracking, as the game autosaves very frequently. It’s also a lot of fun to be able to throw yourself at any given situation however many times you like, until you find something that works, and never be penalized for your failed attempts.

That said, Nintendo is releasing a Hard Mode as part of their summer DLC bundle, which seems like overkill at this point. Unless it does something to radically change how the game is played, a Hard Mode would just be unnecessary and cruel.

You start the game with Link waking up naked and alone in a cave. Then you throw on some dusty old clothes and venture out into the Great Plateau. This starting area is massive, probably as large as Hyrule Field in Twilight Princess. It’s almost big enough to be a game on its own, and then after hours of goofing around, learning how the game works, and collecting all of your tools, you realize that this is only a teeny-tiny fraction of Breath of the Wild’s world.

Hyrule may be the largest video game world I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. Probably roughly as big as Mira in Xenoblade Chronicles X, though it feels a lot bigger, because Mira gets a whole lot smaller once you get a flying skell. There is no analogue to that in BotW. You can tame horses to get around a bit faster, but otherwise it’s just you and your feet.

Well, there’s also the paraglider, which is so much fun. Scaling a giant cliff face or a tower and then leaping off and gliding through the skies is ultimately one of the most satisfying things in the game. Which is saying a lot, because there really isn’t much more to it than that. But I love the feeling of sailing through the air and watching the landscape roll by below me. It’s very serene. I also just recently learned that Link can drop bombs while gliding, which is (pardon the pun) a real blast. It’s not an effective offensive strategy, as bombs will barely damage all but the weakest enemies, but it’s hilarious to glide over a bokoblin camp and drop a bomb right in the middle of them and watch them all scatter like frightened cuccos.

So yeah, the world is gigantic. You can spend hours and hours just milling about levelled forts looking for abandoned treasure chests, or sneaking through the forests hunting the local wildlife, or trying to climb that mountain that just a little too tall for you to reach the top before your stamina wheel runs dry. There is so much to do and see, it’s so very easy to get lost in Hyrule for hours on end. I know I’ve been at it for far too long already, and I’ve been zig-zagging around the world, constantly chasing down whatever shiny object I see, from herbs to precious gems to ancient shrines to giant, mechanical elephants. It’s very difficult to focus on one objective when you can see roughly twenty billion points of interest at any given time.

And to that end, I have barely progressed the story at all. You’re forced to go through a major story beat before you can leave the Great Plateau, wherein Link’s past and the task at hand is revealed by the ghost of the King, but after that, you are literally free to do whatever you damn well please. I’ve gone so far as to find and talk to Impa (which is the first quest after the Great Plateau), and then I talked to a bunch of Zoras about the troubles that were plaguing their region. And that’s it. Otherwise, all of my time has been spent just doing whatever I darn well please. Truth be told, though, that can oftentimes lead to seemingly impossible situations.

One of the most interesting pre-release notes, at least to me, is that the developers said multiple times that you’d be free to run directly to the end of the game. So that’s what I did. Through many trials, and even more deaths, I beelined from the Great Plateau to Hyrule Castle, which is cloaked with a foreboding dark aura. The way there is dotted with Guardians, gigantic ancient machines that are basically immune to regular weapons, and which fire insta-death laser beams with frightening accuracy. With a little clever trickery and a lot of trial and error, I finally reached the island on which the castle is seated. When I saw flying sentinel robots dotting the skies, I got the feeling that this was going to be a heck of a lot tougher than I had hoped.

I glided over the moat with little trouble, but I had anticipated that would be the easiest part. From there, it was a matter of following the trail up to the castle itself until I ran into a guardian, and then turning back and trying to climb around to a place out of the death machine’s line of sight. This was not easy, and it took what felt like hours to finally get to the castle proper. Along the way, there was another odd barrier: a black and purple sludge that blocked off many paths and sapped Link’s health if he touched it. Sometimes there would be a weird eyeball creature nearby, and it was easy enough to guess that shooting those with an arrow would make some of the goop recede to clear a path. Seems like something I would have learned along the way if I’d taken the “intended” route.

Finally, I walked into the castle’s inner sanctum, and was greeted by a giant pulsating cocoon-like object hanging from the ceiling. It was a temporary distraction, though, as a huge boss monster called Windblight Ganon appeared out of nowhere and began his assault. I was quickly torn to bits, and the fight seemed hopeless for a Link with roughly 50 arrows (six or seven being of the Bomb variety), a single moderately-powerful spear (and a handful of lesser weapons), and a paltry three hearts. Through dogged persistence and a burning desire to know simply if I could overcome this foe, I fought him over and over again, each time making a little more headway against this beast. And then it happened: I killed Windblight Ganon. I was elated! Ecstatic! Victory so early on in the game was something to be celebrated with great pride!

But then Waterblight Ganon appeared and I knew that I was boned. Even if I could survive his attacks, I didn’t have nearly enough weapons to fight back with. My quiver was nearly exhausted, and all my weaker weapons had shattered against Windblight Ganon’s powerful frame. A dozen regular arrows and that spear were enough to get him down to a little under half-strength, but then I was essentially down to just bombs as my only offensive measure, and as I mentioned many, many words ago, bombs are not very good weapons. I made a poor call and was killed, but I knew it was a hopeless fight at this point anyway. Based on my knowledge of how video games work, there would absolutely be Fireblight and Earthblight Ganons afterward (with the slim possibility of a Metalblight Ganon), which would almost certainly be followed by a final showdown with the Calamity Ganon. There was just no way. So I abandoned the castle and made my way back to greener pastures, where I would lick my wounds and prepare for a world-spanning journey to grow strong enough to tackle the mighty Ganon Brothers.

That… went from early impressions to a full-on story, didn’t it? Welp.

There are a few weird deviations from Zelda traditions, especially since they’ve dated back to the very first game. For one, there are exactly zero health-restoring hearts in Breath of the Wild. Instead, Link is forced to find and/or cook food to heal up. I think this system is fine, and it’s maybe even a little broken, because you can stockpile tons and tons of recovery items now, as opposed to the four red potions you used to be able to carry. Heart containers are mostly a thing of the past as well. They still exist, but how you get them is ever-so-slightly different.

In BotW, the world is dotted with dozens upon dozens of ancient shrines. In each shrine is either a puzzle or combat trial. These are where the real Zelda-like gameplay resides, and though they’re typically rather short, they’re ultimately very satisfying little dungeon-esque nuggets. Upon completing a shrine’s trial, you’re given a spirit orb. Once you collect four spirit orbs, you can take them over to any Goddess statue (every major town seems to have one) and trade them in for a shiny new Heart Container. So it’s basically the same as finding four pieces of heart. You can also choose to trade your spirit orbs for Stamina Vessels, which will expand your stamina wheel. I’ve elected to spend most of my orbs on these, as my playtime has been much more focused on exploring, and even that little extra bit of climbing time can vastly increase the number of places you can get to. Or at least, it’ll make it a little easier to get to those places, as I haven’t found anywhere with an absolute barrier to entry yet. You can reach any place you like at any time, with enough effort and ingenuity.

I think that’s probably enough on this for now. Good gravy, did I ever type a lot of words. And this is still only scratching the surface of what Breath of the Wild has to offer. I very much look forward to the many more hours and weeks of my life that I’ll be driving into this sucker. It may be a huge waste of my life, but at least it’s a really fun huge waste of my life.

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