21 – My Wife is a Saint; or, A Review of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

At this point in his thirty-one-year career as a Nintendo bellwether, Link has trotted across countryside, sailed the high seas, clattered down railway tracks, and glided above clouds. Now, with the recent release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the Wii U and Switch, Nintendo’s favorite nonverbal protagonist finds himself once again afoot, fighting bad guys, solving puzzles, and hoofing it across as vast and gorgeous a kingdom of Hyrule as we have ever seen.

Which, of course, is another way of saying: I like this game.

I like this game a lot.

The first original Zelda title to hit the market since 2011’s adequate Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild marks a significant—and, Triforce bless us, welcome—departure from business as usual in the Zelda universe. Set one hundred years after disaster reduced Hyrule, the fantasy-scape setting for most Zelda games, to an underpopulated, overgrown ruin, Breath of the Wild finally delivers on a longstanding promise of the franchise: an environment that is mind-bogglingly large, radically open, and surprisingly interact-able.

Here, in short, is a lush, vividly realized Hyrule, a space in which to lose yourself easily and for hours at a time.

In contrast with predecessors like Wind Waker and fan-favorite Ocarina of Time—games that adopt a philosophy of slow immersion, walling off certain areas of the map until the player has achieved this or that particular threshold—Breath of the Wild provides its players with roughly an hour of tutorial gameplay and then pretty much tosses them to the sharks. Indeed, the entire map opens up after that first hour, and while the game suggests a direction to take, it’s really up to the player’s discretion to follow that suggestion. I didn’t. Five hours in, and I still haven’t returned to the main quest line. Speedrunners have already found ways to beat the game in less than an hour. And while, sure, early on in the game, enemies in most locations will almost certainly thrash you—you with your rusty broadsword and pot lid for a shield—there’s something utterly delightful in having the freedom to submit yourself to that thrashing in the first place.

More to the point, there’s no guarantee that you will get thrashed. Although Breath of the Wild constitutes one of the toughest Zelda games to date, it rewards careful strategy in a way that earlier installments of the series never did. For instance, earlier games offered a rather paltry array of usable weapons, typically a couple of swords and a bow. In Breath of the Wild, however, Link has at his disposal a whole battery of long- and short-range weapons, from standard swords and bows, to halberds, spears, and boomerangs—each of them with varying damage outputs and durabilities. This high degree of customization, coupled with a host of new clothes- and armor-sets that go beyond Link’s familiar green tunic, invites experimentation of a kind we’ve never really seen in the Zelda franchise.

Additionally, the environment itself can become a part of player strategy. Hilariously, even. For example, when not axing down trees for crossing gorges or just for kicks and giggles, you might try toppling one onto your foe’s unsuspecting head. Or: see that enemy encampment over there, down at the base of that slope? Hop on that shield of yours and surf down, firing off arrows like a wannabee-Legolas badass. The game of course won’t tell you to do any of these things, much less how to do them. But that’s part of the fun. In Breath of the Wild, plundering Hyrule’s natural resources and participating in the wanton destruction of Moblin- and Lizalfos-life has been elevated to a veritable art form, and in the end, it can be just as entertaining to execute a carefully planned sneak attack as it can be to throw caution to the wind by stripping Link down to his undies, strapping a tree branch across his back for a sword, and throwing him at a pack of irritable Bokoblins.

It is silliness like that, as well as the simple pleasures of strategy and discovery, which sets Breath of the Wild apart most, both from current video games on the market and from the glut of Zelda titles that preceded it. In contrast, Breath of the Wild’s story, while serviceable, is pretty standard fare as Zelda games go, and works mostly to lend context to the player’s adventuring. And this of course is necessary. And welcome.

But as much as this story would insist that Link is the star of this latest quest, the real star of the show isn’t a person at all. It’s Hyrule itself—big and colorful and bold Hyrule, as much a character in the game as any player avatar, a land capacious enough to contain dozens of hours of sustained exploration and flexible enough to accommodate even the most absurd of playing styles.

Which. Speaking of.

*Unequips Warm Doublet, unequips Hylian Trousers*
*Equips tree branch*
*Exits, pursued by Bokoblin*

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