Nintendo's Magical 'Breath of the Wild' Brings 'Zelda' Home

Nintendo's Magical 'Breath of the Wild' Brings 'Zelda' Home

'Breath of the Wild' delivers on the earliest promises of the decades-old 'Zelda' franchise. Nintendo

The new 'Zelda' is vast, gorgeous, and possessed of the mystique that entranced us decades ago

The new 'Zelda' is vast, gorgeous, and possessed of the mystique that entranced us decades ago

It was my second day in the Wild when I first glimpsed a dragon. It was raining – thundering, actually, and I was running for my life. Where there’s thunder, there’s lightning, and lightning in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild spells death for inexperienced players.

I’d progressed far enough in the main quest for the game to present me with four objective markers, to be reached in any order, in the distant corners of its enormous world map. I ignored them all and headed south, at first questing after upgrade-granting shrines, then simply seeing what I could see. I was lost, but kept convincing myself that the towering spire that would reveal this region’s map would be around each new bend. I didn’t want to fast travel back to the known world and sacrifice what little headway I’d made, so I pressed on, hoping desperately to find shelter from the crackling, deadly spears of lightning striking the ground all around me.

And then, through foliage so dense I could barely see the sky, I spied it: The lord of thunder, an impossibly huge, sinuous, lightning-spewing dragon slithering gracefully down toward the ground from the violent heavens. All thoughts of death and lost progress forgotten, I sprinted forward, breaking from the trees just in time to watch the impossible beast coast on the surface of an unfamiliar lake. I snapped a photo, and my Sheikah Slate told me the dragon’s name is Farosh. Apparently it’s not dangerous, although you’ll die if you get too close.

Farosh isn’t part of the story. No objective markers point out its location. There’s no cutscene the first time you encounter it, and a fairy doesn’t pop out from under your hat to point it out. Farosh is just there, living its life underwater and in the sky, for you to find if you have the will and the mettle. Farosh’s existence, magnificent in its indifference to you, perfectly encapsulates what most open world games get wrong – and what Breath of the Wild does so right.

The weight on this game’s shoulders is enormous, not just because it’s the flagship for the unproven Nintendo Switch. The Zelda series strayed from its roots with the last two mainline entries, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. Beloved as they are by some, these games abandoned the series’ spirit of exploration in favor of linear storytelling, overabundant tutorials and simplified structures.

It’s fitting that Breath of the Wild’s opening mirrors that of the original Legend of Zelda. You’re thrust headfirst into an unfriendly world, and told essentially, “good luck.” Breath of the Wild’s opening hours are a microcosm of the subsequent dozens: you know vaguely where your objectives are, but how and in what order to reach them is up to you.

There are enemies you can defeat, and a few you can’t. The game gives you all the trademark puzzle-solving Zelda stuff – Link's handy bombs as well as a variety of powers, like the ability to stop time on an item or freeze water – over the course of an hour or two, and uses clever puzzles to challenge you to learn how to use them. You might figure out how to cook meals or brew elixirs from the remains of monsters and beasts you kill, or you might not. You’ll climb, swim and struggle through multiple climates, testing your survival skills from the very outset. And incredibly, nobody in the game goes out of their way to tell you how to accomplish any of it, including the wise old man egging you on with good-humored suggestions.

Breath of the Wild is difficult. Its DNA was coded with strands from survival games like Rust and Minecraft, and combat can be challenging in ways similar to Dark Souls. The odds can feel overwhelming, whether you’re infiltrating an enemy outpost full of sleeping goblins or venturing forth into the cold, cold mountains or the heart of a fiery volcano. If you’re not prepared – if you’re wearing the wrong armor for the climate, if you didn’t cook enough of the right food, if your weapons can’t dent an area’s resident enemies – you’re going to die.

This game captures the sense of adventure that’s been missing for far too long

This is a monumental shift for Zelda, and one it turns out was sorely needed. It’s been decades since a Zelda game was properly demanding, and it feels like the series coming home.

But none of that would matter if Zelda’s wild, new Hyrule wasn’t worth exploring. And it’s in this vast open world – its snow-tipped mountains, crashing waterfalls, thick forests, wide plains, perilous ruins, daunting oceans, and sun-baked deserts – that this game captures the sense of adventure that’s been missing for far too long.

Breath of the Wild’s story is really good – the best the series has ever had. Through cutscenes, it fleshes out characters we've always taken for granted, like Link and Princess Zelda, in ways we’ve never seen before. Almost every single person you meet has a name and unique dialogue, from the soldiers standing guard outside the Zora Domain, to the kid at one of the game’s many stables who just freaking loves bugs.

Hyrule’s always had history, but now, you can see, touch, hear, and know it better than ever before. Link was asleep for 100 years, but not everyone who knew him is gone. Some heard stories of the legendary hero and his mythical blade passed down over the generations, while some still resent him for his failures. This is a story of redemption, a fallen hero getting a second chance to right the wrongs that doomed a kingdom a century past.

It’s also a story you can totally ignore if you want to, which is how I found myself on the shores of Lake Floria, face-to-face with the lightning god. Everything is optional; you can do the whole story without setting foot in the Faron region to the south, or Akkala to the northeast, or the remote reaches of chilly Hebra in the west. Or you can venture everywhere without ever completing a story quest.

That in itself is incredible, but it’s the fact of how much care went into every single inch of this world that makes Breath of the Wild truly transcendent. There’s a confidence here, a knowledge that players will venture to the corners of the map just to see what’s there. And the most amazing thing is that there’s always something to make the journey worth it.

The developers poured their souls into every plateau, plain, and forest, every secret hot spring and hidden shrine, every powerful sword ensconced in the highest peaks, every rock, tree, stream, statue, house, town, and dune. If something – anything – seems out of place, there’s probably an ore deposit, treasure chest, or playful Korok spirit hiding underneath it. If there’s a lock, there’s a key, though it might be found on the other side of the world. And this world’s creators weren’t afraid that some players would miss it, because they knew that some players wouldn’t.

Breath of the Wild’s story quests and dungeons are fantastic, but I’ve spent much more time ignoring them. I taught myself to sail and found an island where you’re stripped of all your gear and challenged to survive. Far to the north I rode the winds to reach a labyrinth of cyclopean proportion resting on a graveyard for ancient machines. I climbed to the highest peaks in the land and found powerful artifacts, then I bought and renovated a house and put them on display. I helped found a brand new village, tamed the ghostly Lord of the Mountain, and reclaimed the mighty Master Sword. Through it all, I peered around at the impossible beauty and majesty of a world made just for me – but one that would march on if I left it. And I knew I would see it all if it took until my dying day.

In this modern age of objective-laden open worlds, convoluted skill trees and tiresome hand-holding, that sense of real adventure – that you might find something that no one else in the world has seen – is all too rare. And a Zelda game may have been the last place in the world you expected to find it.

But if you ever were intrigued by the hunt for Bigfoot in Grand Theft Auto; if you pine for the secret-filled caverns of ashen Morrowind even while exploring Skyrim’s empty forests; if you miss the way it felt the first time you left the Kokiri Forest and saw the sun set over Hyrule Field, when you set sail in the King of Red Lions and realized you could go anywhere, or when a strange old man handed you a sword and reminded you that the world is full of dangers – you’re going to feel right at home in the Wilds.