Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), WiiU

After more than 40 hours with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I’m finally on my way to Hyrule Castle for the final epic battle against Calamity Ganon. Of course I could have tried it 30 minutes into the game with only three heart containers and a tree branch for a weapon, but that surely would have been a foolish thing to do. The beauty of Breath of the Wild is that for first time ever, you can approach a Zelda game any way you choose. And I do mean any.

On my way to the game’s very first shrine, the burning fire of a Bokoblin camp off in the distance caught my attention. I decided to sidestep my main objective to go check out the camp, but ran into a problem: a large river blocked my path. Hyrulians have never been good swimmers, and poor Link’s arms and legs gave out as I was only half-way across.

But then I got creative.

Climbing your way around

I learned in the opening moments of the game that this particular version of Link is an expert climber. He’s basically Spider-Man in a blue tunic with pointy ears. Beside me was an enormous mountain, stretching from my side of the river to the other, so I went for it. The great climb was on.

The only drawback was that Link has limited stamina, and every minute or so he needs to recoup his strength on flat ground. Luckily this particular mountain contained a few modestly sloped ledges level enough for Link to catch his breath. By happenstance, on one random ledge I discovered a chest containing a powerful Woodcutter’s Axe. One another, I found some rare mushrooms that can enhance Link’s defense.

By the time I made it to the other side of the river, I was fully stocked to take on that nasty bunch of Bokoblin. But I got thinking, “Am I supposed to be here?” “Why were these items in such obscure, random places?” In any other Zelda game this mountain would have been merely backdrop, completely inaccessible with no reason to give it a second thought. In Breath of the Wild, the mountain is a jungle gym and an Easter egg hunt all wrapped into one.

Rewarded for your exploration

The moment you realize you can venture anywhere in Breath of the Wild, your imagination starts running wild. That strange, ominous-looking tower jutting into the sky way, way off in the distance? You can scale the outside. That glowing orange shrine down below seemingly miles away? You can paraglide straight to it. That enemy encampment at the base of the mountain? You can shield slide down the entire mountain side and surprise attack them.

Not only can you travel anywhere, the rewards for doing so are highly motivating. Maybe you’ll uncover a new shrine where you can obtain a precious Spirit Orb—an object Sheikah Monks bestow upon you that increases your stamina or heart capacity. Maybe you’ll stumble upon a fairy who can boost the defensive strength of your armor. Or perhaps you’ll find new, rare ingredients you can cook to create potent elixirs for your next big boss fight.

No matter where you travel in this huge, huge playground, surprises can be found in the most unlikely of places. I mentioned earlier I’m 40 hours into the game and prepared to face Calamity Ganon. But I know the truth. Along the way, something will catch my eye and off on another side excursion I’ll go. I’ve played so many open world games before, but this is the first one I feel compelled to explore every last inch.

Storytelling through legends

Breath of the Wild begins with Link awakening from a 100-year rest with no recollection of who he is. You learn, through the most elegant of storytelling, about the heroic deeds of your past adventures and why you’re such a big deal. Characters you meet often regale you with wondrous stories of your past, all fully voice acted and animated using a unique cloth art style. 

Other times you might unearth stories from the past by examining beautiful artwork, or reading ancient inscriptions on a decorated wall. The events that occurred more than one hundred years ago quietly come into focus as you progress, giving you insights into how Calamity Ganon came to be and why the world is in such distress.

You’re also able to unravel more of your past by discovering important locations you once visited long, long ago. To find them, you’re given a dozen photographs of unknown origin and tasked with searching these locations out. Other games have incorporated photography reward systems, but usually these are tedious tasks done only to obtain items or unlock achievements. In Breath of the Wild, exploring is so fun you’ll naturally want to do it anyway, and when you do discover a photo spot you’re rewarded with satisfying cut scenes that complete more of the story.

Gorgeous artistic direction

Speaking of the animated sequences, not only are they fully narrated, they’re especially pretty on the whole. Breath of the Wild uses cel-shaded graphics, but Nintendo’s visual approach is so distinct there’s nothing really like on the market. The color palette used by the developer team is very bright and expressive, giving the whole world character and presence unlike any Zelda game before it.

Underneath this bold graphical coating lies plenty of familiar territory as well. Over the course of the adventure, you’ll visit traditional Zelda environments such an ice palace, a village in the sky, a desert city, and a fiery volcano. Each place is inhabited by familiar races from throughout the Zelda timeline, all given a fresh makeover in this wonderfully rich game engine.

Monsters, too, have been given striking new appearances. Common enemies are much more detailed and prettier than past Zelda games, and the bosses are breathtaking in appearance and in scope. With this being a new period of Hyrule’s history, the artistic team could afford to make such daring changes, and the net results have pushed this franchise forward.

From a presentation standpoint, the only missing element is the usual symphonic soundtrack that fills all this space. In order to enhance moment-to-moment immersion in the world itself, music is generally soft and muted, unfairly relegated to background duties. However, in its place we get to hear the rich sounds of nature, be it the scuttling noise of a nearby fox, or the shriek of an eagle flying overhead. These sounds maximize our sense of freedom, so in the end it’s a bit of a trade-off.

Hours of content

I assumed Breath of the Wild would be an enormous game going into it, but little did I know just how much content Nintendo would stuff in. By the 10-hour mark I had not even stepped foot into one of the four main dungeons, as I was happily exploring the world and the many secrets it has to offers.

While I mentioned you can venture anywhere, I should add that there’s a rite of passage before you can do so. First you need to visit four shrines and obtain rune powers, which you’ll use to solve puzzles for the remainder of the game. However, a Skyward Sword hours-long tutorial this is not. You can visit the starter shrines in any order, and this self-contained area is so vast and interesting, you can easily spend hours looking around. It’s only afterwards you’ll realize this whole time was actually one giant tutorial in disguise.

Once freed from the intro area, you’re off to explore a Zelda world larger than you can possibly imagine. In addition to the hours of content in the main quests, the game offers an array of secondary missions you can choose to take on. These include 120 shrines that act like mini dungeons and challenge you with puzzles to solve, or enemy battles to prove your worthiness. There are also many lavish towns and quaint settlements filled with quirky characters in need. Helping the denizens of Hyrule is generally a rewarding endeavor, so don’t be surprised if you take on hours-long side quests in between all the main.

Series formula turned upside down

Breath of the Wild is a Zelda video game with many un-Zelda-like characteristics. While it’s not the first non-linear game is the series—that honor goes to 2013’s A Link Between Worlds—it is the first to give you an open world you can approach in virtually limitless ways. You can approach any dungeon, any time, with any combination of weapons and items you want.

You can even bypass entire challenges if you have the resourcefulness to do so. As an example, one castle I visited had a hovering patrol machine that could fry all your hearts with a single laser shot. After a couple of failed attempts to sneak by unseen, I walked all the way to the other side of the castle, climbed up its huge wall, and stealthily entered through the back door. It’s as if Breath of the Wild encourages you to break its systems, and reap all the satisfaction that entails.

Another way Breath of the Wild turns the Zelda formula upside down is how it doles out weapons at a furious pace. Within minutes of playing the game I had acquired an axe, a torch, a tree branch, and a Boko Club I pinched off an enemy. Not long after that, I took out a squad of Moblins, looted their base, and found a boomerang.

On top of weapons, the four rune powers you acquire early on gives Link tremendous power. Within the first few hours you’ll be armed with bombs, you can stop time around certain objects, you can create blocks of ice from water sources, and you will have the ability to manipulate several elements with magnetic power akin to X-Men’s Magneto. Having all these weapons and powers so quickly forces you to consider more possibilities when solving puzzles in each dungeon, and to think out of the box.

Up there with the greatest

Breath of the Wild deserves to be in the same conversation as legendary series entries like Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past. The game really is that good. If someone were to tell me Breath of the Wild was their favorite Zelda game ever, I might debate them, but I wouldn't call them crazy. The developers have managed to give us the perfect mix of nostalgic elements with groundbreaking innovations sure to forever change the series for the better.

Not only is Breath of the Wild the most mature game of the series, is also the most complete and the most fun. You might as well go block off the next month of your life because once you enter this vast, interesting world you will not want to detach. Luckily you can bring it everywhere you go if you opt for the Switch version, which looks nearly as pretty on the tablet as it does on the TV. Breath of the Wild is the kind of game that will be remembered for many, many years to come.