I've spent the better part of the last week playing "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild," Nintendo's first-party title that serves as both the swan song for the beleaguered Wii U console and the opening number for the newly released Nintendo Switch device. In development for the better part of four years, Nintendo had a lot riding on the game's success in the midst of major design changes to the beloved series' core mechanics.
Based on my track record with the genre, "Breath of the Wild" should be borderline unbearable for me. The game's front-and-center claims to fame are its hugely expansive open world and emphasis on player exploration, "innovations" I was put off by in other games.
The open-world convention has by now been done to death in series like "Assassin's Creed" and others, where the billed "freedom to explore" was more of a stand-in for "freedom to wander around amid aimless objectives and a sinking awareness of the world's unflinching indifference to your character's actions." Games that tout these expansive sandbox experiences too often substitute workable map area for actual enjoyable content — just because a game gives a player a playground 100 square miles in size doesn't by itself make adventuring across it all that fun.
"Breath of the Wild" seems to have taken these gripes into account; though the map is gargantuan, it doesn't feel like any of the space was generated solely to fill up space. Every area seems crafted with a purpose that encourages exploration, with hundreds of puzzles of various size scattered throughout the map. Climbing to the highest peak in an area (which is actually doable and encouraged in "Breath of the Wild" as opposed to other open worlds — the mountains you see off in the background are for scaling, not for teasing) will usually lead to Link stumbling across a suspiciously placed stone circle that requires some fidgeting with or a balloon swaying in the air, begging to be popped.
The rewards for these small discoveries are meager, though the game does contain a staggering number of larger and more challenging puzzles and narrative-related quests (both with larger rewards) to hold a player's attention for longer. Still, the game's small rocks to overturn and fires to light were often what kept me up too many nights over the past week. They aren't so much rigorous challenges as they are invitations for interacting with the world, something games of such large scale need in order to keep up interest in the nooks and crannies of the universe they've created.
"Breath of the Wild" does earn some lower marks in other areas — combat at the start of the game encourages creative approaches to battle, but these innovations taper off in usefulness as the game nears its close. Endgame enemies have such ridiculously huge health pools that any prior plotting becomes ineffective against a few slightly overpowered and spammable moves at the player's disposal. From an exploration and screwing around in the overworld standpoint, however, few games come close to "Breath of the Wild" in capturing the fun that can be had in peaking over the next hill.
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