Breath of the Wild: the perfect antidote to winter lockdown.
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
In a mere five week's time, it's going to be a year since I put myself into lockdown. It's an anniversary I never thought would happen, and one I'd be very happy to not need to celebrate - but here we are. Here in the UK, the COVID vaccinations are rolling out at pace, and there's a feeling that come the summer we may be back to some semblance of the normal that we knew before. But, in the long winter days when the sky is grey and the rain is constant, summer feels like a lifetime away. Lots of us are using games as escapism in this lockdown, which has felt so much more difficult than the ones last year were - probably because escaping outside is that much harder at this time of year.
I picked up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Wii-U originally, then upgraded to the Switch version when I picked up that console. On my first couple of attempts though, the game just didn't hook me in. I've been playing Zelda games for as long as I can remember (hell, my right forearm is covered in Zelda inspired tattoos), and I think Breath of the Wild felt like a step a little too far away from the formula that I loved the game for. The Zelda games of old, while often set in open worlds, were actually fairly linear experiences. There were some areas you wouldn't be able to reach without certain pieces of equipment, meaning that the game enforced a "correct order" of doing things on you even if you didn't notice it. Other areas would be locked off in the early game by the presence of enemies that you didn't stand a chance against. Breath of the Wild stepped away from a lot of that - or felt as though it did. It introduced an emphasis on cooking and weapons that would break, and removed the idea of dungeons from the game - and my first impressions of it were that it was beautiful, but not something that was going to hook me in. In those early sessions, it just didn't click for me.
I was wrong though. Again. All it took was for me to try this game at the right moment for my opinion on it to completely change direction. Firing up the game and starting anew for the third time, I found myself being utterly swept away by it.
Breath of the Wild offers up a living, breathing world - and then invites you to get lost in it. The more I play, the more I'm realising just how incredible that world is - to the point where it feels like it the most interesting character in the game. A lot of the staple Zelda locations are present in it, although the geography of it is very different to what has come before. Where a lot of open world games offer up systems that can be almost entirely ignored, in this one every single thing you encounter in it serves a purpose. Early on in the game, you need to navigate a cold area - and the game offers up options on how to do it. You can cook a meal at a campsite using the peppers that you find growing in the area, which gives you the ability to resist the cold for a period of time - or you can locate a diary and cook a specific meal that you can trade for a jacket that will keep you warm. Regardless of which option you take (and I didn't even realise that the second option existed until I did some exploring on my third start that I'd never done before!), the game is teaching you valuable lessons about how this world works and the options for navigation that it offers up - essentially, that there is no "right" way to do anything. The further I delve into the game, the more I find these options and the more I'm enjoying experimenting - and the game encourages it at every turn.
Hunting different types of animals, recovering different plants and mushrooms and then cooking up the ingredients into meals and elixirs that meaningfully impact on what you can do within the world are essential skills to learn - and while they feel incidental at the start, you'll soon learn that engaging with these systems is not optional in the way it is with so many other open world games. In Breath of the Wild, it seems that every single element of that open world is there for a reason, and to serve a purpose. It helps that the cooking animation and music is beautiful to behold - even when the ingredients fail to mix together into anything useful.
At its heart then, it's a game about exploration and discovery. That philosophy extends to the world itself and all of the systems that the game supports. Early on in the game, when the world first opens up, it encourages exploration by putting every single mission waypoint for you in areas of the map that are uncharted. If you want to proceed, exploration is mandatory. Along the way to those waypoints though, you'll find yourself constantly distracted and pulled away from the main path - and that distraction is all done organically, by either spotting a point on the horizon that looks interesting enough to pull you toward it, or by an interaction with an NPC that will tell you about something interesting nearby.
The game leans into this so hard that it even impacts on the design of the map - an element of any open world game so critical as not to be underestimated. While so many of these games will litter a map with endless markers, Zelda lets you place your own - meaning you can decide what's important to you and what isn't in any given moment. It also means that the massive map doesn't feel as overwhelming, and doesn't reduce the game to merely a series of locations to be ticked off. It all reinforces that sense of exploration and discovery, and the feeling that you as a player are the one in charge of what you prioritise.
This might sound odd - but the game this actually reminds me of most in a lot of ways is Fallout 3. That's the last game that I can remember rewarding exploration in the same way that this one does, and it also took place in a shattered world following an apocalyptic event. While Zelda is a much prettier world, the two games have this in common with one another. Where Fallout was relentlessly cynical though, Zelda has a kind of blissful naivety running through it - the back story piecing itself together as you wind your way through the world at a pace that you can dictate for yourself.
Yes, it's safe to say that I'm completely in love with Breath of the Wild. In the last couple of weeks, it's worked its way under my skin to an extent that my first impression led me to never believe possible. It's as close to being out in the great wide open as I can realistically manage at the moment, and firing up the Switch every evening to spend some time wandering around in a game that delights in the natural world to the extent that this one does is helping to make this lockdown bearable. It was worth buying a Switch for, and it's Nintendo charm turned up to the maximum setting. If you have the means, this one really needs to be picked up and experienced - it's wonderful. There's also a lot more to say about it. This piece hasn't touched on combat or a lot of the game's mechanics. I haven't mentioned my horse, or the incredible feeling of paragliding from a high up spot and watching the world beneath you. I haven't even mentioned shield surfing or the boss fights. I'll end with this though - every so often you see all the positive reviews and general adoration for a game, and you try it for yourself and realise it deserved all the accolades. This is one of those games.