At first, I thought Breath of the Wild seemed like a game that would stick to the formula for most of the previous Zelda games. Link, the protagonist controlled by the player, is tasked with a quest to travel to the castle and save Princess Zelda from Calamity Ganon, the force of pure evil that has devastated the land called Hyrule. As he travels the Great Plateau, he is given a series of instructions detailing the order of locations to visit and shrines (puzzles) to clear. Just like in other Zelda games, I expected to reach the final boss fight in a linear progression, defeating enemies and solving puzzles that became more challenging as I spent more time in the game.
I could not have been more wrong.
After the player has made his or her way through the shrines of the Great Plateau and obtained his glider, Link can jump from the Great Plateau and glide anywhere he wishes. Anywhere the player can see, Link can run, swim, or ride a horse to get there. Every tree and mountain is climbable. Every ravine can be crossed, every cliff can be jumped from, and any monster can be defeated with any weapon.
I was fascinated by the freedom this game offered; I had never experienced anything like it in the games I had played before. I was expecting to be restricted from certain areas until I had cleared a certain boss fight or obtained a secret item. I quickly set off exploring as many areas as I could.
However, I found that the great amount of freedom in Breath of the Wild also included the freedom for me to die over and over again to powerful enemies. When I first began playing, I would often wander into the domain of a raging Lynel or a sleeping Hinox, only to find myself extremely outmatched and dead within seconds. I also learned that I was nowhere near ready to fight the fast, deadly automatons called Guardians that can kill Link in one hit from their powerful lasers (the Guardian fight music still haunts me to this day). I eventually discovered that my pot lid shield and my rusty broadsword were not going to help me defeat strong enemies like these.
But, with time and new discoveries, I was able to power up Link and strengthen his inventory, giving me more health, better weapons, and a greater chance of success. In addition to that, the game’s freedom and unique physics engine allowed me to continually invent creative ways to defeat an enemy of reach the end of a shrine puzzle. For example, I could drop food in front of enemies or cause explosions with bomb arrows to distract enemies, and then sneak up behind them while they don’t suspect it. I could also pick up metal objects with my Magnesis rune and bash monsters over the head with them (this was particularly fun). Perhaps the most efficient way to attack enemies I found was to slowly creep up on them while they were sleeping and deliver what’s called a “sneakstrike,” taking out a significant portion of their health.
Not only does Breath of the Wild emphasize freedom in exploration, but it also allows unique approaches to the main objective of the game. The early portion of the game directs you to Kakariko Village (although you don’t have to go there), where a character named Impa tells you that you should free the Divine Beasts from the control of Calamity Ganon. The Divine Beasts are four ancient, powerful machines that, when freed, take aim with their own powerful lasers at Hyrule Castle and assist you in your final confrontation with Calamity Ganon. To free each Divine Beast, you must solve the puzzle within each one and fight a manifestation of Ganon at its end – either Waterblight Ganon, Windblight Ganon, Fireblight Ganon, or Thunderblight Ganon, depending on which Divine Beast you enter.
However, the player can actually choose to forgo the Divine Beasts entirely and waltz right into Hyrule Castle. In this case, Link would have to fight all four blights and Calamity Ganon in an even more brutal boss fight within the sanctum of Hyrule Castle. This is certainly not the easiest way to complete the game, but it is possible. Top speedruns of the game clock in at under 30 minutes and feature players entering Hyrule Castle with the most basic shield and a tree branch as a mêlée weapon. On the other hand, some players invest hundreds of hours into the game to achieve a 100% completion rate, finding every Korok, clearing every shrine, and completing every side quest available in the game.
Although the story of Breath of the Wild is captivating on its own, the freedom is what I found the most enchanting. The freedom to explore, to discover, to create, and most importantly – the freedom to fail. The ability of the player to find their own way through fights, puzzles, and challenges is something that makes Breath of the Wild stand out from other Zelda games, and it is what makes the game one of my favorites of all time. I believe that the incredible attention to detail and the subversion of typical linear progressions within Breath of the Wild will encourage players to return to it for generations to come.