As I stated in my first impressions review of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Breath of the Wild is my favorite game of all time from my favorite series, and I can make no claim to be impartial. Breath of the Wild is a special game for me, and it’s the reason that I play games now today. Before, I had every Nintendo handheld for Pokemon and played Smash Bros or Mario Kart on my Wii, but it was not until I bought a Switch and played Breath of the Wild that I understood why people play games.
I adore everything about Breath of the Wild, but especially its opening. The subtle title cards that give way to the mysterious awakening within the Shrine of Resurrection fill me with a sense of intrigue and anticipation. And then, as Link runs out of the shrine into the sun onto the cliff edge, just to behold as Hyrule lays itself out in front of you. I could write an essay about this opening scene alone.
Every time I watch this scene, and I’ve replayed this game way too many times, I get chills down my spine. That wide panning shot and that minimalist piano score just hit different. It is a heroic, nigh triumphant call to action and it manages to do so without saying a single word. And yet, it’s hollow, as if some vital piece of it is missing. It’s that biting loneliness that permeates the experience; you instantly understand what this game is about.
With this opening, Breath of the Wild lays out a massive world before you and all but demands that you go out and take it. It’s huge and it’s scary, but it is yours for the taking. Every mountain, river, and secret that it holds can be yours, with some effort, some skill, and a lot of practice.
Now, after you step away from that cliff, the tutorial proper begins, not the simple X to jump or B to run, but the whole Great Plateau. With my bias on full display, I think the Great Plateau is a masterclass in teaching you how to play a game. I spent nearly a week exploring the depths of the region, and barely even fighting. That’s because I wasn’t paying attention to the instructions because I was so invested in the world and didn’t realize you could steal enemy weapons, but that’s on me.
It elegantly introduces you to the gameplay loop: find shrines, collect spirit orbs and loot, destroy monster camps, and chart the great expanses of Hyrule. The shrines you encounter here are excellent lessons on how to use your versatile Sheikah Slate runes. Each shrine is designed with that classic Nintendo method of presenting a level, and building on the fundamental concept with each progressing level.
The Great Plateau is more than just setting the tone for the gameplay, but also for the mood and atmosphere of the entire adventure. There is a stink of ruin that permeates Hyrule, and it dogs Link’s every step. We return to that feeling of hollowness, as though you are walking alongside ghosts. The majestic Temple of Time has been laid to waste, the grounds where heroes of the past have pulled the Master Sword from its pedestal are now decrepit and overrun with monsters. It’s a tremendously beautiful and lonely experience, and it’s one of the most stirring aspects of Breath of the Wild.
And then, as you complete the four shrines and unlock what other secrets the plateau holds, the beginning comes to an end and the journey proper begins. You are given the paraglider, your best friend in this world. It was a wise decision to wait until the end of the plateau to give you the glider, as it forces the player to appreciate everything they are given. You cannot be grateful for soaring the skies and traversing swaths of land without first having to trek by foot through the thick forests and wide plains. This carries over to nearly every evolving aspect of the game.
You don’t appreciate your stamina until you have had one measly ring that won’t take you up a moderate hill, much less the towering Dueling Peaks. Every victory in this game is designed to reward your hard work, whether it’s a Korok seed or looking closely at your map and noticing a discrepancy that can be rectified by finding a shrine. And then, after conquering Divine Beast Vah Medoh, you claim the ability Revali’s Gale and turn all previous obstacles into memories. Breath of the Wild presents you with a problem, making the player experience the depths of it, and then allows you to take the solution as a reward for your cleverness and dedication. It’s an immensely rewarding system.
And that system applies across the entire game. The way that the map slowly becomes more and more accessible is reminiscent of a Metroidvania’s item progression. It applies to the combat system where you are constantly scavenging new and better weapons, upgrading your armor at the Great Fairy Fountains, and refining your skills through practice. The early game is defined by running in terror from every Guardian Stalker and Lynel you come across, but when you are able to come back and tear them apart feels like the gold standard in empowerment.
But the wonder of Breath of the Wild is not limited to its exploration and its combat, but more importantly the things you will find and see. It has a knack for showing glimpses of something greater and mysterious to grab your attention. There’s the Forgotten Temple, the dark fog covering the Typhog ruins, or the very first time you see a dragon roaming the skies. This world is full of wonder and it can take hundreds of hours to pry every secret it holds.
There are so many unique memories that Breath of the Wild can give you. There is this incredible sense of awe to seeing this wide shadow in the sky before realizing it is a titanic mechanical eagle, or tracking the progress of Vah Rudania as it scrapes and crawls its way across the peak of Death Mountain. There’s this sense that everything you see not only exists in this world, but is a natural and organic extension of it. There aren’t levels, because these places all flow into each other, and it is a masterclass in immersion.
There are many reasons that people play games: to hone a skill into a craft, to experience grand adventures and stories, or to explore worlds beyond reality. Breath of the Wild is a great game for being able to meet at the intersection of so many reasons why people love this medium. That is what makes it stand as a triumph in gaming, and I haven’t even mentioned the complex chemistry and physics engine, the infinite ways to devise strategies and combat encounters, or that you can use a shield as a surfboard. For all these reasons and more, Breath of the Wild is a special game to me, and through this essay I hope I have made you understand why.