After six long years, the newest installment of one of Nintendo’s most prominent and successful franchises is finally here: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is a vast departure from the traditional Zelda Nintendo has fed us over the years. I had heard this game would be different but I didn’t expect just how different it would be, or that I’d welcome such an array of changes across the board, that has left me feeling both liberated and exhilarated every time I pick the controller up. Nintendo has created a world that will quickly suck you in with an unprecedented level of immersion, that rapidly provides those special wow moments Zelda is known for.

Combat

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I’ve played through nearly every Zelda game, the few exceptions being Zelda II and a few of the handheld games. This is the only Zelda game I’ve ever played where I’ve consistently felt in legitimate danger when encountering new enemies.

Within 30 seconds of leaving the starting area plateau I encountered a giant pile of rocks. I was quite surprised when that pile of rocks stood up, smashed me like a pancake and killed me in one hit. I resurrected and went back to that pile of rocks only to have the same exact thing happen. Sure I managed to hit the guy a few times, but I did nearly no damage and quickly realized this was not an enemy I was meant to be able to handle at this stage of the game.

In every Zelda game prior to Breath of the Wild, you’ve always been gated from encountering enemies you either don’t have the equipment/magic/combat skills to face or proper health/magic pool. I love seeing this change in the game. It adds a layer of danger that makes things much more exciting, especially when exploring new areas of the incredibly vast open world.

Combat itself has similarities from prior games; we again see the option to hit a special attack on enemies if you successfully parry or dodge at the right time. There’s the traditional sword and shield fighting style, as well as the bow and arrow from afar.

What’s new (and at times slightly frustrating) is the introduction of durability. All weapons; swords, axes, bows, wands, and clubs suffer from durability loss when used. This also applies to shields. The more you use the weapon or shield, the faster it breaks. Different weapons have different levels of durability and if you accidentally hit a tree with a delicate weapon, you can expect it to break or suffer high durability loss.

This adds the new challenge of inventory management and forces you to reconsider the traditional Zelda combat style of hack and slash without worry until it’s dead. For the most part, I’m a fan of this change. I enjoy the added layer of planning that’s required to have success when fighting enemies and I like the aspect of realism this brings. My biggest issue is being a giant packrat, I’m having some trouble with managing all the weapons I want to keep.

This is the only Zelda game with a persistent feeling of legitimate danger.

I’ll close with my thoughts on combat choice, which leads me into my next subject, crafting (you’ll see). In addition to the slew of new weapons to choose from–two-handed axes, scythes, fire wands, pitchforks farming hoes (?!)–we’re also given a new rune system. The rune system enables you to do a lot of things (mainly non-combat related to be honest)–stop time to throw a boulder, summon bombs, or use magnetism to drop an iron door on some poor unsuspecting lizard folk.

Perhaps my favorite part of the new range of combat choices is the food/elixir system. The new crafting system enables Link to create food and elixirs that give you a number different possible bonus attributes: stealth, defense, speed, stamina increase or temporary hearth container increase.

In the past your combat options were limited to sword/shield, bow and arrow, and perhaps some magic. In Wild you have a vast amount of choice for how you want to take on your enemies. Perhaps you want to use stealth elixirs and focus on sneak attacks. Or maybe you’d like to eat defense food and run in swinging a two-handed sword. Better yet maybe you’d like to down some stamina increase elixirs and climb high above your enemies to rain death with your bow and arrow, while using your magnetism rune to throw some large objects for good measure. The possibilities are nearly endless, and I love it.

Crafting

Crafting is another major change for the Zelda franchise. In the past Link relied on red potions/hearts to regain lost health and mana potions to replenish mana. Breath of the Wild has introduced a gathering/cooking system to seemingly replace that.

If you see an animal, you can either catch it (frog, crab, insect) or kill it (deer, fox, bird) and use it as ingredients in your cooking. I’ve yet to encounter an non-monster animal that I couldn’t obtain materials from for cooking. In addition to animals, Link relies on finding edible fruit and plants for his cooking.

The system was admittedly frustrating to use at first, but now that I’ve gotten the hang of it I find myself really enjoying it. There are seemingly endless possible combinations of food you can create. The purpose of cooking isn’t only for regaining health either; you can make food that will increase your resistance to certain environmental effects, raise your attack power, raise your defensive ability, increase your stealth ability and so on.

Monsters also drop all sorts of different reagents to use in your crafting and cooking. I’ve found a number of different items that are identified as having crafting potential but I’ve yet to discover how to use them. The same can be said for wood you gather from chopping down trees and minerals you obtain from blowing up rocks.

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Exploration

I like to think of myself as an explorer at heart: while I don’t make nearly any effort to explore the real world around me, when it comes to video games, if there’s somewhere on the map I believe there’s even that slightest chance I can get to, I’m going to do everything possible to get there. Thanks to my unending curiosity and love for discovering secrets, I spend countless hours ignoring the main quest line and running around the map in every open world game I play.

I thought the map was pretty big based off of the glimpses I had of the surrounding area below the starting plateau. I thought it was even bigger than my initial assessment once I got off the plateau. But once I was given my quest to visit Kakariko Village and saw the surrounded undiscovered areas on my map screen, I realized I was very very wrong. The map isn’t big–it’s enormous.

There’s little chance I’ll finish the main story anytime soon due to the world of Hyrule being as big as it is. Seriously, it’s the biggest single player open world map that I’ve ever seen in a game. You thought Skyrim was big? Check out this comparison map between Breath of the Wild and Skyrim, as well as past Zelda games Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess.

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It’s hard to imagine that Nintendo could top the epic feeling that Ocarina of Time brought during the countless hours I spent exploring the world (and hunting Golden Skulltulas) as a kid. But they’ve managed it with Breath of the Wild and I couldn’t be happier. Anything that you can see, you can conceivably get to (environment or monsters may stop you in some circumstances).

Stamina is another major change to Zelda and since it touches nearly every part of the game, I wasn’t sure where to put it in this article. I’ve decided on exploration because it’s very often a huge factor to consider when trying to reach new areas. Stamina has replaced mana as your new secondary resource. Running, swimming, climbing, charging an attack and using your glider all consume stamina while in use. You can climb nearly every surface in the game but if you run out of stamina mid climb, you’ll fall. A lot of chests and special items are reached via climbing, so you’ll want to ensure you have the stamina bar as a priority when you get the opportunity to increase it.

Environment

When I think game immersion in games, I think Bethesda, specifically Fallout and Elder Scrolls. It’s a big part of what Bethesda has become known for. Few companies do a better job at making their virtual worlds come alive and suck you in. Going forward Breath of the Wild and Nintendo will forever be included on that list. The environment is masterfully constructed and arguably the most notable change in the Zelda franchise to date.

I’ve never seen a Zelda game with more attention to detail, thoughtfulness and immersion. Nintendo has considered literally everything the player will or could interact with and given it value.

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In my experience when most gamers think of a great game environment one of the first items of the list is visuals or graphics. I don’t play Zelda or any Nintendo game for that matter, for the graphics. Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is a mix of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess and is stunningly beautiful, technically impressive graphics or not.

Players get to enjoy a Hyrule filled with stunning sunsets across grassy plains spotted with wild horses, treacherous snow-covered mountain peaks with goats scaling the cliffs. Swamps filled with the buzz of insects and croaking of frogs. Lush green forests crawling with deer, foxes and squirrels. Rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, waterfalls and countless other bodies of water are found in almost every area of the map. Nintendo has created a world with living, breathing ecosystems.

I can’t remember the last time I played a game where I had to consider the weather when making in-game decisions. Oh you’re about to embark a quest involving fire? Well it better not be raining because otherwise you’re out of luck. There’s a temple high in the snow covered mountains? I hope you’ve got the appropriate clothing or food that will help you resist the cold, otherwise you may as well turn around now.

The game continues to surprise me with what I can interact with as I journey deeper into the vast world. There’s no hand holding either. You’re dumped into this new Hyrule without a guide and it’s never felt more alive or exciting.

The world map isn’t just big–it’s enormous.

Story

I don’t have much say in regards to the main storyline, because I’ve hardly touched it. The basic mythos found in all Zelda games is there: Ganon ruined everything, you need to save Princess Zelda and the fate of Hyrule rests on Link’s shoulders.

As you’d expect, there’s a new spin on the legend to help give the game its own unique feel. Calamity Ganon attacked Hyrule castle and in a great sacrifice Princess Zelda used her power to seal them both inside to prevent him from destroying all of Hyrule. Link was nearly killed in the attack and to save his life he was placed in a healing stasis for 100 years, while the world fell apart around him. Upon waking Link has lost his memories and must journey across Hyrule to find four Divine Beasts, free them from Ganon’s influence and enlist their help.

As I said, I’ve barely touched the main quest line. But that hasn’t impacted my enjoyment of the game in the least. Everything feels and plays so much different than every other Zelda I’ve experienced. The story has become secondary to the immersive world and for right now being 10-15 hours in, I’m absolutely okay with that. There’s so much to see in the mean time.