Price: £45 Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform(s): Wii U, Nintendo Switch Version tested: Nintendo Switch
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn't a game about its main character, but about a place.
Link — in this iteration Princess Zelda's champion, bested by Calamity Ganon, this iteration's Ganondorf, and waking up after a 100-year regenerative sleep — might want to save Hyrule, but it's a world that doesn't want saving. In several cases it seems like it's actively opposing you: bolts of lightning smite you for holding a metal weapon, the desert tries to cook you alive. Chances are, as you reach a fire to cook and rest after an exhausting journey, rain will start to beat down, dampening both the flames and your spirits.
The game isn't any Zelda title you might recognise, and it's as far as you can get from the saccharine sweetness of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and far bleaker than the 'mature' tone promised by Twilight Princess. Not that you can compare Breath of the Wild against any previous game in the series, it's an incredibly experimental game, an open-world adventure cribbing from the recent trend towards expansive open-world collect-'em-ups and survival titles, taking on both genres and somehow creating something that succeeds where a lot of these games fail. Its real strength is using the usual Nintendo polish to put forward mechanics that might seem tired in other games and make them seem fresh and exciting.
The best example of this is the game handles the cooking. Unless you're knee-deep in an Overcooked binge, no one enjoys cooking in games, but Zelda manages to ease you in. You start cooking reluctantly, experimenting with a simple dish of peppers, meat and fish to give you extra heat resistance that allows you to climb to a snowy shrine that's too cold to approach unaided. By 20 hours in, I was cooking all of the time, searching marketplaces for the finest in artisan ingredients to prepare dishes that restore hearts, climb faster, or endure more damage. You cook by selecting up to five different components and physically tossing them into a big pot, and it's just one of the systems that Nintendo has reinvented for the game.
Hyrule appears to be a cruel world at first, as you venture across the Great Plateau that serves as Breath of the Wild's tutorial area. Soon you'll start to realise, through experimentation and repeated failure, the rules you'll need to follow to survive in this alien world. Brilliantly, because Link has woken up robbed of his memories, you'll be learning these rules along with him.
This exploration and experimentation is highly encouraged, with the game tucking little secrets around nearly everywhere. I despise having to waltz across a map collecting flags, feathers or weapon attachments, but each discovery here has its own little puzzle. I think there's a good chance I'll never find all of Zelda's secrets, but the tradeoff is worth it for clambering up a mountain in the middle distance to find a chest tucked away in a fissure in the rock face. Hyrule is gigantic, stretching away into the distance in every direction, but you never feel like you're not missing out.
If it seems whimsical, there are certainly moments where things can feel nearly oppressively twee, but actually, this adventure is the bleakest it's been for Link. Rather than trying to save the kingdom of Hyrule, you've already failed, 100 years ago. Princess Zelda is fighting on at Hyrule Castle now, trying to contain the evil and, it's a fight she's losing. The end of everything is already imminent as you awake, and the world is bearing the weight of this, constantly talking about the calamity that befell it 100 years ago, and the glorious times now past.
Link has an expansive skill set to put to work in the world. He can climb anything, providing he's got the stamina, and he can also move magnetic objects with his mind, like a pint-sized Magneto. He's also got control over time, freezing objects and whacking them a bunch so they take all of the damage at once, and the ability to create solid blocks of water out of any body of liquid, tall enough for him to clamber on. Getting around the world is easy, expedited with the paraglider or the ability to hop on a horse, or board it at a stable and take it everywhere with you, or you could even ride a sand seal, which is what you think it is.