NB: This is your final warning for major, major Zelda: Breath Of The Wild spoilers.
What a strange and exciting few weeks it’s been. I’ve seen wolves struck by lightning in the midst of a shrieking storm. I’ve been subject to a bizarre assassination attempt on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. I’ve watched in slack-jawed fascination as a Bokoblin, panicked and on fire, runs into a lair full of other Bokoblins, sets fire to a powder keg and blows the entire camp to kingdom come.
That’s what’s wonderful about the massively overhauled design in Nintendo’s Zelda: Breath Of The Wild – its interlocking mechanics not only create the illusion of a real, immersive world, but also provide memories and incidents that are entirely unpredictable. Even the puzzles offered by all those shrines dotted around Breath Of The Wild‘s huge map can be solved in ways their designers hadn’t necessarily expected – go to YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of videos showing how players have come up with ingenious shortcuts to those all-important Spirit Orbs. The result is a game that constantly feels organic and alive, even when the narrative offers you familiar things to do: go here, defeat this boss, throw that switch.
Like all good things, though, Breath Of The Wild’s bewitching spell has to end eventually. The ultimate objective, “Destroy Ganon” always lingers at the top of your to-do list, and whether you’re the kind of person who suits up and goes straight for the final boss, or you prefer to bide your time and free the four Divine Beasts first, you’ll eventually have to embark on the final assault on a Hyrule Castle enveloped in clouds and malice.
Your humble writer fell pretty much in the latter camp. While I haven’t yet completed every side mission, much less made a dent in the 900 Korok seeds secreted across Breath Of The Wild’s vast map, I haven’t rushed through the game, either – largely because I’ve enjoyed taming those Divine Beasts, digging up those hidden shrines or killing those big Hinox things for their hoards of lovely treasure.
All the same, there came a moment when I realised that the time was right to go to Hyrule Castle. And so, armed with my Master Sword, a plentiful supply of meals, elixirs and a broad selection of arrows, I embarked on my final mission – and what a bittersweet experience it was. First, there’s the music: baroque, atmospheric, and veering seamlessly between triumph and imminent doom.
Then there’s the surprisingly rapid-fire pace of it, at least in my experience. Once you’re past the Guardians and into the shattered remains of the castle itself, traversal through what is effectively a large, multi-storey dungeon runs at a thrilling clip. Its rooms and corridors are largely populated by various breeds of Moblin, and it’s interesting how, in a relatively confined space, they seem to fall with relative ease. It’s also surprising how generous Hyrule Castle is with its loot, given how the rest of the game is about the careful management of resources.
Having spent weeks carefully preserving my best swords and shields for tough encounters, Breath Of The Wild suddenly showered me with weapons, arrows and even a few useful food items; at several points, I had so many powerful Claymores, Halberds, Broadswords, tridents and spears to choose from that I wound up leaving dozens of them behind.
The Guardian Turrets dotting the towers of Hyrule slowed my pace a little, but armed with my bundle of ancient arrows, even they didn’t offer too much of a resistance once I’d figured how to get in close to them. Eventually, my journey took me to the castle’s inner sanctum, where a monstrous Calamity Ganon waited for the final battle. It’s a tough boss fight, but not notably trickier than the bosses that awaited me in those Divine Beasts; it’s possible, I suppose, that being armed with the Master Sword, Hylian Shield and other extra powers evened the odds a little too much.
At any rate, Ganon eventually succumbed, with the help of a few blasts from Zelda’s Bow of Light. As a final lightshow, it’s a fitting end for a beautiful looking game; a growling mass of evil red energy finally conquered by Zelda’s magic. All the same, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment at the brevity of what follows: Link and Zelda finally reunited, facing one another outside the remains of Hyrule Castle, the sky now blue and streaked with pale cloud.
For some reason, I’d imagined that Breath Of The Wild’s ending might be as surprising and franchise-altering as the game itself; that the final cut scene might make good on the theme of death and resurrection brought up from the moment Link woke up in that strange chamber at the start of his adventure. At the very least, I’d imagined that the Ghibli-like sense of melancholy might continue into the conclusion; could it be that Princess Zelda, just like Princess Mipha and the other characters that help Link, is a deceased spirit trapped by Ganon? Could it be, in turn, that Link’s resurrection is only temporary, and that the ending has him reunited with Zelda’s spirit in the hereafter? Well, no. Zelda’s still mortal, is wrested free from Ganon’s grip by Link, and Breath Of The Wild ends with Hyrule restored to a peaceful land once again.
In fairness, Breath Of The Wild was never about astounding cut-scenes in the first place; it’s surely telling that a fair percentage of them are optional, and only appear if you go looking for the trigger points dotted about on the map. Nor is Breath Of The Wild purely about defeating Calamity Ganon; it may be at the top of your to-do list, but it’s far from the most interesting thing to do in Hyrule. Instead, it’s the Zelda equivalent of Dorothy clicking her heels to leave Oz: if you really think you’re ready to see the end of the game, organise your best gear, and off you go.
Besides, there’s still plenty more to do: locate every one of those 116 shrines, find all four dragons, maybe pick up a few more Korok seeds. I might even set myself the challenge of assaulting Hyrule Castle without the Master Sword or other high-powered gear to see if I’m up to the task; meanwhile, the add-on hard mode, arriving as a bit of DLC this summer, should add yet more mileage.
And while Breath Of The Wild‘s conclusion didn’t leave me agog in quite the same way that the rest of the game did, it undoubtedly leaves the Zelda series in the best shape it’s been since Ocarina Of Time. It’s certainly easy to see Nintendo making more open-world adventures in the same vein, with new monsters to fight and evils to conquer; hell, the engine underpinning Breath Of The Wild is so solid that, if Nintendo made another game “further adventures” type game running on it – much as it did with Majora’s Mask after Ocarina – then I’d happily buy a copy.
Looking further ahead, I’d also argue that it’s about time Zelda finally got to be a playable character; Breath Of The Wild makes a vague shuffle in that direction, what with Zelda being as much a scientist and strategist as old-worlde princess. The series is called The Legend Of Zelda, after all; maybe it’s about time she got to drive those legends herself, instead of providing an ethereal figure waiting for you after the final boss battle. (With Zelda and Link now resembling one another more closely than ever, being able to play as either of them would barely make a difference from a purely visual perspective.)
The most bittersweet thing about finishing Breath Of The Wild is the realisation that another Zelda game could be as long as four years away. Producer Eiji Aonuma first talked publically about an open-world Zelda in 2013, and since then, he and his team have evidently working long and hard on making a game that not only feels like a Zelda entry, but feels vital and modern in a way the series hasn’t felt since the N64 era. Breath Of The Wild’s mix of elemental forces and fantastical technology, quiet exploration and intense action is a perfectly-judged formula that provides all kinds of possibilities for future Zelda games.
The only question, of course, is whether Nintendo can actually improve on what is, for this writer, the best open-world game ever created.