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'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' review: A new classic for a new generation

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ is an audacious reimagining of a classic franchise.

“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” is one of those rare games you fall in love with the moment you begin playing. Heck, you probably wouldn’t put it down if it weren’t for pesky things like food, sleep and basic hygiene. That’s certainly an impressive feat for any game series, let alone one that’s three decades old. And yet here we are.

From the characters and soundtrack, to the quirky humor and slick controls, “Breath of the Wild” is a “Zelda” game through and through. But it’s also an ambitious reinvention of the decades-old franchise; an outrageously huge, exceedingly gorgeous example of what Nintendo (NTDOY) can do when it brings all of its creative power to bear.

“Breath of the Wild” is one of just 10 launch games for Nintendo’s Switch, a paltry lineup for a new system. But “Breath of the Wild” is so frustratingly good, so engrossing, it’s almost worth the $360 investment ($300 for the Switch, $60 for the game). If you’re already set on getting a Switch, have a Wii U or are just a fan of the series, you need to play this game. Here’s why.

Welcome to a whole new Hyrule

Over the last 30 years, gamers have crisscrossed the kingdom of Hyrule innumerable times as the sword-swinging (and tragically mute) hero, Link. If you’ve played the biggest titles in the series — “Ocarina of Time,” “Twilight Princess,” “A Link to the Past” or the original “The Legend of Zelda” — you know your way across Hyrule Field.

Fire up “Breath of the Wild,” however, and you’ll see all of your favorite locales from the series’ past spread across a world so dauntingly large it makes “Twilight Princess’s” massive map look absolutely minuscule by comparison.

‘Breath of the Wild’s’ world is immense and teeming with life.

Your first look at “Breath of the Wild’s” take on Hyrule comes after Link awakens from a deep sleep in a large recuperation pod. Calamity Gannon has destroyed Hyrule and has been locked in a century-old struggle with Zelda, who is keeping the massive, serpentine beast from consuming the world in fire. But Link? He’s got no clue as to what’s going on. He’s been out for 100 years. I can barely remember what I did an hour ago after a 20-minute nap. So I can’t blame his amnesia.

After walking out into the daylight, you get a view of the world at your feet, and it’s stunning. Every mountain, cave and river you see can be climbed and explored as you work to recover your memories and help Zelda defeat Gannon.

“Breath of the Wild’s” landscapes span a number of regions. There are icy mountain peaks, scorched deserts, lush forests and windswept grasslands. Every stretch of land is teeming with life. Elk and wild boar occupy the forests, grasshoppers and lizards hide among the grasslands, and mountain goats climb Hyrule’s steep slopes. It’s the most lived-in, vibrant Hyrule we’ve ever seen.

Things did not go well for Hyrule 100 years ago.

Living off the land

If you’re going to survive in the world of “Breath of the Wild,” you’re going to have to live off the land. Nintendo and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi have incorporated Western-style role-playing game (RPG) sensibilities into “Breath of the Wild.” You’ll need to collect fruit and grains from the world’s vast fields and hunt your own meat to sustain yourself during your journey.

My first of many OMG moments while playing “Breath of the Wild” came when I climbed a tree shortly after Link awakened, grabbed an apple and realized that I had to cook it to ensure it provided me with a larger health boost. My second such moment came two minutes later when I chopped down that same tree with an axe and turned it into firewood.

You’ll also need to become rather proficient in cooking, as throwing together different food combinations can provide you with not only a health boost, but temporary increases to your strength, speed and defense stats, as well.

That little snow fox might look cute, but you’re going to have to make him dinner if you want to survive.

You have to scour the land for more than just food, though. Swords and shields, arrows, bows and clubs are found strewn about long-quiet battlefields or lifted from fallen enemies.

Don’t get too attached to your weapons, though. Like many modern RPGs, your items degrade the more you use them. Smash a few too many bokoblins with your favorite club, and it’ll shatter like a baseball bat snapping against a 100-mph fastball.

Once your weapon is broken, sadly, there’s no fixing it. It’s gone. That’s a bit of a bummer, as I often found myself using underpowered weapons for fear of breaking my sharpest blades. A simple repair mechanic would have fixed both my broken Guardian sword and my gripe with this particular issue.

The good fight

And you’ll break a LOT of weapons, because “Breath of the Wild’s” combat is as fierce and slick as it gets. Controls are tight and the camera never feels out of place.

The majority of the enemies in “Breath of the Wild’s” starting areas consist of Bokoblins, skeletons, winged-eye Keeses, the machine-like Guardians, Moblins and Lizaflos. You’ll run into a few larger boss-like enemies scattered throughout the world that will likely kill you over and over again, but they aren’t the norm.

‘Breath of the Wild’ is full of enemies with different fighting styles.

Each enemy type has a different fighting style that you’ll have to adapt to on the fly. But the beautiful thing about “Breath of the Wild” is that, like the best RPGs, there is no fixed way to beat a bad guy. “Zelda” teaches you this from the get go; should you engage the two Bokoblins standing below a cliff, or simply squish them with a boulder?

There is a wide variety of ways to take down your foes in “Breath of the Wild.” Detonate explosive barrels, catch them off guard as they sleep with a few well-placed ice arrows or – I I kid you not – throw your metal shield at them during a thunderstorm and wait for lightning to strike it and kill them. Yeah, that can happen.

The loneliness of the road

One of the more striking things about “Breath of the Wild” is how alone you feel as you explore the world’s forests and fields. Gannon’s destruction of Hyrule left only a handful of settlements unscathed. That sense of loneliness makes running into a bustling village for the first time feel like you’ve discovered a new civilization.

“Breath of the Wild” does an amazing job making its vast expanses feel consistently new, too. The landscape is littered with Trial Shrines where you can collect Spirit Orbs to expand your health or stamina (used for running, climbing and swimming). Finding these shrines becomes a kind of side quest of their own, as each contains its own unique puzzle to solve using Link’s various Runes, special abilities granted to the hero via his high-tech Sheikah Slate, which looks like a Switch without its Joy-Cons attached.

The journey can get lonely in ‘Breath of the Wild,’ making it all the more exciting when you run into a new town.

I’ve spent many, many hours running across the world of “Breath of the Wild” and still haven’t covered the entire map. Between the Trial Shrines, your main quest and the seemingly endless side quests, you can get caught up in a single quadrant of the game’s map for days at a time.

A painting come to life

To say “Breath of the Wild” is beautiful is an understatement. The game’s stylized, painted look combined with top-notch character animations and stellar real-time weather and time effects bring the world to life.

Things will get hot in ‘Breath of the Wild.’

Performance is silky smooth while playing the “Breath of the Wild” with the Switch in tablet mode. Unfortunately, I did notice some significant slowdown when running through grass-covered fields while playing in TV mode. The issue was infrequent enough to never interfere with the gameplay experience, though in the moment, it was a bit jarring. That’s a pretty minor gripe, though, and does little to derail “Breath of the Wild’s” spectacular vision.

A classic reborn

Few video game franchises are as beloved as “The Legend of Zelda.” From the spectacular “Ocarina of Time” and “A Link to the Past” to the original “The Legend of Zelda” and “A Link Between Worlds,” there’s frankly never been a bad “Zelda” game.

That, of course, makes it hard to rank the series’ titles. Many people have emotional connections to different entries that they’ll hold onto forever. So I don’t take it lightly when I say that “Breath of the Wild” isn’t just an all-time great console launch title, but one of the best “Zelda” games ever made.

With “Breath of the Wild,” Nintendo has built a living, breathing world that you never want to leave. If you’re a newcomer to the series, a longtime fan or just want to see what all the hype is about, you won’t be disappointed. Because “Breath of the Wild” delivers in every way you can imagine.

What’s hot: Beautifully-realized game world; tight combat controls; massive scope; innumerable ways to approach every situation

What’s not: Could use a weapons repair system; too few hours in the day to play

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.