One key way in which Breath of the Wild differs from its predecessors in the Legend of Zelda series is in how it handles protagonist Link’s core abilities.
In past Zelda games, Link would typically (though not always) gradually acquire a selection of useful items over the course of his adventure, and in most cases these would correspond to the challenges in the dungeon or situation in which he found them.
In Breath of the Wild, meanwhile, you get given all of your abilities almost from the very beginning of your adventure, and then it’s up to you to spend the rest of the game figuring out all the different ways in which you can use them.
The opening hours of Breath of the Wild take place atop the Great Plateau, a lump of rock conveniently just high enough to be fatal to you if you jump off the side of it. In this way, you’re confined to a specific, controlled area, but still provided with the opportunity to explore and a glimpse of the world that lies beyond these initial challenges.
Shortly after emerging from the cavern in which you begin the game, you encounter a mysterious old man, who, after a bit of convincing, explains that he has a paraglider that will allow you to safely descend from the Great Plateau, and that he’ll happily give it up to you if you find him “some treasure”. Thankfully, treasure is relatively easy to come by in the ruined Hyrule of Breath of the Wild, with numerous shrines scattered all over the land, each housing their own trials and various shiny objects to recover.
As it happens, the shrines that sit atop the Great Plateau house terminals that can interface with the “Sheikah Slate” you find at the outset of the game. The Slate is a smartphone-esque device that bears something of a resemblance to either a handheld Switch or a Wii U GamePad (funny that) and provides you with various pieces of helpful functionality once it has the appropriate data installed. Several of these key pieces of data can be found in the terminals in the Great Plateau shrines, so by the time you’ve completed the old man’s request, you’ve unlocked a number of “runes” for the Slate, each of which provide you with a special ability.
The cool thing about these initial shrines is that they provide an excellent opportunity to discover, experiment with and practice using the various runes in a relatively safe environment. This is classic Nintendo game design at work: provide the player with fun toys to play with as soon as possible after starting the game, but, crucially, don’t force them into relying on them in a life-or-death situation immediately.
And what wonderful toys these runes are! Rather than exactly duplicating the classic Zelda lineup of bow, boomerang, bombs and hookshot (among other things), they instead incorporate a mix of the familiar and the surprising, allowing even Zelda veterans to enjoy the same sense of discovery as newcomers to the series.
The most familiar runes to those who have played a Zelda game before will be the remote bombs. These come in two varieties — one cubic, one spherical — and can be thrown, dropped, picked up, rolled down slopes and manipulated in a variety of ways before detonating on your signal rather than after a timer expires.
Most things in Breath of the Wild are treated as physics objects that are affected by gravity, surface friction, weather, wind, terrain and any other forces that might be acting upon them, and the remote bombs are no exception — hence the two different shapes. The cubic bombs are a little easier to make stay where you want them to sit, while the spherical ones are great for rolling into an unsuspecting camp of monsters.
Initially, it’s natural to make use of bombs for the sort of things you’d use them for in an earlier Zelda game, namely blowing open cracked walls or perhaps defeating enemies from afar. But as you have the opportunity to experiment both within the shrine in which you find them and out in the open world, you’ll discover some alternative uses for them. Perhaps you might use them as a means of attracting enemies’ attention away from you; perhaps you might use the force of their explosion to dislodge a heavy object from its current location; perhaps you might use that same force to send a pursuing enemy flying over the edge of the cliff they’re running along the side of.
The other runes are similarly multi-purpose. The Cryonis rune, for example, which allows you to summon a pillar of ice from any body of water within reach, can be simply used to create platforms — very useful for crossing fast-flowing rivers that are too wide to swim across — but can also be used to divert the course of rolling objects, block off water spouts and retrieve sunken items from the bed of a river or lake.
Likewise, the Stasis rune initially appears to be pretty simple: point it at something and said thing stops moving completely for a few seconds. Except there’s more to it: while an object is frozen, if you bash it with a weapon (preferably a big heavy one like an axe or hammer), you’ll charge it up with kinetic energy that will explosively release when time unfreezes for the object, allowing you to defy normal physics and catapult heavy items around like you’re some sort of superhuman. In turn, this consistently entertaining process can be used for a variety of purposes: clearing pathways, moving heavy objects where you need them to be in order to solve a puzzle… or just giving the local Moblin camp a very nasty surprise.
My personal favourite is Magnesis which, as the name suggests, allows you to grab hold of metallic objects from afar and then move them around. Once again, this can be used for many different purposes, including opening heavy metallic doors, clearing pathways through metallic objects, constructing bridges out of metallic materials that are lying around… or simply, once again, dropping large and heavy things on unsuspecting monsters.
You can even make use of Magnesis as a weapon: simply grab on to a chest or metal box and start swinging it around like some sort of physically improbable morning star. If you haven’t swept at least one camp of monsters off the edge of a cliff using their own supply crates by the end of your time with Breath of the Wild, I would argue that you’re perhaps not enjoying the game to its full potential!
The great thing about the rune system is that there’s no real right or wrong way to use them. Some puzzle solutions are obviously set up with a particular use of a rune in mind, but more often than not there are several ways you can handle a situation. Discover an unconventional way to pass a challenge — perhaps by creatively combining runic abilities together — and it’s an immensely satisfying feeling of an entirely different nature to that attained when figuring out the strict, “single correct answer” solutions to puzzles in earlier Zelda games.
The Legend of Zelda often feels like Nintendo’s more “serious” franchise when compared to Super Mario, but the company never forgets its roots as a toymaker; there’s always plenty of fun to be had even in the darkest installments in the series. And Breath of the Wild, with its wide-open nature, might be the most toybox-like of the lot… particularly when you have toys as fun as these with which to play around!
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