When The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released in 2017, it marked a huge leap forwards for the open-world genre. Where other games restricted player choice, giving them bigger worlds but less to do in them, Breath of the Wild actually followed through with its promise of epic scale and adventure. It single-handedly carried the launch of the Nintendo Switch and now, around four years after its release, we’re starting to see the impact its innovation, creativity and focus on freedom has had on the genre at large.
From the very first time you emerge outside and witness the vast world ahead of you, Breath of the Wild grabs you and never lets go. It offers players a sense of freedom and choice that is simply unparalleled in the genre, introducing new ideas at every opportunity.
Everywhere you go there’s something interesting to see or do. This is such a vital aspect of the genre because it gets back to what makes it so exciting in the first place – the adventure. Players aren’t forced through repetitive challenges, long exposition dumps or meaningless quests, which makes your time playing more enjoyable and less like a grind. You’re not encouraged to fast-travel between waypoints constantly, because every corner of the map has new things to discover, and everything is worth seeing.
We’re already seeing Breath of the Wild’s influence on other big industry titles. Genshin Impact and Immortals Fenyx Rising take concepts and features from Breath of the Wild like it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, and they’re all the more enjoyable for it. Take the paraglider, for example. It makes the world effortlessly enjoyable to explore when you can soar above it like a bird, taking in all the wondrous sights from high up in the sky, and its application in other games makes them a lot more fun to explore.
Climbing is another feature being replicated, and while Breath of the Wild certainly isn’t the first game to feature a climbing mechanic, the way it’s integrated feeds into the prevailing sense of freedom the game has to offer. Any cliff can be conquered, opening up countless new routes across the world and allowing players to take in the breathtaking views from a great height. The days of being restricted by verticality are gone, and developers seem keen to replicate Breath of the Wild’s open-minded approach to world design and traversal.
In recent years the gaming industry has taken a “bigger is better” approach when it comes to open-world titles. Fallout 76, notorious for being nothing short of a dumpster fire at release, boasted a world 4 times larger than its predecessor when it was revealed. These kind of promises are becoming commonplace, but it’s growing increasingly clear that this approach doesn’t always pan out because the content simply doesn’t justify the game’s size.
Many open-world games tend to feel more like a linear game in an oversized world, and the environments can feel like a backdrop to more restricted storytelling or gameplay. Even games as good as GTA V are guilty of this. If the world is just there as an excuse to have something to walk/drive-through on your way to the next quest objective, what’s the point of it being open-world at all? It has to be worthwhile for a player to travel off the beaten path, or it ends up feeling like you’re forced to do what the game tells you to. In an open-world game, that’s the easiest way to dampen the experience.
Breath of the Wild knows how to respect its player’s choices, making sure every corner of the world is worth their time. Hyrule is a joy to explore because it feels like a true journey, one where exploration is actually rewarding rather than a distraction from the main content. Here, the whole game is the main content, and you’re never at risk of heading in the wrong direction. You’ll always be able to swim, climb or fly to the next part of the map, and there’s always something new to uncover by doing so. But that’s not the game’s sole triumph. Breath of the Wild exceeds on multiple fronts, not only introducing genre-defining gameplay but an amazing visual style too.
Breath of the Wild’s art design is simply stunning. The Zelda franchise has always been a master of crafting timeless graphics, with games like Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time still enduring today as examples of games that stand the test of time visually. Breath of the Wild is no different. Nintendo has always preferred their own unique art styles to the realism and grit of many of their open-world competitors, and it helps ensure their games don’t look instantly dated the second the sequel comes out. Breath of the Wild looks like a living, breathing watercolour painting, and this art style has already been replicated by other developers, like miHoYo with Genshin Impact. It’s easy to see why, the game’s gorgeous vistas and beautiful art help to amplify that sense of freedom by immersing you in a bright fantasy world. Hyrule is full of life, a canvas of vibrant whimsicality and awe-inspiring environments.
Open-world games should all strive for this level of immersion and autonomy. These games are at their best when players are given the means to make their own adventures, to explore at their own pace without having to worry about missing out on the best content. Breath of the Wild truly mastered this concept, and it stands tall today as one of the greatest games in the genre. Ultimately, we’re finally starting to see just how strong of an impact Breath of the Wild’s design had on the industry.
By focusing on giving player’s more freedom, it gives them a more fulfilling gaming experience, and a more memorable one too. Everyone’s adventure is like their own personal tale, and every new encounter adds another enthralling page to the book. Breath of the Wild took the open-world genre, thrust it into a new era and showed everyone else how it’s done, and we’ll be reminded of its triumphs in the games following in its footsteps for years to come. And with a sequel on the horizon, it’s possible it’ll reinvent the genre all over again. Only time will tell, but regardless of what the future holds, Breath of the Wild will remain a genre-defining masterpiece.