So Breath of the Wild is open world in the best sense of the term; it presents you with a vast world to explore, where everything you see can be reached, every mountain climbed, every river sailed, every canyon traversed… but so what? I’ve extolled its world design and its exploration mechanics and rambled about its well-crafted mapmaking, but all of that would be pointless if there weren’t things in its titular wild. So, in short, what makes its world worth exploring?
Early in my now-hundred-hour run, before I had restored a single Divine Beast or even solved more than ten or fifteen shrines, I found what has remained one of Breath of the Wild’s true highlights. I was exploring the deep southeast of Hyrule—a region I would later find is named Faron—without a map, or even a clear objective. I had seen a shrine on a cape by Hateno village and made my way to it, battling through several monter camps that lined the path there. When I finally made it, I discovered my first “Test of Strength”—one of the twenty or so combat shrines, where you fight a miniature version of the game’s signature Guardians in a test of twitchiness and mastery of the game’s complex, intuitive combat mechanics.
That shrine took me an hour and a half to beat—an hour and a half for me to work the game’s “flurry rushes” into my muscle memory, to figure out the proper response to each of the Guardian’s stages, and to realize that my flaming sword (a prized score from one of the first sidequests I’d successfully solved) incapacitated it long enough for me to land a few extra blows. That may sound grueling (and it was), but the rush of victory came with the cathartic feel of games like Hyper Light Drifter, games that make you truly earn your victories.
In a way, this is a prelude to what I found next (mild spoilers ahead).
When I picked up again, I saw another shrine in the bay to the east and glided down, noticing as I did a strong wind blowing off the cape to the south. When I landed, I decided to check the ocean and there in the distance—where I expected to find nothing but the border of the game world and a couple of skybox clouds, was a large, mysterious island.
At this point I had not yet found Faron’s tower. I’d had no idea that that island was there, or that it could be reached. But there was a raft hooked next to the shrine, and beside it a Korok Leaf—a special weapon that generates wind. Clearly, the game was inviting me to set sail, Wind Waker style, for that uncharted mass in the distance.
So I did, and I happened upon Eventide Island—by far the game’s hardest challenge, and its most rewarding.
Eventide Island has four main points: a beach, a forest, a small bluff, and a mountain. Two of those—Toronbo Beach and Koholit Rock—are named after locations from Link’s Awakening, which takes place (well, one could argue) inside a dream. And that’s quite fitting, because Eventide Island is, in a way, it’s own game within a game—its own version of Link’s dream… or nightmares.
You see, when you set foot on Eventide Island, two things happen: your entire inventory gets taken away, and you lose the ability to save. Across the island are three glowing orbs and three pedestals. Set each of the former in each of the latter and everything returns to normal.
Sounds easy, right?
Eventide Island is impeccably designed—something I can say despite the fact that it took me three-and-a-half hours (and quite possibly nine or ten attempts) to beat. Each item or weapon you might need to recover each of its orbs is placed in a pattern you quickly learn, and the island’s difficulty curve is natural and intuitive. Each battle has multiple lanes of approach—environmental hazards (bomb barrels especially) are key, as is positioning, and high ground, and weapon management, and even weather (in my final, successful run, I watched from a distance as a thunderstorm took out an entire camp of metal-weapon-carrying monsters). Its final boss—one of the game’s three main overworld miniboss monsters—is difficult but managable, and though you find one of the orbs hanging around its neck, you can even (with some serious stealthing) steal it away without a fight.
By the time I defeated Eventide Island and found its shrine, I was exhausted and hungry, but ecstatic. This was the first of Breath of the Wild’s many challenges hidden in the corners and far reaches of the map… and I’d just stumbled upon it after noticing some extra-strong wind. How many more were there? How much did this game hold?
In the end, that’s what makes Breath of the Wild’s world so engaging to explore; in every corner and every nook and cranny lies another secret—from the Coliseum Ruins I only stumbled upon late in my playthrough to the Forgotten Temple nestled at the end of a massive, sandstone canyon. All are different, some frantic tests of strength and some feats of planning and endurance. All can be solved in a multitude of ways—when I found my first Lomei Labyrinth (the northwestern one hidden in the snowy Hebra region), I dashed through a narrow pass filled with Lynels too quickly for them to notice and then, with my cold-resistance waning, climbed to the top and tried to find the correct path by jumping around the roof (a method the developers clearly antiticpated, since they left a treasure chest up there). Even the shrines without complex puzzles were a joy to find, hidden behind waterfalls or at the tops of mountains or within huge, swirling sandstorms. And since they all provide the same reward—some incremental increase to health or stamina—there’s no sequence, no hidden linearity to the game’s open world. You explore in your own way, at your own pace, in your own order.
Moreover, the game not only presents these finds as gameplay challenges, but as evocative experiences filled with imagery and detail. While I love Eventide Island (and the Thyphlo Ruins, and the West Gerudo sandstorms, and the Lomei Labyrinths, and the Thundra Plateau, and Rist Peninsula, and the Forgotten Temple) my favorite hidden challenge is easily the one that hides at the peak of Mt. Lanayru in the form of (real spoilers ahead—jump to the next paragraph if you haven’t played yet) the dragon Naydra, curled around the icy summit and infected with Ganon’s “malice”—a kind of gooey purplish substance that damages whatever it touches. The ensuing quest—shooting each of the Malice’s eyes as the dragon flees the peak and arcs through the valley below, was quietly beautiful. I was freeing something ancient and near-godly (the game’s three dragons are supposedly embodiemtns of Hyrule’s three deities) at the top of a snowy mountain, then gliding down to a snowbound pine forest and tracing each blot with my dwindling supply of arrows. Now, whenever I see that dragon flying through the overworld (as all three of them do), it brings back the feeling of that quest, of inverting the medieval trope: not slaying the dragon, but freeing it.
Breath of the Wild is full of challenges like these, hidden around an overworld that rewards exploration for exploration’s sake, that not only allows you to explore everything you see in the distance, or every strange shape you notice on yoru map, but that makes you want to. From the tropical Faron region in the southeast to the snowbound Hebra region in the northwest to (my personal favorite) the perennially autumn-bound Akkala in the shadow of the Death Caldera (and not Death Mountain, as after tens of thousands of years the volcano has collapsed on itself), each of these regions has its secrets, its sights and its sounds. Even when you don’t find a shrine, or a challenge, or a Korok hiding under a suspicious rock, the mere world itself is a reason to continue on.
Ultimately, in Breath of the Wild, there’s always something more to explore.