A breath of fresh air.
When Breath of the Wild was released five years ago today, its rapturous reception didn’t just happen because of how it represented a long-overdue revamp of the Legend of Zelda series’ stale formula. That certainly helped. But what really made it resonate was its revolutionary approach to open-world game design.
Unlike typical open-world games that overwhelm you with endless quests and icons on the map, Breath of the Wild told you the endpoint right from the start and trusted the player to make their own way there. You get more powerful in Breath of the Wild by exploring the freely traversable world for yourself and mastering its emergent systems. Once you feel ready, you can take on the final boss — or put it off forever because, hey, simply existing in the world is a joy unto itself.
Horizon Forbidden West, Sony’s latest PlayStation-exclusive open-world hit, seems to have taken some inspiration from Breath of the Wild in its slightly freer approach to climbing and, yes, Aloy’s new gliding ability. It doesn’t quite get there, though, with traversal still feeling restricted in comparison and a broader structure that’s still beholden to the neverending barrage of map icons.
Forbidden West is an impressive game, and its world is beautiful, but its design is so constricted that I wonder about the reasons for even setting it in an open world. At no point are you ever unclear about exactly what you need to do to progress the story. Traversing the world isn’t itself particularly rewarding, even though the combat encounters along the way can be exhilarating. Ultimately, the game is a tightly controlled experience that arguably is not improved by being set in a vast environment when compared to something more focused like God of War (2018). You’re mostly experiencing a similar flow of combat and sidequests and story beats, just riding a robot sheep in between them.
It’s early days, but so far, my time with Elden Ring is coming the closest to sparking the feeling of exploration and adventure that Breath of the Wild inspired. FromSoftware’s latest game is deeply oriented around allowing the player to explore and approach tasks their own way, and the environments are so intimately crafted that it seems like something exciting or horrifying could be around every rock or corner. Elden Ring builds on the blueprint of Dark Souls, another exploration-focused game but one set on much smaller stages, and the evolution into open-world design is as natural and successful as anyone could have hoped for.
I am still just a little surprised not to have seen many games take inspiration from the things that actually made Breath of the Wild special. Maybe it was just lightning in a bottle, and its status as a Switch launch title certainly fanned the hype flames, but the radical nature of its design made many other open-world games look antiquated. Nintendo is still aiming to release its still-untitled sequel this year, which will hopefully advance the concept further. In the meantime, though, I’m still going to be hoping for more open-world games that hit the same spot as Breath of the Wild.
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