Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s climbing is the secret ingredient that finally adds real adventure to open-world gaming

“Oh, climbing, cool”, I thought, when I first found out about the new vertical versatility of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. “That’ll mean a few new hidden things and less faff dealing with walls”. Then I went back about my usual business of ogling seemingly more exciting things, like the bigger than standard open-world, and the apparently more freeform game structure. I suspect a lot of us did the same. Because  climbing, right? It’s not exactly a new thing in action games, and it was hardly going to be the centrepiece of something as specific and complex – yet traditionally rigid - as a Zelda game.

Turns out I was all kinds of wrong about that. And thank God I was.

Because Breath of the Wild isn’t just a bigger, shiner Zelda with a few new tricks. It’s a radical, wonderful, endlessly mind-boggling reworking of Nintendo’s 31 year-old fantasy adventure concept. The ironic thing about Zelda is that as the years had gone on, and the core format became increasingly standardised, it turned into an adventure series without the adventure. An excellent action/puzzle series, but ones whose formula for the overall journey became so tried and true as to veto the potential for much exploration, discovery, or many genuine surprises.

Breath of the Wild is the opposite of that. Having sunk a week into it now, it’s in hindsight very apparent indeed that the visual similarity between the game’s opening vista and the first Zelda’s original NES box art is no coincidence. With its unfathomably vast scale, entirely freeform structure, ‘Go anywhere, do anything’ philosophy, and constantly unfurling, player-led reveals of new sights, new places, and new ways of interpreting its world, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feels like every bit the intentional realisation of that at-the-time-impossible 1986 promise. And the more I play it, the more I realise that it couldn’t have achieved any of that without the climbing.

Breath of the Wild’s exploration – and thus, the entire essence of the game built around it – is utterly different to not only that in any other Zelda game, but also that in any other open-world game around. While you can go off-road and discover secrets and oddities in Grand Theft Auto, its worlds are defined by the fact that there are roads in the first place, defined, rigid, suggested routes wrapped around an approximation of the real world with all its civilised trappings. The Witcher 3’s horse travel and rudimentary mantling gives you freedom to go pretty much wherever you want, but in order to remain navigable by those relatively mundane means, its topography stays relatively, naturalistically straightforward. Far Cry and Skyrim have hills and mountains galore, but these are again designed for slow, realistic, restrictive ascent, glitchy horse-exploits aside.

These interplays between game systems and the kind of traversal they allow define the shapes of their worlds, and thus the kinds of emotional experiences they can deliver through the exploration of those worlds. All work very well within their own context, but Breath of the Wild wants to create something very different. Breath of the Wild, with its minimal guidance, experimental, player-driven gameplay sandbox, and overall air of ‘Anything can happen’ wants to create a real, amplified sense of pure adventure into the unknown.

It wants its every journey to be punctuated by a constant stream of freeform discoveries, in order to deliver the pure essence of exploration in an exaggerated, constantly exciting form. And it understands that to do this, it has to make the player as self-reliant as possible, reducing and removing as much of the guidance, auto-mapping, and sense of safety-by-icon-overload that typifies most modern open-worlders. It’s a game about fending for yourself, finding your own approach to everything you do, and making the entire journey your own. And it could not deliver any of that in the way that it does without the climbing system.

Its inclusion has three key effects. Firstly, it allows for the creation of an extreme but accessible verticality far in excess of that presented by most games in the genre, which in turn allows Breath of the Wild to orchestrate endless moments of discovery and invitation through newly-earned viewpoints. Secondly, it facilitates navigation via in-game orienteering, the immense heights from which the player can feast their eyes on immense draw-distances – filled as they are with detailed and highly specific topography – thus allowing frequent opportunities to survey the journey from within, plan and re-plan routes, and improvise detours on instinct without ever having to break away to a map screen.

And thirdly, and just as importantly, it crafts an intimate attachment to the fabric of the world itself, the ability and requirement to literally go hands-on adding an extra-personal involvement to each journey and discovery you make. Where the mountains in The Elder Scrolls are largely used as barriers to stop the player from taking certain routes, funnelling them into developer-favoured paths and areas, Breath of the Wild does the opposite. Every mountain is an invitation. “Come up here”, it says. “Come and see what you can find. Come and see where this leads”. And you will find something, and you will find somewhere new to go, and it will all feel like yours, because of the careful interplay of Zelda’s micro-systems.

The sense of personal achievement wouldn’t be half as great if climbing a surface was always a straightforward, sure thing. But the limited stamina gauge, and the clever design of hills, rocks and cliffs to include numerous, carefully hidden ledges and rest points, turns each ascent into a free-form puzzle, and makes the unassailable a mere foil for your bravery and creativity.

And then there’s the paraglider. The crowning reward for your first hour(s) spent learning the ropes through hardship, trial, and multiple, painful errors on the Plateau, its first proper use – as you descend through the sky to Hyrule proper, and gain your first real impression of the vastness of the world you have to explore – is a fantastic moment of catharsis and excitement. But by tying exploration so much to verticality and line-of-sight – thus making surveyance of distant terrain and subsequent flight toward it fundamental - Nintendo ensures that every journey after that point starts, or is regularly punctuated with, this same essence.

Where other games will let you spot a potential route and then begin steadily making your way along it, with frequent checks of the map to ensure you’re going the right way, Zelda lets you discover something exciting in the distance and then launch yourself toward it, the time between discovery and action minimised. The system delivers both scale and immediacy, condensing the potential-to-realisation process with great spontaneity and swift emotional pay-off. Coupled with the intricate care required to top many of Zelda’s abundant summits, the pacing of this perpetual effort/reward system maintains a fantastic sense of momentum and fun, even as you traverse many miles of open countryside in order to reach a (deliberately) distant objective. Thus, Breath creates a world not just to be played in, but to be played with, a place that isn’t a backdrop to your adventure, but which provides its very physical and emotional make-up.

The process of overhauling everything we know about a series with one new, fundamental game system is hardly a new philosophy for Nintendo. The history of its franchises is, of course, a history of radical reinterpretation on a game-by-game basis. But by steering so hard in that direction this time, with such pure focus and intent on fun and genuine freedom of discovery, it has ensured that Breath of the Wild finally instills the open-world genre with the real sense of adventure it has always aspired to but never truly achieved. 

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