Cut through the initial chorus of top-marks critiques that met The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's release a few weeks back, and you soon find quiet murmurs of oh-so-slight disappointment. Button-mapping awkwardness. Swords that just won't stop smashing apart into useless shards. (Seriously, how has a blacksmith not rolled into Kakariko by now? They'd make a killing.) A small handful of frame rate headaches.
For me, the most notable gripe from my first proper session with Nintendo's game was: what the hell is this world map about? I was walking, riding, gliding, exploring; and yet the only way to turn my clear screen contoured, a whole lot of nothing into informative lines, was to climb a Sheikah Tower and download the local neighborhood information from its magical tooth of glowing blue data gloop. This was not how Other Open-World Games work: Horizon Zero Dawn and Nier: Automata, to use recent examples, both add details and destinations to their maps as the player discovers them. Breath of the Wild, for the most part, does not.
I felt restricted, afraid of venturing too far from the comfort of cartographically supported scenery. I was carrying just a few hearts and a sliver of stamina, and I was low on confidence now that I was out of the comfortable Great Plateau. As I pushed into unknown lands, I did so with caution—a far cry from the comparative cavaliering of over 50 hours later, loaded up on health and stat perk provisions. I disliked it so: even when I had a destination on the horizon, not being able to always read the right route to it put me into the path of considerable danger more than once.
When seen as a whole, Hyrule never overloads you with markers, with missions, with stuff. It allows you to breathe, appropriately.
But, as those 50-plus hours are an evident testament to, something changed. A few Towers down, and there was a quantum leap of appreciation for this game's mapping system. The bubbling brooks and towering rock formations, well-travelled roads and ancient ruins might have been presented in quite a basic form on Link's personal GamePa… Sheikah Slate, certainly when seen beside the wonderfully diorama-like equivalent in Horizon Zero Dawn, but they were effortlessly readable.
If you've ever held an unfolded Ordnance Survey map in your hands, the similarities will be immediate. You recognize the telltale markings of fells and forests, ridgeways and rivers—and unlike other games that reward you with a generous number of go-here-next possibilities once you "unlock" a region, Breath of the Wild does nothing more than illustrate the lay of the land.
The map will remember stables, select shops, fast-travel shrines; but it'll only display much of this information when zoomed right into. As such, when seen as a whole, Hyrule never overloads you with markers, with missions, with stuff. It allows you to breath, appropriately—to explore, but this time with more determined direction, and an awareness of what's probably coming once you're done running up that hill.
It was only in the past few hours of play that I activated my final Tower—the one overlooking Eldin Canyon, in the shadow of Death Mountain. It wasn't a particularly difficult ascent—each Tower, brilliantly, is a little puzzle of its own, some more challenging than others (shout out to the laser-guarded Central Tower, the penultimate tick-off on my list, which I only took on after loading up on Guardian weapons). But for whatever reason, it was my final climb, of the 14 Towers reaching out of Breath of the Wild's bedrock. That's just how my story's gone. Everybody's will be different.
On reaching the top, a small notification popped up, along the lines of "Hyrule Map Completed". I'm paraphrasing, probably—it was gone 1am at the time and my thumb wasn't quick enough on the capture button. I did the tiniest, tired air punch. My wife stirred and muttered something about turning the light off. Hyrule was mine. And I'd filled its blanks not through heading straight to glowing waypoints, but by scaling the landscape described by the wordless language of its map screen. I'd made assumptions on where these Towers might be (and shrines, and villages, and stables beside), educated guesses, chased my share of wild geese up flaming mountainsides; but here we were, here Link was, with the whole world before him.
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Man, it felt good. It feels good. Nintendo's approach to map design in Breath of the Wild is distinct, reserved, and incredibly effective in communicating a most uncommon invitation: go wherever you like. Not because you can see your destination, but because you can't. Now I'm rolling around with 16 or 17 hearts as standard and a magic pocket full of attack-boosting elixirs, all of that early game trepidation has gone. I'm happy to go charging into any menacing corner of the map, Stasis "+"-powered and bomb arrows primed.
Another slumbering Hinox? Bring that bad boy on and I'll explode him into so many toenails and treasure. And it's not like one will be hard to find—I stamped all of the game's seemingly worst monsters on my map as I went, whether that left them floating in nothingness or dead center of a woodland clearing. I suppose I should see to these other three Divine Beasts, at some point. But, honestly, every session with the game provides fun enough that the Actual Story Stuff has taken a backseat since, I guess, hour ten. Next up instead, then: chasing more memories. Or whatever I happen to stumble across on the way to one, and undoubtedly proceed to shatter a sword on.