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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild beginner’s guide

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Understanding the most ambitious Zelda game in generations

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an enormous open-world game, which means two things: You can do pretty much whatever you want, and you'll be wondering what the heck you’re supposed to do.

In this guide, we'll help you figure that out — because the game often won't. Here, we’ll teach you the basics, a way to understand Breath of the Wild that you can learn in a few minutes and apply throughout your entire playthrough.

The Great Plateau is everything

You begin The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Great Plateau, a geological skyscraper overlooking the vast Kingdom of Hyrule. There are mountains to climb, forests to plunder, creatures to defeat and dungeons to overcome. For the first few hours, you’ll be stuck here, in a microcosm the entire world.

Although you can't get down to explore the wider world, just about everything you do (and a lot of the stuff you may not even know you can do) serves as a prologue to the hours to come.

Just how to to make your way into Hyrule proper, we cover in our Great Plateau walkthrough. But don’t think of Breath of the Wild’s as something to motor through. The time you spend up here is immensely important. The skills and patterns you discover as you traverse the Great Plateau will be every bit as relevant dozens of hours later when you’re on the other side of the world.

Breath of the Wild doesn't tell you this, but eventually experience will. In the following sections, we’ll make the implicit explicit and offer some tips about how you should think about this version of Hyrule and your place in it.

Explore, fight and collect

In recent years, Nintendo began offering players a helping hand. Die a bunch in a Mario game, for example, and a game will offer you a power-up that makes beating the level easier. It's a philosophy centered on accessibility and helping everyone succeed without shame.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feels like it was created at a different Nintendo.

To Zelda fans, Breath of the Wild will feel familiar and accessible, but its creators are far less concerned with holding your hand than they are with convincing you to experiment. The game rarely tells you where to go or what to do in detail. Instead, it prefers to wink and nudge, content to let you fill in the gaps. In Breath of the Wild, you may do what you wish as you wish.

Put differently, Breath of the Wild is full of clues and hints, not directions. And a shocking amount of the strategies you’ll use throughout the game appear in your first hours — even if you don’t realize it.

On the Great Plateau, you’re supposed to explore, fight and collect. Sixty hours later, you're also supposed to explore, fight and collect — to do what you’ve already done, just on a far grander scale. Don’t be in a hurry to leave. There’s plenty to learn and plenty of time to play.

How do you know what to explore, who to fight and what to collect? Mostly by using the logic that you learned in your first few hours. It all makes sense. You just have to remember simple things like how hot things protect you from the cold, how enemies have all the weapons you need — and that talking is a subtle but important part of exploration.

Be social and make friends

In a game that doesn’t usually tell you what to do, the best way to figure out what’s next is to become chatty. Strike up conversations. Make friends.

Talk to everyone in Breath of the Wild. Many conversations will end in less than a minute, serving mostly as a way to make the world feel alive. Other conversations will give you hints about what to do next. It's hard to tell who’s going to be helpful and who’s just going to complain about the weather, so being talkative is the best course of action.

Worst case scenario, you can mash buttons and fly through conversations that go nowhere. Best case, you bump into the most helpful reoccurring characters in Breath of the Wild who give lost adventurers direction.

An early game example illustrates the reoccurring concept. After you complete one of the first main quests, you’ll exit a building without a clue about what comes next.

Just down some steps outside the door you exited, though, you’ll see a nondescript character. You’re free to talk to or ignore him. If you don’t talk to him — if you haven’t bothered being chatty, in other words — then you can just wander off and hope you stumble upon the plot. If you talk to him, you’ll discover that he’s really designed to give you clues about a mission — and not just here but throughout the game.

This is how Breath of the Wild works. It wants you to play detective, rather than tell you what to do next.

Talking’s other benefit: side quests

The red exclamation point is a telltale sign of a side quest

Talking to NPCs also unlocks side quests — and it’s easy to spot the special characters who expand your game, too.

If you see a word bubble with a red exclamation point in its upper left corner, that’s Breath of the Wild telling you that there’s a quest here. The little guy in the image above has a whole backstory about his grandpa and a fascination of the weapons of Hyrule.

Like in any game, side quests are optional. You don’t have to unlock them, and even if you do, you don’t have to finish them. But they’re full of rewards large and small, and Nintendo peppered the Hyrule’s landscape with them. Talk to the folks. Learn what they want. Do what seems fun and leave the rest behind.

Fighting is simple (and also slightly more complex if you want it to be)

When you’re not shooting the breeze, you’ll be doing a lot of fighting. Combat in Breath of the Wild is straightforward, but there are a few things worth discussing.

First, combat is tough — surprisingly tough. It won’t take you long to run into an enemy who can clobber all three of your hearts away with one swing of his spiked club. Enemies can and will overwhelm you, so don’t assume that you’re more powerful than you really are.

When you do find yourself engaged in melee combat, it’s generally a good idea to target enemies with the ZL button, but it’s not always necessary. Even if you’re locked on, the camera angles can be confusing. When this happens, release ZL, move the right thumbstick in the direction of the enemy you want to hit, and swing away. Breath of the Wild tends to connect your weapon with the enemy, even though you’re not zeroed in.

When you’re using ranged weapons like the bow and arrow, headshots count. But keep in mind that they aren’t always definitive one-hit kills. The higher number (level, really) that your bow has, the more damage it will do. Some bows won’t have a high enough base damage to kill your target in one hit to the head, though. Some enemies have more health than you can drain with a single arrow, so don’t count on headshots for instant kills.

Also, give precision aiming with the Joy-Con motion controls a try. It may take a bit of getting used to, but Nintendo fine tuned the accuracy so that it’s a perfectly viable, quick way to aim just above a head and lock in your arrow’s arcing path to it target.

Advanced fighting

A handful of advanced combat techniques require precise timing. Some repel attacks. Others allow you to unleash a flurry of uninterrupted counterattacks. They all look good, and they tend to destroy monsters, but they’re also super difficult to pull of — and they’re not strictly speaking necessary.

Here’s the thing: Even though you can kill just about everything with a few presses of a single button, these advanced techniques are always available. They’re always something you can do to improve your skills, and they can turn difficult enemies into easy kills, provided you can get the timing right.

Check out the video above from the Ta’Loh Naeg Shrine, which you can find in the outskirts of the Kakariko Village. It’ll show you how to do the following moves:

  • Side hop. Target your enemy with ZL, move left or right, press X to jump.
  • Backflip. Target your enemy with ZL, move away from your enemy, press X to jump.

Press Y to follow up side hop and backflip with a flurry rush, which lets you wack away several times at your enemy as time slows down.

  • Perfect guard. Target your enemy with ZL, press A to parry with your shield.
  • Charged attacks. Hold Y to build your power, then release to attack.

To reiterate, we’ve found none of these moves particularly easy to execute. We’ve put dozens and dozens of hours into Breath of the Wild, and we’re still far more likely to get hit while doing a backflip than we are to get a flurry rush. Still, there’s something appealing about them, and we keep trying.

On weapons, loot and inventory management

We’re combining weapons, loot and inventory management into this section because they’re all parts of overlapping systems.

There may be more weapons in Breath of the Wild than every other Zelda game combined. (And if that’s not true, it sure feels like it). Point is, you’ll burn through enough weapons to make the Terminator jealous.

The upshot? Weapon proliferation means that you have to think a lot more about what you have, what you need and what you should use right now. If you’ve got a powerful weapon, don’t use it to bang rocks. Every swing is just one less that you’ll take against an enemy. In fact, it’s a great idea to carry a heavy, unwieldy weapon like a sledgehammer for occasions just like this. Save your clubs, spears and swords for fighting meat, not rocks.

Getting new weapons and loot is simple in concept and execution. Enemies carrying weapons will drop them when they die or when you wallop them. At that point, you can pick up the weapon and use it for yourself (or just steal it away from your enemy).

This makes weapon acquisition easy, too: If you need a weapon, murder monsters carrying weapons.

Of course, a game filled with weapon loot drops beings up an inevitable question: Should you pick up the weapon you just jarred loose? Usually, the answer is yes. You have several slots for weapons. Fill them. Your weapons will break. Don't get too attached to any weapon. You'll need backups, and you can always pitch stuff later.

Worst case, maybe you don't use what you picked up. No big deal. Or maybe it's there when your other weapons break, and at least you have something to fall back on.

A bokoblin drops his weapon, and Link prospers

You don't have to pick everything up, of course, and you can make the right call without touching anything. Each weapon in Breath of the Wild includes an arrow icon to the right of its name, denoting its attack power, relative to what you’re wielding at the moment.

  • If the arrow is green green and pointing up, then it's more powerful than the weapon you have equipped.
  • If it’s red and pointing down (like it is above), that means it's less powerful.
  • If it’s gray and pointing right, that means it's the same level as what you're holding.

A quick press of the plus button, and you can see your current arsenal. Every weapon has a number, denoting its power. And every time you pick a weapon up, it’ll show you your weapon’s number and the new weapon’s number right next to it. If you find something good, drop your worst weapon and pick up the new loot.

That's the bulk of the inventory management you'll do in Breath of the Wild: checking numbers against other numbers and swapping low for high.

There are tons of weapons and tons of weapon types in Breath of the Wild. Experiment, figure out what you like to use and stock up on those, whether they’re one-handed weapons like swords and clubs or two-handed weapons like spears and halberds. Build your own arsenal.

Learn to cook

Breath of the Wild doesn’t go out of its way to explain its cooking system, which is weird, given how important it is.

You could wander upon the Old Man in your first hour or so, and he may tell you something opaque about cooking. Or you could miss this interaction all together and play for several hours before working it out on your own. Don’t do the latter. Start cooking as soon as you can.

There are two broad categories of things to cook in Breath of the Wild: food and elixirs. No matter what you’re making, it works the same way.

Approach a metal bowl. Light a fire underneath it if necessary. Press + to enter your inventory screen, and choose up to five ingredients to hold. Approach the bowl and, when prompted, press A to cook. It’s that simple.

Simple, yet mostly unexplained

Cooking food

Apples are the simplest example of a cooked food’s benefit. Eating a raw apple restores a tiny amount of your health — half of one heart. Cooking an apple turns it into a baked apple, which restores a whole heart. Cooking two apples together creates simmered fruit, which restores two hearts but only takes up one inventory slot. The same holds true for the Hyrule herb. Eat it raw, and it’ll restore one heart. Cook it, and it’ll becomes fried wild greens, which restores two hearts.

This is the base benefit: Cooking makes items better, more potent, more effective.

It gets more complicated, and that’s where experimentation comes in. Much of what you pick up can spice up your meals. Raw meat will get you hearts in a pinch. But raw meat combined with herbs could regenerate your stamina, too. Or provide a defense or stealth boost.

Cooking elixirs

Elixirs work like food, except that they’re liquid, and they have status effects. You need two things to make an elixir: a critter and a monster part.

Monster parts are everywhere. Every time you kill a monster, it drops a horn or a tooth or some other grotesque body part. Mix them with a critter — Breath of the Wild’s term for little creatures like frogs, fireflies and lizards — and you’ll create an elixir.

Cooking tips

Cooking is about experimentation. Don’t be afraid to throw a bunch of stuff in a bowl and see what happens. It might be a disaster, but you can always find more meat and apples.

That said, here are some general tips for cooking in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild:

  • No matter what you’re cooking, make sure to read the item descriptions when you’re preparing your concoction. That’s how you’ll know if what you throw into the pot will boost your stealth or stamina or defense.
  • Food and monster ingredients don’t mix.
  • Don’t mix status effects. Whatever you make will only get one status effect, and you’ll wind up wasting the others if you mix them in.
  • If you cook something you like (or get something you like as a reward), navigate to the item in your menu and click on it to see the list of ingredients. The Switch’s one-button screenshot feature couldn’t be easier. Grab one and refer back to it if you want to make it again.
  • You can cook your way out of a difficult battle. You may not need better armor or more hearts. You may just need a heart meal that boosts your defense.
  • Cook with fairies. They provide an incredible boost to your meal.

So what the heck are you supposed to do?

Some combination of “whatever the heck you want” and “find the thing that you’re looking for.” It’s really up to you.

We know that sounds like a non-answer, but it’s also the truth about a game designed to give its players an immense amount of freedom. No two playthroughs will be the same. Our Breath of the Wild is not your Breath of the Wild. They’re not supposed to be. We’ll all begin on the Great Plateau, but where we go from there is largely up to our whims.

With that in mind, here’s a few tips, which mostly amount to what we had to keep reminding ourselves as we played.

  • It's hard. You'll die. But that's OK because the penalty for death is minor backtracking.
  • It's confusing, but that's because it's an open world game. Worst case, you can just wander and examine whatever shiny thing you come across. And there are always more towers and shrines to discover.
  • Pick up items, even if you don't know what they're for. They're likely to become suddenly useful.
  • Talk to everyone. Those without useful information won't take up much of your time. Those with useful information will make you less confused.
  • If you don't know what to do, seek out towers and shrines.
  • If you find something that you know is important but you can't do it right now, put a sticker on your map. We like to mark the locations of rafts with a leaf and shrines we can’t complete with a star.
  • Assume that everything is there for a reason. If you walk out of a building, and there's a new character standing by the door who wants to talk to you, talk to them. That's Breath of the Wild gently nudging you in the right direction.
  • If you want to focus, use fast travel. There are an insane amount of distractions. That's also the beauty of the game. You can do what you want when you want to do it. But if you ever feel like you want to make progress, fast travel to wherever you want to go. It’s too easy to get distracted otherwise.