At the beginning of the new chapter of "The Legend of Zelda," longtime hero Link awakens from a 100-year coma to find that his beloved homeland, Hyrule, has changed into a vastly more dangerous place.
"Zelda" fans will know the feeling. It hasn't quite been 100 years — the last installment, "Skyward Sword," came out in 2011 — but "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" (Nintendo, for the Switch, Wii U, $59.99) is radically different from its predecessors. It's much, much bigger, for starters, and substantially more challenging.
The core story, at least, is familiar: Once again, the malevolent Ganon is out to destroy Hyrule, and it's up to Link and Princess Zelda to stop him. While Zelda is protecting Hyrule Castle, Link needs to visit neighboring lands to enlist the help necessary to stave off the apocalypse.
After a mysterious old man gives you a quick update on what you've missed over the last century, you have the essential gear you need for exploring: a bow and arrows, a sword, bombs and a glider. You also have some nifty magical powers, like the ability to freeze water, move objects magnetically or stop time, as well as a smartphone-like device used to access your map, inventory and list of quests.
Once equipped, you can pretty much travel anywhere in this sprawling game world. Sure, you should probably listen to the geezer and check in on a wise old woman who has some jobs for you, but you can follow your own path as much as you like.
"Breath" may offer too much freedom. It's easy to end up in an area filled with monsters you aren't ready to handle, and I occasionally got hopelessly lost. You can now climb mountains — but if you aren't careful, you may plummet to your doom or freeze to death. Still, it's awfully fun to ride a horse across the plains of Hyrule, or soar between mountaintops on your glider.
But eventually you'll need to deal with Ganon, and you'll need the help of the Divine Beasts, biomechanical behemoths created back before you went to sleep. You first need to earn the trust of the locals just to approach each Beast. Then you need to solve a series of cleverly designed, challenging puzzles in order to get rid of the corruption that's turned each Beast into a rampaging monster.
These sequences are where this "Zelda" is most "Zelda"-like, each a series of interlocking challenges leading to a tough boss fight that requires quick thinking as well as quick reflexes. But fans of the franchise's puzzling dungeons will also want to seek out the dozens of shrines scattered across the world, each of which presents a smart, bite-sized brainteaser.
"Breath of the Wild" mixes the disciplined focus of classic "Zelda" with the thrill of open-world exploration, and it does it with style, beauty, humor and, occasionally, heartbreak. It's spectacular. Four stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten
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