The comparison may seem lazy, but it makes sense on a number of levels.
There are moments in Breath of the Wild I'll never forget.
Like the time I followed an eerie blue light on the horizon. After 30 minutes of scrambling, I found the source: a ghostly horse surrounded by a coterie of spirit animals. It was an otherworldly moment, completely untethered to anything in the game's main plot. A transient occurrence waiting to be uncovered by players curious enough to follow a whim.
Then there was the time I scrambled over a gigantic snowy peak, shivering and freezing, only to be attacked by a horde of Bokoblins, the enemies that populated the game's world.
Riding atop bears. Actual bears.
During that fight I accidentally shot a fire arrow at a pile of dry grass, putting into motion an incredible sequence of events that had me running – panicked and hysterical – from two frothing bears that had somehow set themselves on fire.
Both of these incidents have something in common: They, like almost everything magical in Breath of the Wild, occurred because the game allows players space to breathe, to adventure off the beaten path and craft their own unique narrative. Breath of the Wild not only gives players permission to adventure on their own terms, it gives then a universe that rewarded that kind of exploration.
In the years since, the influence of Breath of the Wild has unfurled in the games we play. But not as much as I expected, nor in the ways I'd hoped.
Like Breath of the Wild, video games have gotten bigger, that goes without saying. Franchises like Assassin's Creed have become ludicrously large in terms of scale. Traditionally linear games, like the critically acclaimed God of War, have become more open in design. Even Halo went open world late last year with the fantastic Halo: Infinite.
But while games have widened their scope, few came close to evoking the spirit of Breath of the Wild. The understanding that – over that mountain – literally anything could, and potentially would, happen. In its wake it feels like video games learned the wrong lessons from Breath of the Wild. Instead of changing at their core and building outward, most open-world games regressed toward bigger and prettier versions of the monogame: more towers to be climbed, more feathers to collect, more boxes to be ticked.
If you've played any big-budget game over the last five years – Ghost of Tsushima, Far Cry, Spider-Man – you'll have played a version of this game. You might even have enjoyed it. I know I did. Particularly well-executed ones, like the recent Horizon Forbidden West, which rules.
But that sense of pure adventure. That feeling in your belly that comes from heading toward a blot on your horizon and having madness unfold in your wake. No game has managed to effectively conjure that since Breath of the Wild.
Until Elden Ring, at least.
Elden Ring was released this February to an almost indulgent level of critical acclaim. Not since – coincidentally – Breath of the Wild has a game captivated reviewers so dramatically.
And reviewers made those comparison easily: That Elden Ring is the Breath of the Wild for a new generation. It's an easy analog. When any game series swings as big and as successfully as Elden Ring has, a Breath of the Wild mention isn't far behind.
But this time the comparisons are valid.
Elden Ring never feels as organic or as alive as Breath of the Wild. Its systems aren't as delicately interconnected, but it preserves a sense of adventure unlike any other game I've played in the last five years. Much like Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring's cues feel seamless. There are no quest markers or mini-maps mindlessly shuffling you toward your next goal. Players are given the freedom to scan the horizon, pick a point of interest and simply… journey towards it.
The magic is what occurs between point A and point B.
Breath of the Wild did an incredible job of steering players from one adventure to the next and surprising players along the way. Elden Ring is equally as effective. You may think you're heading toward those ruins in the distance, but you'll almost certainly be distracted by that gigantic dragon lurking in the swamp, or the eerily lit dungeon in the periphery. None of it will feel spoon fed. All of it will originate from the player's natural impulse to explore.
Elden Ring, in particular, has the freedom to do this because of the efficacy of its core loop. After decades of refining its celebrated combat system, FromSoftware's confidence in the game's combat mechanics is so robust it can build almost anything around that scaffolding and have it work.
Breath of the Wild has its interconnected systems, Elden Ring has its combat. Both have a core that ensures players rarely get bored second to second and use that springboard to create a world that inspires a sense of awe – not just in terms of scale, but also in terms of pure imagination.
Here, you could argue Elden Ring has Breath of the Wild beat. Collapsing seams of architecture, contorted at varying levels of decay, jut from the environment at alien angles. Ethereal castles bathe in golden streaks of light. These visuals organically illuminate the next point of interest, but they're also aesthetically pleasing in a way that feels distinct from other beautifully rendered video games like, say, Horizon Forbidden West or Ghost of Tsushima.
The difference is that, despite being tremendous in scale, Elden Ring still feels curated – designed to give players not just picture-perfect moments of whoaaaa, but to dissociate us from our expectations. Elden Ring isn't just beautiful, it's really, really fucking weird. You'll battle traditional dark fantasy enemies like knights and dragons, but you'll also have deep conversations with gigantic turtle priests, fight dogs with T-rex heads and use dead jellyfish as shields.
It's a strange one. The comparisons between Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild feel almost too easy. They're both video games set in massive worlds and both represent enormous leaps forward. Breath of the Wild completely transformed Zelda, and, in turn, Elden Ring has completely transformed what we once believed was possible in the "SoulsBorne" genre.
But on a deeper, almost subconscious level, both games feel the same in a way that's more difficult to communicate. They use similar beats and elicit similar feelings.
Two years ago, three years after its release, I wrote that I was still recovering from Breath of the Wild. Nothing else had come close.
Now Elden Ring has given me those same feelings. I once wrote that Breath of the Wild felt like it arrived "fully formed from another dimension." I could have written the same words about Elden Ring. In Elden Ring, Breath of the Wild finally has a worthy successor. It only took five years to get there.