Nintendo Switch is right on the precipice of becoming the gaming giant’s best-selling console of all time. Sales for the five-year-old hybrid system are still going strong, with new players venturing into its alluring pull every day. Especially if the Switch is your first new gaming system for a hot second (welcome!), it can be overwhelming to dig through the wealth of games available for the system. And it can be even more overwhelming to make sense of the ever-expanding world of open-world games.
“Open-world” means that you can essentially wander off wherever you want, whenever you want. Want to gun it from the opening plateau to the final boss in only your undies? Go for it! For many players, this freedom can be incredibly intimidating. Just remember that it also means there’s nothing you should be doing—this is your relaxation time, after all! And holdup tends to be that open-world games are often expansive, with long playtime commitments. But that just means you’re getting some bang for your buck, right? If you’re curious about the open-world possibilities of your Switch but don’t know where to start, here’s a handy list.
Best All-Around: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Fortunately, the Switch is blessed with—I’m just gonna say it—the greatest open-world game to date. And I include Elden Ring in that (which is not on the Switch, by the way). Breath of the Wild was my first open-world game, and it serves as a beautiful opening door to the genre. The game’s opening is well-paced, giving you enough time to get your bearings before it fully lets you lose into Hyrule. That doesn’t mean it’s not rewarding for veteran players, as well. And don’t worry if you’ve never played a Zelda game before, either. Breath of the Wild is still recognizable as a Zelda game … but it shakes up the action series’ formula to its core. Everyone’s welcome here.
There is a giddiness to exploration in Breath of the Wild that I have yet to find in another game. The map is big enough that there’s always a feeling of “Ooooo, what’s over there?!,” but it’s not too big that you give up hope of ever finishing the game (cough Elden Ring cough). Exploration in Breath of the Wild can also be downright relaxing, as long as you avoid the ever-stressful Guardians. I have a friend who used to ride around on his horse in Breath of the Wild before going to bed, to calm himself. It’s a game that contains multitudes. It’s truly the best.
Best Do-In-A-Day: A Short Hike
Remember when I said open-world games are notorious for being long? Well, A Short Hike is proof that they don’t have do be! For just $8 full-price (it’s often on sale), this gorgeous indie gem will run you six hours, tops, if you do absolutely everything. Many friends recommended this game to me during the height of the pandemic. It’s the kind of game that serves as a soothing outlet, when the real world is stressful and depressing.
A Short Hike is a quiet, relaxed game with a lot of heart. You’re simply hiking around a mountain. You can talk to other hikers/campers, go fishing, collect seashells, or any number of delightful tasks. The Verge correctly describes it as a blend between Animal Crossing and Breath of the Wild. If the big-ness and long-ness of open-world games intimidates you, start here. You can finish it in a sitting, if you want.
Best JRPG: Xenoblade Chronicles (1 and 2)
With Xenoblade Chronicles 3 coming this summer, now’s the time to catch up on Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. While I’ve yet to play either (but I’m going to, I swear!), general consensus seems to be that Xenoblade Chronicles is more of a true open world than its sequel. Although Xenoblade Chronicle 2‘s worlds are smaller, both games will get you the general “do whatever you want as you’re tackling the main quest” open-world vibe.
These are the games you want to go to if you want a JRPG-style open-world experience. Both games are highly-rated on Metacritic: Xenoblade Chronicles has 89, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has 83. I’d recommend starting at the beginning of the series, simply because I’m a completionist-lite and that’s my own plan.
Best Fantasy: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
That’s right, Witcher like the Netflix show! Although The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was not initially made for the Switch, it’s widely considered to be one of the best ports out for the system. Forget for a moment that CD Projekt Red really bonked it with Cyberpunk 2077 (which is not on the Switch). Before that… uh… catastrophe, the developer had an excellent reputation thanks to the highly-lauded Witcher series. The Witcher 3, in particular, was noted for being the biggest step in the open-world genre between Skyrim and Breath of the Wild.
If a fantasy RPG tickles your fancy, this is your game. Many might take offense to the fact that I’m not including Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on this list. And that’s honestly because I played Skyrim recently, and while it was a landmark game, it’s no longer the best open-world game. I maintain that, for the fantasy genre, you should go with The Witcher.
Best Sandbox: Minecraft
Minecraft is infamous. Minecraft is many things. And one of those many things is, technically, an open-world game. Not only can you construct whatever you want; you can go wherever you want. Then you can mine it and make more stuff. There are even battles to be had. It’s true ground-up freedom. Minecraft‘s infectious mix of the sandbox genre with the open-world genre is one reason that game has stayed in the cultural zeitgeist for so long. I mean, what can I say? It’s Minecraft!
Best Partial Open-Worlds (tie): Pokémon Legends Arceus and Super Mario Odyssey
You can say that either Pokémon Legends Arceus or Super Mario Odyssey are open-world without adding a couple of asterisks. Both games are sequential, allowing you to wander around big areas which you unlock one at a time. Both games also allow you to go back to areas you’ve previously done. I’d also argue that Arceus is more of an open-world than Odyssey. The latter feels very much like you’re going through a more expansive version of a traditional Mario level. Arceus, on the other hand, gives you the feeling of dumping you off at a new location and going, “Hmmmm, now what? Guess I’ll go over where!” Arceus‘s areas are fewer, but bigger.
This may be a Hot Take, but I’d personally recommend Arceus over Odyssey. I may also be biased, because I’m a big Pokémon person. But Arceus brought me very, very close to that sense of wonder and excitement during exploration that I felt during Breath of the Wild. But this time, it was because, around those corners, I was finding new kinds of Pokémon. I’m not sure I can give a game a better compliment than that.
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