The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review
System: Switch, Wii U
There is something magical about a great Nintendo game. If there’s one word to describe it: joy. The last time I remember experiencing this joy was back in 2014 when I played Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U. I remember because I was in a personal funk at the time and videogames and pretty everything else wasn’t doing anything to help me get out of that mindset. But when I popped that game in one cold winter night in the middle of November, I remember being transported back to my childhood when I would stay up all night playing my favorite games before creeping upstairs to my room, making sure not to wake my parents.
Sure I’ve had incredible experiences since: the amazing storytelling of The Witcher 3, the rewarding puzzles of The Witness, the addictive gameplay loop of Metal Gear Solid 5, the exhilaration of felling a beast in Bloodborne or even, despite its ups and downs, the excitement of finally playing a new numbered entry in my favorite game series – Final Fantasy – after all those years. Those were all special experiences that I won’t soon forget, but none of them compared to that pure unadulterated joy I experienced that one cold winter night, until now.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of those special games; to play Breath of the Wild is to experience a joy only Nintendo can bring.
Make no mistake, I like many of you, have been programmed recently to reject the notion of hyperbole when it comes to the adventures of Nintendo’s favorite son Link – well probably second favorite to that rascal Mario. After all, it was only half a decade ago when fans cried foul at a less than stellar review for Skyward Sword from a major publication, only to now call that score generous after much of the cultural zeitgeist wore off, which in turn was traded in for general malaise.
Nintendo took a big gamble with one of our most cherished franchises, stripping a lot of what made the series work in favor of a bold new enterprise in the open-world genre that most AAA videogames stake their claim these days. What could be looked at, through jaded eyes, as Nintendo appealing to the mass market, is instead a game that takes inspiration from giants in the industry and makes it their own.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad hesitant of this new structure – and in the opening hours I would be lying if I said I wasn’t still clutching onto the security blanket made up of classics in the name of Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. But the more and more I played this latest adventure, that security blanket I was holding onto for so long began to feel like an unnecessary burden anymore; that with the progression of time, so must change happen. After all Zelda, is a game series based on history, tried and true; but just like Hyrule, that history is always changing and in this case it’s for the better.
For starters, unlike any other Zelda, except maybe the original, you are given absolute freedom the moment you enter the gorgeous painterly world. First and foremost this game is about exploration. If there was ever a time to be struck with wanderlust it would be now as Hyrule, teeming with Flora and Fauna, old and new, has been repurposed for your exploratory desires. Where previous open world games gave you a giant world littered with more icons and points of interest than you could ever know what to do with, Breath of the Wild takes the minimalistic approach, forgoing information overload for the pure joys of raw discovery. While the game does take elements from contemporaries such as tower liberation, they only reveal the layout of the land and nothing more.
Somewhere over the last 6 years, Link has traded in his sword and shield for cartography lessons as it is up to the player to chart their own path in the stupidly enormous Kingdom of Hyrule. Breath of the Wild gives you adjustable markers and stamps to litter the points of interest you deem important. This laissez-faire approach to exploration is very reminiscent of Atlus’ series of Etrian Odyssey games and in a genre that suffers from information overload it’s very refreshing to see and is in tune with the sense freedom this game promotes.
Anything you see, you can interact with. Anywhere you see you can get to. How? That is totally up to you. See that tree? See all of those trees? You can climb them. How about that dilapidated ruin? Yup. Can I push that boulder overlooking a camp filled with unsuspecting Bokoblin, eliminate a few and then rush in to steal their weapons only to finish the rest of them off? You sure can. How many open world games up to until now have promised this type of freedom only to come up short? With Breath of the Wild, we finally have a game that has achieved this reality with nary a compromise to be made. That’s not to say it will be easy to get to that far off mountain or that lush forest, as there are trials and tribulations to be had at every corner, especially if you even want to survive the trip it will take to reach your destination.
This game is just as much about survival as anything else and like any good adventurer, preparation is key. Like a lot of other open world games, collecting loot and foraging for ingredients are important, but in Breath of the Wild it is tantamount to survival. In fact a lot of your time will be spent in menu’s tinkering with all sorts of trinkets, weapons, vegetation and even Moblin guts as everything you find has an important use.
Weapons you find for example, unlike previous games, are as plentiful as they are degradable, which adds another layer of strategy with regards to item conservation – aka pure hoarding. Do I waste the few precious hits I get from my powerful but brittle axe or do I save it for a boss fight and go with a basic spear that while less powerful is more abundant and will give me that extra bit of length over that enemy? It’s answers to questions like that, which could spell your life or death as enemies hit and they hit hard. It is no surprise that Breath of the Wild is not only a difficult Zelda game, it’s a difficult game period. You will die. You will die a lot. Whether it is from the axe of a Bokoblin Chief or the harsh climates you encounter, everything is trying to kill you.
Yes, climate becomes an increasingly important factor in your adventuring as well. Even though there are no invisible walls preventing you from reaching certain areas of the map, there are plenty of environmental barriers. For example, without the proper equipment, heading into the snowy Hebra Mountains will freeze you before you can even make base camp. This is where choices come in. Do you go mining for precious ores, which you can sell – for increasingly hard to come by rupees – in hopes of purchasing warm equipment or do you combine the cold resistant berries, mushrooms or other goods you’ve foraged in hopes of making an elixir or dish that will afford you of this much needed protection from the frost? Or do you go searching the hundreds of enemy camps of shrines that litter the lands, in hopes of finding that important piece that eludes you?
Shrines are the games puzzle chambers that open up fairly early on in the game. Some are in plain sight and others must be found through many of the games brilliant shrine quests. Each of them houses a challenge, whether it be by using force in the games simple yet competent combat or by using the old gray matter in some devious puzzles. They are varied, fun, challenging and for the most part don’t outstay their welcome, breaking up long stretches of exploration, rewarding you with rare loot, a new warp point for your map and a spirit orb. These spirit orbs essentially replace heart containers from former Zelda games and when you gather 4 they can be traded in for either an additional heart or piece of the stamina bar.
Shrine quests are definitely the most rewarding of the lot. Running the gamut from solving a giant Guardian-protected maze, to surviving the tough conditions of a treacherous island without any of your belongings, they are the absolute pinnacle of brilliant game design, are as intricately designed as some full games and can take as long as some of the series biggest dungeons.
Speaking of dungeons, one of my biggest worries about Breath of the Wild was the fact that shrines would be a full on replacement for what is – at least for me – the heart of every great Zelda game. Well fear not because not only do they return in Breath of the Wild, but in full spectacular fashion. Without going into spoiler territory, these “dungeons” are every bit as interesting as the series best and while they might not be as massive and elaborate as some of our favorites, they all revolve around a certain gameplay mechanic that takes what we’ve known and loved about this series staple and turns it on its head, so to speak, truncating the experience in clever ways, without sacrificing the depth. When you come upon one of these beasts, they are worth the price of admission alone and are one of the great highlights of the game, no matter which one you choose to complete first.
Herein lies one of the biggest changes from the previous Zelda games: the structure in which puzzles are approached. In previous games, dungeons were completed in an allotted order as there was always a set item that was needed to be able to complete the puzzles lurking within, which was usually cordoned off until you got to a certain point in the game. A change in this structure was first played around with in 2013’s A Link Between Worlds, where you could rent weapons or items, giving you the ability to choose your own adventure. Breath of the Wild takes it a step further, letting you essentially solve anything you come across in the game at any point.
Early on in the game you will be imbued with the power of Runes that will allow Link to interact with the environment in various ways. These come in the form of Bombs, allowing you to blow of items and enemies; Magnesis, allowing for the control of metal-based matter; Stasis, allowing for the control and manipulation of time in some interesting ways; and Cryonis, allowing for the formation of ice-based columns in bodies of water. Each of these Runes becomes the key to solving every problem that lies in your wake. This system might seem blasphemous to series diehards and veterans, but the change is for the better. It not only opens the game up in ways the series has dreamt of but it brings something to the table that some of the best games of recent years, namely The Witness, have done: it respects the players intelligence.
Unlike previous games, where problem solving was a very linear activity, Breath of the Wild gives you multiple ways of solving the same puzzle, allowing for the player to take the knowledge they’ve learned throughout their adventure and adhere it as they see fit. It sparks creativity and challenges players to think outside the box as there is always another way to approach the same situation, whether it is a puzzle found in the depths of a shrine or an enemy encampment housing that piece of treasure you just need. It’s a brilliant system that will convert even those most cantankerous to change. Just knowing you can always solve anything that stands in your way, that you are always in control of your destiny and not some arbitrary wall set by the game, makes exploring all of the Hyrule’s secrets and stories all the more worthwhile.
When it comes to stories, Hyrule has plenty of them. Some are hidden, woven into the fabric of the world and its lore. Others are found in the interesting and unique tales of each of Hyrule’s wonderfully realized characters. Every single one of them is named and they each sport their own interesting – and often idiosyncratic – personalities. The way the developers animate them, tell a story in its own right, and it’s a delight to stop by the many outposts and towns to chat with them and learn about their place in world – on top of being beneficial. These stories lead to many of the games sidequests, which always bring a good deal of context to whatever task you are embarking on. Some are funny – well a lot are – and almost all of them will give you insight into what befell Hyrule. It’s in these smaller stories that we get a lot of the world building and they are the strongest element in the storytelling of Breath of the Wild.
That’s not to say that main storyline is not worthwhile as well. I don’t want to go in depth on this front for fear of spoilers and I want you to experience much of this on your own accord, – like the game itself – but the overarching story will only be as interesting and important to the whole experience as the amount of effort you put into discovering it. You can theoretically finish the game at anytime and therefore could skip over major chunks of story, if not all of it, this is probably why the main tale was not a major focus of the game. If you were expecting an epic straightforward tale akin to what recent trailers seemed to suggest, you might be disappointed, but if you seek it out, the story that is presented is simple and effective, with a few poignant moments that only add to the gravitas of the game’s superb final encounter with Ganon. It is only undone at times by some inconsistent voice performances – a first for the series.
As for the game’s graphics, what is left that hasn’t been said yet? Blending the styles of The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild is absolutely stunning to look at. Art style triumphs over power again with one of the most meticulously realized worlds ever created in a game. With so much life, personality, and sheer variety, no two places look the same and when taking in the sun-soaked sights while travelling up high with your Parasail, the scope of it all is absolutely breathtaking. It also helps that there is minimal pop-in and not a single load time when travelling the fields of Hyrule – unless you enter or exit a shrine.
The sounds are equally as mesmerizing with a hauntingly beautiful score from Manaka Kataoka – known for his work on Animal Crossing – who focuses on softer piano pieces for much of the games travel time but is not afraid to mix it up with an occasional electronic-tinged track when facing off with a Guardian – the mysterious mechnical monstrosities of Hyrule – for good measure. The score serves as a tribute to the series past while forging its own legacy and it will be remembered as one of the greats. As for sound effects, some of the great joys in this game for me have been from hearing the hilarious grunts of Gorons and adorable coos that townspeople’s children make when I humor their requests. It’s an absolute delight.
I could go off into the realm of pure adulation for this game, but it is not perfect, albeit close. For starters the game doesn’t run entirely well, with frequent framerate drops during intense encounters, when too many NPCs are on screen, or whenever it damn feels like it. Its not a deal breaker, but for a game that was originally built from the ground up on old hardware to not run smoothly, especially as a launch title, is a little disappointing, especially since the game only outputs at 900p in docked mode on the Switch. In handheld mode it fairs better but is still prone to these issues and only runs at 720p.
More importantly than graphics though are a few quality of life snafus that rear their ugly head and interrupt the flow of the game. When it comes to mounts, you have to be within range of your horse or it won’t heed your call. This becomes a big issue as, for just how big this world can be, that range is ever so small. When most other open world games allow you to call mounts wherever you are, this is a bit disheartening especially since there were multiple times I had to backtrack 2-3 minutes just to get in range of my steed. I can see that the developers were going for the authentic adventure experience, but I don’t see why this was a necessary evil – also, because pausing a menu mid battle to chow down on a steak for health is realistic right? It came to the point where I just gave up on using my horse for most of the game and either travelled by foot or by air for the majority of my adventure. It’s a nuisance for sure and one that sadly demonstrates a lack of respect for player’s time, considering just how big this game is.
This also seeps into the game’s weather system, which while cool in theory is less satisfying in practice and I found caused more frustrations than it was worth. For example, when it rains, conditions for climbing worsen, as your lack of grip causes Link to slide down cliff and mountainsides while expelling more stamina, making it almost impossible to get anywhere high up. That means you either have to find another way around or wait until the storm subsides, which can take an undetermined amount of time. Nothing is more frustrating than getting halfway up to where you need to go only to be halted by the elements. The worst example of this offense came when I was took on a mission that revolved around transporting a flame to a certain location to activate a waypoint, only to have it snuffed out mere meters from its intended destination.
Also, for how consistently engaging a lot of the shrines can be, there are a couple of heinous missteps with a few that revolve around the use of terrible motion controls with the built-in gyro. Anytime I encountered one of these shrines I felt the collective groans of the poor souls who were subjected to this same fuckery as I was. There is one in particular – revolving around a Labyrinth Ball-in-Maze puzzle – that was beyond aggravating and had me pulling out my hair. It’s a questionable inclusion and of all the features available to the Switch – and even Wii U – it makes you wonder after many of the complaints of gimmicky motion controls in past Zelda games, why they would go this route.
This brings me to my final gripe, which is the lack of console specific features, namely in regards to touch controls. As mentioned previously, a lot of your time will be spent fiddling around in menu’s which is nothing new to the franchise, but here it is even more so. While the game does its best to make it as little of a pain to navigate as possible, there are a lot of moving parts – especially with the need to constantly manage equipment, weapons, and stamina – and it would have been very helpful to have the option of touch controls for inventory management and map navigation. I know this would have been a little trickier with the Switch as it would not be possible in docked mode, but seeing as there is no use of the multi-touch tablet in handheld mode whatsoever, it seems like a missed opportunity. This becomes more of a disappointing oversight when it comes to the Wii U, who’s patented asynchronous gameplay, was literally made for this sort of thing. Seeing what wonders it did for the re-mastered versions of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, it can only leave fans playing on that console, pining for this to be updated in later, which will probably fall on deaf ears.
These faults, while warranted of scrutiny, are minute compared to the grandeur you will experience throughout your hundreds of hours spent in Hyrule – I clocked in around 50 hours when I finished the main quest and have barely scratched the surface – but they are nonetheless small blemishes on what is an incredible achievement.
4.75 out of 5
After 6 long years and a mountain of hype on its back, not only for its own franchise but the success of Nintendo’s new console as a whole, Breath of the Wild delivers on all fronts. From its incredible aesthetic that brings life to its enormously meticulous world and memorable characters, to its multitude of interesting and complex systems that breath new life into open world games, to its puzzles that that challenge the mind and respect player’s intelligence, this new Zelda is one for the ages.
For a series as revered and important to the industry to take as many chances as it does is impressive, but what is even more remarkable is how it nails them without losing sight of why people love the series to begin with. Breath of the Wild is joy. Joy of adventure, joy of discovery, joy of play with oh so much heart; it’s the reason we play games in the first place and why Breath of the Wild is one of the best games in the franchise, which only happens to make it one of the greatest games of all time.
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