Platform: Switch, Wii U (Reviewed on Switch)
Release Date: March 3rd, 2017
The Zelda formula has been a rather predictable one in the past. While games like Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword have strong points, there was no denying the rigidity that 3D Zeldas have had. After A Link Between Worlds showed that non-linear progression could work in modern games, it was up to Breath of the Wild to take it to the next level. How does Nintendo’s first modern open-world handle it? Fantastically!
As a lot of what makes Breath of the Wild special relies on going in clean, I’ll do my best to denote what I would consider to be spoilers. While it may not be anything too dramatic, I understand the desire to go in clean.
The game starts with Link waking from his slumber in a shrine. You emerge from the shrine onto the Great Plateau, a landmass raised up from the continent of Hyrule. This essentially serves as your tutorial area, teaching you the game’s mechanics and goals.
*Note: the next paragraph contains spoilers!*
After you complete the tutorial, you discover that you’ve been asleep for 100 years. You failed against Calamity Ganon, who had successfully taken control of ancient Sheikah technology and turned it against you. Now, in a desolate Hyrule, Zelda is doing her best to hold back Calamity Ganon from consuming the world and needs your help.
The story suffers like any open-world game story that has urgency, in that your pace dictates how events play out. In this case, however, the focal point remains unmoving as you progress throughout the world. This helps to mitigate it somewhat.
The writing is also a strong aspect of this. You get your typical high fantasy writing present in all Zelda games, but the characters and stories you find in Breath of the Wild are all endearing in their own right.
Breath of the Wild is also the first Zelda game to feature voice acting. Some voices are great, but the ones you’ll hear the most are probably the worst performances.
The Zelda series’ consistently great music helps alleviate this. However, for atmospheric reasons, most of the soundtrack consists of light piano music and silence as you travel Hyrule. Certain locations and important moments still have appropriate music, but the minimalist tone may turn some off.
The world itself is also rather beautiful. The watercolor aesthetic makes for beautiful vistas and landscapes. There are distinct regions, but each has different biomes within them for much-needed variety. The only region I’m not a fan of has to be Death Mountain (which isn’t really a spoiler since it’s a Zelda staple at this point). It’s still varied enough, but my personal disinterest in fire levels kills it for me.
As with an open world, the main thrust of the gameplay is exploration. Fortunately, you have several tools available to you, some not seen in the franchise before.
The biggest change is the new climbing system. This forces you to unlearn how Zelda games have handled climbing before, as they are few (if any) limits to where you can climb. You could travel the expected path and try to figure out a way around an obstacle. Or, you could just climb over it. Once this sinks in, the world opens up dramatically.
My only gripe with the climbing is the tangentially-related weather system. Various weather conditions like fog, rain, thunderstorms, and blizzards affect things like visibility and weapon use. Worst of all, rain makes climbing cliffs and the like slippery. If you’re in the middle of a rock face when a storm rolls in, good luck finishing the climb. It adds to the “realism”, but is an annoying contrivance.
Traditional travel exists in the form of horse riding. Instead of a dedicated Epona steed, you can tame wild horses and board them. These all have unique temperaments and stats that affect speed, sprinting, and health for combat.
Cooking is another new addition that’s a core part of the game. Enemies no longer drop Hearts, so the only way to reliably recover health is with food. Eating it raw gets you limited recovery, but if you cook it you enhance its properties.
You can have varying recovering effects in addition to buffs for attack, defense, movement speed, maximum health, stamina, and stealth. Elixers can also be made by mixing animal and monster parts for more potent buffs.
These tie in tightly to the combat of Breath of the Wild, as this is easily the hardest Zelda game in a while. Damage is high, and heavy attacks force you to ragdoll. Your moveset is also deeper with more weapon types besides swords, like axes, spears, and boomerangs. Learning how to do perfect dodges and parries is essential to high-level combat against difficult enemies.
One aspect of it that’s a bit of a sticking point is weapon durability. Your weapons will constantly break in the early game from one or two encounters. As you progress, you get stronger weapons that last longer. I do also appreciate that it forces me to change up my play style. For a game that’s so focused on player agency, though, it sucks that there’s no alternative.
Player agency is the biggest strength of Breath of the Wild. Almost all aspects of the game revolve around this concept. For starters, the amount of freedom you have with the story is a far cry from titles like Skyward Sword.
*Note: the next two paragraphs contain spoilers!*
You main goal is the defeat Calamity Ganon at Hyrule Castle, which you are able to do right from the start if you want. Other major quests include meeting with Impa in Kakariko Village to learn more about your past, going to meet and tame each of the 4 races’ Divine Beasts, and finding the Master Sword. You can do these in any order, even getting the Master Sword before the quest is triggered.
The story for most of this is presented in flashbacks, meaning that it can still make sense “out of order”. Other flashbacks can also be found to help to flesh out Zelda and Link’s relationship, and makes this one of my favorite depictions of Zelda.
Some areas may be harder to traverse than others, but the world of Breath of the Wild is so meticulously laid-out. You’ll always find yourself running into something no matter which direction you go. The visual language is very clear, with there always being something to an area, even if it’s not directly in your line of sight.
*Note: the next paragraph contains spoilers!*
This is highlighted very well in the Captured Memories quest. This quest involves finding locations based on photos found in your Sheikah Slate. In the beginning, I barely recognized any locations. However, as I traveled Hyrule, I was able to triangulate most of them purely by recognizing landmarks (thanks to the many vistas at your disposal).
Freedom also translates to Breath of the Wild’s gameplay. How you approach enemies and enemy camps is up to you. Do you sneak in and take them out one by one? Do you make use of traps and items to systematically take them out? Or do you go in guns blazing? The typical marketing spiel you’d hear about games that offer ‘choice’ seems to be full force here, but this game actually does give you these choices.
*Note: the next paragraph contains spoilers!*
This also translates to some of the bosses. Hinox have obvious glowing-eye weak points to hit with arrows, but they can also have shin guards that can be burnt off with fire arrows. They can also be lured to campfires for the same result. Talus are stone golems that have an exposed ore weak point on their back. You can climb then to attack with your sword, throw bombs, or use bomb arrows to beat them.
Shrines also highlight your player agency, with some being really good at making you think outside of normal conventions. One shrine in particular really solidified this game as something special.
*Note: the next 2 paragraphs contain spoilers!*
The basic gimmick of this puzzle was to use metal boxes and barrels to connect electric wires and open a series of doors. In the final stretch, I noticed that I needed one more metal object than what was available to open the last door. After brainstorming for a few minutes, it hit me.
I thought to myself, “If this works, this will be not only the best Zelda game, but one of the best games I’ve ever played”. I dropped my metal sword, dragged it over the connection, and bam! Puzzle solved and shrine complete!
As with any open-world game, there’s a ton of places to go and things to do on your journey. However, this game does things so much better than your typical sandbox game. Finding all the collectables and secrets is at its core busy work, but how you get to it and what you do when you get there makes the experience. Every little thing always works towards something greater. You always find something when going off the beaten path.
It’s easy to think that Breath of the Wild is pretty much perfect based on this review so far, but one major sore thumb sticks out; the performance. Undocked, the game runs at 30fps consistently with the exception of one area. It gets a resolution bump to 900p when docked, but suffers from some major framerate issues.
It occurs most in grassy areas (though not consistently), but the framerate will lock itself down to 20fps randomly. It’ll stay that way unless you angle your camera away from geometry, but sometimes that won’t even fix it. Because of ragdoll physics, some enemies fought in certain places will make the game freeze for about a second, leading me to believe it crashed the first time it happened to me.
In a year of fantastic games (so far) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild stands atop the mountain. While series staples like characters and music are diluted by scale, It is easily one of the best Zelda games in years. It meshes perfectly with what I want from not only a Zelda game, but open-world games in general. Not only are you given the proper tools, it encourages you to use them how you see fit. Despite its performance flaws and questionable weapon durability system, Breath of the Wild is my favorite Zelda game of all time!Buy if from Amazon Download from eShop