Note: For the purposes of this review, I played through the Nintendo Switch version of this game. A Wii U version is also available.
Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda franchise is a deeply beloved series with a long, storied history, entwined with the history of Nintendo itself. However, let’s be frank, Zelda has been in a bit of a rut for a while now. While still a very enjoyable game, 2011’s Skyward Sword amplified all of the worst characteristics of the games that preceded it, being filled with long, tedious tutorials, linear environments and obnoxious hand-holding at every step. The two Zelda games released for the Nintendo DS, Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass, were similarly enjoyable, but failed to leave the same kind of impression that great games such as The Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time left.
After these games, Nintendo said they were looking to shatter the traditions of Zelda going forward. 2013’s A Link Between Worlds did just that, providing the most open Zelda experience since the old NES and SNES games. If A Link Between Worlds was Nintendo dipping their feet into this kind of “open” design, Breath of the Wild is the full plunge.
I say this very carefully, since people are prone to hyperbole when discussing The Legend of Zelda. 20 years ago, Ocarina of Time ushered in a new era for this series, and after that point, it was hard to go back to the older games. After all, they just felt dated and inferior next to Ocarina of Time. Similarly-after playing Breath of the Wild for over 50 hours-it will be very difficult to go back to not only older Zelda games, but other action RPGs. Breath of the Wild is a defining moment, not only for Zelda, but for Nintendo.
Warning: I will talk a little bit about the story to help my impressions, but I will avoid outright spoiling the story itself. I will also dive into the game mechanics involved. You’ve been warned.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the 9th home console Zelda, released 6 long years after Skyward Sword on the Wii. Breath of the Wild is also the first Zelda in a long while to not feel like an incremental step forward from the last game. In fact, Breath of the Wild can be considered the polar opposite of a game like Skyward Sword. While Skyward Sword was linear and structured, Breath of the Wild is a free-form, non-linear game. Skyward Sword would hold your hand and walk you through all of its puzzles and fights, while Breath of the Wild will knock you on your ass and force you to learn, or die trying.
If that sounds familiar, it should be, since that was the same gameplay style found in the original Legend of Zelda game on the NES. If anything, Breath of the Wild feels like a return to the series’ roots in exploration and discovery. Yes, it does take clear inspiration from the better portion of the western “open world” RPG genre, namely The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but let’s be real, in turn, those games owe a LOT to the innovations made by games like Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker.
You again will play as Link, who has woken up in an abandoned plateau with no memories of how he got there. As he learns from an old hermit living on the plateau, Hyrule was nearly destroyed 100 years prior by a great cataclysm known as the Great Calamity. In this calamity, hundreds of ancient mechanical beasts razed the countryside, completely destroying the kingdom of Hyrule. In the century that followed, nature has reclaimed Hyrule, leaving only echoes of this once great kingdom. In the story, you will find out the events that led up to this calamity, and you will learn how to defeat the evil force that caused it once and for all.
The structure of the story is quite different from previous Zelda games, in that it is told in a non-linear fashion. You can choose to complete the game’s four main dungeons in any given order, you can just rush to Hyrule Castle and fight the final boss right out of the gate, or you could just outright ignore the story. Don’t think that this game is story-light, however. There are enough characters and dialogue in this game to make Skyward Sword jealous. Simply put, the story itself also follows this game’s ethos of open exploration by not only giving you the option of tackling it however you like, but being built around that very idea.
The exposition of the game is refreshingly light-handed in this game, especially when compared to Skyward Sword or Twilight Princess. However, there IS a tutorial, and the game does its due diligence to prepare you before dumping you into the dangerous wilds of Hyrule. When you begin the game, you are stuck on the starting zone of the Great Plateau, where you have a chance to learn the game’s mechanics on a smaller scale. In a departure from previous games, Breath of the Wild gives you all of the main items right from the get-go through one new item called the Sheikah Slate. You have your bombs, which should be familiar to all Zelda fans. You also have Magnesis, which lets you move and manipulate metal objects, Cryonis, which lets you create pillars of ice from water and Stasis, which can freeze objects in time for a short while.
I liked this approach, and it support’s the game’s open nature. This idea was already toyed with in A Link Between Worlds, where you could rent all of the game’s items from the beginning. This approach encourages you to try all of the weapons in your arsenal, and to figure out what the right tool is for the job. As you will learn, the answer to that is what you make it, since puzzles often have multiple solutions.
In a departure from previous games, the bulk of the game’s puzzling is not done in its dungeons (Which I will get to shortly), but in the over 100 shrines that are scattered throughout Hyrule. These shrines can range from combat encounters, to short one-and-done puzzles, to legitimate mini-dungeons with several rooms. They are not only fun to find and complete, but also reward you handsomely, since they serve as the game’s fast travel points, and the Spirit Orbs you acquire for completing them are the game’s main ways to upgrade your health and stamina.
The game does have “traditional” dungeons, however, of which there are four (Five if you count the sprawling innards of Hyrule Castle as the final dungeon). However, I use the world “traditional” hesitantly for several reasons. These dungeons are shorter than something you’d see in Skyward Sword, for example. A good comparison point is A Link Between Worlds, which also had shorter dungeons. On top of this, though, the mechanics of these dungeons are very different. Yes, there are puzzles related to your main items, but the main mechanic of these dungeons is in manipulating the layout of each dungeon in different ways. See, these dungeons are actually massive mechanical monsters known as Divine Beasts. The scale of these dungeons, (Which are all seamlessly in the world, by the way) is just staggering, and having to manipulate and traverse these massive monsters gave me a wild Shadow of the Colossus vibe.
Welcome to the Jungle
Next up, let’s talk about Hyrule itself. Obviously, this is the biggest, grandest incarnation of the setting yet. Even 50-60 hours into this game, there are several areas I haven’t even gotten around to visiting. Aside from the previously mentioned shrines and dungeons, the landscape is dotted by stables, villages, caves, towers and ruins to explore. At times, it feels like I will never run out of things to do. I can literally warp to a tower, pick a random direction to walk in, and run into dozens of discoveries, be it a hidden chest, a Korok, a puzzle, an enemy camp, or even a shrine. This is where this game truly succeeds. The game never pushes you to do anything outside of the main quest, which you could complete without visiting the vast majority of the locations in the game. It is literally up to you to explore and discover, and I haven’t felt such a wild sense of freedom in a game in a long, long time.
On top of the sheer amount of things to find, Hyrule is straight up beautiful. The graphics may not be the most technically impressive I’ve ever seen, but the art direction more than makes up for it. The graphics have a heavier cel shaded look that steers closer to The Wind Waker rather than Skyward Sword. However, character designs call to mind Twilight Princess, being more anime inspired and stylized. The plant and animal life in Hyrule is the most impressive thing here. There are so many animals here, from lizards to deer, walruses, boars and ostriches. The animals react realistically here, and it’s such a joy to interact with them. Birds will fly away when you get too close, boars will charge at you, and packs of wolves will circle you menacingly. Plants can be set on fire, and wildfires can create updrafts that can be used as launching points for your paraglider.
A big departure from previous Zelda games here is in this game’s weapon system. Weapons can break, and they break often. This is never as frustrating as it sounds-in fact, I quite loved this system. That’s saying something, given that this is the hardest Zelda game in recent memory. The game is constantly replenishing your weapons to the point where I have never, ever found myself defenseless in a fight. I came to enjoy throwing weapons at enemies and watching them break, especially since when they break, they produce a satisfying critical hit. Weapons can be wildly varying, with different mechanics. Short swords are there for the classic Zelda experience, but there are also claymores, axes, spears, bows and boomerangs, all of which behave differently. Inventory space is limited at first, but it can quickly and easily be expanded by using Korok Seeds, hundreds of which are scattered throughout Hyrule.
The Never-Ending Legend
If it isn’t clear, I think this game is a masterpiece. I thought long and hard about this game, and I’m not kidding when I say I can’t think of any negatives that wouldn’t be nitpicking. Yeah, sometimes it can slow down from its stable 30 FPS frame rate to as low as 20 FPS, but not only is this extremely rare, it’s doesn’t affect the experience at all. Final Fantasy XV had portions like this too. The voice acting is OK, but there aren’t any award-winning performances here. I can’t even complain about being sad that the game has come to an end, because I’m still playing it. Many, many hours after beating the final boss and watching the end credits roll, it still feels like I have so much to do.
This is the game that the original Legend of Zelda could only hint at at the time. You will feel the joy of having your curiosity rewarded at every turn, the nail-biting thrill of a tough encounter and the total awe from gazing at the vastness of such a living, breathing game world. This game was more than worth getting a Nintendo Switch for. I’d gladly pay $300 for it again, and I greatly encourage everyone to play this game, since it will surely go down as one of the greatest Nintendo games ever created.
- Hyrule is one of the, if not the best sandbox overworld I’ve ever played in.
- Overworld mechanics, such as climbing and paragliding are a total joy.
- The difficulty is high, but never unfair. The game encourages you to be prepared at all times.
- The dungeons and shrines contain some of the best puzzles in the series.
- The story is interesting and told in a way that’s never been approached before in Zelda.
- The music is perfect for each moment, from the minimalist, melancholic piano pieces, to the bombastic boss themes.
- There is an astounding amount of things to do, from finding shrines, doing side quests and finding treasure.
- The item and weapon system encourages experimentation, and the weapon degradation system is actually fun.
- All the other wonderful things I didn’t get around to mentioning because this review is too long already: cooking, mini games, horse taming, clothes/costumes, mazes, so on and so forth.
- Will make it really hard to revisit older Zelda games.