If you’re not currently playing Breath of the Wild, you need to change that as soon as you possibly can.
When I tell you that this game is the best Zelda game ever created, this is not a platitude that I share lightly. But in all seriousness, Breath of the Wild is a breath of fresh air, and playing it has quickly become an obsession. Very few games — Zelda games included — have been so compelling and so mesmerizing as to cause me to inadvertently stay up into the wee hours of the morning (and make it so incredibly difficult to focus on my day job). When I’m not playing, all I want to do is finish up what I’m doing so I can return to Hyrule, and it’s all the sweeter since I haven’t felt this amount of joy from a game in ever so long.
Nintendo Australia has graciously provided us with a Nintendo Switch and both the Switch and Wii U versions of Breath of the Wild. (Our review copy came later than expected, hence the delay in our posting.) This review primarily concerns the Switch version; we will make a separate post discussing the Wii U version later this week.
An unexpected journey
Nintendo has described Breath of the Wild as a journey en plein air (literally, open in full air). This term is borrowed from the French (originally used to describe painting nature while actually in nature) to describe activities performed while out in nature. I really cannot imagine more apt words to describe Breath of the Wild as, by and large, the game wants you to spend your time surveying the landscape with a critical eye.
As you can guess, exploration takes center stage, and the game’s tutorial zone, the Great Plateau, teaches you this from the beginning. Travelling from destination to destination — even if you’re just following the story — takes serious time, and it’s completely up to you to figure out how to traverse the distance in between. Oftentimes there are multiple approaches and solutions, and the only limitations are your heart containers, your stamina, and your imagination.
Exploration in Breath of the Wild operates at multiple levels. In one aspect, you will nearly always need to be searching, gathering, and hunting natural resources from the world just to facilitate your own survival. Nowhere throughout Wild will you find a single dropped heart after cutting grass or defeating enemies; the primary method of regaining full health is by eating food picked from the forest floor and trees as well as cooking it to create more tasty, more restorative meals. The same will go for weaponry as well; every sword, shield, and bow you equip will inevitably break after so many usages, so you’ll have to scour enemy remains for replacements and upgrades. As a result, Breath of the Wild asks you as Link to soak up and marinate in this world, truly getting to know the land you’re going to save.
Beyond simply journeying and gathering, the other major exploration element you’ll be undertaking is shrine hunting. The game features more than 100 shrines throughout the world, and these serve as a large set of mini-dungeons. I originally suspected that this would be easy. I figured, since the Great Plateau’s four shrines are all visible from its tower that all of them would be easy to find, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Climbing a tower will, if you’re lucky, reveal the location of one or two, maybe if you’re lucky three, and many of those you do see will be in the game’s other regions. And you’ll want to find these shrines as they’re the primary way that you can extend your heart meter. The game eschews the standard system of collecting Pieces of Heart; instead, you are able to exchange four completed shrines for a Heart Container or a Stamina Wheel upgrade.
I originally suspected finding shrines would be easy. But climbing a tower will only reveal the location of one or two, maybe three.
Even heroes have the right to bleed
And Heart Containers are worth their weight in gold because this game isn’t shy about throwing you under the bus and pitting you against circumstances way over your head. The Great Plateau is relatively tame; there’s nothing there that’s all that threatening, but this changes dramatically once you obtain the Paraglider and can journey into the open world.
While Nintendo has maintained that the open-world experience allows you to go any direction you choose, the opening part of the game will give you directions that are the more “correct” directions to choose. You don’t have to follow them, but you’ll soon discover why going that way might not be such a bad idea. There are enemies in this game that, to the unequipped or generally underarmored souls, will deal upwards of six hearts’ worth of damage. Even when your heart count reaches eight or 10, there are enemies that will put you to within a sliver of survival. But hey, you can go that direction. And technically speaking, you can overcome those odds and achieve your objectives with enough persistence and fortitude. You’ll just have a more difficult time of it.
But this underscores the fact that the game is unapologetic in throwing difficult enemies at you. I’d hesitate to call this game “brutal” as it’s slightly gentler than, say, Dark Souls. But at around 30 hours into the game, I have died more times than I have in every Zelda game since Ocarina of Time combined. So yes, there are some tricky fights. And then there are some fights where you will be chowing down food every few seconds just to feel like you have a chance at avoiding a game over. But prepare to see the Game Over screen a lot.
Yes, there are some tricky fights. Prepare to see the Game Over screen a lot.
Thankfully, and perhaps refreshingly, Breath of the Wild doesn’t penalize death. In fact, in some respects, it encourages it. Dying here is at worst a minor setback. Thanks to the game’s relatively good autosave system, dying will return you to the point at which you last saved, which usually isn’t more than two or three minutes ago at worst. Of course, you can (usually) save wherever and whenever you want, though game state like enemy health and position doesn’t get saved. So go right ahead: Jump off of that tall cliff! Or see what happens when Link sets himself on fire. Or boldly charge into an enemy encampment and hope for the best. It’s no big deal if you die.
The Hyrulean tourist bureau wishes you a safe visit
As for the parts of Hyrule where you’re actually able to remain alive for more than a few minutes, well, there’s plenty to do. Small enemy encampments can be seen littered all over Hyrule in various states of permanence, and it’s always nice and fun to lay to rest a boatload of Bokoblins and steal their precious hoarded treasure. Combat is very fun and engaging, and, despite the relatively small palette of weapon and ability types, you still have a large degree of flexibility in choosing how to take on your enemies.
Outside of the runic abilities, Link’s only actual combat items consist of melee-based weaponry and bows and various arrows. The melee-based weapons aren’t just swords; there are pole arms, pikes, spears, javelins, boomerangs, axes, clubs, and both one- and two-handed swords. Each weapon handles slightly differently in terms of how long it takes to swing them and how much knockback enemies sustain with a direct hit. Bows more or less function the same, but fire arrows, ice arrows, and more augment the normal type. There are at least five types of arrows, and why you should choose one over another is all up to strategy.
You’ll receive four of the five runes in the game on the Great Plateau, and the final one is non-combative. This means you’ll have acquired most of the abilities (outside of a few advanced techniques) in the game by the time you get ready to explore Hyrule in earnest. These basic four runes can be used in incredibly creative ways. Bombs are perhaps more easy to grasp, but Magnesis can be used to drop heavy, metallic objects down onto unsuspecting enemies while Cryonis can be used defensively to block line of sight against laser-based weapons.
Outside of combat, you’ll meet many denizens of Hyrule who will offer you a variety of sidequests. These sidequests will generally provide rewards in terms of improved weaponry, rare materials, or, more rarely, rupees. Some of these sidequests will deliver you to shrines as well, allowing you a chance for their precious Spirit Orbs. Admittedly, a scant few of these sidequests are glorified fetch quests, the likes of which you might find in World of Warcraft, but most will take you far afield out on a great adventure.
The shrines and the game’s “dungeons” are the other major attraction. The shrines I’ve already mentioned, and the sheer number and variety of them are mind-boggling. They really show Nintendo’s creativity in designing bite-sized experiences. The “dungeons” are slightly bigger experiences, but I hesitate to call these dungeons because they’re extremely different from the standard sort of fare you’ll be accustomed to in prior Zelda games. However, to say much more might spoil the experience, so let me be brief. You will be confronted with many puzzles and a few enemies, and these experiences will certainly provide a host of unique experiences.
Save the princess; save the world
And of course, you could (you know, if you really wanted) follow the game’s main storyline. It’s, of course, totally optional (that is, unless you actually want to save Hyrule of course). Nintendo has no qualms about implying that Princess Zelda is deep within Hyrule Castle, beckoning her appointed knight to come and defeat the Calamity Ganon. But dashing off to Ganon once you get the Paraglider isn’t the best warrior’s strategy of course. To best defeat him, you’ll need allies, and you’ll need to find them.
The story is perhaps one of the strongest for the series, though I’d say this is one element that still has room for improvement in the long haul. That’s not to say that the story is bad, of course, just that thus far most of the major plot beats have been largely predictable, particularly if you’re familiar with the Zelda franchise. Despite this, let me give credit where credit is due: Nintendo has thrown in a decent number of rather notable surprises here and there, and underneath the surface of the plot is a surprising depth that we’ve never seen before in the franchise. Furthermore, some moments are rather touching, and the characters Link befriends really do provide the player with a sense of ownership and investment into the world. You want to save Hyrule because there are people Link knows and cares for in it. There are characters that people will be talking about for quite a long time.
But that said, Breath of the Wild’s story and lore is probably one of the most well-thought out for the whole series. The backstory on its own is more interesting than Skyward Sword’s entire story arc. There’s so much detail that’s been added to flesh out all of the various races and their lineages, and the game’s take on the familiar Zelda story elements is incredibly fresh.
The world is brought to life in all its stunning glory by the game’s visuals, which are absolutely second to none in terms of the Zelda franchise. On the Nintendo Switch, the game runs incredibly smoothly, only occasionally falling away from a super solid 30 FPS, and those moments are generally because it’s trying to render quite a few too many beautifications (though apparently there are strange exceptions to be found). But all in all the visuals do exceptionally well in immersing you into the world of Hyrule.
The sound effects also are good. While there are a few good musical tracks, especially when Link engages in combat with enemies, Guardians, and bosses, most of the music within the game is simple piano tracks or environmental ambiance. I thought this would lend towards a rather mediocre soundtrack, but it actually works amazingly well. I’m not sure if the game’s soundtrack will end up on permanent rotation on my playlist, but the music isn’t there to draw attention to itself but rather to complement and highlight the experience. As far as the sound effects go, they’re more than adequate; even each animal has its own unique call and sounds, and Link’s various pieces of equipment make unique sounds as they jostle about while Link runs.
As for the voice acting: If you’re worried that voice acting has rubbed its face all over Breath of the Wild, don’t. The primary use of VO work has been restricted to the cutscenes; otherwise, it’s business as usual with occasional moans, humming, and surprised ohs. The cutscenes are naturally the primary vehicle for driving the story, but even when they’re employed, they’re often preceded or followed by more traditional conversation that Link can react to through the use of dialog options. We’ve heard some say that some of the VO isn’t superb, but honestly we haven’t minded it. It certainly adds an air of sophistication to the presentation and really makes some of those sentimental moments really sing. It’s definitely a welcome addition for the series, and it plays at a nice balance between modernization and tradition.
If you’re worried that voice acting has rubbed its face all over Breath of the Wild, don’t. The primary use of it has been restricted to cutscenes.
Really, what other score could we give it?
We’ve scoured our minds for various faults with the game; they’re practically nowhere to be found. If there are any faults, they’re so minor and insignificant that they’re not worth quibbling over. Nintendo, in its effort to make this truly next-generation Zelda game, has finally poked its head above the sands and paid attention to what other companies are doing well. But even better, instead of just wholesale adopting these ideas, they’ve actually adapted them and made them their own. There’s elements of Assassin’s Creed’s climbing mechanics (though the result is incredibly different), Skyrim’s RPG mechanics (though not so full-on), and The Witcher’s quest and exploration system (but watered down and highly refined to remove the follow-the-line mechanic).
I’ve seen so many people in proverbial tears when they say that, finally, Zelda has come back at long last, that Breath of the Wild is what they have been wanting Zelda to be ever since the days of Twilight Princess when we were all promised that “more epic” Ocarina of Time. And I can’t help but echo those thoughts.
Zelda is truly Zelda once again. Go, with all due haste, and immerse yourself in Breath of the Wild.
|Score||Similarity to other Zeldas|
|10/10||The Legend of Zelda – ▲▲▲▲▲
Ocarina of Time – ▲▲▲▲△
The Wind Waker – ▲▲▲△△
Twilight Princess – ▲▲▲△△
Skyward Sword – ▲△△△△