The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is full to bursting with reverence and respect for the franchise. It is a celebration of the 30 years of mythic lore and is packed to the brim with references to past installments. It is also the franchise’s first foray into open-world design with a lot of various conventions integral to the games radically changed or altered; a somewhat controversial and worrisome direction for many Zelda diehards. Furthermore, it is a launch title for the experimental Nintendo Switch console and is the machine’s killer app.
Yet with all of these unbelievable expectations, there are so many parts of Breath of the Wild that go above and beyond merely amazing craftsmanship. Even when some parts of the experience don’t entirely work or fall short, this is the kind of adventure that seldom comes around and utterly grabs the imagination with absolute confidence and quality.
Breath of the Wild opens with the hero Link waking up in a mysterious shrine. He ventures outside into a vast open plain, and meets an old man that tells him what has happened. The embodiment of evil and hatred, Ganon, has risen once again to terrorize the kingdom of Hyrule. However, instead of being a human warlock or pig monster like in past adventures, he has become a living force of nature known as Calamity Ganon.
A new title that is quite appropriate because he has all but won. Hyrule Castle is overrun, various cities and towns have been blasted to pieces, the world is full of monsters, and Ganon himself has corrupted large walking tanks and war weapons originally used by Hyrule’s military known as the Guardians and Divine Beasts to do his bidding.
Once this is explained, you are given the job of stopping Calamity Ganon and the game’s world becomes yours to explore. You can choose to follow the main story path of traveling to the various regions of the world to pull the four Divine Beasts from Ganon’s control to assist you in the final battle. Or you can dash straight to Calamity Ganon right off the bat and get reduced to a pile of ash. Or anything in between. It’s all up to you.
In many ways Breath of the Wild is a modern remake of the original Legend of Zelda with this non-linear structure. There’s a big bad that needs to be defeated, you start off with nothing but a simple sword, and the entire game world is chock full of items and abilities all meant to help you. With no clear indication of where to go next, the trouble comes from what order you choose to attempt these various challenges. Not only is this a fantastic return to letting the player organically discover things for themselves, the minute I figured out how to surf down mountains using my shield as a surfboard I squealed like a little kid, it is an absolutely perfect fit for a sandbox.
However, there are a myriad of changes to the franchise’s formula that keep things different. The biggest change is instead of there being large intricate dungeons full of puzzles, traps, and monsters to defeat complete with a special item you need in order to travel to certain areas, most of your travel tools are available from the beginning. Within the first hour you get a collection of powers tied to a mystical artifact called a Sheikah Slate. These powers include: the ability to create bombs that can be blown up remotely with a single button press; magnetic control where you can manipulate certain metal objects for puzzle solving or improvised weapons; a stasis power in order to temporarily freeze objects; and a cryo power that you can use to create ice blocks out of water sources. These are your traversal tools for the entire game, and as long as you know what you’re doing, you can go just about anywhere.
This is coupled with the return of the stamina bar from the last Zelda adventure, Skyward Sword. In addition to acting as a sprint button for Link, it is also used to determine how far you can swim or climb up surfaces before collapsing. It’s such a simple yet amazing detail since it can lead to intense situations coming from something as simple as climbing up a rock face and worrying if you have enough strength to reach the next foothold.
This is especially helpful since they are the key to tackling shrines. These small distinct caverns are littered throughout the world of Breath of the Wild and serve as challenge rooms. Completing the puzzle or combat challenge within earns you Spirit Orbs, which you can use to increase your maximum health or increase your stamina bar. There are over a hundred scattered throughout the world, and each one of them is perfectly designed to test a wide variety of skills.
But by far the biggest selling point Breath of the Wild has been marketing itself with has been its open-world design, which is utterly sublime. The absolute key to how Nintendo nailed this came from a personal experience I had. The game has several towers you can climb, and when you reach the top a part of your map becomes readable. This has been the standard since Ubisoft popularized it with Assassin’s Creed and the mechanic has been featured in some form or another in every sandbox since. But once I climbed my first tower in this game, the map wasn’t covered in “areas of interest” icons or visual clutter. Other than showing basic geographical information of the local area, it was blank.
I was disappointed at first, then I noticed the mountain range I was on seemed to have a spring nestled somewhere. So I marked the spring using a robust system of symbols you can decorate the map with and started traveling. Along the way I encountered several enemy camps, two or three basic puzzles that got me some supplies I needed, rescued two villagers from an ambush, bumped into a dragon that was just flying around, and when I finally made my way to the spring, there was a shrine waiting for me. Not only did I get rewarded for finding something myself, I had a bunch of interesting experiences along the way.
The point of a game being open-ended with no guiding hand forcing you down a determined path is the ability to explore; to get lost and discover things for yourself. But while most sandboxes on the market love to dot their maps with locations and collectibles to make sure every single player knows where everything is, indirectly turning all of the non-linear gameplay potential into banal busywork, Breath of the Wild fills its world with interesting items, quests and locations, then tells you to go get your hands dirty and chart the map yourself.
And it’s a map you will want to explore thanks to just how beautiful it all looks. Nintendo has never been a studio that aims for photorealism or showing off fancy visual effects and that philosophy still stands in the art direction for this game. Breath of the Wild’s color palette is bright and vibrant, making everything from a curious looking alcove to a daunting plateau stick out and beg to be examined. Character models hold a solid verisimilitude to human proportions with just enough stylized exaggeration for emotional expression. The geography of the world is a diverse mix of canyons, deserts, snowy mountains, lazy beaches, lakes, forests and jungles, all in distinct locations that just beg to be explored. There is also a neurotically meticulous amount of weather effects and minor touches that make the world feel alive. The large suite of unique animations given to the game’s wildlife and enemies. The way grass and trees sway realistically in the wind. The seamless way a lovely day transitions into a thunderstorm. All while being completely seamless with no loading screens or unusual graphical glitches or crashes of any sort.
As impressive as these accomplishments are it doesn’t completely gloss over some technical hiccups. While the overworld has no loading screens messing up immersion, entering or exiting a shrine or dungeon does lead to some annoying loading that can go north of thirty seconds long. Also, while the Switch is docked or in portable mode, the game runs at the reliable workhorse framerate of 30 FPS, but certain areas of the world can cause this to dip likely due to processor strain. But the system appears to lock the drop to 20 FPS to prevent headaches from the choppiness, so while the framerate isn’t ideal it does not become a detriment to gameplay.
Another contentious issue Breath of the Wild has is found in its combat and healing system. Weapons are hard to come by in the world of Hyrule, but thankfully Link is capable of picking up just about any item around to defend himself which range from tree branches to giant clubs made of bone to rusted weapons, bows, and discarded shields.
This is conceptually an interesting break from just having the hero use a sword and shield, allowing for a diverse selection of combat styles using spears, hammers, long-range assassination with a savvy use of various special arrows, and even creative use of the Sheikah Slate abilities.
But players are split over this otherwise organic combat system over two words: weapon degradation. Eventually every weapon you find in Breath of the Wild will break after a few attacks. Your bows will fall apart after firing too many arrows. Even your shields will break. There is no way to repair these items once they break. If the item is unique or tied to a major quest, you can have it reforged or buy it at a specialty shop. But the cost is usually astronomical, making the weapon feel less like a reward and more like a liability.
As far as my opinion on the matter goes, I find the system cumbersome but not a major problem. Early on it is annoying to have multiple wooden clubs break while you’re fighting off a small horde of enemies, taking careful shots with a bow made out of sticks, twine, and positive thinking. In fact, there were more times than I could count where I had to run away from an enemy because I ran out of weapons and couldn’t knock him off a cliff with a bomb or something. But this mechanic I think helps encourage the player to take their time when it comes to facing any number of enemies. Instead of just charging in, it forces you to think at all times whether or not the risk is worth it. Something as simple as a low level bokoblin can easily mess you up in one or two good hits if you’re not careful. This makes the progression in the mid and late game all the more savory when you find more intimidating and powerful weapons by the handful such as spears that shoot lightning or a laser axe, and then use them against such terrifying foes that used to throw you around like a rag doll.
This encouragement of planning and deliberate action is also reflected in the game’s cooking system. Instead of finding hearts or stocking up on healing potions like before, Breath of the Wild ties its healing to meals you make out of the supplies you find in the world. The game encourages you to experiment with various ingredients, making dishes from meat, vegetables, and herbs you’ve found in the world to special elixirs made from the body parts of monsters you have defeated. You can eat the ingredients individually if you’re in a pinch but it’s always preferable to prepare a meal with them instead. Certain items can even grant special temporary buffs to the food like immunity to extreme cold or increased movement speed. I cannot even begin to recall how much time I have spent in this game just hunched over a cooking pot trying out different recipes and combinations, curious as to how I can make the next leg of my journey a bit easier.
While both of these are creative and entertaining, it can feel like busywork. This is a problem for a game that does a fantastic job of encouraging you to get around. Pausing the game for a few precious seconds after a sword breaks in the middle of a heated battle or spending north of three minutes in front of a fire to prepare healing items are legitimate annoyances, even if they become less pronounced later.
Finally, there is the matter of Breath of the Wild’s storytelling and voice performances. This is the first major Zelda title to have voice-acting in it, and the results are a mixed bag. Thankfully cutscenes that use voice-acting are sparse, saved for crucial turning points in the plot and in an optional side mission where you attempt to regain Link’s lost memories of his past. On the one hand it is impressive and exciting to hear characters speak with mythic weight about the world’s lore and legends, something Zelda fans have had to imagine for three decades. On the other, some of the line delivery undercuts what should otherwise be an emotionally powerful scene.
While some of the supporting characters like the hot-blooded Daruk or the aloof Revali have some charm, the most underwhelming performance sabotaging character potential has to go to Princess Zelda herself. I love this version of the character. I love everything from her design to her personality to her chemistry with Link. Equal parts sweet and comforting and headstrong and intelligent. The plot even deals with her being utterly overwhelmed by her responsibility of protecting the kingdom and even throws in some allegories to drone warfare with her attempts to control the Guardians and Divine Beasts. But then she opens her mouth and all I hear is someone doing a mediocre British accent trying desperately to sound like royalty. Voice actress Patricia Summersett doesn’t completely drop the ball and her experience in video game voice-acting has mostly been minor supporting roles, but the affectation she gives to Princess Zelda is very hit or miss.
I could easily spend at least two thousand more words pouring over how much Breath of the Wild has packed into it; how effortlessly it maintains an atmosphere of wonder and adventure. The solid stealth system. The way the game keeps the world interesting and engaging even if you aren’t fighting or solving puzzles. The joy of taming and training a horse. The quiet and haunting yet beautiful musical score. The peppering of small but interesting collectibles and side missions that keep the world from feeling empty and lifeless. The shear personality found in even the most minor of characters you come across. The fact that this game ate up sixty hours of my life and I was still discovering new quests, enemies and locations.
I could also write extensively about other unusual elements of design like there being no way to save certain meal recipes you’ve discovered for quick replication, or how annoying it is to climb anything during a rainstorm. Or that there is no New Game Plus so I can lose sixty more hours.
But all of that would just be pedantic and minor compared to all of the impeccable polish Nintendo has brought to this experience. Minor flaws in what is otherwise a diamond cut to a fine point by a master craftsman.
Breath of the Wild is a bold and powerful testament to Nintendo’s work. A grand adventure that takes a lot of risks and haves them pay off. An utterly engrossing swan song for the Wii U and a promise for the future of the Nintendo Switch. A once in a lifetime experience that soars above any minor issues it has to take its place as a modern classic.