Breath of the Wild is a well-needed return to form for the franchise.
As a lifelong fan of Hyrule, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild worried me before its release. I was terrified it would turn into a regrettable direction for the series, and lose the charm that makes it so lovable. As a modern gamer, I was worn out on open-worlds, and was burned by the emptiness of recent endeavors. Breath of the Wild was approached with an excruciatingly timid optimism, as I expected the world to feel vapid, bland, tiresome, and disappointing. I was hoping it would be a perfect experience, but felt that it wouldn’t be.
I’ve never been so glad to be proven wrong.
Rain began to patter down in spurts, telling me that I should stop my noble trek for now. Logically, it’s not easy to clamber up a mountain in a downpour. I rested beneath a small ledge in the cliff, and gazed down below. In the distance, I could see more mountains, towers, and plateaus. As the rain subsided, my climb continued. Atop the rocky monolith, I found some rare flowers to use in an elixir, alongside an item to upgrade my inventory. From the corner of my eye, I saw it: another shrine. My mind raced, as I jumped from the peak and flew toward my new goal.
Breath of the Wild re-examines the typical Zelda formula in a variety of ways, the first of which is the introduction of a giant, seamless, living world. Each region of Hyrule essentially acts as its own dungeon, asking Link to survive its harsh climate and uncover its mysteries. Thanks to an ever-changing weather system, players must decide how best to deal with volcanoes, deserts, snowy mountains, and thunderstorms. As such, the puzzle-laden dungeons of old take a backseat in this adventure, as do many of the unique, fan-favorite items.
Link’s new goal is to survive in and explore the wild world around him. This quest is all the more wonderful thanks to a phenomenal “Studio Ghibli lookalike” visual style. Nintendo has proven once again that art direction is more impressive than graphical prowess.
This new, stylish iteration of our hero wakes up alone and memory-less, accompanied only by an iPad-esque Sheikah Slate and the disembodied voice of Princess Zelda. Having fallen in battle a century ago, he must now journey into Hyrule to recover his memory, gain new strength, and face off with Calamity Ganon.
While the typical boxes are checked off in regards to a Zelda plot, the game subverts and toys with character roles in ways the franchise never has before. Link’s connections with specific characters may come as a surprise for followers of the franchise, while other intriguing backstories beg to be discovered. Other Easter eggs await for fans in the form of location names: places like Tal Tal Peak and Ruto Lake may ring a bell for quite a few astute explorers.
Zelda fanatics won’t be the only ones drawn to this exploration; discovery and wonder are the very heart of Breath of the Wild. Link can now climb most anything his heart desires and sail into the distance with a handy paraglider. This is a welcome feature, as a plethora of secrets await in this vast and beautiful Hyrule. Whereas many open-world titles feel as though their puzzles and collectibles have been “copied and pasted” from elsewhere in the world, every new goodie in Zelda feels hand-crafted and meticulously placed.
From the second you walk out of the introductory chamber, the world pulls you in. You’ll climb trees, hills, and ruins for your own enjoyment, but surprisingly, will find actual rewards atop each one. Bows, swords, and seeds await–each one helps in the quest to stop evil. These discoveries persist relentlessly, giving small, helpful tools in a much larger world.
…Every new goodie in Zelda feels hand-crafted and meticulously placed.
These hidden details and secrets cover every inch of the land, but exploration is mainly guided using the placement of ancient towers and shrines. Bright orange watchtowers constantly gaze at you from afar; climbing and activating one will fill in a topographical map for that particular region.
From here, the world is your oyster, and it’s your responsibility to mark and explore the area as appropriate. Many times, this involves looking through a scope and keeping an eye open for a neat landmark, or the faint orange glow of a shrine.
These shrines act as fast travel points throughout the world, but also provide most of the puzzle-solving elements in the game. Each one is just a small iteration on one puzzle idea, serving as a palate cleanser from the overworld trek. Most require the use of special runes on Link’s Sheikah Slate, involving the manipulation of metal, ice, or even kinetic energy. The shrines create a consistent and pleasant flow with the world around them.
I was on the hunt. Using some simple clues provided by a villager, I was scurrying across the countryside, looking for an elusive item. I made my way up a small hill to a tree–no luck. Disheartened and downtrodden, I turned from whence I came, only to stop dead in my tracks. In front of me, near a lake, was something unexpected, wondrous, and jaw-dropping. The item hunt was suddenly abandoned. I had to know the story behind this new “something.” I crept forward, enthralled by yet another marvel.
Zelda prioritizes that small feeling you get when you do something entirely on your own, or discover something new. It never holds you or proclaims that there is one true path to your destination, which makes every climb, fight, and action a new puzzle to solve. It begins with a single idea, one thought of “Huh, I bet I could climb up there,” and cascades into a multitude of discoveries and wonders.
You see, Breath of the Wild excels by rewarding players in just the right way. Every small interaction garners a small reward, and in time, these give way to larger and larger interactions. The world itself serves as a sort of “level-up” system for the player. They are driven forward by what they can or can’t currently do; other times, they are encouraged to subvert the mechanics in realistic ways. It’s a vitalizing approach to game design, as players are told “maybe” or “not yet,” but never “no.”
More often than not, further exploration of some distant glint leads to an awesome moment, powerful item, or cheeky scene. Nintendo does a fascinatingly terrific job at intertwining scripted events with player-made ones. Every moment feels less like creating your own adventure, and more like living one.
If you’re easily overwhelmed by open-worlds, though, never fear: Breath of the Wild feels as if you’re playing it in bite-sized chunks. It creates small, digestible areas and hides the expansive landscape, yet still suggests new things to do. You could climb a nearby tower, if you haven’t already. You could mosey over the adjacent hill and check out its secrets. If you’re ready, you could take on Death Mountain in the distance. These small slices are reminiscent of the simple square screens that built Link to the Past many years ago, but on a grander scale.
I had died multiple times already. Running in and swinging like crazy didn’t work, but neither did a meticulous barrage of arrows. I hid behind a rock as the Bokoblin sentry looked towards my hiding spot and lazily turned away. The sun began to set, and the monstrous inhabitants of the camp began to lay down for the night. Suddenly, I had my opening, and I was going straight for the lumbering leader that dozed by the fire.
In order to face Calamity Ganon, you’ll need to kill more than your fair share of monsters. Combat in Breath of the Wild is a treat, and often asks for a decent level of strategy. Dodging, swinging, throwing, and aiming are all quick and responsive. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by a horde of impish Bokoblins, and difficult to overpower them all. Yet Zelda provides you with ample controls and an impressive array of weaponry with which to beat the odds.
Weapons degrade, which is actually a blessing more than a curse. Most times, you’ll walk into a fight with a shoddy wooden club, only to have it break after being thrown at an enemy. Thus, you acquire the Bokoblin’s shiny sword, which will later be traded for a rusty claymore and so forth.
While this means players can’t become overly attached to any one battle-axe, it also means that switching and trying new weapons is fun, easy, and encouraged. The system heavily promotes the clever use of runes and physics, too. This is a blast, as you can use an updraft from flaming grass to lift yourself out of a mob of Lizalfos, only to drop a bomb where you once stood.
When strategic swordsmanship and clever rune usage fail you, there’s one option left: cooking. Preparing a proper meal is the difference between life and death in most cases, whether it’s in combat or in the environment. Special dishes can be whipped together that temporarily boost health, stamina, defense, heat resistance, and more. It’s a fast, deep system, as players gradually learn which ingredients result in certain foods.
Many complaints exist across the internet regarding Breath of the Wild. “The weapon degradation is annoying; the enemy difficulty is poorly built; the cooking menu is clunky; and the stamina bar is frustrating,” they cry. While some of these details ring true, many are simply opinions.
Though problems occasionally mar specific moments, they do not diminish the experience as a whole. Maybe the frame rate stutters, or the camera acts up mid-fight: things happen, you frown, you move on. Within mere minutes, you forget it ever happened. Breath of the Wild is fantastic, and is so much more than the small mishaps that infrequently occur.
It’s been years since a title has clamored for my attention, respect, and time in such an enthralling way.
I leave you with this: perfect games don’t exist. Every creation will have a downside, a flaw, or a misstep. Not every game will be everyone’s cup of tea. Complaints will always persist, and artists can always do better.
However, a game is truly special when its positives overwhelmingly exceed its negatives, leaving an everlasting good impression. A game is special when a player walks away from it, only to have their mind possessed with the thought of playing it again. A game is special when it revolutionizes a genre, or even the entire industry.
Ocarina of Time did that. Super Mario 64 did that. Neither were perfect games, but were the pinnacle of their time and completely changed the gaming atmosphere.
Similarly, Breath of the Wild accomplishes great feats. Its hiccups are but a blip in the overarching experience, and never truly take away from the journey. My fingers yearn for the nearest controller even as I write this missive. My mind begs to be plunged into Hyrule every waking second, a side-effect that reminds me of games from my childhood. It’s addicting to find new things, nab new weapons, and see new places. The world is crafted in such a natural, realistic way, the likes of which I’ve never seen.
The “open-air adventure” I’ve encountered has forever redefined the open-world genre for me–I can’t go back. In fact, it’s hard for me to look at any game the same. It’s been years since a title has clamored for my attention, respect, and time in such an enthralling way. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is not a perfect game, because those don’t, can’t, and won’t exist. Instead, it’s a brilliant experience, an awe-inspiring world, a breathtaking journey, and a perfect memory.