The original Legend of Zelda on the NES is one of those hallmarks of gaming. A stunning feat of gameplay engineering at the time. About twelve years later, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time which remains to this day the highest-rated game of all time. In 2017 as the Zelda franchise hits its 30th anniversary in America and Europe, Nintendo have tried to do it all over again with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the new Nintendo Switch (and also on the Wii U). With this game, Nintendo have sought to go back to the roots of that original Zelda: A great open world that you can explore at your desire; no hand-holding involved whatsoever. Classic traditions that have been part of the franchise for the past thirty years have been studied and dropped or changed or kept depending on how fitting they are for modern day gaming. With a spate of 10/10s almost across the board from critics, just how good is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Is it the greatest Zelda game ever made? Does it even manage to attain the lofty title of one of the greatest games of all time?
The narrative of Breath of the Wild is a simple one. After a failed battle against the evil force of Calamity Ganon, Link wakes up 100 years later to find Hyrule destroyed, beset by monsters, and taken over by nature. He has no memory of the events of the past, but with the help of an old man he begins to see that he must do whatever it takes to take on Calamity Ganon and seal him away once and for all.
Almost every Zelda game ultimately follows this narrative goal; they’ve always amounted to Link must defeat Ganon. But Breath of the Wild feels unique and really quite refreshing in its presentation of the story. After the incredibly cinematic and involved approach taken by Skyward Sword (which I certainly appreciated), Breath of the Wild keeps its story-related beats to small moments: finding the almighty Divine Beasts, meeting key people or creatures in the world, finding Link’s lost memories, and so on. It’s very possible to spend hours playing the game and not see a single story-driven cutscene, it’s also possible to just focus on the narrative and see quite a few over the course of your play-time, or you can go straight for Ganon and beat the game quite handily in under two hours. You as the player have the freedom to choose how you experience this story. While it could and should be argued that the story of 100 years ago and the battle where Link must lose his fight with Ganon and Zelda must set off to keep him at bay for as long as possible is much more engaging than the story of the present, it feels like that story would take away from what Breath of the Wild is really about: the world itself. The game’s focus is on its world and the small narratives the player can create themselves with how they interact with it. Ask anyone who has played the game to tell you something they remember from it, they will almost certainly be able to tell you any number of anecdotes of this one time they took on a set of Bokoblins or how they managed to solve a shrine in a unique way or finding a brand-new location completely out of the blue. The game’s main narrative and its backstory are great, with interesting characters and a fascinating arc for Zelda herself; but the best Breath of the Wild gets is in the stories you end up creating while playing.
Exploration and gameplay is where Breath of the Wild shines. (Image Source)
Ultimately, play is at the heart of Breath of the Wild. Once you leave the Great Plateau, the whole world is open to you and it’s a pretty magical moment. You can go anywhere you can see and outside of entering shrines or going into certain cutscenes there are no loading screens at all. After years of very segmented Zelda games the fact that the world is so big is just incredibly impressive. There’s also so much content in it that you’re never likely to get bored. Whether you’re taking on the main quests which link to the story, or dealing with side-quests, or taking on shrines, or just exploring the world in general, there’s always something to do. Armed with special runes like Magnesis, Stasis, Cryonis, and Bombs, and eventually a paraglider, you are free to mess around with physics as much as you like and some of the things you can achieve are truly impressive. You can cook food to heal yourself or improve certain qualities (extra damage, extra defence, fire-resistance, heat-resistance, cold-resistance, electricity-resistance, etc.) by using the many food items and monster parts you pick up or you can upgrade your armour at a Great Fairy Fountain (once you’ve found one). Controls are also fluid and responsive, though combat feels weaker than previous entries due to a greater focus on finding alternative solutions to dealing with enemies.
This is largely because the game features a whole cavalcade of weaponry which will only last a certain amount of time and will eventually break. In some ways, this is great because it forces you to really think about whether to use your weapons or not and also makes you experiment with all the different weapons. In other respects, the weapons shatter so easily that you really don’t have the time to find ones you like and the chances of you finding another like it are rare unless you know exactly where to go. Thankfully, there were only a few instances where I felt limited by the weapon options available to me, but it could certainly pose greater frustrations for some people.
Link engages two Bokoblins in combat. (Image Source)
Enemies are also much more intelligent than they have been in the past. They will actively block attacks, try to set you on fire, knock you off perches, kick bombs back at you and all sorts. At times they take more of a beating than seems reasonable, and some are completely unbeatable until you get better weapons or armour. It’s very much in line with older Zeldas with Red Bokoblins being very easy and Black Bokoblins between more difficult, but sometimes it can feel a little unfair. And with the general lack of enemy types (Bokoblin, Moblins, Lizalfos, Keese, and Octoroks, with different variants plus a few special types), they risk feeling samey. Thankfully, their wonderful animation and brilliant AI rescue enemy encounters from being dull, though it does often feel like the game dissuades you from combat. But, either way, you have the choice of whether to engage or not so your mileage will definitely vary.
Link tries to solve a puzzle in one of the game’s many Shrines using the Stasis Rune. (Image Source)
If you want to find your classic Zelda puzzles, these can be found in the game’s Shrines and Divine Beasts. Gone are the huge labyrinthine dungeons, now we have small puzzles in the shrines which make excellent use of the runes and gigantic puzzle rooms in the Divine Beasts. Some will inevitably miss the more standard dungeon structure, but the humongous Divine Beasts feel like really organic (ironic considering they’re man-made) structures to explore and understand. And the Shrines vary from fiendishly difficult, to fun and simple; some require you to finish a challenge to find them (like the excellent Eventide Island) while others are out in the open. There’s 120 of them hidden throughout the world and it’s recommended you complete as many as possible as they are your key to getting more hearts and stamina. There is a blemish in the Shrines whenever the motion control puzzles appear (as they’re a pain to control), and they do all look the same, but on the whole, the Shrines are consistently engaging and definitely a highlight.
Along with 120 Shrines there are also 900 Koroks (little wood spirits from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker) hidden around the world to find, plus 385 entries in the Hyrule Compendium to photograph, and lots of side-quests to complete too (apparently around 76) and more besides. As previously stated, Breath of the Wild is gigantic and if you want to complete it you are going to be playing for a very long time. The great thing though, is that the game doesn’t require you to do any of it. It’s obviously highly recommended that you do in order to make your life a lot easier, but you have options and that means you can decide how difficult you want to make your challenge.
On the whole, Breath of the Wild is quite difficult since most enemies can hit pretty hard and you’re likely to see the Game Over screen more often than ever before in a Zelda game; but its puzzles have changed from being obtuse to cleverly cryptic meaning that while elements of the game seem easier, they are much more satisfying to figure out on your own. There are elements of the gameplay which can fly nervously close to tedium (not being able to climb anything in the rain (though this obviously makes sense from a physics perspective)), and some of the open world can be quite empty; but in the grand scheme of things, you get out of Breath of the Wild what you put in. It’s a game that you can truly play at your own pace. You can make things harder or more difficult for yourself, you can do everything or do nothing or do just as much as you want. Clearly there are some flaws present, but its easily one of the most addictive games I’ve played in a long time with a world that constantly provides new surprises no matter how long you play.
One of many stunning vistas in the game. (Image Source)
Neither the Wii U or the Nintendo Switch are fantastically powerful consoles in comparison to the PS4 or the Xbox One, but my word does Breath of the Wild look gorgeous. Nintendo once again proving that art style is king in making stunning games. Visually, Breath of the Wild sits in a mid-point between Skyward Sword’s watercolours, Twilight Princess’s realistic world, and Wind Waker’s cell-shading to create a style that is at once unmistakably Zelda but also something new and engaging. The character designs in particular are excellent and really have never looked better. Throw in some of the most intensely detailed animation work Nintendo have ever done and you end up with a really gorgeous game. Everywhere you look there’s always something exciting going on in the game’s world, from the many waving blades of grass to the way enemies run to pick up their weapons once they see you and taunt, or from the plethora of particles that shatter whenever you complete a shrine to the way fire reacts to cloth and grass. The game does struggle in places with its framerate, sometimes becoming almost like a slide-show (though this only happened to me about three times in the Death Mountain region); but for the most part, it’s a silky-smooth experience even considering how much animation is going on at any given time. There is also a small issue with draw-distance at times with certain things not loading until you’re too close to do anything about them, but most of the time it is actually very impressive. You can stand from atop a mountain or a tower and look out over the landscape and see other shrines or towers in the distance, and often they are much farther away than you’d actually expect. The fact that the game can be played seamlessly in handheld form on the Switch is breath-taking to behold (especially when you consider that the game might actually play better in handheld mode than when it is docked and connected to the TV).
The soundtrack of Breath of the Wild is minimalistic. Most of the time you’re going to be running around the world hearing nothing but your footsteps and the clink of your weapons and shield, but when the music does rear its head during battle, towns, or important moments, it really is absolutely stunning. Classic Zelda themes are woven into new pieces seamlessly with frequent use of a gorgeous piano, and it’s just utterly beautiful. Breath of the Wild’s world is one beset by horrors, and the melancholic piano that appears so often perfectly matches that tone of tragedy. When the full orchestra does come out to play (as in the game’s main theme), it’s outstanding. There unfortunately aren’t any truly memorable tunes outside of the classic Zelda themes which is a shame, but as part of the overall game the music is really quite magical.
There has been a point of contention in the Zelda franchise for years: Voice Acting. The games have always been really text heavy, and as they have gotten more and more cinematic, the lack of voice acting had begun to hamper the experience somewhat; something quite keenly felt in Skyward Sword and Hyrule Warriors. Breath of the Wild changes all that by finally introducing voice acting. Its execution is unfortunately not stellar, particularly in relation to Zelda and characters like Mipha’s seemingly forced British accents; though this may be more down to direction than actual acting abilities as some characters fare a lot better than others, like Revali, Daruk, and Urbosa. It’s a shame really that the voice-work wasn’t better, but since the cutscenes where it is involved form such a small part of the game, it isn’t the worst of crimes the game could commit. In general, it’s passable and for Nintendo’s first real foray into voice acting in Zelda, it could have gone a lot worse.
The latest Legend of Zelda is a breath of fresh air. (Image Source)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a difficult game to fully quantify. It’s so big and so open and there’s so many little details that you could just keep talking and talking and talking about it. A few questionable design decisions were made which don’t necessarily work out entirely brilliant, but the general scope and feeling of Breath of the Wild is where it shines and in my mind; the positives more than make up for the smaller weaker elements. This is open world gameplay done right; this is everything that made the original Legend of Zelda interesting but done better; this is easily one of the best Zelda games ever made. It may ditch so many different Zelda traditions and some fans may dislike that, but in freeing the game from forced tradition and letting it loose from a creative perspective it has blossomed into a must-own title for both the Nintendo Switch and the Wii U. It’s a fond farewell to an unfortunate console and a grand outstanding welcome to the exciting new kid on the block. If Breath of the Wild is any indication of Nintendo’s output over the next couple of years, then the world of gaming is in for a very exciting time indeed.
Rating: 10/10 – Outstanding
Critical: 5/5 Personal: 5/5