Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review: 100 Years In The Making
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild somehow continues the tradition of Nintendo defying the odds and delivering a game that not only updates the core formula of a major first party franchise but sets the standard for all of its peers.
Taking Zelda back to the drawing board with a vast, interesting open world, less hand holding, increased difficulty and breakable weapons was absolutely the right decision. Breath of the Wild proves for the millionth time that you should never, ever count Nintendo out.
Every Zelda fan has their breaking point. A decade ago some fans gave up after The Wind Waker, saying the game had too few and too easy dungeons and not a “serious” tone. Others did not like how similar Twilight Princess was in terms of overall design to Ocarina of Time and missed the colorful world of Wind Waker.
My first major Zelda disappointment was Skyward Sword. The unique motion controls were clever but felt five years too late. Skyloft was interesting but having only four real environments and average-to-okay dungeons was a real let-down.
So when Nintendo changed things around with A Link Between Worlds on 3DS in 2013, I was excited but cautious. Could they really revamp Zelda in the same way they did in 1998? I can say now that I was a fool to doubt them.
Breath of the Wild’s title gives away its most interesting character: The Wilds of Hyrule. Link starts out in a short tutorial area before descending upon a vast Hyrule that is under siege by Calamity Ganon. Asleep for 100 years, Link originally lost his battle with Ganon and has to figure out a way to defeat the beast at the center of Hyrule.
The story, while good when it is present, is kept to a minimum so that players can sink their teeth into the main hook of this Zelda entry, exploring an always surprising world.
There is always something new around every corner, over every mountain top, at the bottom of every valley. A camp of enemies could be guarding a chest with incredibly powerful and rare weapons or an tall peak could be housing one of the game’s 100+ shrines. Every inch of Hyrule is worth exploring, even when a surprise boss fight leaps out at you when all of your best weapons have broken.
That leads me to Breath of the Wild’s other new mechanic, breakable weapons. At first this can be challenging to grasp. You grow fond of a particular weapon, a single handed sword and shield combo or perhaps a two-handed axe/staff, but then it breaks after being used on a handful of enemies.
Just let go of any initial frustration and improvise. You were planning to engage an enemy camp with a particular weapon but it broke before you got there? Improvise! There is a great variety to weapons, enough so that it is a joy to find all weapon/shield/bow/armor combinations.
Another major change in the game is difficulty. Breath of the Wild isn’t Dark Souls hard, no, but it is far more difficult than recent Zeldas. At the beginning of the game, combat will present a real challenge as Link has little health and must craft food and recipes to regain health. This mixes the best elements of The Phantom Pain and Monster Hunter with Zelda’s core theme of exploration.
Depending on the weather in an area, Link will take damage. If it’s too hot, he will sweat. If it’s too cold, he will shiver. Changing your armor will alleviate these conditions. You can climb any mountain so long as Link has enough stamina, which he can increase or replenish with meals. Of course, if it’s raining Link will slip off surfaces he’s climbing and if it’s too hot his wooden items will catch fire and burn up.
Players will find more than 100 shrines throughout their journey, each containing a unique set of combat challenges or puzzles. The reward for completing these shrines is an orb, which gaining four of these orbs can increase your health or stamina.
Balancing out which you choose to increase is important though I would advise you to focus on increasing your health at first.
Story-wise, Breath of the Wild is simple. Ganon has taken over Hyrule Castle for 100 years and Link must awaken ancient powers (no more spoilers!) to prepare himself for the big final fight, which players can actually do whenever they want. The game’s four main dungeons are clever and house one-of-a-kind characters. Each dungeon corresponds to a new town, inhabited by some of the most interesting side characters in Zelda history. You will interact with several members of these communities as you make your way to the area’s dungeon, fleshing out the backstory behind Link’s 100 year slumber.
While very good, the game’s four dungeons do leave a little bit to be desired. They each have a inventive gimmick due to what they are, like a mechanical lizard moving around a volcano or an elephant constantly spouting water from its trunk, and solving the environmental puzzles related to these mechanics is a real joy. You don’t find a new item and then use it on everything in that dungeon alone like past games but instead use all of Link’s tools to figure things out. Link has a wide range of abilities and tools at his disposal in addition to traditional weapons, with the ability to slow down time, freeze water or create bombs.
The boss fights in these dungeons are also challenging and quite thrilling. While they do a great job of defying the traditional Zelda formula for an overall improved product, I felt the dungeons could been a bit longer and that the dungeon bosses could have been more unique. As is, they aren’t as special or creative as bosses in games like Wind Waker and Twilight Princess.
Visually, Breath of the Wild may not be a technical marvel but it is absolutely stunning in motion. The colorful quasi-cel shaded art direction looks straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki film with possibly my favorite art direction of any Zelda since 2003’s voyage with Toon Link. When the lighting hits a field of tall grass just as the sun is rising you will not care at all about whether this is running at 720p, 900p, etc. These superb visuals are sure to be timeless in design and help you feel like you’re on a grand adventure that could be seen in cinemas with the Studio Ghibili name slapped on it. A wonderful, never intrusive musical score sets up every moment, big or small, and plays an important role in creating the game’s stellar sense of adventure.
This child-like sense of discovery is what Breath of the Wild does better than any other game I have ever played. There is nothing better than when that little piano medley starts as a daunting and difficult to kill Guardian wakes up as you try to sneak by unnoticed. Of course, you then discover there are several other Guardians patrolling your location and either engage in one of the game’s many intense open-world showdowns.
Players can tackle any situation in a plethora of ways. Would you like to sneak by unseen and not engage the enemy? Do it. Want to take them out from afar by rolling an explosive barrel down to the center of camp before lighting it on fire with an arrow? Go ahead. Want to take each baddie out from behind, hiding in bushes when spotted a la Metal Gear? Be my guest. Want to use the game’s excellent parry/dodge mechanics to land critical hits on enemies and try out whatever your newest sword/staff/axe is? Hyrule is yours for the taking, no matter how you decide to acquire it.
In addition to shrine orbs and gear, players can collect some of Link’s memories by recreating photos taken 100 years prior. Recreating all of these photos will give players an extra cut scene in the end and flesh out the narrative a little bit more. These can be done in any order and I strongly suggest you do them all.
The only other weaknesses I could say Breath of the Wild has other than somewhat uninspired dungeon boss designs (but the boss fights themselves are amazing) is the story and the final boss. BEWARE OF SPOILERS!
Minimalism is key in Breath of the Wild’s story, like I said earlier in this review. The story never gets in the way but other than “defeat Ganon” there isn’t much to it. There are nice moments with side characters, even a few sad ones, but its about how you get there, not what happens when you get there.
Depending on whether players complete all four dungeons, the final boss can be a bit underwhelming. There are certain conditions that the player must meet and if they do, the final boss will SPOILERS BEWARE OF THE UPCOMING SPOILERS only consist of two stages vs the three or more we’ve seen in past Zelda end-game bosses. While the big fight at the end is certainly exciting and epic, it did feel like it lacked one last touch to make it a fitting conclusion for the adventure you were just on. Again, due to the game’s structure, or lack thereof, this will change depending on when players decide to confront the game’s final boss, which can be done at any time.
Voice acting was always going to be a hot topic with Zelda fans. Link is not voiced in the game, other than grunts, but the voice acting does leave a bit to be desired. Princess Zelda is for the most part good, save for a few poorly written lines. Some of the side characters that are related to the Divine Beasts quest have well-done dialogue and voices while others can be cringe-worthy at times. It doesn’t detract from the overall experience at all and I’m happy Nintendo at least tried to see how voice acting in a Zelda game would fare.
Breath of the Wild is an achievement in game design. Rarely do we see a game world so fully realized, so alive and filled with so much content that it is a joy to just explore and forget your goals. The best character in the game is the Wild itself, with the variety of ways Link can overcome the obstacles the wild presents being just as fun to explore as the world itself. It is hard to quantify what makes this game so good other than saying that it feels like an adventure like no other in recent memory. Getting from point A to B has never been more fun or inventive.
Despite a few minor complaints, Breath of the Wild is damn-near perfect. You can never count Nintendo out. The diverse open world, weapon/armor durability, weather and cooking systems truly reinvent the series. This is a once-in-a-lifetime game.