In the opening hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you'll step into the boots of Link as he begins to understand the new Hyrule he finds himself waking up in. The area you start in is called the Grand Plateau, intended as the training wheels of the game, giving you a chance to get used to Link and his new abilities. You can easily burn away 3 to 4 hours exploring the region.
The Grand Plateau is only around 1 percent of Breath of the Wild's total map. Basically, the size of this paragraph in relation to this review.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that pulls heavily from the series' past, taking on aspects of the original Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and A Link Between Worlds. At the same time, Breath of the Wild is a truly open-world game and Nintendo looked to other games to understand how to do open worlds right. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma told GameInformer that he played the Far Cry series, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as research for Breath of the Wild. That research shows here, though Breath of the Wild doesn't rely too much on any one game for influences.
Veteran Zelda players are used to the strong gameplay loop of previous games: enter a dungeon, gain a new item, use that item to complete the dungeon, and then use it to gain access to the next dungeon. Breath of the Wild throws most of that out. The Grand Plateau is the staging ground where you'll gain most of the abilities that will carry you through the rest of the game.
You'll learn all of your Sheikah Slate runes before you leave the plateau: Remote Bomb, the metal-controlling Magnesis, the time-stopping Stasis, and the freezing might of Cryonis. You'll also get used to climbing and learn to soar with your paraglider. Everything that follows after the Grand Plateau uses those abilities in various combinations.
Breath of the Wild is a free form Zelda, not forcing you to do anything in any particular order. Once you're off the Grand Plateau, you're free to go anywhere you want. There are some vague waypoints that mark out where you should go to progress the game's primary story, but you can ignore that. Breath of the Wild offers new landmarks and vistas, asking you "Where do you want to go today?" The only things that hold you back are limitations in skill, equipment, life, and stamina. (Technically, you can head straight to the final boss if you're skilled enough. I would not recommend it.)
From other open-world titles, Breath of the Wild draws on what has colloquially become known as 'Ubisoft Towers'. In many games, you scale an object which then clears the fog of war, showing a map full of icons to engage with or collect. Breath of the Wild dispenses with that. You climb the towers in each region - many of which require thought and effort to scale - and once at the top, the tower reveals only the topographical map of that region.
No icons. No waypoints. No widgets to collect. Instead, you have to use the high ground and your Sheikah Slate scope to see what's around you. You can mark certain interesting spots with colored pins, or you can leave a series of various stamps on the map. You're building your knowledge of the landscape, instead of letting it be handed to you. Do those ruins over there look interesting? Drop a pin and get to walking. Even the topographical map provides clues to cool spots in game. Perhaps there's a shape in that mountain range that intrigues you? Stamp it and revisit it later.
I eventually worked out my own system of stamps, marking diamonds for towers and shrines, skulls for tough enemies and world bosses, treasure chests for stuff I wanted to collect, and stars for interesting areas that I wanted to figure out. You'll work out your own system and Breath of the Wild's map will become your map.
Some stuff is easy to see, like other towers and certain shrines, while others are hidden. It's here the Breath of the Wild recalls the original Zelda again. Some shrines are behind walls and in caves, while some require you to solve riddles to unlock them. Remember the cryptic phrases and riddles that would lead you new areas in the Legend of Zelda? Those return here as shrine quests, where an NPC will give you a hint or song and leave it to you to figure out the rest. It's an excellent way to bring back a classic idea.
What's key to the world Nintendo has built is there's always something to find. The game rarely has a peak or valley where there's nothing cool to see. Everything has a strong sense of place and flows from one region to the next. You'll wander from the burning peaks of Eldin, the frozen Hebra Mountains or Gerudo Highlands, the jungles and forests of Faron, or the autumny red and oranges of Akkala. Familiar places from Zelda lore return in new forms, like the Lost Woods, Zora's Domain, Death Mountain, or an island featuring the name Koholit.
There's never a point in Breath of the Wild where I walked somewhere and didn't find something. My adventures led me to a forest shrouded in darkness, a towering ziggurat maze, and a lake shaped like a skull. Sometimes I was rewarded with an amazing view. Others offer a swift death. Once a crested a frozen mountain to see a huge burning dragon floating lazily overhead. Going somewhere in an open-world and finding nothing is a cardinal sin, one that Nintendo is careful not to commit.
You'll get around on foot, on horseback, or via the power of fast travel. Towers and shrines double as fast travel points once found. It encourages players to venture deep into unknown territory in the hopes that you'll find a new shrine. You can teleport at any time, but you don't want to waste the time you took to get to any point.
You'll also climb a great deal. Climbing is one of the bigger things that separates Breath of the Wild from other open-world games. Link can adhere to almost any surface. You'll climb the walls of ruins, homes in the game's villages, and so many mountains and cliffs. Climbing (and paragliding to get down again) allows Breath of the Wild to be more vertical than some other open-world games, in the same way Just Cause 3 had its parachute and wingsuit.
Breath of the Wild works because Nintendo has crafted a host of systems that are interconnected. There's an underlying core of physics and chemistry to the world, and on top of that Nintendo has laid combat, cooking, crafting, and more. Where something comes into play may not be readily apparent to the player, but there is a clear plan at work.
For example, your Sheikah Slate eventually gains a Camera rune with an added selfie feature. In other games - like Wind Waker HD - that would be the extent of it, a cool camera. In Breath of the Wild, taking pictures of items adds them to your Hyrule Compendium. You can select completed entries in the Compendium and your Slate's radar will track them. This is super-useful for acquiring the various ingredients you need to craft food, elixirs, and upgrades to your armor.
Many of the systems are only there if you choose the seek them out. I went through much of the game without activating the Great Fairy, who can upgrade armor, or the Dye shop, which allows you to recolor clothing. On the other hand, I spent a ton of time cooking and making elixirs. This means I not only had to spend time experimenting with recipes, I also had to hunt down and capture a ton of animals and insects. There are other systems like collecting armor sets that I barely touched. As you learn more, it begins to build this lengthy chain of mechanics that ties everything together.
Combat in and of itself is fine. We're still using the Z-targeting system started back in Ocarina of Time, though it doesn't feel as snappy here. You always have access to melee weapons, shields, bows, and runes abilities. There are some higher-level hooks like Just Dodging and Parrying. Honestly, I feel the combat system isn't entirely up the the task of handling group combat, which happens frequently in the game.
When you include the environment and enemy AI though, interesting things can happen. If you're feeling the heat from too many enemies, light some grass on fire. This creates an updraft which you can use to soar away on your paraglider. One version of the Remote Bomb ability rolls down hills, so you can drop it on the ground and watch it lazily make its way to an enemy before detonating it. You can surf on your shield as a great opener to any combat.
Any weapon can be thrown; so you can take a wooden club, light it on fire, and throw it at an enemy to burn them. Thrown weapons can be parried back on their targets. Objects frozen in time with Stasis can be hit multiple times to build up kinetic energy; once the effect ends, the object will go flying, which is great for certain combos. Hell, an upgraded Stasis allows you to freeze enemies for a brief period of time for the same effect.
These environmental considerations matter for other things as well. In thunderstorms - Breath of the Wild has a dynamic weather system - having metal objects equipped makes you susceptible to lightning strikes. In the heat of Death Mountain, wooden weapons and shields burn in contact with the air. In fact, if you need a quick pick-me-up, you can drop food and watch it cook on the ground. You can climb anything, except when it's raining, because Link's hands slip on rainslick surfaces. That's a boon and a bane; there were a few times I wanted to climb a mountain only to have rainstorm sweep in.
Zelda fans may balk at one big change in Breath of the Wild: weapon durability. Link can pick up a host of weapons from around the world, in treasure chests, and from the enemies themselves. Some of them make sense, like swords, staves, two-handed swords and hammers, and bows, while others are more "whatever's at hand", like mops, shovels, and skeletal Bokoblin arms. But everything will shatter upon successive use. Everything, even the cooler weapons you can find in certain areas.
This means, you'll carry a certain amount of throwaway weapons in addition to your heavy hitters. I found myself saving those for the weak points in boss fights, softening them up with weaker weapons. There's a bit of a tradeoff and strategy, as the breaking hit of a weapon deals critical damage and throwing a weapon shatters it automatically for crit damage. You're always cycling your inventory to take into account damage, durability, and whatever you're fighting against.
Of course, this means that certain encounters may leave you without any weapons. Here and there I found myself deep in an area that didn't offer up any weapons; running into a tough enemy there was a death sentence. Some of the combat shrines definitely depleted my weapon stores. You'll eventually have a solid memory of where to pick up certain weapons for resupply, usually the major towns of Hyrule.
This flows into the second area that I think will be divisive in the community. Breath of the Wild hovers around the same difficulty as most Zelda titles, but there are some real wicked difficulty spikes. Two shrine puzzles require motion controls that will have folks throwing their controller, but that's optional. Occasional organic group combinations of enemies will definitely test you, especially when bigger enemies can simply one-shot you.
Some of the required boss fights will test folks who haven't played Dark Souls and 'got gud'. One boss in particular will probably be a vicious mountaintop for many players. The first time I ran into that boss, the second phase undid me in short order, requiring precise play most Zelda games never touch.
Link Is Literally Tomb Raiding
Another controversial topic will be how Breath of the Wild handles its dungeons. In traditional Zelda games, players expect 6-8 themed dungeons spread throughout the game. Breath of the Wild has four major ones, that take place inside the giant Divine Beasts that you seek to free from Ganon's control. These are pretty amazing in execution, as you have an exciting scene to approach each Shadow of the Colossus-style Beast, before heading inside.
Once inside, it's a traditional dungeon, centered around a few themed mechanics. There's even a cool twist: each Beast can be moved via the map interface and you'll have to do so to get around the dungeon. Both the approach and the ability to move the Beast's layout really sells the scope and scale: you feel like you're riding in a giant stone robot that's also a dungeon. Being able to tilt an entire level is damned cool trick, Nintendo.
The problem is two-fold. One, the Beasts share largely the same art style and the same two types of enemies: Ganon's Malice and robotic Guardians. They're mostly puzzle-centric, not a real mix of puzzle and combat. If you're looking for wildly divergent looks, Nintendo saved all that effort for the world itself, not the dungeons. Two, they're not very long: you can clear most in around 30 minutes tops.
See, what Nintendo did was take some of the puzzles that would be inside a single dungeon and spread them out amongst the Shrines. There are around 100+ out there in the world according to Nintendo's count. Each shrine is usually themed around a single mechanic, with maybe one or two puzzles. You can finish them in around 10 minutes, though there are some that are more robust. Like the dungeons, the Shrines all share the same basic look, probably so it was easier for Nintendo to build a ton of them.
Which is to say, I think you get more dungeon-style gaming in Breath of the Wild than other Zelda games, but it's spread out in an odd manner. This means you won't have dungeons that are as memorable as say Ocarina of Time's Water Temple, Twilight Princess' Snowpeak Ruins, or Majora's Mask Stone Tower Temple. I can't say whether that's better or worse, it's mostly just different. It annoyed me in the beginning after my first dungeon, but I ultimately got used to it and started enjoying it by the later shrines.
Let it be said that there are alternate dungeon-style locations to find. I found three labyrinths, a shadow forest, and a deserted island for folks that spend some time exploring the world with a bit more depth and rigor.
If you're big on the technical aspects of the visual game presentation, I think Breath of the Wild might disappoint. The game has a lot of jaggies and the frame rate can chug here and there: The foot of the Great Deku Tree is 100 percent guaranteed to make the frame rate drop. The game leans heavily on art style over image quality to make everything work. It didn't bother me much - in fact, I'm impressed with what Nintendo was able to pull off here - but if you're looking for something as visually clean as the latest PC, PS4, or Xbox One title, this isn't it.
Before I wrap up the review, I also want to spend some time talking about Breath of the Wild's overall narrative. The basic gist is 100 years ago, Link, Princess Zelda, and cadre of Champions from each race came together to fight Ganon and utterly failed. Link was put into hibernation, which stripped him of his memories.
What you get out of Breath of the Wild's story is what you put into it. The major dungeons each feature one of the Champions who were intended to pilot the Divine Beast. Their bond with Link and Zelda is illustrated in flashback over the quests leading to the dungeon itself and a final cutscene after the dungeon is complete. Beyond that, Link's relationship with Zelda is given a short shift if you don't seek out Link's memories by looking for specific spots in the world.
Your Sheikah Slate is full of pictures from Link's time with Zelda and it's up to you to find the location where the picture was taken to retrieve the memory. If you take the time to do so, you're given glimpses into a Princess Zelda that wants to be a scientist and not a holy figure. She's straining against her desires, feeling that she can do more for Hyrule by studying the Guardians and Divine Beasts rather than praying to the gods. It's an interesting take on the character that I figure most players will miss. That's a shame and I wish more could be done in that respect. (Also, the voice acting that backs up these cutscenes ranges from okay to dire.)
There's a bright and beautiful world of interesting characters to find. The side quests aren't completely up to snuff with the writing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but Aonuma took his notes well. They're mostly fun and memorable diversions in a game that's all diversions.
I could go on and on. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a big game. With over 2,500 words I wasn't able to cover the subtle, but amazing music, the extensive cooking system, or what you can do with all the bits and baubles you pick up off the corpses of enemies. There's just so much to write about and trying to do it all in one place is hard.
I was worried about The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. The previous console Zelda, Skyward Sword, did not resonate with me. I picked up the Special Edition of the game, ready to dive in, but I found a game that mostly bored me. I eventually left the game and never looked back.
I was afraid that Breath of the Wild would be the same. Nintendo has done open-world style games before, but this was the first one of this scale. I wondered if Nintendo could pull off that scale, while still retaining what makes Zelda tick. They did.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an amazing game. As someone who loves open-world games, this is one of the best out there. As someone who enjoys the Zelda series, I honestly think I can say the same thing again. Nintendo has brought together a number of different ideas and mechanics, but integrated them into something that stands on its own. It's the kind of game where I don't want Nintendo to do something completely different for the next Zelda. I want more of this.
The Nitty Gritty
- Lasting appeal: There's a huge world to explore. You may not want to revisit the game once you're done, but that's going to take quite a while.
- Sound: The music is soft and subtle, mostly light piano. When it needs to kick things up a notch, the music can get rather epic. Great soundtrack.
- Visuals: The art direction is on point, even if the technical aspects are lackluster.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild draws from many sources of inspiration, including older Zelda games and titles like Skyrim and The Witcher 3, to create something wholly unique. Nintendo has crafted a wide, beautiful world to explore, underpinned with some interesting emergent mechanics. Breath of the Wild stands as one of the best in the series and a great opener for Nintendo's newest console.
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