While it may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the wait I had to endure for Final Fantasy XV, it was still a good half a decade ago that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild was revealed to the public. Back then, it was to be the one Wii U game coming to the platform that wasn’t a port of some form. And while the Wii U version still exists, it’s overshadowed by the Nintendo Switch release. Who knows, had it released earlier, it may have moved more Wii U systems. Especially if it was in as good a shape then as it is now.
I try to limit my exposure to information on my most highly anticipated games so as not to build unrealistic expectations, but some details can be impossible to escape. The fact that Breath of the Wild would take the series into an open world format was one that caused some anxiety on my part, as the typical design for that style of game is not one that suits me. Many titles that boast massive open worlds, are usually ones that feel desolate and full of meaningless quests. Fortunately, although it’s not perfect, the latest incarnation of Zelda does it right.
Breath of the Wild opens with very little exposition and… very little anything that fans have grown accustomed to. There are no long tutorials or info dumps to wade through. Quite simply, Link has awoken from a long slumber with a foreign object known as the Sheikah Slate in hand, and… that’s about it. You learn things at the same time Link learns things, and while the amnesiac trope is overplayed, it results in such a departure from the typical Zelda storytelling formula that it feels fresh here.
This isn’t to say that there’s no story at all. On the contrary, as Link meets people and visits locales from his past, he will have a flashback to some pertinent information to his quest. And many of these scenes are optional and are likely to be found out of order, so it’s up to the player to piece the events together and form the whole of the story. Finding them all will alter the ending as well, so there’s an incentive to learning all you can about the current state of Hyrule. Not to mention the history of Hyrule during Link’s absence is quite interesting (if a bit depressing at times).
Perhaps one of the biggest changes of all, is the addition of voice acting. Link still does not talk, of course, but the many folks you meet on your journey finally do. The bulk of it is incredibly well done, to the extent that one wonders why it wasn’t attempted earlier, especially for a series that prides itself on how it innovated the style of game it represents. The character of Zelda took some getting used to, mainly on account of her sounding nothing like I’d imagined in her various incarnations over the years. But hey, at least there’s not a companion character this time around to prod Link with obvious information (can you imagine if someone like Fi was still around and had voice acting? Woof.) The soundtrack is pretty great, as it consistently is in the franchise, though the music is a far more subtle part of the experience than what is typical.
The art style seems to dance the same line as Skyward Sword did; not exaggeratingly cartoony, but not realistic either. It looks sharp, and it’s breathtaking to be able to climb up a tower and see far into the distance. The game does have some performance issues though. At certain points in the game, particular during combat, there are some frame rate drops. This seemed to happen most when the Switch is docked, which one would expect it would be happening least. On the other hand, I did not at any point experience the bugginess that normally comes with open world games, so that’s a bonus.
There is a lot of detail that went into miniscule interactions to the extent that it feels like you’re exploring a living, breathing world. It’s not just the people that go about their day-to-day routines; monsters often gather for meals and chit-chat when they’re not picking fights with you, and they got to sleep at night just like everyone else. It’s amusing to ambush enemy camps when they’re sleeping and watching them scramble for their weapons that are almost always out of reach. There’s even moments where random passerby’s will try to talk Link off of a bridge or scold him for talking to them from utop a table.
The structure of Breath of the Wild is far different compared to what Zelda fans might be used to, and not just because of the open world. The non-linearity of the design means that the game can’t really force players to tackle certain dungeons before others to obtain a unique item required to progress. A Link Between Worlds was faced with this very same dilemma and had an item rental system in place to accommodate. Instead, BoTW grants players all of the basic items they need from the beginning. Things like bombs and a hang glider are given freely very early on, and all of the shrines and dungeons are designed knowing that players will already have this equipment on hand.
The flow of progression is so unusual, in fact, that you don’t even have to complete the four main dungeons in order to beat the game, though the final confrontation will be that much harder should you choose to skip anything. The same can be said for the more than a hundred mini-dungeons, called shrines, that award you with the orbs necessary to expand your health and stamina meters. And that’s before getting into the many hidden armor sets and the Great Fairy Fountains needed to power them. Every trial is designed to prepare you for the final confrontation, so you can spend as much or as little time doing these things as you want, though I personally racked up a good seventy hours before I decided to roll the credits. And the boss battles you encounter are well designed, so skipping them would only rob you of a great experience in addition to making things harder on you.
The controls also take some adjusting on account of some buttons being moved around over prior entries and other actions getting buttons that didn’t have them before. Link can still swing weapons, utilize items, and block with his shield as before, but things like jumping and firing the bow have taken up permanent residence on the controller. The way your character handles feels different as well on account of the various weapons Link can add to his arsenal and the physics engine that seems to promote Link taking a tumble down a cliffside when getting on the wrong side of an enemy. Again, everything works well once you get used to it, its just… different.
The one exception is the motion controls, which while optional for the most part (and work rather decent for aiming the bow) are a pain to use in some of the optional shrines. Some rely on the use of the gyroscope to rotate the landscape and they require the sort of precision that is all too frustrating for the tasks the game has in mind. While we’re on the on the topic of what’s frustrating, I didn’t much care for the minor stealth sequences either. They felt out of place when they did them in The Wind Waker, and they’re just as awkward here too, even though there is a lot of equipment and food built around it.
One new addition that felt wholly unnecessary is weapon durability. Rather than having a handful of swords at your disposal throughout the bulk of your quest, you have to stockpile any weaponry you come across. This is true particularly in the early game, as the low damage clubs and sticks you find will break within a few hits. Fortunately, this becomes less problematic the further along you go, but even late game weapons only survive a few enemies before shattering to pieces. It’s certainly not a mechanic that ruins the game, but it certainly doesn’t make a case for how it makes the experience more fun. The same thing can be said for some of the weather patterns. It might be more “realistic” that Link would slip down rocks on a rainy day, but when you’re trying to get somewhere and don’t feel like waiting for the clouds to pass, it sure is obnoxiously annoying.
Link’s latest outing is certainly one of the most challenging entries to date since the NES era. It’s very easy to wander into a more advanced area early on and get killed in one hit. You also have things like sound and temperature to worry about too, as being in extreme climates can damage Link without the proper protection and being too loud can draw unwanted attention. There’s even a stamina meter to track how much Link can run or climb before resting. This is all before getting into the fact that you must cook your own food, catch your own horses (or bears), and unearth an endless amount of collectibles to bolster your strength.
Speaking of horses, why have a button to whistle for them if they can’t hear you from more than ten feet away? But I digress.
If you’re an amiibo collector like I am, there are plenty of bonuses for the persistent. Amusingly enough, the Breath of the Wild themed amiibos don’t offer items quite as exciting as some of the other ones do. Most drop materials and gear, some of which are exclusive to the various figures, but you can even unlock Epona or a summonable Wolf Link whose HP reserves are borrowed from whichever Twilight Princess save you have loaded on it. The resources gained from using the functionality certainly do make things a bit easier, but are hardly the “I Win” button that it sounds like.
I admit that I was afraid I wouldn’t like the new direction that this latest entry was taking the Zelda franchise. It is overwhelming at times, and weapon durability is perhaps the worst thing to find its way into the series, period. But all of my fears were quelled when I actually sat down to play. The puzzle design is clever, if a bit overly challenging at times. Combat feels great, and the idea of “if you can see it, you can go there” adds to the joy of exploring. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of open world games, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the title to own for the Nintendo Switch and one that stands out enough that it’s worth tracking down the system to play.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the first of what I hope will be many breakout titles for the Nintendo Switch over the coming months. It turns the Zelda franchise on its head by introducing an open world, non-linear dungeon design, and a plethora of things to find and do. Many of the base items that Link will need on his journey are given right from the get go and there is little in the way of lengthy exposition and tutorials in the beginning, which allows players to go nuts right out the gate. The game is far more challenging than previous entries due to not gating off more brutal areas, so get used to seeing the Game Over screen far more than you are used to in the past. It’s far from insurmountable, however, as BoTW offers plenty of tools to succeed. The one addition that drags the experience down is the addition of weapon durability, which in no way adds to the game’s enjoyment. That said, many of the changes are for the better, in particular the voice acting. There are few games that I would recommend buying a console for, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of those games.