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• The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild

developed & published by Nintendo
1 player / multiple saves per account / Nintendo Wii U & Switch / 2017.3.3

Above: manual artwork from the original Legend of Zelda (1986) | Below: screenshot from Breath of the Wild (2017)

Obviously, I haven’t updated this site in quite some time but I played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (the Wii U version, though the Switch version is identical from what I understand), and I just had to share my thoughts on it. Breath of the Wild is one of the most celebrated Nintendo games in years, so you might think there’s no need for me to review it.  But I couldn’t help but notice that many of my criticisms and suggestions in previous reviews had been addressed by this game, so it seems Nintendo might actually pay attention to what its fans are saying. Breath of the Wild is a huge game and there’s a ton to dissect, so let’s jump right in.

Zelda returns to its Roots

The Zelda games are typically linear, becoming more complex and challenging from start to finish. With A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo began moving away from this formula, and Breath of the Wild goes almost completely non-linear. I’d been thinking it would be great if Nintendo did a reboot of the original Zelda, which drops you into Hyrule and never tells you where to go or what to do next, and that’s close to what Breath of the Wild is like.

Instead of gaining new abilities through items collected over the course of his adventure, Link now acquires the essentials in the game’s first area, which serves as a muffled tutorial. Most of the usual Zelda dungeon stuff is split into more than a hundred “Shrines”, housing their own unique puzzle-oriented challenges. If added up, it’s more or less the same amount of puzzle content that Zelda fans have come to expect, it’s just delivered in smaller chunks to punctuate longer stretches of exploration.

Of course, from a design standpoint, the major drawback of complete player freedom is that the player must then be able to solve any dungeon (or puzzle) in whatever order they are encountered. Despite this heavy burden, the designers have largely succeeded. You can go almost anywhere from the start, and the challenges it throws at you never get boring.

Shrines & “Dungeons”

Some Shrines clevery require you to solve an environmental puzzle to unlock them, like something out of The Hobbit, but most can be spotted from afar – giving you an immediate incentive to head in that direction. The physics-based puzzles are simple but always engaging, and most shrines contain an optional treasure that you have to work a little bit harder to get. There are conventional “dungeons” too, but they feel quite a bit smaller than usual. They do, however, sport a very cool feature unlike anything in previous Zelda games that I won’t spoil here.

The main “dungeons” also have a short trial you must complete before you can gain entrance. This idea has merit, but unfortunately doesn’t scale in difficulty the way enemies do. After tackling the hardest one first, the rest seemed utterly trivial. It would have been better if, say, the dungeon defenses became stronger based on the number of dungeons already completed.

The dungeon bosses incorporate different environmental elements, but they don’t feel quite as unique as those of other Zelda games (which typically have to be killed using a specific weapon or item). This is somewhat offset by the new mini-bosses scattered around the world which are a treat to fight.

Weapon Durability

Probably the single most controversial aspect of the game, weapon durability (or lack thereof) affects every battle. Your beloved weapons, bows, and shields break permanently – and often. Depending on the strength of your foe you can easily go through several weapons before a fight is over. As in Wind Waker, defeated enemies drop their weapons so they’re never in short supply. You can find weapons laying around and steal them, or simply run away if you have to.

This mostly impacts the early game, when scavenging weapons is necessary. Later on, you’ll always have a veritable arsenal of powerful weapons you’re saving for just the right opponent. It’s not as bad as some critics have made it out to be, though higher-end weapons could maybe be a bit more durable. The trade-off is you’ll play with lots of new weapon types, and you’ll be thinking of scavenging and prioritizing, because Link still can’t throw a punch.

Stamina is King

In my Skyward Sword review I praised its new stamina system, but then it was nowhere near as central to the gameplay as it is now. It determines how long Link can run, climb, glide, and swim (among other things), but – crucially – has no impact on melee combat beyond mid-air archery. It’s not on your mind like it is in, say, Dark Souls.

That said your stamina (or what’s left of it) is a constant consideration as you explore the world, and is just as important as Link’s hearts. Likewise it’s just as empowering when your stamina grows, as you’ll climb to ever greater heights. It works so well it feels like stamina has been there since the beginning, and I suspect it’s here to stay.

Dodge, Parry, Shoot, & Sneak

Combat feels simple at first, until you realize the power of dodging and parrying. By leaping away or deflecting an attack at just the right moment, you’ll gain the advantage. Later, once you know an enemy’s patterns, you’ll feel unstoppable – quite a change from when you first start the game and a Bokoblin can oneshot you.

Here, however, the system doesn’t come with on-screen button prompts telling you when to dodge or parry. Parrying is much easier to do than it is in Dark Souls, where I barely ever used it because the timing was too strict and the punishment for failing more severe.

Another nice new feature is the ability to aim in slow-motion when you pull out your bow in mid-air. This can work when gliding towards an enemy, or when jumping from horseback, and with enough stamina you can get a bead on a headshot. You can still auto-aim and shoot, but headshots require manual aiming, and are particularly important for fighting certain enemies. Arrows are quite important in this game, and the elemental variety are more useful than they’ve ever been.

Finally, the game incorporates stealth. You can crouch and move slowly, or wear special clothes, to decrease the amount of noise you make. This makes it possible to sneak up on sleeping enemies and deliver a killing blow, and is sometimes essential when hunting animals or catching small creatures. It’s a nice addition to the overall package, but difficult to use as enemies have sharp senses.

At this early stage, that blue Bokoblin can kill Link with one hit

Physics

After working with a simplistic and regimented physics system for years, Nintendo finally embraces realistic physics! I was worried this might somehow negatively affect the experience, but it does quite the opposite.

Everything is governed by physics, from enemies that ragdoll and go flying after a good hit, to objects scattered around, to puzzles. Fire spreads the way you expect it to, and the Magnesis ability lets you grab metallic objects telepathically and levitate them; no need to grab and push blocks the slow, tedious, old-fashioned way! It controls very naturally, you can be sloppy or very precise when you need to be.

Time & Weather

In my Skyward Sword review, I complained that it did not feature the random time & weather effects we’d come to enjoy in earlier Zeldas. Well, I’m happy to report that it’s back and better than ever, and easily the best random weather system I’ve seen in a game. Beyond adding tremendously to the realism and atmosphere, it goes beyond the cosmetic, solving how inclement weather should affect gameplay in ways that are simple and intuitive. A thunderstorm really brings the world to life as you explore, along with some inconveniences! Some creatures appear only at night, and townspeople have daily routines (though shops stay open 24/7 for your convenience). Oh, and the sunsets are beautiful!

Horses are Back

In my Twilight Princess review, I complained that the horse Epona felt robotic compared to Agro from Shadow of the Colossus. Well, Nintendo apparently took that as a challenge and put one programmer on this problem for four years. And it shows. The horses animate and control naturally, come when you whistle, and will follow the road independently, just like a real animal, but there’s more.

Add on top of that: taming, bonding, cosmetic customization (mane & armor), feeding carrots (for bonus stamina), rare one-of-a-kind horses, enemies on horseback, and horse mini-games! It’s all so incredibly comprehensive, I can’t ask for more or even begin to imagine how it could be improved. The only real problem is that many players might overlook how great the horses are because you can easily fast-travel to any Shrine you’ve discovered!

(Ed’s note: speaking of complaints from my Twilight Princess review, Nintendo also addressed the rupee and HUD issues I brought up)

Breath of the Wild’s horses are an achievement in and of themselves

Temperature & Clothing

Link visibly suffers a slow death in extreme temperatures. As usual you can protect yourself by wearing the appropriate clothes, but now you have other options in the form of food and elixirs with remediating effects.

A surprising number of outfits go beyond that, giving you boosted stats in specific categories. You’ll switch headgear, shirt, and pants to suit the situation and environment often. There’s also a ton of Amiibo and DLC-related outfits that are fun to mess around with, but aren’t essential to fully enjoy the game (so don’t fret too much about those ridiculously expensive ones).

Cooking & Crafting

Breath of the Wild fleshes out the crafting system with mostly good results, tapping into our hunter-gatherer instincts in a big way. It’s easy to do and self-explanatory, but there’s room for improvement. You’ll spend a lot of time going through menus to choose ingredients instead of simply selecting the desired result from a recipe list.

And crafting suffers the same problem, as Great Fairies annoyingly upgrade only one piece of equipment one level at a time, even when you have the necessary materials to upgrade more. And perhaps there’s too much crossover between meals and elixirs, where the two might have had exclusive functions.

Too Big For Its Own Good?

Aside from the minor problems outlined above, there are some shortcomings that should be noted beyond frame-rate issues. These are likely due to the unprecedented size and scope of the game stretching the development staff to its limits (also evidenced by production delays).

What with the ridiculous size of the world, there is a feeling of not enough butter on the toast, leaving us to imagine what could have been. Specifically, more creature variety would have distracted from the “copy-paste problem” typical of open world games.

Above: a few things I wanted to find, but never did

The landscape is peppered with wildlife like moose, and you’ll even find random NPCs being attacked that you can save (or ignore), yet most of Hyrule’s fantasy creatures are disappointingly missing. I kept hoping to see Tektites, or Magtails, but never did. Forget Poes (there is only one cemetery in the game, and it isn’t a traditional Zelda one… how did they neglect that?). How about a return of the multi-headed Gleeoks as a mini-boss to complement the Lynels and Hinox? What about Wall Masters and ReDeads inside of the game’s basic labyrinths? Sadly, no such luck – not even with the DLC. I’m greedy for saying it, but their inclusion would perfect this game for me.

Then there’s the shrines, which feel disconnected from the rest of the game. Not only are they separated by a loading screen, but they all share the same sci-fi appearance inside and out. They feel a bit like prototypes or debug areas that haven’t been fully integrated with the rest of the setting. That isn’t a major problem for me, as they always made for a nice change of pace from exploring the otherwise very natural world, but your mileage may vary.

Art, Music, & Story

After ditching the stylistic art direction of Wind Waker, the Zelda series has struggled between an anime aesthetic and realism, and this game finally nails the landing. You’re never going to please everyone, but the characters and enemies don’t look odd (Twilight Princess), or too cute (Skyward Sword), and they inhabit a world that still has some of that painterly artistic quality. Screenshots don’t do the game justice – sure you can find ugly stills, but you have to see it moving! It’s moments like wading through a field of grass dancing in the wind, shimmering in the moonlight.

The music largely takes a backseat in this game, with a simple, almost improvisational-like piano score hinting at mood only now and then. With the amount of time you spend simply exploring, it’s for the best that forceful themes aren’t set on repeat for hours on end. What’s there does a great job at setting the tone though, especially during battles with unique music for the various mini-bosses. Music is saved for special areas; when I entered The Lost Woods and that eery theme began to play, I got shivers.

Key aspects of the setting have been built on the Sheikah, adding to one of lesser developed aspects of Zelda lore, tying longstanding enemies like Armos and Beamos together. In general the story is good, if a bit anti-climactic. There’s voice-acting of middling quality, but it gets the job done, and about an hour of in-game animated sequences to uncover as you play. So it’s probably the most story-centric Zelda game to date, and the most cinematic, but it still feels a bit immature. I feel like there’s a lot of room to improve in this department, but Nintendo is going to need to move away from expired Zelda tropes to do so (as they have done with games like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask, some of the best scenarios take place outside of Hyrule).

A minor gripe that I have is all of the different races in the game seem to get along. A Rito character is slightly arrogant towards non-flying races (as one might expect), but isn’t something missing? I’d like to see some rivalry or outright strife between the races, in the same way that Tolkien had the dwarves and elves at odds in his fantasy world. If handled properly, it could add a bit more depth to Hyrule too.

Closing Thoughts

This one took me by surprise. The Zelda series has always reliably delivered, so I fully expected Breath of the Wild to be good, but I did not expect this. The series regularly breaks with convention, be it with the art style of Wind Waker, or touch-screen controls in Phantom Hourglass. But switching to a non-linear structure is without a doubt the biggest change since Zelda went 3D with Ocarina of Time.

The near complete freedom offered the player and the seamless world have an overwhelming effect that simply cannot be overstated. I wanted to live in this world, and effectively did just that for several weeks. I haven’t felt this absorbed by a game in many, many years, nor have I spent this many hours playing any other single game (approx. 180 hours). Of course, that’s searching very thoroughly and completing almost everything, but none of that is mandatory.

You can discover the game’s mysteries and conquer its foes at your own pace in almost whatever order you choose. If you don’t want to do something there are dozens of other interesting things waiting, and I kept finding new things, like Shrines and other stuff, even after 150 hours of play. And it does all that while ticking most of the checklist of what is quintessentially “Zelda”. Do I prefer this style over the linear Zelda games? No, I think that style has its own place, but this is a healthy breath of fresh air.

It’s true the framerate suffers at points, and there’s some copy-paste syndrome, but speaking of technical problems I only encountered two very minor glitches* that didn’t affect gameplay – far worse problems plague similar open-world games even months after release. Despite its minor flaws, Breath of the Wild is Nintendo firing on all cylinders. My mind explodes with ideas of what might be built in the next Zelda (or Metroid, for that matter) on the foundation that has been laid with this game. Bravo, Nintendo!

Pros:

+ Non-linear structure gives players unbridled freedom

+ One of the largest open-world games to date, go anywhere seamlessly with tons to see & do

+ New & improved game systems (physics, stamina, climbing, weather, battling, arrows, crafting, etc)

+ The most comprehensive horse companion system ever

+ Solid art direction for characters, enemies, and the world

+ The most cinematic Zelda game ever

Cons:

– Iconic traditional Zelda creatures (no Tektites?! etc) are extinct

– Weapon durability might annoy you

– Cooking / Crafting lacks time-saving shortcuts

– Frame-rate suffers in both Wii U and Switch (seems identical from what I can tell)

– Labyrinths are poor substitutes for traditional Zelda dungeons (but better than nothing)

Addendum: DLC pack 1

This is the first mainline Zelda game to feature downloadable content, and at $20 it seems fair considering all the content packed in already. There are some bonus outfits to be found as part of a scavenger hunt, and extra trials pitting you against a series of increasingly difficult scenarios that’s pretty fun. And there’s a feature that shows your path through the game (up to 200 hours), something I’m sure many of us thought would be neat to see while we were playing the game. Sure enough, it is neat, as you can watch a “replay”! By the same token it shows you what parts of the map you didn’t visit.

The biggest addition of the DLC so far is its Master Mode, which increases the difficulty of the game with stronger monsters. I haven’t dived into it, but it seems like that’s a good way to enjoy the game a second time, whenever I get around to doing that.

*One time a dragon disappeared instantly for no reason. One townsperson sleeping at night would, when spoken to, jump up out of bed into a standing animation before quickly going back to sleep. Those were the only glitches I experienced in the entire time I played the game.

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