I don’t even know how to go about reviewing this game. Zelda is my favourite game series, but it’s hard to deny that it’s been stuck in a rut. I think the last genuine classic is almost 15 years old; Wind Waker. The following games have been good, even great, but have not captured me as much as the games that preceded it. There were two major transformative moments in the series prior to this year; 1991’s SNES classic A Link to the Past and the seminal 1997 Ocarina of Time on the N64. Since then, the series has stayed roughly within the established formula. Now, almost 20 years later, the third transformative moment for the series has arrived with Breath of the Wild. It’s not perfect, there are definite roughs around the edges, but Breath of the Wild is a game changer both for the series and open world game design in general.
I think Breath of the Wild has the greatest open world ever made because it is truly open. Even in GTA you can’t enter all the buildings, but if everything you see in Breath of the Wild is attainable, everything is reachable, everything is tangible. There was a moment I headed towards a shrine which had popped up on my sensor. I later realised that the story would have taken me to its location eventually, outside a gate near one of the main villages. Instead, I climbed up a mountain and down again to my destination, seeing a glimpse of strange ruins I would come to later. On my way up the mountain I came to a plateau upon which I had a perfect view of Death Mountain, Hyrule laid out before it. I’m not ashamed to say I got a bit teary; this was the Zelda game I dreamed about as a child, the game I wanted Twilight Princess to be and it never could. The plateau I was on served no real purpose, it wasn’t how you were clearly intended to reach this shine, but it was there and it was gorgeous and I think Nintendo put it there on purpose. The world is massive, but still feels handcrafted. I don’t think Nintendo have even heard the word procedural generation. This is the Nintendo difference, this is why I will always love this company, for all they can be infuriating.
There has been a rigid Zelda formula since A Link to the Past. You explore a bit, you do a dungeon, you get an item, you beat a boss, you explore a bit, you do a dungeon, you get an item, you beat a boss etc. There’s usually a major focus shift a bit of the way through, like A Link to the Past’s Dark World or Ocarina of Time’s 7 year timeline jump, and then you do the same thing. It’s not a bad structure by any stretch, but the spirit of adventure of the original NES game was missing. Breath of the Wild abandons the formula almost entirely. Dungeons don’t really exist anymore and are replaced with Shrines scattered around the map. There are 120 in total and most contain some kind of puzzle. Some a very brief and some are like mini-dungeons and each give you an item which can either put towards giving yourself a Heart Container or expanding your stamina wheel. There are four larger dungeon-like areas, the nature of which I will not spoil, but they never reach the scale of the previous games’ dungeons. The puzzles themselves work very differently; you no longer have a set of equipable items you use to solve a dungeon’s puzzles. That design locks you into a particular path and you can tackle Breath of the Wild’s challenges in any order you like. Instead, you are given almost all of your tools in the first hour and sent out into the world. These powers are linked to your mythical Shiekah Slate and can do things like manipulate metal objects, pause time for a moving object, freeze ice and others. The puzzles are much more physics based and designed differently to traditional Zelda puzzles, often with multiple solutions, reminding me more of something like Portal or The Talos Principle.
Zelda games have long had a clear divide between exploration and puzzling, with the two halves of the games kept distinct through the dungeon structure. Breath of the Wild unifies the two, with a little and often approach to puzzling rather than dense and lengthy challenges. Initially I saw this an entirely positive thing; some of the puzzles are truly brilliant, but as time went on my opinion shifted somewhat. There may be 120 shrines (and the four mini-dungeons), but many of these shrines (too many) are combat focused and for a lot finding the shrine itself is the puzzle. All shrines have the same visual design and music, meaning that by the end I was feeling a bit like I’d seen it all before. A few fewer shrines and more themed and expansive dungeons may have been a better approach and I hope this is what they do with the sequel. The shift to shrines from a few massive dungeons is a good thing, but I think a slightly better balance could have been struck.
Link is the most manoeuvrable and fun to control he’s even been in 3D. Almost any surface is climbable, limited only by your upgradable stamina wheel, and any height can be used as a platform to glide from with your sailcloth. This is the most tangible open world since Metal Gear Solid V. Since I finished Zelda I’ve started playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, and whilst I’m enjoying it, it feels limited after Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is entirely laissez-faire about how you approach its world. If you want to climb over the mountain in front of you rather than following a path wending round it, feel free. Many open world games use mountains and rivers to guide and block your exploration, to provide barriers, but Zelda simply places them as another challenge. Exploration is almost always rewarded, maybe with a shrine or with a Korok seed which you use to expand your inventory. If you see an interesting looking spot and wonder if there’s something cool up there, there almost always is. I love exploring in games, but many open world games are unwilling to remove the leash. Even games I love like The Witcher 3 would be very hard to play without waypoints, with a world designed in such a way that you need a map to get around. Early in the game, you will be sent to go through a valley between two mountains and then get directions. You don’t need a glowing marker to show you where to go, you can just look at the key landmark. There are more HUD options if you want them, but I played very minimalist, navigating by directions from passers-by and environmental clues. The last game I bothered to do this with is Morrowind.
This openness extends to the combat, which is another significant departure from previous games. In previous games you would generally have one sword, two at most, with which to fight. I mean, sure you could whack things with the Biggoron Hammer in Ocarina of Time, but why would you when the Master Sword is better and quicker? Breath of the Wild has an aggressive weapon durability system, which has been controversial. I totally get why people would hate it: I thought I would and sort of did myself at first. Your weapons are ridiculously brittle, with many weapons barely surviving a single protracted encounter before they literally shatter, never to be seen again. Breath of the Wild isn’t a game about acquiring loot and becoming more powerful; the difficulty curve instead fluctuates. There will be moments where you are powerful, fully buffed from food, quiver filled with arrows, powerful weapon at your side when you can take on the world. There will be times when you are low on health, depleted and with no weapon of any value. Breath of the Wild nudges you away from playing one particular way, from simply approaching each encounter by charging in with a sword. You don’t want to waste your finite resource of the weapon for no reason. You are instead encouraged to be clever, using the environment or stealth to clear areas. There’s something of Metal Gear Solid V’s vast toolbox of tricks in Breath of the Wild’s design. Some may find this nudging oppressive; if I want to charge in and just use a sword than why should the game stop me having fun? I see their point, but I don’t think I would have experimented as much as I did if I didn’t have to by necessity. Other games would teach you these mechanics through pop up or tutorials, Breath of the Wild teaches you to play smart by necessity. The actual melee combat itself is pretty basic, and feels like a step backwards from Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, although the game is more about encouraging you to approach enemies in a variety of ways. Using the bow feels better in Breath of the Wild than it ever has before.
The biggest issue with the combat is a lack of enemy variety compared to previous games, with creatures like Re-Deads, Darknuts and Dodongos missing, with the world populated almost entirely with Bokobins, Moblins and Lizfalos.
One element I was very dubious of before release were the crafting and survival mechanics. I generally hate these in most games, but there’s a tactile charm to everything which makes even these irksome mechanics somehow delightful. Rather than collecting hearts from chopping grass, you heal from meals that you cook over a fire, which can also provide other buffs. Most games would just do this through a menu, with the outcome of your cooking clear based on your ingredients. Zelda is cheerfully chaotic, with cooking literally done by holding up to five items, dropping them in a pot and taking what comes out. Experimentation is rewarded and the buffs are considerable. There are areas which are too warm or cold for Link to survive, so these can be alleviated with particular outfits or foods. Zelda did something impossible; it actually made me enjoy crafting and survival. It’s essential that you take these mechanics seriously too because this game can be hard. It’s the hardest Zelda game since…Link’s Awakening maybe? It’s never cruel or capricious however and generous with autosaves.
Breath of the Wild doesn’t have the protracted opening for which most 3D Zelda games are guilty. Link awakens in a strange chamber and emerges into a Hyrule devastated by the arrival of Calamity Ganon. No clear timeline placement is offered, but the implication is that Breath of the Wild may be late in the timeline, as Ganon has abandoned any vestige of humanity or intelligence as Ganondorf, descending instead into as primal force of sheer evil. 100 years before, Hyrule had been overrun when Calamity Ganon turned the kingdom’s own highly advanced defensive Guardians against their masters. Link must piece together what happened 100 years ago and put an end to Calamity Ganon as it lurks in the ruins of Hyrule Castle.
Zelda has never had complex plots, but at their best they tap into a sense of epic destiny. Breath of the Wild is, in many ways, post-apocalyptic, and there’s a sense of melancholy and loss which pervades the whole thing. I had worried before release that Breath of the Wild would be a barren wasteland and would lack the loveable cast of weirdos which help make the series so special. Happily, this is not the case, with a cast as entertaining and eccentric as we’ve come to expect. Standouts include the charmingly positive Zora Prince Sidon and the intimidating Gerudo warrior Urbosa. The minor cast has some real stars too; I’m glad to see that the proud Zelda tradition of ridiculously effeminate carpenters is alive and well. Still, the actual plot is a bit underwhelming. We’re introduced to a key supporting player in each of the game’s four main dungeon locations, with their own subquests attached and I had been expecting, and hoping, that the game would return to them in the conclusion. The open structure and ability to approach the goals in any order make a story which feels more like a series of vignettes than an epic adventure. Nothing much can really change or grow. The lack of a true villain doesn’t help, with the mindless fury of Calamity Ganon never making anywhere near as much as an impact as Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker’s Ganondorf, or the titular Majora’s Mask.
The majesty of the open world would be nothing if it didn’t look incredible, but it really does. This is the best looking Zelda since Wind Waker, with an art style which falls somewhere between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. I played it on the Switch and it looks amazing both on the TV and on the little screen, with beautiful bright colours and truly stunning art direction. The characters are also brilliantly expressive and funny, with charming animations. The music is minimalistic but wonderful. This isn’t a triumphant soundtrack I’ll listen to over and over again like Wind Waker and I don’t think it’s going to inspire complex tributes like Majora’s Mask, but it’s the perfect soundtrack for the game it is. A booming orchestral score would feel out of place in this Hyrule, but there are some lovely tunes in a lot of the towns and villages. Some are entirely new and some are truly stunning re-workings of songs from previous games. There are some problems; Breath of the Wild introduces voice acting to the series for the first time and the result is…mixed. Some supporting characters, particularly in the Gorons and Gerudo sound perfectly fine, but a few too many major characters are very stilted. I hated Zelda’s voice, which was breathy and a bit pathetic sounding. There are also regular framerate drops, particularly in chaotic scenes and when docked in TV mode. It’s not awful and anyone who tells you it ruins the game is an idiot who doesn’t deserve videogames, but it would undeniably be better if the framerate was more solid.
So, in summary. Breath of the Wild isn’t perfect, because no game is. What it does do is transcend its flaws, offering something which feels truly new whilst respecting the storied past of this great series. It’s a wonderful experience and Nintendo’s best game since Super Mario Galaxy. People may knock the Switch line up for only having one big game, but if you must launch a console with only one game it might as well be one of the greatest of all time.