The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review
What do you do with a legacy like that of The Legend of Zelda? The answer Nintendo has with Breath of the Wild, the series' latest, is simple: ignore much of it.
A list of the Zelda tropes that haven't made it into Breath of the Wild would be a long one. Traditional dungeons and the associated slew of specifically useful items are gone, for instance. There's no more cutting grass for cash or health. Rather than a story-driven quest order the game casts you out into the world with little direction. Weapons now have durability - you're constantly hunting for new gear as old stuff breaks.
It's a weird mix of the familiar and unfamiliar to Zelda and is, generally speaking, brilliant. Breath of the Wild isn't an industry-shaking, genre-defining behemoth full of new ideas like Ocarina of Time, but it does bring to mind A Link to the Past: an utterly superb refinement of ideas we've seen before. These ideas come from myriad places. At the heart is the original Legend of Zelda. The way Breath of the Wild pushes you out into the world with nothing on your back is reminiscent of that game, as is the philosophy of tackling any dungeon in any order you want so long as you have the gear and the smarts.
The modern open world structure has clearly played its part too: climbing towers to fill in the map is straight out of Ubisoft's playbook. The way you scale mountains, gather loot and equip proper upgradeable RPG-style armor with unique buffs reminds of the western RPG explosion best exhibited in Skyrim. It's the most RPG Zelda ever, by the way. The need to forage, cook and craft to survive feels well aware of the now-popular survival game genre.
These elements are held together by the remaining framework from modern Zelda. Combat is still a Z-Targeting driven affair and many mechanics such as bombs, a glider, motion-assisted bow aiming and so on return. Nintendo has mashed together a weird set of things: but oh, it works.
The game begins with Link trapped in one area, guided by an old man obviously meant to recall the original game. You're guided to your first tower and then tasked with heading to several shrines. Each of these shrines gives you a rune and trains you in their use via a few puzzles equivalent to a room or two of an old Zelda dungeon.
Runes replace traditional items. There's two types of bomb, plus three new powers. Magnesis is a giant magnet that lets you pick up metal objects, Stasis lets you freeze objects or enemies in place while retaining kinetic energy (so freezing a heavy rock and hitting it a bunch will send it flying once stasis releases) and Cryonis creates pillars of ice out of liquid - a platform creation tool.
These are your main tools for the game, with all of the game's puzzles making use of these alongside other one-shot mechanics depending on where you are. They're used well; while this makes for only four 'gimmick' items, there're many other favorites such as boomerangs, deku leaves and elemental magic rods that make their return as regular weapons. The only other game-changing mechanics are four special powers later on - one for each of the game's main dungeons.
Once you leave the starting area, Hyrule is open to you. If you want a horse, go catch one and register it, then give it a saddle, bridle and train to make it obedient. Climb mountains. Cook. Activate towers. Find hidden extras, enemy encampments and rare loot. The choice is yours.
The glowing entrances to shrines are the most obvious draw, each containing another mini-dungeon. Though they're short, there are over 100 of them in the game. For some shrines, the challenge is in reaching them rather than the puzzle inside. Much like in Skyward Sword, some dungeon-like tasks are actually well outside dungeons.
Each shrine completed nets you a Spirit Orb, and four of these can be traded for either a new heart container or a boost to your stamina bar. That's another Zelda trope gone - no more pieces of heart.
Shrines are supplemented by the four 'Divine Beasts'. Each of these is more like a typical Zelda dungeon but in other ways, isn't as well. They're larger, more complete challenges, but also aren't a maze of locked doors that need keys. Wide open spaces in them ask for more lateral thinking instead.
The gimmick is that each beast can move once you have the map. You can command the robotic bird beast to move its wings which in turn changes the orientation of the rooms within. The elephant beast spouts water from its trunk, and by moving its trunk you can direct water throughout the level to adjust it. This is paired with asking you to use the previously mentioned runes and your other gear in smart ways to make for a very Zelda-feeling challenge in a decidedly different format. Even reaching the Divine Beasts is fairly significant since each has a series of prerequisite tasks before you get to tackle them.
I've seen some worry about a lack of dungeons, but the combination of shrines and divine beasts works out excellently. Shrines being dotted across the world means you're encouraged to explore more, which in turn brings you to discover ruined villages, NPCs, sidequests or just new scenery. Each shrine containing unique puzzles means they're a lot more exciting than just another cave with barbarians as in many open-world adventure games. Broadly speaking the amount of content feels the same, if not more - it's just spread out rather than concentrated into large dungeons.
You'll want to hit shrines to boost your health bar since the game is rather punishing - even weak enemies can wipe ten hearts off you in an instant. Further, some optional content (such as the Master Sword) requires you improve Link's vitality. The incentive is there - while you can run straight to the final boss, the game gives you plenty of reasons not to.
The manner in which a carrot is dangled to take you from system to system is where it feels most genius. Take cooking: this is a prepatory task to facilitate healing and buffs for combat and exploration, but the way Breath of the Wild encourages you to manually pick out ingredients from your inventory and dump them in a pot is exciting. You're experimenting rather than picking from a list of meals, and the feeling of happening on a new recipe that does exactly what you need is thrilling.
Cooking prepares you for combat and when you enter it, you're spoilt for choice. You might decide to use stealth and there are stealth specific recipes, potions and even armor to help you out. You might go in guns blazing. You might snipe from afar, or you might use the environment, rolling giant rocks into enemies from on high or dropping a metal box on them with magnesis.
There's choice in weapons too - Link can wield axes, spears, polearms, greatswords, boomerangs, magic wands and so on. Weapon durability was a big worry of mine going into the game, but all I can say is that it was never a problem for me: a great part of the game's challenge became deciding when to break out the rare big guns over the abundant weaker weapons. Nobody wants to use their rare ice sword on basic goblins, so you save it. That in turn encourages you to approach combat thoughtfully rather than running in with high-end gear to batter everything. There, again, is the incentive to experiment.
If you collect Korok seeds you can trade them for inventory upgrades, making the dilemma easier. Incentive again - this time to explore and tackle environmental puzzles. Almost every combat encounter has this level of choice; if combat begins to bore, it's easy enough to turn and run in another direction to find something different to do.
In this regard, the world itself is one of the biggest stars of the show. There's always something to do around the corner and the world is always driving you to do different things. When I first try to enter the Gerudo Desert, I nearly die from the heat so I have to go hunting for ingredients to make some anti-heat potions or food. Weather has a measured impact, such as rain serving to further camouflage footsteps for stealth or thunder threatening to turn you into a lightning rod if you're high up or clad in metal armor. Rather than have one god-set of armor, Hyrule itself forces you to switch gear often.
Many systems interact in crazy, impressive and unexpected ways. Attach a bomb to an Octorok sack (basically a balloon), then send it floating towards enemies with the waft of a deku leaf or on the natural wind. When it's near them, detonate. This isn't some taught mechanic - it's just a thing you can do by using your head.
You're encouraged to challenge yourself: I want to go there. How? Maybe you fell a tree to build a makeshift bridge or raft from its trunk, or form a platform by lifting a slab of metal. Maybe you climb high to glide there, but then get distracted by something else along the way. The simple pleasure of tagging objects in the distance with your binocular function then heading to that waypoint is so alluring I remain surprised by it - I usually hate that sort of thing.
I suppose it bears mentioning that this is a Zelda with a proper RPG quest log - and one so full that it's split into sections - 15 main quests, 42 shrine-specific quests, 76 side quests and one final page I'd rather not mention here for fear of spoilers. My point is this: it doesn't look it at first, but it's an incredibly dense open world with a very Nintendo sense of attention to detail.
All these systems connect - cooking, combat, exploring, questing. Shrines, beasts and the massive, seamless open world work with well realized weather systems and strong world design to provide an exciting and ever-changing place in which to make use of those mechanics and systems. It's so smart and so tightly-wound that it makes my head spin.
If you need a different reason to play, maybe Zelda's first attempt at a truly cinematic story will do it for you. It's a strange mix of voice and text with only the most important scenes voiced, but those that are matter. A vast amount of the game's story is told in flashback - each offering a little more context to the world. This is actually a surprisingly smart choice: searching for flashbacks is yet another reason to explore the open world, and cutscenes don't often interrupt the free-wheeling explorative gameplay without that being your express intention.
I don't really want to touch on the story in any real way here, but I will say that I really enjoyed its take on the Zelda lore and I feel that Nintendo did a solid job of creating some memorable characters with very little story time. The game's antagonist is perhaps a little too mysterious, especially if you don't know the series. The voicework is pretty standard stuff - generally speaking a Saturday-morning-cartoon feel, for better or worse - I was fine with it. Shakespeare it ain't, but nor does it need to be. I'm very excited to see the Zelda lore experts pick this one apart.
Breath of the Wild's soundtrack slowly won me over. For a while I was critical of it not being 'Zelda enough', but as the game wore on it earned its Zelda stripes in its cinematic moments while keeping an impressively restrained attitude out in the open world that enhances the exploration. It makes great use of the series themes as well - the soundtrack of Casino Royale comes to mind, where the Bond theme is never quite used until the credits but persistently hinted at. This is done here with a lot of classic Zelda melodies. I will admit I was sad to see this Link not get his own instrument, however.
Performance on Switch, where we tested, was solid. When the framerate struggles, it tends to tank hard for the briefest of moments and then shoot back up - the sort of blip that was rare and not too bothering. Obviously the Switch is no match for the other major platforms, but as is pretty typical for Nintendo - a strong, well-defined art style carries it far. Hyrule looks good.
Framerate hitches are always a shame, but there are other minor issues. I wasn't a fan of the bosses, and the game's surprising difficulty really dips once you're at the sort of point where you can draw the Master Sword. At that point the final boss is trivial - but the flip side of that is that a core pillar of Breath of the Wild is that if you want to make it harder on yourself you can - nobody says you have to gather that many hearts, grab the master sword or even conquer every Divine Beast - if you go that far is entirely up to you.
In the grand scheme of such a sprawling game, these issues mean next to nothing to me; they're the sort of minor complaint I also had about elements of Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past, yet they're still incredible. More important is the core of the game. Moment-to-moment, Breath of the Wild is something else.
This is the most special game Nintendo has made in years - especially for the core game playing audience. It's certainly the most important, interesting and exciting Zelda since OoT and LttP. It is a new all-time classic.
So here we are. How do you deal with a legacy like The Legend of Zelda? Turn it inside out. Borrow from others. Make something mad. And new. And old. And brilliant. I don't know how they did it either - but they did, and it works.