It has taken me quite a few months, but I’m finally ready to offer up my full thoughts on the latest entry in The Legend of Zelda series: Breath of the Wild. I first wrote about it as part of my initial thoughts on the Nintendo Switch. I was able to secure a unit at launch and naturally Zelda was the title I paired with it. Since its release, Breath of the Wild has been almost universally praised as not just one of the best titles in the series but as one of the greatest video games ever made. Currently it ranks fourth all time on game rankings.com, right in between Grand Theft Auto IV and Super Mario Galaxy 2 with an aggregate score of 97.28%. On metaritic.com, the game is in a massive tie for 6th all-time with a score of 97. The highest score of all time just happens to be 99, held by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
The Zelda series is accustomed to tremendous accolades upon release. In some ways it’s Nintendo’s most pure franchise. While Mario will dabble in virtually every genre imaginable, the Zelda franchise is content to largely remain the same with some tweaks here and there. I’ve argued the franchise was starting become stale because of its reliance on its classic formula. The last main entry on a home console, Skyward Sword, was the tipping point for me as I found the game to be an un-fun chore that drew out the worst in the franchise. Perhaps Nintendo felt some of that as well as Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda title on a home console since maybe Zelda II to really try and break the mold.
As some have pointed out, part of what makes Breath of the Wild feel so fresh for the franchise in 2017 is an approach to the gameplay that’s reminiscent of the very first title in the series. In The Legend of Zelda, the player is dropped into the world with very little direction on what to do. There’s a cave immediately in front of the player’s character inhabited by the famous old man who bestows upon the player the sword they’ll most likely need to get their quest underway. After that, it’s basically figure it out, kid. Breath of the Wild begins with Link awakening in a cave. He’s an amnesiac with no knowledge of why he’s there. He’s immediately given the Skeikah Slate, a device that bares an uncanny resembled to the Wii U’s Gamepad that will play a pivotal role in the journey to come. Aside from that, Link merely possesses some ragged clothes and a voice in his head. That voice belongs to the princess Zelda, and she’ll urge Link to leave the cave and stop Calamity Ganon, who has overrun Hyrule Castle and imprisoned the princess 100 years ago.
As is the case with most Zelda titles, plot isn’t always important. When Link emerges from that cave the game’s primary objective is clear, but overcoming it is not. An old man emerges to act as a bit of a guide in the game’s earliest portion. He’ll introduce Link to the towers that dot the landscape. Climbing them allows Link to download a map of the surrounding area to his Sheikah Slate (similar to the map function of Assassin’s Creed) and survey the land for shrines. The first part of the game takes place on a giant plateau that Link cannot leave. There are four shrines on this plateau Link must visit before departing. Each shrine contains a new function for his slate, and these new powers are what Link will rely on to complete his quest.
The shrines are not quite the dungeon replacement some though they would be. The shrines are mostly small areas that are puzzle driven and each one typically utilizes one of the powers of the Sheikah Slate. Those powers are: remote bombs, cryonis, stasis, and magnesis. The remote bombs are straight-forward and reminiscent of the bombs in virtually all Zelda games. There are two shapes for the bombs: rectangular and spherical. These bombs can be placed one each at a time and then detonated remotely. There’s a cool-down meter after each detonation to prevent spamming of the bombs and they’re about as useful as bombs usually are. The cryonis ability is mostly limited to being useful in the game’s early going. The ability allows Link to create up to three ice pillars on the surface of the water. Early in the game when Link’s stamina is low, this ability comes in handy to traverse large bodies of water he wouldn’t have the stamina to swim across. It also can be used to lift floating objects, such as a wooden treasure chest, out of the water by creating a pillar beneath the item. Stasis allows Link to freeze an object in time. When the object is frozen, Link can smash it repeatedly which stores potential energy in the object that will be unleashed all at once as kinetic energy once the stasis wares off. This allows Link to move heavy objects he can’t pick up. Later, it can even be upgraded to work on organic objects like enemies, which comes in handy for really tough enemies like the Lynels. Magnesis basically turns Link into a lesser version of Marvel’s Magneto as he can magnetically move and manipulate metal objects. He can’t, unfortunately, use the ability on himself or something he’s directly standing on for flight (though if you stack two metal objects on each other you can kind of create a rudimentary flying machine). This ability has pretty obvious uses and is probably overall the most useful ability Link acquires.
Unlike past Zelda games, those core four abilities are pretty much it for Link as far as acquiring new abilities is concerned. There are no main dungeons to conquer containing a new permanent item, which is probably the most radical departure. Instead, Link can acquire equipment constantly throughout his journey. Armor is the only permanent equipment Link can acquire and he does so through conventional means such as buying it or by finding it in hidden treasures and shrines. Armor typically comes in sets with a head, torso, and leg component. Often these bestow abilities upon Link aside from just damage resistance and they can be upgraded at Great Fairy Fountains a maximum of four times each. Typically an armor set allows Link to resist elemental damage or move stealthily. Some of it is also just to look neat. Link’s offensive equipment, and shields, all have a durability score and will eventually break. Link is not a blacksmith and cannot repair his equipment, nor can seemingly anyone in all of Hyrule so once it breaks it’s gone. There’s basically no point in getting attached to anything. In addition to swords, Link can wield poles, axes, hammers, great swords, wands, and bows offering up some distinct combat style approaches. The only problem with that is that most gamers will naturally prefer one over the other, but sometimes all you have is one weapon type. Basically every enemy will drop whatever weapon they were using and Link can claim it, so weapons are easy to find, but good ones are not. There is, of course, a version of the Master Sword in this game. It too can break, but unlike the other items, once it breaks it just needs to recharge so at least you don’t have to go back and find it.
As I mentioned before, the shrines are a main focus of this game though completing them all is not necessary to beat it. Once you leave the game’s first area, The Great Plateau, you’re actually free to beat the game whenever you wish. Completing all 120 shrines obviously is a help as each one gives Link a shrine sphere and those spheres are how Link expands both his maximum health and stamina. Health is self-explanatory, but stamina is just as vital as it allows Link to run, climb, and glide. Climbing is a huge part of Breath of the Wild as exploration is the name of the game with such a vast map. Link can climb almost any surface, as long as it isn’t raining, and the player is often rewarded for doing so. The map is gigantic, so crossing it on foot would take an extremely long time. When Link completes a shrine, it becomes a fast travel point adding even more of a necessity to find them all. Many are hidden in plain sight from the several great towers dotting the landscape, but several others are well-hidden, some even behind a side quest. Most are fun, if not all that challenging. They tend to be puzzle-like in nature, but the kind of puzzle where the objective is clear, but pulling it off is tricky. Some of them are strictly combat shrines where Link has to defeat a certain enemy to clear it. These were my least favorite as the combat never changes, it’s always the same enemy, and there are way too many combat shrines. Three shrines are hidden in large labyrinths which is kind of fun, and one great one exists on an island that setting foot on causes Link to lose all of his equipment. It’s definitely the most inventive out of all 120 of them.
Separate from the shrines are the guardian beasts. These four beings are the closest things to dungeons the game has, aside from Hyrule Castle where Ganon resides. They’re colossal mechanical beasts that Link must first gain entry to in some cinematic fashion. Once inside, Link can manipulate the movements of the beast to make certain areas accessible. This is necessary to not only find treasure, but also activate nodes inside the beast to gain entry to the boss. As you may have guessed, these beasts are more puzzling than anything and it’s a test of mind more than a test of strength. Clearing each one gives Link a special ability, some more useful than others, and also weakens Calamity Ganon for Link’s final confrontation. As such, they’re optional, but only by clearing them will you experience the full story. And they’re fun, so why not?
Breath of the Wild’s defining feature is clearly its size. The world is vast and rewarding to explore, even if it’s not as exciting as some other open worlds from other games. There isn’t much civilization for Link to find outside of a few towns, it’s just mostly vast emptiness. Link will encounter a lot of the same enemies throughout his journey, but there are always some super-powered beings lurking here and there. These include the centaur-like Lynels, probably the most challenging foe Link will cross paths with. There’s also large ogre-like beings called a Hinox, and the very durable stone-beasts known as the Talus. While it does get tiring fighting moblins over and over, those three at least liven things up when they’re around. There’s also the guardians which can be pretty challenging at first, though like basically every enemy, once you figure them out they’re not as bad. Combat is largely the same as it has been in all of the 3D Zelda adventures. The notable distinction is that locking onto an enemy doesn’t protect Link from being attacked by other enemies anymore. Well-timed dodges allow for a special follow-up attack which is very useful against tougher enemies, though not essential for clearing the game. All in all, the combat is fine, but it’s definitely one area where Breath of the Wild feels perhaps too familiar as combat sometimes feels like an obstacle to exploration, and not just as a fun game mechanic.
Breath of the Wild is unquestionably a great game, but I can’t help but feel that Zelda sometimes gets too much credit for the changes it makes. The open world format is a great addition, but it really shows that this is Nintendo’s first real stab at this type of game. The land is huge, but lacking in variety. Sure there’s your typical layout of snowy landscapes, deserts, and lush forests, but the NPCs don’t bring much life to the scenery. There are not scores of diversions as there are with a Grand Theft Auto game, nor is there the wonder of encountering something really special like there is with an Elder Scrolls game. The game has numerous side quests like most open world games, but they’re painfully boring fetch quests with little or no pay-off. The crafting system is also cumbersome requiring Link to hold the components and then drop them into a pot. The end results aren’t particularly worthwhile either, and I know many people who basically ignored the cooking component in the game all together. Once I saw everything the game had to offer, I basically busied myself farming resources to better my equipment. This meant chasing down the mystical dragons (not as cool as that sounds) and hunting Lynels, the latter of which appear in only certain spots and once killed you need to wait for them to respawn. The whole map gets reset by the moon cycle, a red moon will rise and all defeated enemies rise with it. The sequence is particularly annoying since a cinematic comes along with it that also brings load times.
The game does boast weather affects and a day/night cycle, like Zelda titles before it. At night is when the skeletal stalfos emerge from the ground and serve as more annoyance than anything. The weather in most parts of the game means very little, but in the desert the nights get extremely cold necessitating Link to wear appropriate clothing or use an elixir to keep warm. And during the day it naturally gets quite hot requiring Link to do the opposite. Lightning storms can pose a problem if Link is wearing anything metallic, and rain is the biggest obstacle of all as slick surfaces are essentially impossible to climb. I mostly like the inclusion of these effects, but the rain one is extremely annoying as if you’re in the middle of scaling a mountain or tower you either have to give up or wait it out, and who plays a video game just to stare at the screen and wait for the rain to go away? In that sense, the rain is a lot like the weapon durability. It’s kind of neat and certainly adds realism, but does it make the game more fun? I don’t think so, and I hope the weapon durability in place here is never repeated. Same for the more realistic approach to horses. In past games Link had Epona who could be summoned when needed, in Breath of the Wild Link has to capture and train horses and stable them at one of the many stables. He can’t though, just call on his horse whenever he wants which, for me, resulted in me basically ignoring the horse component of the game. On the plus side, Link can ride bears and deer, which is kind of fun.
Technically, this version of Breath of the Wild is essentially a port. The game was developed for the Wii U and ported to the Switch for a simultaneous release on both platforms. As a result, the game looks like a Wii U game and it even possesses a few relics of bygone eras. I can’t recall the last time I played a game with this much pop-in as the game sometimes struggles to populate areas, especially when gliding. Frame-rate drops are frequent, those most noticeable when the Switch is docked, and there are a lot of vast open areas to likely limit the strain on the processor. Artistically speaking, the game is nice to look at and is similar in style to Skyward Sword. Voice acting has been introduced, but only sparingly and Link is still mute. What’s there seems fine to me, but I know some have been very critical of the voice acting. The music, often a major component of Zelda games, has been de-emphaiszed as well. I assume it was a style choice to emphasize how large the world is and how alone Link is, but I’ve also seen a few complaints in this regard. I for one was fine with that aspect of the game. As for the final dungeon and battle with Ganon, I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s thankfully not a re-tread battle. While not the best, I found it satisfactory, if a bit on the easy side. Hyrule Castle, on the other hand, is pretty fun to explore. The only drawback is that it does make me wish the game had more dungeons like it, instead of just the one.
On the Switch, I mostly played the game in portable form. Playing it docked with a pro controller is probably a slightly better experience, but being able to just play it off TV is too convenient for me at this stage of my life. As a portable, it’s not the greatest as open world games tend to want to demand at least an hour, if not more, per session so playing in 20-30 minute bursts during a commute isn’t very rewarding. The game does allow you to save whenever you want and the Switch seems pretty good at conserving battery life when in sleep mode. I could basically get a little over 2 hours out of the console in handheld mode before needing to charge it. The back of the system does get pretty hot though after just a half hour, but so far I’ve seen no signs of over-heating. The game does offer gyro-scoping controls for aiming the bow and looking through a scope, which I find cumbersome in handheld mode. Disengaging the two joycons does minimize this, and even comes in handy for a couple of gyro-puzzles as you can move the controller while keeping the screen stationary. Doing those puzzles any other way is practically impossible.
Criticisms aside, Breath of the Wild is one of the best Zelda games made and it feels like the most important since Ocarina of Time. Many reviewers rushed to give it a perfect score when it was released alongside the Switch, but I think the extra months have given me some clarity. It’s by no means a perfect game, and some of the changes made to the old Zelda formula are not for the better, but the overall product is still excellent. After playing Breath of the Wild I can say i never want Zelda to not be an open world experience. I never want a map to be smaller than what is here. What I do want though is more dungeons, refined combat that is actually fun, and for some of those old items to return. This game badly misses the hookshot which could have made mountain climbing more tolerable, especially in the rain, and some more inventive enemies would really add to the wonder of the experience. And while I never expect much from the storyline of a Nintendo game, I do still want the ultimate goal to be something more imaginative than simply saving the princess from the bad guy. Calamity Ganon is a step back for the Ganon character as he’s just an ancient evil in this world who exists to cause destruction. Though really, all he did was take over the castle and unleash his incompetent minions across Hyrule. The towns and villages seem fine, and I bet they don’t miss those expensive Hylian taxes! Seriously though, this is a game that’s not to be missed. If you have a Switch, you don’t need me to tell you to buy it because you already have. If you have a Wii U, but no Switch, I don’t think you need to wait for a Switch to experience it since it’s a port. And if you’re on the fence about getting either of those consoles, I can say this game is probably worth it, but it’s totally understandable to wait for the Switch’s library to expand or for the Wii U’s price to come crashing down further. I’ve also updated my Zelda rankings to include this game, and I do think it’s one of the best in the series, just don’t expect perfection when you go to play it or else you may be setting yourself up for some mild disappointment. Hopefully Breath of the Wild is the game we look back on as Nintendo’s baby steps into the open world genre that was but a precursor of the greatness that was yet to come.
September 13th, 2017 at 2:15 pm
[…] The newest entry in the series has forced me to update these rankings. What was once a post about the top three, is now about the top four, and Breath of the Wild has forced itself into the top three, nearly top two. What made me rank it behind Ocarina of Time? Well, I think start to finish Ocarina is just a little more fun. It’s the perfect Zelda experience, but in 3D. – finding dungeons, collecting new gear, defeating Ganon. Breath of the Wild ditches that old formula in favor of a more relaxed approach that leans heavily on its vast map. It’s a phenomenal game and that approach may lead to a newer, and better, standard for the Zelda franchise, but right now it feels like it’s just scratched the surface of what makes an open world game so special. If you want more thoughts from me on Breath of the Wild, I made a nearly 4,000 word post on the subject right here. […]