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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

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There are many who have argued that The Legend of Zelda franchise has not changed much since its last major evolution, 1998’s Ocarina of Time (and you could even argue that the third entry, 1991’s A Link to the Past was the last time the franchise really tweaked its formula). That’s not to say that more recent Zelda games have been disappointing, just that Nintendo has seemingly not taken major risks with the Zelda franchise. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that so many fans have fallen in love with Breath of the Wild, the latest entry in this iconic franchise. While there’s no denying that central elements of The Legend of Zelda franchise are still prominently featured in Breath of the Wild, other pieces of the Zelda formula have been either greatly tweaked or completely abandoned. In fact, Breath of the Wild does something that no game in the franchise has done for over twenty years -- it takes the experience of the original Legend of Zelda and updates in a way that feels completely fresh but also a completely natural evolution.

Sticking to tradition, Breath of the Wild opens with Link waking up, this time in a dark chamber. A mysterious voice calls out to him and directs him to pick up what is essentially a smart phone. The voice then guides Link to leave the chamber, and as he steps into the bright light outside, what greets players is a beautiful panoramic view of the Kingdom of Hyrule, complete with a number of familiar landmarks. As I said earlier, the foundation of Breath of the Wild’s narrative is built around certain traditional story elements, but the world that Link embarks into is different than any rendition of Hyrule before it. Yes, you play as a hero named Link, on a mission to rescue a princess named Zelda, and to save the Kingdom of Hyrule from an evil entity called Ganon. However, immediately upon stepping outside, players are greeted by a Hyrule which does not truly resemble the grand kingdom that so many other Zelda games have featured, but instead shows all the hallmarks of a world-ending cataclysm. Nearby structures are collapsed and left to ruin and the landscape is littered with the remains of ancient but advanced technology. Due to a case of amnesia, Link is left, like players, to try to unravel the mysteries of what happened to Hyrule.

While I am personally not a fan of using amnesia as a plot device to tell a story, I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy the narrative that Nintendo has crafted. Link, the ever-silent protagonist (who does talk, although we never hear his voice or words) is thrust into an unfamiliar world with little guidance or direction. Link’s amnesia actually fits really well, given that Nintendo wanted to create a vast and fresh world for players to explore. As Link travels across the world, visiting towns and landmarks, he can learn about Hyrule’s past and the events that drove it to its current state. While some characters remember the events that destroyed Hyrule, many of them are too young and only have stories of the great kingdom and the calamity that struck it. Link can also revisit locations from his past to collect memories which piece together his previous life and his connection to and relationship with Princess Zelda.

While there’s no doubt that Nintendo has spent more time on the story than previous Zelda games, the true star of Breath of the Wild is not Link, Zelda, or any of the myriad of characters encountered along the journey. Rather, the star of the game is the Kingdom of Hyrule. Nintendo stated that they wanted to recapture the feeling of exploration that the original Legend of Zelda provided. To achieve this effect, over thirty years later, Nintendo has crafted one of the most enticing and engaging open-world games I have ever played. An important part of this is that Breath of the Wild does something that has been missing in open world games which I didn’t truly realize had been missing until I played it -- it invites players to explore the world for the sake of exploration. When I think of most other open-world games, I think of RPGs. Those games typically incentivize players to explore by the promise of a reward (typically experience). The one exception I can think of might be Skyrim, but even my memories of exploration in that game are that it was driven by a desire to find new quests and rewards. That’s not to say that Breath of the Wild does not have its own incentives to motivate players to explore, but the world also does a good job of that on its own. With Breath of the Wild, I found myself climbing mountains and searching for new areas not because I knew there was a reward to be found, but because the world enticed me to explore every nook and cranny. As soon as Link is able to leave the initial area, he is given the freedom to go wherever he wants to do whatever he wants to do. Is there a mountain in the distance that looks suspicious? Go climb it! Do you think that structure across the field might be hiding something? Go check it out! Is there something that caught your eye on the other side of this lake? Go for a swim!

At the same time, this is also the most unfriendly take on Hyrule that Nintendo has ever crafted. From the fearsome monsters, to the wildlife, to even nature itself, everything is dangerous and out to kill Link. After leaving the starting area, players can encounter numerous enemies which can do large amounts of damage or even one-shot Link. In fact, although it is mostly occupied by simple Bokoblins, even the starting area has a handful of powerful enemies that can kill Link in a moment if players are not careful. This might come as a shocking break from previous Zelda titles where Nintendo has been criticized for overly drawn-out tutorial sections. Without a doubt, I died more in this game that in any other Zelda before (except maybe the NES era games). And it wasn’t even due to major battles. Sometimes I would see a group of enemies, think I could take them, and just get overwhelmed by their numbers or weapons. Luckily, Nintendo doesn’t punish players too much for their deaths and it is easy to hop back in and continue with Link’s adventure. Whenever Link dies, the map is marked with a red “X” to serve as a warning or reminder of where he fell (unless you’re a player like me who loaded a previous save to avoid permanent confirmations of my failings..).

Another key aspect of this freedom is how Breath of the Wild approaches Link’s arsenal. In almost every previous Zelda game, even the original, Link typical gained a new weapon or tool in a dungeon which then opened up new areas and challenges and eventually led to the next dungeon. In fact, the Zelda franchise has been praised for how well Nintendo designs the progression of each dungeon to teach players how to use new items. For instance, typically, when Link acquires a new item, players might face an initial challenge which teaches the basics to the new item. As Link progresses deeper into the dungeon, players become more familiar with the item by facing more complicated challenges, which culminates in a boss battle against a foe which requires a certain level of mastery over this item. As Link leaves the dungeon, he can now use this item to reach new areas and a new dungeon where the process repeats. In Breath of the Wild, Link gains access to his full arsenal of tools within the first few hours. In fact, as I mentioned above, Breath of the Wild doesn’t really have the long introductory tutorial section. Players are given a series of short puzzles to understand the basic mechanics of each of these tools, but from there, they are able to freely craft their own experience. While a limited arsenal might sound restrictive, Nintendo has done an exceptional job of crafting unique challenges which require players to figure out how to use combinations of these items in innovative ways. In fact, because Link does not have access to dozens of tools, it has allowed Nintendo to leave players without much guidance, which has led players to develop some truly creative solutions to many of the game’s puzzles.

In addition to his handful of tools, Nintendo has also crafted a new combat system for Breath of the Wild. Link can collect a wide variety of weapons, shields, and bows to use while facing the fearsome adversaries which occupy Hyrule. Link’s primary weapons consist of one-handed swords, spears, and two-handed weapons such as axes and clubs. In combat, Link can easily switch his weapons, bow, and shield based on the circumstances or opponent. Link can also parry attacks to stun an opponent or dodge an attack to open the opponent up to a rapid counter. This is arguably the best combat system Nintendo has developed for a Zelda game, and players will need to use these advanced techniques when facing some of the game’s more challenging opponents. While the new combat system deserves a lot of praise, one of the more controversial aspects is the durability of weapons. For the first time in a Zelda game, Link’s weapons wear out over time. Repeated use of the same weapon will cause it to break, forcing Link to use another weapon from his arsenal. While this doesn’t sound too terrible, the weapons are unfortunately far too brittle. Especially against tougher foes, it is not uncommon to go through multiple weapons. Now, I can understand why Nintendo introduced weapon durability given the combat system and the survivalist nature of the game, but at the same time, given that gamers have been conditioned not to use special/powerful weapons, this can be frustrating when facing a tough opponent when you are forced to choose between using a weapon you have been holding onto for a special occasion, or running away in the middle of a fight. At the same time, the game really throws weapons at players, so maybe this should be taken as a lesson against hoarding.

Similar to Skyward Sword before it, Breath of the Wild is a beautiful and colorful rendition of Hyrule. Nintendo did not go as far as the impressionist inspirations of Skyward Sword or the cell-shading of Wind Waker, but this is definitely not a hyper-realistic world as is typically found in open-world games. While the art-style might turn some people off, I think it matches Breath of the Wild perfectly. The art-style lends to some truly colorful and expressive characters which are the perfect fit in a Zelda game. In the same vein, much of the music of Breath of the Wild is perfect for the game’s mood. Much of the music is subtle and fades in and out to really give the sense that it is in the background. All that said, I was not the biggest fan of many of these tracks. Don’t get me wrong, there were some tracks that were exceptional -- I loved getting lost in the Lost Woods and I would argue that this rendition of Hyrule Castle’s theme is the best ever (I could hang out in Hyrule Castle engrossed in the music if it wasn’t full of monsters actively trying to murder me). But many of the common themes did not have the grandeur I expected from a Zelda soundtrack. Again though, I concede that this was an intentional choice given the style and mood of the game. It is also worth noting that Breath of the Wild features voice acting for the first time in a Zelda game. Not every line is spoken, but most important lines and cutscenes receive the treatment. While much of it is good to passable, there are some (read: Zelda) that never grew on me.

All this praise aside, it’s not to say that Breath of the Wild is without faults. The aforementioned weapon durability is something of an issue, but the game’s biggest weakness comes from its dungeons. As I mentioned above, Zelda dungeons have been previously built around the item found within the dungeon. With Breath of the Wild providing Link with his full arsenal of tools within the first area, this element has been eliminated. Each dungeon tasks players with pretty much the same goal, just with a different spin. While the dungeons have some cool ideas, they were also incredibly short and failed to offer a real sense of challenge. Even the boss fights felt like a letdown, given the amazing fights that permeate the rest of the game. When I reviewed A Link Between Worlds a few years ago, I noted that the change to the item formula in that game led to noticeably shorter and easier dungeons. With Breath of the Wild further tweaking the formula, it is somewhat disappointing that Nintendo has still not managed to solve that particular problem. Given that players have access to every tool for every dungeon, I would have liked to see Nintendo better incorporate these tools together to make the dungeons more challenging. That said, if you look at the dungeons in a vacuum, yes, they are disappointing. However, if you also add in the over one-hundred shines, the game actually features a number of really cool and challenging puzzles. Honestly, I bounce back and forth on this issue -- yes, the dungeons are a letdown, but if you look at them as a small piece of a larger world, the maybe it is not such an issue. Not really related, but I also want to point out, the game’s save system could really use some major revisions. I don’t know why we were limited to only one save (and a handful of auto-saves -- but those don’t count), but I was sorely disappointed by this design decision and really hope Nintendo patches it in the future.

Breath of the Wild has received nearly unanimous praise, with many going so far as to declare it the game of the year.. ..in March. There is no doubt that Breath of the Wild is a masterful evolution of the Zelda formula and is one of the most engrossing games I have ever played. Typically I like to beat the games I review just so I can give a largely complete evaluation. But, I do not want to beat Breath of the Wild. Could I? Of course (although technically you can beat it immediately after clearing the starting area, soooo..). Honestly, I am having such a great time exploring Hyrule, looking for new secrets, and even just farming items to upgrade my gear that I do not want it to end. Breath of the Wild is a major change for the Zelda franchise, and with the amount of praise it has received, it is natural to wonder what it means for the future of the franchise. I have no idea what the future holds, but if Nintendo can continue to build on what they’ve established in Breath of the Wild and fix some of the game’s flaws, I cannot even imagine the type of Zelda game we might have on the horizon.

“Link… You are our final hope.
The fate of Hyrule rests with you.”

All images owned by Nintendo.