I have a vivid memory from last year’s E3 2017 when I had the privilege of playing Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild early on. It was truly something to behold as one of gaming’s most cherished icons had been drastically transformed, yet still retained the awe of exploration and wonder of its predecessors.
That’s always been the spirit as our hero Link endures a journey of courage, destiny, and puzzles to save the kingdom of Hyrule itself. You’ll notice things are different this time around the moment our hero reawakens in this brave new, yet still familiar, world. The sense of freedom is unprecedented the moment it dawns that you’re going to have to find a way out of a walled-off plateau left to decay, learning the basics after receiving the paraglider to finally roam the land. In the three hours it takes, the scale of your adventure really hits you unlike any Zelda entry before this.
Having the independence to traverse calm grasslands, slog through swamps, and ascending mountaintops feels quite overwhelming in Breath of the Wild (hereafter LoZ:BotW for convenience) but amazingly natural. Of course, the reason for Link being here is because he and princess Zelda failed to prevent Calamity Ganon—a impersonal manifestation of evil and malice—from plunging the continent into a century of grim disrepair. But despite this arduous quest of bringing the world back from the brink, stumbling on places you’ve never been on foot or horseback is often more primary than the plot itself.
You won’t get anywhere by following a straight line as objectives are spread across the countryside, with very little indication of how to get there. This is by design as you find yourself traveling towards Sheikah Towers that are lit like beacons from afar, these structures are not always simple to activate but are indispensable in revealing the geography. It’s an adept cycle that encourages discovery when everything appears distant in peripheral view, astounding to survey the surroundings without a concrete waypoint to abide to.
Fight Another Day
The emphasis of doing whatever you want in BotW also changes your interaction of the world. the basic battle controls are thankfully familiar, although the mechanics are thoroughly revamped and require some thought to each approach. Preparedness has never been more important for combat.
Attacking head-on is brave but equally foolhardy since nearly all of your weapons have finite durability, and will degrade or eventually break with regular usage. Being careful is something that pivotal to avoid getting killed, because most enemies encountered could take Link out in one hit, a fate almost guaranteed without the proper tools. Stealth is another feature that gauges how effective you victory will be and if spotted by watchmen or slow to react with well-placed arrows, it would be smarter to retreat until another time. It’s often frustrating to enter a battle realizing your weaponry is invariably fragile and not quite seamless in relation to copious freedom.
The only reason I know this is because I died more than I’d like (I stopped tallying up around the 20th time in total), and gradually figured out when and where to choose my fights and was much better for it. This can be challenging against a horde of Bokoblins or running from one of the autonomous Guardians (they’re downright frightening and initially deadly), making inventory upkeep all the more necessary.
Living off the Land
Because the regular fundamentals such as plentiful rupees are farther and fewer, the aspect of crafting— like hunting, gathering, and even scavenging—will quickly become second nature. Foraging anything from mushrooms, minerals, fish, and even monster parts will keep you busy whether you want to sell your stuff or sit in front of a campfire to concoct your own creations. Eating and cooking meals for yourself is the only way to regain health, but an addition in this allows you to experiment with recipes and gain some kind of temporary boost in stamina, speed, and environmental resistances to name a few. It’s fun to try and guess what dishes you can make, but can it laborious and disappointing if you use fine ingredients such as prime steak only to sometimes end up with a green pile of edible muck.
Locating shrines that are dotted throughout Hyrule essentially replace the large-scale dungeons of yore, although they still exist in a spiritual sense. There are over a hundred to track down and most of them involve solving a puzzle with a specific theme, and the reliance of using Runes which allow you unlimited use of bombs, object magnetism, make ice platforms and time freeze. The difficulty varies in complexity but the runes are a must in completing many of them.
Main dungeons in BotW still exist, but have been scaled back and done in phrases where you must fight your way inside in some grandiose fashion. They’re more set pieces to give the mechanical beasts imposing scale but easy to conquer, being dropped inside to activate terminal and defeat the boss afterwards. The layout is dramatically different and instead of keys and a unique item, the use of your Rune skills and manipulation of the entire environment is the goal. Once you download the map in your tablet you’ll be able to control water flow or turn the dungeon on its side, the challenges weren’t utterly mind-blowing but does require some creative problem-solving and lateral thinking to progress.
Art and Nature
Needless to say, the presentation of BotW is beautiful to behold artistically. Nintendo has clearly embraced its stylish muse and brings us a universe that borrows liberally from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker —like a gouache painting come to life. The sunsets are majestic, the rivers are flowing, and everything feels right. Occasionally, you’ll hear some incidental piano playing in the background but it’s used sparingly, otherwise the audio is just calm nature or silence to convey the atmosphere itself.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the mediocre voice acting. To be fair, it’s not horrible (it’s not Metroid: Other M bad) but it will be hit-or-miss in the scope of the game itself, and almost all of it is limited to cut scenes. Overall, the dialogue didn’t complement the plot in a substantial manner to warrant it, but again, this is the first real Zelda game with voice acting. Maybe have an option to turn it off, perhaps?
Switch vs. Wii U
I’m one of the very few reviewers who’s actually played BotW on the Wii U and it runs excellently as the final title for the console. However, there have been reports of performance differences between the Switch and Wii U, mostly involving framerate dips and graphic resolution. Remember: this is a game that was designed for the troubled Gamepad console first and foremost at 720p before being retired. Both versions run at 30fps and look great in general, but the Switch bumps the resolution up to 900p (1600×900) with better texture filtering and draw distances while docked.
However, some of the same issues exhibit themselves with minor instances of dropped smoothness or hard-locked to 20fps similar to the Wii U in certain spots. A comparison video from Digital Foundry theorizes this is due to a “hidden bottleneck” and could suggest that the game’s open world is partitioned uniquely on each platform to compensate.
As of this writing, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has quickly become one of the highest critically acclaimed games in history, with unanimous praise if you believe the hype. Nintendo has transformed what a Zelda game can be, and after playing for a week straight I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. For this, I applaud them.
But this also changes my view of how to interpret BotW; it offers an astonishing level of complexity and variety for any game, let alone a 30-year old franchise. For me, this Legend of Zelda firmly stands on its own comfortably alongside its esteemed lineage. Decide for yourselves if it’s a “perfect” experience, but we can all agree the series has matured beyond what many thought imaginable.