I finally got around to buying the Nintendo Switch and I bet everybody can guess what game I bought along with it. Breath of the Wild is a game I’ve been itching to try for a long time, until I visited Stian and got tired of the game before I even made it through the tutorial. Still, the subliminal reviews kept rolling in and usually I consider myself more patient than the average gamer. Clearly, I was missing something. Maybe the tutorial was just the wall you needed to get over before the game truly opened up. With renewed optimism, I ventured back into Hyrule.
The long nap
If anything, Breath of the Wild at least shut up all those insufferable people that kept arguing that the plot of every Zelda game is functionally identical. Link, Zelda, and Ganon are all there, and you’ll probably be saving her majesty from something before the end of it, but the setup and world are vastly different.
The land of Hyrule was at peace for a long time, until the people started to fear the return of Ganon. In preparation, they rediscovered ancient technologies in the form of The Guardians and the Four Divine Beasts. These robotic creatures would be used to fight off Ganon when he reappeared, with the Divine Beasts being controlled by a champion chosen from each race in Hyrule and led by the Hylian champion Link. However, when the time came, Ganon used his power to seize control of these tools and turn them against the kingdom, slaying the champions in the process.
Link was knocked out as well, but they managed to place him in a machine that would slowly heal him as he slept. Now, a 100 years later, Link returns to Hyrule long after the war was lost and suffers from amnesia. The princess is said to be keeping Ganon at bay within Hyrule Castle to this very day, but he grows ever more powerful and is close to escaping. Link must regain his memory and travel the land in order to reclaim the Divine Beasts and prepare for the inevitable confrontation between him and Ganon.
The story is a lot less linear and, as a result, you don’t really get the same kind of tone and feel you may be used to in the Zelda games. Instead of a world where you have a few important places containing maybe 30 characters, Hyrule is now a vast open sandbox with various villages and locales. Characters are still fun and often quirky, but you won’t find any side-characters as bizarre as, say, Guru Guru or The Postman. This leads to a lot of dynamic stories, like you may just be wandering about when you see two people running away from monsters. You then kill the monsters and get a small reward and some information on the local area.
I have long complained that the Zelda games never felt organic enough and Breath of the Wild makes great strides to change that. This is a Hyrule with a believable scope to it and characters that make sense. It feels like so much is going on and you, as Link, are trying your hardest to wrap your head around it all. I enjoyed reaching Zora’s Domain and actually finding the people there unwelcoming, because they recognize Link from a 100 years ago and are disappointed he got their champion killed. It feels a lot less like you’re the chosen hero touring a small world.
Besides all these small touches, the main events of the story are still interesting. Like Ocarina of Time, you are traveling the land to meet all the different races and unite them behind your cause. The main characters involved are intriguing too, but vastly underutilized. You meet heroes of each race, like the noble prince of the Zora whose sister was among the killed champions, or the teenage Gerudo chieftess who is well on her way to becoming a great leader of her people. All of them have great designs, interesting personalities, and the potential for great story arcs, only to get maybe 3 lines of voiced dialogue and one gameplay sequence before they are reduced to a stationary NPC.
I do like what they did with Zelda, however. As you travel around Hyrule, Link slowly begins to remember his interactions with her from all those years ago. She isn’t much of a typical princess this time around, which even Skyward Sword couldn’t avoid despite its otherwise radical changes to the story. Zelda is more of a scholar who is deeply interested in the old tech they are digging up and also has interests in biology. It makes for an interesting character, but this is balanced out by the bland nature of this game’s Link.
The differences in how the story is delivered can be jarring if you are used to previous games, but that also has its benefits in other places. The open-world structure can either be a boon or a deathblow to your enjoyment of the plot, depending on what you value in Zelda games and fantasy in general. I enjoyed the scope and the hundreds of little side-stories I encountered through random NPCs and unscripted events, but I certainly missed the focus on characters and admit that the pacing was wonky.
Story score: 8/10
Instant-kill laser spiders
People have been eager to compare this game to Skyrim, but frankly that’s a bizarre comparison to make. At best you could say the game is like Morrowind, but even that is stretching it.
Indeed, Breath of the Wild has a large open world where villages, outposts, and stables are separated by long stretches of untamed wilderness. While exploring this you’ll run into wildlife, forests, enemy camps, ambushes, lakes, there is a lot to see and the game’s world is diverse enough to make it feel wondrous. The moveset certainly contributes, as Link is not the stiff adventurer he used to be. If there is a giant mountain between you and your destination, you can just climb it using the stamina system from Skyward Sword. There might not even be a logical route through it, you just start climbing and take rests where you can.
You also get a glider early on, allowing you to leap from high places and soar through the sky. The most important landmarks are the various towers, which allow you to expand your map once you climb them. It’s comparable to Assassin’s Creed, but instead of getting icons for everything in the area you just surveyed, you have to use your first-person camera to look around and mark places you want to visit. This is super useful, as I could just climb somewhere, mark a few shrines I could see, and get to them when I felt like it. If I’d run into a monster camp or boss creature along the way, I could put a sticker on the map and come back when I was prepared to deal with them.
The problem, however, is that Breath of the Wild is a steep game to get into. You can forage the world for foodstuffs and crafting materials, but will also find all sorts of weapons that have stats and unique qualities to them. This sounds fine, but weapons have a durability statistic and most won’t last for longer than maybe a fight or two before they just break. The early game is characterized by constantly breaking weapons and having to find new ones on the fly. Giving them damage values also means some enemies take forever to go down, as you aren’t equipped to fight them. No matter how good you are at the game, a standard bokoblin with a special color might be impossible to overcome as you do almost no damage while he can instant-kill you.
While this becomes less of a problem once you reliably find decent weapons and gain access to methods to upgrade your equipment, this is a game that just loves to instant-kill you. Combat felt threatening in a way no other Zelda game does, as enemies are aggressive and come in large numbers. It took longer to get used to the controls and even hours into the game I’d still occasionally pull out the tablet instead of my shield, or throw my weapon away instead of grabbing the bow. The guardians are also a major annoyance and I never reached a point in the game where I’d feel like dealing with them. They are fast, aggressive, heavily-armored, and their laser beams continue to be an instant-kill even once you load up on hearts. In fact, be prepared for a lot of things to just suddenly kill you without warning.
Because that’s another new thing. Instead of exploring the world looking for heart pieces, you get one heart for completing any of the game’s four main dungeons, and a spirit orb for completing any of the shrines. These shrines are mini-temples that are often focused on one mechanic, like a shrine might just be a series of challenges about burning obstacles or using the gyroscope to manipulate a mechanism. You get a spirit orb for each shrine you complete and there are plenty of them out there, but you need 4 to gain a single, extra heart. You start with 3 hearts and even fresh out of the tutorial, you can run into a blue Bokoblin that’ll just hit you once and deplete all of them. Heck, even in the tutorial I was dying dozens of times.
Again, this becomes less of an issue once you get some hours in and build up your health a bit, but the core of the issue is that it took hours before I began having the kind of fun I usually have with these games. Mechanics like the weapons breaking is just a major bother and a few other new features don’t quite take off either. Cooking sounds fun, for example, but you find ingredients by the dozens. Once you find a fire to cook on, you just need to sit down for an hour to fry up your entire inventory. The tablet is also nice and has a few special powers, but these come into play so rarely that you forget about them when they are needed. When I got to the first proper dungeon it had been over 20 hours since I ever used the ice power, so the puzzles left me baffled.
The actual main dungeons are a bit of a letdown too. Most are preceded by interesting battles as you must open up a way to get into them by teaming up with an ally and these tend to offer an interesting mix of mechanics. The actual dungeons are really short and small, however. Gone are the themed levels of the older games, because now every one of them is inside a Divine Beast that all use the same graphical style and structure. You have the ability to manipulate the beast in some way, like twisting rooms or tilting the entire dungeon, and you have to use this to reach and activate five consoles which then open up the boss-fight. The Rito dungeon I finished inside twenty minutes, it’s that easy.
I loved exploring the world and the shrines have a lot of appeal to them. Still, I can’t say that I am convinced that open-world exploration is the right direction for the Zelda series. The fragile nature of weapons and the over-abundance of crafting essentials were just obnoxious and while I had fun with it now, I feel this is a formula that would get annoying if every Zelda game hereafter had me map out and explore a wild, uncivilized Hyrule.
Also, the guardians can go screw themselves.
Gameplay score: 6.5/10
Voices! In my Zelda game?! Heresy!
Breath of the Wild has a fun contrast going on where the wild, uncivilized world is home to a lot of retro sci-fi visuals. The shrines are all these gauntlets with impossible architecture and high-tech machinery, decked out with colorful led-lighting and smooth, obsidian walls. Enemies like the guardians and smaller variants follow a similar design principle, featuring bodies that look like elegantly-crafted stonework, lit up with colorful lights and armed with deadly laser beams. It’s fancy, but it does get a tad samey when every shrine is the same. Even out in the wild, it’s mostly forests, lakes, and plains, and you find differently-colored variants of the same enemies pretty much everywhere.
The soundtrack is softer and more ambient, which I feel makes it ever more apparent that Koji Kondo was not involved with the game’s OST at all. It does liven up in places, but no music stood out to me quite as much as any of the songs from previous games. Of course, those familiar tunes are frequently remixed into the soundtrack for this title, which makes for a bit a jarring switch when one of these suddenly comes on.
New, however, is the voice acting. Prior to the game’s release, it was made out to be a big deal and we even had a debate on it here on the site. The actual execution is disappointing. Only a select few cutscenes have it and, even then, usually just for a few lines. After that, it reverts back to the same reaction noises every other game in the series uses. I would say it’s a shame, yet I can’t really say I miss it either. The acting always has an awkwardness to it that I never quite got over, especially with characters like Mipha who put way too much effort into making every line sound emotionally-charged.
The character design I enjoyed a lot, however, which really compensates for the mixed voice performances. Characters like Daruk and Riju are some of the nicest designs we have seen in the franchise thus far and even minor characters look good. This does lead to some confusion, as I sometimes thought some characters would be much more important than they actually were. The monster designs are also great and while the bosses were a bit mediocre, the final battle with Ganon looked really cool and had me messing up simply because it was such an imposing creature to battle with.
Presentation score: 7.5/10
With this being an open-world game, there is a lot of optional content to engage in. As I confidently snuck into Hyrule Castle to start the final battle, a last-minute survey of the map revealed I had completely failed to explore one of the game’s zones, and some others I hadn’t even found anything of note in. There are probably dozens of locations, shrines, and encounters I missed entirely, and which can freshen up the game when I inevitably revisit it sometime later.
Between all the side-quests, a few stand out as the most important. Hidden around Hyrule are numerous Koroks, the small, tree-like people first seen in Wind Waker. They are often hidden in suspicious places, like underneath bizarrely-placed rocks, or require you to complete a small challenge or puzzle. Each one gives you a seed, which can be exchanged for upgrades to your inventory. I found this almost essential, as having more weapons allows you to better prepare for tough encounters.
There are also the memories, which I have a bit of a grudge against. You are given 12 pictures and are asked to trace down the locations somewhere in Hyrule, which rewards you with a cutscene that reveals more about the events 100 years ago and Link’s adventures with Zelda. This alone makes for a great reward, but the first time you discover one you are given a piece of armor as a reward. Since armors give you bonuses when a set is completed, I figured completing this quest would give me the full set, only to realize it wasn’t so and this was just a piece of clothing with no matching set. It’s also just kind of a bother and I recommend finding either a good map or having somebody spoil the locations, because some of these are really hard to guess and the world is far too big to take chances with it.
There is also a bunch of speedrun potential, as you can potentially go to Ganondorf anytime after clearing the tutorial. A player like myself will die horribly, but those willing to master the mechanics can join the race to put Ganon in his place as fast as possible. At the time of writing, the any% record is a mere 32 minutes. If you do go out to complete all of the main quests, then the final boss fight will be easier and you get a post-credits scene to finish off the story on a satisfying note.
Extras score: 9/10
- A breathtaking world to explore and fun mechanics to do that with.
- Great character and monster design.
- Shrines are fun to complete and are a great way to expand health and stamina.
- Zelda is an intriguing character and the memories side-quest explores that in a novel way.
- Smaller side-characters matter more and lend themselves well for side-quests, organic events, or comedic encounters.
- All the main dungeons are lackluster and kind of samey.
- Weapons break too frequently.
- Cooking and using monster parts are more of a bother than a boon.
- A steep difficulty curve means it’ll take a few hours before the game starts to feel right.