Reviewed on Nintendo Switch, copy supplied by Nintendo.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting and rolling delays, Zelda Wii U finally entered the world with a bang… and on an entirely new console. Of course the old working title for Breath of the Wild is kind of funny looking back, but at least the final product more than makes up for it. And hey, those that bought a Wii U in anticipation for the game can still play it, but given how much we love shiny new toys, we’ll be looking at the Switch version.
Breath of the Wild is a departure from older Zelda titles, scrapping some series staples and introducing a whole lot of new features. At a cursory glance you’d be forgiven for assuming Breath of the Wild is a Studio Ghibli inspired open world RPG. Much more free form than anything we’ve seen from Nintendo previously, a majority of the fun you’ll be having in Breath of the Wild comes from exploration of your own creation, and fortunately that exploration is exceptionally well done, standing out even in the overpopulated open world genre.
The story takes place 100 years after a failed battle with the main antagonist of the Zelda franchise, Ganon, in this instance referred to as Calamity Ganon. The people of Hyrule live under fear that his evil force will sweep across the land. Fortunately Ganon is being held at bay for the time being, and the player controlled Hero of Time, Link, has awoken from a deep slumber to put an end to him before he can spread. The Hyrule we see in Breath of the Wild is a post-apocalyptic one, with bands of survivors and scattered ruins. However, prior to the collapse it appears to have been home to a much more advanced society than what we’ve previously seen, capable of building machines and artificial intelligence.
Amongst these machines are the four Divine Beasts, which were built to defeat Ganon, and controlled by four champions belonging to each of the races in the land; a compassionate Zora, hardy Goron, fierce Gerudo and arrogant asshole of a Rito. To reclaim Hyrule, an amnesia riddled Link needs to liberate these Divine Beasts (which have been corrupted), before storming Hyrule castle and facing Ganon, restoring his memories in the process.
Well, when I say “needs”, that’s only the path the game suggests you take, if you really want to, you can go straight to the final boss, although it will be extremely difficult. In fact almost every main quest feels optional, and the approach you take to each is certainly free form. There are certain pieces of gear that will make certain areas easier, but nothing appears to be mandatory, aside from completing the first training area.
The kingdom of Hyrule is unsurprisingly the centre piece of the game, and it’s never felt so distinct. Traveling between regions there is an ever present feeling that you’re in a living, breathing entity. NPCs will run to seek cover from the frequent rain falls, and trees will combust and explode when hit with lightning, it’s all impressive stuff. The map pretty much covers every single natural environment you can find on earth, each teaming with distinct flora and fauna for you to hunt or collect. Just surviving in the world is a task on its own, regardless of the fact that you’re also combating monsters that roam the land.
Fortunately the vast spaces in Hyrule can be traversed quickly through paragliding or on horseback, with taming horses being an addictive pastime on its own. You can store up to five horses at the various stables, each with different stats, leaving you to do some juggling to find the perfect steed.
It seems that Breath of the Wild takes a leaf from other games, instead of just going straight for the four elemental temple approach of old. Combat has a more Dark Souls feel to it, being brutally challenging in some instances, and crafting and hunting mechanisms borrow heavily from the popular survival genre.
Link now has a stamina wheel, which controls how much sprinting, climbing and gliding he can do. It’s a strange addition in something that has gone almost unchanged in almost 20 years of 3D Zelda games, but it makes your ability to travel through the game a resource to manage rather than a given, and something you’ll want to level up to do better. Leveling up isn’t necessary, but it’s essential if you want to make the most out of the game.
Scattered across Hyrule are Shrines, which are essentially mini-dungeons filled with puzzles, completing four shrines will give you the ability to increase maximum health or stamina. They also unlock fast-travel points, making them vital for quickly accessing traders and key areas. Some of the puzzles are mind numbingly easy, but they do become more challenging as you advance, and even getting to certain shrines is an uphill battle, literally. Of course it wouldn’t be a post-Wii era Nintendo game if there wasn’t the odd use of irregular control features thrown into the mix, with certain puzzles making use of the Joy-Con’s inbuilt gyroscope, which despite being jarring at first, is pretty well implemented.
Breath of the Wild isn’t all puzzles, the combat itself is intricate, and a lot of strategy goes into deciding which weapons should be taking up precious inventory space. Virtually all of the in-game weapons degrade and shatter over time, requiring you to stock up quite the collection of loot. The more common weapons will break after one or two strikes, leaving you to use them smartly, or use the stealth mechanics to take out stragglers with arrows before charging into a more even battlefield. Once in a melee fray, you have a few cards up your sleeve, most of which should be familiar with Zelda players, such as jumping slashes, spin attacks, and back flip dodges. Timing a back flip or side dodge perfectly allows you to initiate a flurry attack against your enemy, rewarding you for your mad skills.
Learning the combat isn’t too hard, but it will be something you should spend some time getting your head around, as certain enemies can take you down with one hit if you if you have insufficient armour. A lot of enemies are damage sponges too, making some battles a lengthy endeavor.
Bolstering Link’s arsenal are special abilities unlocked through his
iPad Sheikah Slate, which totally can take selfies, because that’s what every gamer wants according to almost every new open world game. The Slate can produce bombs, put objects in stasis, use magnetic powers and freeze pillars of water. These are often used to solve puzzles, but also prove handy in combat scenarios. As you liberate Divine Beasts you’ll also be rewarded with champion abilities, giving you revive, defense, offense and flight boosts linked to cool downs, which make the game slightly easier and more enjoyable as the difficulty ramps up.
As I mentioned before, the bulk of your enjoyment in this game will come through the world itself. The first time I was walking through a seemingly peaceful meadow, only to suddenly have a bunch of boulders fly through the air and clump together into a giant monster blew my mind. It was reminiscent of the first time I witnessed a dragon land in Skyrim, and it’s those kind of moments in gaming that stick in your mind and are so hard to reproduce.
On the more structured side of things, side quests rear their head from time to time, and each feel like they have a purpose, not the usual go here and kill X amount of enemies. That’s not to say there isn’t a fair share of grinding to be done. Stocking up enough food and elixirs through the crafting mechanics takes a large chunk of your time, and considering how tough some enemies are, you will need a shocking amount of food in your inventory at almost all times. The cool part of this is that certain foods will grant you buffs, such as increased attack or a temporary increase in max health, so expect to put aside a few hours aside for hunting and gathering to get a decent stock pile.
You’ll also need to grind to unlock gear that allows you access to certain regions. For example Death Mountain will set your ass on fire if you don’t have the necessary clothing or an elixir in your bloodstream. Figuring out how to get these items is a bit of a challenge, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t use walkthroughs on occasion to figure out how to get somewhere.
Not always free-form, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had in scripted moments, such as the assaults on the Divine Beasts, which more often than not are more fun than the challenges within these “dungeons” themselves. Wake boarding on the back of a Sand Seal and launching bomb arrows stands out, as does riding on the back of a Zora and launching into the sky for bullet-time arrow strikes, they are epic moments masterfully crafted and accompanied by the fantastic soundtrack you’d expect from a Zelda game.
The structure of the story itself is interesting, with the bulk of plot coming via flashbacks and encounters with those that remember the past. It’s an interesting way to look at a Zelda game, and the sense of nostalgia at play is immense. Voice acting during cut scenes is something that’s new to the franchise, and to be honest, I would have almost left it off the table, but that’s only because the blend of text dialogue, a silent protagonist, and occasional voice acting doesn’t always flow seamlessly.
Positives, aside, there are only two real downsides I can see from the 30 or so hours I spent in Breath of the Wild, one of which is frame rate drops which occasionally occur (more frequently when the Switch system is docked). I’m not sure if there has been an issue optimising for the new console, or if it’s a limitation of the console itself, but the drops are frequent enough to warrant noting. Ultimately they didn’t break the game for me, but it’s a shame to see them in an otherwise crisp and beautiful experience.
The second fault is locked content through the use of amiibos, which triggered me so hard I wrote an article about it. I don’t want to get into rant mode right now, but it basically means there is highly sought after content locked to certain amiibos, some of which have been out of production for years. Yeah, it sucks.
Minor negatives aside, overall Breath of the Wild has been one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in a long long long time. I was hooked from start to finish, which is a rare luxury in this line of work. It reinvents the series whilst retaining the core elements that fans know and love about Zelda games, and is a must play for hardcore fans and newcomers alike.