Platform: Switch (Reviewed), Wii U
A Nintendo Switch console and a copy of the game were provided by Nintendo for review.
As a kid, I loved to explore the network of river valleys that carved up the suburbs near my house. There were no monsters to be sure, nor Master Swords to be found, but I was driven on by the possibility of coming across the occasional beaver lodge, the perfect climbing tree, or the grand clifftop vista. Of course, it wasn’t only about the destination. It was also about the challenge of getting there. You don’t just climb the tree to see what’s there, you climb it because it’s fun.
Breath of the Wild made me feel like that kid again. As hackneyed as that may sound, it’s also true, and it’s a fitting way to describe the sense of wonder that permeates the newest entry in the storied Zelda franchise. Breath of the Wild proves that Nintendo understands the human love of exploration and adventure better than anyone in the business. I never wanted to put the game down, because right up until the final climactic fight with the eternal villain Ganon, I always wanted to see what was on that mountain peak, what was hidden in that cave, what was behind that waterfall.
And I spent a long time with this game. You may have noticed that this review comes late. Part of that is that it took a while for the review copy to get to me. But it’s also because I didn’t want to rush this game. There’s so much handcrafted detail here that it would be a disservice to pass it all by in a mad rush to the final fight.
This means I got to explore the nooks and crannies that maybe other reviewers couldn’t. It also means you’ve probably already had the chance to peruse other reviews. You already know about shrines, and runes, and combat, so I’m not going to waste your time describing those things like the back of the game box. I took my time and I savoured it. I’m here to tell you why you owe it to yourself to do the same.
The Joy of the Journey
Breath of the Wild, more than anything, is open world game design done right. As gamers, we’ve become all too familiar with the standard open world gameplay elements. We know about how you often go to a new area and climb a high thing, which then shows you the stuff to do in that region, which will probably consist of a bunch of repetitive fetch quests and escorts missions. Maybe you’ll collect a few flowers or skin a few wild boar to upgrade your inventory. A lot of your time will be spent travelling about, maybe on a horse, maybe in a car, maybe on your own two feet.
Breath of the Wild doesn’t completely buck this trend, but it does it better than just about any other game. There are towers in each region of the vast Kingdom of Hyrule that reveal the local map when climbed, and you can collect flowers and mushrooms and meat from animals for cooking and crafting, and yes, there’s lots of uninspired side quests (get me ten crickets, please!). And you will spend a lot of time travelling.
But Breath of the Wild keeps its secrets hidden even when the map is revealed, ensuring opportunities for discovery remain ever-present. And more importantly, it makes travelling across the land a joy. Unlike many other games, it’s not a chore. You don’t just hold down a button and wait, nor is it so passive you can do some shopping while your personal chauffer and chef drives you around (hey, a Final Fantasy XV reference). Instead, travelling is a puzzle; it’s a challenge to be overcome. You’re given the tools: you can run, swim, climb, glide, burn and blast through and across just about anything from the start of the game. But you have limited stamina for climbing, swimming and gliding. And some places you want to go will be too hot or too cold, or too well defended by monsters, or are wrapped in an evil damaging slime. All of it can be overcome with the proper gear, or food, or strategy, but it’s often not easy or trivial. And above all, it’s fun.
Importantly, there’s no sense of randomness, of predefined building blocks lazily shuffled together by an algorithm. Everything feels hand-crafted and carefully placed. In this, there’s no attempt at realism. Nintendo didn’t fall for the trap of trying to create a landscape that might actually exist. Instead, it’s all massive mountains, deep valleys, cascading waterfalls, and crumbling ruins. These are places you want to explore, and where you know there are secrets to find. Almost every terrain type on Earth is represented as well, meaning there’s constant variety. And the world is so dense with stuff to find you’ll often be sidetracked a half-dozen times before you ever get where you meant to go. It’s the flawless merger of mystery, joy, and challenge.
Fortunately, the few survival elements in Breath of the Wild like the aforementioned hot and cold areas never feel like a nuisance. They can usually be overcome with the right armor, or by simply cooking and eating the proper dish. In this, they feel more like minor puzzles that contribute to an atmosphere than something to be constantly micromanaged.
The game also makes good use of its locales to make travel even more fun. Some cliff-side areas have strong updrafts, allowing you to rise up easily into the sky. If you’re on a sandy or snowy slope, you can jump on your shield and cruise down. Near a waterfall? A certain piece of gear lets you swim straight up them and launch into the sky. And yes, you can even fast travel to any shrine you’ve visited, making sure you never need to do much backtracking or running through the same old ground. The result is constant exploration, constant adventure, and constant discovery.
It’s also beautiful, with an excellent cel-shaded art style that makes great use of the Switch and Wii U’s limited power. Yes, it only runs at 30 frames-per-second, and yes, there are framerate drops in areas with lots of foliage or enemies. But these did nothing to hamper my enjoyment of the game, as I never felt they meaningfully affected gameplay are pulled me out of the experience.
The Delight of Discovery
And oh yes, there is a lot to discover in the open world. There are 120 Shrines, all of which either contain a few puzzles or are found by solving a puzzle in the open world, such as completing the actions hinted at in a riddle. There are 900 korok nuts hidden in the world that can be used to upgrade your inventory. There are also fairy fountains, numerous towns, tons of treasure chests, mineral nodes to mine, horses to catch and stable, powerful monsters to find, and even three massive labyrinths to solve.
Pretty much everywhere you go, there’s something to do or find or see. Landing on one island causes you to lose all of your items, and you only get them back after managing to defeat the island’s monsters and solve its puzzles using only what you can find on the island. Another area throws you into total blackness, allowing you to see only within the miniscule circles of light created by torches until you find the shrine or the way out. And of course, the Lost Woods tasks you to work your way through its beguiling mists to reach… well, you know.
And you can buy a house, and you can run a small town, and there are mini-games, and side quests, and armor sets, and unique weapons, and you can disguise yourself as a woman and and and…
The Pleasure of Puzzles
And there are puzzles. Puzzles certainly don’t just exist as part of the outside world: more traditional Zelda puzzles can be found in Shrines and in the four Divine Beasts that serve as the game’s quasi-dungeons. Despite the sheer quantity, the puzzles are, for the most part, everything you’d expect from a major Zelda title. They’re rarely terribly hard, but most are difficult enough that you feel at least some accomplishment for solving them.
There’s also a good amount of variety on display in what the puzzles ask you to do, and, in a nice update for the series, physics actually plays a role in many of them. From balancing scales to firing cannons to playing minigolf with a giant mallet, the physics is both well-implemented and well-suited to the puzzles where it’s used. Naturally, more traditional puzzles that involve moving blocks or duplicating patterns or connecting electrical circuits also appear, and these are, for the most part, similarly well-designed and fun.
It’s only when the puzzles demand that you make use of the motion controls to, say, rotate an area of the dungeon to open a path, that they suffer. When playing using the Switch in portable mode, this means you either have to detach the Joy-Cons or you’ll have to rotate the screen away from yourself, which is obviously a problem. Even when playing on TV, these controls feel awkward, and shoehorned in to make use of the Wii U and Switch motion functionality.
Fortunately, these puzzles are few, and the vast majority of the game’s many puzzles are quite fun. The bite-sized nature of the shrines also means it’s easy to pick up and play for a few minutes before putting away again, instead of committing to a full dungeon.
Of course, sometimes it is nice to have a full dungeon to explore, but unfortunately, Breath of the Wild doesn’t truly have any of these. In their place are the four Divine Beasts. These are gigantic robot-like animals, the insides of which serve something like a traditional dungeon, although they’re not on the same scale. The trick here is that most of the puzzles in the Divine Beasts require actually manipulating and moving the beast itself. For example, the central body of the camel-like beast consists of three rotating drums that must be moved to access certain areas or to connect electrical circuits, while manipulating the elephant-like beasts water-spewing trunk is key to completing its puzzles.
These dungeons are wonderful in their use of a unique central element and in their design, but there are only four of them, and they’re all fairly short. Constrained by the limited size of the beast itself, most can be finished in less than half-an-hour on a first run, even with some time to think through the puzzles. That means in about sixty hours of playtime, I really only spent four hours in anything like a traditional Zelda dungeon. And while I enjoyed them, I do wish there were either more of them, or that there were a few more traditional dungeons to really sink my teeth into.
The Thrill of the Fight
Combat in Breath of the Wild is also a leap forward, albeit of a more limited variety. Link now has a surprisingly large arsenal of weaponry at his disposal. And he can now, in addition to blocking, dodge and parry. With a properly timed dodge, he can also trigger time to slow down so he can follow up with special a flurry of blows.
With these new tools, as well as the ability to freeze, burn, or shock enemies, combat can feel like a puzzle itself, especially when fighting harder enemies. This is a good thing, because taking on enemies in a fair fight can feel more like Dark Souls than Zelda. One hit from some creatures can knock out a full row of hearts, while others can cause you to drop your weapons or just keep you frozen for most of the fight. It’s certainly the hardest a Zelda game has ever been. For this reason, figuring out a strategy for some groups of enemies or for the powerful world-boss enemies is important, and using the environment for help, such as by rolling a boulder down a hill towards them, can turn defeat into victory.
Unfortunately, the game’s story bosses aren’t as interesting. All are an incarnation of Ganon with a similar aesthetic, and most are fairly straightforward to defeat. Like the dungeons where these bosses are found, it would be nice to see a bit more variety here.
This lack of variety also extends somewhat to the regular monster types themselves. At a certain point, you stop seeing new enemy types, and old enemies types are instead upgraded and given a new coat of paint. It can feel a bit repetitive, but otherwise, combat in Breath of the Wild is the most sophisticated, interesting, and fun it’s ever been in the Zelda franchise.
The Sombreness of Story
The story is also perhaps a series best, although that wouldn’t be saying much. This time around, we do have voiced cut scenes, although naturally Link remains voiceless. A number of interesting NPCs complete a colourful cast that offers a humorous cast to balance the sombre tone of the back story.
The game begins when Link wakes up after a hundred year slumber. He slowly learns that Ganon has destroyed much of the world, due to his and Zelda’s failure to stop it the century prior. As he slowly regains his memories, we see Zelda struggling with her inability to unlock her latent powers, and the events that lead to the deaths of the four Champions sent to help Link and Zelda fight Ganon.
It’s a surprisingly dark tale, full of death, depression and failure, and there are there are even a few moments that almost resonate emotionally. Of course, it’s Nintendo, so there’s always silliness and light throughout, but Breath of the Wild is a slightly more adult game both in its expectations of the player and its themes.
The Best Zelda Game
Breath of the Wild reinvents the Zelda formula by taking many of the best elements of past games and combining them perfectly with the modern open world game. In doing so, Nintendo doesn’t merely update its classic series, but brings it to fantastic new heights, setting a new standard for open world game design that will be hard to match.
It’s by no means a perfect game, as no game can be. But its faults are simply overwhelmed by its positives, and they never detracted from the joy I felt with each passing hour. Indeed, it’s the best Zelda game the company has ever made, and certainly one of its best games of all time. In this, it’s more than just a game for the storied company: it’s a statement that Nintendo continues to have some of the best game developers in the world, and its understanding of joy is second to none.