by Matthew Thompson
There are few series in gaming that I love as much as The Legend of Zelda. I’m particularly fond of the 3D entries. The fact that we only get one of these every five or so years makes the already anticipated release of a new Zelda into a true gaming event. The latest in the storied franchise came out alongside Nintendo’s newest console the Switch to the ravest of reviews this past March. While I can’t say Breath of the Wild lived up to the overwhelming amounts of hype that surrounded its release, it is a fantastic game – one of my personal favorites in a series not exactly short on superlative outings – and a bold reinvention for the 30-plus year old franchise.
Where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shines brightest is through its unrivaled sense of discovery. Part of this comes through the game’s new, fully open-world take on Hyrule. Over every hill’s crest, in every forest grove, through every mountain valley is something cool to find. This includes everything from Shrines – BotW’s plentiful mini-dungeons – and traditional side quests to giant dragons circling mountain peaks and labyrinths at the far corners of the map. Even stumbling upon connections to past games is a delight. While the structure borrows a lot from its open-world contemporaries (towers, enemy encampments, etc.), it makes a few smart tweaks that improve on the formula. Like how towers unlock the topography of the region, but it doesn’t fill your map with icons. It is up to you to use the scope function of your Sheikah Slate – an ancient multi-use tablet at Link’s disposal throughout the game – to look around the area and place waypoints on your own. No feeling of being instantly inundated with tasks or of mere icon-chasing here. You chart your own path. I’ve never enjoyed exploring a video game world as much as Breath of the Wild’s and it is due to this beautiful space they have created so full of wonders and the freedom that the game grants you to uncover them.
But that aforementioned sense of discovery is about more than just what you can find. It’s about what you can do. There was an impressive number of new systems added to the gameplay in this latest edition of The Legend of Zelda. A new loot system featuring weapon durability. Climbing and traversal that lets you clamber up any surface. Dynamic weather. A cooking system that allows you to make food for replenishing life and gaining temporary ability boosts. And Runes which act as a twist on traditional Zelda items. When all this comes together, you will constantly be finding out new things that the gameplay allows. When comparing notes with friends about their recent adventures with Link, everyone has a slew of unique stories to tell. Perhaps how they handled a particular combat encounter or how they survived their time on Eventide Island. For example, at some point everyone will learn that having a metal sword on your back during a thunderstorm is a bad idea. On the other hand heaving said sword into a puddle near your enemies during a storm can have positively electrifying results. You’ll be met with all sorts of discoveries like this on every leg of your journey through Breath of the Wild.
Between the brilliant open-world design and the systemic gameplay, exploring the plethora of side content has never been better in the series. Unfortunately, the main quest doesn’t fare as well. The story is lacking though that isn’t exactly the strength of Zelda games in general. The most disappointing aspect for me is what is usually my favorite part of the series: the dungeons. Admittedly, I was fairly impressed with the first one. Entering my first Divine Beast – BotW’s version of major dungeons – came way via a heart-pumping action sequence that felt reminiscent of a Shadow of the Colossus boss battle. The idea of moving the dungeon itself to solve the puzzles within is undoubtedly a good one. The fight that capped it was challenging since I was still in the early stages of my quest to topple Gannon. (Plus it was shaped like a giant elephant and I just love elephants, so it gets bonus points for that!) Upon playing the three remaining dungeons – there are a paltry four total not counting Hyrule Castle – I realized they are all too similar. They feature the same move-the-dungeon-itself gimmick, have similar action sequences to get in and a tweaked version of the same boss fight at the end. They even look the same aesthetically. And ultimately none of them – including my favorite one in Zora’s Domain – even compare to the series’ best dungeons. With their maze-like structures, perfect balance of puzzle-solving and combat, varied mini and major boss encounters and the way you must navigate your way through the entire thing being a puzzle in and of itself, Zelda’s dungeons of yesteryear represented game design at its finest. The Divine Beasts’ handful of isolated puzzles and repetitive designs just don’t stack up. On their own merits, they are simply fine, but they represent in my opinion the worst set of dungeons in the 3D series (it is a little harder to compare them to the 2D ones). There is no getting around it. They are a letdown.
Another much-lauded aspect of Breath of the Wild was its difficulty and it is easy to see why particularly early on. I love how the game just throws you out in the world and lets you figure things out for yourself. Not only does it play into that rewarding sense of discovery that lies at the heart of BotW’s success, it is a wonderful change for a series that had become overly bogged down in recent entries with at times obnoxious handholding and nonstop tutorials. Link’s chances of falling in battle have also been upped considerably in the early goings due to changes to the way health and upgrades work. Despite these welcome departures from recent Zelda outings, I felt the game suffered from not having a proper challenge progression. You are given most of the tools you need to solve the game’s puzzles near the start of your adventure. The idea is to allow the player the freedom to do things in whatever order they choose. But it also means you learn many of the tricks and the way to manipulate puzzles early on. In past Zelda titles, even if the sixth dungeon wasn’t necessarily harder than the third, a new item would make you think in completely new ways. I felt that was sort of missing here. As I upgraded my Link in BotW, learned the ins and outs of his abilities and gathered an endless supply of food reserves, the game’s challenge diminished greatly especially with a set of dungeons built to be approached in any order. Breath of the Wild’s grand freedom is one of its most essential and important elements. I just feel it is worth pointing out that that freedom comes at a cost, one of which is the game’s waning difficulty.
This only begins to scratch the surface of what The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has to offer. It is a massive game that I have only seen a fraction of myself. Trying to cover all that it does so well and where it sometimes falters could probably fill a novel. But I tried to capture my major takeaways from my time with it here. It isn’t quite the all-time great I thought it might be after 15 hours. The more I played, the more some of the problems I brought up here began to bubble to the surface. But it is still an excellent experience. The joy of exploration and discovery is simply without peer in gaming right now. And I can’t help but respect the daring vision they executed to reinvent one of gaming’s landmark franchises. It isn’t without its faults, but Breath of the Wild is one of my favorite games in recent memory and on my very short list for Game of the Year in 2017.
Many more things:
- Paraglider-type items are something I always enjoy in video games. Like the one in the Sly Cooper series or the Deku Leaf in The Wind Waker. Being able to use one as much as I could in BotW was awesome.
- I love the Shrines. They are about as cool of an incentive to explore as there is in gaming. They definitely got lazy with some of them though. Getting a Major Test of Strength eventually made me roll my eyes. And while I was certainly fine with some of them just giving you the reward instantly if getting inside the Shrine itself had an in-depth quest of its own, some took just about no effort. Shooting a lightning arrow at a wall is not a Shrine-worthy task and some weren’t as hard to find as they think.
- Despite my praise of the open-world, there is still a fair amount of repetition here that seems unavoidable in the genre. Along with the Major Tests of Strength I just mentioned, enemy outposts and Korok seeds were probably the biggest offenders.
- I actually liked what was there from the story, I just wish there was more of it. I wish Zelda was in it more too. Some fantastic characters though. Urbosa, Riju, Kass, and Sidon being among my favorites.
- The game is gorgeous. The artstyle is so striking and it can be seen in everything from the landscapes to the Guardian technology to the characters. I loved the character designs for Zelda and the above mentioned Gerudos in particular. There were some framerate issues with the game though.
- The music was good if a bit too sparse at times and the voice-acting was a bit too underused to make much of an impact on me.
- The game could certainly use some quality of life improvements to things like swapping shields and cooking. Given how many new things have been added, these are a bit more understandable to me and of course minor in comparison to something like the dungeon design.
- I really enjoyed building up Link’s new house and wardrobe. For the latter, I mostly rocked the Hylian set (with the tunic and hood dyed green of course). I wasn’t sure if I’d miss the more traditional hat, but the hood was really cool-looking. I loved it.