The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, from the outset, has been presented by Nintendo as a game that would break from convention. Even the name itself suggests a new direction for the franchise. Where previous titles refer to a specific item or character within the game (Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess etc), Breath of the Wild evokes something far less tangible: the allure of adventure. Ever since I first entered the world of Ocarina of Time, on a magical Christmas day back in 1998, I’ve been chasing that dragon, trying to recapture that same sense of wonder, surprise and complete immersion that eight-year-old me experienced nearly twenty years ago. Plenty of games have come close, but none so much as Breath of the Wild.
Several huge departures become apparent in the game’s opening moments. The first being voice acting, with a woman’s voice waking Link from his century-long slumber. The second being the near complete absence of any instruction or hand-holding. Link is woken up in the Resurrection Chamber and that’s it, you’re able to take control almost immediately. You grab your Sheikah Slate, the tool required to interact with ancient Sheikah technology, some pants and a shirt, and then you’re let loose on the world. Long-time fans will recall the extended tutorial sequence in Twilight Princess’ Ordon Village or the overbearing level of instruction seen throughout Skyward Sword. In Link’s latest adventure, Nintendo has endowed the player with an unprecedented amount of freedom, letting them explore Hyrule on their own terms.
Nintendo of America’s Senior Product Marketing Manager, Bill Trinen, came up with then term ‘open-air’ as opposed to open world to describe the way the environment in Breath of the Wild is fully integrated into the game’s main themes of exploration and adventure, and there’s certainly something to that. Hyrule feels more open, interconnected and enticing than any other game I’ve played. It’s alive, dynamic and steeped in delicious context. Link will come across travelling merchants, each with a unique design, dialogue and name. You’ll hear about villages, monsters or natural landmarks long before you find them: “Oh such-and-such town is just up the road, they grow great pumpkins there”. Then when you arrive at the town, there’s a guy in his backyard tending to his damn pumpkins! It may seem like a small thing, but the whole game is given this same attention to detail. Never has Hyrule felt like such a believable, realised place.
Open-air also refers to the freedom of traversal allowed to the player. Link can climb pretty much anything, as long as his stamina holds out, and once you get the paraglider using a vantage point to reach somewhere else is easy too. Suddenly a simple task like clearing out a camp of monsters becomes an opportunity to test out a hundred different methods of attack. Do you sneak up through the front, picking off the sentries before they call for backup? Climb the surrounding cliffs and rain down arrows and bombs? Start a fire? Pick up a metal crate with magnesis and bludgeon them to death? Destroy their discarded weapons so they have nothing to defend themselves with? If a storm rolls in, throw a metal object among them and wait for lightning to strike? The land of Hyrule has rules that all ring true with the physics of the real world which meant that 90% of the times I thought “hmm I wonder if this will work”, it did.
Play enough games and you eventually begin to see the design process behind them. You begin to recognise the problem the developers have set before you (combat, puzzle or otherwise), as well as how they intended for you to solve it. If a game is too obvious about this it becomes boring, too obtuse and it’s frustrating. Breath of the Wild has made game design invisible again. There are so few limitations on what you are able to accomplish, that it becomes completely immersive. You, as Link, are solving these problems with ideas you came up with, you’re not just following the breadcrumbs left by the developers. When I gain entry to a shrine surrounded by thorns by gliding down from above instead of burning them, or kill what looks like a tough enemy by smacking it around the head with a treasure chest, I don’t feel like I’m cheating or that I broke the game in some way, I feel a sense of achievement that belongs to me, and not like I’ve done something that every other person playing this game has done before me.
In this way, Breath of the Wild delivers on the promises open world games have been struggling to keep since Grand Theft Auto III: true freedom. In the first hour, you’ll get all the tools you’ll need to finish the game. Sure it’ll make things a lot easier to play the way the story dictates, but upon leaving the Plateau you can do whatever you want including gunning right for the final boss. There are dungeons, and Link will gain more abilities by conquering the evil creature that inhabits each one, but the order in which you do them is entirely up to you. You could play for hours and hours before reaching your first dungeon, or even your first town, so captivating and wondrous is exploring this world.
Every fatiguing aspect of open world games like Fallout, Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed or even The Witcher feels fresh and worthwhile in Breath of the Wild. There are little collectables and puzzles to solve around every corner, but they’re all fun in and of themselves, not claiming to be anything more than they are. There are towers, but they don’t reveal a billion little icons on your map, in fact, all they reveal is the topography of the area, which is very useful in a practical sense as planning your journey is important. Will I be able to take my horse to this area? Which of these cliffs do I have the stamina to climb? Could I glide to my destination from that ridge? Every single aspect of this open world is involved and satisfying.
All weapons, shields and bows have an invisible durability meter and will break after enough use. You may get some amazing frost blade after killing a Hinox but if you keep using it it will break. This may be a devastating design choice for some people but I personally love it. It makes everything you find valuable, even if it’s just a piece of shit club it’s better than having nothing in a tight spot. I can’t count the amount of times in huge RPGs where loot becomes pointless after you either get the best weapon in the game, never needing to swap it out, or you get so many different swords/guns/spells that the decision to use any particular one loses all importance. In Breath of the Wild your arsenal is constantly changing, you’re forced to adapt, using every tool available to ensure you don’t run out of weapons or waste your best bow on a measly Bokoblin.
Combat in Zelda games has been embarrassingly easy for over a decade. In titles like The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword there’s never a shortage of hearts and enemies hit like wet noodles. It would appear Nintendo has been paying attention to the Souls series, as the combat in Breath of the Wild is both tough and incredibly rewarding. You won’t have much trouble with your standard packs of Keese or Bokoblins, but there are certain, less common beasts that will absolutely destroy you if you’re not adequately prepared. Whenever I found myself getting wrecked like this I’d go away, upgrade my armour, cook some hearty meals, perhaps an elixir or two, and return to successfully settle the score.
The various towns, camps and stables are a joy to behold, and there are plenty of cool little things to do in them, but none that share the complexity or emotional payoffs of other Zelda games like Majora’s Mask or The Wind Waker. Obviously, Breath of the Wild is the first open world Zelda game so some leeway is due when it comes to populating it with meaningful storylines, but it would’ve been nice to have fewer fetch quests and more story-heavy ones. When I think of Windfall Island or Clock Town I can immediately picture several beloved characters and their stories. The same cannot be said for Breath of the Wild.
The music is another aspect that is vastly different to earlier Zelda titles. It’s a far more subtle approach overall, and for the first time, Nintendo has used piano as the main element of the score. Riding through a forest with the sun shining down through the leaves, the sound of running water in the distance, then the pristine, beautiful piano kicks in. It’s sublime, adding substantially to the ambience without getting hung up on trying to make you feel a certain way. There are of course other moments where you’ll hear the classics like Zelda’s Lullaby, but they’ve all been rearranged with piano at their heart, managing to evoke new emotions as well as nostalgia. Given the main themes of the game being exploration and freedom, it makes sense for the music to take a more subdued role, complementing the sounds of the world itself rather than dominating them. It’s a bold new direction, but undeniably the right one.
Voice acting is new to the franchise and unfortunately, it shows. Not every performance is atrocious, but it’s hard to point to any one of them and call it impressive. Certain characters are terribly miscast, others just suffer from stilted performances. Given that only cutscenes integral to the main story are voiced, this is a rather large oversight and possibly my biggest issue with the game. There are several pivotal, intensely emotional cutscenes that I was completely taken out of due to the uninspired, jarring voice acting. There is something to be said about Zelda however, she’s the first voice you hear and is probably the most endearing character throughout. Never before has the princess been so nuanced, nor so human. Her insecurities and failings as a leader of her people haunt her and it shows. The rest of the main characters may not have much depth, but Zelda is handled beautifully.
Performance is another rather large flaw. Frame rate dips occur consistently around areas with lots of trees and grass, add a rain storm to the equation and it’ll slow right down. These drops may not be constant but when they do happen they’re quite severe. I personally never found them too distracting, which is strange given the fact I have yet to play Dishonored 2 due to its frame pacing issues, but I don’t wish to downplay their significance. If you’re one to be heavily distracted by frame rate dips, fair warning.
The amount of freedom Nintendo has given the player in Breath of the Wild creates an immersion unlike anything I’ve played since I was a kid. It may sound like hyperbole, but for me, it recreated that same sense of adventure that Ocarina of Time captured so well back when I was eight years old. In the almost twenty years since then, the gaming industry has changed a lot. It’s hard to ignore the steady decline of annualised franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, the advent of DLC and season passes (a trend even Zelda couldn’t avoid forever), cookie cutter game design and rushed sequels. It’s enough to turn even the most hopeful of us into cynics. Breath of the Wild made me wonder again, reinvigorated a franchise and a genre, and is an antidote to everything disillusioning about modern game design.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was reviewed using a review copy for the Nintendo Switch, as provided by the publisher.