The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is truly an amazing game. Without a doubt one of the best in the franchise, and also one of the best open world experiences I’ve ever had. The new mechanics and tools to play with create many opportunities to improvise your way across Hyrule.
At first I was a little worried. The trailers showed an open world with little to no towns or non-playable characters to interact with. I thought it would be empty and lifeless. I was wrong. 100% wrong. The world in Breath of the Wild is so expertly crafted that no matter where you are, something is going to catch your eye in the distance. Something that you can travel to, climb up, and explore. This really is an adventure game in every sense.
Towns are lively and filled with people that will give you diverse side quests that feel natural. A little boy that wants to see all the cool weapons out there in the world. A man trying to win over the love of his life. A group of adventurers that heard a rumor about some hidden treasure behind a waterfall. Shield surfing races. A bowling mini game. Secret shrine quests. The list goes on.
The story is about Link waking up 100 years after he failed to stop Ganon from taking Hyrule castle. Zelda is still fighting to prevent Ganon from spreading his corruption throughout Hyrule and needs Link’s help. As the Hero of Hyrule, you need to gather the help of the four sacred beasts that fought with you 100 years ago to stop Ganon. Or not. You see, you can skip all the story in the game and head directly to Hyrule castle to fight Ganon right from the get-go. It won’t be easy but it’s possible. But why would you want to do that anyway? The game is full of interesting puzzles, lively towns, and one of the most fun ways to navigate in an open world I’ve ever tried out.
Almost every surface in the game is climbable. Climbing uses up stamina, however careful use of stamina management and reaching ledges to rest and regain your stamina will allow you to climb the steepest of mountains early in the game. Climbing is almost a puzzle in itself and feels rewarding when you reach high places. And gliding down from those places is just as fun. Early on you will get a glider that you can use to, well, glide long distances safely. These navigation tools along with shield surfing, horse riding, and sand sledding create the feeling that anything you see is reachable. That mountain top over there? Reachable. That island way off the shore? You can go there. Those ruins all the way out in the Gerudo desert? Yup.
And there will always be something worth noting in the distance. Every time you reach a new shrine, mountaintop, or tower, the game designers made sure that you can see another important piece of the landscape in the distance. It creates an almost never ending sense that something is always around the corner. Something to explore and figure out. An adventure to be had.
As you are roaming the lands you will immediately come across shrines. Bright orange structures (that turn blue when you complete them) that take you underground to complete mostly short puzzles that reward you with items and a collectible that you can trade in for extra hearts or a stamina increase. These shrines are all over the place and are sometimes well hidden behind trees or quest lines. The puzzles themselves can range from simple box stacking puzzles to reach a higher area to complex physics puzzles that really made me think. What’s so great about these puzzles though is that most of the time there are multiple ways to the end. If you are creative enough you may just find a shortcut or a way to bypass certain obstacles. It makes you feel smart.
The map does a great job of relaying information like the topography of the area and allowing you to set markers and waypoints to multiple destinations and areas of interest.
The combat is serviceable. If you are familiar with some of the previous 3D Zelda games, you will feel right at home here. Locking on to a target, timing dodges and swinging away are par for the course. The ease of whipping out your bow, choosing a type of arrow and sniping an enemy feels great once you get used to the controls. But let’s talk about the elephant in the room, weapon degradation.
Every weapon in the game can and will break. There is no way to repair weapons. With some extreme exceptions, once they are gone, you will have to find a new one. Most weapons won’t even last 1-2 encounters. There are both positive and negative views on this system. On one hand, it creates a fun and improvisational aspect to combat. You can be fighting an enemy and then all of a sudden you get a warning that your weapon is about to break so you throw it at an enemy resulting in a critical hit and making them drop their weapon to the floor. You then pick up their weapon and finish them off with it before moving to the next enemy. This happens all the time and can create interesting scenarios where the enemy is looking around for another weapon to use because you stole theirs (the AI is superb).
The downside to weapon degradation is that, personally, I tended to just hoard all the good items in my inventory until I faced a tough enemy. I avoided combat whenever possible because I didn’t want to break my good weapons on menial encounters. Finishing a tough quest line or shrine only to be rewarded with a weapon that I know will break permanently on me was disappointing. I couldn’t get excited by finding new weapons. I never wanted to use them until it was necessary. This feeling haunted me throughout the whole game. I wanted to use that sweet flame spear I got and fool around with it, but I knew it would break in 1-2 battles. That isn’t fun to me. I would have liked a late game option to make a weapon permanent using a bunch of rare materials or something.
This leads me to the dungeons. They were slightly disappointing for a few reasons. There are only a handful of them throughout the whole game and they are mostly the same. They each have a very similar gimmick to them and very little enemy encounters. The interiors all aesthetically look the same too. The puzzles inside the dungeons are fine. Multiple solutions are available here as well. The boss battles are mediocre and sometimes too easy depending on your gear and heart situation.
There is little penalty for dying, often bring you back to a generous autosave a minute or two before you died with all your weapons and food items intact. Ah yes, the food items. Cooking is supposed to be a big gameplay element, but the mediocre user interface and the inability to cook multiple items at once leaves a lot to be desired. I would usually just spend 10-15 minutes cooking pages and pages of different foods/elixers that would last me 10’s of hours of gameplay and never touched it again.
The music is scarce but picks up when it needs to. The silence as you wander the plains and climb the mountains adds to the atmosphere. The battle music is lacking but you will hear some key pieces of composition when the time is right. Although I’m still left wondering where the amazing Gerudo Valley music is. 🙁
The frame rate will dip from time to time in large fields with a ton of grass. It’s very noticeable but didn’t detract from the overall gameplay. Although the game froze for a few seconds on me in the middle of a fight 2-3 times over the course of the game.
Veterans of the series will find some key items missing such as the hookshot, which I believe could have been used as a cool grappling hook in combination with climbing and gliding. Fortunately the rune powers and navigation tools make up for what didn’t return from the previous games.
One last thing I want to mention is how I think Link being a silent protagonist harms the story more than ever. Memories where Zelda opens up to Link that are fully voice acted, showing tons of emotion, are responded to with a blank stare and no words. Multiple times over the course of the game I’m left wondering why Link doesn’t say something in response. It just feels awkward. It’s almost laughable at some points. I’m sick of being talked at instead of with. There is even a memory explaining a little of why Link doesn’t speak a lot, but it doesn’t excuse all the events that take place.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild really is one of the best adventure games ever made. The environment and open world is a joy to explore. The towns and people you meet are diverse and a treat to talk to. The shrines and puzzles are engaging and thought-provoking. I kept wondering to myself if I would ever get bored of the adventure, but after 80 hours, I never did. This is easily one of the best games of the year and I can’t recommend it enough.
After playing such a fantastic franchise defining game, I’m left wondering one more thing. Where do they go from here?