The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is incredibly well done. The graphics are awe-inspiring and the gameplay offers a solid and reliable experience. Breath of the Wild doesn’t give you enough opportunities to grow emotionally attached to the characters vital to story progression, but it does do a fantastic job of otherwise achieving the illusion that Link exists in a living, breathing, and fully realized world. This review contains some minor spoilers starting now.
In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Link awakens in a chamber, clad in nothing but his skivvies. He’s been brought back to a post-apocalyptic Hyrule to fight and win the battle against Calamity Ganon he was sorely unprepared for 100 years prior. Without any memories of his previous life, Link must find armor, weapons, gather supplies, make new friends, find old ones and piece together how Hyrule was overtaken and what he must do to restore it.
If there’s one complaint about the main storyline it’s that the Breath of the Wild strongly favors exploration over story progression and character development. The vast open world is so expansive that is slows down story progression significantly, making it difficult to achieve emotional attachment to any of the core characters integral to the story. As you regain memories, it’s clear that the Link of 100 years prior had strong bonds with these champions being presented as friends and loved ones, but the Link of here and now has more interactions with Beedle, the travelling merchant. You’ll have to take solace in the concept of Hyrule itself becoming a character in its own right as you get to know it in its entire splendor.
There have long been statements written on the internet around the Legend of Zelda series being sexist. While there is legitimacy to the claim that Breath of the Wild’s plot is misogynistic, as it does fit the hero-saves-the-damsel formula and the game does use save-the-princess language, a deeper examination tells us that we should acknowledge that the princess is the one that’s been holding it down in Link’s absence. Zelda is the one person standing between Ganon and the complete and total destruction of Hyrule. This damsel is only in distress because she’s been holding evil at bay on her own for 100 years while waiting for Link to wake up from his nap, get his crap together and hold up his end of the agreement. While she and the Guardians are passive characters and there is a male protagonist lead, the goal of the game is ultimately to bring together a team of heroes across various species/races and sexes to defeat an evil that’s more powerful than any single one of them could hope to overcome on their own. There’s still a good message in there. We can only defeat evil if we band together.
Breath of the Wild does open world incredibly well. From the moment you activate your first tower, it becomes clear exactly how expansive Hyrule is. The world of every other Zelda game feels small and finite after playing BotW. It makes Ocarina of Time’s open world feel claustrophobic and its dungeons like a rat maze by comparison.
Whereas other games connect the dots for you, BotW provides minimal information and allows logic and your natural curiosity to guide you. Instinct tells you to make your way to high altitude locations, use the scope on your tablet to seek out areas and objects of interest. Pick one and then try to survive making your way there. Oh, that thing off in the distance looks intriguing. Bet you can glide close enough to make it and examine more closely without too much hassle. Only the attempt itself will tell you if you’ve gotten in over your head or not. Is there something under that rock? Well, you better pick it up and find out. Are there treasure chests that you can’t see in that babbling brook? You’ll never know unless you use your abilities to check. What happens when I push this boulder off this cliff? It could be hilarious. Better push it.
As you explore you’ll find yourself stopping to take in the beauty of Hyrule frequently. The sheer number of wallpaper worthy views is astonishing. The game uses day/night cycles, monthly cycles and weather to create an impressive variety in experience. Climb to the top of a mountain and spin that camera around. Watch a sunrise. Take in a sunset. Take a minute to absorb that lightning storm off in the distance. Wow, that snow storm you’re hiking through really captures the feeling of brutal, unforgiving isolation. Is it day time and did you just make it through a rain shower? If you’re patient, maybe you’ll catch a double rainbow.
There’s no game that I’ve played in recent memory that has achieved this degree of immersion in the world of the character you play as. I can only imagine this is what it might be like to explore the land of Fantasia in The NeverEnding Story. I was legitimately caught off guard the first time I hit the end of the accessible map and was told by the game I could go no further.
Breath of the Wild relies heavily on environmental sounds and uses music sparingly, largely for cut scenes and as ambiance in safe areas such as stables and towns. You might have brief snippets played to accentuate the danger of roaming overnight and musical stings to punctuate an action in battle. Some familiar themes do return and the environmental sounds, wind, birds, foxes, water, leaves or grass rustling etc., all effectively contribute to making Hyrule feel like it’ll continue existing long after you stop visiting.
The voice acting is sparse and relegated mainly to cut scenes and character introductions. The voice work is okay. Largely competent, though the delivery on some of the characters is a little flat. The inclusion of voice is still so spread out that it’s hardly a detriment to your overall gaming experience. All of the grunts, harrumphs, laughter and other sounds made by in-game characters convey their personalities effectively. They totally accomplish what they’re supposed to without being annoying. Well, mostly. There are a couple of exceptions. Because there is voice work, you are unable to name your character “Fart Face”. Link is referred to by his given name by all characters and does not speak himself.
As much fun as it is to explore Hyrule, sometimes you just want to get where you’re going. Breath of the Wild offers a few different options to you. Once you obtain a paraglider and climb to an acceptable height, you can use this item to cut the distance between you and your goals. The distance you can close is limited, but can be extended using potions and cooked dishes that increase stamina.
In keeping with other Zelda games, you are able to obtain a horse and ride cross country on your steed. I skipped this for most of the game. I found my majestically maned creature of the equine variety to be incredibly stubborn, very frustrating to tame and then there’s that one time he fell off a cliff and into a stream he couldn’t climb out of. After I reloaded a save, I took him to a stable to register him, named him “Jerkface” and left him there. Take that, Jerkface. The horse experience is something you can pursue and there are some side quests that revolve around it, but it’s not vital to getting around Hyrule.
The game offers a much more efficient way to get around Hyrule as you open up more of the map anyway. Towers and Shrines act as an effective system of fast travel. While towers must be activated to be used, shrines need not be defeated, only discovered and visited. This will allow you to continue exploring the landscape right now or leave to explore elsewhere. You can always travel back to this stop to continue exploring or defeat the shrine later on. This is incredibly helpful when you’ve wandered way deeper into the unknown than you had originally intended.
As Breath of the Wild’s emphasis is on exploration, battle can feel sparse. Though battle may be found if you’re looking for it, you will sometimes be ambushed and it is occasionally unavoidable. Groups of Bokoblins and Moblins are scattered about. You’ll be caught off guard by some Lizalfos that were effectively camouflaged. You won’t always be able to see them off in the distance and pick them off with a bow or bombs. While most shrines are puzzle solving experiences, some require you defeat small guardians. There are larger, more difficult beasts that require hand/eye coordination on your part, such as Lynels, Talus’ and more.
Earlier in the game you learn that 100 years earlier Team Hyrule planned to use mech-like creatures called Divine Beasts to fend off Calamity Ganon. These entities fuse technology and mysticism and look to have been crafted using what looks to be Mayan inspired aesthetics. Freeing each Divine Beast requires much puzzle solving, followed by a battle with a version of Ganon.
There are also dragons flying around Hyrule. While the dragons and the Divine Beasts aren’t what I’d classically label as battles. Attacking dragons allows you to gain rare items and solve some shrine quests and you must avoid injury while engaging them. I don’t believe you can kill them. And while you’re not trying to destroy the Divine Beasts, only gain access to their entrance, you are engaged in action and attempting to flip the right switches while avoiding death. They are fast-paced, adequately challenging because of the timing required, require the use of weapons, and are battle-like. More importantly, they are exciting. At the time of this review, I’ve only defeated Ruta.
When Link wakes up, he’s pretty weak. It’ll be awhile before you’ll feel like you’re strong, competent and coordinated enough to take on any monsters of significance. A good swing from a Moblin on the field may wipe out more than six hearts in one shot, which is a problem when you have three. You will feel strongly encouraged to find alternate solutions to direct combat until possibly far too late into the game. This is a matter of personal preference. I would have preferred more battle challenges earlier on. But you will do a lot of climbing, a lot of surprise attacks and a lot of attacks from out of reach to gain any advantage available to you.
Frustration can be compounded by weapons that are way too destructible early on in the game. The variety of weapons that can be used in battles has increased and the frequency with which additional items become available is acceptable, but doesn’t detract from the momentary frustration of having a weapon break so often mid-battle. It adds a moment of confusion to have to access a menu mid-battle, even a quick menu. The durability of weapons that you come across, or are gifted, increases as you get further in the game.
Shrines have a purpose in the game other than fast travel. Accomplishing the goals they set out before you allows you to add hearts or stamina to Link. Stamina allows you to swim and climb longer and farther. You might also find rare items in chests contained within. Most of the shrines involve puzzle solving. Some will offer minor or major tests of strength through battle.
The puzzle solving experience offered in Breath of the Wild offers is solid. Earlier shrines are too easy and disappointing. As you progress, you’ll find them more satisfying and sometimes there solvable through multiple solutions. You’ll find yourself considering all of the tools and skills you have at your disposal to overcome the challenge before you.
There is a cooking system in Breath of the Wild. Normally I detest cooking/recipe systems in games. It’s not too onerous in BotW. You can get away with a minimal amount of cooking and a small number of ingredients for cooked dishes and elixirs without hindering game progression.
I had occasional troubles with the camera during battles and I occasionally ran into odd glitches, but overall the game seems very well tested and avoids all of the things that could go wrong with a game that contains this many variables. The camera troubles were usually resolved by moving the stick on the gamepad. This can be frustrating while you’re trying to not die.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an incredibly good game that offers an immensely satisfying experience. The open world sometimes feels intimidating in its vastness. The graphics are stunning and while sometimes frustrating, the gameplay is reliable. BotW doesn’t give you enough opportunities to grow emotionally attached to characters it’s clear you should care for, but it does do an excellent job of otherwise achieving the illusion that Link exists in a living, breathing, vast, and fully realized world. While isn’t the best game I’ve ever played, Breath of the Wild is the best game I’ve played in a long time.