Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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I don’t even know where to start with this masterpiece. If you’re here for a number, then it’s a 10/10. But this piece of art is so much more than a number. So many major gaming publications [Ed. Note – other than us, obviously] have also given Breath of the Wild a perfect score, so, to express the value of this game, I have to drive home the point that it’s so much more than a game: it’s an experience.

I’m a huge Nintendo fan and, to be specific, a hardcore Zelda fan. I’ve beaten Skyward Sword, Minish Cap, Oracle of the Ages, Link’s Awakening, Twilight Princess, the Hyrule Warriors story mode, Link Between Worlds, Wind Waker HD, and Phantom Hourglass. I’ve played The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II, Ocarina of Time 3D, Spirit Tracks, Majora’s Mask 3D and Breath of the Wild. So yes, this could be considered a biased review, but I can assure you that I am not blindly praising this game.

Let’s start before the game even came out, as I would have to say its development was particularly special to me. Prior to BOTW (Breath of the Wild), I still enjoyed playing Zelda games. However, the last main series console Zelda game (Skyward Sword) came out when I was ten, and while I played it and loved it, I didn’t really follow its development. This was more of an: “Oh cool, a good Zelda game came out! I guess I’ll play it.”

But BOTW was different. The game was announced in 2013, and while I may not have known about it right from the start, I followed its development for quite a long time. And by “a long time,” I mean a long time: four years or so. For some comparison, Ocarina of Time was first shown in late 1995 and came out in late 1998. Nintendo did an amazing job building hype up for BOTW with very short, mysterious trailers that left tons of questions. What made this waiting time so painful was the two, yes, two delays that happened! Hungry for a new Zelda game and excited by all the promises and new ideas that Nintendo announced, I really wanted to purchase a WiiU to play this legendary game when it finally came out. Little did I know that I would have wait a bit more time to do so, as the optimistic 2015 release date slipped into 2016 and then, to my dismay, into 2017.

During all this time, us fans were given very, very little information about the game. Much was left up to our imagination. The bold claims made by Miyamoto and Aonuma were exciting, but at times I could barely wait any longer. Hungry fans were subsisting on any gameplay, news, or even just rumors. The delays did kill some hype for BOTW, but I hung in there, and after years of waiting, I can confidently say I have not been disappointed. Nintendo still continues to work its magic!

I could never cover everything this wonderful game has to offer, so please bear with me as I try my best to express how innovative, immersive, and beautiful BOTW is on so many levels.

From several sources, I have heard the Breath of the Wild experience described as something along the lines of “everything the player does causes a reaction from the game.” I would have to say this is the core game “mechanic” that drives this whole experience on. What does this exactly mean? I can really only give examples:

  • Fire burns grass which causes updrafts which allow you to glide with a paraglider.
  • Chopping down trees gives you wood and mining ores gives you flint. By putting these two things next to each other and hitting them with a metal weapon, you can create a campfire which you can cook food with.
  • Rain makes surfaces slippery to climb on. It also causes some insects/animals to come out of hiding.

These are only a few of the numerous things that you can experiment with in this world. I mean heck, somebody even made a DIY catapult in game before it was even out. Things just . . . fit together in this huge world. It doesn’t seem like a patchy compilation of generic open-world ideas. Rather, Nintendo has created a masterfully interlocked gameplay experience here that isn’t bogged down by overly complicated menus, story, or controls. Most games limit your abilities by creating a world that guides you towards one objective in one particular way. (I’m not saying this is always bad. The Portal games, for example, incorporate this type of design wonderfully.) However, BOTW does the opposite by presenting the player with a world that encourages exploration, experiments, and curiosity. While there are definitely ways to “break the game” (no game is bug-proof), playing BOTW doesn’t feel like following what the game wants you to do. The lack of invisible walls and handholding make you feel respected as a player. Overall, I would describe playing BOTW as fresh, relaxing, and natural.

The last few installments in the Zelda series have been great, but they tended to focus on particular aspects of the game. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, is just gorgeous from a game design perspective. There are tons of NPCs that can be easily forgotten, but the more major characters definitely stick with you. This is especially true with Link and Zelda’s character development, which, I would have to say, tops even Skyward Sword. The vast world to explore is not only functional, but magnificent in its looks. Slopes and valleys serve as subtle guidelines for the player. While some games use huge walls of text to teach the player everything there is to know, and others have stiff gameplay tutorials, BOTW lets the player teach themselves. The land of Hyrule feels more personal this way when you discover things. Miyamoto and Aonuma definitely succeeded in re-imagining the original Zelda experience. As Link, you are not led from point A to point B or from easier fights to harder fights. On the contrary, you are thrown into a world that is yours, loosely predefined but given precise form through your interactions with it. When playing BOTW, your mind escapes not just from daily reality to a fictitious world, but to a place where goals are not limited and the world can be shaped to your desires. What’s not to love about that?

As it is really hard to give a quick and thorough review of this huge game, I’m going to use this next section as a place for rapid-fire comments, critiques, and praises. So I guess what I’m saying is that this may be a bit scattered.

To address one of the ten or so elephants in the room, the story in BOTW is, shall I say . . . interesting. Personally, I love it! As mentioned before, I love the personalities of the major characters, as well as the contrast of different lands and cities that you must visit. Nintendo had the difficult task here of creating a story that could be completed in many, many different ways and orders. This naturally means that huge scripted events or deep quests are at a minimum here. But then again, Zelda games aren’t really known for their stories. Now there are exceptions here (such as Majora’s Mask), but most of them have very similar plots. Save Zelda from Ganon and save Hyrule. So it comes as no surprise that the plot here isn’t much different. However, I would argue that the loose framework of the story fits with the nature of the game. While you can mark up your map with up to a hundred stamps and five beacons and then turn on quest guides, Breath of the Wild excels in allowing the player to be free. It’s very easy to get distracted from the story, but that’s okay here! Why rush past all of the minute detail and atmosphere that was so meticulously crafted by the developers? So while some could make a point that BOTW’s story doesn’t shine so brightly, I would say that it complements the relaxed gameplay style very well.

While the atmosphere of the sprawling hills and lively forests of Hyrule is exceptional, the music is not something that stands out here. Zelda games are known for catchy or deep songs that really bring out the feelings of the world. What do I think about this? I would have to say that, while not totally disappointing, I wanted a bit more from the music. What we have is great and it does its job. Similar to the story, the mostly low-key music complements gameplay well. It shifts from one mood to the next, from a peaceful field to an intense fight. There wasn’t really much space here for the iconic style of songs that Zelda fans have grown to know and love. Certain cutscenes did stand out to me for their more unique music, and I wish there were a few more tunes that I could hum along with in BOTW.

Now for some general gameplay commentary:

I like the new level of difficulty that BOTW offers. If something is too hard, you’re doing it wrong! This game rewards clever thinking and it offers countless opportunities to get better weapons or food to make challenges easier. The speedrunners who have taken up this game have already proven to be impressive.

The numerous systems in BOTW, from the combat, to cooking, to collecting materials, work very well. They aren’t bogged down by complicated controls or UI, making experimentation that much easier. Hunting, gathering, cooking, and combat all merge together and help provide incentive for exploring every nook and cranny. Shooting an enemy doesn’t use different controls than shooting a deer. The food you cook can make fights easier. The inter-connectivity seen here and in other parts of BOTW really stood out to me and make the gameplay experience incredibly polished and smooth.

Smooth that is, when your frames are ok . . . I’m not going to hate on this game for its graphics (which are amazing) or physics (which drive forwards gameplay immensely), but I probably should mention that the frame rate isn’t immaculate here. While BOTW ideally runs at 30 frames per second, there are recurring drops here, and even (though less common) complete stops for a couple seconds. Nintendo has been quick to put out several patches which seem to be cleaning up this problem a bit. My advice: don’t let this get in the way of a beautiful game. It’s a small thing and if you look beyond it, Nintendo has done something truly amazing here with some lower powered consoles. Check out this video by Digital Foundry for a more in-depth look at this topic.

There’s a ton more I could say here, but I’ll end on this: Please play Breath of the Wild. It is a beautiful, breathtaking experience worth your time. If you’re interested, you can check out my hopes for this game before it came out right here. Thanks for reading!

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