Welp. The latest in the highly-acclaimed Legend of Zelda series has finally come out on Nintendo Wii U and Switch, and when all is said and done, how good is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild after all the waiting?
Breath of the Wild starts off about as minimalist as possible. After the game loads up, you don’t get a title screen, or a file select – you don’t even get to name Link. The screen shows plain text – the title of the game – and then you’re seeing Link wake up from some strange stasis chamber and given control of him, a mysterious voice telling you what to do.
Once you leave the cavern Link wakes up in, you’re treated to an incredible vista of Hyrule, giving you a pretty good idea of how big this world truly is. After that, you’re given a point on the map and told to go there… and your adventure truly begins.
The story is the bog-standard Zelda fare with a few twists for the interpretation. Turns out Link just woke up after a hundred-year-slumber, having actually failed to defeat an ancient, reawakened evil known as the Calamity Ganon. Zelda is trapped within the ruins of Hyrule Castle, using her power to keep the Calamity Ganon sealed away, but her power is waning, and the Calamity threatens to break free at any moment.
It’s up to Link to save her, but after a hundred years, he’s lost his memories, his strength, even his weapon, the legendary Master Sword. He could rush off to save the day immediately, should he so choose, but he is advised to first explore Hyrule, regain his strength, and purify the Divine Beasts – ancient machines of war created ten-thousand years ago when the Calamity Ganon first struck. When it returned a hundred years ago, however, Calamity Ganon corrupted the Divine Beasts and robot-like Guardians with Malice, turning them against Hyrule.
The characters in the game are pretty standard, though we do get a little more insight into Link and Zelda’s personalities. I won’t spoil anything because discovering these moments are genuinely wonderful. Suffice to say, this is the most interesting version of the character Zelda in the series’ history.
There’s also voice acting for the first time in the series. Every major character has at least one voice-acted cutscene. The quality ranges from okay to pretty bad, as expected of Nintendo’s history with voice acting in their games.
Visually, the game is stunning. Beautiful landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see, ranging from dense forests to scorching deserts to snowy mountaintops. Clouds cast shadows upon the ground, you can see rainfall in the distance, the heat shimmer in the volcanic landscape of Death Mountain. The only hindrance is the draw distance – you’ll see a lot of things popping in – and the framerate.
I’ve played both versions, Wii U and Switch, and currently, the best experience is playing the Switch in handheld mode – it offers the smoothest experience by far with next to no framedrops. If you go with the Wii U version or you play the Switch docked, however, there’s a lot of framedrops, they’re very noticeable, and sometimes, they really get in the way. I’ve even had a fair few soft freezes, and even screen tearing on the Wii U version. Quite ugly screen tearing, too. It’s a serious problem in an otherwise wonderful-looking game.
Let’s talk about the sound. Sound effects are pretty standard, what you usually expect and get. Music, though, is actually pretty different for a Zelda title. Gone are many of the triumphant themes when exploring the land of Hyrule. The open-world has a much more ambient soundtrack, more often silent than not. You’ll get token bits of audio when exploring, and major areas like stables and towns have music, but it’s all very subdued. Every once in a while you’ll hear a familiar theme, but it’s as fleeting as it is memorable, lasting just long enough to catch your subconscious unawares.
That isn’t to say the music is bad, however, or that it doesn’t get intense when it needs to, because it does. The main dungeons all have a unique theme that evolves as you complete them, which was wonderful. And Hyrule Castle is worth sneaking into at the beginning of the game just to hear its absolutely incredible theme.
But we’re all here to talk about the gameplay. So how is actually playing Breath of the Wild?
It’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a Zelda title in a long time.
The key here is the sense of exploration and discovery. It’s a wide-open world with virtually no borders aside from the edges of the map. Unlike other open-world games, where mountains tend to act as chokepoints, passes as hallways, and you need to find paths in order to climb, in Breath of the Wild Link can climb nearly any surface, at any angle that doesn’t straight up turn into a ceiling. The only limit is your stamina and whether or not it’s raining, which makes climbing a near-impossibility.
Because of this, one of the best things about this game is climbing mountains, getting to the top, and then looking out over the vast expanse of Hyrule, marking things with your scope, and then gliding down to start gettin’ to the goods. And on your way up the mountain, or to whatever point you go first, there can be any variety of things, be them items, Korok puzzles, or even travelers like you under attack by monsters.
The game has the “climb towers to unlock the map” system a lot of other open-world games have, but this one literally does just unlock the map. It’s up to you to actually mark places by finding them, or tagging them with your scope. It’s fortunate the towers are so tall, so they provide a useful perch to fill your map up with icons and then go to town.
The dual systems of climbing and gliding combine to make the experience an exciting one. If you see something, you can usually get to it, it’s just a matter of climbing the right thing, gliding down to the right perch, and managing your stamina well. It is a shame that stamina doesn’t last very long, but it can be upgraded.
While you’re adventuring, chances are you’ll run into a few baddies here and there. Combat is pretty simple this time around. Link doesn’t really have any fancy moves or tricks. You have a variety of melee weapons – one-handed, two-handed, and spears, each with their own quirks and advantages – and a long-distance option in your bows. While fighting, timing your jumps and dodges just right will slow down time, and allow Link to perform a Flurry Rush, where he can bat away at enemies with impunity.
This Witch Time-esque mechanic is neat, and pulling it off is very satisfying, but there’s something about triggering it that just doesn’t seem to work quite right. Sometimes it’ll activate when you’re completely out of range of whatever the attack was. Sometimes it’ll activate in the middle of an enemy’s swing, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes before the swing even comes out, and sometimes not at all even though you feel like it definitely should have. It’s extremely difficult to get into a rhythm of this in the game, whereas Bayonetta 2 had pretty much perfected it. It’s quite a shame, especially when the game actually throws an encounter at you that requires mastery of the mechanic.
There’s also the shield bash, which again, the timing feels a bit off sometimes, whereas in Skyward Sword pulling off shield bashes in a chain was no problem at all, and damned satisfying at that. And that game required the dreaded “waggle controls” people are so keen to whine about all the time. Properly timing the shield bash in this game reflects projectiles, naturally, though distressingly does not activate the Flurry Rush. It would have been cool if it worked like the parry from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance or, well, Bayonetta 2 again. As it is, though, I really only used it to block certain attacks I didn’t feel confident on timing dodges for.
The bow and arrows, however, pretty much feel perfect. They arc nicely (and different bows even provide different arcs, so you’ll quickly find your favourites for each situation), and activating the slow-mo by jumping off ledges and then sniping a whole enemy camp feels awesome. You can even perform head shots, which is nice, and recover arrows fired at you by enemies. Blocking with a wooden shield even lets you steal their arrows just by having them hit the thing, which is a really cool detail. There’s a variety of different arrows with different effects, useful against different enemies with different weaknesses. All in all, archery in this game is supremely satisfying.
Central to all these weapons, however, is the durability system. Every weapon breaks after a while, forcing Link to select a new one from a quick-pause menu, or grab one off the ground. If you’re out of weapons in the middle of a heavy fight, you’re out of options – you have little choice but to flee since they’re really your only direct combat solution.
Weapons can feel a little too fragile sometimes. I can understand why using a rusted old sword would break it after a single skirmish, but a well-crafted blade used by the former knights of Hyrule breaks after about three fights? Fortunately, when a weapon breaks, it does a critical hit, heavily damaging an enemy, and usually flinging them aside and forcing them to drop their own weapon, which can naturally be picked up and used against them. Melee weapons can also be tossed to perform extra damage, at the cost of usually breaking them near instantly.
The weapon breaking system wouldn’t be so bad if there were a way to reforge your favourites using the multitude of resources you collect throughout the game. You use most of them in a quite-wonderful cooking system where combining ingredients create foods and potions that provide health and various boons. The cooking system and discovering new recipes is one of the best parts of the game, and it would’ve been pretty awesome to see a similar system in place for crafting weapons. It’s awesome when you find a greatsword that shoots fire in the wild – why not, when it breaks, offer the ability to pick up the shards after the battle has ended, and then let the player reforge the weapon? Perhaps even let them customize it a bit, to make it stronger and more uniquely theirs?
As it is, when you do get the few weapons in the game that can be reforged, the price of reforging them is so high, and the durability of the weapons in the end still fairly low, that it ends up not being worth it to reforge them after using them, while they’re so powerful you don’t want to use them at all except in that one “special situation.” I ended up hanging these unique weapons up in Link’s house that you can buy in the game. They look pretty cool hanging on a wall, though…
Aside from weapons, Link also has a variety of clothing he can wear throughout the game. A lot of it can also be redyed at a particular shop, too, so you can go through the game wearing colours unique to you… or if the lack of green really bothers you, you can paint his clothes green too. Clothes bolster Link’s lacklustre defences, and often provide additional benefits, like increased stealth, or resistance to particular climates. Clothes can even be upgraded, increasing their defence and even activating additional boons when a full set is worn.
You’re gonna need all the boons you can get, too, ’cause this game don’t mess around. Death is common in Breath of the Wild, with some enemies taking away as many as ten hearts with a single swing of their sword. Lightning strikes can kill Link if he’s unfortunate enough to be carrying anything metal on him, and fairies only provide five hearts upon resurrection. Getting knocked off a cliff is pretty much certain death. Foods provide things like additional hearts and defence or attack buffs, but if you get into a big fight with a big monster, you can expect to use up a lot of your resources in the pause menu.
So how do you get more hearts and stamina, though? Well, by entering one of the over-one-hundred Shrines dotting the landscape, of course! They act as puzzle rooms and fast-travel points, and solving the puzzle leads Link to various goodies – from powerful weapons to sweet Rupees – and a Spirit Orb. These act as the Heart Pieces of the game, as collecting four and then praying at a Goddess Statue will reward Link with either a Heart Container or a Stamina Vessel. These puzzle rooms start off pretty simple – the first four are literally tutorials for your tools – but get progressively more complex… or just throw you in a room with a particularly difficult opponent.
These are pretty much the “dungeons” of the game. The idea of the “whole world is the dungeon” fits together, even when you do have four “main” dungeons. These main dungeons are totally different from the previous games’ own. There’s no keys to find or combat challenges to open a locked door. You just solve a fairly simple puzzle using a gimmick unique to the dungeon – that isn’t an item – and then fight a boss and get a Heart Container and a new superpower. That’s about it. I actually kind of like it, since most of the challenge comes from getting to the dungeon.
This last part’s a concern that really hurts the Wii U version. And the reasoning behind it is not well-rationed. The Wii U version has no GamePad touch screen integration. At all. It doesn’t show a map of the world, you can’t use it to mark places, you can’t even use it as a keyboard when entering in a horse’s name. When you tap it, it transfers the screen to the GamePad. When you tap it again, it goes back up to the TV. That’s it.
If it was to enhance performace, then I’d understand, but apparently, that is not the case. Apparently, “it didn’t fit the feel of the game” and was also done for parity with the Switch version, which obviously lacks the whole “two screens” thing. But apparently it’s okay for Wind Waker HD, or any of the DS and 3DS Zeldas including the 64 remakes. (I haven’t played Twilight Princess HD because I hate Twilight Princess, but I imagine it also has a GamePad screen map.)
Bottom-line, it’s a poor excuse for a mechanic that could’ve actually helped with some of the game flow. Put the inventory there so we don’t have to deal with a kinda-clunky weapon select menu, or just be able to instantly eat food without having to pause the whole game. Put the map there so we can see our home-made map marks without having to pause the game.
In the end, however, Breath of the Wild is an incredibly good game. It really is a breath of fresh air for the series to have something so open and massive and readily explorable. The performance issues are very unfortunate, and the combat needed a little more fine-tuning, but as it is? I was lost in this world for quite some time, and I expect to be lost in it for quite a while more.