As Link flew in, a flurry of snow kicked up during a Lynel’s attempt on my life, and I couldn’t help but notice a V of birds flying overhead aimed towards the sun setting over a distant ocean. Even when I was having my rear handed to me, I was impressed by how much this new Zelda delivered on every front. Having a genuinely awesome experience from every angle was my biggest worry from the first time the game was teased – would it be beautiful but with nothing else to add to the mix? Would straying from the classic formula ruin a good thing? And did Nintendo even know what we wanted from an open-world Zelda? After such a long wait for this instalment, it turns out that not only did they know what we wanted, they were able deliver it in a perfect little package called Breath of the Wild (BotW).
Like so many, I have waited forever for this game, but I promised to be thorough and honest about anything I found, either positive or negative. Honestly, however, I don’t have enough space for all the exceptional praise. We’ll start with the most striking part of BotW, mostly because one minute into the game you are gifted with an almighty view of Hyrule. Granted, the game stops you while it superimposes the title over the sight though it’s impossible not to appreciate the scope and detail already available to you. Standing on that one peak gives you a chance to observe a vast expanse, rolling landscapes, far distant points of interest, and a dynamic sky blanketing the whole of Hyrule. Hyrule feels real and engrossing even when skulking around a dark corner of the map. There’s enough detail and thought put into the world outside of the primary areas that give the entire map a reason to be explored. If you don’t see enough of what’s on offer while pursuing the main quest, you get rewarded for straying and being curious.
This detail extends to Link, every character and enemy, each item, and even the interior decorating. Things that seem unimportant, like what saddle my steed has, suddenly become an aspect of the game that I could control and enjoy. Before long, I was taking pride in how well my dyed clothes matched my steed, until I looked like a member of the My Little Pony clan. The insects, wildlife, and even 100-year-old ruins perched on a hillside all made Hyrule a captivating place. It made the screenshot and share feature of the Switch a must-have design choice, even just for this one release. The music was also much better than I had hoped. A straight reuse of the iconic music would have been lazy but, instead, many of the most popular scores have been rehashed and layered to create a more solid, mature soundtrack. Nintendo let us relive Zelda history through much of the music, subtly reminding us that this is the same world, it just needs some TLC and some serious degreaser.
In most Zelda games, there are guarantees of some sort. For example, there will be a clear designated order to where you go, and if you try to do it any other way a convenient hurdle will block your path. That may have been a boulder before you had bombs, or an arrow switch before you found a bow. BotW is a true open world experience from the first area. I died of over excitement when I jumped in the lake because no one told me not to, and it was excellent! After some chit chat with an NPC and some minor questing, players receive the bow, bombs, strange powers, and a myriad of other items that would normally be received in a slow trickle in other Zelda titles. And what’s this? Are you also giving me the ability to warp AND travel quickly with a paraglider all at once? OH, MY GORON!
I considered my position in the game – was I now too overpowered for surrounding enemies and areas? After dying at least 19 times in the next 4 hours of gameplay, I stopped counting and kind of had my answer. BotW gives you everything you need to tackle the story in any order, or not at all, and leaves how hard it will be up to the player. Hearts immediately became a precious commodity and shrines, the way to amass them, become one of the best parts of the game. At first, I thought it was a completionist attempt to stretch the game out longer, but in fact, they provide a few necessary services. Their spirit orbs can be converted to hearts or stamina, handy item caches, and the shrines become warp points for future travels. After the first few I wasn’t sure what to expect but began thinking of them as little wrapped presents all over the world. They effectively replaced the dungeon puzzles I was missing, with no helpful sprite holding your hand through them, and if you spent the time exploring you were always rewarded. It was especially nice to find that each one had a different puzzle or blessing to offer, varying from minor strength tests to infuriating physics puzzles that required the use of the motion sensor, and the patience of a kindy teacher.
In BotW the three “collectable” quests that span the story are all worthwhile in themselves, offering a feeling of genuine accomplishment and great reward. The memories are a large chunk of the back story that you would otherwise miss if not sought out, and drastically alter the ending when they’re all collected. The shrines, as I’ve already mentioned, allow you to increase your hearts and stamina, which in turn increases your chances of survival. Then there’s the Koroks who, love them or hate them, are super helpful. When you first start returning the seeds to the Korok dance major with a ‘roids problem, instant gratification starts a fire in your belly. The biggest struggle in the game is breaking weapons, and this dude can help you overcome that with the ability to carry so much more. It’s worth keeping an eye out for them to get as many as you can; The Lost Woods was hit hard by inflation.
Saving has also been improved on from previous games, being able to save anywhere in the world, and re-load into your file from the exact same location where you saved. I actually ended up playing the game majoritively on the undocked Switch pad, which is actually the smoothest and most enjoyable way to play the game. While connected to a TV, there are a lot of framerate dips that may, or may not be due to the hardware limitations of the Switch; it’s too early to tell, either way. BotW, however, isn’t entirely without problems. I personally found the bosses to be a little on the flat side, particularly the final fight. Granted, I could have been less prepared or could have skipped the entire main quest, making for an incredibly difficult fight, but that seemed like much less of a heroic stand against evil, and a less satisfying way to end the game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild feels very much alive, and brings what has classically been a very linear, restrictive adventure series into the open-world genre in a fantastic way. It stays true to many of the series’ tropes, borrowing heavily from established lore, locations, and characters, but breathing new life into them to create something unique to the franchise. There are some technical issues with how the game plays on a TV as opposed to the Switch pad, and there are aspects of the design that could have used more work to make them more enjoyable, or less frustrating. On the whole, however, Breath of the Wild is brilliant fun and is going to be for so many new players what Ocarina of Time has been to an entire generation.