The original Legend of Zelda is one of the earliest games I remember experiencing, and the one I often cite as my gateway into the hobby. It’s a landmark title for me. For most of my gaming career, it remained one of my favourite series. However, my enthusiasm has waned after the last few entries disappointed to differing degrees. Twilight Princess did the impossible and made me apathetic to a console Zelda. Skyward Sword was the breaking point for me; a game I had such overwhelming vitriol for that I had all but lost faith that I’d ever enjoy another entry in the long-running series. I’m happy to say that Breath of the Wild has proven me wrong.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
The biggest reason for my loss of trust in the series was its growing tendency to hold you by the wrist and guide you to the solution of every problem. This technically goes as far back as Ocarina of Time, with its pestersome Navi, but at least she kept her mouth shut unless you wanted information. I’m aware that “Hey! Listen!” has become the measuring stick of annoying assist characters, but to her credit, she would rarely interrupt gameplay unless you hit C-Up to obtain deeper information on the situation. Fi from Skyward Sword, on the other hand, was the most abrasively obtrusive assist character that I can recall ever encountering. She turned the whole game into one big, never-ending tutorial, and to this day, the mere sight of her gets me baying for blood.
ALONE AT LAST
Taking place as Link awakens 100 years after he and his cadre failed to prevent a cataclysm, Breath of the Wild is quick to throw you into the wide world. Sort of. You start off on an isolate plateau to begin with, but it’s a pretty big and open plateau that allows you to come to grips with the game’s mechanics before thrusting you into the greater Hyrule area. Initially, it’s a lonely world, highlighted by omnipresent environmental sounds of wildlife and sparse, creeping piano music. Your only point of contact up to that point is an old man who helps you get acquainted with some of the game’s minute facets, such as cooking and navigating.
It isn’t long before you encounter villages of people and small isolated stables that act as quick rest points while exploring the game’s vast, vast world. It’s unique for an open world, as it features wide open spaces with nothing in them, a far cry from the cluttered landscapes of the Ubisoft and Bethesda sandboxes. That’s not to say that it’s empty, there seems to be something new to see over every hill, but it’s not afraid to leave you alone as you traverse the rolling fields and treacherous cliffsides. Sidequests are typically picked up in villages and stables, rather than dotting the landscape, and most only exist to direct your attention to a specific point in the map.
ANYWHERE AND EVERYWHERE
When you get down to it, many of the Zelda games featured an open world, only locking out certain portions of it until you picked up a specific item in a formula pioneered by the Metroid series. Wind Waker was pretty open, the original NES title featured few roadblocks, but this entry puts all that came before to shame. This isn’t just the most open and unrestrictive Zelda games of all time, it’s one of the most unrestrictive games there has been. From the moment you set boots in Hyrule field, you’re free to do what you want. Within reason, of course.
Reason is stretched pretty far in Breath of the Wild, since from the get go, you can launch an assault on the end boss and bring an early peace to the land. That is to say, it’s unlikely you’re going to beat Ganon armed with nothing more than a broken twig, but if you’re super determined and put your mind to it, it’s technically possible. A player who actually prefers to play the game will, of course, embark on an adventure that centers around building yourself up for that climactic fight, but the fact that you can just ignore everything and expedite the fulfillment of your destiny is undeniably tantalizing.
The writing is strangely fantastic. The characters and dialogue are ridiculously goofy, yet uniquely natural at the same time. Learning about the benefits of cooking with ore or being ambushed by the followers of Ganon are often extremely entertaining, and the way these characters cope with the world makes the whole place seem lively and believable, despite being desolate and fantastic.
THE PART WITH ALL THE SPOILERS
It’s probably unreasonable to expect a story with the narrative depth of the absolutely peerless Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but if that’s what you’re looking for when diving in to Breath of the Wild, you’re not going to get it. That’s not to say it disappoints, its storytelling is just rather minimal, preferring instead to focus the attention elsewhere. However, among the Zelda games, Breath of the Wild’s tale is unique in a number of ways.
For starters, the story feels a lot like in media res, that is to say, the humble beginnings have already come and gone. Convenient amnesia or not, Link is already established as an experienced hero, and is now left cleaning up the mess left by his less capable colleagues. The major plot details are told through flashbacks found throughout the world that center around Princess Zelda and how badly she failed at fulfilling her part in the series’ ongoing prophecy. She was unable to awaken her power to seal evil, assembled a dream team of champions to pilot ancient technology, then subsequently got everyone killed when she couldn’t get her act together. I’m simplifying it, of course, but that’s the gist of it.
Diverging from the traditional sandbox formula, Breath of the Wild’s main story arc isn’t very strict. You’re given a few main tasks, some of them provided at the outset of the plot, and others revealed as time goes on. You have to restore your memories, free the guardians, retrieve the Master Sword, and eliminate Ganon. As previously mentioned, only one of those tasks are a requirement for finishing the game. The rest you can ignore, which I don’t feel you could be blamed for. I mean, the plan didn’t exactly go over so well the first time, so maybe it’s time for a more direct approach.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
The story structure isn’t the only thing that bucks Zelda tradition, the game itself also attempts to go its own way wherever it can get away with it. The Zelda formula hasn’t really changed much since A Link to the Past cemented the series conventions and established the blueprint. Even at its most inventive, the games have largely followed the old, “get item A from dungeon B to traverse dungeon C.” This has lead to a lot of shots being taken at the series rigidity, often referring to new games as remakes of Ocarina of Time, which Breath of the Wild attempts to avoid.
For starters, the item system is far less mechanical. Rather than delving into dungeons to get the boomerang, bombs, and bow, your armory is built only from combat and exploration. New armor can be found in shops, shrines, and from doing quests, while weapons and other items are found, well, everywhere. Your first sword and bow are likely to be picked up off of fallen enemies, and you can find new types of arrows at any time by simply opening chests or defeating certain baddies. Items that actually help you traverse your surroundings, like bombs and a device that turns water into a pillar of ice, are given to you in the very first area, conveniently accessible on your tablet-like Sheikah Slate.
You’ll need to keep yourself stocked with swords and shields, because the weathering they’ve taken since the fall of civilization has resulted in them breaking under the slightest impact, as though they were forged of papier mache. You swap out weaponry more frequently than your underwear, and it results in this bizarre situation where Link is carrying dozens of the same sword. It works, but it’s strangely a strange mechanic in an otherwise organic game. If you’re like me, you’ll wind up stockpiling your favourite type of sword, refusing to use any of them, waiting for a special occasion, which never seems to occur, because no occasion is special enough for you to sacrifice your beloved sword.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: some will have a problem with the weapon durability. I didn’t, but readily admit that it’s maybe not the most ideal system.
THE HIGHS AND THE LOWS
If there’s one problem I stumbled across with the game, it’s the fact that after the excitement of being tossed into an unforgiving world and left to survive, things slowly become routine. You wind up being so powerful after a while that encounters become more of an annoyance than a thrill; just more opportunities to break your stockpiled weaponry against the faces of the more resilient combatants. The world starts to feel smaller after you’ve done so much exploration, and it no longer feels as though it hides something behind every hill and in every crevice.
Of course, the game didn’t force me to play for the length of time that I did. My issue was that every time I would make the conscious decision to buckle down and push forward with the main quest, I’d get sidetracked looking for pants that go along with my armor. I also have an aversion to fast travel, so traversing the huge world took longer for me. I could have easily stopped long before things began to smell stale, but I didn’t, and that’s my problem.
Yet even having said that, I never really wanted Breath of the Wild to end. It was an absolute joy to play from start to finish, and there was an almost mourning period after it was finished; a period where I had to force myself to not just dive back into the world to dig up more collectibles. I haven’t been this engrossed by a Zelda game since Wind Waker, and I honestly thought I never would be. I have absolutely no idea how Nintendo could possibly top this game, though they’ll inevitably try. I guess when that happens, you can count me on board.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using an original copy of the game paid for by the author.