The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Review
With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has done something absolutely incredible and amazing. And after more than 70 hours and beating the main story of the game, I am still not quite sure how they did it.
I was never a fan of the 3D Zelda games. Even Ocarina of Time was not able to keep me interested throughout the whole game back in 1998; something that is still true to this day. I also don’t like open world games that much. So what were the chances of me even liking Breath of the Wild? Yet here I am trying to convey the brilliance of a masterpiece to you without even realizing the full spectrum of it myself.
For the longest time, Nintendo has been infamous for ignoring most of the industry’s achievements and instead focusing on itself. This has been true since Nintendo entered the US market in 1985: 2 years after the breakdown of the game industry, nobody wanted to get into videogames; except for Nintendo, which was able to resuscitate a dead industry with games like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Decades later, their ignorance of the HDTVs and after the failures of the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube, which not only lost the market leadership to the less powerful PlayStation and PlayStation 2 from SONY but also struggled against the industry newcomer from Redmond, led Nintendo to the Wii. This time, it was the company itself that rose out of the ashes like a phoenix. But it wasn’t so much the games defining the success but rather the movement control technology. Nintendo, assured that their ignorance of the rest of the industry would led them to new innovations and even bigger success then went on to present the WiiU. A critical failure that started a transformation of this industry heavyweight leading to many improvements in the way Nintendo developed and develops their businesses and Breath of the Wild is one of the products reflecting this transformation.
Breath of the Wild is influenced by many games with more or less open worlds. Aonuma himself explained in interviews that many of the younger designers at Nintendo play a lot of games from other companies and the influences for Breath of the Wild include Minecraft, later Far Cry games, Assassins Creed, Skyrim and the Souls‘ games. But rather than just taking bits and pieces out of those games and throwing them together, Nintendo assessed and transformed them; and by doing that it created something that isn’t afraid to let the player roam free, explore everything that it has to offer and experimenting with crazy ideas that – and this is to the game design’s credit as well – most of the time work out as the player expects.
The first striking thing about Breath of the Wild is its pace in the beginning hours. You wake up, you get your Shieka slate and then you’re sent to the entry of the crypt in which you were sleeping for over 100 years. To leave the crypt, you have to climb and it’s there where the game for the first time introduces a mechanic that we have all seen in other games before but never so well implemented and put to such good use as in Breath of the Wild‘s kingdom of Hyrule. The whole introduction to the player’s toolset takes about 2 hours in which you acquire the Shieka slate‘s different powers, learn how to protect you from environmental hazards and how to use the game’s manifold system’s to ambush enemies and create paths to places formerly unreachable; or you skip all of that. Although the game is never shy to show you how useful certain objects or skills are, it also rarely forces its systems onto the player with the exception of the weather system – but more about that later. This leads to playthroughs in which players travel all the way to the final boss only equipped with sticks and apples. Having beaten the game’s final boss I can’t imagine this to be much fun but I also didn’t complete even 30% of the whole game so maybe the time will come when I have completely mastered this game and am in such a dire need for one last challenge that I will try to save Hyrule with nothing more than my boxershorts and twigs. The game would let me do it and this feels empowering. Not only for a Nintendo game but in general.
The story seems to be your run-of-the-mill Zelda story at first: rescue the princess, defeat Ganon, defend Hyrule. And while all of this is true, the way it is presented this time adds much more to the mix than what we got in previous Zelda games at least to my knowledge. I don’t want to spoil any major plot points, but if you follow the story as closely as possible, you’ll see that this Zelda‘s story is not only about a boy saving a kingdom. It’s about a group of heroes that trained their whole lifes to defeat the most dangerous menace glooming over their homelands only to fail miserably. It’s a story about self-doubt, hidden love, rivalry between comrades and recrimination. There is a hidden warning of technologic progress for progress’ sake and a hint at sex discrimination. All of that could have been carved out more for an even bigger impact, but it is there for the player to discover as well as the ruins scattered throughout the world telling tales about that day 100 years ago when the heroes failed their mission.
The gameplay emerges from a complex system of cause and effect. The player can discover a broad range of tools to manipulate wind, use fire, create ice, move iron objects magnetically, cause explosions and even freeze objects and enemies for a short time in which every kinetic energy will be preserved and unleashed as soon as the freeze ends. One can swirl smaller enemies through the air the same way a sailing raft can be forced to move. Use bombs to unveil caverns with treasures or even shrines in it or use them to log trees or even do some dynamite fishing. Lay an ambush by setting dry grass on fire so the wind will led it to circle the enemy group. The game lets you play freely with its systems most of the time but uses one way to remind you that this is still a wild land that can never be tamed completely: through its weather system.
Breath of the Wild‘s weather system needs and deserves its own mention here because it is something that players need to keep in mind when planning their activities. The most brutal way the weather system can rain on one’s parade is if the player plans to do some abitious climbing. Climbing will drain your stamina and once the stamina is used up, Link will faill to the ground like a rock attached to an iron ball. When it’s raining, surfaces will become slippery which will change climbing in two ways: first, more stamina is used for climbing; second, there is a chance of slipping, causing the player to lose some of the distance covered. It can be brutal and will teach you to always keep an eye on the weather forecast when planning to do some extensive climbing. Apart from simple rain, there are also heavy storms with lightning and thunder and those can wreak havoc if one is not careful. You should stay away from trees, ideally get some cover and you should unequip every weapon, bow and shield made from iron if you don’t want your gravestone to tell people you’ve been struck by lightning. On the other hand, a metal weapon thrown into a group of enemies can yield some nice and fast results and I managed to wipe out a camp of enemies more than once by throwing a metal blade towards an explosive barrel at the right time. I could go on and on about mechanics as an enabler of player freedom but I would probably never finish this review. Just know that this game is filled to the brim with options and possibilities to roam the land, fight enemies and discover (NPCs for example follow their own agenda and meeting some of them at the right place at the right time may lead to something unexpected).
For all the game throws at the player though, it’s also forgiving and supportive. It lets the player pause on all occasions to consume some food for regaining health or stamina and the progress can be saved everywhere (although loading a saved game in a shrine will set you back to the shrine’s entry but your progress will still be saved). There are 120 shrines and beating 4 of them will give you the option to either increase your health or your your stamina. You can also find 900 so called Korok seeds that will enable you to increase your weapon, shield and bow storage. You can find and buy different outfits that provide special perks like letting you swim or climb longer (both activities use up your stamina), increase your attack power or letting you sneak up to enemies faster so you can use the backstab mechanic of the game more often. The game really does a great job to support different play styles and encourage the player to try them out, but it never forces the player to.
Technically this game is a very nice sendoff for the ill-fated WiiU. But we’re living in a Switch world now and this is also the platform I (and most other) play this game on. The elephant in the room is of course the hardware power that a device like the Switch can provide compared to the PS4 and XBox One. Let’s get it out of the way: this game is neither Rise of the Tomb Raider, nor is it Horizon and it was never going to be. Still, with clever use of a pastel-inspired artstyle and an art direction that focuses on the vastness of Hyrule the game regularly managed to make my jaw drop. Climbing a cliff only for the camera to rise above the cliff’s edge and reveal miles of woods and mountains is just one of the occasions where Breath of Wild made me lose myself completely in the game world. Effects for lightning and fire are also put to great use and the way this game visually supports the underlying ruleset of the game world is top notch. The only issue I had with the game were occasional framedrops in places where you wouldn’t expect them. Since the Switch is supposed to be much more powerful than its predecessor I expected a bit more than just a bump from 720p to 900p in docked mode with slightly better but still not perfect performance. Nintendo already released a first patch that significantly improves performance and since there is DLC coming for Breath of the Wild this will hopefully not be the last performance increase we see for the game. Whenever performance was important to the gameplay however, the game delivered so framedrops never affected my enjoyment of the game.
Conclusions: 5 (on a -5 to 5 scale). Scoring this game has been the most difficult part of this review. Breath of the Wild is not a perfect game, but no game will ever be. On a -50 to 50 scale, I’d probably rate it 48 but that is not possible on a -5 to 5 scale. Apart from the score, to me this game is a masterpiece of exploration, empowerment and option. I enjoyed all the time I spent with the game so far and I am looking forward to finding more shrines and secrets and I am curious what interesting things Nintendo will do with the DLC. I mentioned that Breath of the Wild is a reflection of Nintendo‘s current transformation, a transformation that hopefully is all but finished. When the credits of a game roll, I usually try to catch the names of people who – in my opinion – did a very good job as well as people who did a very bad job; you could say I try to channel my admiration and aversion during the credits. When the credits of Breath of the Wild rolled, I wanted to shake the hand of each and every member of the development team and bow to them. It truly is one of the best games ever made.