The Legend of Zelda is my most treasured gaming franchise; Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and Majora’s Mask all longtime favorites. That said, the last decade or so of Zelda games haven’t had the same spark we saw in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Twilight Princess leaned a bit too hard into the “dark and gritty” aesthetic, and Skyward Sword was dragged down by maddening motion control gimmicks. The DS games didn’t fare much better. Outside of the Nintendo 64 rereleases on the 3DS, I only really enjoyed A Link Between Worlds, which was basically just a revamped Link to the Past.
Thankfully, Breath of the Wild is possibly the best Zelda game ever released, – a welcome franchise shakeup after so many years.
After the Calamity
Once again, players put on the shoes of series protagonist Link, awakened from 100 years of slumber by the voice of Princess Zelda. Our hero finds himself in a ruined Hyrule, bereft of his memories. A century ago, “the Calamity” Ganon laid waste to Hyrule’s protectors, ancient mechanical Guardians. Ganon’s return corrupted the Guardians, turning them against their own people.
Only the power of Princess Zelda has kept Ganon confined to Hyrule Castle for these long years, though the scars of battle remain across vast stretches of Hyrule. Even now, Ganon’s minions patrol strongholds and encampments, harassing travelers and hoarding treasure.
While one would expect this kind of post-villain-victory world to be desolate, dreary, and morose, the opposite holds true. Friendly settlements are populated by numerous NPCs – all highly expressive, gorgeously drawn, and cleverly designed. Much like the Wii and Wii U before it, the Switch isn’t the most powerful console around, so Nintendo has emphasized style over graphical power.
For the first time in the series, characters come to life with voice acting. Important characters in the game speak their lines during cutscenes, allowing them more nuanced performances that allow Breath of the Wild to explore the mythos of the franchise in the deepest and most moving way yet. Zelda’s role in the story is particularly noteworthy as she grapples with her destiny and what it means to be a hero.
While the heroes are great, the villains may be the real stars of the show. Bokoblins, Moblins, Lizalfos, and other classic enemies populate the wilds of Hyrule, and all of them act like impressively real creatures. They sleep, talk to one another, hunt the wildlife, and react to everything you do to them. Interactions with common enemies are often fun and hilarious, in stark contrast to the fight for survival against higher-level foes.
Braving the Elements
Breath of the Wild is nearly as much a survival game as it is an adventure game. Link receives a Sheika Slate, a tablet-like device which acts as a map, inventory manager, and puzzle-solving tool. In the first area after Link wakes up in the Great Plateau, the Slate is upgraded with four runes that serve as all the tools you’d theoretically need to complete the game. These include two types of bombs, a magnetism ability, the power to freeze columns of water, and a stasis field.
After then acquiring a glider with which to escape the Great Plateau, everything else is more or less up to you. You could go ahead and fight Ganon right that moment if that struck your fancy. You’ll die a horrible, horrible death more likely than not, but hey, that’s your choice.
Breath of the Wild’s open world is daunting at first glance. While your single objective is to save Zelda from Ganon, how you get there is up to you. Thankfully, the game’s design steers you in the right direction by making certain areas inaccessible until you have enough health, stamina or the right gear. The trial and error aspect of traveling around the map pushes you towards areas in which you can survive. You can even mark places on the map to return to later when you’re better equipped.
Exploring Hyrule is a definite highlight in this new adventure. Many modern open-world games tout the line “If you can see it, you can go to it,” but few give players a reason to explore to that degree. Breath of the Wild bucks the trend by rewarding the player with something behind almost every nook and cranny. Whether it’s a shrine, a collectible korok seed, or some sort of crazy challenge, you’ll always find something over that next hill.
Oh, and be ready to die. A lot.
Fight the good fight
Combat has improved over previous 3D Zeldas, offering a more challenging and engaging experience. Enemies are smart, and can easily overpower you in numbers. On top of that, larger monsters are fast and powerful, and some can easily take Link out in a hit or two.
Although the increased challenge doesn’t compare to say, the Dark Souls franchise, it’s still a welcome addition to Zelda. You’ll have to strategize before a large encounter, and even rigorous preparation won’t ensure victory.
Like every Zelda since Wind Waker, you can gain the upper hand in combat by dodging an enemy’s attack at the correct time. However, unlike in previous games, the game doesn’t provide an obvious prompt on when to perform it. It’s up to you to analyze a monster’s attack pattern and time your dodges perfectly. Once you master this technique, you’ll definitely feel like the real Hero of Time.
Dungeons culminate in battles against inventive bosses, a mainstay of the series. All I’ll say is make sure you always stock up on arrows. You can never, ever have too many arrows, and you definitely don’t want to run out when you come up against a boss battle.
Gear has been redesigned from the ground up in this entry. The past Zelda formula of receiving a weapon or item per dungeon goes out the window. Instead, you’ll pick up new equipment all the time. The catch is the gear you find and equip eventually degrades and breaks after a period of use.
The durability system is certainly going to be a hot-button issue when discussing the legacy of this game. While it creates some annoyance early on, it also teaches you to experiment with each weapon class’ playstyle. You will find more durable items later on in the game, and can always change weapons on the fly when necessary.
Likewise, any armor you equip will bestow specific stat boosts and can be upgraded at Great Fairy Fountains as the game progresses
Secrets of the Sheika
Stamina and health can be upgraded by presenting four Orbs of Power to the Goddess Hylia. Link gets these by completing mini-dungeons located in Sheika Shrines dotting the landscape.
These shrines are the high point of Breath of the Wild. Each contains a specific challenge, such as a physics puzzle, memory test, or combat challenge. It’s almost always a joy to discover a new shrine and tackle its innards.
Why “almost always?” Well, Nintendo made some of these shrines require the dreaded specter of motion controls. These puzzles are consistently the most frustrating and tedious of the challenges, marring an otherwise terrific part of the game.
While these only make up a significantly small portion of the shrines, it still feels archaic to include the Wii’s “waggle” in a game that breaks from the past so significantly. It’s a small sign that Nintendo still doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. I’d love a patch to come around that allows the use of normal controls to solve these shrines.
The main dungeons follow a similar structure to the shrines, relying on physics based puzzles far more than combat challenges. Using the Sheika Slate’s runes, you must purge Ganon’s influence from the dungeons and secure their power for the side of good. This sometimes even includes controlling parts of the dungeon itself via the map screen. For instance, in the elephant-shaped dungeon, you can adjust the angle of the trunk, affecting a stream of water that runs gears and platforms inside.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a massive step forward for the Legend of Zelda series, which had been stuck in a rut for more than a decade. Its expansive and rewarding world is chock full of sharply designed puzzles, entertaining characters, and the best story we’ve seen in a Zelda title in a long, long time.
For my money, Breath of the Wild will be touted as a crowning achievement in gaming. People should go out of their way to experience this one. While it has a few issues like rare but noticeable framerate hitches and the general annoyance of motion controls, Breath of the Wild shows that Nintendo is still king when it comes to making great games.