The Legend Of The Zelda: Breath Of The Wild review
[Reviewed on Switch]
Cartography is a pretty tough gig. Or rather, it was, before satellite imagery was everywhere and cameras became a staple part of more or less any gadget. We’re basically cheating today, whereas the mapmakers of old had to do everything by eye and by hand. It’s not just the tech that has been making our lives easy in this regard either. Games are just as guilty, as anyone who has played a Ubisoft open world game will tell you – climb a tower and boom, instant awareness of every relevant thing in a quarter mile radius. And so, as you climb your first tower in Breath Of The Wild, you naturally expect the same kind of payoff. Modern games have conditioned you to think such might be the case, but it doesn’t come. Topography is revealed, sure, but hidden treasures and secrets remain exactly that, save those you can see and tag through the scope on Link’s latest toy, the Sheikah Slate – the high-tech tablet of choice for the discerning Hylian hero.
You’re actively encouraged to splash this canvas, as it’s slowly revealed, with beacons, icons and markers to remind yourself of discovered problems with undiscovered solutions, or resources you might need later. Today, in an era when we need do nothing of the sort either in our daily lives or in the majority of our games, this busywork is surprisingly satisfying, and that’s merely a single example of a way in which Breath Of The Wild achieves its refreshing sense of actual discovery and adventure. We felt bad enough before about Tingle stealing thousands of our Rupees in exchange for his mapping services, but the problem appears to run far deeper than we knew. If Breath Of The Wild is anything to go by, he’s been stealing our fun as well.
The idea that this is the franchise’s first foray into open-world gaming is an incredible misnomer. Link’s NES debut and its divisive sequel both went with similar setups, albeit constrained by the technology of the time. This too holds true of later games, to an extent, it’s just that having media and public alike decorate Ocarina Of Time with so many medals, ribands and awards that it couldn’t see where it was going had that exact effect. Nintendo was left emulating the formula of its accolade-blinded golden child rather than attempting the same kind of hardware-driven rejuvenation of structure whenever a new console would allow such, although the previously used themes of sea and sky – two famously quite empty things – suggest that hardware was probably just as much to blame.
Whether it’s tech finally catching up to vision or vision finally catching up to potential, we’re now at a point where a fully open Hyrule is free to rub shoulders with the open-world greats. Sure, it has to get on tip-toes to do so at points but still, that a Zelda game can stand alongside the long-serving pillars of modern open-world gaming and not look that short by comparison borders on ‘miracle’ status, especially considering that the rest of the industry has a good 15-year headstart on Breath Of The Wild in terms of fully open 3D environments.
The tired formula of ‘get Hookshot in Temple #4, use Hookshot to clear Temple #5’ is gone, then, but it finds itself replaced with a solution that is itself not without issues. The first four Shrines – which are mandatory before being allowed to hit the wider map beyond the Plateau – grant access to four key tools that will be used throughout your adventure. It feels liberating at first to be gifted such power so early, but as these are the only essentials in the game, there’s only so much that puzzles and challenges based around these core skills can evolve over its course. This is especially true when the game’s open nature means players could theoretically tackle any problem in the first few hours and while some solutions may not always be obvious, knowing that you definitely have the tools for the job already sort of makes the ‘come back later’ idea of map marking a little redundant unless you’re in a rush to get somewhere else.
Not all Shrines are created equal, either. A fair few reward outside-the-box thinking that trivialises or breaks their tasks completely, but whether you see that as great free-form puzzle design or sloppy planning will likely vary on a case-by-case basis. Of the ones we broke, we were probably around 50/50 on that front by the time we were done. There are also an awful lot of combat-based Shrines, and the execution is weak. With only the most minor of changes, they’re all the same single enemy in the same room, each serving as nothing more than a test of your knowledge of the (really simple) mechanics and a DPS check for those who don’t have good enough gear to beat the tougher ones yet.
Inventory management itself is one of the biggest changes to the series and, while divisive, it’s an interesting move that keeps you on your toes. Weapons break after a certain amount of use, which makes balancing what to take, what to leave, and what to use when important skills to develop. On the fly switching makes testing and learning the basics easy, while different weapon archetypes all serve different purposes. The rapid linear strikes of a spear will do wonders against certain enemy types, while others may be more susceptible to the crushing strikes of a two-handed weapon. There’s a more varied and versatile arsenal available than in any Zelda title to date, but your loadout will change with pretty much every major fight, forcing you to adapt to each encounter or risk losing your most powerful gear. Shields and bows also suffer the same degradation from repeated use, making sitting behind a board nonviable and giving another reason (on top of ammo consumption) to think twice about every arrow you nock.
Armour isn’t beholden to such rules, however, and while it’s another distinct change to series norms in how each piece of equipment mitigates damages and provides skills independently, at least your wardrobe is in no danger of breaking. That is, if you even elect to use it – we, for whatever reason, decreed to keep Link in his pants for as long as possible, but a combination of environmental effects that can be cancelled with the right clothing and one-shot kills everywhere (attack damage can be pretty brutal) meant we eventually had to ditch our vows of nudity. We’re glad we did, in hindsight. The new system is flexible and interesting, even more so when you consider that upgraded gear sets often offer decent bonuses that make them preferable to the mix-and-match sets you’ll almost certainly spend most of the game wearing.
That’s far from the biggest change from the Zelda conventions you’re probably used to by now, although it’s borderline impossible to discuss how Breath Of The Wild handles dungeons without stumbling into Spoiler City. Like so much of the series’ design, dungeons have long been created from the same blueprint used in the early games, labyrinthine expanses of basic puzzles, locked doors and simple combat trials. Look at the vast majority of these through a modern lens and they make no sense. Ocarina’s Water Temple plans were clearly laid out with nothing but contempt for visitors, for instance, while general dungeon design across the series throws up places that exist in their own similar little logic bubbles.
BOTW’s equivalents are, by stark contrast, believable and logical, smaller in scale but still packed with interesting and unique challenges to overcome. Freed as the game is from the trappings of the ‘use the item you got last to win’ template, each can use its own mechanics to test players on a much broader scale. Combat in these spaces is also infrequent, but this again makes sense in context. With enemies littered all over the overworld (and respawning regularly with every Blood Moon event, which occurs every few in-game days), it’s not like you’ll be short of things to hit anyway.
This new-found sense of logic also carries over to most of the game’s other systems, and makes for some incredible moments. Caught in a thunderstorm? Metal equipment will attract lightning, so unequip all metallic items to avoid getting the AC/DC treatment, or toss them (the items, not AC/DC) at enemies to let nature smite them on your behalf. Need to be somewhere in a hurry? Find a Stasis-friendly object, freeze it, then wait on it before jumping on board your own private flight as the stored kinetic energy does what your virtual legs couldn’t be bothered to do. Out of fire arrows? Simply light the tip of a regular arrow on any open flame – don’t try this with bomb arrows though. Attention to detail is amazing throughout, even extending to dialogue based on appearance and previous actions too, again just playing into the idea of this being an epic, personal adventure.
It’s a shame, then, that things like dialogue aren’t better. It’s painfully clear that this is the series’ first real foray into voiceover work (the CD-i games don’t count, for obvious reasons) and between the loose, open-world-friendly story and the generally weak performances, things really aren’t good on this front. It feels kind of weird that Link still doesn’t speak in critical scenes when everyone else does, but that just seems like a blessing in disguise. Audio in general isn’t the best, but when you’re dealing with a series where the bar is so astronomically high in that regard, disappointment is almost to be expected. There are some amazing tunes, but with much of the soundtrack being minimal and incidental sound is comfortably the weakest part of the game.
But if that is your number one problem when shifting from a two-decade-old format to a brand new one, it’s fair to say you’ve done pretty well. Breath Of The Wild delivers a huge world, and one that is interesting to explore even when such escapades prove fruitless. It comes good with satisfying combat and dozens of reasons to carry on playing after the credits. For all of its issues, it’s a game that manages to reinvent itself, comfortably, effortlessly, in a space dominated by the industry’s triple-A heavyweights. This is one of the most creative and engrossing open-world games in quite some time.