Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, the latest entry in Nintendo’s long-running fantasy adventure series, is a tough game to review. For one thing, it’s a huge departure for the influential franchise, one so big that it blurs – if not completely erases – the line between what is thought to constitute a ‘good’ Zelda and a ‘bad’ one. Secondly, the vast world and the large amount of content it presents, coupled with the freedom it provides to play around in said world, means that each person’s experience with it can be greatly different.
In short, there is no way to fully encapsulate and critique the entire Breath of the Wild experience in the scope of a moderate-length text review. However, what I can say is that this new outing is the re-imagining that the ailing Zelda franchise has needed for at least the last ten years. While the newest installment is definitely not perfect and breaks little ground compared to many of the early games in the series, there is certainly a lot to love here.
In trying to the reinvigorate the stale Zelda format Nintendo ironically looked back to the franchise’s genesis; the free-form 1986 original The Legend of Zelda. Clear comparisons can also be made to contemporary open-world game series like Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed and The Elder Scrolls, though Nintendo can often be so insular that it’s difficult to tell if its development team took direct inspiration from those. Whatever the stimulus, the intention with Breath of the Wild was to let players loose in a vast and open interpretation of the kingdom of Hyrule with total control over their destinies.
You can go there
While many ideas never make it from the conceptual stage to the end product, Nintendo has done a solid job in realising this one in the final version of the game. The ultimate goal, as is common in your typical Zelda, is to defeat the villainous Ganon. However, instead of being required to conquer multiple puzzle and monster-filled dungeons in a linear order before one gets there, Breath of the Wild allows the player to do pretty much whatever they want, in whatever order they want, almost from the outset. They can take their time and seek out health and stamina upgrades, special abilities and powerful weapons and armours before the final battle. Alternatively, they could try to make their way to Ganon right way, although it would be quite a feat to be able to beat him while so underpowered and unprepared. Four dungeon-type installations can be tackled and the series’ iconic Master Sword acquired before the ultimate battle, but these are entirely optional and can be tackled pretty much in any order.
Hyrule, the usual setting for The Legend of Zelda, is enormous this time around, so much so that it’s probably to scale with an actual small country. To facilitate traversing such vast and varied surroundings our hero Link can now climb most surfaces, able to scale vast heights only limited by the depletion of his stamina meter. A paraglider is also at the player’s disposal which makes crossing gaps and large open distances possible, and getting down from said vast heights much quicker and safer. Horse riding and fast travel – typical Zelda standbys – also speed up getting around the land, though these have to be earned or unlocked first.
Exploration, puzzle-solving and combat – the bread and butter of every Zelda – are now spread more evenly throughout this enormous world. There are enemies to vanquish, resources to be gathered, treasures to be claimed, meals to be cooked, animals to be tamed, hunted or photographed, ascents to be climbed, regions to be mapped and other secrets to be uncovered. Most notable are the new Shrines, which are bite-sized mini-dungeons that often contain just one puzzle, but each reward you with one Spirit Orb; one quarter of the way to a health or stamina upgrade. The four major installations come closer in length to traditional Zelda dungeons and each contain a boss monster that needs defeating, but these are still much shorter than in prior titles.
So that’s the Breath of the Wild in a nutshell. The ultimate goal is to beat Ganon, but how the player goes about that, and how long they take getting there, is in their hands. If that sounds in any way appealing to you then you probably won’t regret picking up a copy of the game, whether it’s on the Wii U or the brand new Switch console. You’ll get your money’s worth too. I racked up around 30 hours mainlining the key story stuff, playing efficiently as possible and doing a bare minimum of side content. If you want to hunt out every Shrine, inventory upgrade, the best equipment and complete every side quest then you’re probably going to clock in more than 80 hours. Even if you’re not a fan of long-form video games, the short length of the individual Shrines, dungeons and side quests combined with the ability to save at any point makes the game surprisingly suitable for short play sessions, and thus a good fit for the Switch given the console’s portability.
Clouds on the horizon
Despite receiving an extremely positive reception in the vast majority of reviews, the game is not without its faults. One thing I haven’t seen other reviewers mentioning is the weakness of Breath of the Wild‘s late-game. I found the final battle with Ganon to be surprisingly easy, and that was only after about 30 hours of play without much grinding for health or stamina upgrades. Once this anticlimactic encounter was over and I’d learned how straightforward it actually was, this significantly diminished the sense of importance I previously attributed to seeing and doing everything in the game. Furthermore, as I dug deeper into Hyrule’s content after this I began to realise I’d probably actually experienced nearly all of the types of content that there was to experience. Besides doing the uniquely-designed Shrines, I started to run into the same old Bokoblins, mine the same old minerals, and carry out the same type of fetching-based side quests over and over again. Now that I’ve clocked over 55 hours, I can safely say that there simply isn’t enough variety of content to keep it feeling fresh. After the 40 hour mark the remaining quests, tasks and collectibles began feeling a little too much like a grind, and that mystery I felt during my first hours with the game had long since subsided. Bearing in mind the size of its map, Breath of the Wild really could’ve done with a greater variety of enemies and wild animals, and maybe even a few more game play mechanics such as armour crafting and weapon repairs.
Speaking of repairs, a common criticism of the game is its armament system. Instead of having a limited number of permanent weapons and shields like previous games, Link is now able to acquire and equip any bow, shield, sword, spear, axe or club that can be found throughout the land of Hyrule. While this does add the positive of providing more variety in combat, a big negative of this is that almost every single armament has a very limited number of uses before breaking. Don’t plan on getting attached to your weapons, and be prepared to be constantly scavenging for more, since most will be destroyed through seemingly less than a dozen strikes upon enemies and objects. Now, this wouldn’t have been so bad had there been any way to repair or strengthen weapons and shields but despite providing a fairly robust cooking system, Nintendo didn’t include either of these in the game. As a result, combat becomes fiddlier, frequently requiring the player to equip a new weapon in the midst of battle, and can even completely screw the player over when in the middle of major encounters such as boss battles, forcing them to have to die or leave the area and not return until they’ve scrounged up enough quality replacements. I understand that the developers probably wanted players to seriously consider the risk/reward balance here, but the system grated on me and ultimately made me want to avoid battles more often than not.
Once more with feeling
A noteworthy issue that hasn’t been discussed is the game’s story. The game’s narrative presents probably the weakest, most minimal Zelda plot since perhaps the early 8-bit origins of the series. Long-standing villain Ganon is reduced to a speechless monster, there are no interesting twists or developments throughout, and the supporting cast and background plot are given so little screen time that it was hard to get invested in the characters or world on any significant level. Further hurting the narrative is the decision to make the majority of the game’s cut-scenes flashbacks which are only triggered at ridiculously hard to find spots spread around the world. Topped off with some weak English voice-acting (which you could easily confuse with a low-budget Saturday morning cartoon) and very little connection to the long-standing Zelda mythos, it makes the world less intriguing and absorbing than most entries in the series.
On the subject of immersion, some graphical and technical issues prevented me from fully getting caught up in the world of Hyrule. While there are a lot of nice effects, such as individual blades of grass and some convincing use of light and shadows, it feels like the ambitions of the developers are being held back by hardware limitations. This has been a noteworthy issue with most of Nintendo’s consoles ever since it went for a cheaper, conservatively-powered approach for the Wii back in 2006, and the Zelda series, known in its earlier incarnations for its impressive visuals, has suffered probably the most of all Nintendo properties because of it. Expect to see the occasional low-resolution texture on surfaces, conspicuous object pop-in (even at moderate distances) and even significant dives in frame rate in particularly busy areas.
I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by Breath of the Wild’s music, also. The game takes a very minimal and subdued approach to its score, as if trying to accompany the slower flow of the more realistic open-world gameplay. While I understand what the composers were going for in that regard, I couldn’t help but yearn for more prominent and memorable background music, not to mention more audio in general. There simply aren’t enough tracks here to span a 30 hour adventure, let alone one that could last players over 100 hours, so expect to be hearing the same fairly low-key compositions over and over again. Classic Zelda tracks and leitmotifs do occasionally appear, though mostly only in the game’s limited number of scripted cut-scenes. Even in places where it felt like it could have reprised classic tracks, like using the Goron theme in Goron City, it doesn’t always do so. As a result, the new main theme, whatever it’s officially named, is probably the only stand-out number in the whole score.
So, despite the seemingly never-ending showers of perfect review scores, Breath of the Wild is not flawless, nor a contender for the title of ‘greatest game ever made’. It has too many problems and cribs enough from other contemporary open-world games such as that I can’t call it a genre-defining classic like I would Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past or certain previous Zelda games. Regardless, this latest update is still a great game. It’s a much-needed re-imagining of a classic franchise that frankly should have happened a lot sooner. I hope Nintendo makes another entry in the series in this vein, using the engine and core systems as a base but honing it into a tighter and deeper experience, like how Majora’s Mask was a critical expansion to Ocarina of Time.