Available On: Wii U, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
Released: March 3, 2017
“A Breath Of Fresh Air”
If you don’t own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, chances are good that you don’t own a Switch either. Until Splatoon 2 or Super Mario Oddessy hit later this year (yes, ARMS looks cool, but it’s hardly a system seller), Breath of the Wild is pretty much the Switch’s only game that isn’t either a port or a tiny, supplementary indie game. As such, whether or not Breath of the Wild is any good basically determines whether or not the Switch itself is worth getting at this moment in time.
Nintendo are banking the success of the Switch’s launch on this one game, and by extension, possibly it’s future success as well. Luckily, the gamble seems to have paid off. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a pretty good game that offers innovative new takes on old Zelda tropes while granting players and huge amount of explorative freedo-WHOOPS MY SWORD BROKE!
Breath Of The Wild marks a lot of firsts for the series, for both better and worse. Most notably, this is the first properly open world game in the franchise. Sure, Zelda games have always encouraged a degree of exploration within their worlds, but progression ultimately always came down to tackling objectives in a mostly linear fashion and as such I would argue that like Fable or Dark Souls, they aren’t true open world games.
By contrast, as soon as players leave the Great Plateau, the game’s tutorial area, you’re free to go anywhere you want, your progress limited only by your ingenuity and fighting skill.
The freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want, to come back to a difficult quest later or decide to simply go climb a mountain because it’s there is immensely satisfying and a great fit for the Zelda series, which has always been about epic quests through a sprawling fantasy world. Allowing us to explore the world at our leisure also plays to the strengths of the series, creating a world full of colorful characters, locations, puzzles and bosses. Prioritizing an interesting game world also lets the game downplay one of the major weaknesses of the series, story.
The stories of Zelda games have never been particularly strong. Even my personal favorite Zelda game, Twilight Princess, as refreshingly dark as it got at times, had a fairly generic story and really let itself down at the end when the bad guy turned out to have been Gannon the whole time. Even more annoying since Zant had been an intimidating and effective villain throughout the game by himself, at least until he turned into the Wacky-Waving-Inflatable-Arm-Flailing-Tube-Man right at the end.
For what it’s worth, Breath Of The Wild sees Link waking up in a regeneration chamber to a Hyrule devastated by strange mechanical creatures called Guardians. We soon learn that the Guardians, as well as larger machines known as Divine Beasts, were created to fight Gannon before being corrupted and turning on their creators. The game uses ancient supertechnology throughout it’s world, from the scalable towers that unlock new portions of the map to your Sheikah Slate, an ancient device that functions like a tablet and contains your map, inventory and quest log. The Sheikah Slate also acts as your designated magical item in BOTW, like the Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker in their respective games.
While that premise sounds like an interesting departure from standard Zelda story fare, it ultimately sets up an interesting world rather than creating an interesting story. That’s fine and in a game like this, the world is what people are here to see, but anyone who picks up Breath Of The Wild for its story will definitely be disappointed.
Not that I would have expected much of a story from a Zelda game in the first place to be honest, except that Nintendo was loudly declaring that Breath Of The Wild would be the first Zelda game to feature proper voice acting for most of it’s principal characters (not Link, but everyone else), so I think it was natural to expect a greater focus on story to go along with it. After all, who cares whether a character is speaking or not if they aren’t saying anything interesting?
What’s more, the voice acting is surprisingly lame. The dialogue itself isn’t bad, generally on the same “pretty good, if slightly exposition-heavy” level as most other Zelda games, but a lot of the voice actors just don’t seem that into it. It isn’t anywhere near as bad as House Of The Dead for example, more like voice acting from the Xbox or PS2 days, and for such a high-profile game, I expected better.
After all that, the story really does come does to “Rescue the princess” again, although this time the princess in question, rather than being a token damsel in distress like most other Zelda games, is locked in an eternal struggle with Gannon at the center of Hyrule, holding him down until Link can take him out for good.
In order to stand a chance against Gannon, you’ll have to power up by collecting Spirit Orbs from the Goddess Shines that dot the game’s map and in part, take the place of dungeons of Zelda games of yore. That may sound like a step backwards, until you find out that there are over a hundred of them. Most Shrines are out in the open, just waiting to be discovered, but many are hidden, requiring you to either solve a puzzle or complete a side quest to access them. Each Shrine contains a combat encounter or puzzle that must be overcome before you can claim the Shrine’s Spirit Orb. Once you’ve collected four Spirit Orbs, you can trade them in at statues found across the land for an upgrade to either your health or stamina; making Shrines not only beneficial but necessary as you progress though the game.
Exploring the world, finding new equipment, attacking enemy camps and taking on side quests makes up the bulk of Breath Of The Wild’s runtime. Like Skyrim, you’re mostly left to make your own adventure once the tutorial is over. There are a series of main quests of course, but as already mentioned, the story really isn’t up to much. Breath Of The Wild’s saving grace then, is that exploring the world is really fun. A lot of work has clearly gone into designing Breath Of The Wild’s world. No matter which direction you decide to head in after you leave the Great Plateau, it won’t be long before you before you come across something of interest.
Not only does the player have a surprising level of interactivity with the world, but the way that elements of the world interact with each other is also rather impressive. Many open-world games have foliage that can be lit on fire, for example, but any wooden weapons or shields Link has equipped can catch fire as well, and any food item that gets caught in a fire will be cooked after a few seconds. Equipping any metal weapon or armor during a storm can lead to getting struck by lightning, and drawing a bomb arrow in a sufficiently hot climate will cause it to instantly explode. The latter effect I discovered accidentally during a fight with a group of enemy archers and it took several long minutes and several painful explosions to the face before I realized I wasn’t being expertly countersniped and that the call was, in fact, coming from inside the house.
I expected the temperature mechanic to be more annoying than it was. Link can freeze in colder climates and overheat in hot ones, necessitating that you prepare appropriate gear, or at least a lot of healing items, before entering those areas. I do wish that your temperature management was a little more organic than the use of potions and a single piece of armor designated for each climate, it seems strange that Link gets just as hot in cloth Shiekah garb as he does in full plate armor, but overall it isn’t much of an issue and only comes up in a small handful of areas.
Link can climb almost anything in BOTW and the game eschews the designated handholds of the climbing mechanics of most games, allowing you to simply approach a surface and begin scaling it.
Once you’re done running around on the top of the mountain you’ve climbed, you can use the hang-glider-esque paraglider to glide to the ground safely. Both mechanics in tandem make exploring Hyrule fun and intuitive, if not always easy.
The enemies that populate Hyrule in Breath Of The Wild are numerous and capable of putting up a hell of a fight. I can say with confidence that this is hands-down the hardest Zelda game I’ve ever played, with many enemies able to relieve you of most of your hearts in a single hit. There is a mechanic in place that ensures you will always survive an attack from a super-powerful enemy with a quarter of a heart remaining, but it only takes effect if your health is completely full.
Though the enemies are nicely varied, most of them aren’t particularly smart. Enemies with shields will try to block your sword strikes, for example, but not your arrows. Nearly all of them will run straight at you the moment they spot you, making it really easy to ambush them with bombs or other traps. Most fights are still fun, but coming from games like Skyrim or Dark Souls (Yeah, I do mention Dark Souls a fair bit don’t I? Know why? ’cause it’s freakin’ great!), I found it a little disappointing that the difficulty of most enemies comes from how much health they have and how hard they hit.
It might also have been cool if Guardians could get into fights with other enemies, like the hordes of Bokoblins that roam the land, as unaligned enemies being able to battle each other is something I always appreciate in games like this.
The combat is more or less what you’ve come to expect from the Zelda series with no major changes, save the option to throw your weapons, which comes in handy for taking down mounted enemies and putting groups into disarray, and the ability to perform a “perfect dodge” that slows down time and leaves foes wide open for a counter attack. The controls have also been streamlined to make gameplay feel more smooth and natural (Link can now equip a sword and bow simultaneously for example), so combat flows pretty well; as long as your weapon holds out that is.
And now we’re getting to it. As subtly alluded to earlier, Breath Of The Wild suffers from what is quite possibly the most badly implemented weapon degradation I’ve ever seen. Weapon degradation is the mechanic most frequently inserted into a game without any thought as to why it’s being put there, but it’s general purpose is to add a measure of realism to a game, to encourage a player to fight carefully and to plan ahead with the limitations of their equipment in mind. Breath Of The Wild isn’t that kind of game though and is very clearly intended to let players explore at their leisure and find secrets, quests and indeed, rare weapons at their own pace.
Weapons in BTOW can’t be repaired and many of them break so easily that it ironically ends up seeming less realistic than a game in which your weapons don’t break at all. When I did find a rare weapon, I was afraid to use it more often than not, especially if the weapon was particularly useful. A good example of this would be the Great Flameblade, a powerful greatsword that emits waves of flame when swung and, being a fire weapon, can help keep you warm in colder climates while equipped, making it as much of a tool as a weapon. But my personal favorite was the Giant Boomerang, a five foot long boomerang with a bladed inner edge that could either be swung like a sword or thrown like a deadly propeller blade.
I found several Great Flameblades throughout my time in BOTW, but only ever a single Giant Boomerang and as much as I wanted to use it, I could never quite bring myself to do so since I knew that if I did, I would lose it forever not long afterwards.
Every once in a while during my travels, I would take out my Giant Boomerang and give it a few throws (weapons don’t degrade unless they hit something, you see) and lament that this was the only way I could comfortably use this awesome weapon; a lonely man playing catch with himself.
Outside of Dark Souls 2, I can’t think of any game where weapon degradation isn’t ultimately just a time-wasting annoyance; and Darks Souls 2 only barely gets a pass because it’s possible to make a PVP character build that focuses on breaking your opponents weapons.
See, whether your weapon breaks over a rock or on the final hit needed to take out a difficult boss, there’s never a good time to lose a weapon you’re having fun with. Weapon degradation didn’t quite ruin Breath Of The Wild for me (if it was any worse it would), but it would inarguably be significantly better without it.
I don’t want to give off the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time with Breath Of The Wild. The game has a lot of issues, but there’s a lot to like as well. The thoughtful exploration mechanics make navigating Hyrule an absolute joy, and the realization that I could climb just about everything evoked the same kind of awe I felt the first time I spied a far-off mountain in Oblivion and wondered if I could get to it.
The constant annoyance of the game’s out of control weapon degradation never entirely went away and very nearly ruined BOTW for me on a few occasions, even later on when I started finding more robust equipment, but I suppose it’s a testament to the game that I usually had fun in spite of it.
Much like Final Fantasy XV, BOTW seems designed for both fans of the Zelda series as well people who can’t stand it. As someone who finds himself fairly lukewarm on most Zelda games, I found my interest in the series reinvigorated by Breath Of The Wild, so take this review as a tentative recommendation if you also find yourself on the fence when it comes to the adventures of the strange man in the pointy green hat.
Wait, I have to finish all of the Shrines to get the hat? Well, forget it then.
+ Expansive, Detailed World
+ Well-Implemented Exploration Mechanics
– Lackluster Story, Weak Voice Acting
– Appallingly Mishandled Weapon Degradation
Also Try: Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dark Souls 3