Written by Mark Turcotte
Few video game franchises can garner as much excitement and nostalgia as Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series. As one of the flagship titles on the original NES, The Legend of Zelda has created a passionate fan base that has continued to grow throughout the years. This is due not only because of the fantastic stories and gameplay that the series is known for, but because of the genre changing impacts each title has seemed to have had on the industry. With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has carried on the tradition and have created a title that is fantastic in nearly every way and whose blend of open-world and emergent gameplay mechanics will surely inspire games in the years to come.
To begin, I think I need to start with a bit of backstory about myself. As a child I was fascinated with video games. I would get lost in 8-bit worlds filled with seemingly endless possibilities. One title in particular embodied this more than any other. Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda had me captivated. Thrusting me into its adventure filled world as the adventurer Link on a quest to save a Princess in peril. Looking back, much of that story and quest came from my imagination because the game itself didn’t do a great job at conveying the story partly due to the technology of the time. Instead, it tasked me with creating my adventure and my own personal story through its gameplay and mystery. Since those days I feel like I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since and instead have been finding myself thrust into carefully crafted stories that, while engrossing and incredible in their own right, never truly felt like MY story. The many installments since the original ‘The Legend of Zelda’ have done a much better job at presenting and crafting their stories with Nintendo almost unwilling to take a risk to go back to that original formula. All that has changed with Breath of the Wild.
Breath of the Wild boldly takes a step in a new direction for the Zelda series. Gone is the typical formula of traversing an overworld searching for dungeons that can only be completed after finding a compass, map, and item that is then required to defeat the final boss of the dungeon. Breath of the Wild starts simple just like the original game. You wake up as Link and within minutes you are let loose on this massive world. I don’t want to spoil the premise for the game but being vague, you wake up 100 years after falling into a deep slumber. You quickly discover that you were once a great hero in the land of Hyrule, which is about to be destroyed by Calamity Ganon. Ganon’s destructive power is currently being suppressed by Princess Zelda within Hyrule Castle. You are tasked with traveling to the castle, destroying Calamity Ganon and ultimately saving Princess Zelda and Hyrule. How you go about doing this is completely up to you.
The open world of Hyrule is massive and alive. You will spend most of your time exploring and traversing it either on foot or eventually on horseback. NPC’s have daily routines and you may find them out and about during the day and sleeping at night. This applies to enemies too. The world is diverse in both its aesthetics and weather with location varying from the freezing temperatures found at the peaks of mountains, to scolding heat bearing down on desert landscapes. These mechanics, as well as a never refreshing heart system, bring a survival element to the game. You must wear warm clothes when its cold or use cold resistant potions that you’ve found or crafted. The intensity added to the world because of this is usually only found in games like Day Z. It may sound harsh and not fun, but it is a refreshing and welcomed mechanic that just adds to the realism of the world.
The methods in which the game engine in Breath of the Wild combines world physics and gameplay mechanics is nearly unmatched. If you think an object should interact with another object than it probably will. When it rains surfaces get wet and things become slippery like your hands on a cliff face. Often in rain storms you’ll find yourself sliding down the side of a mountain. Certain objects are also flammable. If you’re near a fire or are encountering the intense heat of Death Mountain and wearing a wooden shield, it will catch fire and could possibly be destroyed. There are so many little details like this in the game. The best part of this system is discovering them and finding how they can be used to your advantage in combat or even in progression.
One fantastic example of the games engine at it’s finest is in the lightning caused by thunderstorms. You will learn quickly that lightning should be a concern and that it is easily attracted to metal. If you are wearing metal armor or carrying a metal weapon you must unequip it immediately or you may be struck and killed. You can decide however, to use it to your advantage. An example is by sneaking into a Bokoblin camp at night during a storm and placing your sword or shield near some sleeping enemies. After sneaking out you can just sit back and watch as the lighting strikes the object sending out a burst of electricity usually ending the lives of the unlucky enemies near by. Breath of the Wild is filled with moments like these that help create your personal story and ultimately your personal adventure.
Much of the game has you scouring the land finding more than 100 shrines littered throughout the world. Each shrine is essentially a puzzle room that tasks you with discovering a way to get to the end of the room. You do this by using one of a few new abilities that Link is given in the beginning of the game. One is similar to the bombs of Zelda’s past. Another is magnesis that allows you to pick up and move objects. Stasis allows Link to pause an object in time for a few seconds. This ability also allows you to hit the object and create momentum that will be dispersed when time resumes on the object sending it flying in the direction of your energy. A final ability allows you to create ice blocks out of water.
The combination of theses abilities are the key to solving the many mysteries of each shrine. Many of the shrines can be completed in multiple ways. Each player may have different methods to achieving the same end goal and upon completion of a shrine you will receive an orb. Collecting four orbs allows you to level Link up by giving him either a bit more stamina or an extra heart container. Stamina is used for running, climbing, and other physical activities in the world. The shrines are definitely the most satisfying and addicting part of Breath of the Wild. Each shrine feels as if they were a small level from the game Portal in how complex and fun each shrine’s puzzles can be. This is due in part to the games fantastic physics system. Not all shrines are puzzle based however, with a few of them presenting combat challenges to test your ability to fight.
Speaking of combat, like every other Zelda game before it, Breath of the Wild is indeed an action RPG and focuses on combat a lot. The combat is similar to previous iterations with the ability to lock on enemies, but Nintendo has infused a layer of difficulty which was previously lacking in the other games. The combat plays out a bit like Dark Souls with dodges and parry’s being a focus. In combat you are forced to watch enemies and learn their movements so you can take them out easier. Again, the physics system is at play here, so heavy weapons are slower to swing and can knock shields out of hands or flaming arrows can set wooden shields or clothing on fire. Enemies have the ability to do the same to you so you must always be careful of what weapons you are using and be aware of what you are up against.
You can also take enemies out using the physics system to your advantage. I described one way above with the lighting storm but you could just as easily shoot a flaming arrow at a TNT barrel to take enemies out. You could find a boulder up on a hill above the enemy and roll it down on top of them. You could even use your abilities like your bombs or stasis ability to take them out in a flashy or just straight forward way. There are just constantly so many options to be creative. This is one of Breath of the Wild’s greatest assets. You always have a choice in what you are doing and how you are going to do it. None of it is scripted for you because again, this is your adventure.
The survival element carries over to the weapons in the game. Each weapon has durability and will eventually break when used too much. At first it can be a bit frustrating but feel free to just swing away and use what you have. Enemies drop their equipped weapons either during battle when you hit them or when defeated so you will constantly be finding new weapons. You need to be careful however, because if you drop a weapon or shield to pick up that new shiny one, an enemy may pick up your old one to use against you. Enemies also have the ability to use the environment just like you too, so be careful. One time I was being chased by a giant and decided it may be a good idea to run into the forest I was near to escape. The giant proceeded to rip a tree out of the ground and wield it as a club chasing me with it and then eventually tossing it in my direction. Just another story from my adventure in Hyrule.
Cooking and elixir crafting is also a part of the game. Throughout your adventure you will come across a myriad of items like herbs, monster parts, meats, and fruits. All of these are used to craft healing items for stat boosts or environmental resistances. This is done near campfires you find throughout the landscape or in towns. Like the rest of the game, you learn the recipes through discovery and you will be tasked with figuring them out through trial and error. An example of a recipe is in the creation of a cold resistance elixir or food. To do this the combination of meat and a spicy pepper makes a healing cold resistant granting food. This logic makes sense and caries through much of the cooking. Cooking is essential to success too because it is the only way to heal outside of getting new heart containers. You must constantly be eating to heal. I actually really enjoyed this aspect of the game as it forced me to always be prepared and increased the intensity of some battles if I was low on healing items.
As stated above, Breath of the Wild ditches the typical “dungeon” format in favor of the shrines. That’s not to say there are not any dungeons in the game but they are drastically different than the ones the series is known for. There are only four total and this may seem low but their place in the world and narrative fits perfectly. I don’t want to spoil any aspect of them but I will say that they are very different from what players have come to expect. They are also one of the most memorable assets within the game.
By the end of the game the story plays out just as much as you choose to engage with it. You can take the time to discover the many mysteries of Hyrule and learn about the history and characters within it. I chose to do this to some extent and came away satisfied and feeling emotionally tied to the inhabitants of Hyrule, knowing that I saved them from utter destruction. Even after spending hours with the game I feel as if I have barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer and plan to jump right back in and continue to explore. You can also choose to head straight to Hyrule Castle and take on Ganon the second you are thrust into the world as many speed runners have already done. This method of course throws the narrative out the window but again creates your story and in the end that’s what Breath of the Wild is all about.
It should be noted that I reviewed Breath of the Wild on the newly released Nintendo Switch. The experience there is fantastic. The system has a sleep function which allows you to pause gameplay and put the system to sleep. Within seconds you can be right back into the action at the press of just a few buttons. With the structure of its gameplay systems Breath of the Wild lends itself perfectly for either extended play sessions or even just a few minutes of play. No matter what you are doing in the game it always feels like you are not wasting time. There is always something to discover over the next hill or something to collect at the top of the next ridge. The game is extremely rewarding in its overall delivered experience.
I cannot state it enough that I absolutely cherished my time with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game truly captures the spirit of adventure and is a must play for every gamer with the ability to do so. It is a true masterpiece who’s blend of combat, exploration, and discovery comes together to create something truly special. I think that any open-world game moving forward that doesn’t feature the open natured options of Breath of the Wild will find itself feeling dated to players. It will force developers to make sure that they start adding, or at least thinking about, how they can implement these systems into their own games. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a gaming masterpiece and truly delivers on that promise of adventure that Nintendo presented those so many years ago.