Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

From the brief intro it’s clear: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a different kind of Zelda, the kind that throws you into the wilderness in nothing but ragged clothes. Weapons? Link is desperately underpowered and you scrounge what you can, even if that’s a soup ladle and a pot lid for a sword and shield.

After the linearity and handholding of Skyward Sword, this time around Nintendo gets out of the player’s way. And while it references the conventions of the open world genre, this Zelda feels utterly different to an Assassin’s Creed or Fallout. Breath of the Wild is deeper, richer, packed with surprises: hidden shrines, magical creatures, and ancient labyrinths, all with their own mysterious purposes.

An Unexpected Journey

Zelda: Breath of the Wild grants you freedom from the off. Hyrule can be traversed in any direction, and the game’s opening sections provide a dizzying sense of distance and discovery. Trekking on foot to Kakariko Village is as surprising and memorable as those first steps onto Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time. There is a similar sense of adventure to those earlier Zeldas. And this is, by far, the biggest Hyrule has ever been.

As with many open world games, there is joy in simply getting around. In Breath of the Wild, and in keeping with Nintendo’s ethos, you are given mastery of your environment, horizontal and vertical. Every mountain can be scaled (provided you have the stamina). Once at the top, Link’s paraglider operates much like the Deku Leaf from The Wind Waker. Launch Link from a peak, and you can glide across Hyrule.

Unlike the cluttered HUD and signposting of other open world games, Breath of the Wild’s interface is refreshingly spare, and its mini-map can be turned off. Your Navi this time is the “Sheikah slate”, a wonderfully anachronistic “tablet” that stores information about your supplies and surroundings. Follow the main quest, target distant landmarks on your map, or wander around to see what you can see – Zelda: Breath of the Wild lets you play however you want.

The Zelda Recipe for Success

When was the last time you died in a Zelda game?

Breath of the Wild refers to the original Zelda in one obvious way: its sheer difficulty. Death comes easily, whether in the form of freezing desert nights, deceptively tough Bokoblins, or grumpy mountain goats. Expect to see “Game Over” more often than you’re used to.

Don’t get too attached to your favorite weapons either. Swords, shields, and bows have varying levels of attack power – and durability. Although you are rarely without something to hand (I once battled a Bokoblin using a mop), you need to carefully manage your inventory.

And there are no hearts to be had here. Instead, Breath of the Wild has inns that offer beds to sleep in and restore health, and a broad range of ingredients to scavenge and throw into cooking pots. Mushrooms, fish, and rice provide restorative effects to Link’s stamina (for climbing and paragliding) and health (for surviving!). Insects and “monster parts” – claws, fangs, and guts specifically – render into elixirs. If you had a chemistry set growing up, you’ll know the fun of finding just the right mixture.

Concoctions boost your health, attack, and defense levels, and can even grant you extra stealthiness to sneak past overmatched enemies. (And check out the Sheikah Plate blog for real life cooking based on Breath of the Wild recipes!)

An array of tunics and armor complement the cooking. Breath of the Wild’s outfits all have attributes, such as greater swim speed with the Zora armor. Sets can be mixed and matched, upgraded with the help of rare ingredients and a magical Great Fairy, and there is even a dye shop – so if you ever wanted to clothe Link in pink, this is the Zelda for you.

Breadth of the Wild

The overhaul of the Zelda overworld extends into dungeon design. There are only four dungeons to explore (five with a downloadable extra quest); and in place of traditional design, puzzles and mini-boss challenges are now broken out into 120 shrines spread across Hyrule, with each functioning a bit like Portal’s test chambers. To Zelda veterans this represents the biggest change in the formula – and it works. Part of the puzzle is in finding the shrines, and they are generously placed around the map, giving you an added incentive to explore while also varying the gameplay.

Despite its vast size, Nintendo has created a Zelda that feels more accessible, more manageable, and more enjoyable than other open world games. And Nintendo keeps the adventure interesting with side quests, quirky characters, old friends, and even some town planning. All this is matched to a sparse, subtle, piano-based score that heightens the feeling of isolation and exploration.

Breath of Fresh Air

In 2011, many of us Zelda fans thought that Skyward Sword, with its innovative motion controls, was a reinvention. Looking back, Skyward Sword was really the endpoint of design that had grown too linear, too structured.

With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo does what it does best – breathe new life into old game design. There’s just so much to find and do: solving physics-based puzzles; saving a dragon on a frozen mountain; stumbling into a battle when the earth beneath your feet rises up into a stone titan; surfing the desert dunes with “sand seals”; and playing a round of golf, Goron-style, using a sledgehammer and a giant boulder.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an impressive reimagining of the formula; a freeing, inventive, expansive adventure; and the best entry in the series since The Wind Waker.

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