The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

It took me a long time -- several hours, not just minutes -- to understand, admire, and finally come to truly appreciate the elegant revolution that lies at the core of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Sprawling, audacious, challenging and astonishing, there is no doubt that Breath of the Wild pushes the open world genre into terra incognita and will most certainly take its place near the top of the Zelda pantheon. Having said that, my own affection for Breath of the Wild is not unconditional. There are flaws and irritations enough with both the hardware and interface that my overall positive experience of playing the game was marred by frequent -- if relatively minor -- frustrations.

"Open world" is a bullet point that seems to be part of just about every other game's design doc lately. Games like the recent -- and excellent -- Horizon: Zero Dawn provide a massive amount of geography to explore, then more or less successfully hide their actual limitations behind a deluge of well-marked side-quests and objective markers. While players can theoretically "go anywhere," there are rarely incentives for doing so. It isn't uncommon for a game like one of the recent Assassin's Creeds to overwhelm the player with too many tasks. 

In contrast, Breath of the Wild is not so much an "open world" sandbox as it is a huge and amazing world simulation, in which physics, day/night cycles, weather, AI, the player's character, and scripted and spontaneous events interact in an incredibly complex, surprising, and lifelike way. Exploration is at the center of the experience and is its own reward, making every player's version of the game literally unique. It cannot be emphasized too strongly just how significant this is, not just to the Zelda franchise, but to the open world genre. While Breath of the Wild's main story and dozens of side quests, puzzle shrines and dungeons are part of a narrative overlay that reminds the player that there is more to do than wander aimlessly, discovering Hyrule's secrets and mastering survival will be at least as memorable as the game's puzzles and bosses. With only the most passing of tutorials, Breath of the Wild insists that players discover the rules of world on their own. Their tolerance for ambiguity will be tested. In my own experience, it took some time for me to stop chafing at the game's lack of clarity.

I have played hundreds of sandbox games and MMOs in which the landscape was littered by enemies, flora, and fauna that were lifeless props with no real purpose beyond being a target. But Breath of the Wild's inhabitants -- human, monster, and animal -- experience each other's existence, the world and its changing conditions interactively. Villagers run for cover when it rains, monsters hunt down smaller animal prey, and will grab any convenient object to wield as a weapon, even smaller versions of themselves. After a few dozen hours, every player will have a memorable list of surprising encounters, like the first time an electrical storm turned their sword into a lightning rod or the time they stealthily approached and successfully rode a bear..

Speaking of weapons, there are dozens of them, but even the most substantial have a limited lifespan, which both necessitates a variety of approaches to enemy encounters and discourages becoming too attached to any one precious tool. While inventory slots may be expanded, the weapon switching and inventory systems are inelegant at best, and irritatingly cumbersome at worst, especially given the significant number of times they will be accessed during play.

Breath of the Wild's incredible open world and the ability to freelyexperience it in any sequence are its most thrilling aspects and most unqualified successes. But for me, just about everything else about the game -- from its art style, story, and interface to its mechanical shortcomings on the Switch -- come with qualifiers ranging from minor quibbles to more significant complaints. Breath of the Wild is certainly a masterpiece, but not a perfect one.

Let's start with the story. No game designer has yet solved the paradox of combining a high stakes, time-sensitive story with an open world in which the tale most often takes a backseat to exploration. Link's mythic and familiar imperatives to defeat Ganon, rescue Zelda and save Hyrule once again drive the narrative, which should generate a breathless desire to complete the heroic task. While the story pulls the player to the cardinal directions to take control of four ancient Guardians before the final encounter, getting there is a purposely meandering path filled with monsters, villages, shrines, and side quests that undercuts whatever momentum the story hopes to generate. I was rarely captivated by the writing, dialog, infrequent voice acting, or characters. 

Although my issues with them were somewhat ameliorated by using a more comfortable Pro controller, I found myself constantly frustrated by -- and never entirely comfortable with -- Breath of the Wild's quirky controls, strange button assignments, and often imprecise movement when trying to fight or solve otherwise simple puzzles. How many times did I die because in the heat of a close encounter, I crouched instead of sprinted thanks to the left thumb stick? How many times was I frustrated in a shrine, not because I was stumped by a puzzle but by the inability of the controls to accurately respond to my commands? When so much of the game refreshingly reflects Nintendo's newfound awareness of "modern" games, the controls and interface felt like a holdover from an earlier, more primitive era. The less than ergonomic placement and small buttons on the Joy-Cons didn't help. 

Moving directly from weeks spent with Horizon: Zero Dawn's lush and photo-realistic graphics to Breath of the Wild was initially jarring, and while it is abundantly clear that the cel-shaded, painterly art style of Zelda was as much a product of lack of computing horsepower as an aesthetic choice, there were some admittedly beautiful scenes along the way. As has been widely noted, the game's graphics are sharper and less obviously limited when viewed on the device's 720p screen instead of a TV, where pop-in and some relatively primitive textures writ large intrude on the visuals. In sound design and music, however, the game is an unqualified success due to its understated, often melancholic score and outstanding environmental audio. Those hoping for epic music might be disappointed by a semi-ambient style soundtrack, but there was a subtle complexity about the way familiar Zelda themes were transformed. 

However you characterize it -- rebirth, change of direction, or coming of age -- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most mature game in the series' long history. It is a difficult game from a combat and survival perspective, and a challenging game in the amount of information that players have been trusted to figure out for themselves. Compared to its amazingly interactive and constantly surprising world, Breath of the Wild's relatively rote story and sometimes frustrating controls add a note of disappointment to an otherwise peak gaming experience.