The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

The Legend of Zelda series has conformed to a formula for a long time.  The longer that this formula has persisted, the more behind the times it has felt.  The last two entries, in particular, were frustratingly outdated compared to the AAA Western titles of their day.  Critics and observers have typically chalked up this issue to Nintendo’s culture.  The company has a reputation of being set in their ways -- devoted to creating fun experiences, but seemingly oblivious to how those experiences have evolved over time.

It is therefore surprising – stunning really – that a company that is so infamously stubborn could have made a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  It is so much different from previous Zelda games that Nintendo has effectively abandoned the structure of old and put the series into a different genre.  That genre is the open-ended action game/RPG, which is more typically associated with names like Elder Scrolls and Far Cry.  You could be forgiven for being skeptical about this transition taking place, or whether Nintendo had the competence to succeed at such an ambitious project.  You could also be forgiven for expecting Nintendo to simply take a traditional Zelda game and then stretch it across a huge world filled with copy-and-pasted content.  If that was your expectation going into the game, then you are going to be pleased – not pleased, delighted – by what you experience when you play Breath of the Wild.  It is an excellent game.  It isn’t just “excellent for being Nintendo’s first foray into the genre”.  It is excellent period, even when compared to the best open-ended games ever made.  When it comes to nuts-and-bolts game design, the game’s successes vastly outnumber its failures.  More importantly, the game captures something that is exceedingly rare nowadays, even in the best titles – a sense of joy – feelings of magic, wonder, and childlike excitement that remind us why we got into video games in the first place. How much you will like the game still depends on your personal preferences, but there is a strong argument that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the best open-ended action game ever made. 

Before we delve further into the review though, there is one item of nerdrage that needs to be addressed, and that is the lack of WiiU touchscreen functionality for this game.  You can switch the game from your TV to your controller screen, but you cannot use it as a second screen.  That means that there is no inventory functionality like what was found in the HD Zelda remakes.  That means that the best game on the WiiU doesn’t use the one defining feature of the console.  The game that arguably would have benefited the most from being able to access your inventory without going into a separate menu screen does not have that benefit. This game was conceived years ago as “The Zelda Game For the WiiU”, so you can’t make the argument that there was never any use for the second screen.  If anything, knowing Nintendo, they probably specifically designed a gameplay mechanic to justify its existence.  It smacks of being an underhanded way to neuter the WiiU version so that the Switch can look comparatively better at launch.  Shame on Nintendo if that is the case.  Shame on them anyway.  That second screen was the console’s entire raison d’etre. There is no excuse to not support your hardware.

And now, onto the review…

With any huge open-ended game like Breath of the Wild, one of the main questions about the game is “how much unique content actually is there?”  Many games have been guilty of creating huge worlds and then filling them with huge amounts of copy-and-pasted or procedurally generated content.  The result of this approach is an experience that is initially fun, but that also wears out its welcome once repetition starts to set in.  Until now, this tradeoff between size and variety has always seemed inevitable.  The great news for video gamers and the bad news for game developers everywhere is that Breath of the Wild just obliterated the expectations for open-ended video games.  No huge game will ever have a valid excuse to be boring or repetitive again because from now on, you will always be able to say “but Breath of the Wild did it”.  Filling a world with enemies without resorting to encounter scaling?  “Breath of the Wild did it”.  Providing a huge number of puzzles and making lots of them interesting?  “Breath of the Wild did it”.  Making every acre of a huge world unique and worth exploring?  “Breath of the Wild did it”.  Loading up a game with dozens of emergent gameplay mechanics and then challenging you to discover all of them on your own?  “Breath of the Wild did it”.  It will make a useful retort on message boards in future years when you are debating the merits of other open world games.  The worst side effect of playing this video game, other than sleep deprivation, will be that it will make your expectations for future games unreasonable. 

Breath of the Wild is certainly not the first Zelda game to give you some freedom of movement.  Wind Waker was, technically at least, an open world game, but Breath of the Wild dwarfs all of the previous titles.  It dwarfs them in both the size of its world and the freedom that you have to progress at your own pace.  Almost nothing in the game is closed to you at the start, so your progress is mostly limited by how difficult the monsters are to fight in any given area.  Monsters that can kick your ass generally function as “gates” in this game.  The gadgets in this game are “runes” that you find within the first couple of hours, and once you have those runes you can unlock pretty much anything in the world. 

This approach to the game’s design is a stark departure from the previous games, in which you would gradually unlock huge, puzzle-filled dungeons as you acquired gadgets throughout the game.  Those dungeons would then feature a new gadget and a huge puzzle boss at the end.  Most of that structure has been replaced with dozens of tiny mini-dungeons, most of which have only one or two puzzles to solve.  The reward at the end of each of these dungeons is a power orb that you can later trade for a health or a stamina upgrade.  In other words, heart containers are no longer found in chests.  This review would be lying to you if it said that nothing of value was lost in this changeover.  You may find yourself at times missing Zelda’s old dungeon designs, and with good reasons.  Those dungeons were at times so huge, so magical, and so complex that they felt like living, breathing organisms.  Feeling all of the pieces fall into play at the end of them was supremely satisfying; that feeling is largely missing here.  It is arguably the most significant shortcoming of this game, but take comfort in knowing that it makes up for it ten times over.

One aspect that is not missing is the sense that everything in the world is unique and significant.  Despite its enormous size, the world in Breath of the Wild benefits from a level of hand crafting and attention to detail that is typically found in much smaller games like the Batman Arkham titles.  In stark contrast to a game like the recent Far Cry titles, there is never a sense that huge amounts of content were copied and pasted all over the world, making that world little more than a vessel for a bunch of collectibles.  Breath of the Wild does have its share of collectibles – hundreds of them actually - but they are actually a blast to find.  The game resorts to a huge number of tricks to hide little goodies from you, which usually makes discovering them fun.  There can be a rare, valuable flower at the top of a hard to reach ledge, or a small treasure that you can find only by noticing a circular pattern of lily pads.  These little treats are everywhere and the variety is seemingly endless.  You will find yourselves walking between locations for long times.  But rather than feeling boring, these long travels always feel like adventures.  With a keen eye, you can usually spot a well hidden treasure or some new feature of the world that you never noticed before.  There was a surprising amount of effort devoted to building little bits of the game in places that much of the player base is never going to find.  For instance, there is a beautiful bird creature playing an accordion on a ledge near the edge of the game world.  You could play the game for 60 hours without ever finding this creature. 

Breath of the Wild rewards the curious and thoughtful gamer at a level that is truly mind-boggling.  You can climb almost any surface in the game, which means that you can theoretically reach almost any location in the game.  Hiding rewards in hard to reach places is not the only way that the game rewards your for exploring it.  Just as important is Breath of the Wild’s highly simulated, living breathing game world.  The world is complete with a robust day and night cycle, weather, and NPCs and creatures that follow their own routines.  Travelers walk the roads between towns, and they will stop and chat with you for a moment if you want.  It is easy for an area to look one way in the afternoon and then look completely different eight hours later, whether it is due to nightfall or the outbreak of a thunderstorm.  The world is subject to some surprisingly complex dynamics that practically beg the player to experiment with gameplay and visit areas multiple times to see how they change. 

In addition to some terrific world simulation, Breath of the Wild also features a wealth of minor game mechanics and technical improvements that bring it up to par with its contemporaries.  A perfect example of these improvements is a fire propagation mechanic similar to that found in Far Cry 3 (albeit not as impressive).  Another improvement is a physics engine, something that has been sorely lacking in this series up until now.  The physics engine is used to solve a lot of puzzles, but it can provide some terrific unscripted moments as well.  The other creatures who populate the wild can interact with each other, another feature that can provide some amusing ways to approach problems.  You will quickly find out that this brilliantly designed game world can accommodate almost any way that you can think of to interact with it.  It is nearly impossible to play this game without breaking out repeatedly into triumphant laughter as you make discovery after discovery.  Over and over again, you will ask yourself “I wonder if I can do this…”, and the game will answer with “Yup, you can do that”.  Rolling a bomb down a hill at a camp of enemies?  “Yup, you can do that”.  Shooting a beehive near a group of enemies to get them to do some of your work for you?  “Yup, you can do that”.   Using any non-metallic weapon as a makeshift torch?  “Yup, you can do that”.  I can’t list all of the brilliant little quirks that the game has, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to.  Everything in this game is something that you are going to want to discover yourself.  If you have already decided to play it, then here is some advice – don’t watch any videos about the game on youtube and dive in knowing as little about it as possible.

Facilitating this constant sense of discovery is Nintendo’s courageous (and very wise) decision to remove the game’s training wheels at the outset.  Other than some very basic mechanics, there is next to nothing in Breath of the Wild that you don’t figure out on your own.  This style is a perfect match for the game’s design, which is loaded with too many quirks and secrets to count.  The combat training that you get is barebones basic, and so are the tutorials for the controls.  The combat controls are largely unchanged from previous games though.  Breath of the Wild pretty much assumes that you already have experience with Z-targeting and dodging.   Even something as basic as how to start a campfire is only mentioned in item descriptions.  The game only mentions that you can cook food in the descriptions of food components that you find during your journeys.  You must eventually learn this system because you have to create most of your own health replenishment items (no more finding hearts randomly by cutting grass and breaking vases).  You will be delighted to discover that there is a seemingly endless variety of dishes that you can create.  It is yet another example of how the game invites you to experiment and then rewards you richly for doing so. 

Inherent in this game design approach is the potential for punishing difficulty, and Breath of the Wild has plenty of that.  The game is perfectly content to let you discover all of its wonders and all of its treasures on your own.  It is also content to let you discover every enemy in the game that can murder you in one hit until you are at least 20 hours in.  If you have ever played the survival game Don’t Starve, then you should have a good feel for what awaits you (except that Zelda has a normal save system and no permadeath).  Breath of the Wild is brutal, unforgiving at times, and highly unpredictable.  There is no encounter scaling apparent in this world.  The first opponent that you encounter could be something that kills you in five seconds.  An environmental hazard could end your life if you are not properly equipped.  Early in the game, you will no doubt experience countless encounters that you have to bypass because you simply aren’t strong enough to take them on yet.  You may also have to forego some exploration because your stamina isn't strong enough for a long climb.  But while the game is frequently very hard, there is rarely the sense that it is unfair.  The failures in the game are as much a fun learning experience as they are a punishment.  They also give you a much-needed incentive to acquire as many upgrades as you can find.  It can’t be overstated how much the game benefits from Nintendo having designed it this way.

The radical redesign doesn’t end with Zelda’s difficulty level or with the size of its open world.  Zelda now uses an inventory system and an interface that benefits from some modern sensibilities (although it still does have some weaknesses).  There is a detailed, very useful map screen to which you can add as many markers as you want.  You have a telescope ability that you can use in the world to quickly drop a map pin in the distance, or you can go into the map itself and add an icon manually.  In addition, you eventually gain the ability to photograph just about any item or creature in the game and then use your tablet to detect more of them.  It is a highly refined version of the mediocre "dousing" mechanic that was present in Skyward Sword. 

The inventory screens look a lot more like what you would find in a modern RPG as well, with different tabs for weapons, shields, bows, ingredients, and cooked food.  You can switch between them easily, and everything is laid out in nice big boxes that allow you to see clearly what everything is.  There are, unfortunately, a few annoying holdovers from previous Zelda games.  The trading interface, for example, still stinks.  You still have to go through the same three or four lines of dialog every time that you want to sell something new.  A streamlined method of doing this would have been nice to have.

There are too many differences between Breath of the Wild and previous Zelda games to recount them here, but there is one very significant one that must be mentioned.  It just wouldn’t be a proper Legend of Zelda game unless it had one major controversial feature that divided the fan base, and Breath of the Wild probably has one of those.  The leading candidate is Nintendo’s radical choice to make the weapons in the game both extremely abundant and extremely fragile.  Almost anything in the game that is vaguely long and skinny can be picked up and used as a weapon.  There are, of course, traditional weapons like swords and axes, but tree branches, pitchforks, and the skeletal remains of enemies can be used as weapons too.  You can’t really have a “favorite weapon”, but rather, you will have to learn how to use a wide variety of them.  They behave differently from one another, although they fall into three basic categories (one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons that you can swing and two-handed weapons that you can poke with).  Some break almost immediately, while others can score maybe 20 hits before they break.  The toughest enemies in the game can absorb so much damage that they can wear out a handful of weapons during a protracted fight.  During a huge boss battle, you may need to use more than one tactic if you are to survive.

The need to constantly pick up and change weapons creates a dynamic not unlike that found in the FPS Halo series.  In that series you are also constantly picking up and dropping weapons, adapting to the situation at hand and using whatever tactics are appropriate.  It works well in that series and, surprisingly, it works well here too.  The weapon breaking mechanic isn’t nearly as tedious as it sounds.  The game throws lots of weapons at you, so if you know that a big fight is coming, it is easy to get prepared.  The game pauses when you switch weapons, so you never unfairly die because of it.  Its one huge drawback is that when you want to drop a weapon, you have to go into your inventory to do it.  This is the one glaring area where not using the touch screen functionality of the WiiU controller damages the game.  Inventory management, in general, is not a lot of fun.  The interface isn’t horrible, but you do pick up, carry, and drop lots of items over the course of your travels.  Too much time is spent doing this – time that could have been saved if the game used the feature that the console was designed for.  The breakable weapons mechanic worked for me in the end, but there are some solid criticisms against it.

Another major question with an open world game is whether the console can handle it technically, or whether it makes big tradeoffs between beauty, performance, and draw distance.  Regrettably,  Breath of the Wild is merely competent in those three areas, but doesn’t excel in any them.  It is still an attractive game, but not one that will be remembered for its looks.  The art style most closely resembles that of Skyward Sword – a sort of compromise between the cel shading of Wind Waker and the realism of Twilight Princess.  NPCs look good and lots of your enemies look incredible, but a lot of the scenery is rather ordinary and generic.  Despite how many landmarks there are in the game, there aren’t a lot of memorable ones that strike you with a sense of awe the first time that you see them.  The game’s use of a broad color palette also goes to waste during the long periods when you are exploring mountains or some other area that is dominated by gray or brown.  The one exception to this general rule is the game’s lovely day/night cycle, which produces some breathtaking sunsets and sunrises.  From a technical standpoint, Breath of the Wild isn’t a very impressive game.  Tall grass isn’t very tall and forests aren’t dense.  The view distance is decent, but not amazing.  Major landmarks can be seen from halfway across the world, but there are a lot of smaller items that can’t be seen with your telescope.  Texture pop-in, especially grass, is noticeable if you look hard enough.  The frame rate chugs in places too, which is both disappointing and surprising.  Fortunately, those frame rate drops seem to be confined to villages and not combat.  Breath of the Wild is leaps and bounds ahead of its competition in many ways, but graphics isn’t one of them. 

The pre-release advertising for the game suggested that it would have a lot more voice acting than the previous Zelda games, and it does.  This voice acting, however, is limited to story cut scenes.  Most characters still speak in the traditional Zelda form of vocalizations like grunts and laughs.  The voice acting that is here is at least decent.  The music is high quality as well, although it would have been nice if there were more of it.  Certain areas have music associated with them, but there is also a lot of space where there isn’t much sound besides your own footsteps.  There is playful music when you are interacting with NPCs and some good combat music, but the game is lacking good travel music – memorable tunes that play when you are just off doing your own thing.  There is, however, a nice mixture of ambient noise that constantly changes as you travel the world and as day turns to night.  Crickets chirp, frogs croak, wolves howl – it is very easy to lose yourself in this deeply immersive world. 

That deeply immersive world is the centerpiece of the greatest gaming triumphs in recent memory.  There is no evidence that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s first foray into a modern open world game.  They hit the bullseye on the first try. Breath of the Wild is large, deep, and immersive -- everything that you would want a 60+ hour RPG to be.  Taking the traditional Zelda formula and molding it to perfecty fit this world is one of the most brilliant moves that Nintendo has ever made with one of their IPs.  This move did, unfortunately, mean making some tradeoffs in the process of changing its identity.  Those tradeoffs are more than worth it though when you consider what else the game manages to achieve.  The game's lack of second screen support stands out as the only really bad design decision.  Just about everything else in the game that is unpleasant is the inevitable side effect of something that is really good.

You can look at Nintendo’s marketing materials for the game or watch a half hour video on youtube, but nothing short of diving into it yourself will do it justice.  This review can't really do it justice either, because much of what is so great about it doesn't fall into traditional game critic categories.  Does it have the best combat system in the world?  No.   Is it the best looking game out there?  No.  Does it have the best RPG soundtrack ever?  No.  Can the game make you feel like you are eight years old again?  Hell yes.  It certainly had that effect with me.  It has been a long time since exploring, fighting, and adventuring has so consistently brought a smile to my face.  Breath of the Wild is such a wonderful experience that once you play it, you will likely never look at open world games the same again.