Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), Wii U
As a Nintendo Switch launch title, it's clear that The Legend of Zelda is the undisputed king, but where does it rank as a Zelda title? This is the question I kept asking myself almost the entire time I spent running, gliding and fighting through the land of Hyrule. I spent a large chunk of my life growing up with the guy in the green tunic so naturally, I hold the early games near and dear to my heart. I still remember the feeling of playing Ocarina of Time for the first time and being floored that the Zelda I once knew as a 2D game, is now fully explorable in 3D.
At first, Breath of the Wild shocked me, but not in a way I was hoping. The excellent formula that Nintendo's honed to perfection over the years has been changed. This no longer felt like my Zelda. The world seemed too vast with little sense of direction, and I found myself running around aimlessly, trying to figure out what to do next.
Then something clicked.
After hours of play and not really understanding why this is a Zelda game, I put my explorer hat on and that's where the game changed entirely for me. After initially feeling like the game might have been too big for its own good, I started noticing the genius of the map design. It was vast, sure, but it also contained secrets, treasures, and cool locations that aren't always pointed out to you by a quest marker or an NPC, and discovering them myself was extremely rewarding. Partially through my epic quest to save Zelda, I realized that Breath of the Wild was my new Ocarina of Time. Not in a way where I can quantifiably say that one is better over the other (partially because of nostalgia) but it floored me in ways I wasn't sure a Zelda game could anymore.
What's all this racket about Princess Zelda?
It's tough to talk about the story without getting into the spoiler territory. I can tell you that the Link you're playing as has woken up from a 100-year sleep, and now must regain his strength and memories in order to take down Calamity Ganon, who prevailed over the forced of good and put Hyrule in a state of ruin.
Settlements still exist but Hyrule's inhabitants live in a state of fear, whether it's from the looming Calamity Ganon swirling over Hyrule Castle, or the Divine Beasts he now took control of, that were once used to keep the land safe.
What's interesting about the way Breath of the Wild tells its story is that it's never presented to you in a cohesive manner, and certainly never spoonfed to you. You have to go out of your way to find out what exactly happened 100 years ago, to get the full picture. Some of these story beats are hidden away behind Memories; Key locations that once visited, unlock a latent memory that pertains to Link, Zelda and the other companions from 100 years ago. Finding these is never straight forward and requires Link to use a photograph as a clue pertaining to the location.
A new kind of Hyrule
Like I've stated before, Breath fo the Wild offers little to no hand holding. Once you clear the Great Plateau which has been shown to death now at events and by Nintendo themselves, you're stuck with two main quests: Destroy Ganon and Free the Divine Beasts. The game is literally telling you that you could, if you wanted, run straight to Hyrule Castle and take Ganon on. To me, that seemed foolish, however, I know that will definitely be something players will be attempting when the game is in their hands.
Hyrule extends out to basically every direction from your starting point, and for the most part, you can explore any of them. If there's one sentence that has somewhat lost its meaning over time, it's the "You see that mountain in the distance? You can go there!" Sure, going to a location you can see far off in the distance has some novelty in it, but Breath of the Wild takes that sense of exploration and amplifies it by making the trip and the destination worthwhile. Since anything is scalable in the game, only limited by your own stamina circle, you can actually climb said mountain and more often than not, there will be some sort of reward or event waiting for you.
When I say every nook and cranny is worth investigating, I mean it. I randomly stumbled upon some ruins hidden deep within a mountain, only to be greeted by auto-targeting lasers from multiple Guardians. I quickly "nope'd" out of there and decided that's a location worth coming back to later. Another time I saw an island when I was on a large cliff and decided to make my way toward it. I couldn't glide to it but found out I can use a raft to get there. Once I got there, something amazing happened, and for the sake of spoilers, I won't say what.
The sense of discovery carries through the entire game too. Climbing a Sheikah Tower will allow you to uncover that part of the map on your Sheikah Slate. What it doesn't do however is dot your map with new points of interest. That's still entirely up to you to do. From said tower, you can peer off into the distance and spot points of interests like Shrines, enemy camps or other towers, and you can mark those yourself. The game actively encourages you to map out locations on your own, to keep that sense of exploration high through the entire game.
What I'm trying to convey is that Hyrule is masterfully designed. I once thought it might have been too big for its own good, but it wasn't until I started discovering the cleverly hidden puzzles, or locations that introduced crazy new mechanics, that I truly started to appreciate both its size and design.
Economy and survival
Slashing away at grass will no longer net you Rupees, nor will picking up pots and throwing them across the room. Rupees are a rare sight in Breath of the Wild and are usually only acquired through completing sidequests. With that said, they're still quite important, since many of the armor sets that come with different benefits are quite costly.
To make money you'll have to heavily invest time in the game's economy. That means you'll need to start picking up every single material or resource you come across and sell them for a higher price. Various kinds of ore like Topaz, Amber, Opal and Diamond. These can be sold for quite a good amount of Rupees so actively seeking them out is definitely recommended.
The game also has quite a big focus on survival, though not as hardcore as you'd see in games of that genre. Link has the ability to cook various dishes using the resources he finds across Hyrule, which means everything from apples, carrots, and mushrooms to monster parts like Moblin guts and Lizalfos tails. Mixing these ingredients will yield you a dish that usually has some sort of restorative purpose but also a potential buff.
Mixing together items with similar active elements is important because while cooking can sound complicated due to the vast amounts of ingredient combinations, there is only one that one simple rule to follow. That means you want to mix items that will grant you one specific buff since they cancel each other out and you can only have one active at a time. For example, there are food items that will either raise your core temperature or lower it, used in instances where the environment might be too cold or too hot. You can't mix the ingredients that have both the hot and cold buff since they would cancel each other out, so you simply stack the ingredients that all have the same property and then cook it.
In a lot of ways, cooking and having these dishes in your inventory during gameplay can trivialize a lot of encounters, since you simply pause the game, eat a meal, and your life can be immediately restored. Unless of course, you get one-shot by enemies, there's no coming back from that.
Approach to combat
Past Zelda games presented combat in a pretty straight-forward manner: You whip out your sword & shield, lock-on to an enemy and go ham. Here, that sort of straight-forward thinking will lead you to a Game Over screen real quick.
Enemies are dangerous and ruthless. Taking a Bokoblin on isn't that tough, until he brings his five friends, all attacking you at once. Breath of the Wild prioritizes planning and smart approaches to combat. Why run in when you can perhaps take out some sniper sentries with a well-placed arrow to the head? Or better yet, set those red barrels on fire and watch as a few of them explode! Or you could also go the stealth route and sneak into an enemy camp while everyone's asleep and perform stealth strikes.
You could also utilize Runes to your advantage, and conjure up a bomb that you can then roll into the camp and remote-detonate. Or perhaps you spot some metal crates that can be lifted high above the enemies and then let go in order to crush them underneath.
If you do decide to take enemies head-on, you'll have to deal with weapon durability. Even after so many hours put in, it's not a system I personally love. It's infuriating to find an amazing weapon, only to know that after 10 swings or so that thing's history. While it does encourage players to constantly keep a rotating set of tools at their disposal, it's still nerve-wracking to go into a battle and have your favorite new sword be destroyed in the middle of combat.
Puzzles, Shrines and Dungeons, oh my!
Another huge departure from the standard Zelda formula is its approach to dungeons. There are four of them that act as the big main ones that are related to the story (even though they can technically be skipped) and then there are over a 100 mini-dungeons called Shrines. I'll talk about the big ones in a bit, but first, let's focus on Shrines.
Shrines are important for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, finding one will make it a fast travel location, and given Hyrule's size, those are a necessity. Secondly, completing them will net you an item that's used to upgrade Link's maximum hearts or stamina.
Each Shrine is essentially one puzzle to complete, though there are a few that mix a few of them up. They're never too hard so you're left wondering what you're supposed to be doing, but they're also clever enough to give you that satisfying "ah-ha!" moment when you finally figure it out. These Shrines are clever as hell too, sometimes asking you to complete an electrical circuit or gliding to your destination thanks to cleverly placed wind gusts. There were two Shrines that were complementary to one another, forcing me to remember something from one, to solve the other. They're absolutely genius and never once did I feel like I wanted to skip one.
Dungeons are also quite different here. While each dungeon will task you with the same basic goal, the way you go about solving each one is awesome. Partly through the dungeon, you get the ability to manipulate it. I won't say how exactly, but I can say that with this new power, you can fundamentally change the dungeon's layout in ways that help you solve its puzzles.
Your Runes also come into play heavily here, making you stop certain objects in time, or move them with your magnet. It's fantastic how much these Runes complement puzzle solving in these instances.
It's beautiful but has some flaws
There's no denying that when it comes to art direction, Nintendo are masters of it. The Nintendo Switch is a far cry from the graphical beasts that are the PS4 and Xbox One, and yet, Breath of the Wild still manages to look amazing thanks to its stellar art direction. The characters and even its environments are so gorgeously detailed and colorful, that it almost feels like you're playing a cartoon.
It's clear that there were some compromises made to make it all fit on a game cart and run on the Switch, such as textures being slightly more lo-res, but none of that detracts from the overall beauty.
The voice acting is pretty great too, but not across the board and not consistently. Princess Zelda sounds great for the most part but there are scenes where her voice just sounds bored. The four Guardian companions you see during flashbacks are all pretty great, especially the Rito, Revali. The Great Deku Tree on the other hand, the less I hear from him, the better.
The game's biggest flaw and this relates to the Switch version since I haven't even seen what the Wii U version looks like, are the frame drops. They happen frequently enough there it becomes annoying. In areas without any sort of grass, the framerate is fine. But given that there is a lot of grassland in Hyrule, expect those dips to happen quite often. Add monster encounters or explosions and the game just can't handle it in a smooth 30fps. One area, that I won't name specifically, outright refuses to run at 30fps unless I'm standing still and looking at the ground. I'm truly hoping for a patch to fix this up because outside of these pretty bad frame drops, the game runs and looks great.
It's a new Zelda, sure, but also one that definitely harkens back to the very first (and perhaps second) game, with its focus on player freedom. Maybe I was so used to the last few Zelda games, that I forgot just how open the original games were. However, its homage to the original games shouldn't overshadow the fact that Breath of the Wild introduces a ton of new, game-changing elements to the game. Expect to be surprised, maybe shocked. Expect to possibly not love it at first if, like me, you are set in your ways when it comes to Zelda games.
Nintendo took insane risks with Breath of the Wild. Such big risks that I felt alienated when I first played it. That's quite the bold move considering that you run the risk of alienating fans completely. But over time, I grew to realize the brilliance in this game's design, and fell in love with the sense of adventure.