Who would have thought that a Zelda game, of all things, would be a complete game changer when it comes to how open world adventures are designed? The answer is nobody, because that would be insane. But they did it. It’s a (ahem) –breath- of fresh air for both the open world genre, and the Zelda series.
Breath of the Wild, as a game, can be almost whatever you want to get out of it. Unless what you want is a normal feeling Zelda game, in which case you’re out of luck.
The main tools you’ve built up as you set foot in that final encounter are yours and yours alone, a chart of the journey you chose to undertake.
Reviewing Breath of the Wild is tricky, considering most people who play it will have entirely different experiences, their own stories to tell. That alone is a spectacular achievement. Once you’re done with the starting area, the Central Plateau, the game lets you off the leash and allows you to go do whatever you want. All of the basic “puzzle solving tools” have been dished out to you over that opening section, so pretty much anything is possible. It does point you in a recommended direction, but you could head right to the final destination (Fox-No-Items style) and polish off the “game” in a mere few hours if you really wanted.
But you won’t want to do that. And if you did, you’d probably get demolished. Over the course of your journey you’ll gradually improve — whether that’s through heart and stamina upgrades from trading in bundles of the spirit orbs obtained from the game’s 100+ “mini-dungeon” shrines; obtaining some spirit powers by following the main quest; or just grabbing progressively more powerful armour and weapons as you learn how the game works. The main tools you’ve built up as you set foot in that final encounter are yours and yours alone, a chart of the journey you chose to undertake.
Even sticking doggedly to the path of the main quests won’t unveil very much of the game’s many, many mysteries. The waypointing is deliberately sparse, and the routes these primary questlines take you on lead you to explore maybe only a quarter of the vast world map that is this re-imagined, open world Hyrule. And that’s just in terms of pure geography. In terms of world richness, sticking to the main quests barely scratches the surface. Not to mention you’d run the risk of being severely underpowered come the final encounter.
Breath of the Wild‘s Link can scale literally any cliff face in the game like a cross between Spider-Man and Ethan Hunt from the opening to Mission Impossible 2.
Breath of the Wild is all about traversing Hyrule’s rough terrain. And there’s one thing that’s at your side throughout the entire journey — Mr. Green Circle, and his friends, the other green circles (once you’ve begun collecting upgrades). Yes, the stamina meter makes a return from its great debut in Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword‘s stamina system made the Wii incarnation of Link one of the most athletic throughout Hyrule’s history thanks to his sprinting and incline-scrambling abilities. Breath of the Wild‘s version of the hero is this times 1,000. Where Skyward Sword’s Link could wall-run a few feet off the ground, Breath of the Wild‘s Link can scale literally any cliff face in the game like a cross between Spider-Man and Ethan Hunt from the opening to Mission Impossible 2 (almost certainly the worst entry in the Mission Impossible franchise). If you’re confident you have the stamina for it you can make a route up anything, angling for less steep inclines and small ledges where you might be able to stop and recover. Stamina only decreases while moving, so you can be considerate about it, slowly edging your way to the peak.
There are horses in the game (catching and taming them is a whole system of its own), but you’ll likely spend most of your time neglecting them, choosing to grapple directly with the elements yourself. Each shrine you find and activate doubles as a fast travel point, along with Hyrule’s various towers. You’ll find yourself making short jumps between them as you chart this frontier, spotting out new places of interest from high vantage points, setting custom waypoints through makeshift binoculars, and then setting course via paraglider or surfing downhill on your shield, stopping off at any interesting spots on the way.
So often in Breath of the Wild you think of something that might work, and lo and behold it does. Because of course it does.
You’ll need to adjust your journey at times with the weather, which is just a small part of what Technical Director Takuhiro Dohta calls the game’s “chemistry engine”. The chemistry engine is simple in concept, but it’s a huge part of how you interact with the game: It’s the idea that elements should interact with one another in ways that make sense. So often in Breath of the Wild you think of something that might work, and lo and behold it does. Because of course it does.
Go out in a thunderstorm with metal weapons strapped to your back and you’ll get zapped by lighting, your weapons flying everywhere. Use fire weapons in a patch of grass and it will set alight and spread, burning anyone in the area and creating an updraft of wind you can take advantage of with your paraglider. Try to climb a cliff in the pouring rain? You’re going to slip down. Considering how much climbing you’ll need to do, that final case can actually be pretty annoying. There are sometimes ways around it, but more often than not you’ll just have to wait around for the downpour to subside.
Combine the chemistry engine with a solid physics engine and you create a little sandbox of systems that interact with each other wonderfully. It shines not only during random acts of happenstance, but when using those systems to reach solutions. You feel like a genius the first time you realise you can get already-cooked meat by killing an animal with a flame weapon. The best puzzles in the game make use of this lateral thinking, offering multiple solutions to a puzzle if you consider other approaches. Sure, I could do this complicated task to draw electricity from one area to another, or I could just link my metal weapons together to conduct the electricity instead.
Which doesn’t mean every puzzle is great, though the ones that are stick in your memory as true gaming highpoints. The times when Breath of the Wild does actually require something specific can be a little confusing just because it does it so few and far between. At other times, select shrines and dungeons can turn into a bit of a slog for a variety of reasons. You may get to a point in a shrine trial where the solution demands arrows, and if you’ve run out you’ll need to hop out of the shrine, go buy some, and then come crawling back. There’s an optional trial that’s an insta-fail stealth mission. There’s an almost insta-fail stealth mission in the main quest, as well as an escort mission (though it is thankfully fairly brief). For all its greatness, Breath of the Wild isn’t above making you really grind your teeth at times. But at least the proper dungeons make up for it, right?
Well, about that. Calling the dungeons in Breath of the Wild “proper dungeons” or even “dungeons” is a bit of a stretch. They’re more like “expansive puzzle rooms”. Don’t get me wrong, there are sparks of ingenuity in them, but they’re about as far removed from the concept of a traditional Zelda dungeon as you can get. They’re small and compact, taking place inside four mechanical “divine beasts” that have gone rogue. Inside you’ll need to sync Link’s new all-in-one tool, the Sheikah Slate, with a handful of terminals scattered around them, then activate the main terminal before polishing off a boss fight.
Calling the dungeons in Breath of the Wild “proper dungeons” or even “dungeons” is a bit of a stretch.
After powering up the first terminal, each beast has something you can do to interact with them on the map screen, changing how you explore the dungeon. One beast, for instance, will tilt sharply one way or the other at your command. This dungeon manipulation leads to some interesting takes on how you experience the trials to solve puzzles, but beyond a few standout instances don’t feel overly impressive. Not helping matters are some very samey interior designs, and some pretty uninspired boss characters that go the same way. They have their moments, but none of the “dungeons” would make any of our Top 10 series lists. Ditto the bosses.
Breath of the Wild is true exploration.
Don’t despair, as the best puzzle designs actually lie outside of the shrines and dungeons. Hyrule is stuffed to the brim with environmental puzzles of its own, and it’s this richness in its world design that really sets a new benchmark when it comes to open world gaming. Stumbling upon your first few instances of these seemingly incidental conundrums — perhaps some rocks that appear just out of place, a tantalising mountain peak, a glowing cave at night — sets the precedent that hooks you into wanting explore every nook and cranny you find. There’s something interesting to every one.
If something looks curious, it genuinely feels worth it to check it out. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s recreation of Victorian London was gorgeous, but any attempt to clear up collectibles felt like rudely plastering in stickers in an album just to fill a checklist. Breath of the Wild is true exploration, rewarding your own curiosity with surprises at every turn.
Another big surprise for series veterans? Weapons and shields have durability this time around, and shatter with overuse. The concept is stronger earlier on in the game, where enemy encounters may result in a lot of fumbling around grabbing whatever weapons you can find. Quite quickly, though, enemies grow much tougher, and the bulk of the standard weapons are virtually worthless. Instead you’ll hoard the more interesting and powerful weapons you’ll find through exploration, as you’ll need those big attack numbers to fell the stronger beasts that roam the land.
Without making sure to upgrade your armour periodically at Great Fairy Fountains you’re likely to get demolished constantly by enemies, which can sometimes feel like more of a wall than a true challenge. You can parry and dodge to find an opening for a “flurry attack”, but it still lacks some of the nuance of Twilight Princess‘ in-depth system, or even Wind Waker‘s flow of twitchy counters. The focus is instead primarily on the durability system.
Enemies mainly drop their equipment and nasty, gross ingredients such as moblin guts. Nobody drops hearts at all, and even rupee drops are pretty rare. This leads to a pretty tight economy (kiss goodbye to finding money in pots and tall grass), predominantly based on you selling the materials you’ve gathered. Will you offload that ore for an early pay-day now, possibly giving you enough to afford that shiny new armour? Or save it up in anticipation of a material-based upgrade? Healing, meanwhile, is now mostly done via eating meals you cook. You can also use campfires and pots to create potions that offer various buffs, such as elemental resistance. Cooking is much deeper than it first seems, with hundreds of possible combinations of different recipes and effects.
As you can probably tell from the screenshots, Breath of the Wild is gorgeous. Compared to Sony and Microsoft’s offerings, Switch isn’t exactly a graphical powerhouse, but as usual Nintendo knocks it out of the park with visual styling. Playing Breath of the Wild in the Switch’s TV mode (that’s docked and hooked up to the TV) pushes the game from 720p to 900p. That’s not a huge improvement, and it actually causes the frame rate to dip much more frequently, which is significantly more noticeable in some areas than others. One environment in particular (deep in the woods) becomes almost unplayable when docked, which is a bit bizarre. It seems strange than Nintendo wouldn’t simply keep the game at a constant 720p to perform better. They may update the game to address this.
Due to the game’s structure the story is sparse. It very much plays second fiddle to the idea of exploring an open world with ultimate freedom. Having lost his memory, Link doesn’t know anything about the ruined world he wakes up in and learns snippets through dialogue with other characters. The fully voice-acted cutscenes that were shown off prior to release are mostly portions of Link’s memory returning to him, though they’re often lacking in full context, and might not be remembered in the right order. These end up pushing all of the correct pleasure buttons in my brain when it comes to subtle world-building.
With that said, it’d be nice to have a bit more across the board. We still barely get to see much of any of the Champions from the past, or even their descendants (though Sidon still manages to somehow be one of gaming’s best boys). The already-announced story DLC may dive into these a bit more. Ganon, too, isn’t much more than a goalpost for the end of the game. This time around going by “Calamity Ganon”, more of a force of nature than a menacing man of power and weight, making him a fairly weak antagonist all told. Strewn throughout are many humorous encounters and charming inhabitants of the world that thankfully retain traditional Zelda quirkiness in a game that first appears to be more sombre than previous entries.
Musically the game is just as subtle, staying mostly silent in the open world and picking up only at certain musical queues — be it the distinctive music of a village (the Rito village’s music lovingly recreates the Dragon Roost motif from Wind Waker); or the chaotic piano that kicks in when a Guardian has its sights set on you — a sort of super-fast and powerful mechanical spider that will more than likely one-shot beginner players.
Breath of the Wild is one of the most impressive games of recent years. It will likely go down as one of those genre defining moments. The trouble is that, at times, Breath of the Wild peaks so high the other areas of the game just can’t quite match up to it. When it comes to providing you with any set courses, it stumbles. Some traditional style dungeons certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss. And it suffers from some pretty awkward technical issues. Ultimately though, you’ll constantly surprise yourself by forging out and uncovering new secrets in Hyrule. It’s easily the most rewarding open-world in gaming by a long shot. You have to wonder just what they’re going to do next.