With such freedom never before seen in Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild has sunk in its claws and shows no sign of letting go.
Since its inception over 30 years ago, The Legend of Zelda franchise has become a flagship series for Nintendo. For the newest entry to the series, Breath of the Wild scraps the familiar formula of past Zelda games, opting instead to venture into uncharted waters. This is a brave new direction for the franchise, offering an enormous open Hyrule Kingdom (the fictional land where Zelda is set) within which to pave your own adventure.
Previous Zelda titles clung to a linear progression of its plot, holding the player’s hand, guiding them along the path set by Nintendo. Dictating what town or dungeon to visit, a tight leash existed on how we played Zelda. But the series recently began relinquishing that hold. And now Breath of the Wild throws off all the shackles.
Even the plot feels different this time. The fight with Gannon (the series’ long-time villain) already happened 100 years prior, and the side of good lost. As the game progresses, the gaps are filled in and everything begins to fall into place. With this being the last hope to triumph against Gannon, the desperation of Link’s allies is genuine .
Breath of the Wild’s greatest strength is in its presentation of the open world – a world brimming with intrigue, discovery and challenge. It seems to take ideas from other open world games, such as Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry, and roll it all into one. For example, Sheikah towers located throughout the world act as vantage points. Climb and activate one with the Sheikah slate (a tool used by Link that doubles as a weapon, with abilities like bombs and stasis) to reveal the surrounding landscape.
This is the most challenging Zelda to date. The combat has been beefed up dramatically, showing likeness to the Dark Souls series. No longer do enemies have obvious weak points that scream “ATTACK ME HERE!”, instead strategising is key and learning when to evade and when to attack its vital. Finding a bokoblin camp, you could charge in sword swinging (which will most likely end in your quick demise) or climb a nearby cliff to scope out the area, then decide the best plan of attack.
No longer can Link (the series’ protagonist) walk into a fight with a plethora of arrows. Breath of the Wild is, in a sense, built around survival. To stand a fighting chance, Link must also gather ingredients from around Hyrule to create food and elixirs. These offer a range of benefits, including health regeneration to increased defence to fire resistance. Adding to the challenge, weapons break fast, promoting strategic use. The lack of a crafting system is disappointing, though weapons are literally thrown at you.
The game delivers a dynamic weather system, with sunshine, rain, thunder and snow (depending on the region). By the way, thunder will kill you if you wield steel weapons. This can also be used as a tool against smart and resourceful enemies. Noticing a bomb that has been thrown at them, they may attempt to run away or kick it back at you before it explodes.
It is the small things that really manage to set this game apart form its competitors. The temperature gauge on the screen will adjust to the smallest changes in heat or cold: Link shivers in the menu screen while trenching though snow if you are ill-equiped; arrow tips burst into flames under the intense heat of a volcano. Just thinking about how long it must have taken Nintendo to get all this working perfectly is tiring.
The franchise is known for its clever puzzle design, which Nintendo has built into this world. Certain areas and regions throughout the world implement puzzles, whether that is the shrines, that on completion reward orbs, which are then traded for stamina or heart upgrades; or the multiple environmental hazards blocking the climb up the Sheikah towers.
At times it is a bit too ambitious for the Wii U console; slight frame rate drops present every now and then, a couple of times dropping to about one or two frames per second, though this was hardly enough to spoil the experience. The Wii U release also makes little use of the GamePad tablet. Having been used for viewing the map and inventory management for past Zeldas on the system, making gameplay more fluid, it now only acts as a method to play without the television. While weapons and Sheikah slate abilities can be switched quickly on the fly with the d-pad buttons, it would have been handy to minimise trawling through menus.
Nintendo took a big risk with Breath of The Wild, and it has paid off. They could have stuck to their well-honed formula, but they didn’t. Instead, they crafted a RPG experience so full of wonder and charm, with every new town and mountain to which I travel holding a new discovery. The art style is well suited, lightning is gorgeous as it reflects off wet grass and the combat is thrilling. Despite the few technical issues, this re-invention is more than welcome.
Breath of the Wild is available on both the Nintendo Wii U and Switch. This review is based on the Wii U release. – Ben Rochlin