A good franchise knows how to change in order to become the best version of itself, and no game today embodies that ethos more than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild . Nintendo’s latest return to Hyrule is epic, wondrous, and nothing like you’d expect from the series.
The game starts with you, Link, waking up after a hundred years of sleep to a mysterious voice telling you to defeat Calamity Ganon, a supreme being of evil who wants to destroy Hyrule. You are Hyrule’s only hope to find Princess Zelda, defeat Ganon, and bring peace back to the kingdom. You could copy and paste this synopsis to any Zelda game and it would fit. However, the story is probably the only part of this game that feels like standard Zelda fare. Its familiarity may be disappointing since every other aspect of the gameplay is elevated beyond expectation, but like most elements of Breath of the Wild, it is entirely optional. You’re welcome to immerse yourself in the story, but you can just as easily ignore it and enjoy the game in your own way.
Breath of the Wild wants you to fail early – and it feels great. This latest Zelda game practically hands you all of your abilities in the first half hour, in the form of “runes” on your intuitive multi-tool Sheikah Slate. Then, it shoves you into the world without so much as a “Good luck!” That’s just one part of what makes the game so unique and wonderful: You are truly on your own and don’t have a path to follow. If you wanted, at the very start of the game you could walk up to Hyrule Castle with three hearts and no clothing to take on beat the final boss. You’re most likely going to die if you attempt that, but the fact that you even have the option is pretty remarkable.
Freedom is indeed the ultimate principle of Breath of the Wild, and that freedom is what makes you powerful. But you know how the saying goes: With great power comes absolutely no help in trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do. You want a tutorial on combat? Here’s a stick, you can figure it out. What’s up with all the bugs and food you’re collecting? Put it all in a fire and find out. Don’t know where you’re supposed to go? Wherever you want, dummy, just walk somewhere and get ready to die while you explore.
At first, the limitless freedom is overwhelming, but you’re given a lot to work with. In addition to standard hearts, you also have a stamina meter that you use to climb, sprint, and glide – and you can climb, sprint, and glide practically everywhere. Hyrule is gorgeous and expansive, with changing weather patterns and a day-night cycle that encourages you to visit places over and over. You can follow the worn walking trails that are generally the easiest way to get from place to place, or you can hop off the beaten path and climb mountains instead; it’s up to you. It’s impossibly liberating to be in charge of your own destiny in Breath of the Wild.
Like in most open world games, there are NPCs everywhere to give you side quests. Some of these quests function as mini-tutorials or point you to new places to explore, and they are going to be your best chance at figuring out what you’re able to do, aside from looking up YouTube tutorials. The side missions are rarely much more than fetch quests, but they make Hyrule feel at its most alive and populous.
Another factor that makes Hyrule feels more alive than ever is that this is the first Zelda game to feature voice acting in its cutscenes. It’s exciting to hear what many of the different races in Hyrule actually sound like, but the performances are inconsistent. Zelda is not a series known for its deep story or well-written dialogue in the first place, but mediocre voice acting does not elevate Breath of the Wild’s story.
One element that does elevate Breath of the Wild is the ability to cook items into food and elixirs that heal and buff you. It’s an unexpected addition that encourages you to explore Hyrule’s crevices in order to find new materials, and enables helps to level the playing field against enemies that might otherwise pose too great a challenge.
Even the dungeons, perhaps the most iconic staple of gameplay in the Zelda series, have been vastly overhauled. Gone are the dozen or so sprawling dungeons that tested your wits with a huge array of puzzles. Instead, Breath of the Wild gives you what are ostensibly 120 mini-dungeons in the form of shrines, to which you can use to fast travel once you’ve discovered them. Each shrine contains smaller puzzles or mini-boss battles ranging from very simple to fairly challenging. No shrine is particularly difficult to figure out, but I felt a keen sense of pride with each one I finished. It’s precisely the formula that makes the Zelda series effective – building your sense of accomplishment and success piece by piece, but this time with an open-world twist.
Like many parts of the game, the combat in Breath of the Wild is satisfying and full of surprises. You have an amazing array of weapons – swords, shields, lances, mallets, axes, bows – all of which offer unique play styles and strategies. It’s incredible to fight your way through Hyrule using an arsenal you’ve assembled by up from chests or pilfering them from enemies. The Switch’s motion controls are generally solid, but using them to aim your bow and arrow is inconsistent, often over-correcting for the slightest movements you make.
Though the combat is indeed varied and challenging, the weapon degradation system is undoubtedly the most immersion-breaking element in the game. Almost any weapon will shatter after just a few minutes of use. This system certainly encourages you not to be precious about your weapons and forces you to try new techniques, but the rate at which they go from being enemy-crushing to useless breaks up the momentum of an otherwise exciting game. Some players won’t mind this system, but it will drive others nuts. Regardless, there are plenty of weapons to find and re-find, so you’re never truly wasting a weapon.
Breath of the Wild is both the opposite of a Zelda game and perhaps the most Zelda game in the entire series. It maximizes the series’ best mechanics while also completely subverting elements that were once considered staple traits of the franchise. What’s more, the experience you have is truly your own. You can play it in 20 hours and feel satisfied, or easily sink in 60 hours and still feel like you haven’t seen enough. It’s an all-encompassing, massive game filled with delight and challenge, and is worth making time for.
- Immersive story
- True open world experience
- Interesting side quests
- Voice acting in cut scenes
- Over 100 dungeons
- Satisfying combat mechanics
- Inconsistent aiming with bow and arrow
- Weapon degradation system