The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild review: Risky Link
Prepare to tri in Nintendo’s most daring adventure yet.
The Legend of Zelda series has had a tough run pleasing its goldilocks console fans since the superlative Ocarina of Time (OOT). While Linky’s handheld outings have been almost unanimously praised for making the most out of their hardware and their top-down isometric perspectives, the big-hitters on console have received a balanced mix of praise and negative criticism since the glory days of the Nintendo 64.
Some OoT fans struggled with Majora’s Mask’s ticking clock and abundance of side-quests. Others consider it one of the best in the series that because it wasn’t afraid to get a little dark. Twilight Princess copped a bit of flack for being too easy, despite its undeniably cool style. Skyward Sword (which we loved) was rubbished by some for being too paint-by-the-numbers and reliant on the Wii’s motion controls. We thought its skybound map was one of the most creative (if not a little shallow) worlds we’ve ever set foot in. Breath of the Wild excuses itself from comparison by not only ditching some of the series’ most repeated formulae but by taking on and improving some the most popular trends in contemporary gaming history.
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What I love the most about Breath of the Wild is that risk it takes. By shedding itself of some the series’ core foundations, like playable instruments and gated pathways, Breath of the Wild freely removes many aspects that fans adored about the series.
How does Nintendo’s team of young guns pull such a daring feat off? By replacing these well-worn Zelda tropes with something fans never expected from a game set in Hyrule. It’s something most Nintendo gamers have never experienced: An open-world that will crush you or crumble before you depending on how you approach it.
Despite finishing Breath of the Wild's main story some time ago now, we simply felt we couldn't do the world justice after just a few days exploring this wild new Hyrule. Now some way through our second play-through (around 100 hours all up), we feel it’s finally time to share our unfettered thoughts on it.
For days, maybe weeks (depending on your play style) Hyrule is totally alien. Sure, the Temple of Time shows up early, and you will eventually stumble across staples like Death Mountain and Zora Domain. In general, Hyrule is a much different beast to anything we’ve ever experienced from a Nintendo game.
To start with, the story is not linear in any way. You only get morsels of the game’s narrative if you truly hunt for it. You are given an information dump early on from a character with stakes in your success.
100 years ago, Princess Zelda, her appointed knight Link and four champions from different corners of Hyrule prepared an army of mechanical Guardians and Divine Beasts. This was in preparation for the inevitable return of that dastardly swine, Ganon.
In a shock twist, Ganon's pure form, Calamity Ganon hijacked the four Divine Beasts (the closest thing BotW has to a temple) and hundreds of Guardians and turned them against Hyrule's champions. All four champions are killed, Link is critically injured and Zelda is locked in a hundred year long struggle to keep Ganon at bay.
From there, your main mission is to reclaim each of the four divine beasts to aid you in your fight against Ganon.
You could just waltz straight up to the gates of Hyrule Castle and try your luck, but it's swarming with Guardians who will one-hit kill you, plus one seriously cranky swine-demon who will likely swallow you whole.
You do get more background here and there if you stay true to the path of taking down Calamity Ganon, but getting the whole picture is literally a mission in and of itself. There’s a whole string of Captured Memories that provide story moments but they are entirely optional to completing the game’s core arc. Outside of that, you’re left to your own devices to tackle Hyrule however you please.
This great wide-open nature had me stumped for the first day or two. Often I would try fruitlessly to take down beasts I had no right to, or go shopping with nary a rupee (but plenty to buy) in sight. Once you acclimatise to Breath of the Wild’s no-hands-held universe, you realise the game is much better for it.
Each step of the way, you can’t help but think about others playing at the same time as you. Which direction did they head when first leaving the Great Plateau? Did they realise as late as I did some of the game’s most basic principles? And so on, and so on. At the very time of writing, I’m watching my partner play through Breath of the Wild for the first time and she’s seen and done things it took me over a week to discover.
Besides a few obvious pointers, I have nothing to offer new starters. Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is open for the taking in any way you please. I could say: “Don’t even attempt to take down that centaur guy for the Zora mission, He’ll wipe the floor with you”. But that wouldn’t necessarily be accurate for you. I don’t know what you’ve seen and done before that point. For all I know, you’re 100% prepared.
In that way, Breath of the Wild feels like a game made in protest to the Twitter age. I’ve witnessed many gamers resort to Twitter for consultation. Everybody has suggestions, but never any answers. Because when it comes to Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule there's rarely a concrete solution, only different perspectives.
It's easy to comment on Hyrule's visual flair. For anyone who isn't sure, it looks bloody blissful. Whether you're tumbling through a large field of tall grass or catching the first glimpse of dawn while gliding from a mountain top, Breath of the Wild looks sublime.
Every single corner of this vast map has something for you to discover. Whether that is a coveted piece of armour or measly red rupee, it's up to you to find out. Whichever way to venture, you will never be disappointed.
I have experienced (as everyone has) the occasional frame rate dip when docked, but this isn't exclusive to Breath of the Wild. I experienced the same frame rate drop with the less intensive Bomber man R.
Carefree exploring of Hyrule's beautiful vistas also allows you to experience its most unique trait, its emergent gameplay scenarios. Whereas as old-school Zelda games hand you the hammer with which to hit the nail, Breath of the Wild gives you a full set of tools in its earliest moments.
Any of them can be used to tackle the game's many cleverly designed puzzles. The best example of this may be the welcome return of bombs. You're almost immediately given two kinds of bombs in Breath of the Wild, spherical and cubic bombs. Never are you told that one type is required over the other. You're simply asked to deduce which option would work best in the given situation (if at all).
The same goes for the Magnesis, Stasis and Cryonis runes. Your Shiekah Slate (Link's main source of magic) is imbued with these powers in the game's earliest moments. From there, the application of said runes is up to your discretion. I constantly found myself leaning on one rune over another, only to find my weapon of choice wasn't optimal for the mission at hand.
Now, weeks into the game, I very much enjoy Breath of the Wild's careful and considered combat but boy was it a pain to start with. Breath of the Wild really needs to let you remap its buttons. The most befuddling placement is the run and jump buttons at B and X, respectively.
For those unfamiliar with the Switch controller, that's the bottom and top buttons of the right-hand button configuration. Running and jumping feels unbearably awkward as you've got to use your thumb to hold down B and hook your index finger over the top to tap X to jump. Then when you mount a horse, dash or run swaps to A (right button) and B becomes dismount, which is unnecessarily confusing. To top it off, clicking in the left stick puts you in stealth mode, crouched. This can be aggravating when you're in the middle of an intense battle and accidentally hit the deck, slowing your movements dramatically.
Keeping the Keese
BotW's emergent gameplay systems really open the game’s puzzles up to interpretation but where it really shines is in the many ludicrous ways you can take down an enemy encampment. There is such an abundance of ways to combat an enemy that it nearly feels futile just talking about a few.
First up you've got your arsenal of melee weapons, such as one-handed swords, shields and two-handed axes. Each has a different effect when used when swung or charged up and each has a different durability depending on its build. Weapon degradation plays a big part in BotW. It's present and a little aggressive. Otherwise, metal weapons and armour attract lightning in a thunderstorm, wooden ones catch fire in the sizzling temperatures of Death Mountain.
Then you have arrows, which unlike the recent Horizon Zero Dawn, aren't within arm's reach at all times. Arrows are almost vital to ranged combat but arrows of any sort are such a rare commodity in Hyrule, you'll find yourself savouring those tips for a huge, lanky beast with a long reach or a curious Wizzrobe.
I'm of two minds about the scarcity of arrows and Breath of the Wild's weapon degradation. On one hand, the need to purchase arrows from stores keeps you returning to the game's various lively hub towns. The impermanence of weapons pushes you to juggle your inventory on the go, which adds a good dash of stress when taking on some of the game's more aggressive enemies.
On the other, these two features provide more time-wasting obstacles than they do genuine challenges. Weapon degradation is almost never a good thing. Specifically, in the case of Breath of the Wild, it's counter-intuitive to the game's otherwise free-range, no-strings nature.
As open and free as Breath of the Wild is, I found myself constantly second-guessing off-hand enemy encounters thanks to the constant anxiety of losing my favourite weapons after five or six hits. Give me a whetstone to repair my beautiful Zora shield, show me a blacksmith to restore the unique bow I was rewarded in a sentimental story moment. Just don't take it away from me for good.
In the real world, that kind of attachment to material possessions might seem a little unhealthy but this is Zelda, let me do me. One of the greatest pleasures I personally derive from open world RPGs is the unique persona I handcraft for my character with the game's wealth of items and armour. Breath of the Wild robs this of you with its high turnover of weapons, bows and shields.
Speaking of the game snatching things from your hands like a bastard Bokoblin, how about that ending?
The following criticism contains no narrative spoilers, but it does delve into how the developer's handled the game post final boss fight.
You have been warned.
Breath of the Wild pulls out possibly one of my biggest pet peeves in video games. One of the most unforgivable sins in my eyes.
After the final boss fight, when the credits have rolled and you're sent back to the main menu, hitting continue takes you right to the front door of the final boss. As if you never defeated Ganon, as if none of it ever happened.
After an unhealthy amount of time spent solving Hyrule's problems, I was expecting to be rewarded with a worthy ending and hopefully some neat post-game rewards. Metal Gear Solid gives you a bandana that grants you unlimited ammo. Red Dead allows you to continue exploring the last remnants of the Wild West as John Marston's revenge-fuelled offspring.
These are fantastic examples of how some of the best games handle their post-game content.
Breath of the Wild could have easily let you keep exploring Hyrule with Ganon now vanquished. This is how it should have played out:
"You've defeated the scourge of Calamity Ganon but armies of his minions still roam the land and many Hyrulians still need your help. Take this indestructible Bow of Light to help you clean up Hyrule."
But, no. We're given no such post-game. Your only reward is a short, forgettable cut-scene with Princess Zelda and a long list of credits. I was also pretty disappointed that we don't see Ganon in a more humanoid form, like his classic Gerudo look as Ganondorf.
Outside of that, I actually enjoyed Breath of the Wild's cutscenes more than most. Some complaints of Zelda voice work are valid and some cutscenes run on way too long telling you what you already know.
Still, I liked the dynamic between the motley crew of Hyrulian champions; Daruk the Goron as the lovable meathead, Urbosa the Gerudo as the maternal badass, Revali the Rito as the arrogant archer, and Mipha the Zora as the group's healer and sly love interest for Link. The scenes between them can be quite touching. Even in the happier scenes of camaraderie, there's undertones of dread and worry.
Better still are the characters still in the land of the living. Particularly the Internet's new boyfriend, Prince Sidon, Mipha's royal Zora sibling. We can't speak for the rest of the world's sudden lust to get with this cartilaginous creature but he is a loyal and lovable ally who helps you in one of the game's more exciting pre-Divine Beast battles. Sidon is just one example of the standout characters that pepper Hyrule's vast landscape, but there are so many more that will put an involuntary smile on your face.
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Where to next?
As it stands, Breath of the Wild is an impeccable open-world game. It is Nintendo's best game in their long history of pioneering adventure titles. It might even be one of the greatest games ever made. It's certainly one of the most engrossing, all-consuming games I've ever played.
So where does Nintendo go from here? While the proposed DLC received a bit of backlash for asking you to pay for a promotional in-game Nintendo Switch shirt and a Hard difficulty setting, there's plenty of room to expand upon Breath of the Wild's minimalist story. Whatever it is; you're onto a glorious thing here Nintendo.
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