The Zelda series needs no introduction, and neither does its latest installment, Breath of the Wild (BotW). Nintendo did the same thing they did with Twilight Princess and released it as both the final great game for their previous console (the Wii U) and as a fantastic launch game for their new console (Switch). On the surface, this is about as generic as you can get for a Zelda game. Zelda is in peril and you must ultimately defeat Ganon to save the world. But BotW’s brilliance lies in its execution of ideas new and old, and the result is an open world game that is truly open.
You awaken as Link in a place called the Shrine of Resurrection. It’s a strange place, filled with arcane symbols and weird sci- fi type technology, including an item known as the Sheikah Slate, which becomes one of your most ubiquitous tools. After getting some threadbare clothes, you emerge from the Shrine and take in the surrounding landscape. It’s a beginning that echoes the likes of Fallout 3, except the thing is in the case of that title, you were guided pretty heavily from location to location and were restricted in where you can go.
BotW takes the minimalist approach in how it teaches you to play. The opening area known as the Great Peninsula essentially serves as the tutorial, and one of the very first things you’ll learn is that you can climb almost any surface in the world. Want to climb a tree? Do it. See a mountain in the distance and wonder what’s at the top? Well, go find out. It’s a level of freedom rarely seen in any game, and one that serves the game greatly. The catch is that, unlike certain assassins from another popular open world franchise, Link has a stamina bar that can run out and must be refilled before he can climb or sprint (it refills rather quickly on its own).
The brilliant thing about that, though, is that the limited stamina you have isn’t necessarily the limit of how much you can climb. You can cook various things found throughout the world, including fish, animal meat, and all manner of fruits and vegetables. Each one does a different thing and one of the dishes you can make refills your stamina bar automatically, meaning even if a mountain is too high or a tower is too tall, you can whip of some quick dishes to give yourself a little boost.
And really, this freedom pervades every aspect of the game- as mentioned before, the Great Plateau area serves as the tutorial, where you learn to cook. But you also learn to seek out Sheikah Towers, which fill in sections of the map; to search for Shrines, which are essentially mini puzzles that hold an item at the end that, when you have four of them, can be used to either increase your stamina or health; and you learn the dangers that direct confrontation with enemies can have. One of the first of my many, many deaths in this game came from a lowly Bokoblin. These enemies were massive pushovers in previous games, so when one of the first ones I came across had a weapon powerful enough to wipe out all three of my hearts at once, I knew I’d have to rethink my strategy. So instead, I snuck up on the guard, dispatched him, took his bow, then shot an arrow at a dangling lantern that caused a massive explosion when it fell on some fuel barrels, wiping out all but the Bokoblin who had the strong weapon. But by that point, I had a few weapons in my belt and was able to defeat him in much easier fashion. There are a few other wrinkles, too, like how dodging at the right time slows time down and allows you to get some free attacks off.
For longtime fans of the series, a lot of what I just said probably sounds like a foreign language. Usually, Zelda has you have one sword (until a mid-game upgrade) and doesn’t have environments that could be defined as dynamic. BotW, though, takes some of the best elements of modern open world games. You can mark the map with points of interest, you can fast travel to any previously discovered Shrine or Tower, you gather materials that can be used in upgrading, and you scavenge all of your weapons from enemies. And unlike other games in the series, where you’d get classic items like bombs and the hookshot, this game front loads your puzzle solving abilities. You have remote bombs, which are just what they sound like. There’s Cryonis, which can make an icy platform appear in any body of water. There’s Magnesis, a wonderful throwback to the Metal Gloves from Oracle of Ages, which lets you move heavy metal objects. And there’s Stasis, which allows you to freeze an object, hit it a few times, then unfreeze the object and watch as all the kinetic energy from your blows sends it flying. It’s an odd choice to be sure, but one that exemplifies the open ended gameplay BotW embraces.
And open ended it is. The Great Plateau opening took me about five hours to get through. Not because it’s a long, drawn out tutorial section, but because I wanted to explore every single nook and cranny of this area. There’s ruins of the Temple of Time, small outposts of monsters, a snowy mountain that requires warm armor (or a warm meal!) to traverse safely, and so much more crammed into this one large area, and I relished every second. But then you complete that area and receive an item known as the Paraglider, which lets you glide through the air as long as you have stamina, useful for getting down from high places quickly and other things. And when you get that, the pacing of the game is entirely up to you.
Therein lies the brilliance of BotW. It places you in a truly massive world (Hyrule makes Wind Waker’s Great Sea look like the head of a pin) and says “Do whatever you want.” You are given some rather neat lore to guide you in your travels. See, in most Zelda games, your goal is to stop a great evil from completely destroying the world. In BotW, Calamity Ganon won 100 years ago. Both Link and Zelda failed to stop this being from having its way with the world, resulting in Link being mortally wounded and placed in the Shrine of Resurrection and Zelda being captured by Calamity Ganon. There are ruins of civilizations all over the place, with only a few small settlements scattered across the world showing any signs of what happened before the Calamity. One of the reasons Calamity Ganon was able to rise to power is the four Divine Beasts, massive mechanical creatures designed by the Sheikah ages ago, and the Guardians, spider like machines that were designed with the intent of stopping Calamity Ganon, were turned on the world by dark magic. So now, Link’s goal is to reawaken and free the Divine Beasts from the clutches of evil and take down Calamity Ganon.
So while the plotline isn’t terribly dissimilar from previous games, there are a lot of cool additions to series lore like the expanded role of the Sheikah, the ancient technology, and one of my personal favorites, the Yiga clan, who are a bunch of rogue Sheikah that serve the recurring darkness of Ganon (they’re masters of stealth and every once in a while you’ll come across a traveler that is a Yiga in disguise- very cool). This is on top of some well realized characters, who are developed through flashbacks (one of the major quests in this game is to recover Link’s memories of 100 years ago). This has what is probably my favorite rendition of the Zelda character. In previous games, she was a flawless, wise beyond her years young woman (save in Wind Waker). But in this game, she is under enormous pressure to discover her powers and stop Calamity Ganon. We see her get frustrated, even angry with herself and Link, and her voice acting helps make her a really great and interesting player in the game’s fairly simple story.
Back to my main point, though. Your goal is to free the Divine Beasts and stop Calamity Ganon. You are told this right from the very beginning, but the thing is that once you leave the Great Plateau, you can go right to Hyrule Castle for the final showdown. You’ll more than likely get smeared across the floor before you even set foot inside, but the game lets you do that if you want. Everything in the game is technically side content because there’s only one true objective, which is to beat the final boss. But the thing is that the world is so vast, so vibrant, and so jam packed with secrets that to rush through to the end would be to do yourself a disservice. Whether it’s a shrine, a new town, some new and interesting side quest, or even just a treasure chest containing some powerful bomb arrows, there’s more than enough incentive to get just about any player sucked into exploration for a long time.
And this lack of hand holding is why I say this game has raised the bar for the open world genre. Other games have really vast and well-made worlds, but often have unnecessary tasks or filler content that doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. And not only that, but half of everything in those games often feels like little more than pretty sky boxes to look at, and the story missions often feel ironically restrictive. Like, “follow this person to this point, but if you get caught you’ll have to start all over,” or in something like GTAV with the heist missions. They give you the illusion of control with their pre heist planning, but really it’s just deciding which set of scripted sequences you want to play through. And often times, large sections of the world or certain features are left off limits to the player until they progress to a certain point. It’s such a bizarrely restrictive set up that you have to wonder sometimes why the developer just didn’t make a linear action game. But in BotW, it lets players have total control. It lets them determine how fast paced or slow paced they go through the story. Want to go and free every Divine Beast one after the other? Go for it. Want to uncover the entire map and do all 120 Shrines before even touching one of the Divine Beast dungeons? Be my guest. But this freedom trickles down into specific gameplay situations, too. For instance, the Eldin region is home to a massive volcano (the return of Death Mountain, of course) that literally sets the air on fire. But you have options. You can cook up a meal or elixir that makes you fireproof. Or there’s an NPC who will give you a piece of fireproof armor. Or you can buy the fireproof armor from the Gorons when you reach them (side note: they are perhaps at their most loveable in this game).Or just don’t go to Eldin if you don’t feel like it.
There are some controversial decisions to allow for this level of freedom. For one, weapons now have durability. I personally didn’t mind it, as I took my time with exploration and was pretty much always able to find a weapon at least as good as anything I currently had. A lot of people don’t like it, but I thought it forced me to both explore and play cautiously, which are positives. I will say, I could have used more information when it comes to durability. There’s no way to tell how close a weapon is to breaking until it only has a few swings left (same with bows and shields). Another decision that could turn people away is the severe lack of dungeons. For a game this huge, there are only four main dungeons (to say nothing about the fact that my favorite game in the series, Majora’s Mask also had only four dungeons). And what is here is decidedly… different from previous games. Rather than being massive mazes with an abundance of puzzles to solve, each one is a fairly stripped down and self-contained area where you must activate five control mechanisms inside the beast. The cool part comes from the fact that you can manipulate the dungeon in certain ways. For instance, in the bird Divine Beast, you can tilt its wings one way or another, making the whole dungeon shift at a certain angle, thereby giving you more places to go. I enjoyed them for what they were and found exploration of the world so engrossing that I didn’t mind the absence of more traditional levels like the series is known for.
Now’s the time to get nitpicky, though. The overall game is absolutely phenomenal, filled with things to do and wondrous sights to see and honestly, all of its many systems, from armor upgrading to cooking, from Shrines to character based side quests, work extremely well to make an open world game where very little feels like filler. There are, unfortunately, some small blemishes on the otherwise pristine portrait. For one, side quests often feel lop sided with dishing out rewards. One quests required me to climb about fifteen feet up a structure I was already at, and I got a sweet piece of electric resistant equipment. But then another quest, which had my fight not one but two Guardians gave me a grand total of 120 rupees, which is not a sum that’s tough to come by if you find ore to sell (which is in and of itself not a difficult thing to do). Then there’s the enemy variety, which is somewhat lacking. There’s Bokoblins, Moblins, Lynels, Wizzros, Chu Chus, Guardians, and… that’s about it. There’s the occasional mini boss to fight in the overworld as well, although there are only two types that I’ve encountered. Granted, there are variations on each enemy type, but I would have loved to see classic enemies like Re- Deads, Dark Nuts, or Iron Knuckles be brought into the fold (additionally, the bosses are different versions of Calamity Ganon, rather than being unique creatures like Ghoma or Doddongo). It’s not a deal breaker because combat consistently feels just challenging enough to always be engaging, but still, I would have liked to see more. Another issue is with difficulty. While you’re out in the wilderness exploring, combat feels genuinely challenging, like you’re only a few false moves from failure. But with the story based boss fights, the difficulty drops significantly. Of the five major bosses, only one gave me even a slight amount of trouble, and it was not the final fight. It’s a weirdly disparate part of an otherwise well-made game. And the last issue I have is with something the series is well known for: its music. There are so many unforgettable, wonderful tunes that have come from the series, and in this game, it’s almost entirely non existent. In the overworld there’s some mild piano that plays and the battle music is really not very memorable. The only tune I can honestly recall off the top of my head is the one that plays in Hyrule Castle, and that’s just a remix of an older song. It’s strange that a series so well known for delivering wonderful songs should have such a poor showing in this game.
But none of that is a deal breaker, because at the end of the day, this is a fantastic entry in the series, one that flips everything you know about its gameplay upside down and sideways. Its gigantic, secret filled world, its nearly perfect difficulty curve, its emotionally engaging story, and its willingness to get out of its own way and let the player do whatever she or he wants all make it a truly fresh experience in today’s world of games that are often far too linear, hand holdy, and bereft of content. For longtime fans of the series, the radical restructuring of old ideas and its enticing exploration make it more than worth playing (and small side note: locations are named after characters and places from just about every game in the series, a nice touch I loved to death). And for people not familiar with the series but are looking for a truly wonderful open world to explore, this has everything you could hope for. There’s something to be said about a game that celebrates and almost childlike feeling of curiosity and wonder, and at the risk of this review becoming far too long, I’ll close by saying this: BotW is a masterpiece of game design and something that just about anyone can enjoy and love.
+ Massive world filled with things to do and places to go beyond the main story missions
+ Truly open ended structure allows players to determine where they go, what they do, and how long the game is
+ Perfect difficulty for exploration and overworld combat that never lets the player feel comfortable but doesn’t feel unfair
+ Interactive environments the likes of which haven’t been seen before in the series
+ Lots of cool additions to series lore and an emotionally resonant storyline that makes old tropes feel fresh
- Enemies lack variety
- Rewards for side quests feel lop sided and random
- Difficulty feels unbalanced when it comes to boss fights
- Subpar music