The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is probably unlike any Zelda game you’ve ever played. Perhaps unlike any Zelda title you’ve ever seen. It’s a remarkable achievement in open-world gaming that places it among the pantheon of games most famous for no-holds barred exploration and adventure. Breath of the Wild is almost jarringly different to its predecessors, in scope, scale and - in some places - teeth-grinding difficulty.
Whereas Nintendo has always tried to innovate when it comes to its red-suited Italian mascot, it has usually played it safe with the format for Legend of Zelda games. While Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess had their niches, foibles and individuality, they still played up to roughly the same theme. Link, the Hero of Time, is charged with entering a number of different dungeons, collecting special items and then heading off to fight Ganon, defeating bosses along the way via helpful hints, tooltips and glowing weakness spots.
Granted, you’ll see shades of this throughout your playthrough of Breath of the Wild, but it’s never thrown in your face. The game, much like Skyrim (the first of many references, and I apologise in advance) will nudge the player towards its main questlines - there are listed quests in Zelda now - but will also let you do your own thing. Players can make a beeline straight for the main quest, or they can explore a world that has been lovingly populated with flora, fauna and side activities.
Breath of the Wild even manages to carve its own niche from other open world titles, and perhaps this is where it borrows from its ancestors: there is a tangible end goal to complete. As per usual, Ganon has arisen as a new symbol of evil: Calamity Ganon. This time he’s a purple-black smoke dragon swirling around the ruins of Hyrule Castle. Nintendo has made sure to place an emphasis on your final challenge. Ganon can be seen from almost everywhere in Hyrule, darkening the horizon, lightning flashing about his ethereal body.
You may have noticed I said ruins of Hyrule Castle in the previous paragraph. That’s because the world of Breath of the Wild is a much changed one. Calamity Ganon has been wreaking havoc for 100 years, and Link has only just arisen from an induced coma to fight him again. In his absence the Hylians were obliterated, scattered and left to pull themselves together as a collection of small communities. The resultant post-apocalyptic Hyrule is covered with ruins, wreckage and mementos of a past long buried beneath moss and overgrowth.
Thankfully, you’ll be able to explore this new wilderness almost immediately. Areas of the expansive world map can be revealed via the climbing of towers (yes, even Nintendo couldn’t resist that particular mechanic). The biomes range from sweeping grassy plains to marshy woodlands and snow-wrapped mountains. Link won’t be able to travel to some of them straight away, though - as Breath of the Wild has added in cold and warmth mechanics to deal with. If you don’t wrap Link up in warm clothes or guzzle down some fiery peppers or hot food he’ll quickly freeze on that mountaintop.
Another major factor in Breath of the Wild is just how fragile Link feels. He’s very much a glass cannon, especially early in the game, and the player will find themselves being killed by even the lowliest of enemies on occasion. That’s nothing to say for the mechanised guardians, whose laser-powered eyes and octopedal locomotion make them seem almost unfair in their initial difficulty. Increasing Link’s stamina and hearts is a challenge that can be undertaken by descending into the dozens of shrines scattered around Hyrule. Each contains a puzzle-based challenge to complete, which will reward Link with a Spirit Orb. The Orbs can be exchanged for power-ups and the completed shrines then used as a fast travel point. It’s an elegant solution, and will keep many dungeon-happy fans occupied late into the game.
When it comes to weaponry, too, things are less than simple. Swords, shields, bows and other items can be broken over time, shattering mid-swing in a panic-inducing scatter of particles. It’s perhaps a contentious design choice, but one that really hammers home the unforgiving nature of this Brave New Hyrule. It encourages different styles of play and really showcases the myriad ways a player can approach enemies, whether rolling a boulder down a hill to break apart a group of Bokoblins or pushing a felled tree into a river to get a better platform for battling a water-borne Lizalfos. Enemies aren’t stupid, either. They’ll investigate noise, steal weapons, kick away bombs, and set their own traps for an unaware opponent.
When the player encounters the various minibosses, dungeon bosses and random high-level enemies on the overworld, Breath of the Wild morphs from Skyrim into something you’d expect from the minds of FromSoftware. Boss battles are climactic, nail-biting and often frustrating. Gone are the usual familiar attack patterns, easy to dodge moves and “hit me here” flashing body parts. This sudden sharp difficulty curve can take the player by surprise, and is one of the few downsides about the game.
Though Breath of the Wild was originally intended for the Wii U, Nintendo has really given the Switch version some spit-polish. Its stylised look is exceptional, and really helps to utilise the console appropriately; attempting any form of ultra-realistic fidelity would have probably ended up showcasing the Switch’s less-than industry standard hardware. The game does show signs of its dual-console development, however. Frame rate drops can be sudden and annoying, especially when a lot is happening on screen or multiple explosions occur, while when the console is docked on large televisions the game can become a little plagued with aliasing issues and jaggy textures. When used portably though, the game looks exceptional, and I doubt you’ll find anything as gorgeous available through such a vector - unless you’re playing Super Mario Odyssey.
Any small problems feel very much like nitpicking in the face of such an impressive game. Breath of the Wild has redefined what a Zelda game can be. It’s taken on a genre packed with established names and shoved its way right to the forefront. Where it takes mechanics from others in the industry, it improves upon them (except maybe the towers). Where it introduces new ones, you slap your forehead in amazement that it hasn’t been done before. Around every corner in this title are surprises and delights. It’s development done right, and damn near the best game you’ll play all year.
The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
Outstanding. Why do you not have this game already?
Where it takes mechanics from others in the industry, it improves upon them; where it introduces new ones, you slap your forehead in amazement that it hasn’t been done before. Breath of the Wild is development done right, and damn near the best game you’ll play all year.