After four years of anticipation and hype, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has finally been released and I wasted no time before wasting all my time on it. All things must change or die out, and Zelda is no different, so before I definitively say whether or not this game is worth the price tag, let’s take a look at what’s new in this iteration.
All Zelda games up to this point have had a balance of a few common elements: action, exploration, puzzles and story. Where BotW really stands out is in its skew towards action and exploration. Right from the beginning, Link hits the ground running with intense combat. Other entries in the Zelda series see Link as just another dude in his home town or island or fairy forest and after a lengthy tutorial (lookin’ at you, Twilight Princess!) he finally is called to action. Not this time. The first act establishes Link’s character in a different way. Link is crafty and feisty. Tutorials are nice but a little to kiddy for this more advanced adventure. The game teaches you how to play through a series of sink or swim escalations in combative encounters. Moreover, this sets the mood for the game. Previous games had some exciting swordplay but nothing this scrappy. The weapons break after use and the implied resource constraint brings a unprecedented air of tension to each encounter. Luckily, this time, Link’s options are more varied. You quickly figure out that Link can charge in or sneak around or snipe from afar. Whatever way you choose, these usually end in a sword fight, or a brutal clubbing until Link throws his failing weapon only to pick up the severed limb of a defeated skeleton to keep fighting.
Like I mentioned in my previous article on what makes Zelda Zelda, a good Zelda game should have an rich game world, full of life. Never has there been more fullness in a Zelda game. Again in the first act, right as Link emerges from a cave, you see the vastness of Hyrule. It is true that this is the largest Zelda map yet (larger than Skyrim!) and the player is constantly aware of this. Everywhere you go, you can see far into the distance. Now, if the goal of your world building is to create a wide world, it’s natural that you would to be tempted into not making a deep world; but not Nintendo! Every inch of the overworld is interactive. Link can climb almost any wall, catch bugs, shove boulders onto his enemies. If you throw a bomb at a monster, they might throw it back! This richness creates a really immersive experience that lifts the barrier between player and avatar. If there is a tree, you can chop it down; if you can chop it down, you can take a branch; if you take a branch, you can set it on fire; if you set a branch on fire, you can start a wildfire and cause my first game over. And yeah, you’re gonna die. A lot.
This unfortunately brings us to the first major drawback to the game. That first moment when Link ascends to emerge from his cave and he sees the vast, desolate ruins of Hyrule- that moment is ruined by a frame rate drop. The game is locked in at 30 FPS but the moment anything interesting happens, like a fight,or scaling a mountain or that grass fire that killed me, the game drops to 20 FPS. 30 is… passable. I mainly play PC games so the drop from 60 FPS at 1080i to 30 FPS at 720i is disappointing for about 4 minutes but I never really get over the 20 FPS drops. It’s worth noting that both the Wii U and Switch are plagued by this bug. Yes, I consider a consistent frame rate drop a bug. It really throws the player out of the moment when the game is trying to pull you in. And I really don’t have patience for this kind of bug. After the amount of time and money poured into this game and knowing the limitations of the consoles, the software should be perfectly matched to the hardware. If the action is too much, reduce the draw distance or polygon count. I should not be able to count the frames per second on one hand.
This technical failure is largely counterbalanced by the amazing art. Zelda games have always been gorgeous but I have never seen such a beautiful game world. The engine uses cel shading and a pastel pallet, making the game look like an impressionist painting. Each location is unique, from the plains to the mountains to the lakes. BotW also has the most varied towns as well. The iteration of Kakariko in this installment is a traditional Japanese-inspired village followed immediately by a Dutch block town. But really, it’s the NPCs in these towns that really drive home that this game is Zelda and not some other game wearing the Zelda moniker. They are quirky as shit. Seriously quirky. Shop owners sing (really lame) jingles at you, you can help some nerd collect bugs to impress a hostess, you meet a nutty genius who only wants to dye clothes. Link himself can get in on this wackiness if you want to. He can give snarky answers or straight up lie to people or greet royalty in his underwear (they might get mad at him for that). These character interactions really bring the cartoonish charm a fantasy adventure needs.
I should pause here because I previously criticized the misplaced humor in Wind Waker. Breath of the Wild carefully discriminates between which characters and times can be humorous and which cannot. There is always gravity in the main conflict; and the story elements with Princess Zelda, Link and the Elite Four are held with solemn sobriety.
The biggest shock coming into this game is how far out of the Zelda formula BotW treads. All of the previous entires in the series have followed the form: Bad guy X threatens kingdom Y so Link must collect 6/7/8 of the magic Z. BotW follows this more loosely. You will find yourself spending much more time in the overworld here. Each game has balanced exploration and dungeoneering, but this one skews far towards exploration. The puzzles and dungeons are insultingly easy at first and take a while to ramp up but this is counterbalanced by exploration. It’s not entirely right to call this a sandbox game. The original Legend of Zelda was described as that but even that game is linear compared to modern titles like Minecraft. This game does have a plot which means you will have to do certain things sequentially but this occurs to a far lesser extent than Zelda games past. You are encouraged to and even rewarded for going off the beaten path to find your own way. Overall, this way for searching for the dots to connect rather than tracing a line makes this game a little less Final Fantasy and a little more Dragon Quest.
Perhaps the most intriguing change in this title is game is the sense of growth and development. As I mentioned in my previous work, the Zelda games have traditionally done an excellent job of showing Link growing as a warrior through his adventure. Link is rewarded for his feats of strength with new items and heart containers. BotW has a smoother but less pronounced path of development. Again, this game deviates from the traditional quest to snatch up 8 of something. Most of your health improvements this time come from a new version of Heart Pieces and most of your new items are obtained not in dungeons but by challenging and defeating various optional monsters in the overworld. Honestly, while this is a step back for the franchise, it’s also a step in a new direction which I appreciate. At least it’s not stale. At least it’s not A Link Between Worlds.
Overall, this game is excellent and a true successor to the Zelda series. Breath of the Wild is a more adult and evolved game that maintains the Zelda certain charm. It’s rare to see so many risks all pay off. The wait for this game was absolutely worth it to see something so polished. I had my doubts going into this but not only is a Zelda game at heart, it is one of the best in the series. What I love most about this adventure is that it breathes new life into a franchise that has kept the same formula since the 80s and fully fleshed out formula with Twilight Princess, 11 years ago. I was scared of the changes at first but now that I see them, it’s exactly what I wanted from Zelda.
Oh yeah, and in this one, you can trick Moblins into attacking Cuccos.