By: Michael Savich
You wake up in a mysterious, dark cave surrounded by ominous glowing machinery. After a jaunt down a long hallway, you emerge onto a rocky outcropping that overlooks a world seemingly reclaimed by nature. Emerald hills sprawl out towards distant mountains, and what few man-made structures you can spot are falling apart. As you take the view in, you notice a hooded man (who bears a striking resemblance to the old man from the original The Legend of Zelda) watching you. He turns and scurries off. In search of answers, you take off after him. Or perhaps… maybe you don’t? Throughout “Breath of the Wild,” the question of “what happens next” is consistently left up to you.
The game has a more episodic nature, as you have the freedom to explore the entire map including Hyrule Castle and the final dungeon from the beginning of the game. At times this approach feels watered-down compared to the more structured stories of past Zelda games. To its credit, “Breath of the Wild” seems aware the story is not its forte and avoids keeping the player out of the action for too long.
Combat has changed a lot from past Zelda games, and most of these changes revolve around the new weapon durability system. The fact that your weapons can break at almost any moment is a feature that some people hate, but I’ve found it keeps you thinking about how to best utilize the tools at your disposal, and switching up attack styles accordingly. Maybe your spear is about to break, so you hurl it at an enemy, killing them, and then grab the weapon it dropped to use it against the fallen monster’s comrades. The result is more strategic, slow-paced combat, a break from traditional Zelda’s tight and frenzied swordplay.
While fighting regular enemies feels different, Zelda is a series known for its iconic boss battles, and unfortunately, “Breath of the Wild” really drops the ball here. All four of the main bosses are very similar to one another, both in terms of design and strategy, which is inexcusable considering there are only four of them. It’s a shame these fights are so forgettable, but the silver lining is that the bosses aren’t as big a chunk of the experience as they were in past Zelda games— there’s so much more to see and do.
Both combat and puzzles in the game are designed with physics and chemistry in mind, which means all objects have predictable properties. For example, rocks roll down hills smashing everything in their path and roaring flames produce an updraft you can ride with the paraglider. Rather than presenting the player with intricate puzzles that have a predefined, single solution, “Breath of the Wild” often simply places an objective behind a few obstacles and lets the player discover different ways to use the environment.
Dotting the map are 120 shrines that each contain a sort of mini-dungeon, which is a set of puzzles to solve. Completion of these shrines awards you special orbs that can be traded in for more health or stamina. In addition to the shrines, there are 900 collectible seeds scattered around the world. However, these seeds aren’t just floating in plain sight, they are hidden behind puzzles that involve spotting something that looks out of place. The presence of these puzzles had me constantly scanning the world for odd patterns or things that looked out of place, which drives you to scour every inch of the game’s world.
One pet peeve I have in particular is that in this Zelda game, your horse will no longer magically appear from off screen when you whistle for it. At one point I swam to the other side of a lake and decided to call for my horse on the other shore, and I had to watch for three minutes while it ran around the entire body of water to get to me. If you are too far from your horse it can’t hear you, and you have to return to a stable to retrieve it. I understand that the intent was to make the game’s terrain even more of an obstacle.
While the world of Hyrule is beautiful, look too closely and hardware limitations become apparent. The game’s heavily stylized presentation was chosen in part to mask things like the fuzziness of textures and inability to pack too many objects into one area. Vast swaths of the land are empty green hills, and even then most of the power of the console is going to animating the hundreds of blades of grass swaying in the wind. The frame rate often drops well below 30, which is disappointing to see on a new piece of technology like the Nintendo Switch. These dips are constant and pervasive, despite the game bearing an uncanny resemblance to Playstation 2-era “Shadow of the Colossus’s” vacant fields. From a technical perspective, Breath of the Wild shows that open world games are indeed possible on Nintendo’s hardware, but also demonstrates why it might not be the best platform to target for these types of expansive experiences.
Despite the presence of flaws, “Breath of the Wild” still manages to be an experience that is at times, well, breathtaking. This post-apocalyptic version of Hyrule is brimming with secrets, and without a guide or map telling you where to go, “Breath of the Wild” recaptures that feeling of adventure the original Zelda conveyed three decades ago, a sense of freedom and uniqueness that has remained almost untapped since then, both in the Zelda series and the video game industry at large.
(Reviewed both on Wii U and Nintendo Switch)
(Photo Credit: Nintendo)