There has always been something magical about games made by Nintendo. Even when games created by other developers began to sport more advanced graphics technology, there was still an inherent playful genius to Nintendo’s own creations. Capturing lightning in a bottle might seem like a rare and miraculous event, but for Nintendo, it’s business as usual.
One of Nintendo’s key principles — and one reason why it continually displays evidence of creative genius — is innovation. The ability for entirely new ideas to emerge — and for established patterns and archetypes to be refashioned in new ways — is critical for creative design to progress. With The Legend of Zelda series, Nintendo has continually thrown this conflict between old and new into sharp relief. Certain established patterns have underpinned many Zelda games over the years including multi-stage dungeons, character progression, narrative design, and the cadence around unlocking new items that grant access to new abilities or new parts of the world are prominent examples. It’s true that Nintendo has made several attempts to mix up the formula in various ways: The Wind Waker (first released on the GameCube), was set amidst a seemingly endless ocean populated by many islands of different shapes and sizes; Skyward Sword (released on the Wii) took place in a world divided between the heavens and the earth, with its major central hub situated on a large floating island. Although there is some disagreement between fans on the specific pros and cons of these titles, it’s fair to say that they were great games. And yet, a sense of staleness was creeping in; Nintendo were fiddling around the edges, but would they ever fundamentally deconstruct and re-build Zelda?
Death and rebirth
Longtime Zelda producer, Eiji Aonuma, has often spoken about his desire to avoid being shackled to conventions. During the production of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on 3DS, the team at Nintendo EPD (Entertainment, Planning & Development) were already busy deconstructing the very foundations of Zelda in order to create something new.
“I think things that don’t change with the times are going to get lost. They’re going to be forgotten. As times change, people want different things. That’s obviously true with any kind of media, not just video games.”
After at least four years in development — and along with the introduction of Nintendo Switch — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is finally here. It was released globally on 3rd March 2017, and I’ve been playing it now for almost a month and a half. This is a game of enormous scope and scale; if you rush through it in a matter of days, you’ll likely miss the vast majority of what it has to offer. But if you sample it over time, as I have, you’ll gain a better grasp of what it’s all about.
Whether or not you are familiar with previous Zelda titles, one thing remains true of many modern games in general, especially those that purport to be of the “open world” variety: everything kicks off with a little narrative exposition, followed by a lengthy series of activities that form some kind of tutorial. In some games, the tutorial sequences are very sizeable, and this became increasingly true in more recent Zelda titles such as Twilight Princess on GameCube/Wii.
When you first launch Breath of the Wild, though, any expectations you have about a traditional open world experience are thoroughly and swiftly subverted. Link, our protagonist, stirs from a deep slumber, awoken by a mysterious voice urging him to get up. He emerges from some kind of ancient suspended animation chamber, and you, the player, are now in control. You’re virtually naked, defenceless, and alone in the shadowy Shrine of Resurrection. Welcome to Hyrule!
From this point onward, there is no major tutorial to speak of. As you approach objects in the shrine — such as treasure chests — you’ll see an on-screen prompt displaying a button along with the relevant context-sensitive action (so, you’ll quickly learn that the A button opens treasure chests when you’re standing near them). It is impossible to leave the Shrine of Resurrection without first climbing up a wall that leads to the exit; here, too, you’re given a subtle on-screen prompt to “Climb” when you are standing right in front of the wall. The Shrine of Resurrection foreshadows everything that follows: you will never be explicitly shown or told how to do something, rather, you will learn through your own experimentation. There are very rare and minor exceptions to this, but for the most part, Breath of the Wild expects the player to, well, play.
As you escape the shrine for the vivid afternoon sun and fresh air, the camera briefly rises above you to provide a glimpse of the enormous land of Hyrule, which appears to extend infinitely in all directions. It’s a lot to take in all at once, and perhaps this is why — in what is possibly the only significant moment of the game briefly arresting control from the player — the camera gently pans to the right to indicate the presence of a lone, cloaked figure sitting by a fire just down the hill. You can approach the mysterious old man, who will kindly advise you of some suggested next steps, or you can completely ignore him and walk in absolutely any direction. The choice is yours.
I can only describe this sense of choice as refreshing. As I was playing Breath of the Wild, I was also playing Horizon Zero Dawn (which is fantastic in its own right). But where Horizon was constantly pulling me in pre-determined directions and guiding me through a large opening tutorial, Breath of the Wild simply let me be. It dropped me into a world and said “off you go”. It’s hard to describe just how freeing the sensation is.
A sandbox like no other
Your journey begins at a location called The Great Plateau, and although you can leave the area and venture deeper into Hyrule right away, it’s worth spending a good chunk of time on the plateau initially. There are several reasons for this.
For one thing, you’ll have the opportunity to gain some understanding of the essential nature of the world in a relatively safe environment. Breath of the Wild introduces a concept that Nintendo calls “multiplicative gameplay”; this is, in essence, a combination of realistic physics and chemistry. What this means in practice is that all objects within the game have realistic physical properties that can react with each other (and with the broader environment), sometimes in highly complex ways. If you cut down a tree at the top of a hill, for example, the trunk will fall and roll down the hill realistically (it might even take out some enemies along the way). The same is true of pushing boulders downhill (it is rather wonderful that there are many, many places where enemies will decide to congregate downhill from heavy objects).
The system goes much deeper than simply considering things like weight and velocity, though. Temperature also plays a crucial role: if you start wandering up Mount Hylia on the Great Plateau, for example, you’ll notice that Link begins shivering and taking damage. This problem can be rectified by wearing warmer clothes or cooking a special meal (more on that later). The in-game HUD contains a small temperature gauge that will always indicate whether or not the ambient temperature is too hot or cold for Link.
There are also chemical reactions to consider; this is the aspect that really ties everything together beautifully. I especially love the way that temperature affects objects. Here are just a handful of scenarios I’ve encountered:
- If you wear a fire sword on your back and also carry and ice block over your head, the block will start melting.
- If you draw your bow and arrow around the hotter parts of the world, it will be set ablaze as soon as it touches the outside air (turning it into a fire arrow). And if you draw a bomb arrow in these same places, well…you’ll get a nasty surprise.
- If you drop a piece of food (say, a steak) on the ground in an extremely hot or cold location, it will spontaneously cook or freeze respectively.
There are many, many more examples like this. The key thing to remember, though, is that Nintendo have created a few very simple rules that underpin the whole world — it’s how these rules essentially stack on top of each other that create space for enormous complexity.
As the player, you can take a highly active role in terms of manipulating these systems, too. Early in the game — before you leave the Great Plateau — you will have the opportunity to acquire several items called Runes. Some of the Runes are familiar (the Round Remote Bomb is a returning staple, although this time its use is limited only by a cool-down timer rather than a finite inventory), but most are new (like Magnesis, which allows Link to manipulate metal objects in the world). This marks another major departure for a Zelda game, in the sense that you are able to acquire all of your key items right at the start of the game, which then enables you to explore the rest of the world in any order you like.
Charting a course
So, what now? You’ve started the game with almost no guidance, and you’ve been dropped into a massive world full of endless possibilities; what’s next?
Well, that is entirely up to you. It is possible to start the game and run straight to the final boss without doing anything else. Of course, you’ll quickly find that Link is ill-equipped for this task at the outset: you start the game with only three hearts (which form your life meter) and a small amount of stamina (you consume stamina whenever you run, climb, or glide with your paraglider). With a couple of exceptions, there are no parts of the world where you can’t go at the beginning, at least in theory. In practice, you’ll quickly discover that the combination of harsh environmental conditions and tough enemies in some places will result in frequent deaths. If you find yourself dying on a regular basis in a certain area, then this is probably a good indication that you are ill-equipped in some way and you might want to rectify that.
Increasing your overall hearts and stamina is achieved in two ways. You can complete Shrines (which are essentially mini-dungeons) that each reward you with a Spirit Orb; you’ll be able to trade every four Spirit Orbs for either an extra heart or an upgrade to your stamina wheel. There are a total of 120 Shrines in the entire game and they are all optional.
You can also conquer the four Divine Beasts; these are larger dungeon-like entities that are a little closer to the traditional Zelda temples, although with a couple of very notable differences. I won’t spoil the nature of the beasts here, except to say that like the Shrines, the Divine Beasts are completely optional; however, they offer a more substantial experience overall and they each play a significant role in Breath of the Wild’s plot. Completing a Divine Beast will also net you an additional heart.
A Shrine for every occasion
I do want to take a moment to specifically call out the Shrines, because I think they are one of the best additions to Breath of the Wild. As mentioned above, there are a total of 120 Shrines in the world — many of them are dotted around the landscape and you can spot them from a distance and mark them on your map using your handy Sheikah Slate (a little touch screen device that you gain access to at the start of the game).
There are dozens of Shrines, though, that are completely hidden from view — accessing them is sometimes very tricky, but always rewarding. Sometimes you will simply need to physically locate the Shrine (this might involve finding a cave entrance part way down a large cliff face, for example), and sometimes you’ll actually need to complete a Shrine Quest to make the Shrine appear.
Shrine Quests are little side quests that vary greatly in terms of approach. In one quest, I had to carefully time an arrow shot to coincide with the precise position of the sun at a certain time of day. And in another, I had to embark on a multi-stage quest that involved fulfilling a non-player character’s wishes, getting to the bottom of a mysterious theft, and then fighting a mini-boss. The sheer variety and ingenuity of the Shrine Quests are remarkable, especially given the amount of Shrines to be discovered. Even as I was getting closer to the 120th Shrine, I was still encountering surprising new ways of finding them.
The Shrines themselves are all fairly brief experiences (at least when compared with traditional Zelda dungeons), but they cleverly leverage all of the game’s physics and chemistry systems to wonderful effect. There isn’t a single puzzle or challenge that feels cheap or lazy, and many of the puzzles actually have multiple solutions depending on your lateral thinking skills. There’s one great example you may have read about, which involves connecting various electricity nodes together across a room in order to unlock a gate. There’s an “intended” way to solve this puzzle using metal blocks, but some clever players found that you can actually lay all your metal weapons end-to-end across the room to conduct electricity from one location to another, thus unlocking the gate. There’s a constant sense of freedom in the game, to the point where I never really felt that there were major artificial barriers blocking me; Nintendo was simply giving me a set of tools, and I could use them as I like — even in ways that seem devious or game-breaking.
Surviving the wilds
The world is littered with enemies of various shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Some enemies are solitary in nature and can be fought one-on-one, while others prefer hanging out in larger groups. How you take on enemies is going to depend on a number of factors (including the weapons you have equipped, your available clothing/armour, the time of day and the weather, the number of enemies, the surrounding geography, your number of hearts, and your total stamina). You can fight enemies using your weapons, but you can also use the environment to your advantage; rolling a boulder down a hill and having it flatten a large group of Bokoblins is always satisfying, after all.
The actual combat system in Breath of the Wild is somewhat similar to previous Zelda games, in the sense that you can target an enemy to strafe around them and you can attack them with your melee weapon or break out the bow and arrow to attack from a distance. A key difference, though, is that weapons break in Breath of the Wild, and they do so frequently. There is no way to repair them once they are broken.
I have to admit that, at first, I wasn’t entirely happy with this approach. I’m used to playing games where I find a really cool weapon that I enjoy using and then keep that weapon on me as a go-to favourite. This just isn’t possible in Breath of the Wild, and it radically changed both my approach to combat and the way I considered weapons themselves. On the one hand, weapons break regularly. On the other hand, you acquire new weapons at a rapid rate; in fact, you’ll come across more weapons than you can ever actually hold or use at any one time. As a result, I found myself in a situation where I would come across a new weapon (that I had no inventory space for), I’d compare it with my existing weapons and I’d usually shuffle things around and maybe throw away one or two weapons to make room. This actually makes weapon management a thing, and a fun thing at that, particularly because you’ll come across a wide variety of weapons which often have unique special abilities. You will go through a similar pattern with bows and shields, although slightly less often, given that you’re likely to use melee weapons more frequently.
Clothing is also handled quite differently in Breath of the Wild, at least compared to previous Zelda titles. For one thing, it’s possible to acquire many clothing sets throughout the game. Each clothing set can also be upgraded over time by visiting special locations around the world (I won’t spoil these for you, but they’re a lot of fun and they contain a nice throwback to previous games in the series). In addition, each outfit contains certain properties that aid survival (including special buffs to boost various defences, and even the ability to move faster or quieter).
As you enter various parts of the world — and as you fight certain enemies — your choice of outfit and weaponry will often be crucial to success. The variety of possible threats — as well as the weapon breakage — means that you’re unlikely to ever really stick with one single weapon and outfit for a long period of time. You’re going to find yourself constantly experimenting with different ways of solving problems in the world, and different ways of approaching and handling threats. There’s this element of — for lack of a better term— survival management that works beautifully in Breath of the Wild.
There’s one final pillar of survival that plays a huge role in the game, and that’s food and cooking. As you explore, you will come across seemingly countless varieties of fruit and vegetables growing in the wild, and each of these will carry its own unique properties. You’re also able to hunt any of the animals you find roaming around (whether they are deer, wild boar, or even birds and fish), which will net you various kinds of meat. You can eat much of this food raw if you want to, but the positive effects will typically be very limited. The real magic happens when you combine ingredients to cook various dishes that grant timed buffs (sometimes, with the right ingredient combinations, it’s possible to create extremely powerful and long-lasting buffs as well). The options here are almost endless and the fun is in combining different types of food to discover new recipies. If you create a particularly special meal that grants an extraordinary buff, you can actually save the recipe for future use.
In addition to preparing meals using food items, you can also create elixirs that grant special bonuses. Elixirs are created by combining parts collected from vanquished monsters with various bugs that you find in the wild.
The magic of reality
It feels necessary at this point — although somehow not entirely satisfactory — to return to the comparison between Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn. The latter is an artistically stunning game supported by a game engine that pumps out rich, vivid, high-definition landscapes. The former is artistically beautiful, although without the same level of technical prowess. What’s interesting to me is that Breath of the Wild is an object lesson in how great art design can trump advanced technology.
It’s not that Breath of the Wild is a technological slouch; the world is utterly enormous, and it’s possible to stand on the highest peak of any mountain and see far into the distance, knowing full well that you can visit any location that your eye can see. As you move through the world, there are no loading screens, and this includes moving in and out of buildings. It’s seamless, which feels especially impressive when you consider I’m playing this game on a chubby little tablet and not a game console powerhouse like the PS4 Pro. The only time you’ll encounter an actual loading screen is when you fast-travel between points on the map or when you enter/exit a Shrine.
When Breath of the Wild debuted, the biggest complaint from early reviews revolved around the frame rate, which struggled to hold a solid 30fps in some locations. It’s fair to say that — at least for me — this didn’t significantly detract from the experience. However, subsequent patches from Nintendo have definitely improved frame rate consistency throughout the game; if you’re only just starting Breath of the Wild now, you’re getting a slightly more stable experience than those of us who started playing at launch.
The fusion of beautiful art design and a subtle musical score breathes life into the game’s fantastically interactive world. Satoru Takizawa, the lead artist for Breath of the Wild, has done a brilliant job here. Endless fields of grass sway rhythmically in the breeze, shadows creep across the landscape as the sun moves overhead, wild animals and other non-player characters go about their business from day-to-day in a way that makes you feel they are all living in this world whether or not you happen to be around to see them. There is remarkable attention to detail at every level here, from the behaviour of wild squirrels to the various people who populate the world and who each have their own motivations and activities — you’ll encounter people on the road in between towns, and you’ll come across some people in the strangest locations — every single one of them has a story to tell, and a reason for being where they are. Some interactions will trigger specific side quests, and others are simply delightful little moments that may surprise you if you happen to come across them in your travels.
It is difficult to review a game like Breath of the Wild, because each player’s experience is going to be so completely different. The simple fact that you can play the game in any sequence you like — and that almost all of the experiences are optional anyway — means that no two players will have a remotely similar journey.
As for me, I’ve just completed all 120 Shrines and all four Divine Beasts. At this point, I’m over 80 hours into the game and I still haven’t faced the final boss. There’s still so much I want to do! More outfits to find, more side quests to complete, and still more parts of the world to visit that I haven’t seen before (did I mention how big the world is?)
Put simply, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games Nintendo has ever made. It is possibly their best game since Super Mario 64. It is also, quite possibly, one of the best video games ever made — by anyone.
If you are a fan of any prior Zelda game, you should absolutely pick up Breath of the Wild in any flavour you can get it (either Wii U or Switch).
Even if you aren’t a fan of Zelda or Nintendo, you owe it to yourself to take a closer look at one of the most important games made in recent years, especially if you enjoy third-person action adventure games.
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