This review was originally posted on Nintendo Scene on 12th March 2017.
It’s finally here. After a considerable length of time, including several delays, Breath of the Wild is finally in our midst. What’s more, we have it simultaneously as a swan song for the Wii U and an opening for Nintendo’s new Switch console. During this review I will be talking about the Switch version, so any difference between the versions won’t be covered here. Also, don’t worry, I won’t be posting any spoilers of anything past the first hour or so (I’ve played roughly 35 hours at time of writing). Okay, so is the return of The Legend of Zelda actually any good? Well, that is a bit of a big question …
In terms of story, Breath of the Wild is pretty standard fare for Zelda games to begin with, which rather than dull has become warmly familiar in the Zelda series for me. You play as Link, Zelda needs saving and Ganon is pretty much behind the whole thing. There are slight deviations from this, of course, but most of these occur outside the opening segment on the Great Plateau. What genuinely makes this iteration of the Zelda franchise stand out from the others, however, is the sheer amount of side arcs within the game. It’s best to think of it in comparison to Majora’s Mask when it comes to side quests; there’s just so much to see and do narratively within Hyrule this time, even if the vast majority of it doesn’t progress the main story arc of the game.
The whole premise of this game is to explore Hyrule; climbing and activating Towers to reveal the map, completing Shrines of varying difficulty (more on that a little later), competing quests and side quests to progress the story, fighting various enemies and bosses, unlocking new abilities and items, essentially the typical fare of an adventure game. This being said, this is Zelda and the expectations resting on a Zelda title tend to be higher than average. This poses a problem …
Actually playing the game is sadly where the veneer all begins to crack. In terms of controls, Link is genuinely good to play as; he’s pretty responsive apart from a tendency, with the Switch analog sticks being positioned the way they are, for Link to just randomly crouch deeming himself mostly useless in combat scenarios (but this might just be me). This being said, the moment you get Link on a horse the responsive and (mostly) tight controls completely disappear at first until you have tamed the animal by soothing it. As one small thing though, the lock on during combat is far less reliable than in previous titles. Then, there’s the stamina bar, and I am genuinely surprised that Nintendo managed to make more of a mess of this mechanic than they did in Skyward Sword. The stamina wheel just has no consistency to its usage; for instance, Link can scale a large portion of the side of a mountain, but cannot run for more than roughly five seconds and what’s more, combat doesn’t require any stamina. It’s just seems, more than anything, to be a disappointing lack of attention paid to a detail that didn’t even need to be there and serves no real purpose aside from frustration. I mean, it can be increased, but only incrementally by a very small amount each time.
Speaking of frustration, let’s talk about the combat for a moment. There are a lot of things that can kill you in this game. I’m not talking the arguably fair sword play of previous games where a blow from an enemy pretty much invariably costs a heart or two, many of the enemies can actually instantly kill Link in a single hit. You can increase your defences using better armour or by eating food, but this still places Link as probably one of the weakest iterations we have seen thus far. This is made more frustrating because weapon durability in this game is utter garbage, with the average sword and shield combo both breaking within a few standard enemies. There is no bar telling you what the durability is or how it’s faring, and no means (that I have discovered so far) to repair weapons close to breaking. I know that weapons are plentiful, and are dropped by pretty much every enemy, but this does not justify the impermanence of it all and resulted in me not using weapons so they wouldn’t break.
What’s more, I found that a weapon shattering breaks the flow of combat in a way that makes fighting seem much more of a hassle than it needs to be (but you can’t run because of that Stamina Wheel). It just seems like this mechanic was hastily put in as a response to the wider gaming industry with no consideration for the usual subtlety with which these mechanics are used. This being said, I do like that the last hit of a weapon before it breaks deals more damage, it’s not a large increase, but noticeable in a pinch.
This all being said, I can see what Nintendo were aiming for with the combat. They were aiming for allowing and encouraging the player to find new ways to engage the enemies; either using Stasis to throw boulders into the midst, or hitting them with heavy metal objects with Magnesis, the options are plentiful to not even use weapons at all. Furthermore, there are also options to snipe from a distance using arrows and even sneaking up on enemies to execute a critical blow for a lot of damage.
I don’t, as negative as this sounds so far, think all the gameplay mechanics in the game are warped or unbalanced. I have, with one exception involving a painful use of motion controls, really enjoyed the Shrines which I have explored so far (even the painfully easy four at the beginning). Most of them are short bursts of head-scratching puzzling, usually involving the use of one or more of your abilities (or runes) that you have stored on Link’s Sheikah Slate (which is essentially a quasi-futuristic tablet), with some of the Shrines being longer and more protracted experiences closer to that of your standard Zelda dungeon. Some of these Shrines have involved the typical and wonderful “eureka” moments that litter the aforementioned dungeons, and really test the players knowledge of the different runes and what they are capable of. Furthermore, the completion of a Shrine will net you a Spiritual Orb, four of which can be traded in for a Heart Container or a Stamina Vessel to increase the pitiful Stamina Wheel.
Even better than the Shrines are the dungeons. Not only a joy to reach, but are far closer to the Zelda games of old. Much alike the Shrines, the dungeons require you to think about the runes that you have in unique ways to progress, often resulting in some of the most wonderful head-scratching moments of the game. Not only do these feel like a wonderful return to form, but the inevitable bosses at the end truly test you combat ability, it not your use of the runes, although it’s very evident in the boss fights where the inspiration behind their mechanics lies. Also, on the subject of exploration, there are some fantastic little things tucked away in the game world like Great Fairies and hidden Koroks (some of which you have to play games with first to find).
Another mechanic I deeply adore is the way the Amiibo function with the game. Most Amiibo will simply give random drops, usually of health items, but the Zelda ones function very differently. I only personally have two, but the features that these two give are very well thought out in my opinion. The Link Smash Bros. figurine gives the player access to Epona to ride in the game, which is both an adorable throwback and also much easier than having to catch a horse yourself (which can be a pain). But the coup de grâce is the Wolf Link figurine, which gives Link a Wolf Link companion to travel with. This companion will attack enemies, scout out items, and even hunt other animals, giving Link additional food items. It’s a small touch, but definitely both an adorable and useful one.
This game is utterly beautiful, there I said it. The art style of the world is that of a cel-shaded watercolour and the whole thing looks incredible. The people of Hyrule, and even the Bokoblins, are full of life and character and all add to the experience of a fully realised world. In fact, I want to go a little further and say that the designs of the classic Zelda enemies in this game is possibly one of my favourites, comparing to previous versions, possibly only ousted by Windwaker. The render distance isn’t great for things like grass and trees, but the ability to see Shrines and Towers glowing in the distance really gives a sense of definitive scale, and also keeps the players focus in reaching the goals they’re trying to reach. One tremendously jarring choice in this game is the lack of music, apart from the occasionally moment of a short piano piece, and the music playing inside towns, the game is eerily quiet. It’s not a deal breaker per se, but it just seems a little disappointing considering that Zelda is responsible for some of the best music in video game history.
So, would I recommend Breath of the Wild? I definitely would, but I would exercise caution as its high barrier to consistent progress will deter a lot of players. It’s a really good game with some brilliant ideas, but it’s just let down by its shortcomings. It’s not that I’ve not enjoyed playing it, in fact (when I’m not being profoundly and immediately executed for no tangible reason) I’ve found the entire experience really enjoyable or I would have stopped playing. I just have very high expectations for Zelda title and I simply do not, and cannot, see this game as the masterpiece that many believe it to be. It just seems that, with trying to imitate others (the big open world, over-emphasis on careful combat despite having no balance), Nintendo have sacrificed the one thing that made them truly stand out – The fun.
So what do you think of Breath of the Wild? You’ve heard my thoughts, so let me know @reuthegamer or in the comments.