The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Introduction

Though Skyward Sword was released to a positive reception, certain players voiced their displeasure over the sheer amount of filler present and the hand-holding nature of the game. The latter aspect was especially ironic given the challenging nature of Skyward Sword. Series producer Eiji Aonuma, though mostly satisfied with what he and his team created, ended up agreeing with these reservations. The series’ next installment, A Link Between Worlds, seemed to openly defy the design choices behind Skyward Sword, featuring a terse narrative and a largely non-linear design. In an era when gaming placed a great emphasis on storytelling, A Link Between Worlds would have been a sleeper hit had it not been part of a famous franchise. Emboldened by this installment’s success, he and his team sought to “rethink the conventions of Zelda” for the series’ next console installment. He made their intent known at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo when their newest project was unveiled. He planned to reform dungeons and puzzles, the elements the series had hinged upon from the very beginning, and arrange them in a way to allow players to reach the end without ever engaging in the story. In other words, their next project was to be an open-world title.

The success of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series throughout the 2000s helped popularize these kinds of games. Players could fulfill mission objectives or explore the large world at their own leisure, occasionally completing a side objective to obtain a helpful reward. Despite the franchise’s success, it wouldn’t be until the 2010s that these open-world games took on a life of their own. Whether it was Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, or Just Cause, this style became the standard in the Western AAA scene. Such was the extent of its influence that even long-running series known for their linear structure saw sequels placing protagonists in a metaphorical sandbox. One of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon in action was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which not only drastically changed the series’ gameplay, but also received widespread acclaim for it.

In the face of these numerous success stories, Nintendo found themselves in something of a conundrum; they had never worked on a modern open-world game before. This was quite ironic given they themselves invented what many consider the first interpretation of an open-world game in the form of the original The Legend of Zelda in 1986. Though considered one of the most influential titles of its day, the series began gradually shifting away from the kind of design its debut installment codified. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link seemed like an anomaly when it forced players to adhere to a strict sequence. A Link to the Past was considered a return to form of sorts when it allowed players a degree of freedom in the game’s second half. The series could have continued on as it did with the developers placing all of their effort in gameplay like the Mario franchise. This changed when Yoshiaki Koizumi was allowed to pen the scenario for the series’ first handheld installment, Link’s Awakening. Suddenly, the man who was limited to outlining the instruction manual of A Link to the Past now found himself changing the direction of the series. To accommodate the fact that the plot of Link’s Awakening had a definitive beginning, middle, and end, developers strategically placed roadblocks to ensure players couldn’t deviate from the narrative’s intended sequence. Traces of the series’ debut were seen one last time in the second and third acts of Ocarina of Time before Majora’s Mask made the Link’s Awakening model the standard.

It wouldn’t be until A Link Between Worlds, which was released twenty-two years after the debut of A Link to the Past, that the exploration elements thought to have been completely abandoned made a triumphant return. However, creating a non-linear experience on the same scale as A Link to the Past was a relatively simple task. Translating that knowledge to the home console industry, which had long since adopted three-dimensional gameplay as its bread and butter, would prove significantly more challenging. Nonetheless, the team, led by Hidemaro Fujibayashi and Eiji Aonuma felt they were up for the task. Looking for inspiration, they felt it appropriate to extensively study a highly popular game that took the world by storm upon its 2011 release: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

As gaming evolved, an interesting dichotomy emerged between Western and Eastern enthusiasts. This was especially noticeable when observing how the two cultures conceived role-playing games. Non-linear experiences were allowed to flourish in the West, for those kinds of enthusiasts preferred the freedom to do as they pleased without interference from the plot or any other outside influence. Meanwhile, the Japanese RPG was often maligned by Western enthusiasts for precluding the ability to explore on one’s own and forcing players to grind levels. Many of them were unaware their Eastern counterparts preferred their games to have a clear goal at all times and grinding levels tied into a common belief that hard work results in a proportionally satisfying payoff.

In other words, when Mr. Fujibayashi and Mr. Aonuma began this project, they had their work cut out for them. In order to bring these concepts to reality, they had to go back and examine the series’ debut installment with a fine-toothed comb.

Before they began developing this game in earnest, the developers designed a playable 2D prototype bearing the distinct 8-bit visuals of The Legend of Zelda to experiment with physics-based puzzles. To ensure everyone was on the same page and to recapture the original’s essence, the staff had to periodically cease working on the game. Whenever this happened, they were tasked with playing through The Legend of Zelda in its entirety. Over the course of this development cycle, the developers had played through the game at least ten times.

Their game was to be released on the Wii U, making extensive use of the touchscreen features on the console’s tablet. Developers then reconsidered when they found looking away from the main screen was distracting. Eventually titled Breath of the Wild, it was originally slated for a 2015 release. However, later in the year, Mr. Aonuma announced that it would be delayed to 2016. In April of that year, another delay was announced, but this time, it would be for a different reason. Around this time, Nintendo was working on their newest console: the Nintendo Switch. After having dominated the handheld market for the past four console generations, the Switch was to be a unique hybrid. Making use of a docking station, the gameplay projected itself onto a television screen. By removing it, one could easily transport it as though it were a tablet. Despite having a selection of quality games, the Nintendo Wii U was a commercial failure. To make their newest console all the more appealing, Breath of the Wild was to be one of the Switch’s launch titles. Because many people claimed to have purchased a Wii U purely for the sake of getting to play Breath of the Wild, a version would be made available for both consoles.

After much speculation, Breath of the Wild was at last released worldwide on March 3, 2017. Though the gaming press had no shortage of praise for the series, the universal acclaim previous titles had no trouble amassing seemed to be utterly dwarfed by how critics felt about Breath of the Wild. A mere few days after its release, countless critics were quick to call it a masterpiece and one of the greatest games ever made. This acclaim translated to a stellar commercial performance. By March of 2018, Breath of the Wild had moved nearly ten million copies across both platforms, making it the best-selling game in the franchise at the time.

When taking a look at what critics had to say about it, one would rarely find a less-than-perfect assessment. Despite this, fans of the series were slightly divided. As the game was being showered with praise, they took to aggregate review sites such as Metacritic to write negative pieces in protest. At one point, it boasted a 7.0 fan rating – a noticeable contrast to what critics had to say. Some fans accused the series of selling out to Western sensibilities while others, observing the greater amount of praise Breath of the Wild got compared to the latest open-world experiences such as Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry Primal, concluded that critics let the Nintendo brand cloud their judgement. It should also be noted that the mid-to-late 2010s marked a severe deterioration in the relationship between fans and critics. Fans would say critics were out of touch; critics insinuated fans had no taste. The takeaway is that while the mainstream media unanimously deemed Breath of the Wild one of the greatest games of the decade, fans weren’t completely convinced. Could the overwhelmingly positive coverage of Breath of the Wild have been the result of the critics’ close relationship with developers at the time? Did the fans overstep their boundaries?

Starting the Game

WARNING: There will be unmarked spoilers throughout this review.

During the development cycle, the team led by Mr. Fujibayashi and Mr. Aonuma made it clear they wanted to rethink the Zelda formula. It’s easy to get a sense of how successful they were in this regard within seconds of starting the game.

When you load the game for the first time, it begins immediately. There is no title screen, no exposition, and no opportunity to select a new file. You don’t even get to name your character. You’ll find out why a few seconds later. The protagonist, Link, awakens from a long slumber to the sound of a female voice. He finds himself in a strange location known as the Shrine of Resurrection with no memories of who he is or how he ended up there. It’s not too often one happens upon a work in any medium in which the very first line can come as a shock. Interestingly, it’s not so much what the line is, but rather the simple fact that it’s voiced. When I heard the voiced line for the first time, I knew right there and then Breath of the Wild was going to be on a completely different level from that of its predecessors in terms of presentation.

In the next room, the voice asks him to take an object situated on a pedestal: the Sheikah Slate. Though an amnesiac, Link recognizes wondrous invention. It is the single most helpful item in the game. From the onset, it can display a map of the surrounding area, though if you access it right away, you may notice it is less than helpful. In a nearby chest is a pair of old clothes. Putting them on slightly reduces the damage Link will take from enemy attacks.

Climbing up a wall, Link emerges from the shrine for the first time and is greeted by a vast, sprawling world. Before he can get his bearings, an old man calls out to him. After speaking with him, the voice guides Link to a pedestal near a monument in the northeast portion of the Great Plateau. To help him, the location to which Link must travel is marked on his map. This marker can also be seen on the radar, which displays the immediate area’s topography. If Link is far away from his objective, the marker can be seen on the edge of the radar corresponding to the destination’s location relative to his position.

By guiding Link through the Great Plateau, you learn that after experimenting with motion controls in Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild returns to a more traditional scheme. The left analogue stick is used to control Link’s movements while its opposite controls the camera. Once again, the “A” button serves a contextual purpose, which is indicated by a verb appearing onscreen next to the corresponding graphic. For the first time in the series since Zelda II, Link is able to jump without having to run to the edge of a platform. This is accomplished with a press of the “X” button. The ability to run is retained from Skyward Sword and with it, the Stamina Gauge. It functions in this game exactly as it did then. Any strenuous action such as dashing or climbing exhausts the gauge. If it depletes entirely, Link will be defenseless until it recharges.

When he reaches the marked destination and uses the slate on a device mounted into the ground, a chain reaction occurs. Before his very eyes, a tall tower emerges from the ground. Making his way to the top, he  places the slate in a niche shaped just like it. This causes a detailed map of the Great Plateau to appear in his slate. As he processes what he has just done, the old man arrives, making use of a paraglider to reach the tower’s summit. He makes an unusual request – Link is to travel to the ancient shrines that unearthed themselves and retrieve the treasures within.

Inside these shrines, Link obtains runes for the Sheikah Slate. Once in hand, they allow Link to manipulate the world around him. There are four separate runes to be obtained from each of these shrines.

The first allows him to manipulate metallic objects using magnetism. Making use of its dynamic polarity, Link can freely move these objects in the air.

As it simply wouldn’t be a Zelda game without the ability to blow open cracked walls, the second rune produces bombs made of pure energy. Unlike the traditional bombs, these ones are not triggered by lighting a fuse; you must detonate them remotely. To account for the game’s physics engine, there are two types of bombs available – one spherical and the other cubical. As one would expect, spherical bombs roll freely on a sloped surface whereas cubical bombs aren’t as liable to do so.

The third rune stops the flow of time for one object. While frozen in time, you can strike the object, allowing it to store kinetic energy. When struck, a translucent arrow appears, indicating the direction in which the object will move once it is released from stasis. The amount of energy stored in the object is indicated by the arrow’s color, starting off yellow and gradually turning red. Both the Remote Bomb Rune and the Stasis Rune have cooldown periods that must be waited out before they can be used again.

The final rune allows Link to create a pillar of ice. These pillars are very stable, allowing Link to climb them and use them as stepping stones. Depending on where you use it, the pillars can be horizontal or vertical.

Regardless of the medium, a franchise generally doesn’t span multiple decades without developing its own set of tropes. The Legend of Zelda, despite experimenting with each new installment, is no exception. With many opportunities afforded to them to jump into the franchise, even beginners knew how a Zelda installment panned out. Link would travel to a dungeon, obtain its treasure, and use it to beat a path to the boss. Breath of the Wild takes note of that formula before abandoning it and devising a new one in its stead. While previous games would use these items as elaborate keys with their associated obstacles effectively serving as locks, Breath of the Wild gives you all of them before the tutorial is even finished. This gives the game a quality akin to an average Mario title wherein you have everything you need to succeed from the onset, and the following puzzles push you to apply your knowledge in increasingly elaborate ways.

At the end of each of these shrines is a monk who has been awaiting his arrival. By proving his worth, they bestow onto him a Spirit Orb. These serve as replacements for Heart Pieces in Breath of the Wild. By collecting four of them and praying to a goddess statue, Link can obtain a Heart Container, increasing his survivability. Alternatively, he can obtain a Stamina Vessel. As the name implies, this adds to the Stamina Wheel, improving Link’s physical endurance. Because a fair amount of Link’s journey is going to involve rock climbing, it’s vital to collect a few – even if Heart Containers tend to be more immediately useful.

Once he has expended the Spirit Orbs, the old man appears before Link once more. It is here he at last reveals his true identity: Rhoam Bosphoramus Hyrule. One century prior to Link’s awakening in the Shrine of Resurrection, he reigned over the kingdom of Hyrule. He has passed on since then, but remained in this world as a wandering spirit, waiting for Link to emerge from the shrine. Due to the Royal Family’s own carelessness, they brought about the destruction of Hyrule. The cause of the once-prosperous kingdom’s downfall was a powerful demon: the Calamity Ganon. The king heard from a prophecy a means of combatting this foe and sent an excavation team to research what it could be. In their search, they discovered the Divine Beasts – gigantic automata intended to be piloted by worthy champions. Also uncovered was a large array of Guardians – smaller machines built by the Sheikah tribe.

With this stroke of good fortune, Princess Zelda, her personal knight, Link, and four champions who were each to pilot one of the beasts set out to slay the Calamity Ganon and restore peace to the world. Unfortunately, while similar stories in the past and across various alternate timelines worked out well for the forces of good, the evil this particular foe exuded proved overwhelming. The Calamity Ganon was able to infest the Divine Beasts and the Guardians with its malice, allowing him to use them for himself. The battle was lost before it began; each of the four champions perished in their attempts to control the Divine Beasts. Link himself was mortally wounded protecting Zelda from a group of rogue Guardians. Zelda survived and instructed members of the Sheikah tribe to place Link in the Shrine of Resurrection, setting off to contain the Calamity Ganon alone.

King Rhoam tells Link that time is of the essence. Zelda’s power is waning, and the Calamity Ganon will soon escape her seal on him. Before the king fades away, he begs Link to save her and destroy Ganon before the demon escapes and reduces the world to ash. Though still lacking his memories, Link sets out into Hyrule, determined to fulfill the old king’s dying wish.

One of the many issues I had with Skyward Sword was that the prologue went on for much longer than necessary. In some ways it was justifiable, as it introduced the players to all of the relevant mechanics and the main characters. The problem arose whenever one had the urge to conduct a second playthrough. A hypothetical player who was willing to go through the tutorial the first time would find themselves impatiently mashing the “A” button in a vain attempt to get the text to scroll faster. Breath of the Wild demonstrates that Mr. Fujibayashi and his team learned from their mistake. The core gameplay features and an abridged version of the premise are presented to the player in roughly one hour before placing the onus on them to figure everything else out. This one change not only flew in the face of what had become the standard in the Zelda series, but also a majority of the AAA scene at the time.

I would liken the moment Link receives the paraglider from King Rhoam to a major development from A Link to the Past. One of the greatest moments from the classic SNES game was when Link entered the Dark World for the first time. Players had been led to believe there were only five dungeons in the game. The Light World being as open as it was, they had no reason to suspect an additional eight dungeons existed in a parallel dimension. As a way to tell players what they experienced before entering the Dark World was mere practice, the first dungeon in the realm is labeled “Level 1”.

How does this relate back to Breath of the Wild? The answer is quite simple. The trials Link has to go through in order to simply reach the temples of the Great Plateau are quite astonishing. He must climb several mountains, endure the freezing cold, and take on hordes of bokoblins. There are entire games whose protagonists don’t cover the distance Link travels in the first hour of Breath of the Wild. When he’s finally able to leave the Great Plateau, King Rhoam advises him to visit Kakariko Village. You may take the opportunity to look at the map in closer detail. The minute you do so is when you will realize the Great Plateau only encompasses a tiny fraction of the entire world.

Delving into the Experience

By 2017, enthusiasts accepted the notion that swords in the Zelda franchise were handed to the player as part of the plot. In Breath of the Wild, there is a distinct possibly that your first weapon will be a fallen tree branch – and it is obtained with little fanfare. Don’t think this means you will have to use the tree branch for long; in fact, you don’t even have to be particularly observant to find a better weapon. Due to the disaster that befell Hyrule, it’s easy to find swords in decent condition simply lying around. If you so choose, you can even raid monster encampments and take them for yourself.

Along those lines, while Skyward Sword opted to withhold the bow from players for an uncharacteristically long time, finding one in Breath of the Wild is just as simple as obtaining a decent melee weapon. Unlike A Link Between Worlds or Tri Force Heroes, you will need arrows with which to use these bows. In addition to standard ones, there is also a variety of magical arrows available to players. The nature of these magical arrows varies – some freeze their target solid while others explode on contact. While they would traditionally cost magic power to utilize in older games, in Breath of the Wild, the arrows themselves are enchanted. As such, they are simply bought or found.

As you amass enough of a collection of items, you be compelled to pursue the inventory screen. Doing so reveals that item management has been completely overhauled. At any given time, Link can have equipped a melee weapon, bow, shield, and three pieces of armor. Each weapon has a number affixed to it. This measures the amount of damage they inflict upon a successful strike. It doesn’t take long to discover that Link can use weapons other than swords as his primary means of defense. In addition to the oddball, improvised weapon, there are also axes and spears. A majority of these weapons also have two-handed variants. Two-handed weapons inflict more damage, but in exchange, they are more difficult to wield and prevent Link from equipping a shield.

Despite not employing motion controls, Breath of the Wild boasted what could have been the most involved combat engine the series had ever seen since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. By holding the “ZL” button, you can have Link lock onto an enemy. As long as it remains held, Link will always face towards that enemy. From here, you can allow the enemy to land the first blow. In addition to having Link passively defend himself with a shield, you can also opt to parry an attack. Just as an enemy strikes, you can press the “A” button. If you time it right, the enemy will stagger back. This technique can also be performed by jumping backwards at the right moment. This is done by holding the control stick back and pressing the “X” button. Whichever method you prefer, an onscreen prompt will appear. By tapping the appropriate button at that exact moment, Link will perform a devastatingly powerful counterattack.

It is important to realize that while a shield reduces the damage Link takes, it is not indestructible. They can only take so many hits before shattering into nothingness. While this was also true in Skyward Sword, Breath of the Wild goes a bit further with the concept. In other words, weapons too have a limited durability. I could imagine somebody going into this game blind would expect to find a blacksmith capable of repairing their equipment. The truth of the matter is that no such service exists. Rather than allowing players to maintain the condition of the weapons Link uses, he instead has to make do with what he can find.

Skyward Sword was content to have enemies inflict one heart’s worth of damage in exchange for starting Link off with six hearts as opposed to the traditional three. Don’t think that Link starting off with three hearts in Breath of the Wild means it’s going to pull any punches. In fact, even before leaving the Great Plateau, it becomes apparent Breath of the Wild is markedly more difficult than any of its 3D predecessors.

Situated in front of one of the shrines is a decayed Guardian. Thinking that its decrepit state means it poses no threat would be a grave miscalculation. Such a foolhardy player would thoughtlessly allow the Guardian to hit Link with its laser attack, only to be shocked when they see all three hearts on the health meter vanish. This is when they realize the familiar interface in Breath of the Wild belies the more realistic approach to game design. While Link’s predecessors were barely fazed from attacks that should have been fatal, this incarnation takes realistic damage.

Furthermore, don’t expect recovering health to be as easy as cutting down grass and hoping a heart emerges. Instead, Link primarily relies on food to recover his health. Ingredients such as fruits, meat, or vegetables can be found in the wilderness or purchased from a merchant. To cook a meal, Link must find a pot placed above a fire. Once he does, you can have him place up to five ingredients into the pot. A few seconds later, the dish will be ready. He can either eat it right away or save it for later. It’s also possible to toss the ingredients directly into a fire to cook them that way. By tossing an apple into a fire, it becomes a healthier baked apple, for instance. Though the results from doing this usually aren’t as effective, it could prove handy when you need to recover Link’s health, but he only has access to a fire without a cooking pot. Unlike melee weapons, bows, or shields, there is no limit to the amount of food Link can hold.

Monsters aren’t the only threat to Link’s well-being; he must also deal with the elements. There is a gauge with the letter “F” or “C” near the radar. Naturally, this represents the immediate area’s temperature. If Link enters a cold or hot area, he will begin to take damage. This is represented by the meter’s arrow pointing to the blue or orange zones. There are multiple ways to combat this. One of the earliest methods of staving off the cold is to consume a food cooked with a hot pepper. Later on, Link will be able to find sets of armor that offer better protection against harsh conditions as long as he wears them. Armor doesn’t degrade like weaponry, so keeping multiple pairs on hand for different situations is the optimal strategy.

This is ultimately what allows Breath of the Wild to outshine its open-world contemporaries. It hammers home just how harsh the wilderness is to someone who doesn’t prepare. While competing games thought nothing of characters being underdressed in a blizzard or turning their protagonists loose in a tropical region without proper protection, Mr. Fujibayashi’s team examined these premises often taken for granted and introduced logical ramifications for them. Granted, this isn’t to say Breath of the Wild is completely realistic. Like many video game protagonists, Link can magically stop time and eat an entire meal to recover his health mid-combat and the extent to which he is able to climb cliffs is unnaturally good. Fortunately, these oddities hardly detract from the experience – quite the opposite. It shows that, while the team was willing to take cues from the rest of the AAA industry in regards to its presentation, they stayed true to the medium and realized the importance of breaking away from reality for the sake of delivering a quality experience.

What strikes me as curious about Breath of the Wild is that, despite existing as yet another installment of a long-running, famous franchise, it’s surprisingly difficult to pigeonhole it as an example of a single genre. “Action-adventure” doesn’t do the subtle intricacies justice. I would say dealing with the harsh wilderness combined with the improvisational nature of its combat allow Breath of the Wild to be the closest a game can get to being a survival horror without an abundance of horror elements.

For that matter, with its advanced weapon and armor system, Breath of the Wild could also be thought of as an action-RPG. In that regard, the closest title to which I would compare it is Deus Ex; RPG elements are present, yet implemented in a highly unconventional manner. Most monsters leave behind materials that can be used as part of an elaborate crafting system, but Link doesn’t gain experience points from fighting them. The closest analogue to experience points would be the Spirit Orbs. Upgrading weapons and shields isn’t a matter of buying them from shops, but Link happening upon them during his travels. He only really needs to constantly update his armor and even then you’ll soon find that most sets provide a paltry defense at first. As it turns out, one can upgrade the quality of the various armor sets. This is accomplished by seeking out Great Fairies and providing them with the correct materials. There are four such beings, and the number of times a given piece of armor can be upgraded corresponds to how many of them have been awakened. I think these developments can best be described as Mr. Fujibayashi’s team taking the basic outline of what a role-playing game constitutes before completely rewriting the rulebook from scratch.

In spite of its drastically different gameplay, Breath of the Wild still bears the identity of its franchise. As such, it ultimately lives and dies based on the quality of its puzzles. If someone were to ask me if the team successfully translated that talent to a non-linear experience, I would respond with a resounding yes. What I greatly admire about solving problems in Breath of the Wild is how often players are rewarded for exercising common sense. Are thorns covering the entrance to an important area? Burn them down with a Fire Arrow. Can’t reach a shrine because of the jagged rocks surrounding it? Just climb a nearby cliff and sail over them with the paraglider. Are you just dying to see what an out-of-reach treasure chest contains? Assuming it’s made of metal and not attached to the floor, you can simply use the Magnesis Rune to bring it to Link. This is quite a contrast from older Zelda games in which obstacles could only be circumvented with one specific dungeon item.

As I analyzed Skyward Sword, I remarked that the Timeshift Stones could easily have formed the foundation for a standalone game. It was such an inspired mechanic that its potential felt wasted when the designers limited their use to one region of the game. The runes loaded into the Sheikah Slate seem to be a response to this criticism. A majority of the shines you visit will extensively test how you use these runes. With only the remote bombs resembling something you would find in previous games, it’s up to the player to confront the swath of situations that require the other three runes head on. In doing so, I liken the puzzles in this game to Portal in that they make excellent use of what few moving parts they have to create something grand.

Yet another aspect for which I commend this game is that, for the first time in a console installment, the design team at long last found a way to skillfully implement stealth mechanics. By pressing down the left analogue stick, Link begins to crouch. As long as he doesn’t make too much noise and stays out of his foes’ line of vision, they will be none the wiser. The soundwaves emitted by Link’s footsteps are recorded on a graph next to the radar. If he sneaks up on an unsuspecting enemy, he can attack them from the back. A successful attack in such a manner deals an increased amount of damage. In older installments such as The Wind Waker or Skyward Sword, stealth sections didn’t work because the games weren’t optimized in a fashion that accommodated them properly. Meanwhile, I could tell that, much like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks before it, Breath of the Wild succeeded by virtue of prominently featuring them throughout the entire game. Consequently, the designers forced themselves to examine the mechanics and iron out any flaws that would’ve made it past playtesting had they only been used in small, short bursts.

The single greatest strength of Breath of the Wild comes from exploring Hyrule. Contemporary efforts such as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End would often show off the amount of detail that went into the skyboxes. Though impressive from a pure technical standpoint, the goodwill would often be rendered moot when you realize you couldn’t actually explore any of the distant areas these developers painstakingly crafted. In a typical game from this era, seeing an ancient structure on top off a tall cliff in the distance would indicate to players that it’s just scenery. In Breath of the Wild, there’s little stopping Link from climbing up the cliff and seeing just what lies within that structure. This means Breath of the Wild has the best of both worlds; not only was Hyrule’s design a remarkable aesthetical achievement, players being able to explore it with few restrictions allows them to appreciate the work that went into it.

A majority of the open-world games at the time were typically set in one-note regions – whether it was the mountainous Skyrim or the tropical Rook Islands. When playing Breath of the Wild, don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to believe that Link’s various trials in the different regions could all take place in the span of a single game. This is because Hyrule features a diverse set of biomes. You get a sense that each region has its own ecosystem complete with unique weather patterns. The desert typically doesn’t get a drop of rain while the coastal areas are often plagued with violent monsoons. What makes the design stand out is that despite being so large, none of these features feel haphazardly placed and complement each other astonishingly well.

Analyzing the Narrative

WARNING: This section will contain minor spoilers for the series thus far.

As open-world design became the standard for the Western AAA scene, it didn’t take long for it to run into a stifling limitation. Open-world games rarely ever achieved accolades for their writing. This seemed to be subtly reinforced with the strongest storytelling experiences the medium had to offer by 2017 such as Undertale, OneShot, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and Planescape: Torment being linear affairs. Meanwhile, trying to tell any kind of story in an open-world title invariably led to a severe disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative choices surrounding it. The reason no one acknowledges the fact that the protagonist gunned down multiple civilians or the countless property damage they caused in their latest rampage boils down to the same reason – nothing they do outside of story missions counted. As a way to help mitigate this problem, antiheroes became very popular among AAA creators at the time. However, without the nuance required to write flawed protagonists, a majority of these antiheroes wouldn’t have felt out of place in a nineties graphic novel. Because video game writers continued to use these types of characters long after everyone else rightly discarded them, it made the medium as a whole seem behind the times.

There was also the strangeness of story missions, and by extension the narrative itself, failing to progress until the player decided to go through with them. This was necessary to prevent players from rendering their save files unwinnable, but it had the unintended side effect of ruining immersion. These lovingly crafted worlds would come to a dead stop until the player decided to engage with the story. If the forces of good were about to storm the antagonists’ stronghold, you could safely bet that neither side would budge an inch for days, weeks, or even months on end until the protagonist joined their allies. On that note, you knew antagonists would never get around to sending their strongest enforcers to squash the rebel alliance – no matter how long the protagonist dawdled.

These problems ultimately arose from developers attempting to craft linear narratives in non-linear experiences. Though the solution to this problem would seem painstakingly obvious, especially in hindsight, implementing it often proved to be easier said than done. Attempting to tell a non-linear story using the 2010s AAA formula would be next to impossible. The narrative would be borderline incoherent even in ideal circumstances. Even if chapters in a book, episodes of a show, or scenes from a film were arranged in an anachronic order, there was typically a deeper reason why a creator opted to present their work in such a fashion. Furthermore, video games differed from any other medium because creators had a factor they had absolutely no control over: the unpredictable behavior of their audience. Even the most linear game couldn’t account for an upstart enthusiast going so completely off the rails that they discovered an obscure glitch capable of skipping them to the credits screen. Not only did developers often fail to account for their audiences’ contributions to the narrative, it was oftentimes impossible.

What could developers do to resolve this conundrum? I would propose the answer had been staring them in the face since the release of Half-Life. Valve Software’s landmark 1998 debut stood out from its competition by crafting a story entirely through scripted events. Despite having an intricately designed story, it didn’t force players to engage with it. They could pay attention to the various story beats littered throughout the game or ignore them, opting to treat it as an adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster ride. Despite the critical and commercial success of Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid had a greater influence on console gaming, and non-interactive, cinematic cutscenes became the default method of storytelling.

It was partially due to AAA gaming taking cues from Hollywood that the success of Dark Souls in 2011 shook the foundations of the medium. This was a game with short cutscenes and only the bare minimum of plot exposited toward the player. In other words, it was very easy to draw comparisons to Half-Life. There was one key difference between the two games, however. While Half-Life featured a linear level design, Dark Souls was a Metroidvania. That is to say, the world gradually opened up as the player character gained more power. It’s highly appropriate that after Half-Life weaved a narrative tailor-made for videos games and Dark Souls proved they could retain their integrity even after giving players leeway, Breath of the Wild would take this esoteric trend to its logical conclusion by conceiving one for an open-world experience.

Normally in these kinds of games, the hero is someone completely unfamiliar with the setting. This justifies other characters providing exposition to the hero and, by extension, the player. The alternative was to have knowledgeable characters discussing matters they should already know, which came across as unnatural when handled poorly. Breath of the Wild resorts to another common standby with an amnesiac protagonist. What allows it to work where similar efforts fell short is that the plot requires Link to be proactive. Despite evil having won, none of Hyrule’s citizens are waiting for Link to save them. As far as they know, the Calamity Ganon will be sealed at Hyrule Castle indefinitely. This has many interesting effects on the narrative. In the present, Link is exploring his homeland with fresh eyes once again. One-hundred years have passed since his near-death experience, and Hyrule has a mostly new population.

Moreover, Hyrule as it is presented in Breath of the Wild manages to address a reoccurring oddity commonly found in open-world games. A majority of the creators behind those games attempted to create thriving communities for players to explore. This rarely worked in practice because even the most populated cities tended to be highly compressed. It wasn’t uncommon for the capital of an empire to be the size of a real-life hamlet with a comparable population to boot. This disconnect was observable in older Zelda titles as well. How Breath of the Wild goes about resolving this issue is similar to the approach taken in Majora’s Mask. While the streets of Clock Town were deserted due to people having fled in the face of impending doom, Hyrule’s low population could be attributed to the disaster that befell the kingdom one-hundred years ago. In other words, Breath of the Wild could be seen as the series’ take on the post-apocalyptic genre. The Wind Waker and its sequels touched upon these themes, but they are far more overt in this game. Traveling through the wilderness, you’ll often stumble upon destroyed villages. This is further punctuated when you finally decide to go to Hyrule Castle only to realize the once-thriving town has been reduced to rubble. The few communities that remain are in fortified locations.

There are four races associated with the Divine Beasts: the Zoras, the Rito, the Gerudo, and the Gorons. All of these races debuted in past games, but being in the first open-world installment with an emphasis on story, the narrative gets to go in new directions with them. With the way they’re presented in Breath of the Wild, their four civilizations match up with the classic elements – water, wind, earth, and fire respectively. This solid base allowed the writers to build a world in ways impossible with a linear structure. As a result, there are many interesting story touches if you’re willing to look for them.

The Rito have shorter lifespans, so many of them believe Link to be a descendant of the Hylian champion. The notion that he could be the genuine article doesn’t even cross their minds. Meanwhile, many of the Zora elders, whose race is known for their longevity, are resentful toward Link, believing he was responsible for the death of their champion. The Gerudo, just like their older counterparts, are a tribe of strong women who live in the desert named after them. No men are allowed to enter the city, necessitating Link to find a Gerudo outfit first. Once he does, you learn the tribe goes against the stereotype in that they don’t forbid men out of enmity. The reason is a cultural one – it’s to encourage the Gerudo to leave town and search for husbands. The elders are afraid that if they didn’t have this law, the citizens would never get to see what life has to offer outside of the desert. It’s also deconstructed in that they end up being quite awkward interacting with men, and their lack of experience is a major reason why Link’s disguise works. Finally, the Gorons stand out in that they seem to be unaware of the Calamity Ganon, believing the Divine Beasts’ rampage to be a sign of the apocalypse. Hyrule is a single world, yet this game expertly lends it multiple perspectives due to its diverse inhabitants.

When it comes to comparing the basic premise of Breath of the Wild to any of its predecessors, the first one that springs to mind is The Wind Waker. Anyone who accused The Wind Waker of pandering to kids wound up looking downright foolish once the game came out. Those actually willing to give it the time of day knew that its cartoonish art style belied a shockingly dark backstory. The chosen hero saved Hyrule from Ganon in Ocarina of Time, ushering in an era of peace. When Ganon returned, the people held out hope that the chosen one would defeat him once more. The miracle never occurred, and the gods flooded the land to prevent Ganon from achieving his goals. This, in turn, required the Link of that game, who had no connection to his predecessor, to become a hero in his own right – and not at the behest of a prophecy.

In short, The Wind Waker asks what happens when evil arises without a chosen one to challenge it. Breath of the Wild, by contrast, asks a similar question with a minute difference: what happens when the people chosen by fate to oppose evil fail in their mission? As Link recovers his memories, it becomes clear just how much pressure he and Zelda faced when they fully grasped the enormity of their task. They had to effectively abandon their carefree lives and dedicate all of their time to one single cause – all while living up to the expectations of civilians and family alike.

Although Link doesn’t have any voiced dialogue and he still is a stand-in for the player, he is not quite a blank slate – an aspect reinforced as soon as the game begins by the fact that you can’t name him. When creating Skyward Sword, the team decided against including voice acting. Though they had pushed the Wii Optical Disc to its absolute limits, thus negating any reasonable chance of including voice acting, there was a more practical reason for that choice. Link was still to be a silent protagonist, and the developers felt it would be strange to have other characters speak when the lead couldn’t. Even after they opted include voice acting in Breath of the Wild, they wanted Link to remain silent outside of the occasional dialogue option. This prompted them to ask themselves why he never speaks. As it turns out, in preparation for his monumental task, Link felt it necessary to hide all emotion, affecting a cold, stoic front. By refusing to speak, he could focus on his mission and prevent himself from saying anything that would damage morale. This resulted him in feeling alone all of the time.

Similarly, Zelda, who was expected to inherit a divine power to seal the Calamity Ganon, experienced immense frustration when she realized she had no idea how to do so. Compounded with her family dismissing her other interests offhandedly, she became an insecure, self-loathing person. When she tries to give a motivational speech, one of the champions remarks that she sounds as though they have already given up. Even when the Calamity Ganon invades, Zelda still finds she still can’t use her divine powers, and watches helplessly as her father is killed along with the other champions. Even if she did everything she could, she blames herself for the state of her kingdom.

This lends an interesting motivation for why she would willingly seal herself along with the Calamity Ganon for one-hundred years – to atone for her greatest failure. What I like about this is how the basic premise is identical to that of the original in broad strokes, yet it’s updated with the sensibilities of its day. Yes, your overarching goal is to defeat the villain and save the princess, but the context is much different. The Zelda of this game is hardly a damsel in distress; she’s a full-fledged warrior in her own right, and Link must aid her in battle. She also goes through a nice, little arc in the flashbacks wherein she acts haughty around Link before opening up to him.

What makes these fascinating story beats complement the open-world structure is that they make sense regardless of the order in which they’re discovered. In fact, it’s easy to say that through your own trials and tribulations, you’re sculpting a unique narrative with which to connect these developments. I remember one instance wherein I had Link jump over a wall, narrowly avoiding a Guardian’s laser. While the Uncharted series was praised for its action sequences, they were often hollow because they rarely – if ever – accounted for the player’s presence. By giving their audience such freedom, everyone has their own story to tell.

One of the most defining moments of the game occurred when I fully realized just how perfectly Breath of the Wild captured the essence of the series’ debut installment. Specifically, it was when I obtained the Master Sword. Interestingly, it’s not particularly difficult to find, but the being who watches over it, the Deku Tree, warns Link that the spirit dwelling within will kill him if he doesn’t possess the strength to wield it. As it turns out, Link needs thirteen Heart Containers to take the Master Sword. When I learned this, I set out to obtain them as quickly as possible – only after getting the Master Sword would I consider taking on the Divine Beasts. The truth then dawned on me. Whenever I played the original game, I would always procure the White Sword and the Blue Ring before attempting to complete any of the dungeons – and that is exactly what I had done in Breath of the Wild.

Of course, no story would be complete without some kind of conflict – typically catalyzed by a powerful antagonist. Ganon had a propensity for being the true mastermind behind countless villains in the past, making Breath of the Wild one of the few games in the series in which his status as the primary antagonist does not form the basis of a plot twist. When it comes to analyzing his character in Breath of the Wild, I find it helps to do so in relationship to his past portrayals. Whether it was by growing too powerful or letting his malice devolve his mind to the point that he is now a little more than a slavering animal, Ganon, or the Calamity Ganon as he is known in this game, only desires one thing: complete and total destruction. Because of this, the Calamity Ganon differs from his past incarnations in that he arguably isn’t a character at all. He is, instead, more comparable to a destructive force of nature – like a violent, undying maelstrom.

Owing to this radically different interpretation of his character, I can imagine longtime Zelda fans found the Calamity Ganon to be disappointing. This was a character who had a surprising amount of nuance to him only to be rendered a one-dimensional, generic threat. While it could understandably be seen as a step down, I posit that, given the shift to an open-world design, it was, in more ways, the only sensible option the writers had.

As games became more cinematic in nature, it became necessary for writers to establish their antagonists as legitimate threat. Whether or not their attempts worked varied wildly. If the antagonist was to make frequent appearances, the developers found themselves jumping through hoops to avoid killing them off too early. This led to countless instances in which your character, who established themselves as a capable fighter in gameplay, conveniently had all of their weapons taken away whenever they occupied the same general area as the antagonist. In the process, the writers would inadvertently prove that while these storytelling techniques are perfectly serviceable in films or any other non-interactive medium, they come across as contrived when coded into a game. On some level I can sympathize because for the longest time, this was a problem with no clear solution. If the protagonist and antagonist never met at all, it would either render the driving conflict impersonal or ruin the latter’s credibility as a villain.

Breath of the Wild accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of establishing the Calamity Ganon as a legitimate threat without giving him a lot of screentime. This is because the Calamity Ganon isn’t just waiting to be destroyed in Hyrule Castle; his miasmic presence is everywhere, infecting the world like a malignant tumor. It’s immensely unsettling seeing his corruption in random places. It serves as a reminder that the eyes of this overwhelming evil are around every corner. In fact, given how the Guardians have been corrupted by his influence, it’s easy to make the argument that the game is one big boss battle. His credibility as a villain is, in turn, established by the game mechanics instead of cutscenes. Simply put, if an underprepared Link doesn’t take caution around the Guardians, they can easily kill him in one shot. There’s nothing stopping Link from marching straight to Hyrule Castle as soon as he gets the paraglider, yet doing so is tantamount to suicide – unless you’re exceptionally skilled at the game.

His influence extends to Hyrule’s citizens as well. While some are unaware and others have resigned to their fate, one faction seeks to smite anyone who defies him. In the distant past, Hylians turned on the Sheikah. The despondent members formed their own clan – the Yiga. Pledging loyalty to the evil that threatens to destroy the world, these people will ambush Link when he least expects it. Much like the Sheikah, they are heavily inspired by the fantastical depictions of ninja in fiction. Interestingly, they take cues from their real-world counterparts. Rather than dressing in gratuitously ninja-like uniforms, they disguise themselves as ordinary citizens. The only time you will ever see them openly costumed is in their secret headquarters. If Link defeats their leader, they drop the pretenses and begin targeting him more openly. I like this development because it goes against the idea that the leader’s removal would cause their army to pack up their things and go home – it instead achieves the exact opposite effect.

There are countless highlights when playing this game, yet dealing with the Divine Beasts still manages to stand out. Even before observing the monumental size, it’s painstakingly obvious Link would be in over his head in a direct confrontation. Before I decided to focus my attention on them, I was under the impression that Breath of the Wild wouldn’t feature any traditional dungeons. Little did I know when I guided Link to Zora’s Domain that I was about to be proven wrong. In order to undo the corruption on the Divine Beasts, Link must make his way inside and defeat the Blight Ganons residing within them. It was these manifestations spawned from the Calamity Ganon that took control of the beasts, killing their respective champions in the process.

Before he can enter the beasts, he must make his way past their defenses. This involves hitting their structural weaknesses. I liken the process to the boss battles in Shadow of the Colossus in that Link finds himself face-to-face with a gigantic foe he couldn’t possibly fell with sheer brute force. The main difference is that Link doesn’t have to face these foes alone. His encounter with Vah Ruta, the Zora’s Divine Beast, involves him shooting electrified arrows at Vah Ruta while being carried by Prince Sidon. Vah Medoh, the Divine Beast residing in the Hebra region, requires him to shoot exploding projectiles in midair as the Rito warrior Teba distracts it. To enter Vah Naboris, which roams the Gerudo Desert, Link teams up with Chief Riju as they skillfully guide desert-dwelling seals to surf the sands. Finally, Vah Rudania, which is causing Death Mountain to erupt sporadically, must be shot down using specially designed cannons. The ammunition for the cannons in question happens to be a young Goron named Yunobo. In most games, you would be hard-pressed to find one sequence as incredible as the Divine Beast encounters. Breath of the Wild has four – one of them even successfully turns an escort mission into an enjoyable experience.

When it comes to dungeon design, the Divine Beasts explore uncharted territory. On the surface, your first goal would appear to be part of standard procedure when upon entering a Zelda dungeon: find a map. Once you acquire one, you’ll learn it serves more of a purpose than simply helping you find your way around – they allow you to manipulate the Divine Beast itself. For example, Vah Ruta resembles a giant elephant constantly spraying water from its trunk. You can use the map to change the position of the beast’s trunk. This changes where in the dungeon the water flows, allowing Link to access new areas. From there, he must activate all of the terminals so he can access the chamber where the Blight Ganon dwells. Because none of these dungeons have vital items, they lack the two-part structure classic Zelda dungeons have and can be construed as rather short. Even if that is true to some degree, there is a great amount on ingenuity to the game’s dungeon design. The idea of manipulating the dungeon itself had been played with in older titles such as Majora’s Mask, but the way it’s implemented in Breath of the Wild is almost unprecedented.

The early twenty-first century saw the American gaming industry fully recover from its devastating 1983 crash, being able to translate their success in the PC scene to the console market. As Western developers began reclaiming territory lost to their Japanese counterparts, several practices became something of a lost art. Whether it was the result of taking cues from Hollywood or attempting to introduce a dose of realism to the medium, Western developers usually paled in comparison to their Eastern counterparts when it came to creating boss fights. This was especially noticeable in open-world games wherein antagonists were often dispatched in cutscenes or following a series of quick-time events. After playing several of them, I simply assumed boss fights had no place in such games.

What Breath of the Wild does with the Blight Ganons is demonstrate their viability in a subgenre that had abandoned them. Though I’ll admit they’re not the most memorable boss fights in the series, I give Mr. Fujibayashi’s team a lot of credit for including them at all. If the entire game solely involved collecting Spirit Orbs and the Master Sword, it would have been decent, but the long, involved quests to free the Divine Beasts add that certain something the experience needed to surpass its rivals.

I would say one of the most affecting moments in the game occurred when Link defeated one of the Blight Ganons. I assumed that, because Zelda was still alive, slaying the Blight Ganon would bring the respective champion back to life. I was incorrect. The narrative makes it clear that, like King Rhoam, they have passed on; they only exist in the living world in spiritual form. In a way, this is a dark parallel to awakening the sages in Ocarina of Time. In that game, whether or not the sages actually died before handing Link their medallions wasn’t made clear. While the narrative implied they were killed by the monsters residing in their respective temples, games set chronologically later such as A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds muddied the issue by suggesting the seven sages of those eras were the originals’ descendants. If nothing else, players could take solace knowing that they were alive and well in the younger Link’s timeline.

Ambiguity can be effective, but this is a case where taking a definitive stance was the best approach. By outright stating that the champions are dead, it adds a very bittersweet note to Link’s triumphs. The demise of Mipha, the champion of the Zoras, is especially tragic given she was a childhood friend of Link’s. Then again, even the abrasive Rito champion, Raveli, hardly deserved such a fate. It does turn into a tragicomedy of sorts when he insists the only reason he died was because he didn’t take his opponent seriously. Nonetheless, they aren’t willing to let a trivial limitation such as death stand in their way in helping Link defeat the Calamity Ganon. Upon freeing the beasts, the respective champion will lend Link their power. As someone who was slightly disappointed that the medallions in Ocarina of Time didn’t grant Link any powers in spite of what the flavor text suggested, I enjoyed this touch. In a standard game, collecting new power-ups is a cause for celebration in of itself. Acquiring these champions’ powers has an extra dimension of pathos to it given their context. It hammers home that though Link may not be alone in his journey, when he does eventually succeed in driving away the Calamity Ganon, he cannot afford to forget the high cost of his victory.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Beautiful presentation
  • Good voice acting
  • Incredibly intricate world design
  • Memorable cast of characters
  • Well-animated, succinct cutscenes
  • Reasonably challenging
  • Excellent open-world gameplay
  • Mini dungeons are an interesting change of pace
  • Large array of weapons and armor available
  • Creative puzzles
  • Good, if subdued soundtrack
  • Survival mechanics add a new dimension to gameplay
Cons:

  • Requires a lot of investment to fully appreciate

Nintendo of America’s decision to incorporate references to memes in their official localization of Tri Force Heroes drew no shortage of ire. It’s plain to see why; it was an ill-advised attempt on the branch’s part to appear relevant thirty years after the release of their landmark Super Mario Bros. I myself felt it to be wholly unnecessary because ever since they had their first major hit in the arcades with Donkey Kong, they were always relevant to the medium. The third console generation saw them singlehandedly bring the North American gaming dark age to an end with the success of their Nintendo Entertainment System. In the fourth generation, they continued to stay true to the medium’s strengths while their peers attempted to appeal solely to the youth of the nineties. Though they gained a fierce, new competitor in the form of Sony’s PlayStation in the fifth, they defied the odds by pioneering 3D gaming long before anyone else. They lost their dominance, but never their relevance.

There is more than enough proof of this simply observing the success of The Legend of Zelda. One could have easily made the case of a Zelda game being among any given decade’s finest efforts since the series’ inception. Anyone would be hard-pressed to find another franchise capable of pulling off such a feat, and I don’t believe it to be a coincidence how one of the few others that could – Mario – also happened to be a Nintendo property. With the launch of the Wii U, Nintendo hit something of a rough patch as the console sold poorly. This situation fed into the unusually common belief among independent critics that Nintendo could only find success by using nostalgia as a church. It was poetic, then, when the Nintendo Switch not only proved to be a commercial success, but one of its launch titles proceeded to amass critical acclaim from every mainstream outlet imaginable.

In response, detractors accused Breath of the Wild of pandering to the popular trends of its time with its open-world gameplay. From a superficial standpoint, I could see how these points were made. After all, climbing towers to fill in the world map isn’t terribly different from navigating radio masts or reaching vantage points – an aspect that had become maligned and heavily mocked by 2017. Taking these suppositions at face value, one would get the impression Mr. Fujibayashi’s team had no business making an open-world game long after their associated tropes overstayed their welcome. However, I propose that a team composed of people whose cultural backgrounds were not known for producing or enjoying open-world games was the biggest factor in why Breath of the Wild turned as well as it did. With several sets of fresh eyes, they systemically addressed the trappings associated with these kinds of games, going down paths Western developers had either never considered or long since abandoned.

There are other criticisms frequently lodged toward the game as well. These generally concern the weapons’ limited durability, the developers running out of ideas for shrine puzzles, and a practically nonexistent soundtrack. First of all, I never found weapon management to be a hassle. In fact, I feel that Link having to improvise lends an oppressive atmosphere to the environment. It simply wouldn’t have worked had he been given one single weapon he could rely on for the entire game. Secondly, many of the shrines involve a simple miniboss fight or even have monks give Link their Spirit Orb upon entering. Technically speaking, it does mean a significant fraction of them have no puzzles at all. I feel what helps is to recontexualize this perception as a “glass half full” situation. For the sake of this argument, I’ll assume for a moment the detractors are correct and that sixty of them could be construed as pointless filler. This still amounts to sixty levels’ worth of legitimately creative puzzles. Countless franchises have run their course long before they reached sixty stages at all. Finally, the soundtrack, while not as bombastic as those of its predecessors, suits the mood they were going for. The fragmented piano strokes complement the broken world in which Link finds himself.

More than anything, what I admire about Breath of the Wild is that it rebels against the nihilistic zeitgeist of the 2010s AAA scene. In any other game taking place in a post-apocalyptic work at the time, the narratives would instill hope in players before dashing it and calling them sentimental fools for believing they could actually make things better. Hyrule had never been in as dire of a state as it was in Breath of the Wild, yet a ray of hope exists as long as Link draws breath – as long as you’re willing to tough out anything the game can throw at you. A Link Between Worlds dabbled with a non-linear structure, but Breath of the Wild perfected it. This game’s greatest accomplishment is that it remembered the sense of wonder enthusiasts felt playing The Legend of Zelda back in 1986 and passed it onto a new generation in 2017. Any sidequest involving searching for materials had people asking for help on internet forums – not unlike how kids in the eighties traded unintuitive puzzle solutions in the schoolyard. Cynics may write dissertations lamenting how this many Nintendo fans could have the wool pulled over their eyes or take potshots at it in unrelated articles. I, on the other hand, stand firm in my belief that Breath of the Wild absolutely lived up to its overwhelmingly positive critical reception.

Final Score: 9/10

21 thoughts on “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

  1. 2017 was such a phenomenal year for gaming, and Nintendo in particular. Breath of the Wild is probably my favorite Zelda, and has earned a spot in my all-time top 10, but I still think Super Mario Odyssey was the game of the year. I’m trying to think if there was another year where the same company released two games of that caliber within such a short timespan. Nintendo may have done this once before in 1995, but I have to go back and play some of that year’s best again to see if they hold up. But seeing as one of those 1995 games was developed by Rare, 2017 may indeed be the first time the same developer released two flat-out 10/10s in the same year.

    Also, that’s an excellent point how most post-apocalyptic games (or movies, or anything) would pretty much make fun of the player for being hopeful. It still astounds me that so many people still think the cynical and pessimistic route somehow boasts more originality. If anything, such droll ideologies are more generic and tired than anything. Also also, did anyone actually think Nintendo fans ‘had the wool pulled over their eyes?’ I mean, besides goblin-like internet fanboys who think any and all Nintendo praise is undeserved. I can imagine that Yahtzee jackass probably thought that, but he’s the definition of a generic hipster who believes himself original, lacking any and all self-awareness to realize that he’s just parroting the same garbage any and every hipster could/does.

    Happy to see you finish reviewing the Zelda series. I should really hop on that myself. As well as finish Rare Replay, the SNES Classic, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed it was. It was great seeing Nintendo make a comeback after a rather hit-or-miss showing in the 2010s leading up to that moment. After writing about it in length, I have to say it’s my second favorite game after Majora’s Mask, but I totally get why somebody would list it as their favorite game in the series. If I were to make a top 20 list, I guarantee this game would be in there somewhere. And that’s a good point; I can’t think of another instance in which the same developer released two quality games in the span of a single year (or at least not in modern times).

      Personally, I think the pessimistic 2010s zeitgeist is a sign of systemic, chronic laziness. At the end of the day, it’s easier to condemn than it is to create. I think that’s why modern satire has a very shallow quality to it; creators spend more time tearing down others’ viewpoints than offering solutions to the problems they perceive. Then there are the critics who don’t help matters by tripping over themselves praising these works. A lot of them admire the messages, but I’m always asking “but does any of that make it a good story?” The answer isn’t necessarily no, but I’ve noticed that critics, especially modern film critics, avoid bringing up the question.

      Actually, I have no idea what Yahtzee thought of this game. In all honesty, my conclusion was more of a response to what various detractors have said about this game. I remember one person commenting that only the mainstream outlets seemed to like it while independent voices were more critical. The mainstream outlets have gotten it wrong on several occasions, but this wasn’t one of those times; Breath of the Wild is the real deal. As I’ve said, I find the overwhelmingly positive reviews Nintendo games get some of the only trustworthy ones out there. They go so far against the grain of what’s considered cool that I know they achieve their accolades honestly rather than by blatant pandering.

      Thank you! This was quite a journey, but it was totally worth it. Hope you enjoy talking about the rest of the series!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved BOTW. It was a tremendous swan song for the Wii U, that I enjoyed for months. And there’s so much to do in it, it will take most players well over a year to see it all. In many ways it did, indeed, take me back to the original NES game. No hand holding. Only a vague idea as to what the task at hand is, and then you’re thrown into the pool without any water wings. It’s great. Except for the Lynels. I could never kill those damned things. Still, I loved BOTW. A great game in its own right, and one of the best LOZ entries. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! What I like is how it takes the energy of the original without actively cashing in on its legacy. As you say, it manages to stand as a solid entry in its own right. And you’re right; Lynels are terrifyingly powerful enemies, though I did manage to fell a few of them. Even as a kid playing the original, I recognized their formidability when I saw them shoot a sword beam; they did a great job translating that aspect (among others) to a new generation. Easily one of the best games of the decade. As for the series overall, I would rank it 2nd after Majora’s Mask.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Breath of the Wild is absolutely fascinating to me. It captures the feel of the first Zelda more than any game in the series to come since, but does so in a way that’s so completely unique. This game went back to its roots absorbed what made that work, but made something completely new out of it.

    And the game’s phenomenal, for all the reasons you listed. It works really, really well. The free roaming is great, and there’s always something new to find. Being able to climb really makes this a completely different kind of open world than anything else you see, and the game makes full use of it. And the constructed experiences are really well done. In fact I really wish the game had more dungeons like the Divine Beasts and more boss fights. The ones that were in there were really stellar, and I felt they filled a void the more simplistic encounters dotting the rest of the world lacked.

    But the world is nothing sort of phenomenal. It’s never over-bearing about it, but it really feels post-apocalyptic. Just the way it has everything set out, the sparse villages dotting the map, the force of nature you’re up against, it all feels so cheerfully oppressive. And the game world handles that so deftly, most others would have lost the nuance entirely.

    But it had a right-handed Link. 4/10 at best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An inordinate number of independent voices took one look at Breath of the Wild and accused Nintendo of reveling in their past accomplishments. The reality is much closer to what you say; they used their landmark 1986 game as a springboard to accomplish something truly phenomenal. These people knew what made the original work and updated it for a new generation. It really is quite a remarkable achievement.

      Yeah, Nathan Drake has nothing on Breath of the Wild Link’s ability to navigate cliffsides. It’s such a simple idea that I’m surprised so few people attempted. Now, I’m probably going to be slightly disappointed playing other open-world games only to realize I can’t climb them.

      It’s strange because while I agree that dungeons are the main draw of the series, my two favorite games have only four (well, five if you count the Moon and Hyrule Castle). Even so, more dungeons would’ve been nice – especially because the boss fights in this game were so creative.

      The world of Breath of the Wild has a very Shadow of the Colossus quality in that I tried to feel what the developers were thinking when they added certain details to the world. I was often compelled to travel off the beaten path just to see what could be in store.

      Otherwise, “cheerfully oppressive” is a great description. As a result, it’s a post-apocalyptic world with a lot more thought put into it than a standard example. When the world is presented as beyond saving, I end up questioning how the survivors could have lasted as long as they did. Breath of the Wild is a post-apocalyptic game with an actual heart, and as a result, they made their world equal parts believable and intriguing. Quite ironic that a fantasy post-apocalyptic world would be more believable than one ostensibly based on the real world.

      It’s funny you say that. Being an independent critic who has written more than a few heretical pieces, I felt obligated to give this game a 4/10. It would’ve been great; it would’ve been 2,000 words long and made no sense whatsoever. Instead I went on for over 10,000 words about why it’s so great. Sorry, I’ll do better next time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the single greatest achievement of this game is how it was able to look at other Open World games and not only incorporate aspects of them into its own but also remove anything unnecessary, the most important part it that it allows you to get lost and find the way forward by yourself. Where as other open worlds litter your map with collectables, side missions and what not, the area map only gives you that, the area, filling it comes to you alone. It’s not only the map, missions require you to investigate and solve riddles, not go from waypoint to waypoint listening to unending dialogue, all of that and more is what makes this game succeed over the whole Open World genre is that it actually uses its setting with purpose, to let you explore.

    Sometimes removal is key, the low presence of the narrative and characters goes a long way to give the world the melancholic if upbeat sense it exist in it’s environment, the limit to weapons accentuates the fact that you have to be smart about your resources, just like a real post apocalyptic place would demand out of a person, honestly the demands the detractors make out of this game are just asking for a much less interesting experience.

    Speaking of the detractors, I’ve seen myriad of arguments about this game but even calling the shrines repetitive is quite the stretch, artistically yes, but in content far from it, even the ones that are just a single room require you to navigate labyrinths, solve riddles or complete a sidequest, the survival shrine at the far southwest of the map far outdoes what I’ve seen in any other open world game in recent memory.

    Now that you’re done with Zelda I guess we’d have to wait a good while for the itch for that type of action adventure game to be satiated, in the meantime can I suggest that you check out Okami? That’s THE game that has been the most closely associated with the Zelda series after all.

    Like

    • I think this is a game that really benefitted from an outsider’s perspective. They managed to examine what didn’t work while adding the series’ trademark personality to the proceedings. So while Assassin’s Creed would force players to go on tailing missions, Breath of the Wild says “Hey, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to”. For that matter, it’s the only game in the series I felt implemented a gearless level well. That’s because they reduced it to what it should have been all along – an optional challenge stage. Plus, with the emphasis on stealth and abstract puzzle solving, a gearless stage was a logical challenge to implement. In a lot of ways, I consider Breath of the Wild the game Metal Gear Solid V tried and failed to be. There’s not a single eavesdropping mission, repeat shrine made slightly more difficult, or any other trace of blatant filler to be found. Sure, gathering materials can get a little annoying, but it’s ultimately not worth complaining about.

      That’s what I like about this world, it’s melancholic, but it’s not completely hopeless. It’s a much more mature take on the post-apocalyptic genre than its contemporaries. Some people complained about the breakable weapons, but I didn’t mind at all; it really added to the environment’s “sink or swim” atmosphere.

      You know, as a critic, I try to make a legitimate effort to see where detractors might be coming from, but Breath of the Wild is one of those rare instances in which I found myself drawing a complete blank. It’s to the point where I’m actively wondering if they even played the same game I played (and if they did, did they even give it a chance to settle). At least one detractor felt the game came across as an incomplete mess, which is just flat-out inaccurate. Metal Gear Solid V was an incomplete mess (albeit through no fault of Kojima’s); Breath of the Wild is one of the few open-world games I’ve played that comes across as a complete, coherent experience. I remember playing Assassin’s Creed IV only to zone out during the cutscenes; no such thing happened when I played Breath of the Wild. Again, assuming they’re 100% correct about most of the shines being filler, it still leaves us with more good levels than entire franchises have. Plus, there’s what you pointed out in that the challenge of the “blessings” shrines involves reaching them. There’s something to be said for the fact that critics were somewhat burned out on open-world games while still declaring Breath of the Wild one of the greatest games ever made. After playing it, I could see why – there’s much more effort put in this game than in every other open-world title I’ve played so far.

      I did try out Okami in the past, but I have to admit it didn’t grab me. Maybe I’ll try again soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a problem with the shrines that only have combats in them. I do not, however, have any sort of complaints regarding the shrines where you get an orb as soon as you walk into them, because – in all of those cases – the finding and the uncovering of such shrines were the puzzles themselves. They had just been taken out of the underground buildings and into the overworld. Also, I fully agree with your take on the weapons’ short durability.

    Like you mentioned a couple of comments above, I think Nintendo was able to take an outsider’s look at the open-world phenomenon and analyze what was good and bad about it. I haven’t played as many open-world adventures as most gamers, but, from the few I have experienced, I can tell they did a pretty excellent job at maximizing what works and minimizing – if not eliminating – what doesn’t.

    I don’t think Breath of the Wild is without its problems: I wish a few pre-dungeon segments had been meatier; and I would have loved for the dungeons to have a better architectural design. Still, it comes off as such an impressive achievement that I find it hard not to see it as the best Zelda game ever released. And, given those two problems can easily be circumvented in future releases, and since I am pretty sure the next Zelda game will also take the open-world route, I find myself very excited for what is to come next.

    Anyway, excellent analysis and it was quite a nice journey going through all these Zelda games guided by your excellent writing. Keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to admit I didn’t mind the combat shines so much because it made material hunting and weapon gathering a little easier, but I get why they were disliked. You’re right though – people shouldn’t have been complaining about the “blessings” shrines because the challenge lied in reaching them (though I remember a few cases in which I was expecting one only for it to turn out to have a puzzle or miniboss fight in it).

      The poor weapon durability may have been a legitimate complaint… except that System Shock 2 was similar in that regard and it gets far less heat for it. You can repair weapons in System Shock 2 unlike in Breath of the Wild, but then again, you can also get what is basically an indestructible weapon in the latter, so it wins in that regard.

      Breath of the Wild is the kind of game there should be more of – seeing an outsider’s take on a familiar genre is always fascinating to me. When it comes to open-world games, I only really had Assassin’s Creed IV, Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4, and Metal Gear Solid V under my belt, and I firmly believe Breath of the Wild sweeps them all without breaking a sweat.

      That’s fair enough, I remember being slightly disappointed that the Zoras’ scenario was very intricately designed only for most of the later ones to be more abridged, but ultimately it didn’t detract from the experience at all. Also, I didn’t mind the architectural design of the dungeons. Sure, they get a little samey after awhile, but I think the actual puzzle design shines through. I am curious to see what they come up with for the next Zelda installment.

      Thanks! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed all of these reviews! It wasn’t easy, but well worth the effort.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The same happened to me. I did the Zora dungeon first, and I ended up feeling like the pre-dungeon material of the others was just not as fleshed out. I remember being especially disappointed with how little Link has to do to get into the Rito dungeon.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: August 2018 in Summary: The Zelda Retrospective is Complete! | Extra Life

  7. Excellent review. There aren’t many blog posts that I am willing to read for thirty minutes, but you pulled it off. As per a previous comment, I have decided to give the game another shot and am enjoying it more. The last time I played Link reached Kakariko Village. Looks like I will have to start earning cash for upgrades because I am getting crushed in combat. Flimsy shields and the inability to roll mean that Dark Souls tactics don’t work on these enemies. Thank goodness that you get a bow early in this game.

    I thought the temperature penalties and destructible weapons would get annoying, but they haven’t bugged me thus far. Weapon drops are plentiful and you can’t carry many arms so when one breaks I don’t get too bummed out. Keeping warm in the early section was neat. It makes the world feel real, unlike some other sandboxes that are just one big map.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh wow, I’m honored that I managed to provide you with one of your exceptions. Thanks!

      Yeah, I was taken aback when it turned out there was indeed a currency system. I forgot for a second that Rupees even existed; you can’t simply find them (or hearts) by cutting down grass. Your biggest source of money is going to result from selling gemstones, though try to hold on to at least a few – they can be used in a crafting system. Oh, this game wouldn’t have worked if you obtained the bow as late as you do in Skyward Sword (in which you have to clear roughly 75% of the game before you get it).

      I know what you mean. I think it’s because in older installments, you would be waiting for the game to hand out what you need to survive harsh environments while in Breath of the Wild, you need to be proactive in obtaining them. Also, a lot of people complained about the breakable weapons, but in all honesty, they never bothered me because, as you say, they’re so plentiful. It’s not like System Shock 2 where a gun wears out in a matter of seconds and you often have to make do with the inexplicably indestructible wrench. And you have a good point there; a lot of open-world games from what I’ve seen come across as exceptionally large video game levels whereas Breath of the Wild feels like a living, breathing world. It’s also one of the few post-apocalyptic works in this decade to have an actual heart to it. I hope creators in other mediums are taking notes because they could learn a thing or two from this game.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on The Otaku Judge and commented:
    Red Metal’s extensive coverage of the Zelda series has convinced me to give Breath of the Wild another chance. It will be nice to go on another adventure with Link, after all these years. Back in the day I had a grand time completing Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. In recent years however I have shunned the series due to its use of clunky stylus/motion controls.

    Breath of the Wild is very different to the Zelda titles of yore. It’s a big open world with a big emphasis on survival. Gone are the days when money would literally grow on trees (um bushes.) Foraging is required to make an income and health restorative meals. Wish me luck guys. I don’t have a good track record of finishing open world games. Often I’ll neglect the story in favour of exploration… something I am sure Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim fans can relate to.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve been dying to check out Breath of the Wild- and honestly, I don’t think I’ve been more excited about a Zelda game coming out that this in quite some time.

    I’m glad to hear that the tone still stays true to Zelda while branching out into other area and mechanics. I love some post-apocalyptic and dire circumstances, but I’ve never felt that dark times in Zelda games brought the tone into dismal levels. I’m really glad to hear this remains in BotW.

    Someday, I’ll get to check it out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You weren’t the only one who was excited. I remember attempting to get a copy of this game on launch day only to learn that they had all sold out at the store closest to where I worked. I couldn’t even remember the last time something like that happened.

      Breath of the Wild is post-apocalyptic, but it definitely stays true to itself, offering a dark premise that never becomes dismal. Turns out optimism really counts for a lot when it comes to forging a unique identity.

      Hope you enjoy it when you finally get around to it!

      Like

  10. Great article. This was an incredible game in a year of incredible games. It really did expose the limitations of other games. After playing BoTW, I was continually frustrated with the invisible boundaries and unclimbable walls of Horizon Zero Dawn, which I still considered a great game. BotW is an amazing achievement, even taking into account how consistently innovative and high quality the series has always been.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 2017 was indeed a great year for games, and even then Breath of the Wild managed to stand out. It really is a marvelous technical achievement in how it lets players explore. In an ordinary game, cliffs would form impassible barriers. In Breath of the Wild, there’s nothing stopping you from straight-up climbing them. A lot of things in Breath of the Wild succeed in making other open-world games feel incomplete by comparison; there was just clearly much more effort put into it than in many of its contemporaries. More than that, despite switching to an open-world format, the experience is surprisingly focused. It’s not other open-world games in which the story never becomes too deep due to being essentially just another quest for the players to complete. And while I would often zone out during cutscenes in Assassin’s Creed, I found myself actively enjoying the ones in Breath of the Wild because they’re short and to-the-point, enhancing a story that was already good. I know some fans who wouldn’t agree, but I firmly believe Breath of the Wild to be one of the greatest games of the decade.

      Thanks for reading! I’m really glad you enjoyed it that much.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Completely agree. In fact, I bought the Switch almost exclusively to experience Breath of the Wild. And I am 100% glad I did!

        It’s rare to find such a thoroughly in-depth review, so thanks for this effort!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: A Zelda Retrospective Addendum: The Series Ranked from Worst to Best | Extra Life

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