Played On: Nintendo Wii U
Completion: 17 Heart Pieces, 63 Shrines, 30% Side Quests, 42 Korok Seeds
Game Time: 65 hours
Reviewed By: Joseph Choi
Nintendo really kept us waiting this time around. After the unfortunately disappointing sales of the excellent (in this reviewer's opinion) The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, it was time for series producer Eiji Aonuma to rethink the franchise's direction. In a nod to the very first Legend of Zelda, Nintendo ended up ditching the more linear, dungeon-focused formula of its previous 3D Zelda entries to prioritize a more Western “go anywhere, do anything” philosophy, which could easily have resulted in a Twilight Princess situation of too much empty space, but instead, through some miracle of game design, this radical change birthed one of the most high-quality virtual worlds I've ever experienced.
This major shake-up gives players more freedom of choice. After the introductory segment on the Great Plateau, Link's already got all the basics needed in order to tackle any of the world's challenges. It's even possible to challenge Ganon straight off the bat, if you're a speed-runner or masochist.
The big sacrifice is that long-form dungeons, the highlight of the series, are no longer a main focus. There are four dungeons, each with unique quirks, but fear not – thanks to the whopping 120 Shrines scattered across Hyrule, Breath of the Wild has no shortage of mind-bending puzzles. There are physics-based puzzles, sprawling mini-dungeons as intricate as dungeon floors, tough combat trials against hard-hitting Guardians, and overworld riddles, but each Shrine nets Link a Spirit Orb. Four Spirit Orbs can be traded in for either a Heart Container or a Stamina Wheel upgrade. Also, Shrines function as warp points, making it a breeze to move around Hyrule's many provinces. Some Shrine Quests will also net Link special rewards, like rare weapons or ability-boosting outfits.
What's Old Is New Again... Literally
While it's no Skyward Sword, this new scenario is still pretty epic. Link awakens in a futuristic bed, sans memories. After being gifted the handy Sheikah Slate (basically a touch-screen tablet), he learns that he was placed into a 100-year restorative slumber to save his life after a failed attempt to seal the world-destroying Calamity Ganon. What's more, Princess Zelda has been deadlocked in heated battle with Ganon for the past century. The good news is, it turns out Hylians are pretty long-lived, so many of those alive a century ago are around to help Link and reminisce over the world they lost, making for a melancholy post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Link's quest is to reclaim the four dungeon-sized Divine Beasts from Ganon's control and challenge Ganon himself to a rematch before he overwhelms the long-suffering Princess.
The combat is a synthesis of tried-and-true and brand new series elements. Nintendo made a bold choice here, and that was to make (A) weapons that break very often, which lessens the player's attachment to any one type of weapon or fighting style, and (B) a limited, but expandable, weapon inventory, necessitating heavy arsenal management. One-handed swords allow Link to shield-parry, while many two-handed weapons can break guards and deal serious damage. Spears are great on horseback, and boomerangs can be swung or thrown. Link's archery is also put to the test here, too. I don't think I've ever shot so many arrows in Zelda, and the motion-assisted controls work wonderfully.
Everything the light touches is your sandbox
Aside from Link and Zelda, the real MVP in Breath of the Wild is Hyrule itself. There's no shortage of things to do, hunt, seek out, explore, or encounter. There are also 900 (seriously) hidden Koroks (those forest-dwellers from Wind Waker), who offer Korok seeds that can be traded to up Link's inventories.
Climates come in a wide range here: there's icy mountains, a volcanic crag, deserts, plains, beaches, forests, marshes, and even tropical jungles. For many areas, you'll need to don special equipment, sometimes in addition to meals or elixirs, to withstand the harsh temperatures or weather effects.
Towns aren't huge, but they are well-designed, easy to navigate, and beautifully-rendered. Most NPCs don't have much significant dialogue or character development, but many add a lot of color and flavor to the world. Merchants and travelers along roads will drop hints or lore or buy and sell various items. Side-quests exist but they are fairly simple and offer relatively meager rewards.
No end of fun things to do and discover in Hyrule
Another aspect of the game is unlocking Link's various memories by visiting certain locations to trigger cut-scenes that flesh out his relationship with Zelda. While there are only 12 or so optional spots, finding them is a fun side task, and I can only hope for more memories in the game's DLC.
Crafting elixirs and cooking are fairly simple affairs. Throughout his travels, Link will gather all manner of edible and non-edible ingredients. When you encounter a cooking pot, you'll be able to mix and match items to give you temporary boosts or resistances. You can't get too greedy though, since two different effects will cancel each other out, and each time you eat a dish, the newest status effect replaces the last one.
There's no rush quite like drinking a Hasty potion to speed up your movement, putting on the full Climbing clothing set, and taking on some of Hyrule's highest mountains. Climbing in general is one of my favorite things to do in Breath of the Wild. It's also possible to upgrade the defense of Link's equipment by making donations at Great Fairy Fountains.
Another cool addition is the Amiibo functionality. I especially like using the Wolf Link Amiibo from Twilight Princess HD to help find hidden Shrines, ingredients, and battle lesser enemies. The Super Smash Bros. Link Amiibo reintroduces Link to an old equine friend, and might even net him a familiar set of clothing. Even Wind Waker Amiibos offer unique items. It's all good stuff.
With regards to the music, it's pretty subtle and understated for most of the game, so when the energetic, bombastic themes do kick in, they really stand out. The music changes organically as you enter and exit certain regions. It's a sort of creature comfort, hearing re-imagined themes from Zelda titles long past played on the piano or accordion. And the sound design is definitely one of the game's highlights – it's crisp and clean. The sound of falling rain, Link's movement, and even passing wildlife will draw one deeply into Hyrule. Breath of the Wild is a real treat for the ears.
So close to perfection: a masterpiece with a few caveats
Even with so much going for it, though, Breath of the Wild isn't perfect. It's true that the framerate often dips on both the Wii U and Switch versions of the game. Also, small elements and enemies can pop in sometimes. The Sheikah Sensor makes an extremely annoying beeping sound. The bosses, and even the final boss, are also a bit on the easy side. You can't drop weapons from the quick-equip menu. Finally, the voice acting is decent at best and distracting at worst. But in the big picture, these complaints end up being minor annoyances in an otherwise silky-smooth experience.
In the final analysis, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is such a quality game from top to bottom, it's hard to get too hung-up on the little things. It's a truly gargantuan title, packed with content and unique challenges at every turn. I can see people swapping war stories, alternate puzzle solutions, or sharing hidden Korok locations. Rare is the game where you can fondly recall specific sights and sounds, moments of beauty or creativity that took your breath away, put a smile on your face, and made you aware that you were playing a classic. You might spend ten minutes trying to figure out how to reach a hidden chest in a Shrine and feel it was time well-spent. Just looking back at the many moments I spent in this iteration of Hyrule, I'm already feeling nostalgic and wistful, and ready to return to it.
While I can't say the experience was perfect, I fell absolutely in love with Breath of the Wild, to the point where I had to begrudgingly tear myself away from it to get any work done at all. It's clear the bar has been raised for what is possible within sandbox games, the Legend of Zelda series, and for Nintendo in general.
+ The Witcher 3, I'ma let you finish, but this is one of the most vast and beautiful open-worlds of all time, packed with things to do, collect, climb, and catalog.
+ Many excellent mind-bending environmental puzzles
+ Play the game any way you like - if you think you can do it, chances are you can
+ Fantastic sense of discovery and wonder, with seemingly no end of great ideas
+ Forgiving loading times
- Distracting frame rate drops and in-game slowdown at intense moments and in bad weather
- Less focus on lengthy dungeons, my favorite aspect of Zelda
- Voice acting in general could be better