Nintendo blew up Zelda and rearranged the pieces in bite-sized chunks perfect for an open journey of discovery.
After falling in love with Ocarina of Time in 1998 but failing to engage with any Zelda after, Breath of the Wild did the impossible and made me feel like a kid again. I cannot overstate the exhilarating sense of discovery and wonder produced here.
Moving the franchise to 3D was extremely well-done but never fully recaptured the sense of exploration found in the original Zelda for the NES. A game that dropped you in the wild without a tutorial or even a weapon. The brutally slow tutorials of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword were enough to keep me from their highlights.
Breath of the Wild’s opening sets you free immediately, pausing for just long enough to take in a landscape begging to be explored. By the time I got to the safe haven of a stable several hours later, I was eager to sit by the fire, chat with the locals, and cook/trade my spoils of battle.
One of the biggest changes to the Zelda formula was moving away from critical items earned in dungeons. Previous incarnations unlocked the boomerang, hookshot, bow, etc in a linear order. This provided a sense of progression and allowed you to backtrack to previously inaccessible areas, but BotW was wise to ditch this formula for the open-world format.
Locking the player to the Great Plateau for the opening few hours serves as a fun tutorial while still remaining open, albeit on a smaller scale. Every skill needed to solve every Shrine is earned before getting your hands on the Glider and being set free. This gives the player true freedom to stumble across any Shrine in the land and successfully complete it.
BotW trades the 8+ Dungeons of old for 4 Divine Beasts and 100+ Shrines. While the Beasts and Shrines are much smaller than traditional Zelda Dungeons, this works perfectly with the open-world concept. Players can choose bite-sized portions to complete, breaking up the gameplay loop anytime they wish and avoiding a player getting stuck for hours on any one task. Shrine giving you grief? Simply warp out and pick another of the almost countless activities to complete.
One of the game’s greatest achievements is demanding the player be engaged with the environment. BotW rewards paying attention by limiting the amount of information on the map until its discovery and including a large amount of secrets. See a peculiar rock? That could be a charming Korok waiting to give you a seed for winning this round of hide-and-seek. Those seeds can be traded for valuable inventory space. Even if climbing to the top of a peak grants no item or secret, the view from above will definitely reveal another point of interest worth heading towards or marking on your map for later.
The visual style is a blend of Wind Waker’s expressive cartoon look mixed with a painterly impressionist feel that perfectly captures the beautiful landscapes surrounding you at every point. The characters have a Studio Ghibli charm and the game covers a wide range of colors and tones as you explore environments ranging from icy cold to burning hot.
The performance is the weakest link. I’m playing on a Wii U and frame rate dips are common but for the most part do not tarnish the experience. There was one instance with a screen full of large enemies and environmental effects that actually ground the game to a halt for a few seconds. This occurred just once and only in that area.
Overall, it seems a fair tradeoff to crank out an awe-inspiring world of beauty on a console that was considered under-powered back in 2012. Despite these hiccups, I can fully recommend playing on a Wii U.
The lack of difficulty could also be a deterrent to some. Although there are tough enemies and at least one boss battle that feels Souls-lite, the ability to spam heart-replenishing meals is over-powered. There is a limit to how much food you can carry at a time, but with proper preparations, you shouldn’t have a problem getting through the toughest enemies.
Nintendo could remedy this by capping how much food you can consume per hour/day, or having the health replenish slowly rather than instantly.
The combat system is good, but also a little shallow. The Lynel I encountered early on was a wonderfully difficult challenge, but boiled down to performing the same dodge and flurry strike a dozen times. The animations were similar and it felt tedious. Perhaps the flurry strike could be expanded to appear more visually interesting or limited in effectiveness to demand the player switch up their strategy to match the enemy’s offense.
Arrows are also very powerful, especially with later bows that can fire 3 arrows while strangely only consuming one. I didn’t mind this however as I like thinking of Link as a smaller hero who must use his wits and tricks to fall the many goliaths.
My last point of criticism is directed towards the voice acting. While I’m glad to hear fully voiced cut scenes, the performances often feel uneven and forced. Whether that’s a result of the casting, writing, or translation is up for debate, but the end product doesn’t consistently match the polish of the rest of the game.
Those flaws are mere annoyances in a modern masterpiece. After weeks of play I thought about turning on my ignored PS4, thinking I might be approaching Zelda burnout. Within minutes of choosing the Wii U instead, I was wrapped in the meditative joy and wonder that BotW amazingly continued to provide.
Overall I would recommend this game to just about any gamer, and especially those that feel they’ve out-grown the series. I haven’t felt this way about a game in years, and can’t wait to see where Nintendo takes the franchise next.