After discussing The Legend of Zelda series with so many people over the years, one opinion I’ve heard repeatedly goes like this: all Zelda games are essentially the same thing every time. While I’ve vehemently argued against this view—because seriously, there’s a lot of variety from one Zelda title to the next—it is true that the basic hero’s journey through Hyrule has maintained a fairly uniform structure since the halcyon days of the Super Nintendo.
The formula goes something like this: explore area, enter dungeon, get new tool, defeat boss, use tool access new area, repeat. There’s more nuance to it, of course, but you could break down much of the overall Zelda experience into those five component parts. While the original Legend of Zelda on the NES featured much more exploration than any other aspect, later Zelda titles have leaned more towards a structured path and lore-filled storytelling. This has actually made a lot of sense, since Zelda dungeon puzzles have become increasingly clever and more impressive over the years.
By 2011’s Zelda: Skyward Sword for the Wii, the developers’ focus on puzzles and storytelling somewhat backfired on them. Though filled with satisfying puzzles and some genuinely clever uses of the Wii MotionPlus controls, the game seemed to hold the player’s hand quite a bit, guiding them from objective to objective the whole way. Despite allowing Link to literally fly—soaring through the clouds on his trusty bird companion—Skyward Sword contained almost no exploration whatsoever. Areas between dungeons were themselves more puzzles to solve, which was interesting enough to work through, but gave the player no freedom to wander.
I have to wonder then if Nintendo’s motivation to shake up the Zelda formula came from their Skyward Sword’s missteps. Hell, even though 2013’s A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS was a direct sequel to the SNES classic A Link to the Past, it afforded players more choice and exploration than many Zelda titles that came before it. Most of the weapons/tools in ALBW can be rented or purchased at anytime, allowing for the dungeons to be completed in whatever order the player wants to tackle them.
Enter Breath of the Wild.
Suddenly my assertion that all Zelda games aren’t really the same gets a gigantic slap in the face by the first one in 30 years that truly feels different. Nintendo’s latest entry in the Zelda series breaks so many conventions of the series’ formula, it could easily have been an original IP. And yet, in many ways, it feels more like the original Zelda than any of its sequels to date.
Essentially Breath of the Wild is about the adventure of pure exploration. This version of Hyrule is massively huge—seriously, I can’t overstate how f#$king enormous the game's environment is—and traversing the landscape itself is really core to the gameplay. The world is also stunningly gorgeous, thanks to Nintendo's pitch-perfect art direction. Much like Windwaker delivered an incredible cell-shaded look, BOTW truly nails its own aesthetic by balancing cartoonish simplicity and realistic detail, a killer combo that often times looks like a moving watercolor. More importantly though, the visuals remain steadfastly consistent throughout the game, thus adding to the level of immersion for the player to get lost in.
Instead of the tried-and-true series of deviously designed dungeons to conquer, BOTW breaks most of it’s puzzin’ down to bite-sized challenges called “shrines”. The 120 shrines strewn about the mountainous countryside (many of them cleverly hidden) are reminiscent of the Shinto shrines one can find all over Japan. Except of course, in this case, you’re not there to make an offering. The puzzles (or combat challenges) contained within each shrine are unique, so they don’t feel like padding to game's length the way they might in other (cough, cough, Assassin’s Creed! cough) open-world games. And after the initial tutorial section, the shrines are 100% optional—like pretty much everything in this game is!
Speaking of that tutorial at the beginning, it’s done so flawlessly, the introduction to the gameplay so natural, that it doesn’t even feel like you're being guided. Then once you have the paraglider and the invisible training wheels come off, it’s truly startling how open-ended the game is. Climbing to highest point you can and then gliding down to cover huge stretches at a time is genuinely lovely gameplay mechanic. And again, Hyrule is huge, so prepare to get lost, distracted, totally sidetracked, and love every minute of it.
At the beginning of BOTW, simply surviving Hyrule can be a challenge. The game assumes you can figure stuff out for yourself, so it doesn’t hold your hand. It isn’t afraid to kill you. It isn’t afraid to kill you, over and over and over again either. It presents you with a virtual world chockfull of challenges and treasures, then lets you carve your own path.
Since few things are really spelled out to the player, you have to seek out all information—even fairly pedestrian information—for yourself. For example, hidden within this game is a surprisingly robust camp-cooking simulator. The food you cook is the way to replenish hearts this time around. You’ll need to try out a variety of ingredients to craft the most useful 5-ingredient dishes for surviving the moblin-covered landscape. Hopefully a friend can lend you some hints.
Combat, with all the quirks of the in-game physics engine, is crazy fun. In keeping with the "fend for yourself" nature of the game, BOTW doesn’t exactly ramp up the difficulty incrementally as you progress. You can easily encounter bigger, tougher enemies very early on. (And if you do, you should probably just run.) Until you can acquire better armor, stronger weapons, a more durable shield, etc., you’re very likely to be killed. Guardians, the Miyazaki-esque laser-blasting robotic spider tanks, for example, are terrifying harbingers of death when you first encounter them. But these Hylian Daleks will become conquerable as your equipment (and strategy) improves.
Bokoblins, the most common humanoid enemies, come in a variety of colors, equipped with a variety of armaments—from clubs and crude spears to broadswords and...uh, mops (yeah, sometimes). Fighting a group of bokoblins gives you some sense of progression as you might wipe the floor with one group of them, but be overwhelmed by another. (FYI, the white ones are considerably stronger than the others, but drop precious gems when defeated.) The lumbering moblins likewise vary in color and strength, first appearing as monsters too big to fight, but gradually becoming easy to topple once you know the tricks of the trade.
But the best combat comes from the game’s ram-horned, lion-faced warrior centaurs, called Lynels. These badasses provide a challenging fight at any stage of the game. Defeating one requires considerable skill and they're genuinely satisfying to take down.
As astoundingly deep and fun as BOTW is, there are definitely a few things to nitpick about. Enemy-wise, I could have done with less Keese, the Zelda series' stock bat enemies. I've come to feel that bats are the most generic and overused enemies in video games and I'm rather tired of swatting them away. This game ups the ante though with elemental bat variations: Fire Keese, Ice Keese, and—the absolutely f#$king infuriating—Electric Keese. The first Electric Keese I encountered shocked the living hell out of me, causing Link to repeatedly drop my best equipment (Goodbye sword... Goodbye bow...), and nearly killed me four times over. Fairies kept resurrecting me, so I could relive the nightmare, until a tree branch I could grab became my saving grace.
Another minor gripe of mine is the cooking system, which is actually a little too deep. The repetitive actions of cooking ingredients feeling rather cumbersome. Especially when I’m going to cook and re-cook the same recipe over and over, there should be a faster way of doing it.
In fact, I’d say that inventory management is BOTW’s greatest flaw. Menus are clunky and inelegant. Sure, the fact that you literally collect every fruit, bug, eyeball, and other random object you can fit into your elfin pockets probably doesn’t help with the clutter. But equipping different weapons and/or selecting food to eat (to restore health) right in the middle of a battle is especially awkward.
BOTW is first Zelda game to feature voice acting and now you know why. (Zing!) Honestly, I thought the English acting was decent overall, though he four champion’s voice clips that get replayed when those extra abilities recharge is pretty annoying. (“Daruk's Protection is ready to roll!” Thanks brah.) Do yourself a favor and change the spoken language over to Japanese. That’s the way the game is truly meant to sound and you’ll love it, I guarantee.
Perhaps the most annoying feature of the game is how pieces of equipment—I'm talking melee weapons, bows, and shields—degrade very quickly, and then break. I’m sure the developers wanted to force players to improvise with different kinds of weapons, to make sure you didn’t getting too comfortable or complacent, but damn...these things break way too fast. Guys, guys, not every sword needs to perform like it’s made out of glass.
Even with it’s imperfections, Zelda: BOTW is an amazing and all-consuming game. After playing over 115 hours, I still feel compelled to explore the land Hyrule even more. It’s astounding to me that Nintendo could so fundamentally shake up the Zelda formula and still manage to deliver such a legitimately awesome experience. Without hesitation, I'd call BOTW the greatest open-world game I’ve ever played, and it’s certainly one of the best Zelda games too. Whenever you can get your hands on a Switch (or even a Wii U, I suppose) you should definitely play this one.