Publisher/Developer: Nintendo / NEPD
Release Date: 03.03.2017
Played: Nintendo Switch
Being late to the party is generally seen as a disadvantage: The nicest morsels have been picked off the buffet, the cool people have left for their private afterparty and the remaining few are drunk to the bone, muttering incomprehensibly. Given the current state of gaming though, being late to the party is often inevitable, as there is too much content being published, unless you really want to narrow yourself to one special interest. Even if you do, there can sometimes be too much on your plate and the open-world adventure genre surely is no exception to that, with studios being eager to promise players ever vaster worlds and ever more to do in them. For this reason, this review of Breath of the Wild, Nintendo’s latest main entry in the eternal Legend of Zelda series is almost four years too late. The reviewer didn’t even possess a Switch when it came out, so in a sense this is the second party to which I’m inexplicably delayed. With the lockdown in place and the responsibilities from studying ebbing and the responsibilities from working only on the horizon, I finally had time to confront the widely praised adventure that’s set 100 years after the calamity, a catastrophic event that left Hyrule in ruins.
Why not kill the final boss right away?
Link’s sure had a good night’s shuteye when he finally wakes up lying on a bed in a shrine after a mere 100 years. Also, he seems to be suffering from memory loss, being oblivious to the world around him and its rather sad predicament. It takes a small, neatly self-contained tutorial to mostly get him and the player up to speed, with a mysterious old man doing much of the necessary explaining. We’re also familiarized with the Sheikah slate and its rather impressive set of powers that include freezing and magnetizing objects and snapping pictures, it’s basically a slightly modified smartphone, just like the console, ironically. After that, off we go, exploring Hyrule on our own, free to roam wherever we want. Breath of the Wild is the first game in the series with a true open world concept, but it plays well, with no fixed level barriers and other impediments. If you walk somewhere and feel a little underpowered, well, maybe you should just try gaining some more hearts and better armour, but there’s nothing in theory preventing you from trying your luck with difficult enemies right away. In fact, as speedrunners speedily noticed, there’s nothing preventing from engaging the game’s final boss equipped with nothing more than a tree branch. Even though you can do this, there’s plenty that can and should be done beforehand to allow you to fully enjoy the game’s rich, immersive world.
You can hunt, gather minerals, go rafting, climbing or swimming or lend a helping hand to Hyrule’s colourful cast of talking birds, men-shunning amazons and heat-proof stone people by completing various sidequests. Most essentially though, you liberate the inhabitants from divine beasts, massive machines originally conceived for the defense of Hyrule from Ganon that have now been infested by him. There’s a total of four divine beasts, one for each of Hyrule’s peoples and these take on the role of the traditionally more extensive dungeons in this iteration of the series. For gaining entry, you first need to complete a moderately long series of quests in the particular region, but once you’re in, you won’t be spending all too long. I personally enjoyed the required puzzling, though the mini-boss fights lacked a bit of variability. For more seasoned Zelda veterans, the beast sessions might feel a little short.
Puzzling and cooking
In lieu of traditional dungeons, there’s also shrines: Small, separate underground puzzles spread all over the map, some to be found by mere exploring and some to be activated by competing in various challenges. While generally short and exhibiting little visual variance, I still enjoyed the shrine gameplay a lot: The puzzles make nice use of the Sheikah slate, requiring the player to creatively apply magnetism and the time-freeze ability to solve neat, little brain teasers that hit the sweet spot between difficult and easy. Completing the shrine grants a spirit orb, four of which can be traded in for additional hearts or stamina. On top, there’s also a strong supply of weapons and rare items, making a visit doubly worth your while.
Speaking of weapons, combat in BotW is generally varied and lots of fun: Enemies can be attacked from behind, granting sneak boni, bombed, shot at with different arrows (among which flame and ice) or generally butchered in melee combat, using one- or two-handed weapons. Enemies come in a similarly wide variety, featuring classics from the series that are satisfying to fight against. Almost all weapons break eventually, and while some might complain that this happens too often, I actually found the mechanism well balanced, gently forcing me to be open to changing my playing style ever so often and to be on the lookout for new gear. When you’re not looking for weapons, you’ll find yourself on the hunt for ingredients: BotW’s cooking system allows you to experiment wildly with combining foodstuffs and medicinal ingredients to create all manner of different consumables. These allow you to enter regions with adverse weather conditions or provide additional buffs, though it’s worth noting that the system loses some of its appeal due the fact that buffs do not stack and that later stages of the game provide you with items that help you stay warm or cold, depending on the region, thereby obviating the need for cooking.
BotW’s story is mostly told via flashbacks, the majority of which are optional and triggered by the player identifying the place in the world where a picture was taken. The narrative centers on the run-up to the foundational catastrophe, detailing how Hyrule’s defenders felt the strain of preparing for Ganon’s attack. Princess Zelda is the story’s tragic hero, almost breaking from the desperation of failing to meet the expectations everyone has for her. This makes for a very compelling and touching story. One minor drawback is the fact that the world doesn’t change after completing the main story: Apart from a cutscene, you don’t get to see much for saving Hyrule. However, it still feels very satisfying to help to save the souls of those who couldn’t quite save Hyrule when the attack began. Additionally, there’s still much exploring to do after the main story has been finished, so especially completionists can get a lot of bang for their buck, finding all the shrines and improving Link’s stats further to deal with powerful foes.
Breath of the Wild is an impressive game, marrying a lively, richly imagined world to a satisfying core gameplay loop. It presents the deepest, most extensive re-imagining of Hyrule yet, deftly exploiting existing lore and background to both cater to series veterans and easily allow newcomers to feel at home. Sporting a polished artstyle and a great geographical diversity with hills, plains, mountains and sea, it also pleases the eye. While its final boss fight feels a bit anticlimactic, its world will still matter deeply to you after playing.
9/10 Nearly perfect