To be fair, I was never really a big fan of The Legend of Zelda series. I was too young for the S/NES games, and never owned the N64 games. Couldn’t get through The Wind Waker fully, and only watched my sister play Twilight Princess because I only got frustrated playing it myself. I think you get the gist of what I’m trying to say: I simply didn’t really care about these games.
And I feel like all of that changed with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The mainline Legend of Zelda games have always been known to follow something called “The Zelda Formula”, which no one really seems to know in detail or agree on what it means. Personally, I find it the sequence of events that the games have you follow:
- Find out the world is in danger
- Explore dungeons to get new items
- Do some really annoying collection quest (looking at you, Wind Waker)
- Tackle final boss once you build up your arsenal
And most of the time, the dungeons were to be done in a specific order, due to story reasons. Although the basic underlying structure of the games remained static, each game in the series did bring something new to the table, such as sailing between islands in The Wind Waker or the flying mechanics in Skyward Sword. Even with the high quality gameplay and absurd critical acclaim (The 10th best game in the series scores a 92 on Metacritic), people were getting the nagging feeling that things were getting a little stale.
Outside of the Zelda series, it seemed like the gaming industry had entered an open-world renaissance. Although it’s a bit hard to pin-point when it exactly started, a typical highly-anticipated AAA game for the past few years would have had some sort of open-world aspect. To name a few:
- Fallout 4
- Far Cry 4
- No Man’s Sky (Yes I know this isn’t a AAA game)
- Metal Gear Solid V
- Final Fantasy XV
But open-world games had the distinguishing flaw that there just wasn’t enough stuff to do in the world you played in. MGSV and FFXV had vast stretches of barren land where all you could do is look at the environment. This is usually not a problem if there were contrasting landscapes that made it interesting for the players to roam around in, or gameplay mechanics that allowed players to do more than follow a road to a destination. But for unknown reason, developers always had some issue with building out a world that was large, but also fun to play around in.
These two high-level points were what the development team had in mind when sketching out Breath of the Wild. In interviews, the series producer, Eiji Aonuma had specifically stated that “rethink the conventions of Zelda” for this new game back in 2013.
And that’s exactly what they were able to do with the game release. After a 5 year development time, Breath of the Wild was complete, filled to the brim with content, and sported features that were never seen in a past Zelda game. Characters were voice acted for the first time, weapons now have durability, and the game went truly open-world, with the choice to skip over entire story segments if desired.
A lot of critics are saying that Breath of the Wild has redefined the open-world genre, and I will have to agree with those statements. The game addresses weaknesses that have been exhibited in other open-world games, while enhancing what made them great in the first place.
To start, the sheer scale of what the devs were able to build is something we’ve never seen before in a Zelda game. The world of Hyrule is at an astronomical scale compared to previous games, along with the added benefit that the game is able to run without loading between zones (if you’re not fast travelling).
But as we know with other open-world games, size isn’t everything. We’ve definitely seen big maps fail the game in the past (No Man’s Sky?), and it does not correlate with a great game. It’s how the devs are able to fill in the map with interesting landscapes and actual things to do that determine if the world is good or not. And Nintendo does not fail to deliver.
The land of Hyrule is filled with NPCs, outposts, and vistas that will keep even the most casual player occupied for a lengthy period of time. All of these feel as if they were designed by humans and not procedurally generated that so many other games suffer from. To give some personal examples, there are just so many instances where I thought to myself “holy shit” while playing due to what I was seeing:
- Stepping out of the starting look at looking at the Hyrule landscape for the first time
- Seeing the Divine Beast crawl around on Death Mountain
- Running into one of the dragons flying through the sky at night
All of these examples were things I simply was not expecting from the game and it really helped in getting immersed into the world of Hyrule.
But the environment is not all that’s important. A world is also populated with NPCs and people to interact with. Talking to characters actually feel like you’re having a conversation with someone, instead of them reading a scripted answer. The characters of Hyrule don’t always recognize you for who you are, and that’s a good thing. This allows for a much richer and diverse set of dialogue between the NPCs and strays for away from the repetitive and predictable scripts we have seen in the past. The game is set up so that you don’t feel like the whole world revolves around you.
The immersion is not only through dialogue, but with certain gameplay elements as well. As you travel through the world of Hyrule, you will most likely run into little sidequests, shrines, hidden Korok Seed puzzles, and even NPCs (that acknowledge the rarity of the event!) that are travelling across the world.
Each region of Hyrule feels distinct, and the landscapes are varied enough that you should be able to navigate your way across the world without the use of a map. Each skyline was meticulously molded and shaped in such a way that you can just spend hours looking down at the fields on top of mountains.
Cities are fairly rare, but they are a welcoming sight once you spot one. There are distinct races of characters that live in each city, with their own architecture, city layout, musical theme and even speech dialect. Due to the scale of the map, you really do feel like a traveler that’s taking a break with the locals.
Now, if there was one thing to gripe about in this game, it’s 100% with the music. I’m not saying that the music is bad, the music is absolutely incredible with nods to previous themes (the credits song is my favorite from the soundtrack), but it’s all gone to waste because there is no real music while you’re exploring Hyrule. All your exploration is done with the environmental ambiance, and the music only kicks in if you’re in a city, a battle, or a shrine. But even when those tracks play, there are no variations on the tracks, it’s the same song that you’ll hear over and over again.
The lack of music throughout the game really sticks out like a sore thumb, and is honestly a tragedy that prevented it from granting a perfect score in this section.
Now, world-building is only half of an open-world game, there needs to be an equal amount of gameplay mechanics that can complement it. Breath of the Wild polishes on some of the core Zelda mechanics that we have seen in the past, adds some new ones, and definitely does not hold back with the amount of things you can do. That’s not to say that the game invents new mechanics that we’ve never seen before, but it does take heavy inspiration from existing open-world games.
Equipment have gone through a major overhaul, with a durability meter being added to main-hand weapons, shields and bows. What this means is that your equipment will eventually break and will disappear from your inventory. Although not a huge fan of this change, it does add another layer to your preparation for journeys. It also allows for a wider range of equipment as there may be random enhancements applied to loot, such as high durability or upgrade in stats.
The battles have also gone through some major changes. Heart containers have been completely removed from battles, and the only way to regain hearts is through fairies, eating food, or resting at an inn. Combined with this is a significant ramp up in battle difficulty, where most things will straight up kill you instantly if you’re not prepared. You can definitely feel the inspirations they took from the Dark Souls series, as combat has slowed down a bit, and there is more emphasis on parrying, dodging and counters. Enemies are actually terrifying in the early-game; I died to guardians instantly during the first few 20 hours of my experience, and was only able to take one on after a fair amount of preparation.
Cooking is another great layer of gameplay that has been added; Hyrule now contains a plethora of items that you can use for meal ingredients, either through gathering or from killing monsters and collecting their parts. Meal recipes are figured out through experimentation or through random recipe posters posted in Hyrule. Eating meals not only provide hearts, but can give temporary stat boosts as well, such as elemental resistance, extra hearts/stamina, movement speed, and more.
Link’s armors have changed significantly as well, with it being broken down into head, chest and leg pieces. Each type of armor provides a different value of defense, an optional elemental resistance, and can even provide protection from extreme heat or cold which can be an issue in different parts of the map. On top of that, each piece can be upgraded through a mechanic similar to Monster Hunter, where you will use monster parts to make stronger armor. Finally, the game has a set mechanic where if you wear armor from a single set in all three of your slots, it will provide an extra bonus attribute.
All of the above contribute in some way if you plan on undertaking a journey in Hyrule, and provide the preparation, loot, crafting processes create a fun cycle that never gets boring.
Most of these features are access through a new tool called the Sheikah Slate which provides the basic fuctionalities: a map, inventory management and quest tracking. It also has some quality of life features that make your journey less arduous, such as being able to put stamps on places of interests, fast-travel, and the ability to track items that you want to look for.
Dungeons have been reworked as well, with them being completely optional. Although it is highly recommended by the game that you clear them, you can skip them entirely if you wish. Getting to them is a trial on its own, as they are placed in completely different biomes that have its unique challenges. I personally found the journey more fun than the dungeon itself, as all of them felt a bit copy-pasted and similar in the puzzles.
On a higher-level, there are tons of things to do that are littered across Hyrule: shrines provide a mini-dungeon experience that reward you with spirit orbs (which you can exchange for extra Heart Containers or Stamina Vessels), little puzzles that provide Korok Seeds, and mini-boss encounters that rival the actual bosses in the game. These fill in the otherwise empty portions of your journey to save Hyrule.
The requirements to 100% complete the game have changed from the past as well. There is a compendium in-game that you need to fill out with pictures of weapons, monsters and bosses (you have a camera to take pictures). There are also other prereqs, such as the 120 shrines and 900 Korok seeds that you need to collect. It does seem a bit overkill, but it does encourage exploration instead of fast-travelling everywhere and provides a way to burn some time before the DLC hits if you’ve already gone through the main quest.
The physics engine that the game runs on along with all the interaction logic is just magical. I don’t want to go into a gushing rant about all the cool things that happened to me so far, but here’s a very shortlist:
- Hitting my horse by accident when trying kill an enemy, he kicks me and kills me
- Throwing my sword at a monster by accident, it picks it up and runs away
- Killing myself with my own bombs
It’s just amazing to have something happen that you wouldn’t expect to be coded into a video game. Part of the experience is just fooling around with the different objects and see what interactions you get out of it.
Overall, everything just feels really good in Breath of the Wild. Even the smallest things like climbing a rock wall, gliding through the air with your paraglider, or riding through the fields of Hyrule on a horse, just feels intuitive and fluid. I feel like where most games take a compromise on quantity vs quality, Nintendo was able to implement both and provide a fulfilling, fun experience for the gamers.
The story in Breath of the Wild is what you want to make out of it.
That usually doesn’t bode too well for a game, but this is the truth. The intro cutscene lasts a quick minute, and you’re thrown straight into the game. No backstory on how Link ended up in the Shrine of Resurrection or exposition from other characters.
A couple more minutes later, you find out that you are playing as Link one hundred years after a Calamity Ganon has taken over Hyrule, who has also suffered from a form of amnesia. The game introduces a mechanic which allows you to regain parts of your memory as you travel around Hyrule.
Piecing together the rest of the story is solely up to the player at this point (although some of the main quests do give you memories) and the majority of the story is technically optional due to how the game is set up. Although this provides a great freedom of choice, and most of the dedicated players will go through the whole story, it can also set up a very unlucky player for an uninteresting playthrough if they somehow miss all the characters and quests they’re supposed to do.
Even if you do manage to collect all of Link’s memories and go through all the story segments, the game doesn’t really provide good closure or explanation for everything. Every story point barely scrapes by with details to keep the game going; it feels as if they tried to connect two points in time with the bare minimum to keep the story coherent. This is truly a big shame because the game had done such a wonderful job setting up the world of Hyrule along with all the characters that live inside.
But perhaps that is the hidden merit of Breath of the Wild; the world that surrounds the story is constructed so beautifully that it causes the player to beg for just a little more to keep them engrossed. I personally found myself wanting more of the lore once the game ended, and wouldn’t mind additional content in the future that will allow the player to explore more of the lore.
Nintendo has revitalized the series with Breath of the Wild, taking some of most innovative ideas in the gaming industry and polishing them to the highest degree. I’m glad that Nintendo is able to uphold the quality of the series while experimenting with new ideas. No game is perfect however, and I feel the faults that exist could have easily been addressed and would have made for a better experience.
Don’t let that deter you though, Breath of the Wild is a genre-changer with its incredible world-building and pacing of gameplay, and will provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience to players.