I have played the opening hours of Breath of the Wild four times now, and every time I tackled the problem of the game’s first snowy mountain differently.
The first time, I ran into the cold, realised my health was quickly dropping, retreated to a warmer area and collected peppers and mushrooms to cook a dish that would provide me with three minutes of basic cold resistance. In nothing but their underwear, Link sprinted straight for the quest location, ignoring all side objectives on a three minute dash. When descending the mountain, I had to run my fastest to warmth, ignoring personal safety and munching food to survive the return trip without another cold resistance meal on hand.
The second time, I cooked a stronger cold resistance meal giving me more time to explore. I scaled a mountain with the intention of viewing an area from above, and was rewarded by an NPC with temperature-resistant clothing because having made it so far into cold territory unclothed was admirable.
The third time, I located a diary explaining a partial recipe for a cold resistance meal. I pieced together the rest, told the diary owner what was missing from his recipe, and he gave me his cold-resistant clothing as a reward.
The fourth time I avoided all of these solutions, scaled the mountain successfully without preparation based on my route, and ultimately found cold-resistant clothing in a treasure chest left behind by the NPC who might, in other circumstances, have granted it to me. His diary explained why he had left it.
When I first learned that Zelda: Breath of the Wild was going to be a non-linear, open world game, I was dubious. After over sixty hours exploring its world, I am sold on the merits of good open world game design in a way I have never really been before.
Hyrule is a world. It’s living, it’s breathing, it’s explorable, and it wants me dead.
I did not expect myself to fall in love with this Zelda the way I did.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a pretty major departure from every 3D console Zelda game that came before it. Gone is the hand-holding tutorial. Gone are the prompts reminding you to pursue the story. Gone is the linear design, with areas gated off by items that need to be collected from specific dungeons in a predetermined order.
Instead, Breath of the Wild drops you into an open world and lets you run loose. There’s four key abilities you’ll need in order to leave the huge starting zone and complete the game, but you’re free to put off collecting them for as long as you like. It can be done in well under an hour, after which the game points you out into the world with a single mini map quest marker. If you ignore it entirely, the game will never prompt you to go head to it.
Rather than collecting bows, boomerangs, sledgehammers, upgraded swords, shields and other standard Zelda staples from dungeons, these items are now harvested naturally in the open world. Kill an enemy? You can pick up their weapon and keep it in your inventory. Each weapon has a unique moveset and attributes, and they’re all just out there in the world for you to earn.
Kill an enemy? You can pick up their weapon and keep it in your inventory.
Of important note, and likely to alarm many, weapons and shields in Breath of the Wild have durability. Use them often enough and they’ll eventually break completely, and there is no way to repair a weapon that has been destroyed.
I was highly sceptical of this aspect going in, and in certain situations I still am, but there is a well-reasoned progression to the degradation system. In the early game, most weapons will break with fairly limited use. This encourages the frequent picking up of new tools, weapon switching, and it encourages an important level of equipment experimentation. As you progress, items found tend to be more durable, and more easily committed to. If you like a specific weapon, you can spend some time grinding specific enemies that wield it in order to fill up your inventory for a while.
Within a couple of hours, I found myself rarely caring about weapon durability at all. The only real annoyance is that during my first few hours with the game shields were not sturdy enough to use as snowboards, which was a shame. Snowboarding had to wait a couple of hours before being viable.
Also new to the Zelda formula is the introduction of survival elements. Hearts hidden in the environment are completely gone, replaced with food used to heal or imbue status buffs. Grab an apple from a tree and it’ll restore half a heart. Cook that apple on an open flame and it’ll restore three quarters of a heart. Hunt a boar for raw meat, cook it up with a pepper and a Hyrule bass to recover five hearts and increase your cold resistance temporarily. None of these cooking combinations are told to you besides occasional vague hints hidden in the world, so a lot of time will be dedicated to collecting resources, attempting to combine them and seeing what you get as a result.
While I am usually not a fan of these kinds of crafting survival systems, resources were plentiful enough in Breath of the Wild that I felt safe experimenting at my leisure without feeling like I had wasted a rare material if I messed something up.
Back when I played a 30-minute demo of Breath of the Wild last year I was critical of the overworld feeling like it was too spread out and empty, but being allowed to explore the world without time constraints I can see the beauty of BOTW’s design that the demo obscured.
Another big change I was dubious about before playing was the alteration to the traditional Zelda dungeon format. In Breath of the Wild there are four somewhat traditional dungeons to be found, which when completed work towards making the overall quest goal more achievable, but most of the traditional dungeon content is now spread out across the world in the form of open-world mini-bosses and 100 mini shrine dungeons.
Open world bosses are not signposted, if you find them they’re just there. You get a nice title for the boss, and a big visible health bar, but you’re welcome to to run away and ignore them entirely. Most of these bosses provide rare resources if defeated, but are not used in any way to gate progression.
Shrine dungeons are largely puzzle-based mini dungeons that reward you by helping you earn health or stamina upgrades. These shrines can vary wildly in difficulty, but largely consist of a set of puzzles on a set theme, a couple of small enemy encounters, and then they’re done.
These shrine dungeons are hidden all over the world and rarely signposted, so it’s up to you to hunt them down and complete them to power Link up. While they’re almost all impeccably well-designed puzzle chambers, there are one or two I think may actually be impossible using the JoyCons due to the movement precision required and the reduced travel distance on the JoyCon analogue sticks. Perhaps they just need a player with better fine motor control than myself.
Ultimately, most of the above changes to the Zelda formula are there to encourage exploration. Back when I played a 30-minute demo of Breath of the Wild last year I was critical of the overworld feeling like it was too spread out and empty, but being allowed to explore the world without time constraints I can see the beauty of BOTW’s design that the demo obscured.
I am over sixty hours into Breath of the Wild. I have only just beaten the main quest, but I still feel like there is a LOT of game left for me to find. I am still finding new things that surprise me. I’m still discovering new weapons. I’m still finding odd inconsistencies in the world and working out how to interact with them in order to earn storage upgrade rewards. I am still learning and discovering.
Breath of the Wild is a huge world, full of secrets, surprises, and challenges. After 60 hours and the main quest completed, I am still constantly thinking about the game and wanting to jump back in to try new things.
I am also still dying. Even after defeating the final boss I still frequently die in combat if I don’t prepare myself properly, and I’m still facing enemies that feel like they dwarf me in strength and ability. This is a damn difficult Zelda game right from the offset, and it kicks your arse mercilessly.
As someone not terribly good at video games, I’m very thankful for this Zelda having a very generous autosave system and no penalty for death. Any death will usually respawn you incredibly close to your last encounter, but far enough to run away in retreat if you decide. Any equipment used up in the fatal encounter will be restored, and you’re free to retry the challenge penalty-free or retreat to safety.
The difficulty in Breath of the Wild ramps up in such a way that I’m still feeling a real sense of accomplishment for combat, and completing the game after all that time felt like an unbelievable accomplishment.
Of course, you could just run from the starting area to the final boss. I’m not good enough to do it, but I’ve already seen unarmed Links in their underwear sprinting from the starting area to the final boss in under 15 minutes. Hooray for open world game design done right. If you know where the final encounter is you should be able to head straight for it. Yeah, I’m annoyedly looking at you, Xenoblade X.
The most obvious narrative change off the bat is the addition of voice acting. The game is not fully voiced, limited to main story quest-triggered cutscenes as opposed to all NPCs in the world, but it’s still a really nice and appreciated addition to storytelling in the series. Mouth movement is decently synced, the voice acting is solid, and the performances add a real sense of emotional depth and humanity to cutscenes. It’s much easier to get heavily invested in a big narrative moment when a character actually emotes out loud properly. I didn’t realise how much that would add to Zelda as a series.
My biggest worry about narrative in Breath of the Wild was how the switch to a non-linear structure would affect storytelling. While I certainly do miss the more focused, linear narrative structure at times, it’s always easy enough to know where to head for more story, and story content does a good job of reminding you what’s going on if you take a big break sidequesting along your journey.
Breath of the Wild’s plot feels most similar to a mix between Majora’s Mask and Skyward Sword. The narrative takes some of the better elements of MM’s “life goes on next door to the end of the world” theming, and pairs them with the lore-centric narrative of Skyward Sword in a way that, while a little predictable in spots, just as often surprised and hooked me.
Put all of the above together, and I’ve honestly fallen head over heels in love with Breath of the Wild in a way I’ve not fallen in love with an open world game before. While many of the singular elements I’ve spoken about here may not sound terribly groundbreaking for the genre, the way they come together once you’re a couple of hours deep is some of the best paced, polished and fun open world design I have ever experienced. The separate parts combine into something far exceeding their sum total.
My primary system for this review was the Switch version of the game, and I find it impossible to divorce the portable nature of that device from my experience playing it. When played on the TV as a console game it’s an incredibly well polished reinvention of Zelda that has me hooked. As a portable game, I feel confident saying it’s the best AAA video game available on a dedicated gaming handheld by a wide margin.
Comparing Switch and Wii U – Let’s talk a little bit about both versions of Breath of the Wild on their own specific platforms. The Switch version of Breath of the wild runs at 900p docked, and 720p undocked. The Wii U version runs at 720p. While all versions of the game have performance issues, they’re more prominent depending on how you play the game. The Switch version at 900p runs largely at 30FPS but occasionally has small amounts of slowdown when entering areas of high grass density. When playing on the Switch at 720P the game runs at a much more stable 30 FPS, with texture and effects details reduced in ways that are largely unnoticeable on the portable screen. The Wii U version of the game features the same frame dips as the docked Switch version, but they are more frequent and the framerate seems to drop further. The Wii U version is still totally playable, but it does feature the worst overall performance. Some graphical effects are toned down on the Wii U as well, but they’re largely minor things like the level of detail in rainstorms and similar.
Breath of the Wild is not perfect. It has some performance instability depending on play configuration, and the opening few hours you’ll need to be okay with the game pushing you to trial a variety of short-lived disposable tools, but those complaints seem insignificant when, over sixty hours in, I’m still working through my first playthrough trying to explore, discover and overcome new challenges.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a truly amazing video game, one that I suspect will be remembered as one of the greats for a long time to come.
This game was reviewed using a copy purchased by the reviewer.
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Wii U
Release date: Out Now
- Fully realised open world
- Amazing level of challenging content
- Fantastic narrative
- Forced weapon obsolescence in the first few hours
- Mediocre Wii U performance
An amazingly polished reinvention of the Zelda formula.