A link to the past.
Every generation there are a handful of games that define the period. It stands to reason that at least one of those games will come out of Nintendo, as they are still one of the best, if not the best, first-party developer in the business. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been a long time coming. It was ambitious, it was a change of direction for the series, and it was slated for a console that didn’t exactly light the world on fire. It had everything working against it, and yet here we are; the game is out, and it is quite possibly one of the best games I have ever played.
For those that don’t know, Breath of the Wild is an open-world game set in the land of Hyrule. Things have changed. Nintendo has opted to remove a lot of the hand-holding the series has become known for, and instead given players a world to explore and dissect at their own leisure. Sure, it borrows a lot of ideas, but Nintendo is a lot like Blizzard in the sense that they take those ideas and hone them to perfection. I have spent over 60 hours in this world, I haven’t seen nearly everything, but unlike other open-world games, my want to explore has never diminished.
Platforms: Switch (reviewed), Wii U
Price I’d Pay: $59.99
The world of Hyrule has changed. It is now one big cohesive area that Link is able to explore at his leisure. Nothing is gated off, although venturing into an area with stronger enemies is bound to lead to death. One of the things that really stood out to me was how each area felt carefully crafted. Most open-world games feel copy and pasted in a lot of areas, but in Breath of the Wild I knew where I was at all times. The design is incredible, and landmarks in the world are always in view, giving me a sense of where and what to explore.
The game also features tons of systems to learn, with none of them explained by lengthy tutorials. Instead they are explained organically. Link can cook items to create elixirs to help against the elements, and it is a lot more fun than it should be. Experimenting with different recipes and finding hidden combinations is addictive. This is just one example of many. There are upgrades that can be found, horses to be tamed, and plenty of ways to gain an advantage that are both helpful and completely skippable. The game never requires players to follow a set path, but it does encourage experimentation. This only works with precise tuning and design, which leads me back to the statement about Nintendo just getting things right.
Instead of the traditional dungeon-style of past games, Breath of the Wild instead focuses a lot of its puzzles on new, smaller challenges called Shrines. Each of these mini-dungeons takes only a handful of minutes to complete, but all serve a purpose. Each one teaches something about the mechanics of the game. Link gains access to Runes very early on, which are basically his powers. These are used to solve puzzles as well as uncover items in the world. Shrines utilize these in unique ways, and also capture that “a-ha” feeling upon solving.
Every four Shrines completed also earns Link enough spirit stones to upgrade either his heart containers or the stamina meter, so there is always a carrot on a stick driving me along completing them. Well, that and they are super fun to figure out. The stamina meter plays a large role in the game. Almost every action Link does uses the meter. Climbing, swimming, and of course running. Knowing how to manage it becomes a game in and of itself. Normally something like this would annoy me, but the balance here feels great, and managing to scale a massive mountain properly feels extremely rewarding.
Combat feels great, and continues to evolve the z-targeting we have all come to know. Link now has several weapons as opposed to just one sword and shield, and they have different attacks and speed. Weapons also have durability, which means they break. This is my one big gripe, as almost every weapon feels extremely fragile. There’s nothing like breaking my last weapon while surrounded by several enemies. Death is inevitable in Breath of the Wild, and I died often. This is probably one of the most challenging games in the series since Adventures of Link.
I could spend hours talking anecdotally about this game. The world simply delivers its own stories just by playing it. Speaking of story, the game follows a typical Zelda tradition of the infinite timeline, but this time around it feels more coherent and interesting. The voice acting in cut scenes helps, even if most of it is sub-par at best. Characters feel more fleshed out, and there are more than a few nods to previous games sprinkled around the world.
I played the game entirely on Switch, and visually it is stunning. I love the art style of the characters and the world, but it doesn’t come without its issues. Frame rate hitches happen more often than I would like, and strangely enough the game seems to run better in handheld mode than when broadcast to the TV. It is also worth noting that I spent around 20 hours using the Joycons in the grip, but once I got a Pro Controller the game really opened up. Nintendo’s latest Pro Controller feels absolutely stellar, and I recommend playing Zelda with it if possible.
There are already a ton of great games in 2017, with plenty more to come over the next nine months, but Zelda is a once-a-generation title that I think no one should miss out on. Fans of the series will be in love, those that never managed to get into it will be enthralled. This is the next evolution of the series, and quite possibly one of the best games I have ever played. Do not miss this game.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.