Since its debut on the NES, The Legend of Zelda has defined (and then redefined) action-adventure games for more than 30 years. Each Nintendo console has gotten its own magical installment, and the series has continually evolved and innovated, producing some of the greatest games ever created. And yet a certain sameness had set in ever since Ocarina of Time transitioned the series to 3D in 1998. After that groundbreaking game, the series experimented with different art styles and themes but always hewed closely to Ocarina’s gameplay formula, which had grown rather rigid in terms of design and structure.
Breath of the Wild, out now on Nintendo Switch and Wii U, breathes new life into the series by doing away with many of these core tenets and embracing more modern open-world games, while adding that special layer of Nintendo charm and polish. Zelda games have always been a cause for celebration, but Breath of the Wild is truly a revelation, the type of game that comes around once in a decade if you’re lucky. It redefines the series while remaining true to the heart of what a Zelda game is, all while pushing the open-world genre to stunning new heights.
You once again play silent protagonist Link, who awakens from a long slumber with no memory, only to find that Hyrule has been overrun by series big bad Ganon ever since Link and Zelda failed to defeat him 100 years ago. In her last desperate act, Zelda was able to transport Link to a resurrection chamber, but now she lies trapped in Hyrule castle as the world suffers under Ganon’s calamitous reign. It’s up to you to restore your lost memories, defeat Ganon, and return peace to the kingdom.
How you do so is completely up to you. Breath of the Wild is a sprawling open world that is initially daunting in its sheer size and scope, and it does little to hold your hand. From arid deserts to frozen forests and everything in between, you’re free to traverse the entirety of the world at your leisure. Hyrule is teeming with wildlife, monsters, and villagers for you to interact with, and the world absolutely begs to be explored. There’s a full day-and-night cycle (as well as an ominous blood moon, which revives defeated enemies), and the dynamic weather system has practical effects on the game. Good luck trying to climb a mountain in the pouring rain, and don’t even think of venturing into the snow without proper garb to keep you warm. And if you hear thunder, you had better not be holding a metal sword, or you’re in for a shocking surprise.
Hyrule really is the star of the game, as it truly feels like a living, breathing world, complete with an ecosystem that allows for hunting, resource gathering, cooking, and crafting. Animals can be hunted for meat, which can be mixed with herbs or vegetables to create food with special abilities. Monster parts can be combined with critters to create elixirs that grant magical buffs. Minerals can be mined to sell to merchants. Everything you do in the game rewards you with something that will somehow prove useful in the future.
More than 100 mysterious mini-dungeons called Shrines are scattered throughout the world, offering puzzle or combat trials for Link to conquer and rewarding you with a Spirit Orb. Not only are these Shrines smartly designed and incredibly addictive (they’re always the first thing I search for when entering a new area), but Spirit Orbs are used to gain additional hearts and stamina, which are absolutely essential in Link’s journey, letting him climb just a bit further or take one more hit.
As in any Zelda game, Link finds new weapons, but this time they’re all breakable, requiring you to constantly switch them up as they’ll inevitably shatter after repeated use. Enemies are stronger than they’ve ever been and can often kill you in one swift strike, so they require a greater degree of strategy. Combat is considerably more varied than in previous games, with the game rewarding ingenuity and creativity — leading to memorable moments throughout. At one point I was battling a Hinox, one of the largest enemies in the game, during a violent thunderstorm. As I slowly whittled down his health with bombs and arrows, he grabbed a freaking tree and ripped it from the ground, raising his giant hand to hurl it at me when — zap! — lightning struck, killing him instantly as I gawked at the cruelty (and utility) of Mother Nature.
Breath of the Wild breaks with the traditional Zelda formula in its approach to dungeons, offering four larger story-based main quests that can be tackled in any order. These are incredibly well designed, requiring you to physically alter the environment as you puzzle out the solution, leading to super-satisfying “a-ha!” moments when you finally figure it out. Each quest culminates in an intense, exhilarating boss fight that tests your ability to use not just weapons but all of the skills at your disposal to properly read the environmental clues and vanquish each enemy.
The game’s graphical style is the most striking and distinctive since Nintendo turned Link into a hyper-expressive cartoon in 2002’s Wind Waker. The highly stylized world feels like a Studio Ghibli riff on fairytales, with great care taken for every animation. Unfortunately, the Switch (and Wii U) are hardly as graphically powerful as the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, and there are times when the frame rate struggles to keep up with all of the effects happening on screen (which is more noticeable when played on a TV versus the Switch’s portable mode, which runs at a lower resolution), and there’s definitely a shorter draw distance, where objects pop in as you sail above the land. But these hiccups never affected the gameplay, and I’ll take fantastic art direction over pure performance any day. It’s still one of the most beautiful games ever created, with awe-inspiring sights abounding over every mountain you climb, waterfall you swim under, or tower you leap off.
If you were to play through the main objectives and a smattering of side quests, it would merely be an excellent game. But there is much more to unravel outside of the main story. Breath of the Wild rediscovers the pure joy of exploration first introduced in the 1986 original. Walk in any direction, and there are countless areas to find and untold mysteries to solve. More than any game in recent memory, it’s about the journey, not the destination. (Though the destination is actually fantastic, as well.) I put nearly 70 hours into the game, uncovering all of the map and completing more than half of the Shrines before vanquishing Ganon in an epic fight to the finish. And when I checked my completion level, it was at an astonishingly low 13.39 percent. This is the type of game you want to discuss with friends, compare notes, and regale them with stories of your adventures. Because of how open the game is, no one will have the same experience, but everyone will experience something truly magical. Breath of the Wild isn’t just the best Zelda game ever made, it’s arguably Nintendo’s greatest triumph, and quite simply, the stuff of legend. A+
14 March 2017 | 7:00 pm