“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” Review: Hyrule Reborn

The wait for Nintendo’s latest entry in The Legend of Zelda series has been long and strenuous. With a development time of four years and a lot of secrecy and delays surrounding its development, the anticipation of Link’s latest adventure was tough on Zelda fans. Nintendo finally fully unveiled the title at E3 in 2016 while we discovered that Nintendo decided to pull a Twilight Princess by launching the title simultaneously on two different platforms. Nintendo’s last core entry into the Zelda franchise, “Skyward Sword”, was a great yet polarizing experience that left some fans cold. A lot was at stake with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: since it was launching on new hardware and also had to make up for the faults of its predecessor. Not only did Nintendo redeem the franchise from falling into a slump of repetitiveness, but they happened to also craft one of the finest adventures released in the last decade, making for one of the strongest “Legend of Zelda” titles to launch since 1998’s “Ocarina of Time.”

Nintendo decided to go back to the series’ roots by examining what made the series so special back when it debuted on the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986. The Legend of Zelda was unique for its time since it was one of the first games that allowed gamers to travel in any direction they wanted, tackle objectives in a non-linear fashion, and also didn’t hold the hands of its players. As the series progressed, Zelda titles relied on too many gameplay mechanics that would constantly aid the player in their travels by giving them constant reminders of where to go and what to do. Series producer Eiji Aonuma finally realized that the constant interruption from flying fairy companions, souls infused inside of swords or shadow partners weren’t necessary for the player to make progress through the game. All of that has been thrown out in “Breath of the Wild” in favor of complete, uninterupted freedom in a beautifully realized open world that will keep players engaged for hundreds of hours.

While the combat feels similar from previous entries such as “Ocarina of Time” and “Twilight Princess”, “Breath of the Wild” has received a more tactical overhaul to combat as well that makes enemy encounters feel more engaging and deep. Players will still lock-on to targets with a system similar to Ocarina of Time’s “Z-Targeting” but with a bit more freedom in movement. Now players can parry, dodge, jump and swap weapons on-the-fly to get an edge on their opponent. Combat flows similar to a Dark Souls title for me, where as the awareness of your environments and learning the attack patterns and damage capabilities of each enemy will help the player prevail in sticky situations. Enemy AI can be overwhelming at first due to its aggressive nature and hard-hitting attacks, but as the player becomes accustomed to how combat works as they put more time into the game, things start to click and I felt more comfortable approaching groups of enemies than I did from the start.

Long gone are the weapons and equipment obtained in large sprawling dungeons that will carry Link through the entire adventure. All of the tools needed to succeed are given to the player within the first hour of gameplay. Every weapon and piece of armor that the player can obtain are dropped by enemies, found inside of areas and structures in the open world, purchased or rewarded to you for completing certain quests.

One of the major complaints about Breath of the Wild is the new weapon degrading system. Each weapon obtained in the game has an unknown durability rating. The more you use a weapon or shield the quicker it can break. Some items break sooner than others but overall the durability system forces players to constantly swap out worn items for new ones. Keeping an arsenal of various weaponry is key to surviving tough enemy encounters and bosses since you never know when that sword or shield could break, rendering it useless. Currently, there is no known way to revive a broken item too, so if your favorite sword happens to shatter in battle, it is long gone until you’re able to find another one.

I can totally understand why weapon durability could turn a player off, but honestly I saw no problem with this system. It gives Link a larger variety of different weapons rather than a simple broadsword that you are forced to use through the entire game. Weapon durability also forces players to constantly try new things and swap equipment out during specific situations where a different tool is needed to conquer your foe. Seeing Link run around with a giant club or hammer was refreshing to see. The higher damage output that the weapon has, usually the more durable it is, so a lot of those end game weapons last a lot longer than the sticks and twigs you’ll use within your first few hours with the game. By the time I finished Breath of the Wild, I wasn’t losing nearly as many weapons to breakage than I was within my first 10 hours or so. There is a sword that exists that is immune to breaking, but i’ll seal my lips and leave that for you to discover.

Large dungeons are also absent from “Breath of the Wild.” This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you ask. For me, I loved the change. In previous Zelda games, most notably “Skyward Sword” and “Twilight Princess”, some of those dungeons were very long and drawn out to serious levels of tediousness. In Breath of the Wild, there are only four major dungeons in the entire game, labeled as Divine Beasts. These Divine Beasts are optional in order to finish the game but are part of the overall narrative and highly recommended in order for the player to tackle the final boss. Divine Beasts only take upwards of 20-30 minutes to complete, depending on how quickly you solve its puzzles, and are wrapped up with a boss at the end of each one. Completing them gives the player a special power, introduces them to new important characters, and aids the player in defeating the final boss.

Also scattered around the open world are mini dungeons called Shrines. Each Shrine is a small puzzle or combat scenario that that can be completed quickly and earn the player gear and Spirit Orbs. In return, the player can spend earned Spirit Orbs by praying at goddess statues scattered around various towns and locations in the game that earn Link new heart containers or stamina upgrades. While I severely miss hunting down heart container pieces hidden within the world like in previous Zelda titles, the concept is still the same since a lot of Shrines are hidden and you have to collect four orbs in order to earn a new heart container. Hunting down heart pieces in such a massive open world would be a pretty hefty chore; I understand why Nintendo decided to omit them.

The stamina meter found in “Skyward Sword” makes a return, but it isn’t used for actual combat like you would see in a “Dark Souls” title or the recently released “Nioh.” Instead, stamina is used for running, swimming, gliding and climbing. Breath of the Wild allows players to climb just about any surface in the game by simply jumping onto it, but how long and how high you can climb is totally dependent on how much stamina Link has. No longer can Link swim for an infinite amount of time. Once the stamina gauge is empty inside of a body of water, you’ll drown and die. Again, your stamina meter can be upgraded by spending orbs obtained in Shrines, but I honestly found that completing the main quest didn’t really require the stamina bar to be upgraded yet it was useful for end-game exploring. I highly recommend spending those spirit orbs on heart containers until you defeat the final boss.

Hyrule takes the form of a huge open world in “Breath of the Wild” and boy is it expansive and detailed. Players are thrown into just a small section of the open world at the start of the game in an area named The Great Plateau. Once a set of sudo-tutorial requirements are met, the player is given a glider that is similar to Link’s sailcloth in Wind Waker and Skyward Sword that allows him to escape The Great Plateau and start exploring the entirety of Hyrule. Jumping from high mountain ranges and gliding to new locations is exhilarating and an extremely fun way to traverse the world. Fast travel locations exist as well in the form of found Shrines, high towers that can be climbed and used to uncover parts of the map and give players a vantage point, and the Divine Beasts themselves. The more the player fast travels, I find, the more you tend to miss out on the finer details of the open world so keep that in mind when you have the desire to warp around.

There is so much to see and do in “Breath of the Wild” that it can oftentimes be overwhelming. As a result, I decided to tackle the main quest and defeat the final boss before really digging deep into the open world. Now that I have finished the game, I’m devoting tons of hours into exploring the vastness of Hyrule, discovering new and interesting side quests and more challenging enemies. For completionists out there, “Breath of the Wild” has many things to see and do, including collecting 900 Korok seeds that expands Link’s inventory slots, 120 different Shrines, tons of sidequests and interesting gear to find. Using Amiibo figures can help the player unlock some cool bonus gear as well that are not able to be obtained within the game itself, and trust me, you want that stuff.

In terms of narrative, “Breath of the Wild” isn’t the strongest entry in the Zelda series. Link begins his adventure waking up from a 100 year slumber, or a coma of sorts. Princess Zelda, her cohorts, and her champion swordsman Link, created an army of guardians and Divine Beasts crafted by ancient Shieka technology to protect the kingdom of the inevitable return of Ganon. Well unfortunately for them, Ganon was smart and commandeered this ancient technology, forcing Hyrule’s army to bend to his will. As a result, Hyrule was left in shambles, Zelda’s protectors killed and Link was put into a slumber in order to awaken in the future in hopes to one day defeat Ganon. Link’s 100 year nap resulted in memory loss, so the player starts their journey as Link not knowing who anyone is or what’s going on.

The problem with the narrative is that most of the story beats are told through memories that Link acquires throughout the game. The player is given pictures of locations spread around Hyrule that they must find in order to help Link recover his lost memories. All of these memories are optional and difficult to find, so many story elements could possibly never be shown to the player unless they spend the time to seek them out as a sidequest. Several important story elements are presented while tackling the Divine Beasts, but even those are optional as well. So basically, the narrative isn’t the strongest to begin with and a lot of it could never be presented to the player, which may be a problem for those who favor story in their video games. Games like “Ocarina of Time” and “Skyward Sword” delivered strong, emotional narratives that are very memorable, so compared to those two, “Breath of the Wild” is sort of a bummer in the story department.

If you’re a massive Zelda nerd like myself, you may be wondering where “Breath of the Wild” fits into the overall “Legend of Zelda” timeline. From what we know, it certainly takes place after “Ocarina of Time” since many references to that game are made in “Breath of the Wild.” Not to mention we also get a few nods to Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess that I’ve found too. Since I have not seen a single Wind Waker reference made, I’m assuming that this game takes place in the timeline split where Link fails to take care of Ganondorf in “Ocarina of Time.” Aside from all of this, Nintendo has crammed a ton of Zelda lore into “Breath of the Wild” that are incredibly nostalgic and satisfying to uncover when you encounter them.

Sound design in “Breath of the Wild” is quite a feat. The new soundtrack, while minimalistic, strangely works. The game uses a lot of soft piano music while exploring Hyrule and ramps up in intensity during enemy encounters and visits to specific towns or events. The Hyrule Castle music that plays while storming the castle is one of my new favorite modern Zelda tracks. The soundtrack isn’t highly memorable or bombastic but it gives the game a surprising charm. Also, the sound design from Link’s equipment strapped to his back are very cool, hearing the clinks and clanks from shields and swords bumping into each other during a running animation. Environmental sounds from thunderstorms and the booming effects from Death Mountain are also impressive here.

One of the biggest flaws “Breath of the Wild” has is the framerate. Whether you’re playing on the Wii U or docked on the Nintendo Switch, the game tends to drop frames quite often. The worst moments of frame dipping comes from areas with a ton of grass or big fights with many enemies on-screen. The best performance will come out of the Nintendo Switch’s portable mode where strangely the performance rarely dips below the 30fps target. None of this is a deal breaker by any means, but seeing the game outright pause in the middle of combat due to too many enemies running at you in succession, it makes for some frustrating moments. I even had the final cutscene after defeating the final boss skip like crazy while in portable mode on the Nintendo Switch.

“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” took me 30 hours to complete the main quest. Players could possibly complete it quicker if they wanted to tackle story quests in a weaker state, but I spent time building up my heart containers and gear in order to stand a chance against bosses. Even at 30 hours I found that I have barely scratched the surface. There are a plethora of secrets to find, quests to complete, mysteries to solve and items to collect that would extend the playtime well past 100 hours. The beauty of “Breath of the Wild” is that there is so much to do, so much to see and so much to discover that it makes for one of the most compelling titles in the franchise. Oftentimes the journey simply to a section of the world that I was trying to reach was just as memorable and mesmerizing as any story beat the game had to offer. With beautiful environments, jaw-dropping weather effects, and a strong sense of discovery, “Breath of the Wild” is one of the best open world experiences I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in gaming.

Aside from a few blemishes like the narrative, framerate and a few traditional Zelda features that I was sad to see omitted, “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” is the best Zelda title Nintendo has crafted in 20 years. The game packs in a great soundtrack, an amazing world to explore, and is jammed full of activities that’ll keep gamers glued to their Wii U or Switch for hundreds of hours. Sometimes it isn’t the story that makes a game stand out in your memory, but instead the journey the game takes you on, and “Breath of the Wild” excels greatly at that. In a sea of $60 games, this one is worth every penny. Even if you purchased a Nintendo Switch solely for this title, I wouldn’t consider that a bad deal at all.

*The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was reviewed on a retail Nintendo Switch with a retail copy of the game*

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Josh Faulkner

Josh is a native Ohio-an who grew up in a small town that had very little for kids to do. As a result, Josh picked up video games at a very young age. Video games played a huge part in his childhood and continued to do so in his adult life. Starting out on an Atari 2600 when he was 3 years old, gaming has sort of grown up alongside with Josh and continues to be his biggest hobby. As an IT technician by day, Josh is an aspiring gaming writer by night who founded a few websites including 16 Bit Heroes and Too Busy Gaming, while also dabbling in retro gaming YouTube videos and live streaming events.