Review: 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' (Switch)

'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' is playable on Nintendo Switch and Wii U. 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' is playable on Nintendo Switch and Wii U. NINTENDO

Back when The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released, I thought I knew what made a Zelda game good; now, I realize that I had absolutely no idea. With the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has completely revolutionized their most storied and revered franchise, taking a transcendent leap forward that is making the entire industry sit up and pay attention, and rightfully so. Just as the series did thirty years ago, Zelda has re-introduced mystery, wonder, and the thrill of exploration into the video game industry, and it should not be missed by anyone.

While in previous games, Link traveled the world in order to stop Ganon from destroying it, the hero of this game wakes up with amnesia in a world that has already been laid to waste. Only small pockets of civilization remain within the world dotted by enemies and teeming with plant and animal life. Link will journey across the land, trying to reclaim giant Divine Beasts with the power to defeat the Calamity Ganon, in order to help Hyrule heal once again. The story doesn't have many twists and turns, but the game has a more interesting lore than almost any other Zelda title. As Link recovers his memories, he learns more and more about his relationship with Princess Zelda, who has been fleshed out far better than any game to come before, which is great to see.

This is the first truly open-world Zelda game, and it puts other open-world games to shame. Hyrule is mind-bogglingly large, dwarfing even famous open-world lands such as Skyrim, but more importantly it is stuffed full of things to do. There are fifteen large regions to discover on your map, and in every single corner there is a puzzle, or an enemy encampment, or even a village you never expected might be there. Every time I explored in a random direction, expecting to find nothing, I found something incredible that I could barely believe was there. The constant presence of animals like foxes, birds or bears helps make the world come alive.

"You can go anywhere" is a phrase that's become overused recently, but Breath of the Wild gives the phrase a whole new meaning. Not only can you go anywhere, but you can go directly there if you want, making a beeline for it, directly scaling any cliffs or other obstacles in your way. Once you get the item that lets you glide across long distance, your freedom is expanded even further. If you see someplace you want to explore, there are no obstacles in your way to stop you from checking it out; you may need some stamina potions, but you really can go anywhere you want, whenever you want, and often times it's worth the trip.

The game gives you your major Sheikah Slate abilities right off the bat, so you'll never be waiting on a certain item or upgrade to make your way to a certain area. The classic bombs are back, in infinite supply, but you also have magnetic powers, time-stop powers, and ice powers to help you explore the world. You can move heavy objects, fling them away, or make your way across rivers by creating ice blocks. The number of uses they found for these abilities, and the puzzles they built around them, is truly staggering.

At the same time, the world is utterly indifferent to your presence, which only makes you feel smaller in response. It doesn't matter if you're climbing a cliff; if it's time for rain, then you're going to have to wait for it to clear up. If it's a lightning storm, then you better take off all your metal gear before you get fried by a bolt. It's a move that forces you to stop and wait, and appreciate the enormity of the world around you. One of my best memories of the game was hiding under a rocky outcropping during a thunderstorm, using flint and wood to make a fire in order to pass the time. You really feel like you're exploring a world that wasn't custom-made for a hero to explore, and you have to work twice as hard to exist in it.

Thankfully, this enormous world is made easier to navigate through fast travel. Every time you discover a shrine (more on those later), it becomes a warp point that you can jump to at almost any time; other warp points include major dungeons, labs, and towers. Towers are important to scale and discover, as each one reveals a region on your map. What's even better, though, is climbing to the top of a tower and scanning the landscape below, looking for shrines or other points to mark on your map, with a themed stamp (to remind you of what's there) or a pin that you can navigate to. Spying a far-off shrine, then making your way to it, is very satisfying and makes you feel like a real explorer.

The land is easier to explore once you catch your very own horse. Previous Zelda games gave you a horse, but in Breath of the Wild they roam the plains, either on their own or ridden by enemies; it's up to you to sneak up on one, capture it, and train it enough for it to be a trusty steed. I love this far more than simply being given a horse, because you care about it more if you had to catch it yourself; each horse has different stats and temperaments, so it's worth trying to find different ones. Once you actually have a horse, they'll make your life easier by automatically following the roads that connect the villages and stables of the world.

Stables are one of the various kinds of waypoints that you'll encounter throughout the game; you can store up to five horses at stables, and no matter where you store a horse, you can pick it up again at any stable in Hyrule. Stables also double as life-recovering inns, and they're generally full of people who will give you advice or sidequests, as well as numerous merchants and a cooking pot; there are also a number of merchants who wander the roads that pass by stables, offering you items that you might have trouble finding again. After making your way across mountains and rivers, fighting off enemies and running from bosses, seeing a stable is always an enormous relief. It helps that warp points are always close.

The game has a number of villages in addition to the many stables, and most of them are great. They're all surprisingly elaborate and well designed, full of interesting shops, people and sidequests. Each village has a different assortment of clothes, food and arrows for sale, and the people inside have their own schedules and will occasionally surprise you. Each of the four major dungeons has an associated village, with two of them being pretty good, and two of them being fantastic; there are a handful of other villages in the game as well, one of which many people will discover by accident in a mind-blowing moment that I've seen a number of times.

In between villages, however, you'll find plenty of enemies. For the first time in an extremely long time, you have to be careful going into battle. Early on, every enemy encounter is going to require planning and patience, while in the late game you're going to have to be good at attacking and dodging in order to avoid huge amounts of damage from the powerful end-game enemies, especially the terrifying Guardians. Enemy AI is much better than in previous games, especially when they're in groups as they often are. They won't just stand there waiting for you to attack; they'll call their friends out to attack, fire arrows at you, and even kick your bombs back at you if you're too slow.

Usually you'll have multiple options for defeating enemies, thanks to your runes; you can toss bombs, or you can use Magnesis to hit them with metal blocks, or you can freeze them in time once your Slate has been upgraded. If you go in recklessly, though, you're bound to die in very short order. Don't expect to find hearts along the way to restore your health, either; in this game, you're either going in prepared, or you're going to die.

Part of the preparation includes having the right weapons going in. Link carries multiple weapons, shields and bows into battle, and as many people have pointed out they are all extremely brittle. Each weapon gets maybe 30 or so swings before it shatters, and you'll have to switch to another one; this low durability bothers a lot of people, but I never really minded it, as it gets you constantly using new weapons and trying new things. It's not like you'll ever run low on weapons, because every enemy drops one, and you find plenty of them otherwise.

Bosses are more satisfying than in many previous Zelda games. For the most part, there's no special trick to beating them, aside from the occasional weak point; you just have to do the proper damage to them while avoiding their powerful attacks. They feel inspired by the Dark Souls series, focusing on defense more than making each boss a puzzle. They can lead to some great moments, though, like when I knocked down a giant Hinox, stole a sword hanging from his neck, and killed him with it. (I just wanted to share that anecdote.)

Everything you find, kill or blow up will drop materials for you to use in some way. You can hold onto them and cook with them to make meals or elixirs, or you can sell them to any merchant you find. Once you find certain NPCs spread throughout the world, they can take materials and upgrade your clothing with them, as well. Later in the game you'll receive a camera and be tasked with taking pictures of everything to fill up your Compendium; you'll want to do this, since after a certain upgrade you can track down anything you've photographed using your Sheikah Sensor.

Cooking is simple but very fun, and you'll spend a lot of time doing it. Pick a selection of ingredients, then throw them together in a cooking pot, and you'll get a dish or elixir that can restore your health or offer other bonuses, like cold resistance or increased stealth. These bonuses can be vital to exploring certain regions, so cooking becomes an essential exercise if you want to survive Hyrule. Campfires are hard to find before you start finding villages, so it's exciting whenever you stumble across one and get the opportunity to make some new dishes. Finding new ingredients makes you want to cook with them and see what you can do, and the huge number of different recipes will make you want to experiment as much as possible.

If there's one thing you'll be looking for more than any other, it's shrines. In addition to acting as warp points, each shrine contains a puzzle for you to solve, using your wits and your rune abilities. The puzzles inside are almost always clever, and many of them allow you to use multiple different solutions; sometimes just getting to the shrine is the real puzzle, and inside is just a free item, while other shrines involve a combat trial. There's at least one treasure chest in each shrine, but every shrine gives you a Spirit Orb; collect four of them to upgrade your health or stamina. Some of the puzzles unfortunately aren't so great, especially the highly finicky motion-control puzzles.

Koroks are even more cleverly hidden. There are a staggering 900 Koroks hidden throughout the game, and if you want to find any of them you'll have to keep a careful eye on your surroundings, as they are never pointed out to you. There are maybe a dozen categories of Korok puzzle for you to solve, with dozens and dozens of each, though in reality most Koroks are probably hidden under rocks. Each one you find gives you a seed, and you can exchange seeds for inventory slots. Thankfully, you don't need anywhere close to 900 seeds to max out your inventory; trying to find all the seeds in the game may drive you mad.

This game has fewer dungeons than most Zelda games before it, and they're usually shorter, but they're still enjoyable. Each one feels like a cleverly-designed, giant puzzle that forces you to manipulate the entire dungeon and understand how everything comes together. The mechanics are more fun than the simple one-room puzzles of many dungeons prior, and the upgrades you get from the dungeons and associated towns are meaningful and change how you explore and interact with the world.

As you play through the game, it feels like it goes through several phases that all feel different. You'll be playing one game in the opening area, and then it suddenly feels different once you're able to explore the entire world freely. It changes again when you're making your way to the first dungeon, and then the rest of the game has yet another feel after that. Unfortunately, once you start trying to complete everything 100%, the game turns into a serious slog. Finding all of the Koroks is basically impossible without a map, and even finding all the Shrines is difficult when they don't all show up on your Sheikah Sensor, forcing you to scour far more carefully than you'll want to. If you want to truly complete the game, be prepared for a monotonous grind.

Throughout the game you'll be handed dozens of different quests; some of them are main story quests, others lead you to shrines, and most of them are just standard side quests. Managing them is easy and intuitive - the icons for whatever quest you've currently selected show up on your map, letting you find wherever you need to go easily (though getting there is a different matter). The side quests are worth doing, too; one of them in particular takes a very long time to do, and may span the whole game, but the way it shapes the world is absolutely worth it, especially with the payoff at the end.

The game's writing is absolutely top notch, and it's among the best Nintendo has ever put out. Even minor characters are entertaining, and the more memorable ones are fantastic. Everyone talks naturally, with their own personality, and cheeky moments are everywhere - if you get the chance to sleep in a waterbed, take it, with the sound up. I ended up talking to everyone, because it was worth it every single time. Nintendo knocked this out of the park.

The game's visuals are great throughout - the art style is beautiful, with colors everywhere, and everything has a great design to it, especially the Sheikah tech. I would spend time early on just slowly wandering through the land, looking at my surroundings, because they were so lovely; seeing Link change his clothes and carry his weapons on his back was also great. This is marred by some heavy pop-in at times, though, but it's usually not a problem. The game's main menu exemplifies the game well; it doesn't insist upon itself, it's just there, quietly being beautiful and vast. All of the images in this article were taken using the Switch's snapshot feature, in my own game.

The music is generally sparse, often times not appearing at all while you're in the overworld. When it is present it varies from alright to great, with boss music being the best of the bunch, but overall it's a letdown compared to previous games. The sound design is better, though; I love the sound of Link walking, which changes depending on what he's stepping on and what he's carrying. Some of the game's voice actors are not great, while others, such as Revali or Riju, are excellent.

There's more I could talk about - such as the great UI, or the fun of summoning the Wolf Link amiibo to attack enemies - but it's worth exploring the game's many components on your own. Right now I'm not sure how well the game will hold up on a second playthrough, but considering that I've logged over 130 hours in the game and still haven't fought the final boss, I'd say it's not really a big concern. Completing the game entirely is a slog, but the game is amazingly fun for well over eighty hours, which is almost unheard of.

This game isn't perfect - the music is weak, the frame rate occasionally drops, and the blood moon is very buggy - but it is utterly revolutionary, and contains some of the most fun I've had in a Zelda game in as long as I can remember. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has something truly special to it, and I can't think of a game that deserves higher accolades than this. If you enjoy video games, and you want an adventure, there is no greater adventure than this.

Final Score: 10/10

The game software was purchased independently from the game developer, publisher, or any party representing either.

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