James Stephanie Sterling
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review – Broken Sword
Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Format: Nintendo Switch Released: March 3, 2017 Copy purchased
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a beautiful game with a richly detailed world. It’s packed with things to do and places to explore, doing an incredible job of turning Hyrule into a vast expanse of possibility as opposed to a sparse field with gameplay sprouting off it like spokes on a wheel.
At its absolute best, Breath of the Wild offers some of the most absorbing experiences a Zelda game ever has.
Unfortunately, it makes you work harder for it than you should, buried as it is under a pile of small but constant irritations that collaborate to form a thick crust of frustration around a delectable center. Breath of the Wild is a delightful adventure, one that tries its utmost to be as big a pain in the arse as possible.
Ganon is back, and this time he’s dispensed with the mystery. No longer working in the shadows before his ultimate obligatory reveal, he appears from the start as Calamity Ganon, an apocalyptic version of his porcine form swirling around a devastated Hyrule Castle.
Link awakens after a failed battle against Ganon’s forces 100 years ago, having lost his memory, his strength, and his legendary sword. Zelda’s spent the past century trying to keep Ganon restricted to the castle, and now it’s up to Link to do the thing he does best and come to her aid.
After a brief introductory phase in which Link solves some puzzles, acquires a full suite of magical runes to help him get around the world, and learns the typically rudimentary plot, Hyrule opens itself up like a Smart Home in the wrong hands and from there players are able to go and do as they wish.
Theoretically, it’s possible to march from the starting area to the castle and fight Calamity Ganon there and then. Of course, the chances of actually surviving more than a second or two are incredibly slim, and that’s even if you can get through the nigh-impervious mechanical Guardians that patrol Hyrule Field and are merrily capable of one-shotting even more prepared adventurers.
To stand a believable chance against Nintendo’s favorite canned evil, Link must travel to the familiar homes of the Zora, Rito, Gorons and Gerudo, solving their problems and subduing the Divine Beasts – gigantic, animalistic constructs once piloted by legendary champions and now corrupted by a naughty magic pig.
These beasts each have their own detailed quest lines in which Link must travel to and then align with the disparate peoples of Hyrule. They also serve as the closest thing to traditional dungeons in the game, though they’re more akin to four gigantic puzzle rooms with concluding boss fights than the intricate, deadly sprawls offered in past games.
Puzzles are the central component to the unbelievable amount of Shrines littering the world. These mysterious places activated once Link got his Sheikah Slate, an almost cringeworthy in-universe Nintendo Switch that Link uses as a map, telescope, and fantasy multipass, and they are the key to improving his health and stamina.
Some are found in plain sight, while others need coaxing out of the ground or can be found at the end of side quests. Once activated, they become a handy fast travel point and offer a unique puzzle or (rarely) combat challenge, usually short but often just tricky enough to stimulate the brain.
The majority of these puzzles make use of Link’s runes – including bombs, ice blocks summoned from water, a stasis effect, and a magnet that can place metal objects anywhere in range. Motion controls are obviously employed for several of them because this is a Nintendo game, but they’re mostly cleverly designed and the rewards are crucial to both survival and long-term enjoyment of the game.
Nevertheless, it’s an odd decision to constantly break immersion and flow by halting the player and giving them yet another weird little puzzle bunker that seems like it doesn’t quite belong in this world and reeks of a game that knew it needed traditional Zelda dungeons but didn’t know quite where to shove them.
Yes, every shrine is technically optional in the same way not rocking up to Ganon’s front door and assaulting his forces with a tree branch is – you can do whatever you like, but if you want to have a solid chance of actually succeeding, there is a proper, preconstructed way of doing things, and the proper way of handling shrines is to complete them on sight lest lose track of them – finish as many of them as possible, as close to all 120 of the bloody things as you can.
Given the additional “difficulty” of Breath of the Wild, it’s more crucial than ever to have a solid health supply, and I’ve put “difficulty” in quotes because the main way in which this game tries to be tough is to make most enemies highly absorbent and more than capable of dropping Link in one or two hits.
Rather than fully mimic the Dark Souls combat it half-heartedly aims for, Breath simply pumps up the monsters’ ability to do damage, resulting in a lot of one-hit kills even once Link finds and upgrades some decent armor or puts a lot of shrinework into gaining heart containers. It’s a cheap and dirty way of making any game more “challenging” and I can’t say I find it particularly edifying.
The other major point of contention holding back combat is – and you know I have to say it – weapon durability.
It’s hardly surprising the people of Hyrule can’t definitively put Ganon away since we’ve now learned their swords are made out of glass and wishes. Weapons break in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They break a LOT, to the point where it starts looking absolutely pathetic, to the point where you wonder why every blacksmith in the world hasn’t been fired or thrown in jail for gross incompetence.
Weapon durability systems are never fun, and Zelda goes out of its way to make it as excruciating as it possibly can. While others have claimed that late game weapons are durable enough for it to not be a problem, I maintain that some of the more powerful weapons in the game are still miserably brittle, able to withstand maybe a handful of enemies before players get a nagging pop-up notifying them their fun with the weapon they might have been loving is about to conclude.
Once the weapon embarrassingly shatters, players will need to pause their combat – which is always something you want players to do as a designer – and select a new weapon to irreparably damage. Either that, or scrabble for something on the ground, even if it’s one of the hundreds of crap clubs that will be thrust upon Link right up until the end of the game.
Also, don’t get too excited when you find the handful of weapons that can be “repaired.” They can’t be. They break like everything else, and will need exorbitant resources spent with specific NPCs to reforge – exorbitant to the point of literally not being worth it. The only truly lasting weapon is the Master Sword, which itself comes with caveats.
Weapon durability has become a controversial talking point for this game. Some have defended it, claiming it’s not a big problem and that it “encourages variety.” I’m firmly among those who believe that it doesn’t encourage variety so much as it discourages using most of the cool weapons you find for fear of losing them, and turns their acquisition into something unexciting, almost disappointing.
Opening a chest to find another disposable weapon that I can’t get attached to is a letdown, not a reward. Never have I been so happy to just find 100 rupees at the end of a trial. At least I can invest those in something I might get to keep and enjoy, like a fancy tiara or a house.
When actually smacking enemies around, the game is quite satisfying. The monsters themselves are a big part of why, expressive and vivid as they are. During combat, they’ll scramble for their weapons, taunt Link, and excitedly jump around. If you disarm and steal their weaponry, they’ll react with horror or outrage.
Even when not fighting, they’re up to all sorts of chicanery – you’ll find Bokoblins hunting wild animals on horseback, or a bunch of Lizalfos huddled together chattering. I once found a couple of enemies making fun of some sheep. Why not, eh?
The way they move, sound, and behave is fantastic, and they react hilariously when slapped about the place.
While not a survival game by any means, Breath of the Wild does take some elements from the emergent genre, such as hunting and cooking. Hyrule is filled with animals to slay, fruit to pick, and bugs to catch, all of which can be turned into various meals and elixirs that not only heal Link but grant temporary buffs such as increased attack or defense, higher speed, health boosts, and stamina recovery.
Despite the awkward way in which food is cooked – you have to find a pot on a fire, then fiddle about in the menu to hold individual bits of food before manually tossing them in – it’s surprisingly fun to combine various foods and see what you get. Certain combinations can create intricate dishes with exceptional benefits, though throwing five Ironshrooms into the pot will definitely do the trick if you want a strong-as-heck defense bump.
Incidentally, I cannot recommend enough finding as many “hearty” foods as you can. Food with this property will create those temporary additional hearts, and you’ll be able to make dishes that grant up to twenty of the things at once rather easily. Hearty meals have saved my life on more than one occasion, and given that you need to beat four shrines for a single heart container, they’re the best way to keep you hardy enough to survive at least a couple of hits against most opponents.
Horses are found in the wilds and can be snuck up on and mounted for a cheeky ride. Any captured horse can be taken to a stable and kept for future use. You’ll be able to equip them with gear, though the finding and even use of this gear is obtuse and poorly explained, and rename them in ways that make the stable keeper’s dialog extra fun.
Now let’s talk about stamina.
If you’ve ever wanted to spend hours watching a little green circle get progressively less green, this is the game for you! A garish stamina wheel appears whenever Link runs, climbs, swims, or uses his paraglider, and not only is it ugly, it’s woefully inefficient to the point where even my fat ass could outrun this easily winded little sack of nothing.
It took four stamina upgrades – and remember these come at the cost of new heart containers – to get the stamina wheel to a point I’d find acceptable as the starting amount. By basically upgrading enough to have two stamina wheels, Link was able to sprint just long enough to not be ludicrous, and I had to solve sixteen shrines to get it that way.
Climbing and swimming, both potentially lethal activities if Link runs out of energy halfway into the endeavor, will eat up stamina fast and you’ll be wanting elixirs on hand if you plan any major vertical traversal. Link is apparently Spider-man now, able to scale even flat walls, but it takes a lot out of him and an excessive amount of time can be spent slowly plodding up mountains, watching that ugly green circle tick itself down.
Mountains and other high places become even more annoying when it starts to rain. It rains a lot in this game, and when it rains, you can’t climb. You can try, but Link slips so many times you’ll almost inevitably run out of stamina before you find a stable ledge to stand on. It’s one of those Nintendo things, where a silly little detail was implemented simply to have more silly little details regardless of how it actually affected gameplay.
If you were already halfway up a mountain before it started raining, you’re buggered. You’ll either need to hope you landed somewhere sheltered so you can start a fire (in another awkward bit of menu management and item holding), or abandon all your progress and paraglide to an inn or somewhere else that passes the time.
If none of those options seem viable, you can always wait. Just wait, wait, wait until the game decides you can play it again.
These are the sorts of annoyances Breath of the Wild is full of. Minor inconveniences and shows of disrespect toward the player’s time.
Enemy encounters that suck up your resources, cluttered menus that are a hassle to get through, the same old fucking cutscenes every time you open, enter, and complete shrines. Frequent interruptions when monsters respawn during a “blood moon” – the modern equivalent of Castlevania II‘s notorious “curse” text box.
Added to the weapon breakages and pitiful stamina meter, these otherwise inconsequential grievances amount to one huge collaborative wall between me and my enjoyment of the game.
I hate that this fresh Zelda is so committed to tripping its audience up and forcing frequent detours and stoppages rather than encouraging the variety others so adamantly laud. Yes, Breath of the Wild is packed with variety, boasts tons of content, and features some absolutely breathtaking moments – but when I reflect upon the overall game, the most memorable portions were notifications about how fragile my swords were and bright green wheels, because these “features” were inextricable built into almost all of it.
All that said, this is a good game, one you have to fight a lot. Simply exploring the world, climbing trees, hunting boars, all of this is terrific stuff. It’s amazing to finally roam a Hyrule that feels alive and lived in, more than just a hub or set dressing. I particularly love how NPCs can be found throughout the world, traveling to sell wares or fighting random monsters in the woods.
Varied environments, from deep forests to large deserts to the ever-present Death Mountain offer not just visual diversity but unique climate hazards. Link will need to eat meals with elemental resistances or otherwise find and wear special armor to withstand harsh areas, with particularly cold and hot places capable of harming him.
I fought my way to the Goron village without flame resistance gear, hurriedly running from hot spring to hot sprint in order to stop being on fire, and as tough as it was, it was an enjoyable kind of tough. I could have obtained some elixirs and done it more safely, but it was genuinely thrilling to survive the harshest climate possible and finally make my way to the expected flameproof armor sold in town.
A personal anecdote like that is part of what makes Breath of the Wild an accomplished production. There are so many little touches, so many optional paths, that players inevitably wind up with experiences unique to themselves. Whether you’re using magnesis to drop metal blocks on enemy heads or finding some unique solution to a puzzle that was unintended but works just as well with the runes you have, Zelda packs in a lot of special moments.
Try and get a Moblin to hit a Cucco. You’ve maybe seen the video already.
There’s so much to love it’s hard to list all the pleasing revelations. Of course you can drop a bit of raw meat in front of a dog and watch it happily eat up. Of course you can hit a barrel with stasis, hit it several times, and watch it fly into an enemy camp once stasis breaks and momentum flings it away. If you can imagine doing it, there’s at least half a chance Breath of the Wild anticipated your imagination and offered a reaction to your action.
Presentation is, unsurprisingly, as high as it possibly can be. Despite the Switch’s inferior resolution and graphical power, Breath of the Wild proves art direction beats horsepower by remaining gorgeous throughout, while the soundtrack is arresting as ever, employing familiar Zelda tunes only sparingly while offering some lovely original music.
Framerate chug lets the side down, especially in areas with a lot of tall grass and a number of encounters in or around Hyrule Castle. In one particular fight, the framerate struggled so much I was getting full-on freezes, while the starting area paints a terrible first impression of both the game and the Switch as a system. Much of the game avoids this issue, but certain places are just lousy, though it’s worth noting the game does perform markedly better when the Switch isn’t running picture to a television.
Draw distance is a problem too. You’re encouraged to use your Sheikah-Not-A-Switch as a telescope and scout out areas, but it’s hard to surveil an enemy base when you’re too far away for the enemies to appear in it. Sometimes I found myself not knowing whether or not a place was dangerous until I was close enough to be spotted by the danger, because it hadn’t been rendered yet. Other times I’d watch monsters blink in and out of existence, which doesn’t make for believable worldbuilding outside of a Wizrobe battle.
Oh, and the voice acting? Those performers using American accents are all pretty good, while the English accented ones are frigging shameful. Zelda especially sounds like such a wet blanket it’s almost depressing. It’s a shame they couldn’t find a better cast for what should have been an enthralling new move for the series.
One should be warned also that Breath of the Wild officially turns amiibo into the overly expensive DLC they were always criticized for being. A number of exclusive armor sets and weapons – as well as a full-fledged NPC ally – can only be acquired by scanning Nintendo’s toys, though interestingly the Breath of the Wild specific amiibo offer the least interesting rewards. If you want good costumes or special armaments, expect to buy a lot of plastic.
There is a laundry list of smaller complaints and points of praise that I could just trot out, but such comprehensive detail isn’t particularly necessary at this stage. It should be quite clear by now that this is a game I truly enjoyed and wanted to love far more than I did, held back considerably by frequent tests of patience that I more often than not failed.
Too many times does Breath of the Wild paint its players into corners rather than encourage “varied” playstyles. Too many times does Breath of the Wild force its players into performing mundane tasks or sidetrack their way out of the experience. Too few bosses are anything approaching memorable or exciting, while we’re at it.
Yet it’s an adorable game, a frequently exciting game, one with lots of cool armor pieces to wear and little secrets to uncover. Its menagerie of monsters is incredible and its massive, complex map is inspiring.
Truly, I wish I could say I understood what all the critics were raving about in their onslaught of 10/10 reviews, but I don’t. I see too many things getting in the way of the brilliance, too much repetitive busywork and full-on dick moves for me to say this is even close to my favorite Zelda game, much less in the top five.
Close, but no Triforce.
Also, it has Ubisoft-style radio towers in it. Really dreary, long, climby ones. Go figure.