Out of the gate -- whether you play Breath of the Wild on Wii U or Nintendo Switch, you’re going to lock yourself into an experience. It’s a unique experience in the open-world adventuring space, too, because it doesn’t necessarily fit into the modern blueprint for games like this. This isn’t a bad thing, but if you’ve come off playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, or Fallout 4, or even the recently released Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is going to look, play and feel different
We’ve had the game a little while now, though not ahead of release (see our news OP for why), but either way, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is absolutely massive, and if you decide to spend the time to explore all it has to offer, and play through all of its side-quests, then you’re in for a huge investment of time -- so much so that some of those early reviews that came from people having the console just under a week before launch might not have fully reflected the entire experience you get with the game. But I digress.
That “difference” I mentioned in my OP is set around what this series actually is, because games have moved beyond Zelda -- nay, Nintendo-style -- game-development, and it could be argued it’s for the worse. While this is an open-world game, it still plays by traditional Zelda rules: Link is the only person capable of gathering the strength to defeat an ancient evil called Ganon. The strength he gathers is derived from four unique parts of the world, and includes different races. And all of this has happened before, again and again. It also includes a Princess named Zelda, though in this iteration of the long running series, she’s not nearly as strongly represented, which is a real shame because she’s always been an equal to our main hero throughout, and often the reason we manage to get the job done in the end anyway.
Not much has changed here barring a few voiced characters which is new for the series. The English-speaking voice actors don’t really deliver A-Grade performances, but that’s not overly important because story here isn’t really that important. What is, is the unique and quirky characters that fill out this massive version of Hyrule, and how they all fit alongside each other. It’s not the most dynamic Zelda from an NPC perspective, largely because the size of the game overshadows much of what’s in it. They tend to only have a few lines of dialogue -- all unskippable, mind -- which makes them somewhat mannequin-esque when you consider their place in the world. You have responses, though none of them reflect on the game’s overall outcome, nor do they change your place in the world. It’s an archaic and repetitive system that aligns itself closer to JRPGs of old (and new, actually), and would have been better served with a bit more dynamism in both how you engage with these important-yet-somewhat-superfluous characters, and would have better reflected the open nature of the game.
There’s not much emergent play either, it’s more an exploration-based system with rewards being weapons, treasure and other useful items. It’s not a bad thing, mind, because exploration in Breath of the Wild is utterly fantastic, but the game-world is oh-so big that at times it can be either too daunting to leave the beaten path, or simply a bit boring. At least after you’ve been doing it for a lengthy period of time. You’ll find things on the beaten path, but there are even sections of the game that if visited too early, simply won’t trigger. It’s open-world in many aspects, but it’s still a heavily-directed piece of game-design.
So what’s the point you say? Well, while the game-world is a number of interconnected unique zones with their own aesthetic look and feel, Breath of the Wild does a number of things differently to other open-world games. Weather, for example, is far more advanced, with things like lightning adversely affecting the area around you, with strikes causing fires; destroying parts of the environment, and even electrically charging any metal-based weaponry you might have on you. In fact, at one point I thought it would be a good idea to just drop everything from my person that was made from metal and just wait for the storm to pass, only to have the pile attract an immediate and angry bolt of lightning which caused a small explosion that had an AoE that hit me, which was manageable -- what wasn’t, however, was that the strike spread my pile of weapons and shields far and wide, with some landing in a deep pool of water where they couldn’t be retrieved.
Rain won’t allow you to utilise fire, and it’ll also make sheer surfaces too slippery to climb, while high winds can stop your paragliding in its air-traffic tracks. Weather is fundamentally one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, and has varying effects on the environment and how you can interact with it, while missions appear to build off this with what is probably scripted, but still challenging weather-based impediments to overcome. The game’s weather is also more predominantly gloomy than cheery, which I think is a way for Nintendo to mask the fill ratio of the game-world and ease up the game’s performance -- think ‘fogging’ from back in the day. It’s not detrimental though, after all, this Hyrule as it currently exists is dealing with 100 years of “Calamity Ganon” turmoil -- it’s as post-apocalyptic as a Nintendo-developed game is ever going to get.
The survival side of the game is also brilliant (though proper fishing is alarmingly absent
). Cooking will become your main gameplay loop as it serves as a loot bait, while learning new recipes and failing at others is a fun and engaging mini-game all its own. You can make food with everything from mushroom skewers to fish rice balls available for creation. Some recipes will offer up buffs, but you can also cook elixirs using critters and monster parts you collect from the baddies you take down. In some ways the cooking side of the game has a macabre twist which, if embraced properly, can actually benefit you long term. Certain areas require elixirs to get through them, or different types of clothing, such as dealing with freezing or scorching temperatures. And how you go about this is entirely up to you, which fits in nicely with the open nature of the game.
But there is a problem with the above, because it can become a tad tedious if you're cooking for a specific purpose, because then it's no longer about experimentation it just becomes a time sink. For example, if you want to take on a Lynel, you'll want attack power +. So a Prime Meat and four Mighty Bananas is the perfect meal. If you want to keep yourself replenished and full of attack power and hearts though, that means using the inventory to repeatedly put together the same ingredient list over and over. It's a great system that loses its magic once you master it, and becomes a bit dull.
Weapons, shields and armour are also different to previous versions of the franchise, where now players can simply pick up items dropped from enemies, or gain new and exciting variations through shrines and hidden chests. Annoyingly, however, they have a shelf life which in and of itself isn’t a bad concept -- in fact it fits in nicely with the survival/scavenger nature of the game, but that you can’t repair weapons, buy new ones (sort of) and therefore more easily manage your inventory is a bit of a let-down. The idea here is for players to go into most scenarios as prepared as possible, but with the aforementioned exploratory side of the game, you’ll often find yourself depleted of arrows, or with weapons and shields on the brink of ultimate destruction. You’re sort of forced to jump in and out of your inventory screens mid-battle, too, which infinitely interrupts the flow of the game’s action. This is detrimental because seamless combat here -- when you’re correctly armed -- is fun and engaging and does have a level of skill beyond button-mashing, if you want to get the most out of the systems in place.
Another part of the game that doesn’t truly live up to the series’ roots is in the Divine Beasts, which are essentially the ‘dungeons’ of this Zelda iteration. Frustratingly, they’re really very easy and the bosses you face at the closing of each one are just far too pedestrian in their challenge. Nintendo boss-battles from yesteryear are things of legend, and often required lateral thinking to beat, but in Breath of the Wild the dungeon bosses can be taken down almost exclusively with arrows, if you like. I found the basic Lynels stalking around the game-world far more challenging (and scary), while some of the ancient machines in combat shrines can be more difficult than any of the Calamity-infused dungeon bosses. And this really doesn’t help paint a picture of dread when it’s time to start thinking about taking on Ganon.
With all of that said, the gameplay loop of becoming more powerful here, and gaining new abilities while surviving out in the wild is pretty addictive. It’s a beautiful game by Nintendo HD standards, and is pretty hard to put down once you’re pulled into said gameplay loop. It’s not RPG by any measure because ultimately “becoming more powerful” is simply achieved by gaining heart containers and stamina containers from completing shrines, and then simply finding more powerful weapons and armour, and making sure you have enough of them to last should any of them break. Some specific weapons can be replaced by certain characters, but it’s all a little bit empty in the end. Shrines and Towers are great parts of the game that serve both functional, progressive purposes while also adding much-needed challenge to the game. But really in the end, the joy here is in the Nintendo nuance. Breath of the Wild can’t be compared to the likes of The Witcher 3 or Skyrim because it’s not trying to be those games -- it’s a Nintendo game -- and series -- all grown up. It has a lot to offer and will keep you engaged for lengthy periods of time. If you’re playing on Switch as you absolutely should be, then you can also Zelda wherever you go. It’s arguably not the best Zelda game, but damn, it might be the most polished, and the most ambitious.
Can’t wait for the promised DLC.