Instead of subtly mixing up the Zelda formula, Nintendo have decided to throw it all out and start again. Breath of the Wild begins on an incredibly compelling note. You have no idea what the world has to offer, and there is a huge hunger to uncover as much as possible. Every zone of the map is distinct and has unique stuff located there. The settlements really hammer home what Skyward Sword was missing, as they are detailed and joyous to spend time in. Gerudo Town impressed me especially, considering how the people have been short changed as pirates and thieves in previous games. Though it is hard to for me to get lost in the locations as I did with Outset Island and Windfall when I was a child, all the elements seem to be there for these places to give young gamers even fonder memories.
There are a few big set pieces, including taking down the Divine Beasts (four huge mechanical guardians of the land), which are often jaw-dropping but still give players all the control. The dungeon-like areas inside the Divine Beasts are all fantastic. These “dungeons” feel inspired by Majora’s Mask, and not just because there are four of them. They also all seem to take the concept of the topsy-turvy Stone Temple and build on it in ridiculous and imaginative ways.
There are 120 shrines in the game, that are all effectively single rooms ripped out of traditional dungeons. Shrine puzzles are really fun. The game is unable introduce new items as a consequence of its non-linearity, so some sense of progression and keeping things fresh is lost. However the developers never seem to run out of ideas, and introducing new localised features like electricity objects for puzzles really helps keep the shrines in the desert region distinct. However, other regions have less distinct running puzzle motifs. They may have them, such as fire, water, or using objects as switches, but it’s harder to notice their distinct concepts being carried through because these mechanics are all used throughout the game in open play.
Only a few cracks show through in the early game. The open world has to lay down elements, and hope the player strings them together in a satisfying order. The game tries its best to teach you about weather effects and how to deal with tough enemies, but when a player can bypass nearly anything, it’s very likely players will try to force themselves into places they should be better equipped to deal with. For example, two of the plateau shrines are located in the snowy mountains, probably in an attempt to make players consider cooking, or finding warmer clothing. But players should be forgiven for missing any of that information, and finding themselves in a frustrating position early on. To the game’s credit, I found moments of frustration, which are a given for open world games, quite rare. Notably, it is a lot easier, and more fun, to scale mountains than it is in Elder Scrolls games. There are one or two locations where your path is definitely restricted, and that’s because there’s a prescribed point of entry, which is usually designed nicely, like scaffolding along the cliffside. I did find the Rito divine beast very easy and the prelude to it was also the most undercooked. The easiness wasn’t a problem, but the fact that there was no reason it couldn’t be the final one a player goes too, which just doesn’t make sense in terms of generating satisfying narrative and gameplay.
I also disagree with people who say that game has totally fixed the logic problem of open world games that command the player to urgently save the world, while also expecting you to go and play card games. For a while, it does, but the player probably won’t organise their play time to beat all the shrines around the same time as the Divine Beasts. When you finish the Divine Beats, Impa shouts at you to go and fight Ganon immediately. And while you could argue that you need to improve yourself more in an organic way, you probably have enough hearts at this point to give it a go. So returning to simple puzzles and collecting little memories will probably take away from the intensity of the player’s narrative.
Speaking of the memories, this is an aspect of the game that isn’t necessarily flawed, but will probably be very divisive depending on tastes. Flashbacks mean there is no sense of urgency and movement in the cutscenes, as the meat of the narrative and character development happened 100 years ago. There is a bit of story with the young characters who help you get to each Divine Beast, but consider how little screen time they get overall. At first, I thought the idea of the champions being dead was very powerful. It was interesting for their stories to be in the past, and I assumed that their younger counterparts would take their places. But as it became apparent that their spirit forms meant they could do pretty much anything, it felt like the developers forfeited the poignancy that could have been achieved. There was some emotion in the cutscenes, and I partly respect that it didn’t try to yank on heart strings in a contrived way, but I still think Breath of the Wild could have been more powerful with more of an adult approach to death, and it would have given the living, breathing characters more to do.
The area where the game falls down the most is the art direction. It is a slight issue that all the shrines look the same, and not actually because the look and sound of them gets boring, but more the ubiquity of them means the game doesn’t build different atmospheres across the world and adventure. The overworld does have varied atmospheres, through music in towns and geography, but the Dark Souls series shows how interiors the huge castles, cathedrals and dungeons can have their own character without the need for overly regimented structure. It is very possible that the developers were just exhausted with the usual Zelda elemental theming. The series has pretty much covered every possible theme for dungeons at this point. It both makes sense, and also is a bit of a shame. It makes sense for all the shrines to look the same and have the same music, since you instantly understand the rules of the place you are in, and what your rewards will be. However, for all of Twilight Princess’ flaws, (and even this dungeon has design problems) the snow peak dungeon has heaps of atmosphere, and for a lot of Zelda fans, this is incredibly important, and Breath of the Wild lacks that in the dungeony areas.
The overall look of the game is an amalgamation between pretty much every previous style. It works as a sort of definitive look for the series, which allows for detailed characters and also cartoonish expressiveness, but it also means the game lacks character more than any recent Zelda game.
The score is wonderful for what it is, but it is too referential, more so than the rest of the game. There is some great variation on classic themes (Hyrule Castle especially), but it also suggests that the composers were talented enough to come up with a larger quantity of original stuff. There are some great pieces, but not enough considering that not all classic Zelda music has been established yet, as Wind Waker and Skyward Sword both introduced some great and catchy pieces. Breath of the Wild feels so fresh in terms of gameplay, it is odd that the music doesn’t match. Then again, maybe it makes perfect sense, as the music can work to ground the game in the series’ roots even if a lot of the game is unrecognisable. Perhaps the pieces are also not very distinct because they are activated so contextually, and maybe in an album format the themes can get more recognition.
There is a meandering patch in the game: you’ve done all the Divine Beasts, there is no more wonder to discovering new areas and the slog of the rest of the shrines looms over you (if you intend to do them all). But near the close of the game, you do become empowered, as you command the entire map. There are also stakes, as you get a feeling of who Link and Zelda must be, just through gameplay, which a lot of commentators speak about with games, but doesn’t often get pulled off.The memories do give just enough insight into Link as a human being, rather than just an avatar for a fun adventure, that we consider what an actual person would feel on this quest, and how much they must care about their home and Zelda.
From the emotional to the technical, it is impressive that the economy never gets out of hand and always stays relevant. Costume customisation, which is difficult at the start, becomes easy when you are wealthier and have a backlog of items for dyeing, meaning you can turn Link into whoever you please. You may not be able to name Link this time, but making him look however you want gives you some choice over who he is. (Pink Link!) Combat also gets better as it goes along: initially it isn’t very important as you can run away from most encounters and not be penalised because there is no levelling up. But later, there is more reason to fight, with white Bokoblins that give more rewards and the ability to exchange monster parts. Importantly for me, right near the close of the game when I thought it found everything, I came across Lurelin Village. It was so close to another town that I hadn’t thought to look there for the entire game, but this little seaside town has its own culture and music. Even though it is a tiny location, and it is totally missable if you don’t want to complete every shrine, it was the little bit of detail the game needed near the end to keep me happy.
At the end, you are reminded that this is a story just about Link and Zelda. Without the usual fanfare around secondary characters. With the additional cutscene, it isn’t a disappointing ending, but it still feels stripped back. It also makes me wonder about how Nintendo will go about DLC. Will it go the Fallout 3 route and continue from the ending, giving you a mission to rebuild Hyrule like a larger-scale version of Tarrey town. Will it just add other areas? With more stuff to do the game would almost certainly be even better than it already is. With substantial DLC, Nintendo have the chance to build more on an already great game. Nintendo could finally do expansions well and make a definitive version of Breath of the Wild that has a scope that no past Zelda game could have achieved at launch. However, this is Nintendo we are talking about, so we might just have to be content with this formula shake-up that resulted in a good and refreshing Zelda game.