The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
It’s been six years and two consoles since the last major home console Zelda game, Skyward Sword, and fans have understandably been getting a little antsy about getting their hands on Breath of the Wild. Originally slated as a Wii U exclusive, it’s been delayed enough to become a launch title for the Nintendo Switch (though there’s still a Wii U version too, for non-early adopters). With the rest of the launch lineup looking a bit sparse, it’s probably fair to say that most of Nintendo’s early Switch hopes are hanging on Zelda: so can it bear the weight?
While Skyward Sword was mostly well received, it also felt a bit tired. It was the latest in a long line of games closely aping the successful format of the N64’s Ocarina of Time, and things were beginning to feel a bit stale. Nintendo was clearly listening, and Breath of the Wild feels like nothing more than a response to that criticism. Instead of a slow tutorial, you’re thrown straight into the world and told to fend for yourself. Instead of picking up a specific item that you use to solve puzzles in each dungeon, you get a range of powers right at the beginning of the game and have to figure out which to use when. And, perhaps most importantly, instead of a rigidly structured set of environments, you’re thrown into a massive open world that you can explore with almost total freedom.
To anyone who played A Link Between Worlds on Nintendo’s 3DS, some of these changes will feel familiar. That game also allowed you to tackle dungeons in any order, and gave you access to almost every item early on, but Breath of the Wild pushes things even further. For one thing, your puzzle-solving tools are no longer tied to specific items like the Hookshot or Bombs. Instead, they are split between your normal weapons and the Runes – a selection of abilities on the Sheikah Slate, a small tabletesque device that Link discovers at the beginning of the game.
Some of the Runes will be familiar, such as bombs, which now come in both sphere and cube variants and are detonated remotely, rather than on a timer. Others are more novel. Magnesis lets you pick up and move metal objects from a distance, Cryonis allows you to create pillars of ice on top of water, and Stasis lets you freeze specific objects in time and imbue them with kinetic energy while they’re frozen – whack a boulder a couple of times while it’s frozen, and after Stasis wears off it’ll go flying away.
Other Zelda staples have now been folded into the main weapon system. You can equip a variety of melee weapons, shields, bows and arrows, and as you play you’ll regularly switch up your gear. Instead of being limited to simple swords, you can equip sledgehammers, spears, boomerangs, and even a mop as your melee weapon – and can swap between them on the fly. They can also all be thrown at enemies, though obviously only a boomerang is likely to come back afterwards. In a neat twist, however, you now need to nail the timing to catch it as it flies back to you, else you’ll embarrassingly let it clatter to the ground. Each weapon, shield and bow has both a strength rating and a durability, so there’s a constant push-pull between wanting to equip your best (and coolest looking) gear and wanting to save it from eventually breaking. You can also equip, upgrade, and dye various bits of clothing, which also come with their own stats and special effects.
Still, as much as all the game’s systems have changed, most of the basic mechanics have stayed the same. Combat feels instantly familiar, encouraging you to lock onto enemies, guard with your shield, and strike when they’re vulnerable. There are a few alterations even here though. For one, a successful dodge or backflip now lets you perform a slo-mo flurry of attacks for maximum damage, which is a welcome flourish. The introduction of different melee weapon types, including two-handed ones, also shifts the dynamic – Zelda has had
varied melee weapons before, but has never encouraged you to use them so often, and players will want to experiment to find their preferred fighting styles and weapons.
It’s a welcome point of familiarity as you go about exploring this brave new (open) world of Zelda. Thankfully, the game gives you a gentle introduction through the opening Plateau area, which will take most players two or three hours to complete. This is where you’ll learn the main mechanics and systems, collect the Runes across four minidungeons called Shrines (more on those later), and eventually earn the Paraglider, which you’ll need to survive the drop from the edge and make it out into the wider world.
From there, it’s up to you. The game will point you in a specific direction to follow the main questline, but you can ignore that and strike off wherever you like. The map is broken into 15 main areas (counting the initial Plateau), each of which is uncharted until you scale the tower at its centre – someone at Nintendo has clearly been paying attention to Ubisoft’s open world titles. Over the course of the first 20 hours or so we’ve managed to visit about half of the map, though the areas we’ve visited are far from completed, and we’ve still got a lot of the main story left to go. Simply put, the game and world both feel absolutely massive, and we can easily believe that Breath of the Wild is up there with Final Fantasy XV and The Witcher 3 when it comes to mammoth runtimes.
There’s plenty of stuff to do along the way, too. The world is littered with side quests that you can pick up from any of the NPCs dotted around the world. Then there are the Shrines, small dungeons that contain either puzzles, platforming challenges, or combat trials, and reward you with Spirit Orbs – they’re essentially Pieces of Heart, except that once you collect four you can trade them in for a boost to either your health or your stamina, which you use for climbing, sprinting, and swimming. You can also try and track down hidden Koroks littered around the world, search for hidden chests and items, and compete in a variety of mini-games and challenges. That’s not even mentioning the expansive cooking system, which sees you hunting and foraging for ingredients, which can be combined to make meals and elixirs to restore health and provide a few other buffs and status effects.
The game’s so big that we haven’t had time to finish the main quest yet, even after a week of playtime, but what we have seen has impressed us. Without giving too much away, there are a few tweaks to the normal Zelda formula, not least that you play as a Link who fought Ganon – and lost – 100 years earlier before being put into a sort of stasis. Much of the story is told in flashbacks triggered by visiting certain locations, which means its possible to watch them out of order. That sounds like it might be confusing, but instead the disjointed structure elevates the otherwise simple plot, and making Link an amnesiac is a great twist on his classic ‘blank slate’ nature.
With so many side quests and other activities, there’s less of a focus on dungeons here than in past titles. There are fewer of them, and they’re shorter, but they make up for it with an epic, cinematic scale, and they’re tied more closely to main storyline – and Link himself – than ever before. And don’t worry, the Master Sword is in there too, though it might take a little work to find it – and even more to earn the right to wield it.
The game is beautiful, and it’s a treat to see Hyrule brought into the world of HD. The landscape is awash with colour during the day, and foreboding and ominous by night. We’ve seen lush forests, sparse fields, and frozen mountaintops, and we’re sure there’s more over the horizon to find. Hyrule is packed with animals and enemies brought to life with fluid, vivid animations. We have had some very occasional framerate stutters when using some of the visually complex Runes like Magnesis, but otherwise performance is smooth, either docked or in handheld mode. As for controls, we’ve tried it with both the Joy-Con and the Pro Controller (sold separately), and much prefer the latter – it’s a more comfortable size, while the Joy-Con button configuration feels slightly squashed in a game like this.
There’s a comprehensive map to go along with the huge world, which lets you set stamps and markers
to help you remember enemies, chests, shrines, and secrets that you want to go back for later on. Trying to walk across the map would take ages, but in fine Zelda tradition you can get yourself a horse to speed things up. You won’t be given one though, instead you’ll have to catch a wild horse, break it in, and register it at a stable. You can name horses, and keep up to five at a time, each with their own stats, from speed to temperament – we have no doubt there’ll be some players devoting hours to finding the perfect steed.
If there’s any criticism, it’s that occasionally it almost feels too expansive. There’s so much to do, and so many options at any given time, that the game feels overwhelming, and you can be a bit paralysed by choice at times, or spend hours wandering around before realising that you haven’t really achieved anything at all. Still, most of the side quests feel purposeful and engaging, and you never feel like you’re just being stuck spending time on filler. The less completionist among us can ignore most the side stuff and dive straight into the main story – it’s even theoretically possible to go straight to kill Ganon after you exit the starting area, but we’d guess that it wouldn’t end very well for you. Still, the Zelda speedrunning community is going to love it.
Heading straight for the endgame would not only give you a hell of a fight, but you’d also miss out on the best that Breath of the Wild has to offer. Hyrule is the star of the show here, and the game is at its best when you simply let yourself explore and see what you find. It’s in those moments, catching a glimpse of a dragon flowing through the mist on the horizon and wondering how you can get there, that Breath of the Wild feels truly magical.
After 20 hours with the game, we still feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of Breath of the Wild. It borrows the best of modern open-world games and pairs it with the inimitable Zelda polish and feel, resulting in one of the best Zelda games yet. We can’t wait to get back into Hyrule, and we’ll be there for a very long time. Dominic Preston