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

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I love Zelda, let’s just be clear about that up front. There are posters on my walls, amiibo and other figures on every shelf, and even my favorite blanket has the Triforce on it. The series has a soft spot in my heart, so the fact that I asked to review this game should have been a dead giveaway that I just wanted to stroke its Master Sword for a few thousand words, but that’s not entirely the case.

I wanted this review to be an exercise in objective critique. Despite the vast amount of perfect 10 review scores out there, the game is not perfect. It’s beautiful, plays very smoothly, and redefines the open world game model in a lot of amazing ways, but it also has a lot of aspects that feel either dated or just not well thought out. But let’s start with a rundown, for the two of you who don’t know yet what this game is.

Breath of the Wild is the closest we’ve seen to a spiritual successor to the original Legend of Zelda game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, as it trades in the traditional model, in recent years, of an overlong tutorial followed by a mostly straightforward adventure through a few handful of mostly elemental-based dungeons where you traverse complicated puzzles to get a new progression tool and then fight an over-the-top boss that is always weak to the item you just got, like they tried to take a page out of the Megaman book but only read the poorly translated Cliffnotes. Luckily, this game abandons almost all of those conventions in favor of a beginning tutorial that lasts all of 5 minutes, features the first attempt of providing true voice acting in the series, and essentially just teaches you how to walk and use your newly introduced stamina feature.

After you exit the tutorial room, you can pretty much go anywhere right away in the confines of the beginning area. So right off the bat, the game isn’t quite as open as it was advertised, but it’s a matter of necessity, so it’s forgivable. It does feel a bit more like a hand-holding tutorial area than, say, the original Zelda game, where some guy just holds out a sword and says “Go nuts, kid”. A wise old man flies in randomly to explain what you should do next, but other than that you’re left to your own devices for the first few hours as the ideas of an open world are introduced to classic Nintendo players who might have played every Zelda, but not things like Skyrim or Far Cry.

The player is introduced to the basic concepts of the game, such as small puzzle shrines (which act like mini-dungeons that get you this game’s equivalent of heart pieces, and sometimes other useful items as well), cooking, weapon durability, and clothing, all of which are departures from the classic Zelda formula. This is also where you get essentially your only 4 tools for manipulating the world in the game. Aside from the sailcloth, these tools are Bombs, Magnesis, Stasis, and Cryo. These powers are often combined to solve puzzles, such as moving a metal object into position using Magnesis, and then freezing it in time with Stasis before hitting it repeatedly to set up a motion path for it when it unfreezes, and then it shoots off in the direction you set, activating a platform.

After leaving this plateau, and getting the first knowledge of the overarching story, the game opens up in its entirety. This is the moment advertised where the player can go straight to fighting the end boss, Ganon. Although, it is extremely hard to do and you debatably couldn’t even beat him without…you know…that sword. But the game is true to its concept, and that’s refreshing. In fact, my brother and I both started playing at the same time and agreed that we would leave the plateau in opposite directions, and then when we got back together we compared our progress and it was kind of amazing to hear about our gameplay differences just from taking diverging paths, and it’s a testament to the quality of this game’s mechanics that the open world concept works, considering it’s not something that Nintendo has really done with its franchises before.

I ended up playing for close to 20 hours before I decided to try out the first dungeon, and that was just because I had ended up near it through my exploration. I figured I should see how they were different too. And they’re quite different! I won’t spoil them here, but I will say that they exist on the world map just like everything else, but you won’t just randomly glide into them…it’s pretty great how they managed to still make them feel special in comparison to all the other small shrines and trials littered around the map.

The game also feels like kind of a celebration of the 30 years of Zelda mechanics all mashed into one game. The developers directly lauded the comparisons to the original game, with its open world sense of discovery and lack of guidance, and it has other notable influences such as a lot of combat cues from Twilight Princess, enemy behavior and weapon stealing from Wind Waker, and that sense of completing dungeons in any order from A Link Between Worlds, but I’d say it’s actually most similar to my long-time favorite entry, Majora’s Mask.

Majora’s Mask has a world that also feels open, even though each wing is blocked by item progression and a larger focus on interacting with the world and its inhabitants than on the main quest. Both games only have four dungeons and most of the important items come from world exploration instead of story progression, and both have a world that feels alive. Majora’s Mask accomplishes this by its time travel loop mechanic giving NPCs paths and activities from hour to hour. Breath of the Wild does this by its day/night cycle and active weather systems, where people won’t talk to you if they’ve just woken up, or if they’re running away to avoid the rain. Breath of the Wild wears its inspirations on its sleeve, taking cues from past Zelda games as well as other open-world games in order to create something that feels both familiar and wholly new, and every bit of it is beautiful and engaging.

I’m not a huge fan of open world games. It’s not that I don’t like them, mechanically, I just get easily overwhelmed by them. In games like Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry, you unlock an area map through some kind of tower climbing mechanic and it populates that area with all the missions, side quests, and collectibles in that area…and I immediately get clammy hands and an anxious sense of ADD as I stare at the seemingly thousand tiny symbols littering every inch of the map in order to make it look like the world isn’t empty…but what it really does is make me want to hit the Home button on my controller and play something less exhausting, because, as the ancient meme stated “ain’t nobody got time for dat”.

I’m almost 30, okay? I can’t keep up with what’s new and funny to the kids these days. Give me this one.

Breath of the Wild, alternatively, has a simple tower climbing mechanic that only unveils the area map for you (essentially it imbues your Switch-shaped Sheikah Slate with the cartography information for that area). Logically, though, Link is already in a high place in order to survey the area through a special zoom feature of the Slate and can mark areas of importance on the map that he can see in the distance. This might seem like a small thing, but it makes all the difference from an exploration standpoint.

Instead of just running from thing to thing littering your map and ignoring empty spaces, you are creating your own unique map and carving out a piece of the world for yourself to play in. Every trek across the varied landscapes are opportunities to look for treasures you might have missed from your eagle-eyed view atop the tower. While the world isn’t as populated as some of these other games, it never feels empty because it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Breath of the Wild also isn’t afraid to have long expanses of empty space, where you can just take a moment to breathe or stumble across a quiet campfire where you can cook and manage your inventory. There’s also just a strange satisfaction in figuring out the best way to get where you’re trying to go, which usually boils down to a combination of scaling a mountain and then paragliding to the next high platform. You could also pour all of your shrine rewards into stamina increases and hope no enemies ever hit you or make stamina-boosting food for Link to eat while climbing making him both buff and fat at the same time.

There is no one right way to do anything in the game and it’s immensely satisfying to be stuck on something forever before switching up your tactic, even if it feels like cheating. The realistic physics of this game encourage you to abuse them. For example, in one of the aforementioned annoying motion controlled puzzle, you must guide a ball through a maze by turning the Joy-Con. The sensitive movements required leads to a rather frustrating experience than satisfying. The most popular method for solving this puzzle is to tilt the maze as far as possible so the ball drops on top of the maze instead of inside it and then quickly flick it out of the maze and onto the activation pad to complete the puzzle. I’m convinced that it’s the proper solution and that actually solving the maze is just another less viable option.

The weather has an active effect on the world, as opposed to just being a visual element like in pretty much every other game. When it rains, surfaces are slippery and almost impossible to climb, and when it turns into a thunderstorm metal objects become lightning rods, and anyone equipped with them, Link included, can be electrocuted and instant-killed. Also, fire spreads across flammable surfaces, round objects roll realistically down surfaces according to the laws of physics, and extreme temperatures require special clothing or food that adjust Link’s body temperature to adapt so he doesn’t take damage.

While I could write endlessly about the qualities I love for Breath of the Wild, I want to take some time to discuss what doesn’t work so well. For every brilliant move this game makes, it takes one step in the wrong direction as well. As much as I love the combat systems in Breath of the Wild, with the various weapon and arrow types you can use, there is rarely any incentive to actually fight on the world map because the durability of most weapons is so bad and the rewards of combat so meager. As amazing as most of the shrine puzzles are, they are the only way to get the upgrade pieces for hearts and stamina, outside of dungeons.

Inventory increases only come from hidden Koroks, so the rewards for other world secrets usually boil down to the same materials you can gather in the wild, occasionally rupees (which you get more of from selling materials anyway), and new equipment, but the 10th time you expend 3 good weapons to take out a mob of Moblins just to open a treasure chest with one worse weapon and then collect all their guts and tails, you start to wonder if it was really worth it in the first place.

That takes a bit of the spirit out of the exploring unless you just enjoy the journey of getting around and solving combat puzzles in a unique way, which I do. There are satisfying moments of sneaking up on a group and setting off an explosion that kills everyone in one hit or dropping out of a glide to shoot an arrow at the one enemy guarding the treasure, taking it, and retreating before the others figure out you’re there. For the most part, when it comes to conflict, I’d just run away unless it looked like a new enemy with a cool weapon or shield I wanted to take or I had to fight my way out of a trap.

The weather, also, isn’t a perfect system. I really do love how dynamic of a system it is, and there’s even a nice indicator on the screen, which may or may not be sponsored by Weather.com. One of the most frustrating aspects of this game, that kills the momentum of my enjoyment and makes me want to stop playing is when I’m halfway up a mountain I’ve been scaling for 10 minutes and the weather shifts to rain and suddenly my grip fails.

This occurs more than once and it kills that sense of adventure when all that progress is ruined by a random weather shift. Thunderstorms are a little more fun, because they affect the enemies as well, but it is a minor inconvenience when you see Link’s equipment start flickering, indicating he’s being targeted by a lightning strike, and you have to either unequip all the metal you’re wearing or face imminent death by involuntary electroshock therapy. This is slightly alleviated by the fact that you can sneak up and drop a metal sword in the middle of a sleeping group of enemies and then watch as they all wake up to the flash of light a second before they’re roasted, and then you run in and collect all the remains (and usually some cooked food).

The way these mechanics can be played with in clever ways are really fun, but when they negatively affect your ability to explore and play the game, it can ruin the experience. The systems of the game should enhance your ability to enjoy the game. It should not be detrimental to enjoyment. I’m perfectly okay with the suspension of disbelief when it comes to how Link interacts with the world if it makes the game more pleasant to traverse. There are already other times when the world breaks its own rules, such as shooting a fire arrow into a wooden Moblin tree house and the fire quickly fizzles out rather than taking out the entire tree, so I don’t see why that same bent logic can’t be applied to Link’s exploration mechanics.

The cooking mechanics are a good example of gameplay mechanics not intuitively designed, as well as how poorly thought out the inventory system is. To cook, you select an item in your inventory, select Hold, and then you can either just hold that one thing, or grab up to 5 things in total. To cook the held item(s) you exit the inventory screen and you drop those 5 things in a lit cooking pot and create some kind of concoction based on what you put in the pot. Want to cook more? Repeat this process.

This system in itself is a bit clunky, but there’s also no set way to know what you’re going to create and will sometimes end up with a gross pixelated slop of cafeteria food that surprisingly still heal you, but also, wastes otherwise good ingredients. Unlike Final Fantasy XV, there isn’t an Ignis-level system of new recipes to create as you experiment. There are obvious combinations like cooking multiple pieces of meat together to create a meat skewer or adding a flavor additive like rock salt to slightly increase the health bonuses the food will give you. However, if you want to make a recipe that will provide stat boosts or elemental resistances, you need to memorize combinations of ingredients or be alert to what NPCs tell you and what the posters at the stables show.

Breath of the Wild doesn’t have a proper recipe system, as far as I’ve seen in the 30-40 hours I’ve played so far. There is no way to see what possible dishes you could make based on the food you currently have in your inventory. This makes the cooking system slow and unnecessarily tedious. If you don’t want to rely on switching out equipment for different encounters, it’s a necessary evil in the game, especially during some later battles where it really feels necessary because a lot of these enemies hit hard. This isn’t a complaint so much as a PSA, but this is easily the hardest Zelda game since the first one (or the second, if you liked that sort of thing), and you will die a lot unless you have food to increase defense, attack, hearts, and other stat boosts.

Breath of the Wild’s cooking mechanics also gives way to a larger issue, though, the inventory itself. As I mentioned, the ingredients menu is a little awkward and slow, but the real problem occurs with equipment slots. You start the game with very few slots each for weapons, bows, and shields. When they fill up and you pick up another one a prompt appears saying your inventory is full. If you want that item, you are driven into the menu to drop something and pick up the item you want.

This is a hassle when you have so few equipment slots in the first place. It becomes a constant inconvenience, and I don’t see how it didn’t occur to Nintendo they needed a solution. A button prompt to ask if you want to switch out your weapon would have been an easy solution in these situations to alleviate this almost constant annoyance. For bows and shields, this occurs less often because there is less variety. Factor in a slot for a torch, boomerangs, a hammer for breaking rocks, any magic rods you might want for special occasions you are left with very few slots to rotate out regular-use weapons.

This game could have benefited from another tab for tools, such as torches, so the weapon slots could be used solely for swords, axes, staffs, and other types of melee weapons. There is a wide variety of weapons in this game and it’s impossible to have room for them all. The weapons break so regularly and you don’t want to risk dropping something good in order to try out a new weapon that you might not like or that might not last as long. There is no indicator for durability outside of onscreen prompts letting you know it’s about to break and some slight visual cues if you look closely.

The problem stacks up when you find an item in a chest, and you don’t have enough space, the game immediately puts it back in the chest. A prompt to switch out what you just got would come in handy, but instead, you’re just expected to keep your already small inventory less than full in order to account for new weapons. This gets worse when you complete a side quest where the reward is a new item. When your inventory is full the quest giver will reward you with rupees instead of the item. Having no room in my inventory triggered a different reward for a quest. It’s infuriating that instead of having a solution to the problem, they wrote in an alternate reward. Small things like that that add up to this game being both revolutionary and behind the times.

There isn’t a single one of these complaints that took me out of the game and the only one that even remotely angered me to the point of wanting to take a break was the weather issues. This game is absolutely amazing and not only is it now my favorite Zelda game. Although, that’s subject to change. I said the same thing about Skyward Sword and that game did NOT hold up on a second playthrough. Breath of the Wild is also one of my favorite games of all time already. In case this lengthy diatribe isn’t enough to convince you, I’ll just say that it’s been kind of torturous to even take so long writing this because I’d rather just be playing it. Why do you think I wrote this article and not make a video?

“Ain’t nobody got time for dat.”

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