Video Games Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, 2017) makes the act of discovery itself your greatest reward

I spent a good half an hour trying to come up with a headline for this review before settling on the one you just clicked on. I spent a lot longer trying to review the game itself — you may notice that we’re coming in rather later with this review than some of our contemporaries. The reason for this is that every time I would try to put The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild down long enough to try and actually write something about it, it would drag me back into its immersive, living world. During these periods, hours would fall off the clock and when I’d finally put the game down and tell myself it was time to work it would be dark outside. It’s been a long time since a game has held my entire life to ransom like this. It’s easy to get lost in Breath of the Wild, which is a good thing because that’s exactly what the game wants you to do.

I’ve been playing Zelda games for a very long time. Not as long as some, I was a Sega kid — don’t hold that against me, I made my choice and I still stand by my Mega Drive II some 25 years later. My first Zelda experience was Ocarina of Time and what an earth-shattering one it was. I’d never played a game like it. The stakes were monumental, the scale of it unprecedented and its story of Link’s rise from Kokiri weirdo to Hero of Time was an inviting one for a 15-year-old chunk of walking social kryptonite like me.

Nintendo leaned hard on the Ocarina formula, as they always do when they hit on an arrangement that works, and every major console outing for Zelda over the next fifteen years was very much cut from that mold. People were ready for a change by the time Twilight Princess released on the Wii and when Skyward Sword was met with ambivalence from many a Zelda-devotee it must have been clear to Nintendo that something had to change.

(In fairness, the series has been working interesting new mechanics into every one of its mobile releases since the Ocarina era. This assessment is only taking major console releases into account. A Link Between Worlds remains one of the best Zelda games made in the post-Ocarina era on any system.)

Breath of the Wild dials back the linearity of older titles, preferring a much more open ended approach to play. It looks at games like, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, Dark Souls and attempts to create a world that feels both clearly defined and ripe for exploration. This is a game that trusts its players to key into what it’s trying to do and what it asks in return is that you keep your wits about you. Failure to stay vigilant in Breath of the Wild, even for a moment, will result in a sound thrashing.

When Nintendo first announced that this new Zelda title would be open world, I think we were all a little hesitant. Surely Nintendo wouldn’t succumb to anything so disastrous as the frequent Ubisoft trap of creating spacious open worlds and filling them with the same eight mission-types over and over? We, quite clearly, needn’t have worried. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s approach to its new open world design is simple — the journey is the reward.

Weapon and gear drops, like many of the well-worn Zelda systems, don’t happen the way they used to. Previously Link had a set amount of gear that would eventually be collected as you ticked dungeons off your to do list. Now Link can equip a variety of weapons and armour, building up his strength and ability in this way rather than by relying on a large number of hearts to get by. Your weapons will degrade over time and ultimately break which means you’ll constantly have to be on the look out for replacement weapons and have a plan for what to do when they break on you. Even horses must be captured in the wild and tamed before you can ride them — nothing is simply handed to you any more.

While that might sound as though you are defenseless, everything you need to get through a significant chunk of the game is introduced in the game’s first few hours while ensconced in a sizeable chunk of map. Once you are turned loose into the game’s world map (a landmass so gigantic my jaw dropped in amazement when first realising just how huge it was) there’s almost nothing in Breath of the Wild that is placed behind any kind of equipment gate. If you can travel there, you can get started right away. The trick is that, as I mentioned earlier, your curiosity may be your downfall. Breath of the Wild is packed to the rafters with unforgiving creatures that will murder you the instant they catch sight of you. If I was blown away by getting to make one Dark Souls comparison in this review imagine, if you can, how I feel getting to make two: this is, by far, the hardest Zelda game Nintendo have released since maybe A Link to the Past. You are going to die, and you are going to die a lot. For fans who have been griping about the series’ historically easy difficulty, this should come as a welcome surprise. The only way to know that you’ve been outclassed by any enemy is whether they can kill you in one hit or not. This will happen with surprisingly regularity, especially in the early  game. Early on, dealing with the low-tier moblins and other cronies is enough to give you a bit of a big head. It’s not until you get out into the wider world that you begin to realise just what a pipsqueak you are. Again and again I was instantly shown the door by an enemy I hadn’t realised was far more powerful than I, but each time I respawned nearby, presumably in the hope that I’d learned some sort of lesson about the world and my place in it. It’s here that the comparisons to Dark Souls come to a halt though — death doesn’t cost you everything you’ve got, only the potential sacrifice of time spent returning to the site of your demise.

None of this is to suggest that the game is entirely devoid of Zeldaisms. You play, as ever, Link, the longtime series hero and protector of Hyrule. There are many things to explore. Zelda is, once again, damseled within a game that bears her name in spite of some rad as hell cutscenes that indicate she’s been waging a war of her own from inside the overthrown remains of Hyrule Castle.

The game begins with Link awakening (heh) in a temple he doesn’t recognise and venturing out into a world that seems to know rather pointedly who he is. There’s intrigue dripping from every nook and cranny, from the ruins of what was clearly at one time a sprawling city to the whiff of long-dormant and rather futuristic technology strewn about the place.

It’s a neat narrative hook and one that fits the series perfectly. It allows returning veterans to feel like they have something familiar to latch onto but also lets the game revel in its many mysteries. Link himself remains voiceless, despite several NPC’s getting voiced dialogue throughout the game, and it helps to maintain his reputation for being an era-spanning Self Insert Hero.

The Zelda series has been striving to nail down its visual style after the series-defining visuals of The Wind WakerTwilight Princess dialed back the cartoony look in favour of gritty realism (realism demanded by the fan community who longed for a return to Ocarina‘s Dark Future Timeline) and Skyward Sword tried to send the dial back the other way, but stopped short of the cel-shaded look. Breath of the Wild feels like the first time Nintendo have found the perfect spot on the slider between the two.

I’ve seen it said elsewhere but the comparison isn’t without merit so I’ll repeat it — Breath of the Wild’s visuals frequently reminded me of a Studio Ghibli film, the devil being squarely in the details. The way rain beads off of Link. The way his clothes move in the wind. The way the characters you meet are dressed. The way enemies move and react, and the way they are designed, with a logic that belies their place in this wild new Hyrule. The special moves and abilities he unlocks as he goes. All of it evokes the kind of attention-to-detail of Miyazaki at his best.

Breath of the Wild also introduces some light crafting into the mix, starting with cooking, something the game does an admittedly atrocious job of teaching the player about. Cooking involves getting Link to hold a bunch of ingredients and throw them into a ceramic bowl over a fire to create nourishing meals that will restore health and provide various stat buffs like speed or stamina. It’s a very loose system and rewards experimentation but the game does nothing to teach you about how it works. Crafting these meals is essential to your survival which makes Nintendo’s decision to omit anything resembling a tutorial all the more bewildering. I did say earlier that Nintendo puts a lot of trust in its players in Breath of the Wild but maybe their trust in me was misplaced here.

(To be honest, when you can sink 50 hours into a game and “they wouldn’t teach me how to cook” is the worst criticism you can come up with, that’s a good way to know you’re playing something special.)

I mentioned earlier that Breath of the Wild won’t keep you from going where you want, but that won’t stop it from throwing the odd roadblock in your path. The game does this by giving Link a certain amount of athletic ability in the form of a stamina wheel. Link can climb most surfaces, he can use a hang glider and can even swim right from the jump, but he can only do these things for as long as the stamina wheel holds out. Once it depletes, he is exhausted and cannot continue. That is, unless you cook up a meal that restores his stamina, in whole or in part, allowing him to soldier on and reach places that might have been otherwise inaccessible.

There’s a lot of lateral thinking in Breath of the Wild. Puzzles that lie within the game’s many shrines are to be solved using actual logic, not the kind of fuzzy logic most video games tend to run with. Largely physics based, they make sense and carry a feeling of real accomplishment when you figure them out.

This extends to the environments too. The game is filled with simple rule that in other games may not apply. You can’t start a fire in a rain storm for instance. Climbing wet surfaces will cause Link to slip and fall. Wind can be used to get up high using your parachute. There are hundreds of these little lessons and figuring them out never feels like you were led to them. Even in its smallest moments, Breath of the Wild gives you much of what you need you to figure things out for yourself, but leaves you to connect the dots. I know that might seems like it runs a little counter to my point about the cooking earlier, but I’m not talking about a significant mechanic here. I’m talking about incredibly minor tics of the game world proper.

This sense of reward and accomplishment is the engine that propels Breath of the Wild forward. Every step forward is an adventure. What’s over the next hill? Let’s find out! Is that a goddamned sword sticking out of a rock in the middle of a lake? Let’s find out what that’s about. What can I see from the top of this tower? Who knows? Let’s hike up and have a look!

Those looking for a solid combat experience won’t be disapointed either. Combat functions much the same way it has since Ocarina but without all the dreaded waiting. Some enemies play it safe and try to wait you out, striking when the time is right, but others will simply bum rush you and try to break your shield. You’ll find yourself weighing up the benefits of ambushing a Moblin hideout — going in could yield much needed supplies, but you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot of weapon durability to do it. You might even end up with a weapon shattering on you. What happens if there’s heaps of the little bastards and you get overrun? Or you can’t land your arrows and end up wasting a lot of them? Last time I tried this I threw my boomerang and one of them caught it out of the air. One guy picked up a smaller guy and threw him at me! You never know what to expect from any combat interaction and it adds a push-pull dynamic to the combat, an added sense of vulnerability, and I couldn’t be more welcoming of it.

Also, and maybe this is me being super nitpicky, but oh my god it’s so nice to play a Zelda game that doesn’t rely entirely on shaking a Wii remote at the screen. I’m sorry, Nintendo. I loved the Wii, I did. But I won’t miss waving a sword around one bit.

This new gameloop of explore and investigate, plan and decide, is a big part of this new Zelda presumably because it allows the game to hide what isn’t there. The game eschews the classic carrot-stick design of older titles in favour of these moment-to-moment pieces of enjoyment. The further into the game I got, the lack of these classic dungeons became more and more apparent. It wasn’t enough to derail my enjoyment by any means, but I did begin to notice it.

Which, to wrap up, brings me to my other minor annoyances with Breath of the Wild. I mentioned controls earlier and these are excellent, particularly if you shelled out for the Switch Pro Controller. That said, I did still find myself wrestling with the camera on occasion, usually with the bow when I was pressed up against something behind me. Further, as beautiful as the game is on the Switch, it is prone to some of the craziest frame rate drops I’ve seen in a Triple-A release in some time. This really only seems to happen while the game is docked, and happened most frequently to me whenever I’d venture into a heavily wooded area. I did notice it pop up once or twice while playing in the handheld mode too, by and large the game ran a great deal better while playing this way. These drops are only momentary and they won’t ruin your experience but they certainly leap out at you when they happen.

Ultimately, Breath of the Wild is a clarion call from Nintendo that the Zelda series is finally growing up once again. The Ocarina era was fun while it lasted, but it’s time for something new and with this game Nintendo has owned up to that. It assumes its audience is clever and resourceful and this has allowed Nintendo to create something of immense scale, beauty and importance. It takes Zelda as we know it and experiments wildly, asking us to trust it. It changes a lot of what series fans have long taken for granted, but it never, ever feels like anything but Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece. It represents precisely the kind of thinking I’ve wanted to see from Nintendo for years, and I hope it is a trend that continues into its other properties.

Metroid next, please?

Score: 10 out of 10
Highlights: Bravery in design; trust in the player; the act of discovery is its own reward; challenging as hell
Lowlights: Some frame rate stutter in docked mode
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release date: Out now
Platform: Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii U

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.