An incredible risk should chase an incredible reward. When the risk doesn’t reap a reward, it should be called out for what it is: a failure. On the other hand, when the risk pays off, what are we looking at? When the risk is so great, what happens when it all comes up aces? A reward that defies all expectations.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Nintendo Switch [Reviewed], Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 3 March 2016
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game predicated on this experience. Taking the risk you want to take for the reward you want to claim is at the heart of this genre-addressing installment in the fabled Legend of Zelda series. With thirty years of prestige, quality and industry-inspiring craftsmanship under its weathered green tunic, the risk involved in bringing such a franchise to the open-world genre (formally, at least) was monumental, but the experience has paid off in virtually every conceivable way. In light of this, how are we not looking at an unmitigated blockbuster success of a video game?
The simple fact is: that is exactly what we are looking at.
The core tenets of the game’s premise reflect a meta-consideration upon the franchise on a whole, and a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of your assumptions are required to believe in the open-air setting of Breath of the Wild. Can I really climb that tree? Can I actually set that enemy shield on fire? Did that Wizzarobe literally summon a thunderstorm in the middle of our battle just to stop me getting to those bannanas!? Your core assumptions of what a game can achieve will be tested constantly as you’re invited to develop your own Legend of Zelda experience.
Whereas other open world games are beholden to textures and rules and design limitations, the world of Hyrule is beholden to you, the player. Your experiments with the world are always rewarded and never admonished. From cooking to climbing, every enactment of your free-will will result in shock, awe, surprise, determination and, ultimately, reward beyond an arbitrary in-game material manifestation of your labour. The reward for climbing that mountain isn’t a bow, or a sword, or even a majestic view: you could find anything on top of that mountain, yet the real prize is having set out to test yourself – and the game – and achieving your goal. Imagination is its own reward.
And you’ll need gust jars full of imagination if you’re going to engage with the pastel-perfect peaks, monstrous mountaintops, raging rivers and flourishing forests that the stupendously voluptuous game world offers you. The scale of Breath of the Wild’s sandbox can not be overstated. When you can play for three hours, turn to the horizon, and track your journey, mapping your struggle across the living, breathing face of the world, you know you’re engaged in something special. The overworld essentially serves as an ‘over-dungeon’, not entirely dissimilar in concept to the central, recurring dungeon seen in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on Nintendo DS.
The lands of Hyrule are, macro-cosmically, rooms in the single greatest dungeon ever erected in the history of digital architecture. Every slope and steppe are studded with a puzzle tucked away in a cave, or an enemy camp to be studied and raided on your terms. Boss battles are deliberate accidents, occurring when you least expect them. Challenges and achievements adorn the map at intervals so regular they seem to have been executed by a development team that has predicted the path you’ll meander along.
The deft, delicate – yet always deliberate – hand of Hidemaro Fujibayashi and his team is a guiding one, incentivising you with abandoned structures, breath-taking vistas and a perpetually successful evocation of your wonder and curiosity that most open-world titles fail to capitalise on. For a long time, open-world games either give you plenty to kill, plenty to see or just plenty of cubic meters for you to wallow in. Breath of the Wild, however, takes everything away from you, leaving you with yourself – that is to say, you start the game with everything you need: wonder, imagination and determination are your key items; everything else is an added bonus.
Navigating the over-dungeon that is Hyrule isn’t just a matter of scratching your head over puzzles, however: you’ll have to break a few heads too, and Breath of the Wild delivers combat that marries the sophistication and precision of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword with the finer parrying systems of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and adorns the whole experience with the visual flair and flamboyance of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
Enemies can be disarmed, set ablaze, precision-targeted to exploit weak spots or simply avoided altogether. When a Bokoblin becomes particularly friendly and leaving the party isn’t an option, Link can use spears to attack from a distance, broadswords and axes to deliver slow but powerful blows, swords to deliver rapid strikes that can quickly disorient enemies, bows to snipe from afar and shields that parry enemy attacks Skyward Sword-style.
Just as the nature of exploration in the game is dependent on the experimentation of the player, combat follows similar principles, insofar that sticking to one weapon isn’t an option. Weapons in Breath of the Wild have thresholds on their usage, meaning that at some point you’ll have to retire that beloved Greatflame Sword you scaled the eastern slope of Death Mountain for.
Despite the fact that weapons deteriorate with successive use, once they near their limit, they deliver critical hits upon their destruction, meaning no tool dies in vain. Weapons can also be thrown at enemies, allowing you to simultaneously do a bit of inventory spring cleaning whilst duelling a fearsome Minotaur for that shiny bow you just have to win from him. Just as chucking your ailed armaments at foes has a practical and tactical advantage, so too does dodging enemy attacks.
In previous Legend of Zelda games, dodging was somewhat of a gimmick: a mechanic that created a sense and scene of action that was otherwise pointless. In Breath of the Wild, however, dodging at just the right moment will allow you to enter a state of altered time, wherein you will be prompted to execute a ‘flurry rush’ that sees Link hone in on his target and, by quickly pressing Y within the period of slow-mo time, allows Link to launch a devastating combo on his adversary.
Although the inclusion of these systems seems like fan-service on the surface of things – given their soft-implementation in previous titles in the series –, skilled players and new-found fans alike will come to rely on the finer aspects of combat that Breath of the Wild affords players, since enemies, in general, are so comprehensive and intelligent that the series-old staple of ‘mash A until dead’ just won’t cut it anymore.
From the bumbling Bokoblin to the master ninja of the Yiga Clan: each enemy has a distinct personality, resulting in a discernible response to your weapons and tactics. Think you’ve bested a Lizalfos by setting fire to his wooden club? See how you feel when he throws a tantrum, then picks up the flaming bat and lobs it at you! Think that Moblin is going to take you on with his bare hands? Nope: he’ll just grab the nearest weaker enemy he can find and hurl the poor thing right at you!
The A.I on display is utterly expectation-busting, and no two, three or ten engagements play out in the same way. The ensuing chaos of each battle is still very much in your control, and just as enemies act and react to your tactics, you’ll be sure to return the favour with your own quick-thinking and ardent preparation.
For, if this game were not titled ‘Breath of the Wild’, preparation would certainly be its name instead. Managing your stamina, hearts, items et al has never been so integral to a Legend of Zelda title: and make no mistake, if at first you don’t succeed in taming a wild mare, or climbing a frost-bitten peak, or defeating a powerful enemy, its back to the drawing board, or the cooking pot, or wherever else you want to venture in order to forage for the supplies you’ll need as you take on the virtually endless challenges Breath of the Wild offers you.
While Link can eat food to restore health, brew elixirs to enhance his stamina and purchase clothes that imbue him with resistances to the debilitating effects of extreme climes, these stats are not in a constant state of decline: and this distinction is perhaps the most vital of all when it comes to Breath of the Wild breaking new territory in the ‘survival’ genre market.
Lesser, lazy titles in this cesspool of asset-flipped ‘appropriation’ that is the survival/crafting genre typically ransom the player into action with ever-dwindling stats, bars and numbers that demand constant mitigation and management. Such mechanics coerce players into a Stockholm syndrome-esque relationship with their game, whereby the journey and overall experience is overshadowed by the false urgency that can be generated from a meter or metric telling you to eat right now, or sleep immediately, or make sure you file your tax returns before the end of the week otherwise you will die, and death is bad…
Death is the lone threat these minor survival games have to bully their users into interacting with the worlds and scenarios they attempt to present. Breath of the Wild refuses to dance to this macabre tune, however, opting instead to promote a positive, almost humanist philosophy by way of its perpetually optimistic systems. You can eat to regain health, but you will never starve to death.
You might not have the appropriate clothing to weather the chilly desert nights, but you won’t die of sleep deprivation if you continue onward to get that chest on the horizon. The ‘limitations’ Nintendo have placed on Link can all be circumvented with a little creativity on the player’s part, meaning that no river is too deep, no storm too violent and no death is certain, let alone used to cajole time and interaction out of you. You are slave to no system, and as a result, are actively encouraged to push the boundaries of the game world, and Link’s effect upon it.
While creativity, imagination and unprecedented freedom illuminate your play upon the stage of the uber-dungeon that is Hyrule Field, these characteristics struggle to find a home in Breath of the Wild’s more conservative dungeons. The four main temples can, of course, be tackled in absolutely any order you desire, yet they seem uncannily familiar to one another.
Attempting a dungeon consists of preparation, a set-piece involving arrow-based gameplay that sees you shoot four aspects of the dungeon in order to basically open the front door, and a central mechanic that forms the core puzzle of each dungeon. Upon completing each dungeon, you’ll be ‘treated’ to a relatively underwhelming boss battle that provides minimal challenge.
For a game predicated on the notion that the world serves as the ultimate battleground-come-brain-teasers, it seems antithetical to break that experience up into four pocket Hyrules, wherein the allure of the open word – the adventure, discovery and chaos – is quarantined and packed into a finite space, all for the sake of reminding you that you are playing a Legend of Zelda game.
This isn’t to say that the dungeons are bad. On the contrary, the dungeons certainly do their job, but the problem arises once you realise that Hyrule itself is a massive dungeon, with its continents forming rooms within the ultimate temple. Within such an ambitious experiment, conventionality quickly becomes unstuck, and this is true of the typical dungeon structure of The Legend of Zelda.
In between the laser-focused, bite-sized shrines that provided intense puzzle action and the epic, even Homeric, scale of the open-air-dungeon that is Hyrule Field, the four dungeons in the game sit somewhere in the middle of that perfectly balanced spectrum, doomed to obscurity… and rightly so.
Having learned from a smorgasbord of lauded Legend of Zelda titles and legendary alumni at Nintendo, Hidemaro Fujibayashi has once again cemented himself as a worthy successor to the Zelda old-guard. The time-honoured Zelda charm and craftsmanship have melted into the contemporary gaming landscape seamlessly, forging a bold, new bar for digital experiences in open-world settings. It may have taken nineteen years, but it seems the winds have changed and the time has come for a new Legend of Zelda adventure to remind us all just how simply wonderful gaming ought to be. An incredible risk should chase an incredible reward: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is that reward.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Sublime visuals
- Virtually ceaseless experimentation
- The most challenging Zelda title ever made in terms of combat
- Dynamic weather effects
- Stunning soundtrack
- Colossal open world bulging with things to do and places to see
- Minor framerate issues
- Dungeons are underwhelming for the most part