The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild represents a major change to the Zelda formula even as it builds upon and expands the core Zelda gameplay that has sustained the series from its inception. Reviewing BOTW as a game apart is impossible; in order to fully understand it, we need to keep in mind the series as a whole. The Zelda games have always seemed to be open-world, even before that term existed: each entry throws the player into a massive world teeming with monsters, dungeons, and secrets behind bombable walls or a song played on the ocarina. One of my own seminal moments in gaming (I’m sure I’m not alone in this) was stepping out into Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time and thinking, “This is so big!” That sense of awe and freedom is recreated perfectly in BOTW. While older entries in the series may have felt like modern open-world games to our younger more impressionable minds, they weren’t in point of face. Roadblocks and limitations steered the player, if only minimally. For example, you couldn’t just pick a direction in Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time when you first arrived and expect much to happen. No, you had to follow the game’s script, loose as it was. In BOTW these limitations and roadblocks are gone, returning the player to that expansive moment when Hyrule opened up in Ocarina of Time. But in this game, that moment of expansion, of freedom, lasts for the whole 40-hour campaign.
Let’s start our journey into BOTW by looking at the gameplay. In BOTW Link no longer places his trust in a single sword, armor set and cache of gadgets. In the harsh world of Hyrule, weapons break, armor proves inadequate to either the weather or enemy blows, and all of Link’s gadgets are contained in a device called the Sheikah Slate. The constant replacement of weapons, shields, and armor requires careful management by the player as they swap damaged weapons and weak armor for new ones dropped by enemies or found abandoned in the wild. In addition, Link has to forge for food and ingredients to cook meals to restore his health and to mix elixirs to boost his stats. The foraging for food, clothing, and weapons is highly immersive, thrusting the player into Link’s travel-worn boots as he tries to survive in unforgiving lands, ravaged by the elements and monsters who roam the plains. While there is a steep learning curve, once the player gets the hang of the survival system it feels natural and intuitive.
The classic Zelda Z-targeting combat has seen improvements in BOTW. No longer content with only a sword and bow, Link wields a variety of different weapons and shields, and switches them on the fly. Each weapon type from swords to axes to tridents has its use and none feel superficial despite the great variety available. The combat is smooth and responsive, allowing the player to attack, parry and dodge with ease. But don’t let the preceding sentences fool you: this game is no pushover. Enemies, both bosses and random foes out in the world, can kill you in one or two hits. They are also smart, often opting to attack in groups rather than engage in single combat. Players will have their courage, wisdom and power tested to the max in BOTW.
The map and graphics of an open-world game can make it or break it. Traversing an empty or ugly map (or an ugly and empty map) can kill an otherwise well-designed game. BOTW excels in both aspects. Its beautiful, colorful, painting-like world teems with well-animated life: deer bound across the plains, hare dart for cover at your approach, wild horses gallop free of the bridle and saddle, monsters sit around cook-fires planning their next assault. From the highest vista to the smallest insect BOTW shows a level of care and dedication rarely seen in other games. The map itself, divided into several regions with familiar names like the Gerudo Desert and Zora Domain, is full of enemy encounters, the game’s main missions that take you to traditional Zelda dungeons, shrines in which you solve puzzles to earn upgrades, NPCs who hand out sidequests and information, and so much more. All of these elements add to the sense of life and mystery of Hyrule. Traversing this wide and full map is easy as the game offers you many tools to get around: Link has a hang-glider that enables him to float long distances, he can climb anything in the game (provided that it’s not raining and he has the stamina to finish his ascent), and there are many convenient warp points all over the map. Wherever you look, you can go.
The story in Zelda games usually boils down to this: Ganon reappears, Link obtains the Master Sword, rescues Princess Zelda, and together with the Triforce they slay the Dark Lord. While the plot in BOTW follows this pattern to a degree, it introduces new elements to the traditional story. Zelda herself plays a large role in the story, and if the player cares to, they can uncover records of her character arc and development. Her progression is one of the most interesting and well-executed parts of BOTW’s story. Zelda is no damsel in distress this time around. Another new element that BOTW adds to its storytelling is that of choice. At any point in the game, the player can go fight Ganon, ignoring all of the twists and turns of its 40-hour campaign. The player learns as much or as little as they care to about this latest struggle against the King of Thieves. BOTW is so committed to player choice that the game leaves it to you to unfold or keep hidden its narrative.
Despite all of these positives, there are some flaws in BOTW. The first is the use of motion controls. While aiming the bow or a thrown weapon is relatively easy and accurate, there are certain puzzles that require moving the game pad. These puzzles, while optional, are poorly done and even the aiming, while somewhat precise, is easier with the analog sticks. The second major flaw is the voice acting. I’ve been wanting voices in a Zelda game for years but the actors they chose for BOTW aren’t very good, a fact made worse by a stilted script (evidence of a shoddy translation).
These few flaws aside, BOTW is a fantastic game. It takes the Zelda series as a whole in a new direction even as it pays homage to its roots. If Nintendo continues to make open-world Zelda games I for one am on board.