Confession time. I have not been truly captured by a Zelda game in many a moon. Even the release of Link Between Worlds in 2013 only managed to keep my attention for most of a weekend, before it started to wane and once more I moved on. That isn’t to say I have never been drawn into a Zelda game – some of the series’ older staples devoured my spare time. Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask , even Windwaker for a period, I enjoyed all of these games on their own merit, but then I found myself wishing to be a passenger on the journey, rather than the captain. I had friends who burned with such passionate intensity over the series, that my own apparent lack of excitement made me feel diminished, like I was better off watching them and feeding on their awe – like some kind of couch-ridden observational vampire.
Check every dark corner of whatever wrecked building you find, THERE MIGHT BE CHESTS OKAY
In January of 2017 however, this all changed in roughly 20 minutes when I attended the Nintendo Switch Hands-on event. I was given a short stint in the shattered world of Hyrule, and I went from ‘on the fence’ when it came to the idea of owning a Switch console, to first in line for a pre-order, alongside Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That positively miniscule experience with the game revealed such a fluid and engaging experience that incorporated elements from so many other games – and refined them – that I desperately wanted more. And THAT was a feeling I didn’t want to neglect.
Fast forward to now, and I am a proud Switch owner, and I am carving up the Wild Breath World in every way available to me. So let’s talk turkey (cucco?)
Fire: Always a good sign.
Breath of the Wild is an awe-inspiring game. And this is measured on so many levels. First, you are amazed by the exquisitely crafted environment around you. Then you are blown away by the scale of the landscape as you look to the horizon and see that it just keeps going. Then you may realise that this incredible experience is taking place on a handheld device clamped between your sweaty palms, while you sit on a bus. Or a plane. Or at a restaurant. Or on the toilet.
The last part is unique to the Nintendo Switch of course, but the point must be made – the world is amazing, and it is uniquely built in such a clever way that it keeps you engaged and interested for hours. Even with no clear objective in sight you still feel the call of exploration and adventure.
In the last few years, it has become somewhat of an industry staple to ‘sandbox’ basically any game, and in some cases it feels like this particular element of design might be employed for the wrong reasons. A developer could see the opportunity to craft a sandboxed world as a method to remove their own duty to guide a player through a narrative experience, spouting claims like: ‘The world is open to the player to craft their own journey’ – and then allowing them a fall-back should any backlash occur. Shifting blame to the player for not being astute enough to find their way is a horrible truth nowadays – but thankfully, this is not present in Breath of the Wild.
Every tool at the player’s disposal to foster progress is simple to use, and readily available. The map – though huge – is brilliantly sectioned without feeling compartmentalised. So as you wander you feel (and see!) the world changing around you, but you rarely feel truly lost. Landmarks dot the landscape in just the right quantities, so your bearings are quick to be found. These landmarks also shy away from oppressive ‘landscape discovery’ methods that are often present in games of this scale. Even the Sheikah Towers, which serve as a way to survey the world a la Farcry’s radio towers, feel rewarding enough to seek out without feeling immediately mandatory.
Characters are engaging, and often quite funny to interact with. I was surprised to find that you can mete out some unique responses from particular individuals by doing things as simple as changing (or removing) clothing.
And what dangers await you in the wilds of Hyrule? All manner of beasties lurk, some obvious – some less so. Getting the drop on enemies is perhaps one of the greatest joys I have so far encountered in the game. Analysing the surrounding area to see what kind of mayhem can be caused elicits such a huge feeling of satisfaction when a plan comes together. Or when it goes horrible wrong. Perhaps you can interact with the environment in some way to let a massive boulder bulldoze through a camp of enemies? Maybe a well-placed burning arrow is sufficient to trigger a chain of explosions courtesy of appropriately placed TNT barrels? The world is your oyster for carnage.
Breath of the Wild embraces all of the expectations of today’s gaming populace.
The enemies themselves also are extraordinary to simply watch. Though the visual styling of Breath of the Wild may appear simplistic, it really does not limit the amount of detail that is applied to enemies. Even the animations that show off a creature’s behaviour are brilliant when observed. I watched one of the initial Bokoblin enemies for a long while, simply marvelling at the behaviours and idle animations it performed as it went about its mundane duties, before again being wowed by the array of offensive actions it might take in regards to its surroundings. Weapons are collected, even from fallen foes, and used to great effect, either through blunt force or as a ranged projectile depending on your location to the foe. And this is only expanded on by more intelligent enemies; with fire-breathing lizardmen and hulking monster bokoblins aplenty, you’ll always be kept on your toes.
The noises these dudes make are great.
Bosses within the game are positively incredible, both to behold and to fight. Imagine my surprise when I managed to encounter a giant shambling rock beast just a scant 20 minutes into the game. My positively garbage collection of offensive implements were employed to great effect, as it wiped the floor with me. But Zelda theory prevailed, as I found its weak point and worked to defeat through the tried-and-true method of hitting it for MASSIVE DAMAGE. This whet my appetite for later encounters, but I was not ready for the sheer scale of some of my foes. The Legend of Zelda series of the modern age has always brilliantly communicated to the player when ‘shit gets real’, with a short mini-scene of what you are facing giving notice to the player of the name of the boss, as well as the HP bar displaying to hammer home that it truly is GO TIME.
Cooking in the game is such a kooky and fun activity. I halted my gameplay experience pretty hard when I realise that chucking random crap in a pot can create all manner of wondrous edibles.
Then there are dungeons. And these really do encapsulate the Zelda of ages past. Puzzles are more free form and inventive than ever before, thanks to a full range of motion and an array of rune-based powers to make you think. Some solutions can appear quite straight forward, others can tax the mind in a rewarding way. In one particular example, I spent the better part of forty minutes stacking an assortment of metal junk to build a precarious tower I could use to ascend to a platform where a chest sat, tauntingly. Upon reaching the apex of my climb, I realised that the same powers I used to move my metal bits ‘n’ bobs to create the ladder of stupidity, could in fact be used to simply move the chest down to my own level. I chalked it up to ‘hard mode engaged’ and moved on sheepishly.
Getting around what is left of Hyrule is an exercise in creativity – and foremost, fun. Riding horses, gliding and skating on your shield makes for a wicked time.
The story is every bit as fantasy high-adventure as you might expect, replete with an ancient evil residing within a shattered world that is barely kept at bay by selfless heroism. Throw into the mix some legendary heroes of ages past alongside some ancient mind-boggling technology and you have all the ingredients for a satisfying enough story. The narrative elements serve the actual flow of gameplay well, with objectives clearly explained and developments organically flowing alongside player strength and expectations. I might criticise the story a little in that, when really analysed, it does come across as a little safe. But I also can’t help but feel that it was intended to be straightforward and enjoyable on its own merit, bolstered by the player’s own experience which drives it forward at whatever pace best suits them. It’s also refreshing knowing that when you replay the game, you can change things up a bit when you know what to expect. This doesn’t serve to cheapen the game’s overall flow at all, instead providing a great many new opportunities based around gear, preparedness and personal skill level.
Bring it on Charmander
I finally understand what happens when an established, stone-wrought franchise like The Legend of Zelda embraces all the expectations of today’s gaming populace. The series has always been one of impressive iteration, every new entry showcasing a unique spin on the familiar world, and Breath of the Wild has done so in a way that has taken my wild breath away.
For Zelda fans, or even just general adventure lovers, it is an incredible experience that you’d be a fool to miss.
Reviewed on my beloved Nintendo Switch