The Legend of Zelda franchise has a pattern. Bombs, boomerangs, bow and arrow, heart containers, and the Master Sword – they are as sure as the sun. Nintendo wants to change all of that. It has been five years since the November 2011 release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and that half a decade has clearly been one of reinvention.
This review will attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible, and where more detail is required, it’ll be clearly marked. I want you to experience this new world with the same mystery and wonder as I just have as it’s truly amazing and something to discover on your own.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild starts with Link having been asleep for 100 years. Awakening to a world in ruins, Link must recover his memory, discover what happened to Hyrule, and of course, save Zelda.
But there is so much more going on than all that.
Mechanically, this isn’t the first open world game in the Zelda franchise. The smash hit The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was Nintendo’s first foray into a roaming overworld, letting players collect items and solve puzzles in their own time. Admittedly, it did take place on familiar ground, a near copy of the overworld for Ocarina of Time. That said, it was wildly successful and rewarding to players like myself who have played every Zelda game before it. But even so, the comparison isn’t quite correct. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has more in common with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim than it does any other Zelda game.
From the moment you crest the hill over the Great Plateau, the world is yours. There is a short tutorial (with a skip dialogue button, a thankful improvement over Skyward Sword) that provides a few of the runes you’ll use for solving future puzzles, but beyond that, you are free to roam. Like any good open world RPG, this means you can head down the well-tracked story path, branch and tackle side quests, go hunt down the 100+ mini-dungeons, or try to light up all of the towers before you do anything else. The monsters may slay you nearly instantly, or you might freeze to death if you go to certain places unprepared, but for the most part there’s nothing stopping you.
Your memory lost and your Sheikah Slate (it stores your runes, pictures, inventory, etc.) damaged, your map of Hyrule is missing. To reveal the map, you’ll have to locate towers in each area, climb them, and wrest them from enemy control. This reveals more parts of the map, but thankfully doesn’t mark everything there is to find. The major landmarks might be written in, but shrines, villages, and other locations are not. Thankfully, you can mark up to 100 objects on your map to help you find things later.
Not since the original Zelda have I felt this level of freedom in a game. The forced linearity removed, I was able to explore the vast world how I saw fit. During one play session, I decided to line my pockets with rupees by mining every cliff face mineral and ore deposit I could find for a few hours. Another session I simply unlocked warp points for easier travel. The story is always there, and certain things are locked behind its progress, but it’s never insistent on where you need to go.
Another massive change from the usual formula in how equipment is handled. In every game to this point, getting a sword meant every other weapon revolved around the use of that tool. Sure, the bow and boomerang were useful in their pre-baked situations, but the bulk of your fighting was delivered via sword and shield. When you add weapon durability into the mix, everything changes. I’ve used a one-handed sword, a boomerang, and a bow, but I’ve also used a wand, a pitchfork, a tree branch, a spear, a two-handed claymore, and weapons far more exotic that I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Similarly, that aforementioned shield has been replaced more times than I can count. I snagged my first from a downed Bokoblin, but I’ve used everything from a pot lid to a tower shield. Similarly, bows wear out, and its ammunition, while recoverable for the basic arrows, is finite. This mechanism doesn’t extend to armor, but there’s literally hundreds of combinations awaiting you there, matching tunic, pants, and helms as fits your need.
Beyond equipment, Link will have to tie on an apron and put on a chef hat, because hoo boy there is a lot of cooking going on in Breath of the Wild. Striking down foes or mowing the lawn with your weapon no longer yields rupees, hearts, or other random stuff – you might uncover a critter, but there won’t be replenishment here. Instead, Link must catch fish, gather up broken Bokoblin horns, pick radishes, harvest Hylian Herbs, and hunt animals in the wild for his food. Tossing a few apples into a pot and cooking it yields an easy fruit salad which will heal a few hearts, but wrapping a fish in leaves and salting it will heal a great deal more. Combining foods is entirely experimental — nobody is providing you recipes. This is an amazingly rewarding portion of the game as you uncover hidden combinations that bestow faster stamina recovery, increased defense of attack power, quieter footsteps while in stealth, and many other effects. No more mysterious red potions in bottles — if you want to survive, you’ll need to prepare.
Speaking of survival, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most difficult Zelda game to date, but in a Nintendo sort of way. What I mean by this is that enemies can, and will, kill you. Often. Upgrading your armor, getting better weapons, and eating foods and drinking elixirs helps, but combat technique, proper timing, and having enough health on tap is what’s required. Herein lies another change — there are no pieces of heart to collect.
I mentioned that there are over 100 mini-dungeons in the game. These short logic puzzle “Shrines of Trials” require a little bit of thought, and when solved, provide a spirit orb. When you’ve collected four of these you can pray at a shrine and trade those in for a permanent single heart increase, or a bump to your stamina. I implore you not to ignore that stamina gauge, and the reason is simple — there’s more out there waiting to kill you.
The stamina gauge isn’t new to this series, but is leaps and bounds more vital to survival. Everything you do, from swinging a weapon and blocking with your shield, to running, flipping, and swimming requires stamina. In the case of swimming, gliding, or climbing, running out often means your death. I’ve drowned more times than I can count, and I’ve fallen off of cliff faces only to hit the water without enough stamina to survive fairly frequently — especially when rain makes the rocks slick. Combining elements like a swiftly moving stream that is also cold just make it harder.
Slick rocks aren’t the only way the environment will kill you — Link now has to contend with lightning (important when you happen to be in a high area wearing metal armor – lightning is most often lethal), heat, and cold. While there are recipes to discover that provide a few minutes of additional heat or cold resistance, there is no substitute for wearing the proper clothing. However, unlike previous games that would lock you out of an area if you didn’t have, as an example, The Goron Tunic, you can overcome the health loss by bringing enough food to keep yourself alive. This is Zelda your way.
If you are a fan of large dungeons, and the thought of 100+ mini dungeons doesn’t excite you, rest easy — there are a half dozen sprawling dungeons to tackle. It’s here that I’m going to reveal the runes that you pick up in the first two hours of the game and describe them briefly, so skip down if you want to go in completely blind…
(START MINOR SPOILERS)
To teach you how the mechanics work, the game provides four tutorial dungeons to try out your new runes. Magnesis allows Link to lift metal objects with a giant magnet, floating them through the air. Stasis locks an object in time. If you strike that object it stores kinetic energy, releasing as time is restored and rocketing in the opposite direction. Cryonis allows you to raise frozen and climbable pillars from any water source. The final rune is a familiar friend — bombs. Instead of needing bomb bags, however, they have a short-duration cooldown. As an added twist, you can also throw round ones or square ones, the latter rolling far less than the former. You can use these powers in all sorts of ways, lifting water-bound gates with ice blocks, hurling metal spheres into recesses to unlock doors, changing the direction of rolling rocks with Stasis, or blowing holes in weak walls. Beyond that, however, you can also fish sunken treasures from the water, create a perch to snipe enemies, create a meteoric rock slide, or dive-bomb enemies with no modification. While they are puzzle tools, they remain constantly useful in the overworld.
As the game progresses, you’ll unlock the ability to use your Amiibos, as well as a camera used to take pictures of all of the creatures, weapons, armor, and miscellaneous objects in the game. Part “catch-em-all” and part catalog, the camera is a fun distraction in an otherwise somewhat serious world.
(END MINOR SPOILERS)
The other big departure from previous Zelda games is the presence of not only cutscenes, but also voice acting. While Link is still a mute (minus the usual YAAAAH and HYEEEET sounds), Zelda and other characters are frequently voiced. There is an opportunity to recover a dozen of your previous memories which further expands on the storyline, revealing even more of these moments. It’s a welcome addition to what has been a silent affair up until now.
If I doubled the size of this review, I’m certain I wouldn’t capture all of the amazing things you can do in Breath of the Wild. From taming wild horses, chasing shooting stars, dyeing and constructing your own armor, to uncovering elixirs and new food recipes, finding Korok seeds (which expand your inventory), uncovering hidden Great Fairies, and simply exploring the largest version of Hyrule ever made, anything I can tell you would just scratch the surface. Do yourself a favor — experience this game without a hint guide. Let it breathe. Explore and discover it organically. This is everything we hoped it could be, and so much more.
If I had one disappointment, unfortunately it’s the framerate. The fields of grass, while gorgeous and reactive to the wind and to your steps, also causes the framerate to drop below 30. Paradoxically, the framerate issue is less prevalent while undocked, but still occasionally present. It’s never been something that caused a death, but it’s a bit of a blight on the otherwise impeccable quality of this game.
The second issue, and it’s less to do with Zelda and more to do with the system, is the presence of a de-synchronization issue. As of this writing, the left Joy-Con can occasionally lose momentary connection with the game, causing some unintended consequences. I’ve encountered this most often when my laptop was nearby, so it appears to be interference related. Nintendo states that they are looking into this issue, but it appears to be widespread at this point. I won’t knock Breath of the Wild for this issue as it appears to be hardware or firmware related and, once resolved, will not affect this or any other products.