I have never been a Zelda fan. Before Breath of the Wild, I’ve never owned a copy of the game on any platform (nor have I ever beaten any significant portion of it). I have played some of the older ones in passing, but I’m talking pre-Gamecube era stuff as it’s been that long since I’ve owned a Nintendo console. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve never really spent much time with Link or the princess, and as such I’m coming at the series like a newbie – with no fan roots or nostalgia to draw on.
I tell you that now however, because I want you to know why you should trust me when I say that this is very easily one of the best games I’ve ever played. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece, and if for some reason you need a primer before picking it up I’m here to lay it all out for you. This is one game you don’t want to miss, and it all starts with an amnesia-ridden champion that has been sleeping for a very long time.
As the game starts, our hero Link awakens in a special location somewhere in Hyrule. Then – only moments after the game opens – you’re given control and allowed to roam free. It’s here in this simple “have at it” moment that your adventure begins, and it’s right here in the first few moments of running around that you start to realize just how vast (in every sense of the word) this open world is.
Simply by looking around with your spyglass (a quick click of the left stick) you’ll begin to notice that the sprawling land of Hyrule is not a free and prosperous place. Instead, it’s undergoing an all-out attack of gargantuan proportions as our ultimate enemy has infected the world with his sinister power. For over a hundred years this enemy has controlled the powerful Divine Beasts which roam the land, and he regularly summons a blood moon to re-populate it with monsters. Haunting Hyrule Castle, the bad-ass Calamity Gannon has nearly taken over; the only thing stopping him is the princess for which the game is named.
So without giving away anything past the premise, there lies your long term mission; fight Calamity Gannon, save Zelda, and restore the land to its final glory. This mission – like most of the game – is yours to take on as you will, and you can rush there with four hearts and a tree branch if you like. That said, I doubt that’ll get you far without some champion-tier skills (or a miracle), but you have the option should you so choose!
Instead, I recommend exploration – which should quickly yield some health-bestowing consumables, a (weak) weapon, a conversation with a non-player character, and a nice fire to sit beside and pass the time. Abilities like cooking, paragliding, riding animals, and more will become apparent with a little (okay – sometimes a lot) of messing around, but the beauty of it all is that the game opens up as your own ingenuity and perseverance do.
Soon, you’ll even realize that things in the world can have effects beyond what you expect at a glance. You can light arrows or wooden weapons ablaze on a nearby fire for free burn damage, you can attract two enemies with different motivations and have them fight it out to the death, or you can even use the time-stop rune to make freezing effects last longer. The world of Breath of the Wild is bound by a lot of the same rules you might expect from real world physics, so it’s best to think like an action movie choreographer and use what you’ve got. Likewise, it’s good to keep an eye out for possibilities whenever you enter a new area.
Speaking of areas, the land you’re free to explore is a large and complex place. You’ll find grassy fields, swampy marshes, sand-swept deserts, snow-covered mountains, and lava-filled pools on your travels – all of these places holding their own unique variations of enemies, habits, tactics, and collectibles. You’ll inevitably stumble across everything from lone enemies riding around on horseback, to giant area-roaming enemies, or even parties of monsters sleeping around a fire. There are towns, ruins, towers, shrines, mazes, unique features, and stables all over – and it’s your job to find and explore them all. Learning through exploration is going to be the only way you’ll be able to prepare for what comes next, and man is there a lot to see.
Aside from the geographical bits, the bits that are more looks than function, and the self explanatory bits, are the towns, towers, shrines, and stables. These are the most prominent features on the map, and they’re also some of the most important places in the game.
The towns are often home to shops. These non-player character owned establishments usually include an armory, a general store, and an inn – but may also include a dye shop, a jeweler, a or various stands depending on the location. Additionally, towns often include statues that you can pray to for additional hearts or stamina, cooking stations (a cauldron over a fire-pit) where you can combine ingredients into new items with new effects, and even some characters with missions for you to take on. Towns are where it’s happening a lot of the time, so keep an eye out for them.
As for towers, they’re sort of like scouting locations. Climbing them (which is often much easier said than done) will allow you to sync up and receive a piece of the map – but only the topography. Towns, shrines, and other landmarks will not be noted on the map until visited, so be sure to head for them if you scout them from up high. Oh, and did I mention they’re fast travel enabled? They are! 😉
Moving on to shrines, it’s good to see them sort of like trials – and their completion can earn you spirit orbs. Four of these orbs will allow you to pray to one of those statues (found in the towns) for either an extra heart or extra stamina, so completing shrines is a good way to gather your strength for the ultimate goal. As for the way shrines are presented, there are a few; with the ones I’ve been able to differentiate being trials of mental ability (puzzles), trials of fighting skill (versus a guardian), or simply as reward centres for completing a rather daunting task or venture on the map. The best thing about finding a shrine isn’t the immediate pay-off however, as unless you’re hitting four orbs the real pay-off is that you now have another location for fast travel.
Finally, there’s the stables – which are sort of like a micro-town if we’re talking about function. While you won’t find any statues or armories at the stables, you will find a rather friendly fellow with a big backpack full of stuff he’s willing to sell. You’ll also find a place to lay your head, a place to cook, usually a mission or two (via the non-player characters), and some items to pad your inventory. Stables are a good place to stop when you’re far from anything else, and though they aren’t fast-travel enabled they will look after any animals you happen to leave there (hint, hint).
With all these locations to visit, it might seem like the game could be a bit overwhelming – and it can be. That said, the developers have provided you a very good way of keeping track of your missions and duties via an adventure log. This adventure log is actually a menu which provides a list of all the missions you’ve been given (completed or not ), along with a list of your recovered memories. It’s split into main (story), shrine, and side quests – with memories all bunched into a fourth column. Here you’ll be able to recall information about given quests you’ve yet to complete, and check on past exploits to make sure they’re done (or remembered in the case of memories). It’s sort of like a to do list, but it also lists things that have already come to pass.
Also very important is the pickup inventory. This grid-based list of everything you have on your person will include anything you’ve picked up in the game, be it clothing or the multi-tool like Sheikah Slate. There are sections for melee weapons, bows and arrows, shields, armor (clothes), materials (including raw food and other non-weapons), food (including cooked items and elixirs), and finally key items. Those first three categories have the option of equipping or dropping their items, while the fourth is equip only (armor). Key items have unique options, while food of any sort can be eaten, and non-food materials can be held – which is useful for dropping the items, or cooking.
Mentioned previously (in passing), cooking is an action that allows you to turn materials into more useful forms by using either a lit cauldron or an open fire (for non-combination items). Lit cauldrons will give you the option to “cook” and will allow you to combine up to five held items into a dish or elixir, while an open flame will simply cook individual (raw) foods to bring out their inherent properties. Cooking food can bring out its healing, stamina-generating, or element-protecting properties – so cook often and wisely in order to enhance the properties of your items. It’s worth noting that you can only add one status effect to any cooked dish (and Link himself) however, so don’t waste ingredients trying to make the ultimate food as it simply doesn’t exist.
The only other abilities and limitations of note have to do with how you get around the world. Stamina will rule your consecutive exertions (like swinging a weapon, running, or climbing), while your hearts and your armor will rule your ability to exist without status effects in the various environments. As previously noted, stamina and hearts are upgraded through the completion of shrines – with four shrines equal to one of those items upgraded by one step. Stamina upgrades at five or so chunks to a “full unit,” while hearts upgrade one full heart at a time (each having two halves). Keeping an eye on, upgrading, and understanding how much leeway these two variables offer if up to you and where you’re at in the game; but these (along with the weather and your armor) are things you must always worry about.
Ah yes, the weather. In Breath of the Wild, the cold or hot – when not prepared – will nip at your health, and carrying around metal objects in thunderstorms (or wooden objects in the extreme heat) can be dangerous. You must stay vigilant as you explore, and exploration is basically the entire basis for the game so that’s a 24/7 sort of gig. That said, this isn’t the kind of game you’ll feel is being unfair – and you’ll soon be either upgraded or trained into staying alive. The sheer adventure of it all is enough to guarantee that small advancement towards the end, in one way or another.
Speaking of adventure, this isn’t your typical open world playground, and you’ll often find yourself coming across new bits by accident. This is one of the biggest charms of the way the systems and environments have been meshed together, and even at eighty or more hours in – as I was when I finished the main goal – there are always new things around every corner. Abilities, small tricks, little things, and even one-off surprises lay littered throughout every venture in Breath of the Wild; it’s just that packed with possibilities.
As for the controls, they’re fairly straightforward in use. Your top right trigger (R) is the button you’ll use for throwing things – including weapons and bombs, while your bottom right trigger (ZR) is utilized in shooting an arrow with your bow. As for the top left trigger (L), it’s there to activate your chosen Sheikah Slate rune. The bottom left trigger (ZL) however, is your lock-on. Both right trigger actions are hold-enabled for increased effectiveness, while the left trigger actions are simply click to activate.
The left controller’s face buttons (the awkward D-Pad) are mostly relegated to quick selection menus. The left button lets you choose a shield, while the right deals with swords. As for the up button, it lets you choose between your (up to) six runes – while the down button simply makes Link whistle. The right controller’s face buttons are your action buttons however, and you’ll use them to jump, swing your weapon, sprint, and act – that last one only available when prompted.
Finally, the left analog stick allows you to move and (when clicked) crouch, while the right stick controls the camera and (when clicked) your spyglass. The only other buttons are the minus and plus symbols, which are relegated to proper menus. Minus brings up the full rune inventory, map, photo album, and Hyrule compendium menus – while plus offers the adventure log (quests), full pickup inventory, and system (save/load/options/etc) menus.
Learn these buttons, and learn them well – as a quick thumb or finger on the right one could very well keep our little hero alive for a bit more action. Dying may only bring upon a re-load of the last save, but staying alive is always the best way to reach whatever goal your after. Be quick, or repeat yourself; it’s your choice.
As we move on past my painting of this grand picture for you however, I must note that while the game is certainly beautiful in composition, concept, and execution, it’s also not without its issues. The biggest of those issues happens to be related to the frame rate in certain areas or conditions, as it drops well below thirty frames per second under many different circumstances. In addition, there seems to be an issue whereby the frame will lock in place for a moment and interrupt the action, though it’s thankfully less common than the slow-downs.
Aside from that, there is also some colour banding (especially in the sky), and a hint of a jagged edge here and there – but these are fairly minor issues compared to the frame rate one. They honestly aren’t that noticeable in the moment, and were mostly only noticed when reviewing raw footage from my captures. If colour banding and a hint of the “jaggies” was all I had to worry about this review would slide even closer to a perfect score, but alas – it’s not the case.
Speaking of perfection, the audio cues, sound effects, and ambient noises are spot on – and the only thing I can call upon as “not entirely as I’d like” is the lack of voice-overs for non-player characters and the somewhat weak voice-overs otherwise. The grunting and odd noises the NPCs make instead of talking would have better been left out in my opinion, though they’re hardly an issue as much as me nitpicking. I’d say the same goes for much of the voice-over.
As for the music, it’s superb – and though I’m no Zelda follower I noticed at least a few familiar tunes (modified as they may be). The Zelda theme is used quite perfectly to create a sense of emotion, and when it started playing I actually smiled to myself. I may not be well versed in the history of the games, but there are some things that simply transcend the games they come from – and that’s a big one. The rest of the tracks used are almost just as fitting, though I can’t say anything for how original they were.
Moving past the parts, a look at the sum of them reveals a very well put together game. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers an experience that puts you in the adventurer’s seat, and lets you take it on as – and how – you wish. You can run through the field and collect mushrooms for hours, or make a bee-line for Calamity Gannon right after you get your paraglider; whatever the way you want to approach Breath of the Wild it’s open for you to do so. Additionally, due to the way everything in the game works much as the real world might if presented with the same situation, the MacGuyver in you is allowed to shine like never before.
These developer choices and systems work together to deliver a game that is as easy or as hard as you like, as short or as long as you like (within reason), and so filled with possibilities that you’ll still be finding cool new things dozens of hours in – all in the same single mode and single difficulty option. As I said before; I am not a Zelda fan, but I am a fan of games… and with the way all these little things come together, this is an absolutely amazing one.
While other open world games offer a path you may stray from only slightly, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers a path that is as wide and far-reaching as the eye can see. In this way, it stands apart from almost the entirety of its genre – and it does so in a way that makes it more than just a game. Breath of the Wild is simply more akin to the breath of life; after which you can live in their world however you like.
Breathe in, and let your heart(s) guide you where they may… I know I did.