For almost 20 years, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has been the benchmark Zelda game. Today, that benchmark has changed. Challengers have fought for the crown, but never has a Zelda game done so much right and change so much.
Breath of the Wild is a modern Zelda game: there’s the DNA of every other Zelda game in here but they haven’t used Ocarina of Time as the template. Link is here, Zelda is here, Ganon and Hyrule are here but Breath of the Wild throws away the rigid structure of a Zelda game we’ve come to expect and opens up the world to new possibilities. When it was revealed that Breath of the Wild was going open world I was concerned that the open world template and its tropes would just be applied to the Zelda universe – thankfully this isn’t the case.
Nintendo started Zelda on this path in the incredible A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS. Breath of the Wild is almost completely open-ended; once you’ve woken Link from his 100 year slumber, you’re off on your own. There are quests and markers to guide you, but only to a point and it’s up to you if you even want to do them. Speaking to other reviewers who’ve had the game during the review period, we’ve all taken completely separate paths through the game – there’s no right way to play this.
If this sounds familiar, this is because it’s not only what A Link Between Worlds did but also what The Legend of Zelda did back in 1986. Every Zelda game after the first got more and more restrictive and tutorial-focused to begin with and we ended up with Skyward Sword. Fi, the companion character in that game butts in, tells you basically what you needed to do almost at every stage of the game. Skyward Sword felt like Zelda for dummies.
Breath of the Wild is none of that, you’re thrust into the world and forced to fend for yourself. You’ll need to learn fast too, and this doesn’t just go for the start of the game. The game is constantly teaching you how to survive and if you don’t you’ll hit that Game Over screen. Don’t worry too much, as the game autosaves often, but it can be frustrating in the game’s dungeons later on.
You will die in this game, over and over and until you realise I can’t be in this location or I need to get better at the game. If you don’t want to get better yet or already have the kit you think you need then you’ll have to try a different approach, go in stealthy and avoid a fight altogether, drop in from above and ambush.
It’s not just the enemies out to hurt you, war-torn Hyrule is a dangerous place. It can get cold, it can get hot and unless you can find the clothes to suit you’ll perish – that’s unless you’re a master chef. The entire food system in the game is a meta-game in and of itself. You can just eat raw meat or bananas, but combining foods, cooking them or mixing them up with other items gets you the good stuff. You’ll have to experiment with cooking to see what works – sometimes you’ll end up with a nice steak or cooked fish. Other times it’s so bad it’s censored. You’re also able to infuse things to make Link faster, have more stamina and stay alive longer in cold and hot places.
Food isn’t the only thing perishable in the game, your melee weapons, shields and bows will all break on you at some point. Usually in the heat of battle, even the fancy ones you get as a reward will be gone at some point. There’s nowhere outside of Link’s inventory to store these, but it doesn’t matter as it’s just another method of making you be resourceful. You can upgrade your inventory to hold more and as you eventually get stronger weapons, arrows and shields it becomes less of a problem.
When you’re in a battle you’ll have to adapt on the fly too. Luckily, the controls allow for this with the left and right D-Pad buttons bringing up either the melee or shield choices which you can thumb through quickly with the right stick. The action pauses while you do this, so it’s not as punishing as Dark Souls at least. Clicking down the right trigger changes things into bow and arrow mode, it takes a while to become proficient in battle with these controls but it beats the hell out of pausing the game and switching like in the good old days. My favourite feature from Ocarina of Time 3D is back too by aiming your bow with the motion controls. You can move with the stick but then fine tuning with the motion controls means more headshots.
The other big new addition to the game, of course, is the Shiekah Slate. It’s the map, it’s the camera and binoculars, and it’s a tool for Link to use as well. In the slate are a number of runes with powers. There’s one for freezing items in place, one for freezing water, one that’s a giant magnet and it’s also where your bombs live now. The bombs are now an infinite-use item, but has a cool-down timer. These come in handy during battle when you’re out of resources.
The game’s one hundred-plus shrines are where you’ll be training yourself and where these runes are most used, but if you see something odd or hard to reach in the over-world, chances are you probably need to use a rune to reach them. The shrines are the game’s way of not only teaching you but also upgrading your hearts and stamina. You get heart containers for beating bosses, but otherwise you’ll need to beat these shrines to power up. It’s a good thing they’re fun too, each one is a playground for all the items and runes you have and a lot of them involve physics puzzles. So far I’ve yet to find two the same.
Link himself is also more nimble and agile than he’s ever been before, you can actually make him jump. Gone is the decades old auto-jump. Instead, now there’s a button for it! That same button also assists with climbing. Outside of the shrines, you can pretty much climb anything. It really opens up the world as you’re no longer forced down corridors anymore. You can climb up, take a look around at your surroundings and go a different way, or maybe glide half the way.
It appears Link walks slow, but that’s because the map is so huge; if you really want to get around you’re going to need a horse. You’re not given a horse in Breath of the Wild, you don’t keep just one either. You can have many and store them at the many stables around Hyrule. To nab one, you’re going to have to track one in the wild, stalk it and then jump on its back and make it your own. Each horse has different stats as well and it’s not just going to accept you as its new master, you’ll have to tame and soothe it, some horses really don’t want to be ridden.
I haven’t spoken about the game’s story yet, not because it’s not worth mentioning – it’s pretty amazing – but it’s something you really ought to experience on your own, and in your own way. There’s a path through Breath of the Wild you could take, you could start the game, follow the main plot points and be done with it. I’d recommend not doing it this way but you’ll find the game won’t let you. Not because you can’t, but because the ruined Hyrule is such a beautiful place. Even with all the ugliness don’t worry, there’s still pockets of people left and towns to explore. You’ll get drawn off paths, off quests because you saw something cool.
You’ll see people in need of help, bokoblin’s fighting with each other, treasure chests, weird statues and ruins. The world is littered with things to see and do, it’s tightly packed and one of the most interesting open worlds yet. It’s also very sad in places, as little areas tell stories – you’ll find houses with Guardians perched over them, the house destroyed and what appear to be remains inside. One hundred years ago Hyrule would have been this regal place, with amazing architecture. Now you can only see what remains.
There’s a part of the game which I won’t spoil that gives a glimpse of the past, you’ll have to find it on your own as the game offers no help – but it’s worth it. Breath of the Wild is Nintendo’s biggest game to date not only in scope but also in presentation. The game contains voice acting for some of the main characters (not Link of course) but only at certain times. Notifications that would previously be limited to a note or chime are now replaced with characters talking. It’s just another step toward making Zelda more modern.
To the nuts and bolts of the game now: artistically the game is amazing and often you’ll stop and have a look around at the beautiful and varied world Nintendo has created. The game runs through a time lapse and through different weather conditions. One minute you’ll be walking through a beautiful sunny field, the sun sets and it there’s a storm. It’s as beautiful as it is deadly. If you’re carrying metal out when lighting strikes – you’re dead again.
As much as the game is beautiful, Nintendo has done a good job to hide the technical shortcomings of the game behind the art style, amazing lighting and environments. The game is far removed from other systems in terms of visual polish. There’s frame drops both in portable and docked mode and the game’s textures and bump mapping can leave a lot to be desired in places. When docked, the game runs at 900p and seems to suffer more, it’s mostly constant at 30fps but you’ll notice when there’s a lot of graphical effects that it starts to slow down. In portable mode, because it is running at 720p and on a smaller screen it actually seems to run better. Neither is a deal breaking, but the Wii U roots of this game show and it makes us wonder how a ground-up Zelda game for the Switch would look.
The game’s audio also needs a mention outside of the voice acting. The days of a persistent, grand theme running at all times over the game are done. The soundtrack in the game is much more sensitive and adaptive to where you are what you’re doing. There are still themes here, including the classic ones, but it doesn’t just play a tune all the time anymore. Playing with the sound up helps too because it’s used as a warning and event indicator too.
Breath of the Wild feels and plays like no other Zelda game that has come before it. It’s the evolution in the series that has been sorely needed for some time. People will still clamour for HD remakes of older Zelda titles, but after playing this you’ll find that noise should go away – there’s no way you’ll want to go back.
I was twelve when I first played Ocarina of Time, I remember going to the highest point on Hyrule Field and hitting that C-button to look around in awe and admire just how big that game was. Breath of the Wild does this to me nearly every corner I turn, with beautiful horizons and locations, however, it also shocks and challenges you at every step. You’re going to get lost in this game, you’re going to die over and over until your learn how to play it and then it’ll challenge you again. You’ll spend hours looking for something only to be distracted by something else and then forget what you were doing in the first place.
Breath of the Wild isn’t just the best Zelda game ever crafted, it’s one of the best games of all time.
Hand over the crown, Ocarina of Time.
Disclosure: Our review Nintendo Switch unit and games were provided by Nintendo Australia