The Legend Reborn
Ever since it was announced, I had been looking forward to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. As a huge fan of both the series as well as open world games in general, the premise behind this game was irresistible. I even jokingly referred to it as The Zelder Scrolls since it seemed to have more in common with games like Skyrim than it did most previous Zelda titles. As it turns out, this description was not too far off.
There are plenty of excellent reviews of this game out there that go over all of the finer mechanic details. Many sites are proclaiming this to be the best Zelda title of all time, though some are a bit more measured. The game is, without question, a masterpiece. However this is absolutely not an Ocarina of Time style of game. This is Zelda re-imagined as a true open world game, and in many ways it is more open than Skyrim. After leaving the tutorial area (the only thing the player is forced complete), all of the game's content can be undertaken in any order. For exceptionally skilled, it is even possible to beeline straight to Ganon and take him out with only three hearts. The game rewards you for completing content, and encourages exploration, but doesn't do much handholding outside of the very beginning.
Before I provide further thoughts on what I enjoyed, no game is perfect, and there are a few legitimate complaints that I feel are fair.
- Amiibo-exclusive content: Some items in the game require an amiibo to unlock, including Link's iconic horse, Epona. This does leave a bad taste in my mouth.
- The game does not heavily put a focus on plot. Most of the world's lore is revealed through discoverable flashbacks, which are optional. While enough of the characters' personalities are revealed through this method, I personally prefer Twilight Princess when it comes to story. I was especially disappointed in the lack of characterization behind this game's version of Ganon. On the flip side, I liked this game's take on Princess Zelda.
- The game does a good job with cooking, but other than that there isn't really much of a crafting system, per-say. It is a bit disappointing that Link can pick up piles of wood and monster horns, but can't even make his own arrows. This is something Horizon: Zero Dawn does much better.
- While the game does well by using a heavily stylized art style, the graphics are nowhere near current gen. Additionally, both the Wii U and Switch versions suffer from frame rate drops and other performance issues.
- Some of the English-language voice acting is terrible, and you cannot switch to the Japanese track. (Update: This is now possible with recent patches!)
These flaws are ultimately minor in the grand scheme of things, and are more than made up for by the massive open world. This game is an explorer's paradise, and venturing off the path is often rewarding. Hidden puzzles, shrines, and other secrets can be found all over the place. It is possible to go into difficult areas early on, and even conquer them through skilled play. The game can feasibly be beaten in under an hour with perfect execution, or players can simply take in the mountains and caverns around Hyrule. Completing shrines and exploring ultimately serve to build up Link's general power and arsenal of abilities, which in turn makes some of the more difficult content easier to tackle for gamers with mere mortal skills.
Because of this aspect, the difficulty curve is relatively high compared to almost every other Zelda, perhaps with the exception of Zelda II. Many of the enemies are capable of doing a massive amount of damage to even a well-equipped player, making combat an often-deadly affair. No longer do hearts just randomly appear out of pots, either. Link can only regain health by eating food. This means that a certain amount of prep work on the part of the player is recommended. At the same time, those with exceptional skill can avoid damage by performing well-timed dodges, blocks, and counters. Stealth mechanics are also present, allowing for sneakier solutions to many monsters. Nailing the timing of every attack, in practice, requires a high degree of finesse that most players won't be able to achieve. Building Link's strength and abilities by clearing shrines and the divine beasts eases the challenge, but the game doesn't force it.
While the reviews are extremely positive for this game, it may be a bit jarring for those who don't like open world games or were hoping for a more story-driven affair. I can easily see how some players, at the end of the day, would simply have preferred another Ocarina of Time style game. It is hard to fault that, since that formula works well and has produced some excellent titles. At the same time, it is also important to state that Breath of the Wild fulfills the promise of the original Zelda game. You are plunked down in a vast fantasy realm and are encouraged to explore it. For those of us who spent many youthful hours burning every 8-bit bush and pushing every pixelated block in order to uncover Hyrule's secrets, this game does a wonderful job of revisiting that concept in a more advanced fashion. Some might accuse Nintendo of jumping onto the open world RPG bandwagon, but in reality I believe that series such as The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher are (at their core) really built upon the same concepts introduced in the original Zelda. For that reason I find it hard to see Breath of the Wild as anything but an excellent vehicle in which to recapture the magic of the 8-bit game.
Ultimately I do agree with the assessment that many reviewers are delivering: This may just be the best Zelda yet, and it will be hard for Nintendo to top this one. Without question, this is a game that everyone should pick up, even if it means buying a Switch. It is simply that good.