Freedom. Unlimited freedom permeates a world that reflects Nintendo’s best performance in years. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild launched March 3 for the Nintendo Wii U and Switch consoles, capping a long journey marked by delays. These delays were ultimately forgivable, however, with Breath of the Wild receiving acclaim from many of the industry’s critics. Quite bluntly, this is the best Zelda title in years, and a contender for the best video game of all time. Breath of the Wild may have dethroned Ocarina of Time, long regarded as the “gold standard” and best game in the series.
Breath of the Wild takes the pre-existing conventions of the franchise and radically supplants them, creating a distinct piece that still has undertones of the games we knew and loved from the franchise. Whenever you feel comfortable with the game’s systems, it promptly reminds you that it can beat you back, with clever puzzle design and intelligent enemies. It removes much of the hand-holding and linearity of the previous titles, and instead gives you almost all of the tools you will need to play the game from the outset. I’ve barely even begun to scratch the surface of what Breath of the Wild has to offer; with a world as large as this one, it’s going to be hundreds more hours before I get down to the nitty gritty mysteries of what this incarnation of Hyrule has to offer.
It all begins with a dark storyline. A century prior to the beginning of the game, calamity Ganon has taken over Hyrule Castle, and the landscape is filled with unsettling robots and technology reminiscent of Horizon: Zero Dawn. These advanced Sheikah technologies were meant as tools to combat Ganon along with the Chosen Hero and the Princess. The Divine Beasts and the Guardians, as these technologies were called, were taken control of by Calamity Ganon and used to gravely wound Link. Link is an amnesiac reawoken after having been placed in cryogenic sleep for a hundred years, and is of course the chosen knight to defend Princess Zelda, who has been holding Ganon at bay by sealing him within the castle. That’s about all you get for your story, with the rest being pieced together by obtaining the fragments of Link’s memories throughout the game.
The narrative isn’t what makes Breath of the Wild such a fantastic title, however. This game focuses heavily on exploring and learning about the world for yourself. There are tons of small details in both the lore and in the gameplay, making this one of the most complex titles in the franchise, if not the most complex.
Combat has a tendency to be a brutal slog, with many encounters that can vary depending on your weapon loadout or the environment. Weapons have a fixed durability, which means that they can break fairly quickly. You will break many weapons in Breath of the Wild. Once you’ve gotten the hang of your gear, enemies will bounce right back and use those learned tactics against you. It’s a great progression for the series, with Skyward Sword’s slightly intelligent AI feeling like a rough beta for this iteration.
It’s absolutely insane just how much detail went into the engine: the physics and realism of the world are impressive, to say the least. There are no longer artificial barriers that prevent Link from moving about on the map. If an object can be seen, it can be climbed or interacted with. In games like Pokémon, if you jump off a precipice, you can’t go back up unless you go back around. When Breath of the Wild opens up in its early minutes with a stunning panoramic view of the Great Plateau and beyond, you’re staring at a world with vastness unlike any you’ve experienced.
Mountains in the extreme distance are scalable. Anything can be climbed, limited only by your stamina, which can also be upgraded later. There is a weather system that plays a vital role in exploration, to the point that there is a weather meter on the HUD. Lightning storms can fry Link to a crisp if he is wearing metal equipment. The real mind-blower was realizing that mountains could be made slippery in the rain, and Link would be unable to climb more than a few feet before slipping and falling. The foods you can cook range from absolute garbage (no, I’m not kidding here) to something incredibly delicious. Link can freeze if he’s not wearing the proper clothing. There’s so many new elements that we now have to consider, that it’s a huge refreshment from the linear courses of previous Zelda.
Hyrule is teeming with life. From herbs growing in the grass, to the diverse wildlife and flora scattered across the plains, there is never a shortage of things to interact with. The villages scattered around the world map are filled with lives not unlike our own. Villagers have schedules. They pay attention and interact when the weather gets rough by going indoors. Kids have curfews and will return to their homes at bedtime. You have the chance to follow some of these villagers around and observe their daily routines, from when they leave the house, to when they return from a day’s work.
The day and night cycle is actually a deep mechanic in this game. Certain events can occur only in the daytime or at nighttime. Objects that you might have difficulty tracking in the sun become easier to find at night. The day and night cycle adds a new layer of beauty to the game; watching the sun reflect on the blades of grass or in the water, or the moon travel across the sky, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Traversal is one of the most rewarding elements of exploring Hyrule. From shrine puzzle-solving to contemplating a path up a towering mountain, some of the most wonderful moments in my play time have been simply wandering around the map. With no set goals repeatedly nagging, I was free to explore Hyrule at my own pace. This lack of goal-setting allowed me to make many, many detours on my journey.
This incarnation of Hyrule is best considered from a perspective of great height. When in doubt, climb. Climb as high as you can. Once you depart the Great Plateau in the beginning, you are given the hang glider which greatly improves and expands upon your exploration capabilities. Climbing high to tower waypoints not only benefits you by providing a new set of local map data, but it gives you the chance to look at your surroundings to find points of interest. The side bonus of these lookout points a stunning, picture-perfect view that will often leave you speechless. These are incredibly breathtaking views. When you find a point that’s worth interacting with, you can simply jump off of the tower and start hang gliding towards your destination, enjoying a nice and slow ride that gives you another opportunity to be distracted from your personal quest. That is the crux of Breath of the Wild: when you find something that interests you, you will probably encounter more diversions on the way. Pretty soon, you will end up going the complete opposite direction.
Gone are the bombastic and triumphant orchestral soundtracks of Zeldas past. In their place are the sounds of ambience, of environmental noises that immerse you in the game. There’s a quietness to the world that is connected with the sounds of quiet piano keys. Being a pianist, I am a huge sucker for this kind of music. It’s dramatic when it needs to be, and peaceful enough for me to really get into the game. The art is reminiscent of the cel-shaded style of Skyward Sword and Wind Waker, and while it’s not clear in 4K resolution like a PC game, it still looks beautiful, and the effects of the sunlight on the grass are stunning. It’s visually and atmospherically reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s work in film.
Let’s get one thing straightened out here. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was already fantastic when I got the chance to play it on the Wii U during a demo at last year’s E3 2016. The problem with the Wii U was that it was locked down, and tied to the television it was connected to.
The Nintendo Switch completely removes that problem, and allows for such a diverse play experience. It brings the power of the console into the palm of my hand. The display is beautiful, and Breath of the Wild looks incredibly crisp and detailed on it. The mere idea of a Zelda title of this scale in a portable form factor is almost unbelievable. I can play a game like this in the car on a road trip, or better yet during a flight from Houston back home to Southern California. Just think about that! That’s going to be a huge point of consideration for me and it should be for others who are still on the fence in purchasing the Switch. The battery lasts just shy of three hours, which is not bad for a handheld running a game like Breath of the Wild.
Breath of the Wild on the television when docked, however, is a different story. As it relays a 1080p signal, the performance starts to suffer, especially in demanding areas like towns. These locations had a noticeable frame rate drop. Areas like open fields also struggled with this, especially when the blades of grass were blowing in the wind, or when water got involved. For me, these deficiencies were not enough to outright remove me from the immersion of the title, but they are worth mentioning. It’s not the perfect performance experience that a console typically would have in this day and age, but for its form factor, it’s amazing that it can even run the amount of content that it has. The Switch running Breath of the Wild is confident and knows its place.
However, it’s not a perfect game. I think that Breath of the Wild is one of my top two games ever, quite honestly, but it has a few relatively minor flaws that cannot be denied. The first is of course the framerate drops. The game feels like it needs a bit more polish for the Nintendo Switch, which may potentially be due to the long development cycle. Something I was not extremely fond of was the voice acting. Zelda in particular felt awfully generic, and delivered a wooden performance in her English audio. The voice acting from the remainder of the cast didn’t quite stand out and it’s surprising that Nintendo didn’t focus a bit more into this. On the gameplay end, though, Breath of the Wild suffers in the rain. In a title centered around exploration, the rainy environments pretty much halted all traversal, as climbing became nearly impossible. Not only that, it rains way too often in Hyrule. It’s almost frustrating at times, because I would be climbing a huge mountain for a decent period of time only to tumble off due to the rain. Who knows, maybe Nintendo will patch the rain slightly so that it’s not quite so frequent?
Breath of the Wild has won a lot of acclaim, and rightfully so. It’s an excellent game that deserves its praises, but it’s got a little bit more work to do before it’s considered a “perfect” game objectively against other titles in the genre. I’d say, though, that this is the best Zelda game yet. It definitely will not be for everyone, but I’d highly suggest giving this game a go if you had the opportunity, whether it is the Wii U or Switch version. For the Nintendo Switch launch though, it’s the perfect companion to create a healthy demand, which is what Nintendo needs at the end of the day.