Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U Review)
“Where do I start?”
Not only is this the primary thought in my mind as I sit down to write a review for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it was also my first thought when Link and I stepped out of the Shrine of Resurrection for the first time and saw the awe-inspiring new landscape of Hyrule. After a short opening cutscene, a mysterious voice urges Link to wake up and begin his journey. With mountains and ruins and vast open plains as far as the eye can see, I took a second to just breathe it all in. There’s going to be some spoilers throughout.
The Legend of Zelda is a series accused of becoming formulaic over the years, though fans of the series will argue against that point until they’re blue in the face. But with 2011’s Skyward Sword leaving some worried about the future of the franchise, it was up to long-term series producer Eiji Aonuma to deliver something that made a firm statement.
Breath of the Wild scraps a lot of the conventions of the Zelda franchise. Gone is the rigid structure of dungeon completion, now replaced by an open world to tackle at your own pace. The spirit of classic dungeons lives on in Shrines and the colossal Divine Beasts dotted throughout Hyrule. There’s no real gameplay gimmick, like Ocarina of Time’s Child and Adult Link, or Twilight Princess’s human and wolf forms.
You are given a brief tutorial section in which an old man tells you that Hyrule has been destroyed by the series’ iconic antagonist, Ganon. Wise, elderly strangers have been helping Link out since 1986 (“It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!”), providing catalysts for new adventures and a gentle nudge in the right direction. After that, you’re given complete freedom to explore the world and do as you please. This initial feeling of liberty is almost overwhelming. It’s reminiscent of open-world heavy hitters like Skyrim and Just Cause, with gameplay elements of Assassin’s Creed and even Shadow of the Colossus thrown in.
Ganon, known in Breath of the Wild as Calamity Ganon, rose to power one hundred years prior to the beginning of the game. Link fought as Hyrule’s Champion alongside stand-out warriors hailing from the nation’s other regions. Some of the champions may seem familiar, as some old favourite species’ make their triumphant return; the avian Rito from Wind Waker are back, as are the amphibious Zora; the all-female, desert dwelling Gerudo; and the stalwart, mountain-inhabiting Goron. Leading the Champions in their battle against Calamity Ganon was none other than Princess Zelda. Sporting a completely overhauled design that takes her away from the dainty princess of the past and puts her firmly in the leading female role, Zelda is given more character development than ever before.
The Champions failed. Link was placed into a restorative slumber and Zelda sealed herself away in Hyrule Castle, using her power to keep Calamity Ganon contained for a century. Link’s awakening (pardon the pun) heralds the beginning of his latest and greatest adventure.
Upon the beginning of your journey, you receive a device called a Sheikah Slate. The Sheikah are known to long-term fans of the franchise as the ninja-like guardians of the Royal Family. The Slate not only functions as your map but also allows Link to access a variety of powerful Runes, starting with Stasis, Magnesis, Cryosis and Remote Bombs.
Stasis allows you to freeze objects in time, while also storing everything that happens to the object in that time. So, if you freeze a boulder and hit it with your sword several times, the force of all the strikes will be applied instantly and at once when the Stasis effect breaks, letting you shift objects you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Cryosis continues the theme by allowing you to freeze water, creating pillars that you can travel across, which also serve to lift objects out of the water. Magnesis allows you to manipulate metallic objects, including platforms, doors, boxes and even treasure chests, while Remote Bombs are…well, they’re bombs. That you can detonate remotely. Get it? While the other two feel more like super powers than anything else, the bombs are a welcome alternative to having to scavenge dungeons for explosives as you play.
You’ll also rely on the Slate to help Link in other ways, especially recovering the memories he’s lost over his hundred years of slumber. There are twelve memories hidden across Hyrule, each nestled away in specific landmarks and locations that, when discovered, will trigger a cutscene, usually of Link and Zelda at the beginning of their quest to defeat Calamity Ganon a century ago. Like the rest of the game’s content, these are completely skippable, but getting to truly know the characters and world of Breath of the Wild adds an extra layer of emotional depth to the game.
The earliest similarity to another game franchise I encountered was the one to the Assassin’s Creed format of exploration. In each region of Hyrule, there are huge towers that can be seen from miles away. In fact, if you’re angled right you can see them almost completely across the map. Climbing and activating each tower not only provides you with a detailed map of the region you’re in, but it also lets you scout out interesting locations you’d like to visit–pecifically, Shrines.
Shrines are how Breath of the Wild keeps the franchise’s beloved puzzle-solving gameplay alive. There are 120 Shrines dotted around Hyrule, with varying difficulties and objectives. While some, referred to as Tests of Strength, are simple combat experiences, the majority are dominated by puzzles. It’s in these Shrines that the game’s outstanding physics engine really gets to flex its muscles, with many requiring an understanding and manipulation of wind or fire or momentum. The first Shrines are amongst the easiest, but you’ll find some that are really challenging. Two stick out above the others, that I couldn’t solve on my first try and had to come back to. Your reward for completing each Shrine is a Spirit Orb, which you can trade four of to either increase your total number of hearts or your stamina bar.
Technically, there are four dungeons in Breath of the Wild, but they’re not as lengthy as the Temples of the previous Zelda titles. One hundred years ago, the Champions used mighty mechanical creatures called Divine Beasts in their battle against Calamity Ganon. He was able to turn the Divine Beasts against their controllers, and it’s up to Link to take them back. You’re told of their locations by a familiar face, which is common enough for a Zelda game, but you get to decide which order to tackle them in. This can lead to some difficulty issues as it’s difficult to ‘balance’ a dungeon and its enemies and boss without knowing how powerful or prepared the player is. While some of them are more difficult than others, if you’re the type of player who likes to explore the world as you play, they’re never too challenging.
Actually getting to the Divine Beasts can be more challenging than conquering the constructs themselves, and a lot more fun at times. Once you’ve completed the necessary quests and geared up, beginning your attack on the Divine Beasts feels like a section from Shadow of the Colossus. Each approach is unique, but they all involve maneuvering around the Beast from afar with the help of a representative from each Champion’s race and weakening the creature’s defences. I particularly enjoyed the Gerudo Champion’s approach, rushing through a sand storm and dodging blast of lightning from the Beast. While the insides of the Divine Beasts are perhaps too easy for seasoned fans of the game and avid puzzle solvers alike, the approach to each of them is an epic, memorable moment every single time.
Here’s a novel idea, though; you don’t have to do any of them. You can literally run straight from the first area to Hyrule Castle and try to finish the game. It’s suicide, of course, and you’ll miss everything the game has to offer, but it’s doable. I don’t remember the last time a game offered me that sort of freedom.
Every encounter in Breath of the Wild is challenging. This is partially due to the equipment Link uses in his adventure. Unlike every other Zelda game, there isn’t a set sword and shield combo, like Twilight Princess’s Ordon Sword and Shield, or the Hero Sword and Hero Shield from Wind Waker. Here, you need to scavenge for weapons, including shields and bows, and there’s a decent variety to be found. I personally favoured using the quick, repeated attacks of a fine spear in combat, but there are situations that call for a slow and heavy two-handed weapon or a traditional sword and shield. Finding a weapon set that suits you is a lot of fun, but it’s also difficult, as your weapons can break during combat. I’m sure you can understand the perils of running out of swords in the middle of a fight, so it’s something to keep in mind. Luckily, decent weapons are scattered all over the place, but for every amazing blade you want to save for a difficult enemy, you’ll find one that’s just not up to your current standard.
The clothes you can equip, however, are a constant, only disappearing from your inventory if you sell them. Like any good action-adventure game, different sets of armor provide different levels of protection, and a variety of magical bonuses. The Zora armor allows you to swim faster, and even swim up waterfalls, while the Sheikah armor increases your ability to sneak silently, evading combat entirely. And neither will provide as much protection as standard Hylian armor, so it’s worth mixing sets together, although some sets provide special bonuses if you equip multiple pieces from the same set.
However, good armor and weaponry isn’t always enough. Sometimes you’ll encounter an enemy that’s simply out of your league at the moment. You can usually flee the battle and return when you’re better prepared. Another way to get the advantage over your foes is by preparing a hearty meal. Scattered throughout Hyrule, you’ll find dozens of different ingredients to experiment with to make a huge variety of food and elixirs. While you can crunch those apples raw one at a time to heal half a heart, you can also cook them together, or perhaps fry them up with a fine steak, to drastically increase their healing potential. Cooking food in this way can often unlock bonuses that you wouldn’t get just from eating the ingredients, such as an increase in attack or defense, a heightened resistance to the elements, or improved movement speed. Carrying a pantry worth of meals and potions around is something of a trope in adventure games at this point, but preparation truly is the key to success.
And you’ll need to be prepared, as it’s easy enough to find yourself way out of your depth in combat, especially against a group of even seemingly basic enemies. I think I’ve encountered more ‘Game Over’ screens in Breath of the Wild than in any other Zelda game, maybe even in all of the others combined. Combat can be pretty brutal at times, drawing a comparison to Dark Souls even, as if you’re not ready for a fight or don’t dodge the right attacks, it’s lights out for you, sometimes instantly.
There are so many moments that stand out when I think of my first 40 or so hours of play. The awe of the first time I walked up the ruined steps of the Temple of Time. Spotting the mighty dragon Farrosh in the distance from the Temple, gasping in shock, and then trying to chase him down. The rush of excitement when I found the Lost Woods, and the intense joy I felt upon finally reclaiming the series’ signature Master Sword. Curiosity upon seeing a nearby mountain peak glowing in the dawn light, and the wonder when I found its source. There are too many to comprehensively note down, and I still feel like many of Hyrule’s greatest secrets remain hidden, waiting for me to find them.
I’m not going to blindly tell you that the game is completely flawless. The Wii U, in its old age, occasionally struggles to keep up. There were a few times when my framerate dropped, almost exclusively in combat and usually when there were lots of things, like explosions and weather effects, on screen at once. Unlike others, I don’t view the franchise’s newfound approach to difficulty in combat a bad thing, but you might be the kind of player who likes more linear progression in your enemies and difficulty. And there were times I found myself missing the classic Zelda formula, exploring a vast dungeon to find a powerful relic and then using it to navigate the rest of the dungeon and defeat the boss.
I read an argument about whether The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a 10/10 game, or a 10/10 Zelda game, as if there’s a difference. While it may not be technically flawless, at least not on the Wii U, I think it’s difficult not to argue that BotW is, and will continue to be, one of the most important action-adventure games of all time. Nintendo have created an instant classic; a living, breathing Hyrule so grand and full of potential that its minor issues are, with the exception of the occasional frame drop, an ignorable matter of taste. Breath of the Wild is simply stunning. So yes, I’ll say it; this is the greatest Legend of Zelda game of all time. As a lifelong fan of the franchise, I thought that would be a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s really not. This is the 3D Zelda game that the series has been trying to create since 1986.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild revitalises and redefines not just the Zelda series itself, or Nintendo games in general, but the entire action-adventure genre. It’s the most astonishing curtain call for the Wii U, a console that arguably doesn’t deserve to go out on such a high note. Stunningly beautiful, lovingly crafted and meticulously detailed, Breath of the Wild raises the bar for similar games so ridiculously high, the competition will need to hitch a ride on a dragon and soar for the heavens if they ever want to get close.