Nintendo bet big on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to usher in the Switch as the next big innovation in gaming technology, and fortunately it looks like they have a smash hit on their hands. When The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time was released on the Nintendo 64 almost twenty years ago, Nintendo rewrote the rulebook when it came to 3D gaming and expansive open world design, and challenged the rest of the industry to keep up. While many other games tried to reach the heights of Ocarina of Time in the two decades since, very few managed to recapture even a fraction of the magic that made that game a masterpiece.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is better than Ocarina of Time in almost every way, and I never thought I would even entertain that thought, but here we are.
The game starts with Link waking up from a 100 year slumber in a strange chamber with no memory of where he is and how he arrived there. From that moment on, the entire world of Hyrule is at your fingertips. The beginning moments of Breath of the Wild act as expected for an adventure game and RPG, but includes light survival elements that add weight and magnitude to every item collected and enemy defeated. After the first hour, players are given every item and power they need to solve every puzzle that could be encountered, giving the player true freedom free of roadblocks and progression gating.
Roaming the open world will be the majority of your time spent with the game. Fortunately, Breath of the Wild is a masterclass of environmental storytelling. Hyrule is every bit as vast and lively as it is broken down and crippled under the weight of Ganon’s influence. For the Legend of Zelda franchise, this is the darkest depiction of Hyrule since Ocarina of Time, and gives off many of the same vibes as the Nintendo 64 masterpiece. As melancholy as Hyrule can be at times, the sheer sense of wonder it radiates is what really makes Breath of the Wild shine.
While most of your time spent in Hyrule will be venturing out on your own, conquering Shrines and seeing what the world has to offer, the main story offers some of the strongest writing and voice acting in a Nintendo title of any franchise. This is the most emotional Zelda story ever made, bar none. While a large portion of backstory is hidden behind optional “memories” that encourage exploration, the handful of main story dungeons offer great exposition that when put all together help paint the broader picture of what exactly happened after Calamity Ganon descended upon Hyrule once more. I never thought a Legend of Zelda game could bring tears to my eyes and make me care deeply about the characters and their struggles, but I’m so glad it did.
Curiosity will drive you into all corners of the map searching for secrets, and that curiosity is almost always rewarded by something. The world is peppered with challenges, side quests, collectibles and puzzles, all of which have a way of enriching and upgrading your abilities or bolstering your health, stamina or inventory space. Climb a really tall mountain? There’ll be something waiting for you there. Navigate a dark cave? You might find a Shrine. Swim to a island far off in the distance? A little puzzle is waiting to be solved. You could even lift up a rock in the middle of an open field and there could be a collectible under there. It’s ridiculous in the best way. Hyrule is so fun to explore because it is so incredibly rewarding to do, and in a way that no game before it has even managed to come close to achieving.
Nintendo has really embraced western RPGs like The Witcher and Elder Scrolls series while removing much of the clutter those games seem to have at times. That’s not to say there is less to do in Breath of the Wild than its counterparts, it will still take well over 100 hours to see everything the game has to offer, but there is much more of a focus on open exploration than “go here, do this, turn in, repeat.” Nintendo has always been a company that has thrived when they have thought out of the box and do their own thing, so it is rather ironic that one of the best games they have ever developed borrows from a proven western formula and improves upon it.
That being said, while Breath of the Wild isn’t bogged down by a ridiculous amount of side quests, there are tons to seek out if the desire is there. In fact, only one quest can be tracked at a time, and only 5 colored map markers can be placed on the map at once. It’s very minimalistic for a game packed with this much to do, but it helps add to the sense of wonder. Western RPGs can suffer from side quest overload, and dozens of quest markers appearing on the map at one time can feel extremely overwhelming. The side quests that do exist are more like MMO fetch quests that yield mostly negligible rewards, while Shrine Quests are more involving and uncover up an additional Shrine upon completion.
Shrines are often the standout moments in Breath of the Wild. Shines serve as fast travel points, as well as bite size puzzle rooms crammed with treasure and a means to upgrade your health and stamina. These puzzle rooms can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour, with varied challenges and themes that keep the experience fresh and interesting throughout the course of the game. They’re also entirely optional, and there are so many of them that passing on a few that might be difficult or unenjoyable isn’t leaving the player at a significant disadvantage.
Breath of the Wild is the most intelligent game Nintendo has ever made, and smartly takes a step back and lets players go at it at their own pace. Early in the game, Link is given everything he needs to succeed at every puzzle he will come across, and it’s up to the player to use the tools at their disposal to figure it out. Hints are few and far between, and brilliant checkpointing promotes trial and error and reduces frustrations as a result of failure. For most puzzles, there are more than one way to go about solving them, and the game lets you bend the rules as long as you complete your task.
Combat is par for the course with past Legend of Zelda games. This is your standard sword and shield affair, while arrows can be used in more tactical situations or during boss fights. A new “flurry rush” interaction exists when dodging an attack the correct way at the appropriate time, but those who can’t nail the timing won’t have any problems getting through battles. While Link won’t pick up hook shots and boomerangs that become permanent additions to his arsenal like in past games, early in the game you will acquire a handful of powers that will aid in combat and the puzzles found in the dungeons and shrines, such as magnesis, stasis and, yes, bombs.
Weapon durability is a love or hate concept, but it’s surprisingly effective in Breath of the Wild. Progression in The Legend of Zelda has always had a Metroidvania feel to it: Link would get stronger by beating dungeons while gaining new items and powerups, giving players access to new areas and the ability to complete new challenges. With Breath of the Wild being so open from the get-go, weapon durability serves as a form of item progression that feels natural instead of something that is there just to gate the player off in any way. Weapons are all around you, and some of the strongest gear is hidden behind puzzles and challenges, once again making exploration gratifying.
The biggest issue plaguing Breath of the Wild’s accessibility are the infamous motion control puzzles found in various Shrines across Hyrule, which requires manipulating a game space by tilting and moving the Joy-Con (or your choice of the Switch’s various control methods). Unlike when aiming arrows and powers, motion control cannot be turned off in these instances, creating a physical roadblock for many gamers that can’t meet the physical demands of moving the controller where it needs to be. To make things worse, the motion control in these segments is spotty and unclear, making them difficult and frustrating even for able bodied gamers. Segments like these are rarely fun in any game that feature them, and stick out especially in a game like Breath of the Wild with dozens of extraordinarily thoughtful, clever and challenging puzzles.
Other smaller control issues pop up that can hinder accessibility. There is no target lock, meaning focusing a specific enemy requires holding a button press for as long as you need to lock on. This goes with firing arrows as well. Giving players an option to double tap the button instead of holding it down would go a long way in helping gamers. Nintendo hasn’t quite embraced control remapping on a software level and offers no OS level solution like Sony and Microsoft have, which unfortunately means first party games like Breath of the Wild will suffer from a lack of control options.
2017 is shaping up to be one of the strongest years in the history of gaming, and Breath of the Wild is leading the charge. Nintendo has managed to take some of the best parts of Western RPGs like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, melt them down to their bare components, and build them back up even stronger than their predecessors have. I could go on and on, telling stories of all the minute-to-minute interactions that filled me with joy, hope and wonder, but Breath of the Wild is best experienced through your own eyes and experiences. Your relationship with the world won’t be the same as mine, and that is what makes this game as great as it is. Maybe when you’re done, you can come back tell me all of your stories. I might still be wandering around Hyrule collecting Korok seeds.
[Editor’s Note: If you are having issues playing Breath of the Wild, and have accessibility concerns with the title, Nintendo has opened up a section of their website about the accessibility of their game. Please let Nintendo know your thoughts on Nintendo’s Accessibility Contact Page.]