A Link To The Future
HIGH Medoh and Naboris; two dungeons of unparalleled spectacle.
LOW Losing my grip during a long climb because it suddenly started raining.
WTF How are the Koroks at Death Mountain not spontaneously combusting?
When I step into a Zelda overworld for the first time, I expect a bit of fanfare as I set course for one of the majestic locations silhouetted against the sky. A new Zelda is usually a spirited affair, but the adventure in which a prophesied hero sets off to defend his land from an ancient menace happened a hundred years ago, and it didn’t end well. Series nemesis Ganon won, most who fought against him died, and Link was sealed away for a century to recover from mortal wounds. When he reemerges into the fields of Hyrule mere minutes after Breath of the Wild begins, he’s not met with blaring trumpets… just silence and ruin.
That jarring introduction is the first indication that, at long last, Zelda has matured. While I adore the series, it’s wallowed in its own formula for a long time, and Nintendo has struggled to push the brand forward in a meaningful way. The hardware gimmicks were a dead-end, and even the brilliance of something like Majora’s Mask would be diminished had it become a mainstay. Breath of the Wild’s shakeups make it feel like the series’ most substantive step forward in nearly two decades, and it’s been a long time since a Zelda release was such an event.
The main reason is one producer Eiji Aonuma underlined when he first unveiled Wild. The original 2D titles had a sprawling, mazelike quality to them, and their worlds functioned as cohesive wholes that expanded as players added to their arsenals. For a long time, the technology to reproduce that particular flow in 3D wasn’t there, so instead, we’d get segmented worlds where vacant stretches of field or ocean would connect the more exciting bits.
That changes with Breath of the Wild, the first 3D entry in the series that can honestly be called an open-world game, and the degree to which Nintendo has pulled down the barriers puts their earlier efforts to shame. Right from the start of the game, Link can climb any vertical surface for as long as his stamina meter can tolerate it. Players are given all of their major abilities during the tutorial section, and once that’s complete, they can travel anywhere. It’s possible to make a beeline straight for the final boss if players think they’re up for it.
Of course, if they do, they’ll quickly learn that Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda in quite some time in which players can expect to die… a lot. The game’s “walls” are the figurative kind where I frequently got my teeth kicked in for venturing too far afield while poorly armed, or when setting out with an insufficient understanding of the game’s systems. While it’s not quite an RPG, there’s more to preparing Link for battle than simply hunting for heart containers. Equipment has stats now, money is earned primarily through quests, and weapons break after continuous use.
Speaking of weapon degradation, I initially hated to see Zelda adopting the mechanic, but it actually plays much like Let It Die, perhaps the only game in recent memory to successfully pull it off. No weapon is meant to last long, and they drop so frequently that it’s more a matter of adjusting to constantly-shifting conditions than having to backtrack for repairs every few hours.
Another tired staple of modern gaming that Nintendo has successfully tuned is tower climbing. Yes, players map out Hyrule by climbing to high places, just like every Ubisoft game ever, but it only provides a topographical layout of the landscape. Players are still on their own to actually find things. Whereas too many open-world games boil down to endless waypoint-chasing because they lack the guts to truly turn players loose, Breath of the Wild restores a sense of discovery to a genre that should be defined by it.
So what’s to discover? Well, Link’s major objective is to retake control of the Divine Beasts, four Shadow of the Colossus-sized monstrosities that can be used to help drive Ganon out of Hyrule Castle. Their insides house Wild‘s major dungeons, and while they’re short by Zelda standards, they make up for it in creativity and spectacle. Even the process of boarding these things is a degree of awesome that we’ve never before seen in this series.
Most of the cleverest material, however, is broken up and spread throughout the map in the form of shrines – miniature dungeons that typically house a single puzzle each. They function as warp points, and completing them also earns players valuable upgrades to health and stamina. The shrines all emit a bright orange glow, easily distinguished against Breath of the Wild’s muted colors, particularly when viewed from a high place.
So the game’s loop is to climb a tower, get a general sense of where a shrine might be, locate and complete the shrine which strengthens Link, and then trudge deeper into the unknown in search of another tower. It’s kept from becoming monotonous by both its breathtaking scenery – which looks stunning on the tiny Switch – and the sort of whimsy we rarely see outside of Nintendo products. Unlike a certain other recent post-apocalyptic open-world game that pitted a bow-wielding warrior against ancient robots, Breath of the Wild is never self-serious, and even its smallest details and most minor characters exude charm. The next time someone tells me that Breath of the Wild is “just another” open world game, I’ll counter that the Assassin’s Creed games don’t have accordion-playing birdmen, nor do they let me cook raw meat by placing it on volcanic surfaces.
What ultimately makes Breath of the Wild an utter triumph, though, is the gift of player agency. The ability to truly go anywhere from the start, to attack objectives in any order without restriction, and to confront the final boss whenever we feel sufficiently prepared throws a gauntlet down to every other open-world title on the market, and it’s an experience seemingly tuned for every taste, offering precisely what any given player wants out of it.
Breath of the Wild is a phenomenal title in and of itself, but it’s particularly special in that it embodies the vision for the series that Miyamoto and Aonuma have never been able to realize until now. It’s a game three decades in the making, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been waiting my entire life for this. Breath of the Wild is, by any measure except nostalgia, the best Zelda game ever made, and considering how many unbeatable classics this series has already produced, that is a staggering accomplishment.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Nintendo EPD and published by Nintendo. It is currently available on Switch and Wii U. This copy of the game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 70 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Everyone 10+ and contains fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes and use of alcohol. It’s fine. The violence is cartoonish, and I’m pretty sure the “suggestive themes” descriptor refers to a mission in which Link is required to cross-dress.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Most dialogue is text-only, and subtitles are available on the rare occasions when voices are used. The game has a tracker tool that beeps whenever a shrine (or other designated item) is nearby, and given the scale of the world, not being able to take advantage of it would be a serious handicap for completionists. Otherwise, the game is playable without sound.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.