The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is Really Special

by Dustin Bailey,
Nintendo made a new Zelda game. It's a good one. You should play it.

That's really about as much as anyone needs to hear when it comes to Breath of the Wild, but similar praise came along for Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, both of which are good, but neither of which have lived up to the “instant classic” monikers that were put upon them at release. So if you're looking at all these “perfect 10” scores and feeling a bit skeptical, you're within your rights.

But there's something very special about Breath of the Wild. I try to avoid reading other reviews when I know I'm going to write something critical about a game myself, but it's been impossible to escape the incredible, effusive praise this game has gotten. It's “magical.” It's “best game Nintendo has ever made.” It “made me feel like a kid again.” That sort of praise is ephemeral, and the qualities of this game somehow inspire that kind of breathless (ha) adoration.

If you break it down piece by piece, it's tough to see exactly where that praise is coming from. This is a Zelda that takes major inspiration from sandbox, open world, and survival games, and it's tough to point at elements that are wholly original. You pick up weapons that quickly degrade and break down, you map out portions of a giant map by climbing and activating towers, and you gather ingredients to cook meals and satisfy quest requirements. Oh, right, there's even a quest log.

It's tough not to compare Breath of the Wild to Horizon Zero Dawn, since they're both big, open-world games with bows and horses, and both act as a sort of synthesis of design trends that have been percolating for the past decade. Horizon works to constantly entertain and interest you—you're never more than a few steps away from a quest marker, or a collectable to investigate, or a bit of combat or stealth to engage in. The map's full of markers saying “hey, check this out” and there's a great big checklist of things to do and find and accomplish. There's no inherent wrong to that kind of game design, since it ensure that the entertainment is nonstop.

But Zelda challenges you to find the fun. The “See that mountain? You can go there” feeling that Nintendo promised was the butt of a lot of jokes for its outdated reminders of decade-old games, but here's the thing—it's not an empty promise. Maybe it's best if we move the question mark, and make it “You see that mountain. Will you go there?” Even when you climb a tower and fill out a segment of the map, you're not bombarded with a list of icons giving away collectable locations, quest start points, and points of interest. Instead, you take advantage of the high viewpoint to look for what's interesting to you. Moblin camp. Shrine. Tower. You mark them using your scope and annotate the map any way you want.

That doesn't sound exciting on paper, but it fundamentally shifts the way most open world games work. Instead of looking at a checklist and asking “where's the next item?” you're looking at a world and asking “what can I find over there?” I followed a quest to a bandit stash and found a handful of rupees. I climbed a mountain and found nothing. I investigated some ruins and got a unique piece of gear that's available nowhere else in the game. You won't find something everywhere you look—in fact, big parts of the map are open fields without points of interest—but the empty space makes those discoveries feel more real, and every time you do find a thing it's something unexpected and interesting.

There's also a tactile feel to getting into more obscure locations. You've got to carefully examine the environment, and figure out whether it's best to climb up or jump down, make your way through enemies or sneak around the side, and generally circumvent the obstacle any way you want. You can climb up literally anything, and your ability to do so is gated only by a stamina meter which restores when you stand still. Getting up a mountain is a matter of climbing as far as you can and finding a little flat spot where you can rest and catch your breath. It offers the same feeling of mastery that humping up mountain ranges in Skyrim does—except here you're actually using a game mechanic rather than circumventing an obstacle through glitchy environment design.

You're also not gated from exploration in any way. The traditional Zelda items—the ones used for puzzle-solving, combat, and exploration, normally found in dungeons and used as the key to defeating the boss—there are five of them, and you get them all in the game's introductory area. There are bombs, in a traditional round shape which rolls downhill or a square box that stays stationary; magnesis, which lets you levitate and move metal objects; stasis, which lets you freeze objects in place and attack them, which stores kinetic energy that will send them shooting off when the effect ends; cryonis, which creates ice pillars in the water; and a paraglider which lets you drift down from place to place.

Those five items form the basis of most of your puzzly interactions with the game, including the completely reimagined dungeons. Mostly, dungeons have been broken up into 100 shrines—one or two room challenge areas that have you doing combat or puzzles in search of the spirit orbs you need to upgrade health and stamina. But the robust, physics-based nature of your equipment mean that even the puzzle-solving is flexible and player-driven. One challenge sees you trying to cross a body of water using floating rafts, but you can also just make an ice pillar and climb it to the goal. Another has you using motion controls to tilt a ball through a maze toward a goal—but you can also flip the maze over entirely, and guide the ball to the end on the flat back side.

Now, probably twenty hours into the game, I've only seen one of the (kinda, mostly) traditional dungeons. It was complex and challenging, but it didn't feel bloated—I spent probably two hours there, though there were just a handful of rooms. Everything was tightly interconnected, so that things done in one area would affect those in another, and the path through the place looped over itself what felt like a dozen times. There are powerful rewards in each of those dungeons, but they're completely optional.

In fact, it doesn't seem that there's anything stopping you from just rushing to the endgame and trying to beat Ganon as soon as you've left the starting zone. Except, of course, for the crushing difficulty of the enemies you'll find there. Breath of the Wild is by far the most difficult 3D entry in the series, with enemies that do tons of damage and attack in unexpected ways. That's part of why exploring and finding things is so rewarding—you can technically take on any challenge with the most basic equipment, but the things you find in those nooks, crannies, and unusual places help immeasurably in evening the odds.

That's especially true of cooking, which seems to be the only true crafting system in the game. Basically, you grab items from your inventory, hold up to five of them, drop them all into a big pot, and hope for the best. A simple baked apple restores three quarters of a heart—a mighty skewer made from prime meat and exotic mushrooms can restore ten hearts, and based on the ingredients might offer elemental resistances or attack boosts. Cooking is integral to survival, since there are now no helpful hearts popping out of freshly cut grass, and putting those recipes together is simple and satisfying.

With all this praise, there are some irritating things here. Limited inventory space and weapons breaking are essential to the flow of the game, but there's no escaping the fact that it's frustrating when your best sword explodes, or you once again see the “inventory full” warning as you try to pick up a new weapon. The framerate can be sketchy—it rarely happens in combat, but every once in awhile you'll swing the camera around and suddenly you'll have a few unpleasant seconds of chunky sluggishness.

But those lows only in the most rare of circumstances detract from the game's incredible highs. Let me tell you about my favorite moment of Breath of the Wild. I'd heard in town that there was some kind of special fountain near a particular mountain, and I assumed that it would be in the valley at the mountain's base. Instead, I was soon climbing up the snowy foothills, torch in hand to stave off the cold. Because Link holds the torch in his weapon hand, I was without a weapon to fend off the numerous enemies on the mountain.

It turns out that the path went all the way up to the very peak of the mountain, and by the time I got there my torch had burned out and my health was slowly draining from the cold. I had enough healing items to keep going, and I figured if I turned back to get some better equipment for the temperature the time I'd already spent had been wasted. So I churned through my baked apple reserves and finally made it to the fountain at the peak—only to find it was guarded by a massive dragon.

The fight that ensued was a massive battle all the way back down the mountain that had me paragliding to an advantageous spot, and firing arrows in midair, all while continuously freezing to death. By the time the dragon was nearly down, I had two arrows left. I let go of the paraglider, free-falling in the blizzard, lined up that last shot—and it hit. The last thing I needed was to shear a scale off the monster, which ended up being the use for the very last arrow in the quiver.

That sequence was about half-an-hour. Technically—in the most video gamey terms—it was a quest culminating in a boss fight. But it was also every single mechanic in the game working together to create something incredible. The temperature system, weapon scarcity, the meals I'd cooked and the gear I'd found, the way the glider works and the way arrows drop over distance—everything came together to make one of the most purely thrilling, entertaining moments I'd had in a video game in years. That's the best moment I've had with Breath of the Wild, but it's the greatest among dozens and dozens of great moments and memorable events. This game requires your investment and curiosity—your willingness to engage with the systems and the world and make the adventure your own—but it rewards that engagement in spectacular ways the likes of which I've seen in few games before.

discuss this in the forum (23 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Feature homepage / archives