The Legend of Zelda is my favourite franchise of all time so you can understand why I felt so much anticipation in the build-up to Breath of the Wild.
Back in 1986, the first game in the franchise hit the Nintendo Entertainment System and blew gamers away with its non-handholding adventure through the land of Hyrule. In recent years, the games seemed to have lost that spark, amalgamating in the unrecognisable linear experience: Skyward Sword.
Now, 31 years since the original, Nintendo seems to have gone back to their roots and released Breath of the Wild for the Wii U and Switch. After 100 years in a coma, Link has awakened with no memories but one quest… Defeat Calamity Ganon.
One consistent theme of this game is memories, present in every element from the narrative to nostalgic elements of the music and gameplay.
Zelda is back and, despite requiring some rescuing, is a more progressive female character than the previous entries. In the memories collected, you can build up a picture of a strong, independent leader with an intellect that somehow reminds me of Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time.
“You start the game with an incomplete map, which makes the world feel much larger, that is unlocked in sections by climbing towers to gather location data onto your Sheikah Slate, Zelda’s in-game controller for accessing the map and inventory.”
Despite this, all the other characters are very 2 dimensional, with no character development and most of their dialogue is only there to provide a quest or information. The rough voice acting enforces the poor character design and even the main antagonist has little to no motivation for his actions, he just wants to watch the world burn.
The soundtrack is filled with beautiful, sombre piano melodies that are new but subtly reference music from previous Legend of Zelda games. This makes the game feel new yet familiar like the player is rediscovering their memories.
Some of the music is dynamic and will change depending on whether it is day or night, which really adds to the atmosphere. However, my favourite example is the side quest “From the Ground Up,” where the player must try to restore a village by finding new residences. The music starts with a slow tune and, as new characters are added, new instruments are added too, until the final track is upbeat and almost unrecognisable. This is such a small detail which many developers wouldn’t bother adding, but this shows the dedication of the team.
Combat may have simple to learn mechanics but is very difficult when in practice. The first boss I encountered took me, and this not an exaggeration, at least 2 hours to defeat. This is all in place to train the player, making them a better warrior for the final battle.
“Unfortunately, Zelda’s greatest strength is also its weakness: poor optimisation has resulted in moments where the frame rate drops, at times freezing for a few seconds. It is obvious that the game is too big for the hardware it is designed for, both the Wii U and Switch.”
If I had to nit-pick, I’d say the controller setup is a little unintuitive, with actions bound to buttons that are not in the place you would normally expect them to be, and just about any enemy can be easily defeated if Link has a quiver full of explosive arrows.
One complaint I hear a lot about Breath of the Wild is the inventory system. Yes, I agree that inventory management is time-consuming, but it’s well organised with items falling under categories that are kept from mixing together into one confusing mess. It is certainly better than the inventory system in any Bethesda game where it takes longer to try and navigate the appalling user interface. Nintendo also made sure that the inventory limits the resources so that they can avoid having a Bethesda inventory which is infinite but punishes the player with encumberment if they are carrying too much.
The biggest element of Breath of the Wild is the wide, open world filled with unique and very recognisable landmarks to assist with navigation. You start the game with an incomplete map, which makes the world feel much larger, that is unlocked in sections by climbing towers to gather location data onto your Sheikah Slate, Zelda’s in-game controller for accessing the map and inventory.
Players can traverse the land by walking or on the back of a wild horse. A quicker method of travelling is by teleporting to a tower or shrine, which are like mini-dungeons that have been visited or unlocked by completing their challenges.
Unfortunately, Zelda’s greatest strength is also its weakness: poor optimisation has resulted in moments where the frame rate drops, at times freezing for a few seconds. It is obvious that the game is too big for the hardware it is designed for, both the Wii U and Switch.
The main purpose of this world is to serve as the setting for an adventure unlike any experienced since the original Legend of Zelda. Optional quests, such as freeing the Divine Beasts and collecting lost memories, are there to incentivise exploration. The four Divine Beasts are located in the farthest corners of the map, leaving the entirety of Hyrule between them for the player to roam. These serve as the dungeons of the game, where the mechanical beasts themselves are a puzzle that you must solve from the inside before defeating a boss, one of the Blights of Ganon.
Recovering the lost memories seems simple in practice, however, you’re given a collection of photos and have to find the location they were taken, where you are rewarded with a cutscene showing a snippet from the backstory.
Overall, the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece and one of my all-time favourites. For the sake of keeping this short, I had to cut out a lot about the mechanics and world, but there is so much to say about this game, that I could probably write a whole book about it. It is the most ambitious entry in the franchise so far, combining new features, inspired by Minecraft, Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed, with classic elements from the Zelda franchise. Like rediscovering a lost memory from 31 years ago.
By David Mincer