Breath of the Wild represents decades of both growth and passion within Nintendo. The first entry released over thirty years ago and with each step of the journey, Nintendo has injected new life and energy into their timeless series. For those uninitiated, The Legend of Zelda may seem no different than any other franchise that sees regular releases but this series has always featured changes, innovations, and a constant new found sense of life and wonder with each game. The jumps have always been rather steady though and the series did cling to its comfort zone, which it found within the playstyle of Ocarina of Time. Breath of the Wild has brought some of the biggest changes this series has seen since it made the jump to 3D and these changes have not only forever changed this series but have also no doubt left their mark on gaming for decades yet to come.
Breath of the Wild was in development for over five years and it was quite simply because of how far away it would venture from the traditional formula. This would be the first game in the series to be open world and feature voice acting. Furthermore, Breath of the Wild is extremely non-linear and encourages players to tackle the game in the way they choose to. There may be some portions that would benefit from being done in a certain order but it’s truly up to the player in which order they play and complete the game. Nintendo once again has shown that they know how to enter a room. This may be their first true open-world experience but they’ve forever changed not only the expectations that come with this kind of game but they’ve also shown what is possible in terms of game development.
The story may have some basis in traditional expectations for a Legend of Zelda game but the presentation and tone are entirely unique. There are even a lot of differences in how things start off and continue with Breath of the Wild relying and far less Zelda tropes and trails. The story goes that Sheikah’s aura and energy provided life to all the land in addition to technology that would aid the many races scattered across the lands. A beast known as ‘Calamity Ganon’ appeared on the scene and changed everything. Ten thousand years pass and life has dialed back to a much more primitive state that we typically associate with The Legend of Zelda. The world is a medieval society just like we saw in Ocarina of Time but it wasn’t long before the ancient technology was discovered in excavations. Ancient prophecies were also discovered among the buried tech and it helped warn the world of the impending return of Calamity Ganon. They learn of the Guardians and the Divine Beasts that will be needed to stop Calamity Ganon but fail in spite of knowing their threat and preparing for it. Calamity Ganon is able to turn the technology against the world and evil triumphs. Link is nearly killed in the battle but is put to rest in the Shrine of Resurrection to rest and heal to fight another day. Zelda uses the last of her power to seal the evil of Calamity Ganon within the Hyrule Castle and stop him from destroying everyone and everything.
The game begins one hundred years later with Link having almost no memory of what happened before. He’s told by an old man that while Calamity Ganon may currently be sealed and locked away within the castle, he’s been growing in power and it won’t be long before Zelda is no longer able to contain the evil presence. It’s Link’s job to assemble both the strength and the allies to stop Calamity Ganon before he is able to break free and destroy the world.
There may be some familiarity from other entries in the series but it feels so different and refreshing. The story is very cinematic and the presentation feels much more developed, thought out, and different than the rest of the series. This feels like a much more mature entry in the series. The story is grown up and it feels like there’s so much more at stake. The world feels alive and the characters within it seem to have more of a purpose, instead of just coming across as NPC’s without a care in the world.
The voice acting combines with a highly imaginative and luscious soundscape to help accent the atmosphere that the game design and presentation work so hard to create. Never has an open-world game felt so strongly, deliberately, or intentionally created with such purpose and yet it feels as though this was made with such ease. It all just feels so natural that if you didn’t know any better, you’d just assume this is how all games play and feel. After all, this should be the standard at which open-world games are now measured against so why shouldn’t it feel so natural. Everything just clicks into place like there are actual ecosystems, animal habitats, and real enemies scattered across the land. I’ve never felt so compelled to explore a virtual world. There are plenty of things to do both for main quests and side quests and yet I find myself spending hours just climbing, running, hunting, and swimming across the region in search of nothing but adventure itself–and all you have to do to spot it is open your eyes.
This world has purpose and direction. Different parts of the world feel different and the enemies do as well. From massive enemies that take twenty minutes to defeat to fending off an onslaught of Lizalfos, the enemies feel more lifelike just like the world they inhabit. There are enemies that will strike fear into your heart, either for story reasons or simply because you know that they’re a threat to take seriously in terms of their strength and power. Without spoiling anything, there’s a creature on a mountain top that is part of an optional encounter and when faced with it, I couldn’t help but hold my breath. This world can be terrifying. The scope and sense of emotion doesn’t leave you for even a second as you travel across this world.
Everything is designed so deliberately and Nintendo even got the most intricate details right. It’s these little details that help make this world so convincing. Sure, the larger brush strokes are incredibly important but it’s within the smaller and more detailed strokes that can either strengthen and convince you that this world is real–or remind you that you’re just playing a video game and that none of this really matters. Nintendo made sure to get even the smallest of details correct. As Link gets closer to the Goron City, an NPC explains to him that without the proper elixir he won’t survive the hot and harsh temperatures. This is nothing new in a video game. Needing a specific item in order to survive harsh temperatures has been featured in numerous video games. The difference here is with the smaller and more intricate brush strokes that Nintendo displays an absolute mastery of in Breath of the Wild. See, you don’t just get too hot, lose health, and eventually die from getting too hot. No, it’s much more than that. Your wooden weapons will be set on fire from the temperatures. Your wooden shields will experience the same fate.
This not only limits your options in terms of what you can use to attack and defend but it also just plain makes sense. It’s that hot and the game reminds you of this by adding consequences that are tied to the temperature. It gets deeper though. If you hunt and kill a bird in this extremely hot climate, the raw meat drops just like it would any other time but with one major difference. The meat quickly sets on fire and when you pick it up, it’s cooked meat. That’s right. It’s hot and the game builds this into every facet of the game design. Immersion right down to the smallest details.
Combat is no different. Roll a bomb down a hill and have it land near some Bokoblins and see them pick it up over their head. They’re not only enemies but also curious creatures that saw something shiny rolling by. They couldn’t help but pick it up to examine it. This is where you can detonate it not only kill their curiosity but also them and nearby enemies. When you drop a weapon in combat, enemies will pick it up and use it. When you roll a log towards Bokoblins or other enemies, they will try to dodge it or climb over it. If you’re attempting to be stealthy but you scare or startle in-game wildlife, it can alert the very enemies you’re trying to sneak up on. That’s right. Scare some birds and you may be giving away your very hiding spot. Enemies watch and react to the world around them just like you do. It’s because this that they feel like just as much of a character in the world as you do. You’re all just living and reacting to everything happening around you.
It wouldn’t be a Legend of Zelda game without the appearance of puzzles and Breath of the Wild brings some of the best puzzle designs in the series. There are dungeons in a capacity as well but the bulk of puzzle solving will be in shrines, which are smaller but still require some good problem solving. Think of these as more condensed dungeons. Instead of spending an hour or so within them, you can expect to spend anywhere from ten to thirty minutes in them. Your time may vary but that was about what I came to expect. Shrines normally have to focus on one puzzle element across one or more areas before you reach the end. There are times they’ll have you focus on one element and other times where they will combine a few different things within a shrine. They may be things you’ve already encountered or new combinations entirely. When you reach the end of a shrine, you’ll receive a ‘Spirit Orb’ which will allow you to increase your life or stamina with every four you collect. It’s a lot of fun coming across shrines and I personally hope to see more design like this in future entries in the franchise. It’s nice being able to get more exploration and puzzle solving sections and also have them in a size that’s easier to commit to.
The game design is just so intelligent and intuitive. It’s refreshing and encouraging to see Nintendo taking in both fan feedback but also seeking out inspiration outside their comfort zone. Aonuma stated that he hadn’t really played video games in a while as he had been so busy creating them. He ended up playing Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, and Far Cry 4. While he didn’t really enjoy Grand Theft Auto V, he did say that he really enjoyed aspects of Skyrim and Far Cry 4. He said that he didn’t take any ideas from these games but that they did provide natural inspiration just from playing them and seeing what worked and what didn’t. The western influence is very apparent throughout Breath of the Wild and it’s all for the better. Wind Waker is one of my favorite Zelda games so I have no issue with the familiar structure of the series but it is nice seeing some changes in both the feel and design of the game.
Breath of the Wild improved upon the open-world setting and feeling completely. It truly is at the top of the genre in spite of this being Nintendo’s first attempt at making a true open-world game. Another aspect they (thankfully) took from western games is the transformation of a tutorial. There’s a tutorial in Breath of the Wild but it’s not like what we’ve always come to expect from the series. It feels natural and there’s little direction given. You’re given some objectives to complete and they make sense from a story standpoint as well but it doesn’t hold your hand. It’s actually rather interesting because instead of having you locked in a dungeon or battling rats, you’re contained within the initial area from a more realistic reason.
The beginning of the game takes place on a massive plateau and until you have a way to get down, you’ll simply die if you try to leave. The height is simply too great. There may be some evil sprinkled across this starting area but it’s only once you take the literal plunge and dive off the plateau that you see what this world has been subjected to. The old man will aide you with the gift of a paraglider but not until you do a few things for him. Once this is completed, you’re free and can pretty much tackle the game in any order you want. It’s a natural tutorial though and lacks both the hand holding and restrictions of previous entries in the series.
The difficulty is another thing that is much different from previous entries and also seems to be from western influence. I’ve seen plenty of jokes online referencing Dark Souls and making comparisons to that series but I don’t personally see it. It’s a lot harder but it’s nowhere near as difficult as Dark Souls. You will die a lot though. From running out of stamina while climbing a mountain to getting overwhelmed by enemies to simply dying repeatedly in an encounter you thought you were ready for but might not be. The game doesn’t really stop you from going anywhere. If you want to go somewhere, you can. If you want to battle a specific enemy, you can. Hell, you can even go try to defeat Calamity Ganon after the initial area if you want to. You won’t stand a chance and will die pretty quick but it’s certainly reflective of the open-world nature of this game.
The dynamic weather changes and acts as though it were real life. It cares not for the inconveniences it may be present in the process. There was a side-quest I was working on where I needed to ignite a power source with a flaming torch. I carried it for about three minutes across the village before I almost reached the final destination. It started raining. There was a brief moment where I was upset and annoyed but it passed almost immediately. I want good game design. I want beautiful and lifelike worlds. That’s exactly what I was getting with this rain storm. Think about it. Why should this game care if I’m trying to complete a quest. I spent the next five minutes standing atop a tree and enjoying the rain before it started thundering. It was a sight to behold but I didn’t want to risk taking unnecessary damage or dying so I decided to call it a night. I went to the local inn and slept until morning. The quest could wait until then.
These are so many different things happening all at once withing Breath of the Wild and they all work together to provide a cohesive, complete, and lifelike experience. From paragliding across windy landscapes to swimming through rivers to quickly changing from a metal weapon to a wooden bow, there are examples of deliberate and well thought out game design that helped create a believable and lifelike world. Nintendo created the Zelda game that I think they always wanted to make. From the very first entry in the series to Skyward Sword, it’s always been evident that Nintendo has wanted us to get lost in an adventure in a lifelike world. They’ve always crafted wonderful adventures but now they’ve finally created that lifelike world that’s filled with both wonder and discovery while telling the story of the Hero of Time in a way that’s never been attempted before.
The Nintendo Switch helps carry the sense of wonder and energy that Breath of the Wild encapsulates so well. Being able to pick up and play at a moment’s notice wherever you may be is an innovation in itself but it’s especially nice with The Legend of Zelda. Taking your adventure on the road just feels so right and while I understand some Wii U owners may have purchased the console for this game alone, I’m happy with Aonuma’s decision to develop this for the Switch as well. The Nintendo Switch just feels so perfect for Breath of the Wild with its open design and being able to play however and wherever you want. This game is as bold of a statement as the Switch itself so its fitting that it helped launch the console. If you need to play this on Wii U then I don’t want to discourage you at all. The gameplay experience is identical on both systems. The only differences you’d be missing is the portable nature of the Switch and lower resolution (720p on TV mode on the Wii U and 900p on TV mode on the Switch). Frame rate is more consistent in tablet mode since the resolution is a bit lower. I never really had any issues with the framerate in TV mode but can say that it was a bit smoother in tablet mode.
I spent my time purely on the Nintendo Switch but would imagine that it would control just as well on the Wii U. The Joy-Cons felt very tight and responsive during my time with the game. I had a little bit of interference with our cable box but once I moved the Switch and its dock a foot or so over, I didn’t have any further issues. The game is tight, responsive, and it’s always a joy traversing across the world. I haven’t used the Pro Controller yet as they’re sold out in my area but I felt like the Joy-Con controller was still great. I found it a bit more comfortable to play in TV mode as I felt I could more confidently grip the Joy-Cons in their grip than holding the tablet. This may just be from me worrying about damaging the Switch and all in my head but worth mentioning nonetheless.
Without spoiling anything, Breath of the Wild has so many incredible moments in story and gameplay that work together to take your breath away. There were so many times I had to just pause the game to stop and take in what was happening. I expect greatness out of Nintendo but there were so many things I just wasn’t expecting from Nintendo or any developer for that matter. The sheer sense of scope and the gravity of the story isn’t lost on the game design or story. The weight of the situation is represented very well in many twists and turns throughout the tale. I cared about the characters I fought alongside. I wasn’t just battling with an NPC. I was uniting the world against a common evil that had to be stopped. This is a world that felt real despite my brain’s best efforts to remind me otherwise.
Breath of the Wild is not only a milestone and an achievement for the franchise but it’s also a monument to what is possible in a video game. I can’t think of a time where I was more invested, excited, or interested in a virtual world. Link’s struggle was my own and the world’s burdens were mine as well. I wanted nothing more than to just shrug off the responsibilities of life and just experience nothing but this game. Games this perfect are rarely even thought of, let alone realized and released. Ocarina of Time may be considered one of the greatest games of all time but as far as I’m concerned, it was simply the opening sentence and thesis statement for what would later be not only the greatest Zelda game but also one of the most important and greatest games of all time.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Unparalleled open-world design
- Lifelike world filled with intelligent creatures and enemies
- Cinematic and immersive story
- Beautiful graphics that help bring the world to life
- Exploration and discovery reach new heights for both the series and for video games as a whole