The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

May 14, 2017 ~ by Will McGee

With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has created another masterpiece.  Even people who don't follow video games in the slightest have heard about this game and the praise that's been heaped on it at this point.  In a way, it's what we expect from the Zelda series after this time - I remember the serious backlash from much of the serious-backlash-prone gamer community following IGN's notorious decision to award The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess a mere 8.8 out of 10.  Looking back, though, that might have been more indicative of the direction the series was going than we maybe gave it credit for.  Skyward Sword, which was hyped up to be a complete reinvention of the series, was decidedly not that, and as good as the 3DS's A Link Between Worlds was, it seems to have missed out on the intense hype that Skyward Sword saw.  In other words, it kind of has been a while since a Zelda game was met with both unanimous praise and intense hype, and after having spent my own 50-odd hours with it, my impressions are that it generally lives up to both.  

The last few 3D Zelda titles all presented a generally linear narrative that disguised itself well as an open-world game by having the story take place in a large world.  This, of course, does not detract from the quality of those games - I'm pointing this out to demonstrate that Breath of the Wild is different because it is an actual open-world game, with a world that is both fairly similar in size to Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and solidly populated with characters, quests, monsters, and interesting places to explore.  Notably, it does go against one of the generally accepted truths of the open world genre as professed by Bethesda - that you can't have a massive, open world game without scores of glitches that range from humorous to game-breaking.  Zelda is, for the most part, glitch-free (at least on the Wii U) - the only performance issue I encountered was some fairly intense slowdown that occurred maybe every third or fourth time I played the game for a second or two at a time during battles with lots of enemies in areas with lots of grass or trees.  Other than that, there weren't really any characters glitching into the floor or ceiling, questlines rendered unfinishable because I spoke to characters in the wrong order, bosses I couldn't kill because of poor collision detection, or anything like that.  Conversely, there is, frankly, not as much content to be glitched up as there is in Skyrim or Fallout.

Like Bethesda's RPGs, there are different 'factions', in a manner of speaking, but where each of their quest lines in those games could take 5+ hours to complete, this game's four major 'faction' quest lines can generally be completed in around 3 hours (the shortest coming in at around 2).  Each of these quest lines culminates in one of the game's four major dungeons, which are very cleverly designed and lots of fun to figure out, but they're also shorter and less individually memorable than the older games in the series.  This is, in other words, not really going to be a Zelda game whose dungeons get mentioned alongside series watermarks like Ocarina of Time's Water Temple and Majora's Mask's Stone Tower Temple.  The game has a total of eight towns, most of which can offer somewhere between four and eight side quests, and there are also numerous stables situated at major crossroads that often feature a sidequest or two as well. 

Finally, there are the shrines.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild features 120 different shrines, all of which can be solved with the tools you receive in the first few hours of the game.  There are a few combat shrines that pit you up against a monster in lieu of puzzles, and a few as well that have no actual challenge to speak of other than actually getting to the shrine - these often featured a quest that had to be completed to cause the shrine to appear, or just placed the entrance in a very difficult location to reach.  The rest feature classic Nintendo puzzles that introduce a new concept and give you a couple of variations on it before throwing a major twist or two and ending before they wear out their welcome.  It's kind of like a Zelda version of the levels from a recent Mario game - little bite size mini-levels that you can easily finish several of in one sitting.  The advantage of these is that they're inventive and abundant, and like I said, you're never there for so long that you get tired of it.  The disadvantage is that, with a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of these shrines are right at around the same level of difficulty.  People might have criticized Skyrim for its preponderance of Draugr crypts, but some of those were like, really long Draugr crypts.  This game doesn't really have any really long dungeons, or at least not very many of them.  If I had one other criticism of the shrines, it's that, once you're inside, the interiors are basically identical in terms of aesthetic.  This game's real challenge often comes from its enemies, who gradually grow stronger as you kill more of them and feature a couple of very difficult monsters found in specific locations around the map.  The incentives for finding and killing these are good, and completionists will probably find themselves spending a decent amount of time hunting them down.

The story of Breath of the Wild recalls the Wind Waker and Majora's Mask in its dark, apocalyptic scope tempered with cheerful towns and quirky characters and side quests.  This game is absolutely loaded with fan service, but it's done in a way that feels meaningful and measured.  Over the course of the main plot of the game, you will encounter Hylians, Zoras, Gorons, Rito, and Gerudo, as well as the Koroks from the Wind Waker, who are mostly relegated here to mini-puzzles that reward you (eventually) with extra inventory space.  The Goron and Zora plotlines recall their respective stories in Ocarina of Time but stand well on their own.  The Rito plotline is the shortest and easiest, but also one of the most interesting conceptually and visually.  I would say the Gerudo plotline is the most interesting and involved here, and it's a real pleasure to finally learn more about who this tribe is and how they live.  Likewise, this game features a prominent role played by the Sheikah, a mysterious, mostly-absent race introduced in Ocarina of Time that are generally only known for the ancient technology they left behind.  For a game that prominently features so many of the series' well-loved characters and races, I was a little surprised at the complete and total absence of the Kokiri, especially since every other race from Ocarina of Time is represented here.  I have a hunch that perhaps they'll be included in one of the coming batches of DLC, though.

The most obvious change from previous Zelda games (especially Skyward Sword) to Breath of the Wild is in its lack of a linear narrative that must be followed in order, and in its lack of a 'helper' character to tell you where you ought to go next.  Ever since Ocarina of Time, every 3D Zelda game has had a character whose sole purpose in life was to tell you where the plot was going to happen next, and those characters ranged from generally unobtrusive (like Wind Waker's King of Red Lions) to annoyingly persistent (Skyward Sword's Fi being the worst offender in my book).  Breath of the Wild eschews those altogether for an approach most similar to that of A Link to the Past - a few characters that will provide a general outline of what you need to do, and a few spots on your map to give you an idea of where you need to go.  Those characters do not accompany you on your journey or offer hints on how to solve puzzles that you're having a difficult time with, and, uniquely, they also don't hurry you along to the next part of the quest.  That's not only new for Zelda, it feels new and interesting for open world games in general.  It makes for a weird disconnect in gameplay when the last quest you finished left you with the impression that not starting the next quest immediately would result in disaster, only to be given free rein to do whatever you want again.  It was a bit of an immersion breaker, in other words, when you realize that these things that SEEM to be urgent can totally wait as long as you want.  In Breath of the Wild, you're free to make your way directly to the final boss as soon as you're finished with the tutorial area.  It's not recommended, though. 

“In Breath of the Wild, you're free to make your way directly to the final boss as soon as you're finished with the tutorial area. It's not recommended, though. ”

All of the characters who give you story direction and exposition will push Link to grow stronger and prepare himself for this battle, and almost all of the game's side quests and content is a means towards that end.  It's a seemingly small tweak to the storyline and the way that it is framed and presented to the player, but I think it makes a big difference in the game's immersion and feel.  In many ways, this game heavily echoes Ocarina of Time, but in this sense, it calls back even further to the original Legend of Zelda for the NES: very little direction, freedom to travel almost wherever you want right from the beginning, and natural barriers to early exploration in the form of challenging monsters (or, in Breath of the Wild, freezing or burning temperatures).  I think the lack of more higher-difficulty dungeons was a decision made to preserve that absolute freedom to explore in whatever order you choose, and the decision to prioritize that freedom was, in my opinion, the right one. 

The other game that Breath of the Wild has drawn comparisons to is Dark Souls.  From a gameplay standpoint, I don't see that quite as much.  I think any game with a real challenge to it released from now on is going to get people comparing it to Dark Souls, but I don't think this game is challenging in the same way that Dark Souls is.  Where I do think this game is similar to Dark Souls is in the developer's decisions to eschew linearity and direction in favor of allowing the player to figure it out for themselves.  It's not only a breath of fresh air for a game to allow you to play at your own pace and discover things on your own, it's also a formula that basically guarantees a devoted, talkative fanbase.  Already there are multiple communities online dedicated to talking about discoveries in Breath of the Wild, and tons of YouTube videos breaking down its quests and compiling little-known facts.  This fan interaction outside of the game is what made a game like the original Legend of Zelda possible, and what allowed it to become the cornerstone of gaming that it is.

“...By focusing so much on player freedom and discovery, Nintendo has recaptured the feeling of an epic adventure in a genre that is usually a guided tour at best and a poorly-disguised completely linear narrative at worst.”

Even before the internet, people played those games because they were fun to figure out and fun to talk about with your friends.  Playing this game reminds me a lot of my elementary school days, when every day there was a new rumor about some kind of hidden content or glitch or something in Pokemon Red/Blue versions.  Of course, what made those rumors so much fun was that some of them, like Missingno and the admittedly-useless truck next to the S. S. Anne, were true.  More so, some of them, like the Mew glitch, weren't even discovered at all for years.  I think that might be the greatest strength of this game - by focusing so much on player freedom  and discovery, Nintendo has recaptured the feeling of an epic adventure in a genre that is usually a guided tour at best and a poorly-disguised completely linear narrative at worst.  It is, of course, not without its flaws, but looking back at a lot of gaming's (and other mediums as well) very best works, very few are truly flawless.  That has never stopped those things from being enjoyed by millions and studied by other artists in the years to come, and I don't think the flaws that Breath of the Wild does have will stop it, either.