“Game of the Year 2017”
That’s what The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild received this year at The Game Awards, which is now an annual thing. Whether or not it’s a title that’s deserved is subjective. I know there’s a grand majority of gamers out there that think Breath of the Wild deserves that honor, while others believe that games like Persona 5 or Horizon: Zero Dawn should’ve been awarded that title.
My own personal Game of the Year will be announced in a later post. That isn’t the purpose of this review.
Where was I?
Oh, right! I’m reviewing Breath of the Wild!
The gameplay of Breath of the Wild is one of the major components that makes the experience so strong. It takes some getting used to, but there is a litany of different elements that made it into the game; all of which range from useful to vital for success.
Obviously, combat takes the lead, providing the means to progress. The combat itself isn’t what I’d consider intuitive, but inspiration seems to come from the likes of games like Dark Souls. Enemies are remarkably dangerous, especially in the early hours. With only three hearts’ worth of health to count on, even one hit from the beginning foes can flatten Link.
Progression itself proves to be a bit more obtuse than a standard RPG though, with upgrades coming in the form of health and stamina upgrades, along with the ability to increase inventory space for weapons, shields, and bows. Further bonuses are found through the acquisition of armor with higher defensive capabilities and buffs offered through elixirs and cooking recipes.
It appears that the developers of Breath of the Wild took the cooking mechanics to heart for the design of the game itself, because variety is definitely the spice of Link’s life. It’s best when your cooking is combined with armor and weapons suited for the occasion. Like with other Nintendo games, often your only limitation is your own imagination. Enemy encounters are treated like puzzles, with both obvious and arcane solutions. Like many other games on the market, you can resort to combat or use stealth to knock out enemies, giving you an edge later. However, you can also choose to use the environment, objects in the world, and even your enemies themselves to your advantage. Why fight on an even keel when you can just use a Boko Bat to knock a Moblin off a cliff, or smash them with a metal crate by using your Magnesis rune?
The runes themselves are amazing fun, allowing for all manners of solutions to the shrines and combat encounters, as well as the ability to log items in Link’s Compendium to make finding things much easier. Thankfully, you’re also able to summon explosive charges ad nauseam, which comes in handy when your weapons are all broken (though explosives do amazingly low amounts of damage to baddies).
Of course, the caveat here is that Nintendo may have felt it necessary to encourage players to think out of the box by making everything break incessantly. Early on, you’ll be going through weapons as if they’re all made from tofu and tissue paper. It gets a little better with time as you begin to find weapons with greater durability, but it can be rather infuriating to be in the middle of a fight when your Ancient Battle Axe vaporizes.
Hear me out for a moment though: The weapon durability issue isn’t as big a deal as many have made it out to be. It’s annoying and unnecessary, but it’s something that you’ll eventually come to grips with… At least until your weapon’s haft turns to dust between your fingers and you’re left with inferior weapons to tide you over. It does get better later on, but it takes a long time to get to that point unfortunately.
Other frustrations come in the form of Link apparently having the fortitude of an anemic sloth, barely having the capability to sprint for more than a dozen meters before needing a breather. Hell, I’m sure I could outrun Link in my current state of fitness, and I haven’t exercised in over a year.
Perhaps I’m being petty… Well, no I’m not. It’s a little ridiculous, frankly, that in a game focused so heavily on the ability to climb anything, Link is so ill-suited for the task. You’re basically required to climb towers to unlock regional maps, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Instead, you’ll find yourself at the mercy of that stupid, green stamina meter. Luckily, you can upgrade Link’s stamina, but at the cost of not getting another heart’s worth of health. Precious, precious health…
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the boss fights that can drag on for an eternity. The first Divine Beast I liberated ended with a boss fight that lasted over an hour because I didn’t have many weapon slots at the time, and all my bows had broken. The fight then consisted of me slowly whittling the boss’ health down with those piddly bombs while it flung one-shotting spears at me. It gets better later down the line as you unlock more equipment slots and start acquiring gear that isn’t made of balsa wood, but it takes so long to get there that it can feel like the entire game will be like this.
Breath of the Wild isn’t what I’d consider to be the best looking game on the market, but the cel shaded style (which evokes the image of Wind Waker in my brain) and sometimes-vast draw distance makes it a marvel to behold at times. Seeing your shadow on the ground as you soar above the landscape, watching the rain pelt and bounce off of surfaces, water dripping from Link’s armor as he scurries out of a lake… It’s moments like these that remind me that it isn’t always resolutions and frame rates that make a game look good; it’s attention to detail.
Thankfully, frame rates drop only once in a while, but when they do, it can be rather jarring. I get the feeling that Nintendo tried really hard to get Breath of the Wild to function as intended on the Switch, but the game definitely puts the hardware to the test. The engine tries its hardest to keep up with the massive world, populating it with characters, adversaries, and as many interactable objects as you can imagine. It’s a wonder that the Switch can even pull it off, let alone the Wii U.
The only substantial complaint I have is that Breath of the Wild comes across as a game that doesn’t benefit from having the sound on. In a way, not needing to have the volume up is rather nice, as I don’t have compatible headphones and I’m not about to sit three feet from the TV or play in handheld mode. It’s just a shame that there’s little reason to play at volume most of the time.
The music is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t ever present, and much of the game isn’t voice acted save for a few major cutscenes. Even then, subtitles are there to fill in for the spoken dialogue. I’ve noticed this is a trend with Japanese games, where I’m sure localization is a concern, but it does detract from the experience a little in my opinion.
The Legend of Zelda has been an open world game since the very beginning, in one way or another. However, it has never been quite this large, and Breath of the Wild is huge. Then again, the massive map comes at a price. Unfortunately, so much of the world is just… empty. I’ve been trying to find something to compare it to, but the only thing I could think of was the original Mass Effect. You know, the one with the Mako?
Like with the weapon durability system, the size of Breath of the Wild could’ve been limited a little. It didn’t need to be so huge, and the sparseness in the world itself drives that point home constantly. It helps that the world is pretty, but that doesn’t change the fact that navigating the map is a pain in the ass (stupid stamina meter). It sure is cool that you can stand on the top of a mountain and scope out shrine locations, stables, and ruins, until you realize that you have to get there somehow.
Therein lies the good and bad of Breath of the Wild‘s design. It’s large but empty; marvelous to behold, yet discouraging in its size.
Despite this however, I’ve still been playing it. It may be derivative of other open world games, but it stands well on its own due to its scope and the myriad of approaches that can be taken at every turn.
I won’t get into specifics, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’m impressed with the approach that Nintendo took with Breath of the Wild‘s story. The eternal struggle between Calamity Ganon and Hyrule is part of an ongoing cycle, with Link and the princess Zelda forming the tip of the sword in Hyrule’s defense.
But the lore isn’t the main draw as much as its the slow reveal of the truth behind the Link you play as. Link begins as a blank slate, having been resurrected after a century, only to find Hyrule in disarray. The only problem is that Link doesn’t remember anything from before his awakening. It’s up to the player to find the links to his past to restore his memories.
Therein lies the other strength of Breath of the Wild; the story itself may not be groundbreaking or wholly original, but discovering what happened before alongside the hero of the tale is something that many games attempt, yet fail to accomplish.
My only desire for change in this area would definitely be that the lack of direction given to the player turns the game into a chore at times. Getting to the next section of the story in the beginning stages requires travel across the huge landscape, but with little in the form of guidance to pick the right path. I lucked out in the beginning, choosing what I feel was the easiest Divine Beast to conquer first, but I imagine if I had gone a different direction, I would’ve wasted my time, despite there being no indication that I wouldn’t be able to complete that quest at that time.
This lack of direction seems to influence minds like mine to wander off to ancillary activities, which in Breath of the Wild means searching for and completing the various Shrines. They’re a welcome addition to the game, but they can be a little underwhelming in challenge, with the exception of those Shrines that pit you against Guardians.
WILDCARD: DAMPENED HYPE
It’s clear that Breath of the Wild is a well loved game; that much is sure. To be honest, even despite my pessimism, I’ve grown to enjoy my time with it.
It really is a good game, but prior to playing it for 20+ hours, I didn’t get it. It didn’t click with me at all. Some games, I understand and enjoy right away, like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Super Mario Odyssey this year. Some, I never get the feeling for, and I drop like a lead weight (*coughs* Mad Max). Others are a slow burn, like Breath of the Wild and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make Breath of the Wild a difficult game to recommend to players that aren’t series fans of The Legend of Zelda. There were multiple points in the early hours of my time with Breath of the Wild where I was ready to just set the controller down and not bother with the game again. It’s obtuse by design, and I understand the reasoning being that Nintendo wanted to foster creativity in players. They designed the game to be wholly accessible from any angle, with players benefiting from choice instead of streamlined mechanics.
However, diving into Breath of the Wild blind made wanting to stick it out exceedingly difficult. My only motivation to continue on was to be able to have enough material to write a review, while attempting to be as generous as possible.
I’d venture that it’s safe to say that anyone who is interested in playing Breath of the Wild likely already has, given that it sold amazingly on the Switch and Wii U, but if there are any stragglers out there, I’d definitely recommend you temper your expectations a little. If only to stave off being disappointed in the face of all the hype and praise.
I’d love to be part of the crowd that has unconditional adoration and praise for Breath of the Wild, but despite the strengths it exhibits, I can’t bring myself to hold it to that standard. It’s a good game; an excellent game, in fact. I just don’t think it’s the best game out this year, or even the best game on the Switch. If anything, the incredibly good press that has followed its release has done harm to the game, positioning it as a perfect title, but it can’t live up to the reputation that has been built up around it.
If I’m going to be perfectly honest, it feels like Nintendo looked at other successful open world games and said to themselves “That could be in the next Legend of Zelda game!” I often found myself thinking things like “These towers remind me of Far Cry 4“, “I like how you can glide around like in Just Cause 3“, and “These guys hit like a freight train. What is this? Bloodborne: Link Edition?”. Breath of the Wild was brought into the modern era of games by incorporating many of the staples of the open world genre, but questionable mechanics and design hold it back.
Still, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a great game, and it’s definitely worth a look for anyone interested in the Nintendo Switch and action-adventure games. Just… Give it a little time to sink in, and don’t get mad the first dozen times your weapon is obliterated after barely using it.
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