The "open-world game" genre is the bastard child of Super Mario 64 and World of Warcraft — create a giant, continuous landscape, fill it with travel time and fall damage, and send the player on endless scavenger hunts. When executed well, it can be quite an enjoyable experience; Nintendo’s own Xenoblade Chronicles is probably the preëminent example, filled as it is with breathtaking vistas, secret places to explore, mysteries to discover, and fun characters to meet. On the other hand, open-world games often become exercises in bookkeeping and tedium, ground down by systems that stubbornly insist on inserting themselves in between the player and the fun.
Into this morass rides The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a Zelda game recast in the open-world style. Producer Eiji Aonuma has stated that one of the team’s major inspirations for this game was the original NES Legend of Zelda, a game that set the player loose in the world and left him to discover for himself what’s out there and how to complete his quest. This is a theme that was touched on previously in 2013’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which boldly disassociated the usual Zelda items from the dungeons themselves, allowing the player to acquire any item at any time, and proceed through the world any way he sees fit. This idea turned out to be fantastic, since it liberated the game from the linear path previous entries were forced into, and allowed the player a sense of freedom that more structured games, such as 2011’s Skyward Sword, were lacking.
Breath of the Wild takes a similar approach, starting the player out in a small "tutorial" area in which he’ll learn the basics of interacting with the game world and get all the items and abilities he needs, and then setting him loose into the world with only the broadest of guidelines. In theory, it’s quite possible to complete the introductory sequence, leave the plateau, and head directly to the final boss. Beating the game this way won’t be easy, but it can be done. This is a pretty large degree of freedom, and it’s probably the best thing about the game; the player is never forced down a specific path at a specific time, but can always just choose to go somewhere else and come back later (or not at all). After the intro sequence, the one and only event that must be done is fighting the final boss; everything else is optional to one degree or another, and the world is basically entirely open to exploration at any time.
I say "basically" open because, in what appears to be the modern style, the edge of the world has no natural boundaries blocking the player’s progress, opting instead for a popup message reading "you can’t go any farther" and an invisible wall. I understand that the world must be bounded somehow — it can’t just go on forever — but this strikes me as the laziest of all possible methods. When part of one’s goal is to create an immersive world, what possible means of bounding the play area could be more destructive of that immersion than an arbitrary "you can’t go any farther" popup? I’m left thinking, well, why can’t I go any farther? I can clearly see more terrain right in front of me that looks perfectly walk-on-able.
Breath of the Wild’s other main virtue, besides the explorability of the world, is the potential length of play. There’s technically a lot of stuff to do out there in that big world — virtually anywhere the player may find himself has creatures to hunt, monsters to fight, junk to scavenge, or secrets to find; whether or not these activities are fun notwithstanding, there are certainly lots of them. This is not one of those giant, empty open worlds!
The downside to all this, as alluded to in the previous paragraph, is that a lot of this stuff just isn’t very fun. Combat, in particular, is a massive annoyance; in general, the mobs can take a lot of damage and hit Link very hard, meaning that Link needs to fight carefully and use his shield effectively. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, mind, but then it interacts with the game’s utterly wrongheaded durability system, a conceit that has never, ever been fun, but that game developers continue to insist on saddling their games with. That’s right, friends: weapons and shields have durability and can (and will) break in Breath of the Wild. On top of that, they break very quickly, being good for only a few fights and then needing replacement. This means that, especially in the early game, Link is constantly scrounging for whatever weapon he can find, and it’s difficult to learn a coherent fighting style, since the weapons he has access to are constantly changing. It’s also not possible to monitor the remaining durability on Link’s gear nor to repair items as they wear out; every swing of your weapon or block with your shield brings it closer to the inevitable moment when it just explodes.
This interacts also with the new loot system. Unlike in previous Zelda games, monsters drop "monster parts" rather than rupees or hearts. These parts can be sold to vendors or used in various crafting schemes, but have no immediate value. Monsters can drop weapons and shields also, but only the ones they’re actually equipped with, which are usually rubbish compared to whatever Link already has; this adds up to make combat a losing proposition in most cases, since it’s likely to cost more in the way of hearts and weapons than Link is going to get from it in terms of three-rupee Bokoblin Horns. While we’re on the topic of hearts, it isn’t just mobs that never drop them anymore; they’re not to be found anywhere from any source, meaning that Link can’t just pick up immediate healing as he travels. Instead, Link has to scavenge for food, cook it, and then consume the cooked food from the menu in order to heal. Slashing a bush and collecting a heart is clearly preferable to more menu-based micromanagement, but I suppose it’s not as realismic as cooking a fruit salad over a campfire in a pot one just happens to find set up in the middle of the woods, and then eating it to heal all of one’s wounds.
The cooking system’s not done being dense yet. Here’s how it works: From the menu, select an ingredient for Link to "hold." Then select up to four more. Then close the menu, approach a lit cooking pot (if the fire’s gone out, you’ll have to light it first), and press A. Then wait through the "cooking" animation and collect your item. Then repeat this entire process for every single item you want to cook. That’s right: there’s no way to cook multiples at once. It’s possible to view the "recipe" for an item you’ve already cooked, and that will tell you what you used to make it, but there’s no way to tell the game you want to make five more just like it. You have to select the ingredients manually every single time, and wait through the scene every single time. The other problem with the cooking system is that there’s no practical limit to how much cooked food Link can carry at any given time, which means that the game is unavoidably super, super easy. There is not one moment in the entire game — all the way through the final boss — that can’t be zerged through with a big enough stockpile of food.
Which isn’t to say that there are no obnoxiously broken mobs, of course, because there are. Meet the Guardians: magic ancient machines that can instant-kill Link from really, really far away. As with all the game’s mobs, there’s really no upside to fighting them, and they have so many hit points and so much defense that you’re going to break quite a few weapons if you try, meaning that they’re largely just exercises in running away and hiding behind things. In terms of design, they’re a perfect illustration of what the Zelda team apparently thinks counts as innovation: if the picture above is insufficiently clear, a Guardian is a sort of giant enemy crab, and it has a weak point you can attack for massive damage. Though I suppose it can’t be helped; that’s just the way Japanese history is!
When the combat mechanics aren’t driving you crazy, Nintendo is busy finding other ways to put the systems between you and having any fun. The heart and soul of Breath of the Wild is exploration, and, for the most part, the game facilitates that; Link can climb pretty much anything, which means that you can go wherever you want whenever you want to. Or, well, almost whenever; you see, the game also has weather. Now this is normally a plus, since it adds some life to what would otherwise be static landscapes. The only trouble is that, whenever it rains, it becomes nearly impossible to climb anything due to all surfaces becoming slippery. It rains often in Hyrule. This game is entirely about climbing. Have I mentioned yet that, unlike in Xenoblade Chronicles, there’s no easy menu option for advancing time? Link can sit and wait by a campfire, and, if there’s no campfire to hand (because you’re in the middle of the mountains, say), Link can build one with wood and flint and such. So then fine, one could say, it’s not that hard to change the weather! Except that, well, getting that fire made in the rain… Oh, and there are also thunderstorms. Honest to God, Link can be struck by lightning and killed entirely at random. You can minimize the risk of this by unequipping all the metal gear he’s wearing, but it can still happen. Game design!
There are also places that get really hot or really cold, in which Link will take damage from exposure. This can be remedied through certain temporary food buffs, or also by equipping resistance gear, which: yes, more tedious, menu-based micromanagement, as you swap pieces of gear in and out to manage which buffs you have active. Charmingly enough, there are places that are really hot because of the sun, and places that are really hot because of a volcano, and these involve two different, non-interchangeable heat resistances. That’s just silly.
The dungeons are an odd animal in their own right. There are five "major" dungeons, each culminating in a boss fight and a heart container, and no fewer than a hundred and twenty "shrines," which are Portal-alike test chambers featuring short, simple puzzles or single fights and rewarding a "spirit orb," which sounds interesting but is actually just a piece of heart by a different name. These dungeons all have one thing in common: suddenly, Link can’t climb anything, because allegedly the walls are too slippery. Now, okay, sure, except: the Cryonis rune creates a pillar of ice. By far the most common use of Cryonis in the entire game is creating ice pillars for the express purpose of Link scaling straight up the sides. So: I don’t know about this.
The major dungeons are all fairly short, but, other than that, utterly fail to learn any of the lessons from Skyward Sword, preferring to return to the old style of "puzzles" that involves a lot of trial-and-error switch-flipping and backtracking. One dungeon in particular involves three rotating barrels inside the main room of the dungeon, each of which can be set to any of four different orientations; the number of different states the dungeon can be in at any given time is quite large, meaning that it’s quite a lot of trial and error to figure out where to go. This is not helped by the game’s refusal to adhere to the series’ map conventions, opting instead for an unreadable mess of a wireframe map. Interestingly, the game seems to be aware of what an absolute chore combat is, because there are very few mobs in the dungeons; the dungeons consist almost entirely of platforming puzzles and the boss. Bosses are almost all better fought with the bow than with the sword, which takes a bit of getting used to, but in general the fights are reasonably fun; the only major problem is that, due to the aforementioned balance issue with the food system, there’s no real incentive to learn the boss’ pattern, since you can just flail around and win anyhow.
That’s if the controls don’t do you in first, mind you. Breath of the Wild eschews the standard 3D Zelda autojump convention, opting instead to have a manual jump button, which adds exactly nothing to the game. Link’s jumps are so puny and so meaningless that it boggles the mind why a button had to be dedicated to the mechanic; making matters even more perverse is that the jump button is, by default, mapped to X, whereas the sprint button is mapped to B. Those two bindings can be switched, but that’s the extent of the control customization available, so a running jump will always require pressing B and X at the same time. Good luck! Even worse than that is the game’s crouching control. Now, I’ve never been a fan (absolutely never) of the idea of placing buttons underneath control sticks. Still and all, if you’re going to have it, the clear thing to do in this case would be exactly what everybody does — use the under-stick button as a modal sprint toggle. But, no, sprinting is on the B button, so pressing down on the left stick causes Link to crouch and enter "sneak mode." This has the following effects: Link slows way down, Link cannot guard or fire the bow, and Link drops anything he was holding (such as, say, a bomb). This happens when you press in on the left stick, meaning that you will find yourself suddenly crouching in high-intensity combat situations almost constantly. Making this even worse — because lord knows it needs to be made worse — is that Link doesn’t stop crouching when you let go of the stick. No, it’s a toggle; he’ll stay crouched until you release the stick and then press it in again, meaning that, not to put too fine a point on it, you’re about to get murdered.
The game’s story is about as thin on the ground as it could possibly be, which, given that it’s a game fundamentally about climbing that thing to see what’s on top of it, is just fine. There’s Hyrule, see, and Ganon, and he wrecked it. Fix it. That’s not just a plot summary, mind; that’s the plot. Charmingly enough, Ganon is consistently called "Calamity Ganon" the whole way through the game, making him seem much less like a great demon king and much more like the star of a wild west show. This is easily the thinnest Ganon the series has ever seen, having no goal, no motivation, and not even one single line of dialogue; he’s just a boss monster. In contrast, we have a Zelda whose personality is almost entirely occupied with coming-of-age angst, and a series of "champions" who are similarly one-dimensional, dutifully checking off the boxes on the Official Anime Character Checklist.
There’s voice acting, though, thankfully, not much of it; it’s not very good when it’s around, though at least we’re spared the endless terrible dialects that are so hot right now. The only real dialect on display is Zelda herself, who, for some inexplicable reason, speaks with a British accent shared with no other character in the entire game, her father included. It’s just a shame Randy Savage is no longer with us, since he’d have been ideal as the voice of the Goron Daruk ("Daruk’s Protection is ready to roll, brother!")
There’s a very large amount of text in this game, and it’s generally done well, though there’s quite a bit more innuendo than one has come to expect from a Nintendo production; this fits in well with the absurdly phallic Sheikah Towers and Guidance Stones, I suppose. The dialogue is generally engaging and easy to follow, and occasionally even funny (on purpose, I mean), though there are a few moments where a character has a catchphrase that will be voiced in Japanese, and which is translated as something clearly quite different from what the voice is saying, which is peculiar. Several familiar faces are in evidence, and many of the game’s landmarks are named after characters from past Zelda games. On that note, I am pleased to report that, to the best of my knowledge, Tingel Island appears to be uninhabited. Of the new characters, Bolson is the clear standout. I mean, really:
Awesome. His only real competition comes from a character who may be a lucky procedural draw that I ended up with, but who, all the same, is still Hitler:
The game looks great, which is nice; it holds on to the Skyward Sword art style, rather than backsliding into the blandness of Twilight Princess, which is always a concern I have with games that attempt to maximize muh reals. It’s especially important that the game looks good when one considers that the overwhelming majority of the play time is spent wandering around exploring the world; if it’s not visually interesting, that’s a waste of everybody’s time. There are some frame rate issues, bad enough to be noticeable but not so serious as to interfere with gameplay. The sound is sparse but sufficient, and the music is… well, bizarre. It sounds like nothing so much as aimless piano noodling in the style of The Legend of Zelda, often rather random and formless, with the occasional familiar riff. It’s not exactly bad, but it’s certainly unusual.
In terms of post-game content, there’s nothing. This may be a problem or it may not, depending on how you look at it; there’s still a huge amount of stuff to find out in the world (best of luck finding all nine hundred Koroks), but there are no new secrets or post-game dungeons. Of course, given that virtually all the content in this game could be described as a "secret" after a fashion, it’s not really clear that it needs any more.
I could go on all day, though one would probably be tempted to argue that I already have. In short, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an absolutely massive game, filled with what appears to be every single idea the development team came up with. That means one can surely spend a lot of time here if one is motivated to scavenge every single hunt. On the other hand, it means that a lot of stuff that isn’t very much fun snuck its way in as well, and it means that sometimes various elements of the game don’t play well together. If you’re willing to put up with a gormless, often-frustrating game in return for the opportunity to explore a truly vast and interesting world, then this is the game for you. If you’re expecting anything like the tightly-designed dungeons and elegant mechanics of Skyward Sword, however, give this one a miss. It’s an interesting concept, but, in the end, the flaws are too deep and too significant to ignore, meaning that I’m compelled to award it but a scant two gorgeous anime hairdos.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is available for $59.99 for Wii U and Switch from Amazon.