Best Zelda yet?
Editor’s Note: Light spoilers are included within, so click back if you wish to jump in completely fresh!
Three years since its presentation at E3 2014, two years since its silent delay and nearly a year after its universally-acclaimed demo, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has finally arrived in the hands of Switch and Wii U owners alike. After a decade’s worth of stale formulas and divisive deviations, Breath of the Wild was set to be the promised revolution that would revitalize the legendary Nintendo franchise. It’s been five days after the game’s launch, so with the post-launch catharsis winding down, is the latest Zelda truly deserving of the deluge of perfect scores? The answer is…yes. Mostly yes, but still yes.
Let us not immediately jump into “best game ever” or “best Zelda ever” contests and instead dive into what makes Breath of the Wild so great: Even after I’ve completed the game, there’s so much I’ve yet to touch that I still haven’t felt like I’ve scratched the game’s surface. Of course, many of the open-world games over the past decade can claim the same, but Breath of the Wild is special: by what series producer Eiji Aonuma describes as “destroying series conventions,” Breath of the Wild is a near-perfect blend of being Zelda’s most ambitious title all the while striking a minimalist tone.
Anyone who’s completed the game’s opening knows what I mean: Link awakens from a cryogenic slumber that renders him amnesiac, but aside from the prodding of an enigmatic old vagabond, he’s free to do whatever he wishes. True, you won’t be going too far without the elder’s paraglider, but there’s too much going on in The Great Plateau not to be captivated by. Frequent enemy encounters force you to switch up your gear; in the process, maybe you’ll recognize there’s other means of gathering fruit as opposed to just climbing up trees. Shrines grant special runes granting powers like bombs and magnetism–all begging to be fooled around with–but even reaching those is a challenge. One such shrine is located on a snowy peak, and maybe torches aren’t the only thing to save you from the bitter cold. Oh, and the Forest of Spirits may sound interesting, but out for the resident giant stone monster that kills you in one hit; it doesn’t like visitors.
Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is, indeed, a puzzle, but not the overly restrictive, condensed one found in Skyward Sword. It’s a continually-evolving puzzle that keeps us asking: what’s out there? How do I go about this? Do I save this task for later, or tackle it head-on with what I’ve got? Experimentation becomes the key to Breath of the Wild when the wondrous physics unveil themselves as the real star of the game: for example, you’ll often stumble across abandoned rafts littered across Hyrule’s lakes. The obvious solution is to propel the sails by swinging a Korok Leaf, but as all weapons break, that won’t be a viable solution for long. I once found myself stranded in the middle of a lake, and my stamina wheel wouldn’t survive the ensuing swimming trip. Before I resigned myself to death, I fell back upon my newfound mantra: “when in doubt, use runes.”
It was upon my Magnesis scanning of the water’s depths I spotted a familiar object: a treasure chest! Earlier, my Magnesis rune registered the tantalizing find, but I found no obvious manner of obtaining it…now the answer, and my savior, revealed itself to me. I magically snatched it up with the Magnesis beam and proceeded to smack the sails around with the forbidden chest; lo and behold, it worked, and it went even faster than my pathetic leaf from before! That it came at no cost of weapon durability was a plus, and I’ve since found other chests littered in lakes, so you know Nintendo planned this.
You’ll find much of the game’s experimentation is pushed by an organic constitution of gameplay; for example, since the monster encounters are far more dangerous this time around, you’ll find yourself compelled to gather ingredients and cook. This inspires an addiction of randomly cobbling together ingredients whenever you can, and we fight through every misfire (dubbed “Dubious Food,” which thankfully is still edible!) just to forge a fully-restoring meal. Meanwhile, via weapon durability game encourages you to switch weapons around constantly so as not to limit yourself into a particular preference, and there’s more than enough weapons to go around. You don’t want your inventory to just be strong weapons so as to not waste them on Red Bokoblins or Chu Chus, so you pick up weaker weapons to forge a creative balance of managing your inventory. Breath of the Wild is truly alive, engaging us in how one facet of its gameplay always affects another piece.
And by alive, I do mean alive. Watching innocent Hylians get clobbered by Bokoblins and rescuing them thereafter results not in dismissal of their assault, but them scolding you for not coming to their raid sooner (followed by moping around at their ruined day). Enemy encounters range from stumbling across giant snoring Hinoxes to sudden assassin encounters, and even now I ponder if there’s any way to engage with the dragon I see flying over Lake Hylia. Oh, and that one lady who warns you not to step on the flowers she painstakingly planted around a shrine? Listen to her; she means it.
It goes without saying the world is just beautiful to look at. There’s nothing quite like paragliding off into the sunset and assessing the world around you, and seeing the rain glistening off ebony rocks is perhaps the most gorgeous Nintendo sight we’ve witnessed since Pikmin 3. Seeing familiar locations like Kakariko Village transformed into an Ancient Japan-inspired setting is wonderful, as are watching the likes of Goron City and Zora Hall being no longer glorified cylinders or single rooms, but finally brimming to life as actual lived-in towns. Personally, I think Hateno Village is in the running for best Zelda town: there’s just so much going on, from the curious home models on display (seriously, I wanna live in those!) right down to the laboratory peak where I can’t stop jumping off with my Paraglider and land smack-dab into the ocean.
No longer are dungeons a series staple, as the 100+ shrines strewn across Hyrule will take up most of your spelunking time. Thankfully, so many of these shrines present such open-ended puzzles that I don’t really mind; take the one with the 3D ball maze, where any issues I had with motion control are forgiven solely because there’s so many ways to solve it. Once I realized tilting the maze meant I didn’t have to solve the actual maze itself, I spent a solid half-hour testing out all sorts of potential solutions. Of course, the plot-related dungeons are still around; while I dare not spoil their context, I can say that while they’re not overly long, the (stunning!) mechanics involved provide some of the most mind-bending puzzles I’ve ever engaged with Zelda. Even the one dungeon that stood out as relatively simple had a bucket-load of atmosphere to make up for it, so if you’re looking for that “lost in ancient ruins” rapture only Zelda can provide, you need not fret.
I mentioned earlier how the game involves minimalism, much of which is echoed in the music. The world of Hyrule is accompanied by soft pianos that reflect its state of decline, so while there’s nothing especially epic playing here, but the gentle lullabies accompanying horse-rides and on-foot traversing illustrate the land’s still beauty quite well. The battle theme is a particular favorite of mine in how it functions: a freeform piano that, like Ocarina of Time before it, dynamically shifts according to context (giant hordes, yikes!). And for those wanting delicious remixes of Zelda classics…well, just wait until you reach Rito Village (which, by the way, actually is a glorified cylinder, but an interesting one!).
However, some say the game could stand to use more memorable melodies; myself, I actually find myself agreeing…to an extent. On one hand, I don’t need grand orchestrals blaring every second in an open-world game, so it’s great the game gives me some breathing room to soak in the atmosphere. Yet ever since Twilight Princess, it seems the big Zelda games have relied more on atmospheric tunes rather than ones that get stuck in your head, and Breath of the Wild doesn’t do that much to alleviate the issue. Personally, I’m satisfied in how a) much of the minimalist piano tunes cleverly weave familiar cameos in its newer pieces and b) it provides perhaps the best battle theme in a 3D Zelda to date, but I do wish there were some more memorable original compositions.
Much ado has also been made over the game’s venture into voiced dialogue –a series first– and I actually find myself rather…mixed about them. The voice acting is not by any stretch of the imagination bad, but it does suffer from a familiar localization quirk: awkward timing. Originally designed for the Japanese language, the choreography and dialogue duration involved leave little wiggle-room for flexibility in translation; unfortunately, the localized script doesn’t allow for proper flow of the English language, leading to more than one instance of rushed dialogue. Not to say the actors themselves aren’t trying, but as the minimalist direction here involves cutscenes only being few and far between, it becomes all the more noticeable whenever characters new and old are granted voice.
So is there anything outright disappointing? Frame-rate drops have also been noted for both versions of the game, and while I’ve hardly encountered any as a Switch owner, there’s one particular thing that the game can’t handle: the lanky, massive Moblins. For whatever reason, Breath of the Wild does not like the player smacking around Moblins, them smacking you or having them crumple to the floor, as the game frequently chugs or even outright stops whenever they crumple to the ground. While it doesn’t happen in every encounter, I always find myself worrying the game froze up.
If there’s any particular flaw in the actual gameplay itself, it’s something I’ll try to discuss with as little context as possible: the final boss battle. Naturally, your mileage on the ending’s impact will depend on how much you’ve completed previously, and while the final boss itself is subject to that, I can’t imagine full context ever stopping it from being thoroughly underwhelming. While things start out promising in how it handles blocking/deflecting, the ultimate set-piece involved is undermined by said boss doing nothing more than looking scary; like, really, nothing he did even touched me. Wind Waker or Twilight Princess this ain’t.
But such blotches do not stop Breath of the Wild from being a masterpiece. While every bit as experimental as Nintendo’s previous open-world effort (Xenoblade Chronicles X), it is one far more successful and cohesive. Any oversights such as being unable to circumvent rain-soaked cliffs do not prevent me from endlessly experimenting; in fact, such nitpicks compel me to forge ahead and find out what can be circumvented, what is possible or impossible. Prior to Breath of the Wild, the strongest Zelda proponent of this design philosophy was the original NES game itself; how delightful it’s finally been fully reiterated thirty years later!
Whether or not it’s the best Zelda remains to be seen — to my mind, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and A Link to the Past represent such levels of perfection that remain the industry standard, and while Breath of the Wild will undoubtedly remain as hallowed as they are, that it’s a tad more forgettable on the music/story side of things just misses that mark of absolute perfection. Regardless, while The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild might not change games as we know it, that it echoes so much of the “I can do that” philosophy found in Nintendo cousins Super Mario Bros./Super Mario 64 in a modern age is nothing less than Nintendo magic at work. The Legend of Zelda is back.
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Wii U; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Nintendo; Players: 1 ; Released: March 3rd, 2017; ESRB: E10+; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild purchased by HeyPoorPlayer.