Unlike so many reviewers and forum users, I simply can’t say that The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild is my game of the year. I just can’t, it wouldn’t be honest…
… Mainly because it’s only March, so such a statement would be utterly premature and meaningless. And I’ll say up front that I have nothing invested in giving it such praise. I’m not some Biased Betty or Fanboy Frank desperate to see the next instalment in the Zelda franchise get another batch of accolades whether it deserves them or not. I’ve played a lot of Zelda games in the last couple of years and there is some trash amongst the treasure. Even the best games among them (Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker and Link To The Past, if you were wondering) still have flaws that are worth acknowledging. And Breath Of The Wild has flaws too, they’re just piddlingly small in comparison to its strengths.
Doesn’t mean I won’t harp on about them, though. It wouldn't be fun otherwise.
The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild for Wii U is available on Amazon for £47.99
You’ve probably seen the intro where our favourite pointy-eared silent protagonist is spat out of stasis and gets his free iPad and traveling pants, but I’ll summarise just in case. You start off watching Link wake up in some sort of technologically-advanced underground tomb with no memory of what’s going on, and he stumbles out into the daylight (stopping only to pick up the fantasy equivalent of a tablet device along the way) with Zelda whining telepathically into his ear for him to pull his act together and do some sodding work. Hyrule promptly opens up before you like a mixture of the Hundred Acre Wood and Princess Mononoke, and before you’ve even had the chance to clean your teeth and get rid of the mouth-stank that comes with a decades-long snooze (that’s the true breath of the wild right there), you’re given free reign to run through the plains and explore the world in full.
And what exploration it is, with the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and the arrows in your back when the local tribes of goblins take affront to how you keep trying to pinch all their treasure. It takes a little while to find out what’s actually going on in terms of wider story, and this means that your initial exploration is given the added spice of trying to find answers to the mystery that is the plot premise. Picking up scraps of history in the early stages and discovering all the new mechanics is honestly where Breath Of The Wild is strongest, with the visuals pulling double-duty to look as gorgeous as possible.
I should admit here that I thought the story was going in a completely different direction for a while. Link wakes up in the “Shrine Of Resurrection” (which looks like an artsy version of the pool they kept the albinos inside during the film Minority Report), and for a moment I was legitimately wondering if Link had just been cloned right in front of us. After all, that would explain the alleged “reincarnation” of the hero in every single game. It’s not fate at all, some behind-the-scenes figure is just vat-growing a new Link whenever one is needed, using the DNA of the original Hero Of Time to do so. I admit that these revelations of conscious and identify would probably be lost on a protagonist who barely exhibits either of those traits, but it was a cool idea regardless.
So I was disappointed to be proven wrong, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard not to get hooked by questions from the start. The oddly-advanced technology that seems to be discarded all around the ruins of Hyrule takes a little while to be explained, and it helps to build intrigue that the first structure you come across is the legendary Temple Of Time, now reduced to moss-covered rubble. Not only that, but from your starting point on the Great Plateau you can see Hyrule Castle in the far distance, being attacked by some sort of giant smog dragon with a colour motif that’s really big on black and purple. Yeah, I think you can all guess who that is.
I’ll very briefly recount the actual premise, then. Everything I’m about to say is told to you in the first couple of hours, so I don’t really consider it spoilers any more than I consider the back of the box blurb to be spoilers, but feel free to jump ahead a couple of paragraphs if you don’t want anything given away before you get the chance.
Because it turns out that you're not a clone, you've just done what Lister did in Red Dwarf – leap forward in time by having a hearty snooze whilst everybody around you is brutally killed. A hundred years ago Princess Zelda and her dad (who is basically a beard with a crown on top) both foresee the dark lord Ganon’s return and look to myths and legends for some sort of solution, because everything in Hyrule is solved with a middling-tier lecture in classics. One prophecy tells them that their answer lies below ground, and they promptly start digging only to find a dormant army of robots built by some long-distant civilisation to combat Ganon the first time he tried to pull this nonsense, as well as four giant robo-animals that require a team of pilots to use. Zelda and her personal knight (that’s Link) both train up some pilots and they all leap into action to slay the evil as it bears down on them…
At which point Ganon yells “psyche!” and uses his purple programming powers to take control of all the robots and giant Jaegers himself, slaughtering everybody in the city and reducing the whole kingdom to ruin. The pilots are killed, Link is mortally wounded and Zelda is left on her own with no plan, using magic to quarantine herself and Ganon in Hyrule castle until somebody can think of a long-term solution. Link is sent to the Shrine of Resurrection to recover, but considering this takes a whole century to do so and his memories get ruined in the process, we can consider this scheme to be of a middling quality, as the land falls to anarchy and mother nature takes over everything except a couple of small settlements. Awoken a hundred years later, Link must find four new pilots and lay siege to the castle before Zelda’s magic can fail and Ganon will be unleashed on the world!
It's quite an intriguing premise, doing the Majora’s Mask thing of flat-out ruining the world before you even get there and asking you to sort it out retroactively. I’m a little nonplussed about how all this info is basically told to you in text dumps, rather than discovering it more organically like an exploration game would lend itself to, but the advantage of Ganon being kept permanently in one place means that if you lack motivation then you can just look over at Hyrule Castle, see the thousand-foot long smoke serpent cackling like a maniac and think, “Oh yeah, I should probably do something about that.”
The actual strength of storytelling is where it’s always been in the Zelda games – in the fringes, where the less important characters and locations act out the routine of their everyday lives, even as the world-shaking stuff goes on in the foreground. Nearly every NPC you meet has a name and memorable personality (even if some of them are just a little too goofy to take seriously), and the world you occupy does feel like a cohesive whole, rather than a series of separate locations threaded together by a vague notion of togetherness that never really pays off. Looking at you, Ocarina Of Time.
But there are elements of the story that are a little iffy, and it’s usually that baffling kind of illogical decision-making that you usually see at least once in a Nintendo game; as if something had gone wrong in the translation or didn’t quite carry over between cultures very well. One of the choices that I kept bumping against was the renaming of Ganon to the far less punchy “Calamity Ganon.” It vaguely makes sense, as this narrative presents him more as some sort of sentient natural disaster rather than the smirking, sorcerous tyrant we’ve grown to know and love, but it just sounds odd and unnatural when overused to death – which it is. Maybe it’s the translation issue, but I just ended up thinking of Calamity Jane and the intended effect was ruined in those moments. Oh, and there’s a side mission where you have to unite two lovers, one a travelling merchant in his late twenties… And the other is a prepubescent mermaid girl who looks about eleven years old at most. I can get past the whole cross-species angle after reading comics like X-Men and Swamp Thing, but I can’t look at the grown man chat up the little kid without feeling VERY uneasy about it all. I know I got them together, now can I break them up again? Or at least call Aquaman to intervene?
Some of you might consider that to be a nitpick, but this one isn’t – Breath Of The Wild can’t decide whether it loves or fears the wilderness that it’s so frequently reminding us of, and by extension how we should feel about all the technology and possessed Omnidroids that are trying to kill you with lasers. The natural stuff is all very beautiful to look at, much more than anything the civilised world has to offer, but on the other hand the whole aim of the game is to kickstart the kingdom back into existence, and to do so using the giant robots left over from last time. As a result, Link never feels at harmony with nature, but more like he’s just taking from it whenever he needs to, scooping up every plant he can find and hacking down whole trees just for a temporary, one-use crossing over a chasm. As a result, it’s the technology that’s actually really helpful and allows you to progress, and the value of nature seems to be as an endless supply of minor resources that we can take from whenever we feel like it. Gee, I’m sure that sort of sub-text doesn’t come across as problematic in our modern world.
But this is only something you notice when you look very hard, and the game’s too fun to do that for long. Most of the time it’s exactly what you’d expect from a good Zelda narrative – a new take on the old formula, and with the best stuff experienced at a smaller, more personal level with the characters you meet along the way.
So out of the ground pops Link (and he is definitely Link this time, there’s no option to change names and call him something hilariously unrepeatable) with nothing but the shirt on his back and the EyePad on his belt. And suddenly there’s this beautiful sandbox world before you, but no indication of what to do next. My new toy is showing me a location to go to, but it’s quite a hike away and how you get there is up to you. Besides, this is an exploration game – let’s do some exploring, right?
Hmm. Well, I see some fungi that are clearly sticking out among the landscape because of their colour, so let’s move over there and – aha! Three mushrooms for yours truly! The glossary tells me that they restore health when you eat them, so I’ll pocket those for when Octoroks inevitably start using me for dodgeball practice. I don’t have a weapon, but I do see that there’s a tree branch lying nearby, and the little stat box suspended above tells me it does two damage when I use it to whack stuff. Yoink! Now I gots me a whuppin’ switch. Still no mention of where to go exactly, but I do see a pretty clear path marked out along the edge of this cliff I’m standing on with some ruins in the distance, so let’s take the ol’ shoelace express and see what happens. Oh hello, elderly man with a hood. Considering you’re being slightly cryptic about what you say, and taking a lot of effort to reassure the audience that you’re a simple, nameless woodcutter, I’ll assume you're pulling a Ben Kenobi on me and wait for you to pull the Master Sword out of your pants in act two.
But that’s for later, and right now I see a massive axe lying next to a wood chopping block. Better stats than my stick of course, but there’s no reason to throw that away yet. Chuck the stick in my hypothetical backpack and now I have the “woodcutter’s axe,” which I also see is slower to swing around and uses two hands. Guess this won’t be compatible with the equally hypothetical shield that I’d really like to get my paws on sooner rather than later.
Wait a moment, let’s put two and two together. I have a woodcutter’s axe, and there’s a lot of trees around this location. I know trees are usually some of the most indestructible objects in video games, but maybe there’s a chance that I can… Ha! A couple of chops and I’m through the trunk, so down it comes! Now I just turn the log into firewood and pick up the apples that fell with it, and soon I’m back on the road feeling very pleased with myself, humming the Lumberjack Song from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Right then. The landscape is flattening out a bit, and I think I can see the building I’m looking for on the horizon. But I can also see a camp of goblins to the east, and I’m ninety-nine percent sure there’s a box of treasure inside that cave they’re all hanging around. Well, I’ve fought a couple of individual goons already and come out smiling, and I picked up a bow from those ruins I spotted, so let’s do some hunting. Pick off their archer with my own arrows, then charge in with my axe and get to work! Hey, that blue goblin looks pretty impressive, I wonder if he’s really all – oh bugger, my axe broke from overuse. Oh crap, they all have shields and I don’t. OH MY GOD THE BLUE GOBLIN TOOK AWAY TWO AND HALF HEARTS WITH ONE HIT!
That’s what you get for being overconfident, I guess. The game respawns me a little way off and I pause to consider things… Except I don’t really, because now I’m mad and out for blood. It's the old Dark Souls instincts coming back to the fore, I suppose. I charge back into the camp shrieking a guttural war cry, and promptly get slaughtered again. And then a couple more times for good measure. Eventually I work out that the lanterns in the goblin camp can be shot with arrows, whereupon they fall off the wall and explode. It’s not enough to kill them all outright, but it gives me the advantage in the battle and I’m quick enough to finish off the stragglers with my bow, before leaping into single combat with the blue meanie and finally throwing my axe at him like a javelin, knocking him to the ground and claiming my victory. Loot the treasure chest, stockpile all the weapons and shields they were using until my inventory runs full, and now I’m back on the road… At least until I see something else that interests me and diverts my attention yet again.
And that’s the core gameplay of Breath Of The Wild for you. There’s extra abilities I didn’t mention, such as the option to climb almost any surface until your stamina runs out, or the contextual powers you find for your tablet device, but the core of the game is laid bare in the first hour. Get a quest or side quest, or even just a task you want to achieve for the hell of it, and go exploring in the right direction. There’s usually a few different ways to get there, even if you just have to clamber up over a mountain that’s in the way, but you’ll get there eventually. Along the way you’ll find food and items you can hoard for yourself, and of course you’ll find enemies to use them on.
The games I find myself oddly reminded of is the Far Cry series, with a teeny-tiny bit of the aforementioned Dark Souls added in when it comes to stamina management. Hunt animals, horde plants, eat both and kill anything that looks at you funny. There’s even Ubisoft-type towers you have to climb to reveal sections of the map, and somebody gives you your own equivalent of the wingsuit early on, so falling damage can be something that happens to other people and not to the Hero of Hyrule.
But so many open-world games forget what Breath Of The Wild remembers – firstly, that all side activities should be fun, and secondly, that they should all somehow relate back to the core gameplay. Consequently I like doing side quests, because there’s a good chance I get new weapons, abilities or power-ups, and the fact that the game can be quite challenging means that it's near-mandatory to do just that.
Where the faults lie are in execution, not concept. I played the Wii U version, and the frame rate occasionally struggled to keep up when heavy activity was occurring on either the big screen or the little one. At one point a chain reaction of explosions actually caused the game to freeze for several seconds, leaving me to nervously wonder if I had just lost a ton of unsaved progress. I didn't, thank god, but it never stopped being worrying on the few times it would occur.
I’d also say that the game isn't very good at explaining itself. Whilst discovering the tricks and trappings of gameplay early on was a joy, it gets more irksome when these things are harder to decipher for yourself, or go completely unexplained until it’s too late. The mechanics of cooking, horse taming and elixir-brewing are several such mysteries that all required trips to Google to figure out, and the environment has a nasty habit of tormenting you until you learn to read the subtle hints of impending doom. At one point I was battling several giant lizards in a massive rainstorm (it was all very cool, let me assure you), when one of them dropped a shield that was crackling with electrical energy. Considering these chumps had been firing shock arrows at me earlier, I naturally figured that this was some sort of lightning-based shield that could keep me safe, or at least allow me to sling some electrical current back at them for good measure.
So I picked it up, and it continued to harmlessly spark in my hands… Until I was promptly hit dead-centre by a thunderbolt and killed before I could work out what had happened. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” I think the phrase goes. The loading screen that popped up as I was waiting to respawn helpfully told me that if I was in a storm and wearing metal equipment, it would be smart to stow it away until we saw sunnier skies. Thanks for telling me now, Breath Of The Wild. It might’ve also been smart to divulge that tidbit of information when I could’ve made use of it, but let’s stick to baby steps for now.
But being ill-informed is a flaw that’s only ever a flaw once, and once I had worked everything out I was having a fantastic time. Somehow everything you do feels satisfying, whether it’s knocking down a tree to organically make a path across a river, slinging a boomerang at some distant foe and manually plucking it out of the air when it comes back to you, or felling Bambi’s mum with a well-aimed arrow and triumphantly claiming a bloody venison steak as your reward.
And when it all goes wrong and I end up on the horns of some angry mountain goat or trampled by rock monsters, it usually feels like me failing the game and not the game failing me – a very important distinction. It's rare to see such pinpoint focus in an open world game, but for better or worse, Nintendo are always guaranteed to surprise you. And this time, at least, it is definitely for the better.
I will confess that the early sequences of the game are where you're getting the most value for money in terms of raw visual beauty. Don’t get me wrong, Breath Of The Wild is never ugly-looking and has a lovely visual aesthetic and style. It’s all locked somewhere between South American, rural Japanese and a bizarre kind of Druidic iconography when it comes to the technology, blending concepts of magic and computer circuitry, with runes acting like code and the lines blurred between ancient alchemy and advanced computers.
That’s how everything is designed, at least. In terms of how it’s all presented, it’s a cel-shaded visual style that probably hangs its hat closest to Skyward Sword, exaggerated but not to the point of looking surreal or overly cartoonish. If there’s a complaint to be made about this look, it’s that it works well on landscapes and less so on people, mainly because the edges and lines around objects look vague and a little indistinct. This doesn’t matter much when you’re looking at trees and rocks, static objects that have colours separate to the landscape behind them but can also get away with blending into that landscape. It's more of an issue when Link is wearing a dozen disjointed pieces of armour and weaponry, and as a result he just becomes a mess, with the audience barely able to tell where one piece of clothing ends and another begins. Throw an androgynous-looking friend into a fancy dress shop, tell them to pick out several items and props with their eyes closed, and then take a photo of them wearing this ensemble whilst keeping the camera ever so slightly out of focus, and you’ll get the general idea of what our hero looks like.
And this isn’t helped by some of his movement animations being surprisingly choppy and inelegant. Have Link stand on the edge of a cliff and face into the rising sun, and there’ll be a gorgeous, storybook image of a lone hero watching a beautiful world bathed in the golden rays of early dawn, his tussled hair waving softly in the morning breeze… And then try sprinting or fighting, and his limbs become a jumble of uncoordinated and disconnected objects, snapping between poses like somebody flicking through the slides in a PowerPoint presentation about posable action figures.
When it comes to sound design, that’s all fine enough. I’m not hugely in favour of characters audibly speaking proper English in cutscenes, because in my mind Hyrule was always best when putting as much cultural separation between their world and ours as possible. Hearing Zelda speak actual human language feels a little weird, considering up until now it’s only ever been text boxes, generic cooing and exertion noises, with the occasional giggle for good measure.
But the music is definitely good, with both simple piano tunes and more dynamic ochestral numbers that work for capturing that inspiring, heroic tone that adds the final tension to any scene where you could be backstabbed in a heartbeat. The only other thing I can mention is an odd quality whereby the confirmation noise for “you just picked something up” sounds weirdly like a honking clown nose. And once you hear that, you can never un-hear it. That's not a criticism, by the way – I was quietly chuckling about it for hours.
Of course Breath Of The Wild is good, I said that already. But transcendental? Visionary? Perfect? Well, nothing’s perfect… But this might be the closest a Zelda game has ever gotten, mainly by dropping half the tropes of the franchise and becoming something fresher and better than most of them. I’m not sure if I remember ever having quite this much fun with the series, or even having this much fun generally in a very long time. Last night I managed to tear myself from my Wii U in the early hours of the morning, and I distinctly remember lying in bed feeling impatient about my own sleeping patterns. “Come on, just fall asleep already. The faster you get some rest, the quicker you can wake up and KEEP PLAYING THE GAME, DAMN IT.”
So yeah, fun. Now if you don't mind, I need to go and sell all my moblin fangs, use the money to buy the armour I saw for sale, and then there’s a few dozen other things on my checklist to be done before the next blood moon. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
|+ An entire reactive, organic world to explore.||– Graphics can be blurry, and the animations choppy.|
|+ Story is engaging, with characters that show depth.||– Slightly too coy about information in places|
|+ Presentation is attractive (barring the occasional hiccup).||– Periodic details in the story that could've used a little tidying up.|
|+ All design feels laser-focused, yet intertwined.|
|+ Good side quests that feel fun and necessary.|