Game Review | The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Game summary: After a century of hibernation, Link reawakens to once again save a ruined Hyrule from a great evil. (IMDb)
For me to write about Breath of the Wild is going to take some context. To start with, it's not a series I'm pre-disposed to enjoy, with only Wind Waker truly grabbing me out of the previous games. That's not to say I dislike the other titles, but I either haven't played them, or only got my hands on them years after release when they were already outdated.
The second 'admission' is that I didn't finish the game. Part of the reason why will be explained below, but I put in several dozen hours and at the very least feel like I have a solid enough grounding of the core gameplay loops to justify talking about it.
The last bit of context I feel I need to mention is that I try and take each game on its own merits and judge the game on what the developers were trying to do rather than any preconceptions I might have - which led me to question exactly how to best approach Breath of the Wild.
The Zelda series is often referred to as role-playing games (RPGs) or RPG-lites. Either way, neither of those labels are accurate, and I would have an extremely negative opinion of the game if that is the type of game Nintendo had intended to make.
Yes, Link does 'level up' by gaining more health and stamina, and you can gain and equip different pieces of armour, equipment or weaponry - but that's where any similarity to an RPG ends. By any other measure of what you'd expect from an RPG, Breath of the Wild fails.
Similarly, some might label it an action and/or adventure game, but neither of those really fit either. The limited number of enemy types and equally small number of combat actions eliminate the game there, and the actual written adventures - main or side-quest - are nowhere near good enough either.
Breath of the Wild really is a game that you have to judge for what it is, which is an open world exploration sandbox. That sounds more than a little nebulous, so I'll try and explain: to put it as simply as possible, Breath of the Wild is to adventure playgrounds what Minecraft is to Lego.
And by that, I mean that Breath of the Wild is an excellent digital version of an adventure playground. Just like kids will invent their own stories, narratives and adventures when playing in the latter, gamers will get the most enjoyment out of doing the same with the game.
The main problem I had with Breath of the Wild was the story and characters being thinner than paper-thin and not giving me any reason to keep playing, which was a big part of why I stopped; there was never any real drive or sense of urgency to keep me coming back for more.
I can still recognise that it's a fantastic game for people who do want to wander through a world without a guide and just get lost in their own imagination. Breath of the Wild is probably the best game possible for that, but I just prefer games that provide at least some kind of direction.
As an example, the very set-up for the game is that Link has been awoken to save the world after a great catastrophe, but there's never any real sense of threat, dread or urgency to encourage the player to tackle that issue. The game entirely undercuts its own premise, and you can generally just muck about doing absolutely nothing to resolve the problem.
The side content and characters you meet don't particularly help either, proving almost entirely inconsequential or forgettable. There's no story or character content that I feel is worthy of any kind of praise at all, because it never feels like even the game thinks you should take them seriously.
Having a huge world would help, if it wasn't all so empty. Credit for making such a massive world to explore and fitting it all onto a tiny cartridge, but the achievement feels more than a little undermined by so much of it acting purely as scenery in-between the areas where you can actually do stuff.
Playing through the game felt like trying out the beta version of an MMO, where the developers hadn't added all the quests and creatures yet. A feeling only reinforced by the world being divided up into distinct zones, with terrain abruptly transitioning from one type to another with little more than lip service being paid to how things actually work in nature.
This honestly wouldn't have frustrated me so much if it hadn't also exposed the game (and console's) technical limitations. By that, I mean that the visual style of the game doesn't really work when applied to the world as a whole because of how inconsistent it is.
As I said above, Wind Waker is my favourite Zelda game and I love the cartoony style, so I have no problem with another Zelda title aiming for something similar. Where Wind Waker worked though, is that the art style was consistent across characters, items and environment.
In Breath of the Wild, there was a disconnect for me between the levels of detail used for the world in comparison to the the people, creatures and items within it. There are some great models in the game, with intricate patterns - then you get flat textures on mountains and other stony/rocky surfaces that look like they were copy-pasted from a Wii title.
I can't fault the animation though, other than the occasional frame-rate drop thanks to the Switch's lack of power. Just watching a gentle breeze blowing through a forest area and seeing not just the foliage gently swaying, but also Link's clothing and hair, can be very relaxing and is the kind of incidental detail that some of the textures lack.
The sound design also helps, with everything in the world at least sounding like it should, although the noise of combat may prove a little repetitive if you go looking for battles too often. Again, there's an inconsistency here with the world sounding amazing, but the music lacking a certain quality for me. It's not bad, but thanks to the game's length and how much of that time will be spent re-treading familiar ground unless you use fast travel (and you really should), it's a lack of quantity rather than quality.
At least there is music though, which is more than can be said for the voice acting, which is mostly grunts or very limited emoting apart from Zelda, who provides much of the exposition. For me, there's no excuse for a company the size of Nintendo to not put voiced characters into their games anymore - it just automatically creates an extra disconnect between me and the people in the world.
Speaking of disconnect, it feels like entirely different teams made the shrines and the subterranean challenges within compared to the world above them. You'll get used to any number of different gameplay mechanics working in the world, then suddenly find yourself restricted in the shrines because... well, no reason is ever really given.
One of those gameplay systems is climbing, which might as well not exist in the shrines. I already found it odd that Link suddenly had Spider-Man's ability to climb just about any surface (unless it's raining), but to provide such a critical ability that is then ripped away in the shrines for no given reason feels like a design issue that Nintendo just decided to ignore.
Now, that seems like a lot of negativity - especially when you look at the score I've given it. How did a game that has so many issues that bothered me still apparently excel? The answer really is that this is a review that is almost entirely praise by exemption - in other words, if I didn't mention it, it works pretty flawlessly.
A major complaint a lot of people have is with how weapons degrade with use, forcing you to keep switching to new weapons and shields. While it can interrupt the flow of combat, I've played plenty of games that use sub-menus in the middle of battle to access different skills or items, and this simply feels like a variation of that rather than anything particularly aggravating.
Link is a joy to control, and - even with so many commands and abilities available - everything works consistently and in context. Not at a single point in the dozens of hours I spent playing the game did I ever get frustrated with the controls, or felt that the game was to blame for something going wrong instead of it being my fault.
Even the flow of how you gained new abilities was pretty much perfect - at least it was in the way I played through the game. One advantage of having such a huge world is that you have plenty of room to experiment with a new ability and get used to it before progressing further.
And the number of different systems and how they combine is pretty mind-blowing. I don't think having so many different gameplay mechanics combining in the ways they can in Breath of the Wild would work in a game with a stronger narrative or a world with a more cohesive and realistic design.
The game, and the abilities it gives you, provide so many ways to experiment with different scenarios that it can be fun to just stick to certain areas and wait for enemies to return so you can try a different tactic to before - the absolute best thing being that the abilities work pretty much exactly as you'd expect them to.
I don't mean that gamers can use previous experience of other titles to have an idea about how to combine certain interactions (although that's certainly true too), but even a relatively 'amateur' player can use the numerous abilities in inventive ways with little hassle at all.
For me, it's in the gameplay where Breath of the Wild shines, but the world was what was lacking. Even then, stronger writing and providing voice acting would've been enough to ignore the problems I had with how the world was designed, low quality textures included.
There was a great tweet I saw at the end of 2017 from a developer or someone who writes about games (I can't remember exactly and wish I'd favourited the tweet!) who was asked about their top five games of the year, and they included neither Breath of the Wild nor Super Mario Odyssey.
A large number of their followers were surprised and, when asked why those titles hadn't made the cut, he explained that if he was judging games purely on how they played, they would definitely be in that list, but games were more than that now.
That's a sentiment that I entirely agree with, and I think Breath of the Wild only helped to cement that belief. As I've said, it plays wonderfully and the amount of different systems that can combine in almost imaginable way is absolutely astonishing, but great gameplay alone is not enough for me anymore, especially in a game of this size.
There have been games which I've had some pretty major issues with how they play, but the story and the world it takes place in, along with all the characters involved, have engaged me to such a degree that I was willing to overlook their deficiencies.
Breath of the Wild has the opposite problem, but where it excels isn't enough to completely overcome where it suffers. It's the kind of game that requires the players to put the effort into being immersed, rather than the material drawing the players in.
And even this depends on how you play the game. I mainly played using the Switch in handheld mode and it's unquestionably the single greatest handheld game I have ever played in my entire life. Genuinely, there isn't another game that can touch it.
On the other hand, there may be some who will only play the game with the Switch docked and hooked up to a TV, where the system's lack of power becomes extremely obvious when compared to an Xbox One or a PS4 - this may sound more like a criticism of the system than the game, but Breath of the Wild is limited in it's presentation as a result, suffering in comparison to its contemporaries.
Ultimately, Breath of the Wild suffers from the flawless gameplay undermining the premise of the story, and the two never coming close to striking an equilibrium to keep me interested enough to see things through to the end - it's a genuinely great game, but the issues are just too numerous for to completely overlook.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the single best handheld game ever made, and a very good home console title. If you like to explore huge worlds and experiment with incredibly intricate gameplay mechanics, you'll love it - but the game relies on the player providing their own reasons to continue, as the story and world really, really don't.