WARNING: THIS REVIEW DELVES INTO MODERATE SPOILER TERRITORY.
After 18 main series titles, it might strike some as baffling that Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda plays second fiddle to the publisher’s Mario series, yet the red and blue-clad Italian plumber remains a more ubiquitous figure. As much as I adore the former, perhaps such a phenomenon can be attributed to the latter’s comparatively more abstruse lore. It perplexing, arbitrary timeline as a means to attempt to edify the more contradictory aspects between games. Its manifold variations of the land of Hyrule and its heroes, juxtaposed against the constants of a deiform princess, Master Sword wielding boy, and evil incarnated fittingly in the form of a disgruntled ginger. Its predilection for following a linear blueprint of elemental dungeons that bequeath stock items or plot trinkets whilst puzzling players with various challenges. Furthermore, most egregiously of all, its repeat insistence, that, in a high fantasy game, a boomerang is a legitimate weapon.
Now, here we are at TLOZ game number 19, Breath of the Wild, and whilst the aforementioned constants of a princess, warrior and evil are present, much has been edified in terms of the series’ formula. Gone is the stifling linearity of Skyward Sword; the sparse environments and single-use novelties of Twilight Princess; the nebulous hunt for the Triforce in The Wind Waker; the plot trinkets of Ocarina of Time. That’s not to say that Breath of the Wild is completely devoid of the series’ staples, or some of the aforementioned tropes in variant form. Only, hearkening back to the very first The Legend of Zelda, players are now at the leisure of exploring an open world, completing (or in perfect mimicry of my life, avoiding) tasks in whichever order they please.
The narrative, fundamentally, is threadbare and simple. Link has been bid to wake from 100-year slumber by a mysterious voice, gets gifted a
glorified Sheikah iPad Sheikah Slate, and is told nearly straight off the bat that he must go to Hyrule Castle to assist Zelda and defeat Calamity Ganon. More extemporaneously-minded players may do exactly that, using the combined forces of a single power from a shrine, the three hearts of health they have by default, and their wits in order to do so. Less masochistic players may opt to explore to unlock the myriad mysteries abound, and complete what semblance of a story the game has. Ultimately, however, the freedom to discover as much or as little about Hyrule and its present state of ruin is at the impetus of the player and their ability to be readily swayed by shiny things, and oh, my, this game has those in copious quantities.
Gone is the conventional, one-tab inventory screen, in favour of a myriad categories for bladed weapons, bows, clothing, quest/essential items, and miscellaneous/food. Yes, food. Link can climb trees to obtain apples, forage to find fungi, and shoot practically every hapless creature for meat. Alas, any semblance of a fishing minigame is absent in Breath of the Wild, but this is completely and utterly mitigated by Link being able to jump straight into any body of water (stamina-permitting), catch piscine creatures with his bare hands, and shove them raw into his cake hole. Or just by shooting a shock arrow into said body of water, and electrocuting entire schools. I preferred the former, simply as arrows are exceptionally valuable in this title, and there’s something to be had in imagining Link chomping on a live fish, like a deranged bear. Disappointingly enough, the game homogenises meat, excepting to categorise it in terms of quality, so making Link tuck into hearty squirrel stew is not an option. Equally disappointing is the fact that horses in Breath of the Wild, unlike their automaton forefathers in Skyrim, do not drop meat upon expiring. In fairness, though, I couldn’t envision anything more macabrely hilarious than Link tucking into Epona.
As health potions are absent, because, apparently, nobody in Hyrule ever needs urgent first aid, the sole method for Link to regain lost hearts is through consuming ingredients. However, erroneously enough, not every ingredient can be consumed raw (which is bollocks, because the lashings of butter I put on my toast could constitute an entire block). In this case, ingredients may be combined and cooked over stoves conveniently scattered about the world, creating dishes that can replenish a greater number of hearts and bestow status effects. Whilst the results are nowhere near as mouth-watering as the ilk of Final Fantasy XV, they are far more varied and customisable, from attack boosting skewers, to defence boosting pie to cold-warding curry. In spite of this extensive range, there is no separate inventory tab for storing recipes, nor is there any method to gain them, other than stumbling across the occasional diary or on the wall in a random tent. It’s as arbitrary a process as the world around it.
Link is free to loot, pilfer and scavenge any weapon or item from enemies in Hyrule, and whilst doing so is an imperative for survival, it does, in no way, shape, or form, guarantee survival. Weapons suffer degradation from use, and, like my willpower in a patisserie, will disintegrate into irretrievable pieces from the culmination of so much exertion upon them. On one hand, what this can entail is a variegated combat experience, in which Stalkoblins may bludgeoned to death with their own craniums, boomerangs can function like actual boomerangs, and Ganon can be faced with nothing more than a broom and a pot lid (albeit with varying degrees of success). On the other, the most powerful weapons will only withstand a few hits, cannot be crafted, in spite of an abundance of miscellaneous items that will almost certainly never be utilized, and only a select few can be “reforged”. Even the legendary Master Sword is not immune from the farcical weapon degradation, although rather than shattering, it necessitates resting in order to be “recharged”. It’s probably a negligible point for most people, but having to wait eight or nine minutes to empower what is, essentially, the blade meant to vanquish the greatest evil in all of Hyrule deprives it of much of its awe. It’s abhorrent enough that drawing it has the power to kill Link if he hasn’t enough hearts, especially as it could be carried without compunction in the past.
Furthermore whilst the dynamic weather and day-night cycle largely augments an immersive experience, particular facets and their effectuation exist to the detriment of others. Rain is, quite bluntly, contrived bullshit, and, in a game where Link can chow down on 48 acorns and not suffer from any form of digestive implosion, making all climbable surfaces lose all traction in the face of some mild drizzle seems arbitrary and cruel. Furthermore, wearing the slightest sliver of metal in a storm becomes a pernicious deed, as ineluctably, Link will become the target of lightning strikes, rendering players defenceless as they become forced to unequip almost every single metallic weapon in order to avoid electrocution. Whilst, in the grand scheme of things, weather states are transient and hardly a novel concept in video games, nevertheless, they’re an encumbrance that could use tweaking before being implemented again in future Zelda titles.
That said, considering how derivative Breath of the Wild’s quest system, map unlocking, inventories and mechanics are of other fantasy sandbox games in recent years, it’s marvellous just how unique and variegated the experience feels in comparison. In what is the closest approximation to linearity in the game, a mysterious old man tasks Link with retrieving Spirit Orbs to trade for a paraglider in which to get off the Great Plateau, but, there remains so much freedom in doing so. The means by which to acquire Spirit Orbs is via the completion of Sheikah Shrines interspersed throughout Hyrule, and these may be completed in any order at the behest of the player. Beyond the great Plateau, these shrines serve as the primary means by which to gain Heart Containers, Stamina Vessel upgrades, and by which to teleport around the map. At a grand total of 120, so many shrines to complete may seem excessive, but, aside from the Four Great beasts, they are all entirely discretionary, and serve as the closest semblances the game has to a traditional dungeon. The map is colossal, so what with Hyrule’s vast expanse of varigated terrains, multitudinous elevations and depressions, having so many waypoints is a boon. However, whilst all locations are open to be visited and fast travelled to, the topography isn’t visible on the map interface until Link climbs and activates towers interspersed throughout the world.
In addition to fast travel, horses may be tamed and ridden in the game, with up to five able to be adgisted at a stable, and, unlike Skyrim’s horses, all of them have the good sensibility to avoid inclines. Furthermore, in a bid to appease some of their stifling suppression of creative freedoms of recent games, horses can be named anything. Additionally, deer, bears, skeletal horses, Great Forest Spirits and even certain enemies can be made Link’s steeds, albeit temporarily. Horses must now be in a relatively near vicinity in order to be whistled by Link, but this is mitigated by the proliferation of stables, which act as space-time defying pockets of space by which to acquire any horse from anywhere in Hyrule. Given that they seem like Hyrule’s only viable economy, stables are a useful hub through which to rest, cook, and learn of the game’s myriad secrets, even as Beedle uses them as a conduit for his embezzlement schemes.
Despite Breath of the Wild’s exploration and gameplay being mostly exceptional, I consider it a shame that in, many regards, what narrative there is remains optional, for what eventuates is one of the most emotionally complex and enjoyable princess Zeldas in the entire series. Aside from learning of his past via the game’s Divine Beast quests, Link has the opportunity to visit 13 locations saved as photographs on the Sheikah Slate, and recover his memories of his past with her. Via this medium, players have the means to witness a tentative bond blossom out of initial animosity and resentment, and mature through mutual hardship into a friendship, and, possibly, a romance. Whilst the ambiguity in Zelda’s and Link’s relationship is nothing new, the solidarity in the shared burden of their duties bears much gravitas, more so transposed against the inevitable threat of Calamity Ganon’s resurgence looming over them. Against such a backdrop, Zelda is shown to be a solemn, but idiosyncratic teenage girl, subjugated by her obligations, yet brimming with a curiosity and passion for Hyrule; for the mechanisms and machinations of the tangible world around her.
However, it must be said that these memories are experienced in such a removed style that it detracts from some of the emotional investment had, so much so that the in medias res narrative has substantially more weight in the past then the present. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t work as well to develop Link as more than a cipher, for most of his more intriguing peccadilloes remain informed as opposed to shown. That he remains a staunchly silent figurehead juxtaposed against the game’s deuteragonists, who have an additional dimension to their characters by virtue of being voiced, for once, doesn’t help. Furthermore, criminally, the Champions presence is paltry, and their individual stories are cheapened by the fact that ultimately the impetus to free their spirits is lesser than that to wrest control of the Divine Beasts.
Perhaps more baleful is the fact that the game doesn’t ruminate too long on the implications of 100 years having passed within the parameters of its story, Hyrule’s collapse as a monarchy, or much of Link’s temporal displacement. There is a somewhat poignant moment upon meeting with the Zora, and the revelation that Mipha, one of the Champions, was in love with Link and was planning a future together with him once the battle was over, but such instances are fleeting. Revali, Darunia, and Urbosa are not granted the same consideration, and whilst the former has a one-sided rivalry with Link, their characterisations remain too insubstantial to render their deaths as anything more than slightly troubling. Despite Mipha not having much characterisation aside from her quiet subservience and her feelings for Link, that her life, and stakes in the narrative, have been unceremoniously brought to a close is tragic. Furthermore, the consequences of her death reverberate into the present, as Link is held accountable by many of the older Zora who commemorate it with bitter clarity. Whilst the nature of the game does obviously not lend itself well to any more flashbacks than necessary, more consistency in character development would have been beneficial.
The music isn’t instantaneously memorable on its own, but as a whole, it’s mellifluous and apt for evoking the solitude that Link is experiencing through its relatively quiet and sparse instrumentalisation. The most indelible tracks, tellingly, are the themes of the villages, towns and stables, that are primarily reworked versions of older tracks, and near impossible to get wrong due to their iconic status. I was especially pleased to hear the Dragon Roost Island theme once more in the form of the Rito village theme, remastered with a soothing guitar melody. It’s a minor disappointment that there aren’t a substantial number of unique tracks, particularly in the closest approximations the game has to boss battles, but ultimately it’s thematically consistent. However, of particular, memetic note is the trepidatious piano strains titled Guardian Battle, which is all but guaranteed to evoke instantaneous terror due to sounding whenever the minacious Guardians spy Link.
I could babble on. There’s imponderable paths, methods and means by which to experience Breath of the Wild, and despite my niggles, there’s manifold incentives to play it again, and again. In the years succeeding the release of Skyward Sword, I grew to disdain how hyped I allowed myself to get leading up until its launch, and whilst I have no regrets that I ever played it, I would not readily do so again. In contradistinction, Breath of the Wild offers a much more heterogeneous experience, and an infinitely more memorable, taxing, yet fun, one. I don’t think it’s quite the game for initiates to the series to get to terms with its lore or gameplay, nor its best title overall, but still, it’s a fitting valediction for the Wii U, and the perfect stimulus for the genesis of the Switch.
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