Whew, two massive new RPGs coming out close together really become time consuming huh? As you can probably guess, a substantial portion of my time over the past months has been spent with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I actually finished Zelda a couple of weeks ago, but almost the next day went straight into Mass Effect: Andromeda (and a week in Birmingham) and I’ve struggled to find time that doesn’t immediately get swallowed by one of them to put some words together.
Originally slated for a release back in 2015, development stretched on longer than expected with the eventual release in March this year coinciding with the release of the Nintendo Switch. Thankfully, it was also released on the WiiU (in a move rather reminiscent of Twilight Princess’ dual launch on the Gamecube and Wii) meaning I didn’t have to spend hundreds on new hardware just to play Zelda.
The game opens with Link waking up in a mysterious chamber and finding a small tablet device which is quickly announced to be a Shiekah Slate – long time Zelda fans will likely recognise the name and the symbol on the Slate and elsewhere from the Shiekah clan who’ve appeared in a number of past games. This Link, it turns out, fought against Calamity Ganon (a silly name, and I’ll just be referring to him as Ganon from now on) a hundred years ago alongside Princess Zelda and lost. The Hylians had discovered an ancient mechanical army called the Guardians, which had fought against Ganon 10,000 years in the past alongside the mighty Divine Beasts Link was placed in the Shrine of Restoration to recover, while Zelda disappeared into Hyrule Castle to try and hold Ganon at bay and then their battle faded mostly into memory only to be known as the Calamity.
Link awakens to a changed Hyrule. Ganon still controls Hyrule Castle, which lurks on the horizon visible from most of the map and encased in a sickly slowing cloud of evil, and the ruins of the Guardians still litter the landscape in many places and there are even a number of them that are still functional. Classic Zelda monsters, such as Moblins and Lizalfos, are common with monsters having over-run much of Hyrule after the Calamity.
Without spoiling the plot, there are four major dungeons (though even these are quite slight compared to the epic dungeons of old) that all end with a boss battle. The remainder of the puzzles can be found in the Shiekah Shrines dotted around Hyrule, of which there are 120 in total. While some have a quest or some difficulty in getting into them the majority can simply be found by approaching them, with the Shiekah Slate notifying you when one is close. The shrines cover a number of different themes, from simply making your way through them to the exit, combat trials, and more complicated puzzles that test your skills, timing and use of the Shiekah Runes.
Breath of the Wild is quite an oddity when compared to other Zelda games, as so many of the series typical trappings have been stripped away. There’s little in the way of new gear to collect and use, aside from weapons but more on those in a moment, so there’s no more finding hookshots and hammers and the like to open new pathways. There are no heart pieces to collect, though you do add extra hearts to give Link more health as you progress. There’s little in the way of traditional dungeons, you can jump freely and climb up sheer cliffs and so on. You don’t even get a traditional Zelda title screen and choice of three save slots, and Link is explicitly named in text and dialogue, meaning you don’t get the choice to rename him when you create your save. And yet somehow it still feels enough like Zelda by keeping the most important parts and themes.
Most of the powers Link gets this time around are given basically right at the start. Before leaving the starting area, the Great Plateau (which may possibly be Hyrule Castle Town from Ocarina of Time) you go through a short quest chain the results in gaining most of the powers of the Shiekah Slate, called Runes. The Slate is able to create bombs, both round and square to stop them rolling away, freeze water to make platforms, magnetically move metal objects or to freeze movable objects in time – these frozen objects can then be hit and will react by moving relative to the force they’ve received while frozen once they’re released. The Slate can also take photos and, if activated, recognise compatible Amiibo figures.
The other main item Link gets given early on is the glider, which coupled with his climbing ability means you’re able to scale and move around tall structures fairly easily. Initially your range on doing this is limited as both actions use up stamina, but as you upgrade Link the distance you can travel this way increases substantially and there’s very little that can stop you exploring wherever you like. The amount of freedom this grants, compared to the rather restrained movement of past Zelda games, really changes the way it feels and plays more than anything else.
Weapons also play a huge role in exploring Hyrule. As with so many other elements of the game, the traditional progression from standard sword to Master Sword (with sometimes another one in the middle) is gone and instead Link must use whatever weapons he finds on his travels. These weapons have very limited durability, so you’ll often find yourself needing to replace anything you’re using after a couple of fights. This does get a little better later on in the game as the higher end weaponry you find will tend to have higher durability and, no real spoiler here since it’s on the cover of the game, you do eventually find the Master Sword which is indestructible – it does however hold limited energy and needs to recharge between fights.
Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is absolutely enormous. I’ve managed to put over 90 hours and still have plenty of things left to find and explore, with huge chunks of the world barely even touched. Most towns will feature a number of side quests, as well as potentially some shrine quests and in yet another element new to the series these are all tracked in a quest log like you’d expect to find in any other large RPG. Larger towns will also typically contain several shops and an inn, allowing you to rest until specific times of day and heal as well as purchasing items and clothing.
There are also a ridiculous number of collectables, in the form of Korok seeds. Returning from Wind Waker, there are over 900 Koroks hidden around Hyrule to find. While that’s far far too many for me to spend the time finding them all, collecting a number of them is definitely worth while as you can redeem the seeds to expand your inventory space.
As you’ve likely noticed from any screenshots and promotional images, this Link doesn’t dress like his predecessors with his signature outfit being a blue shirt. There are many other outfits available, with some hidden away as loot in Shrines and others simply available for purchase. Some are just cosmetic items, but there are others that take the place of the traditional swimming and fire resistance gear. Through the Amiibo support you can also get outfits from the various Links that there are figures for, and I’m rather partial to running around in the Twilight Princess outfit – if nothing else, because he’s the only Link Amiibo I have and the prices of them have skyrocketed.
Unlike Twilight Princess (which was famously flipped horizontally to make Link right handed and included motion controls for the Wii release) the two versions of the game are basically identical. In fact, a number of features such as using the WiiU gamepads’ screen for more direct control over the map and inventory have been removed altogether to ensure parity with the Switch release, with the gamepad screen now functioning simply as a button to toggle between displaying on it or the TV which is a little disappointing but I understand that Nintendo wouldn’t want the previous generation version of the game to have more features than the one that’s supposed to be selling Switch units.
The art style is, as you can see, absolutely gorgeous. Nintendo are known for experimenting with the look of Zelda games, from the very cartoony cel shaded style of Wind Waker to the lovely painted art in Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild somewhat combines these to create something special. The characters, weapons, monsters – everything just looks great and one of the best examples of the final work staying true to the concept art to the point that playing the game feels like those images have come to life. And it’s not just the characters, so much attention has been spent on the world itself that I’ve often found myself just wandering around looking at it. Individual blades of grass and leaves on trees all blow and sway in the wind, water ripples and flows..
Considering the size of the game world and the internal spec of the WiiU it’s very impressive that Breath of the Wild runs as well as it does. I was very worried, especially in light of the complete lack of reporting on it pre-release, that the WiiU version of the game would be drastically cut down or suffer terrible performance but neither of these came to pass. Running at 720p and around 30fps compared to the Switch running at 900p when docked, there’s otherwise very little difference. Both versions of the game are known to have moments of slowdown. The worst I saw was in a forest at night during a thunderstorm, and there was an awful lot going on and moving then, but it never became unplayable and didn’t happen all the time.
Zelda games almost always have great music, and Breath of the Wild is no exception. The soundtrack is of course all available (with dubious legality) on YouTube and it’s been in my rotation over the last week or so. There are some spoilers for the story in the track titles so I’d probably avoid if you’re currently playing or planning to play any time soon so as not to ruin anything but in my opinion it’s possibly the best score that a Zelda game has had. Many classic pieces from past games are revisited in new versions, while the heavy use of piano makes it all sound rather different to any Zelda before it.
One thing that really surprised me was the use of voice acting. Several of the cutscenes throughout the game are fully voiced, something that we’ve only seen in the non-canon Hyrule Warriors. The English voice acting is.. not the best with Zelda in particular sounding a bit stiff (and older than her intended 17 years, too) but some of the other characters are fine. Link, thankfully does not speak and remains mute as always throughout.
The controls are generally tight and well thought out, with one exception being that the jump and drop buttons felt like they were the wrong way round – clearly someone at Nintendo thought this too, as there’s an option to swap them over. Playing on the WiiU gamepad or Pro pad gives the exact same experience as the layouts are the same, and this is also true for the Switch version which uses the same control scheme. One problem though is found in a few Shrines when playing on the Pro pad, as you have to switch to the gamepad to use the motion controls which can be a bit of a pain if you’re sat on the sofa say and the pad is over by the TV. The Switch version for the record doesn’t have this problem, as it’s Pro controller has motion controls built in.
Breath of the Wild is no doubt going to be remembered fondly as a game changer in the Zelda series – while I definitely would like some more traditional Zelda games in future, this is definitely a shot of new that the series really needed. It’s an incredibly well thought out and passionately designed game and, while there are a couple of slight niggles mostly due to the hardware it runs on, these don’t really hold it back (plus, if Nintendo hold to their current pattern, no doubt a ‘HD’ remaster will come out a console or two from now) and it was an absolute joy from beginning to end.