THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD Review
This is one of those increasingly rare moments where everything everyone has told you is true. All of it. From the most mundane to the most ridiculous, if it seems possible, it happened or can happen. That’s the power of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD.
BREATH OF THE WILD is a story machine. The moment-to-moment exploration of its open world is decorated with bits and pieces of procedurally generated adventure. Systems-based interactions combine and layer to create unique combat and exploration. Little bursts of personal narratives are fantastic in short playtimes and even better for extended periods. It’s an amazing, emergent sandbox, made even more impressive considering what the Zelda series has been in the past. Linear, contained, and hand-holdy are all descriptors of what a traditional Zelda game is, and to see those cast aside is to see the level of research and study the team at Nintendo has put into this game. In many ways, BREATH OF THE WILD feels like the product of a lot of thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of an open world, thinking that is delivered on, nearly flawlessly. It’s this execution that makes seeing how everything interacts that much more enjoyable. It’s an integral part in making Hyrule feel like a living, breathing place, with its own physics, chemistry, and history.
Stuff HAPPENS in this game y’all
And what a history. Like its predecessor, BREATH OF THE WILD is concerned with the past. What happened, what it meant, and how it affects the world today. Like many modern open world games (and at least one other Zelda), BREATH OF THE WILD takes place in a post-apocalypse, this time brought about by Calamity Ganon, some kind of ancient version of the series’s traditional antagonist. By exploiting an over-reliance on drone warfare (seriously) and an abuse of nature, Ganon overtakes the drone-like Guardians invented by the Sheikah, “kills” Link, and traps Zelda in an endless battle to contain him. If this sounds like your new favorite anime, that’s because it is. They’ve ratcheted up the anime quotient in BREATH OF THE WILD, and it’s completely welcome. Seeing a Zelda story be both more melodramatic, but also not take itself nearly as seriously, is a nice change of pace, and it proves to be a boon for the entire gaming experience. What’s perhaps most familiar, on the other hand, is the experience itself.
All post-9/11 interpretations of what the Guardians actually mean are welcome!
It is not in anyway a discredit to BREATH OF THE WILD to say that it is a Frankenstein’s Monster of other games and game systems. It borrows the towers, bases, and camps from the FAR CRY series, the survival focused mechanics of games like RUST or MINECRAFT, and a physics and chemistry system that feels entirely its own. It combines these, emphasizing some more so than others and creating unique interactions between them (cooking food in BREATH OF THE WILD works exactly how you’d think, even when it’s weather doing the job). It feels perfectly tuned to encourage discovery, but also creative solutions to problems that are often far more difficult than Link may initially be able to handle. This is not an easy Zelda game. You lose often in combat and even in the environment itself, falling off a cliff, drowning in water, freezing to death, and even getting struck by lightning. The world is hostile in a way that fits its post-apocalyptic status, but also forces different paths.
These different paths often lead to dead ends. It’s particularly easy to get lost or distracted in BREATH OF THE WILD; the world map is actually empty until you climb a tower, look out over the distance, and mark areas of interest for yourself, but beyond that there’s always something interesting over the next hill, making it very easy to wander away from a quest and into a stable, shrine, or combat encounter. The world is full of things to do, people to see, and mysterious things to uncover, and yet it still manages to be even bigger than that, offering plenty of opportunity to enjoy open spaces, views, and meditative campfires.
You’ll spend a lot of this game watching Link look at pots!
And with all of this, the minor complaints truly do feel minor. Inventory management can be annoying, especially when the easiest way to remove a weapon is often to literally throw it away. Similarly the cooking system, while fun, can be tedious, often interrupting the pace of what is generally a game with good, if not great, flow. But those are both distractions from what is a beautiful, complex knot of a game.
It’s all a lot, and if this seems scattershot, it’s because it’s difficult to put a pin on just one good feature of BREATH OF THE WILD. Everything is entangled with everything else, interconnected and dependent on a variety of inputs and outputs. It’s overwhelming to think about, let alone imagine making, but in playing, it feels like a welcoming call. The game beckons from a distance, asking for just one more shrine to be finished, one more forest to be explored, one more tower to be climbed. It’s alluring and addictive, and even though I’m nowhere close to completing the main story (and imagine I’ll have many more thoughts on it in the future) or fully exploring the vast world, I can confidently recommend BREATH OF THE WILD simply because there has never been a moment since I’ve started playing it when I haven’t thought about it. What could be hiding in the world, what memories Link could recover next, how I might kill the next group of bokoblins. To me, that seems like more than enough.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch, also available on Wii U