The end of a good story is bittersweet. The spirit of the affair is to get to the end, but at the same time you don’t want the ride to end. You want the experience to keep unfolding, you want to know more about the characters, and no matter how developed the world…you want more. The end means it is all left to your imagination; prediction without payoff, eternal speculation (unless a sequel arrives, and that’s a whole other wheelhouse). So it is with a full heart of imagination that I must say that I have beaten The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
As a dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong fan of the Zelda franchise, I must say this is probably the best game to date. As a video game enthusiast for all my days, I daresay this was one of the best, if not the best, game I’ve ever played (yeah, I said it). These words of praise are not rooted in novelty and I promise you nobody has paid me to say these things (especially not two months after launch). They come from appreciation for thoughtful attention to detail, immense and immersive world building, beautiful design, and most importantly smooth and meaningful controls with fair and gradually increasing challenging gameplay.
There is perhaps a more sentimental reason I’ve enjoyed this game so much, on top of all the true well reproduced praise I’ve piled upon it: this is the first new Legend of Zelda game I’ve experienced through my children’s eyes. My son and my daughter are both hopelessly obsessed with the game. They wake up early in the morning to watch YouTube playthroughs and guides; they draw pictures of Link fighting moblins and lynels; they discuss ad infinitum the lore, locales, and characters they’ve picked up in game play. It has opened them up to a world of high fantasy they had previously touched upon with King Arthur and Robin Hood, but are now immersed in.
They had played Legend of Zelda on the NES, and A Link to the Past on the SNES, and Ocarina of Time on the N64 (yes we have these in the house ready to run at a whim), but the open world feel and well-crafted narrative—complete with voice acting—has them hooked. My 7-and-5-year-olds will now have conversations with you comparing Ents, Groot, and the Great Deku Tree in great detail. Why, at the moment of this writing they are in the yard with giant foam Master Swords and Hylian shields knocking down The Grimace (a statue on my lawn who is playing the role of a Hinox). My nerd heart swells.
While thoughtful self-reflection forces me to check my perspective on the matter as a delighted daddy of destined dungeonmasters, it is the merits of the game that drew them in and not the appeal it has for my children (both of whom I expect will be working on their first playthroughs well into the summer). The game designers goals of breaking the expectations of the series while maintaining the franchise succeeded beyond expectations. It was well worth the 4-year wait.
The completely open world–well, completely open after the first hour of game play or so. In that first hour you’ll get armed with all the essential skills and tools you’ll need to complete the game; your weapons, armor, and stats will get better as you find them but essentially you’re good to go once you leave “The Great Plateau”. The gameplay is non-linear. If one really wanted, they could attempt to defeat the final boss as soon as they get out into the seemingly endless land of Hyrule. Spoiler Alert: DON’T DO THAT. Not only is it basically impossible to win that way, but you’d be missing out on the world–an actual world of places, races, faces, spaces, and characters that are too good to rush past. The characters in the game both one-offs and reoccurring are memorable, entertaining, and contribute to the story. The Main Quests and Side Quests are challenging but not infuriating.
There are seemingly endless crags and valleys to overcome in the vast map which is at first overwhelming and quickly familiar. The places are all named after familiar characters and places from the previous titles and the regions are all distinct, yet flow into each other naturally. They are populated by diverse races with cultures, defining features, powers, and personalities (and noticeably there are ethnicities within some of them including the Hylians like Link).
This large and open world gives you nothing for free, though. Every bit of clothing, every sword, every arrow, and every heart or potion is hard earned. You start basically naked and unarmed, then work your way up to increasingly specialized armaments and garb. Be mindful of what you equip however, depending on the weather and the climate you may be asking for trouble. For example, wearing metal armor or carrying metal weapons in a thunderstorm will provide some shocking results as lightning is drawn to you.
This is another part of breaking the conventions of the game. The franchise has gone from “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this” to “It’s dangerous to go alone, good luck”. This change adds a whole new dimension to the game play…the answer is never “use the hookshot”. First of all, there is no hookshot and second of all, there is no right weapon. Weapons break often and while you might have a great cache of swords and bows in one moment, one particularly hard and poorly strategized fight could find you empty handed. Even the Master Sword and other weapons that are key to the story are replaceable and get damaged.
This brings us to the survival elements of the game—crafting, hunting, and cooking. Armor can be upgraded throughout the game using parts of monsters, rocks, and plants you’ve found on your quest. To boost your stats or get your health back up you need to forage and hunt animals. The success of your hunt and gathering leads you to cook if there’s a fire and a cooking bowl available.There’s a lot of fun in experimenting with different spices, meats, and monster parts to see what kind of useful (or not) foods and potions you can cook up. This is not only the primary way to raise your health, cooking is also the best way to make money to buy new armor and weapons. There’s also a real economy in this game and you’ll have to trade with people in the paths, in the villages, and in the horse stables if you’re going to make your way through this world (and you’ll need to catch a reliable horse and break him in too).
Finally, it must be said that there are no traditional dungeons in this game. There are 4 dungeons that must be completed (at least as much anything “must” be done in this game) which are shorter than the traditional dungeon and are actually just a single complicated puzzle with a boss fight. These are the Divine Beasts, and I’ll say no more about them other than they are tied to the regions and races in those regions in order to remain spoiler free.
There are also 150 shrines hidden in the world. Shrines are smaller puzzles or combat trials that are hidden throughout the world. Completing a shrine gets you a spirit orb and 4 spirit orbs allows you to pray to the goddess and receive either one new heart or extend your stamina for running, climbing, or gliding.
There is so much to be said about this game that it cannot truly be done justice in this little reflection. Watch some YouTube videos, check out some of the larger guides and reviews and decide for yourself. If you take it from me, the game is a perfect launch title for the new Nintendo Switch (a system which is also really cool on its own merits and deserves a review separate and apart from this one), and worth the start up cost. So much is added to and drawn from the lore of The Legend of Zelda in this game that it can’t really be summed up without just experiencing it for yourself.
In short, it’s a hell of an adventure for old and new gamers alike. The controls are simple enough for a 5-year-old to learn and the gameplay challenging enough to engage an adult gamer. The world is consistent and engaging and the story breathes fresh and authentic life into a franchise 30 years old. I’d have to spend en entire other post talking about how amazing the music and sound effects are for the world building in this game (I didn’t discuss it here purposely).
It is dangerous to go alone, but with the end nigh you have no choice but to save the Princess and restore order to the Kingdom of Hyrule once again.
For more perspectives on this game, check out my friends over at the 4025 Cast for their take. Be warned though, their review has spoilers.