Breath of the Wild takes a slightly different approach in terms of story than its long line of predecessors. For those familiar with the series, you will be used to the first hour usually being spent by having a backstory fed to you while you learn the basics, filling in why you are embarking on an adventure to save the world. In BOTW however, Link, the hero of the franchise, wakes up in a strange cave with no memories of who he is and why he is there. The story from then on is filled in by other characters and lore provided as you progress through the game, this provides a refreshing take on just reading pages and pages of text to create a narrative. The story itself follows the usual pattern of a huge world ending entity awakening with a hero and a princess attempting to thwart its efforts. Another twist however is that the battle to save the world has already happened 100 years ago, and the heroes lost. Link was mortally wounded and put in a kind of stasis for 100 years and is back to finish the job. This allows the story to be told by characters that were there for the first battle, or those that have had the events passed down to them from relatives, helping the game feel somehow deeper than previous titles.
The only way I can describe the graphics of Breath of the Wild is by mimicking the action I took upon starting it; it’s jaw dropping. I can’t speak for the Wii u version but the switch version is absolutely stunning. The cel shaded style does well to give the aesthetics charm without making them feel cartoony and the overall scenery is beautiful. The map truly feels alive and wherever you look, there is something to marvel at. The grass across the meadows blows in the wind, changing direction as the gusts curl across the landscape. Animals graze in the forests and birds fly overhead while crickets jump through the grass as you run past. The lighting is perfection and the days seamlessly blend from night to day with each area having enough difference to alleviate boredom. Head across the grassy plains to Zora’s Domain to see the local plant life evolve to brightly coloured coral to mirror an aquarium or head towards the Mountain peaks to see your footprints left in the snow that covers everything. This game is truly a thing of beauty with a level of detail I am yet to see bested in any other title.
Breath of the Wild achieves a remarkable feat with the gameplay, managing to keep things familiar for veteran players such as myself, whilst managing to appear fresh to those new to the title. The game is completely open compared to the fairly linear gameplay of previous versions and its main focus appears to be on exploration. Most Zelda games follow a tried and tested formula that is near identical for most titles. You start off in a small-ish area and must complete 3 dungeons and obtain some kind of trinket before being let loose on the world to then complete another 7 trials for a different set of trinkets before facing the final boss. I’m not saying all Zelda titles are identical but they usually follow this pattern, which is by no means a bad thing, but it is predictable. BOTW starts similarly, with link meeting a mysterious stranger and having to complete 4 trials an area called “the plateau” before being given a paraglider to reach the rest of the map. I was dubious at first, thinking that the same pattern was to be followed but I was completely wrong. The plateau itself is huge allowing for exploration by any means and the shrines can be faced in any order. Once the shrines are complete and Link has a set of skills to use, the map opens up into a massive world which you are free to tackle at your leisure. Objectives are given as a guideline but the beauty of BOTW is being able to basically do as you please. Much of the fun is seeing something in the distance or an unusual looking enemy and just saying “I wonder what that is?”
Among the main story are a series of side quests given by NPCs by having a discussion with them which range from short and simple to epic. There is also an overarching quest similar to the gold Skulltulas on Ocarina of Time in which you find seeds from the mischievous Korok children. These can range from shooting a sign over a town, completing a circle of stones with one missing, diving into water through a ring of lilies and all manner of other requirements. In my time with the game so far, these are the most fun to find as there are no indications that the mischievous leaf creatures are hiding, so It falls completely down to the player experimenting in order to find them.
Breath of the Wild takes a slightly different approach to combat moving more in the direction of traditional action RPG’s that previous Zelda titles. Rather than having standard clothing and a small array of weapons, BOTW uses a destructible weapon system which is completely new and adds an extra layer of depth to the combat. A range of weapons, shields and bows are available to scavenge or to take from enemies and each has its own stats. The weapons and equipment don’t last long however and will break after repeated use meaning it is down to the player to pick the correct weapon for the job. Using your most powerful weapon as soon as you get it will make the game easier for a little while, but may mean you reach an unexpected boss with nothing but a pot lid and a tree branch at your disposal. The base combat is familiar, with the shoulder button locking on allowing link to strafe around the enemy, jumping away from attacks and attacking when an opening arises.
The thought that has gone into the mechanics of Breath of the Wild is also staggering, everything seems to have been accounted for and this is where the game shines. Elemental enemies must be killed in a certain way, use a metal weapon against electric, you’ll get shocked; use a wooden weapon against fire and it will burn. This makes it essential to plan each situation and make sure you are using the correct tools for the job at hand. This is also true of the weather which is ever changing and must also be taken into consideration. If you are running around with metal weaponry in a thunder storm, you will get struck by lightning (which I discovered the hard way) and don’t even think of climbing rocks in the rain or you will slip straight back down again. This can work in your favour however such as if you are carrying a shield in a snowy or downhill environment, link can hop on and ride it like a snowboard.
I think the biggest surprise for myself with Breath of the Wild is the difficulty level. I died. A lot. This is partly due to errors on my part but mainly due to the incredibly intelligent AI. Enemies will learn your patterns and bosses even change tactic depending on how you fight. While fighting a large Cyclops called a Hinox, it was obvious that the eye is a weak point so I obviously fired upon it with gusto. After the first hit, I tried to aim for the eye again and the Hinox used his hand to shield itself. A similar situation arose when I tricked a Boboklin into running into a bomb; the first time went swimmingly but when I tried again, it kicked the bomb at me causing me to fall for my own trap! This forces the player to vary attacks and try and outwit the AI which I found to be the most enjoyable part of combat.
Also gone are Link’s trademark tunics, at least in the form that they have appeared before. Link can now earn or buy a range of outfits, each with different defence stats which will change the look of the pointy-eared hero. This makes for an interesting mechanic although it has felt a little odd playing a Zelda title while running around in full metal knights armour (as it was the strongest I had at the time). As well as clothing keeping Link safe from monsters, it is also essential when shielding him from the elements. Enter an area that is too cold and link will start shivering, fail to put on appropriate clothing and Link will start to take damage. This is a refreshing take on the Green/Red/Blue tunic system of past titles. As well as relying on clothing, link is also able to use food and monster materials found in the wilderness to create elixirs and cook meals to restore health. The array of items available is staggering and in my time with the game, I am still finding things that I have not picked up before. This is a massive overhaul to the system of simply drinking coloured potions to restore hearts although it can be a little time consuming at times, especially after a particularly difficult section that caused you to eat most of the supplies!
The version of Breath of the Wild I played was on the switch and the new joy-con controller worked perfectly. The sticks control Link and the camera as with any other similar title and the shoulder buttons are used for aiming, throwing and using abilities. The right had set of buttons are used for combat which feels comfortable and the second set of buttons on the left are used to switch between weapons on the fly during battle or when a weapon breaks. Perhaps the biggest change is that THERE IS A JUMP BUTTON! This may not mean a lot to those new to the franchise but to veterans, this is a massive deal. In the past, Link would auto-jump when he reached the edge of a platform but there is now a dedicated button. This may be seen as a travesty to old-school players as the controls are what made Zelda games stand out, however, Breath of the Wild would just not work without it. The stamina system from Skyward Sword is back but this time, link can climb almost anything. The jump button is essential in this scenario as not having it would mean Link would not know whether to climb or jump when reaching an edge. I was apprehensive at first but it really works and feels natural in play.
There is no avoiding the fact that Breath of the Wild has been massively hyped in its long development which as recent games have taught us, usually results in disappointment for some. I myself as a dedicated Zelda fan for over 20 years was as worried as anyone that BOTW could not possibly live up to the hype that surrounded it, but it not only meets it, it surpasses it. BOTW is the closest thing I have ever played to being perfect game. The story has depth and intrigue, the characters have life, the graphics are beautiful, the combat is fun and the whole package breathes life into the Zelda franchise. I have been playing solidly since launch and still don’t feel like I have scratched the surface of this amazing world and every session gives me something new to marvel at or some minor detail that makes me smile.
If gaming is your thing, you must play this game, it truly is a masterpiece.