Also available on Wii U
Unless you've been making a point of avoiding any gaming-related news, you've undoubtedly heard that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has made quite a splash since its release on March 3. It's broken Metacritic's record for the most perfect scores, and its average Metacritic score is a 97 (for reference, the highest average rating for a game is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's 99). All of this is despite the fact that it's running on either sub-par or extremely outdated hardware in terms of graphical power (depending on if you're playing on Switch or Wii U, respectively). Does it live up to that hype, though? Does it really deserve its spot as - based on number of perfect scores from critics, at least - the greatest video game of all time? I offer here my as-objective-as-possible-for-a-long-time-Zelda-fan opinion.
Let us begin with a brief synopsis of the game's story. Being a Zelda game, the basic plot is obviously "Ganon has returned to conquer Hyrule, and it's up to Link to wield the Master Sword and save both Princess Zelda and the world." This game is the same...but at the same time very different. Link begins this journey awaking in a sarcophagus filled with a pool of some sort of ethereal water inside some manner of underground shrine. As he gets his bearings, he hears a voice, faint yet distinct. "Link..." the voice calls. "Link...." a bit louder. The disembodied voice beckons to Link, ushering him to a terminal in the corner that holds an ancient Shieka tablet - an obvious nod to the game's origins as a Wii U exclusive.
When you leave the Shrine of Resurrection, you find yourself in a clearing high atop a plateau overlooking the realm of Hyrule. For any player, the view and sheer vastness is breath-taking; for a veteran Zelda fans, it's downright emotional. Very quickly you realize that this is no ordinary entry in the Zelda series. This is the fulfillment of the promise made by Ocarina of Time - a vast Hyrule filled with unique fauna and flora, rich lore, and vibrant landscapes begging to be explored. You see what appears to be an old hermit and, with no other direction with regards of what to do next, you approach him and encounter the next drastic change to the Zelda formula - actual legitimate voice acting. There's no Bethesda level of voice acting here, though; Nintendo chose to use voice acting as one would use paprika. There's enough to accentuate the mood and add a feeling of life and vibrancy to the game, but there's never enough for it to take center stage.
Here, while still on the Great Plateau, you will encounter the only remotely "linear" thing about this game. Whereas other Zelda games have a distinct "this dungeon, then this dungeon, then this dungeon" direction to them, the closest you get to that in Breath of the Wild is the pseudo-tutorial at the start. After that, it's up to you if you want rush straight to Hyrule Castle and defeat Ganon with three hearts and a stick or choose to spend the next 50 to 100 hours exploring Hyrule, conquering shrines, earning heart upgrades, and building an arsenal of weapons to make Hannibal Barca tremble in fear. Even within the latter option, do you go from one Divine Beast to the next - the game's primary "dungeons" - and then straight to Ganon, or do you take your time, wander aimlessly, and let Hyrule take you wherever the pleases? That's what makes this so different from any other Zelda game - the freedom to do - or not do - whatever the hell you damn well please on your journey to seal Ganon and restore peace to Hyrule.
Do not, however, approach this game expecting Skyrim. This is no RPG. There's no experience, and defeating enemies earns you nothing save for the materials they drop. Completing quests rarely provides you with any substantial reward save a feeling of satisfaction, and the only crafting of any sort in this game is cooking. This is very much an adventure game, not a role playing game. The only way to "strengthen" Link is to equip him with better weapons, better armor, and trade Spirit Orbs for stamina upgrades or heart containers. This game is not about building a character and becoming a mighty warrior to make gods cower. This game is about exploration. This game is about immersion. This game is about experiencing Hyrule and the realization of our childhood fantasies about that magical land when all we had were 8 or 16-bit sprites. While games like Skyrim, Dragon Age, and Far Cry certainly include several of those things, they make up the core essence of what this game is.
Let's take a break from my abandonment of objectivity and look at some more quantifiable aspects of the game. Visually, Breath of Wild isn't Skyrim Remastered or Far Cry Primal. The hardware just can't support the kind of cutting edge graphics some people have come to expect. It does, however, look absolutely beautiful nonetheless. Yes, if you slam your face up against a rock, you'll see the lower quality textures. The game lacks the degree of anti-aliasing that open world games on stronger hardware feature. Enemies and environmental models don't appear until you're within a certain distance. These are undeniable, and if what you want is a photo realistic experience, then this game might not be for you. What it does do, however, is take Skyward Sword's blend of realism and cel shading and perfect it. There's a distinct cartoony hue to the world, but it's subtle, as if viewing the world through a cartoon filter. While not striving for the realism that Fallout and Elder Scrolls attempt, Breath of the Wild does capture an artistic beauty that - in my opinion - those games fail to achieve.
Truthfully, the only area about which I can really levy true complaints is performance. While I've only played on Switch, from what I understand, both the Wii U version and the Switch port suffer from occasional and at times severe frame rate drops. Almost never does this truly interrupt the game, but they are noticeable. Were I to hazard a guess, I would wager that these issues occur for different reasons on each system - the Wii U is being taxed to its limits, and the Switch is running a port of a game that was designed for a system with a totally different architecture running on an engine designed for a system with a totally different architecture. The important thing, however, is that while these performance drops are indeed irksome, they do not hinder gameplay in any real way, and I encountered no bugs of any kind outside of those occasional frame rate drops during my roughly 90 hour playthrough.
Another thing that long-time Zelda players will notice about this game that is extremely different from previous entries in the series is the relative lack of music. The Legend of Zelda has long been known for its outstanding music - among the best in the entire gaming industry. The worldwide tours of the Symphony of the Goddess can attest to that. Breath of the Wild certainly has music, but it's very light and subdued for the most part. Certain parts or battles have some nice fight music, but by and large, the sound design puts the focus on the ambient sounds of the world, not a musical score. At first, I found this disappointing, but the more I played the more I really got sucked into the open world of Hyrule, the more fitting it began to seem.
With regards to combat, the game leaves it very much up to you how you want to approach that. With the exception of one quest, stealth is never forced (and really, if you want to Rambo it, you can technically get through that dungeon without steal; it's hard af, but I managed it). If you sneak up behind an enemy unnoticed - aided by crouching and either wearing stealth armor or using a stealth elixir - you can perform a sneak strike, dealing massive damage and often instantly killing your foe. You could also choose to fight from range, learning your bow's arrow drop and raining death on your enemies from above. Headshots deal massive damage and stun, so that's an attractive option. If your targets are at the bottom of a cliff or ravine, you can stand at the top and just drop bombs on them. Since bombs are unlimited, that's an option I chose more than a couple times with particularly powerful and well-placed foes. You can, of course, choose my method of choice - run in screaming with a sword and massacre everything breathing.
While there aren't levels, per se, in Breath of the Wild, some enemies are DEFINITELY more powerful than others, and you'll quickly learn which enemies you can rush and which need either careful planning or to be avoided entirely. Some random field enemies will prove much more difficult than bosses - including, in one or two instances, Ganon itself. If you want to get your favorite armor set fully upgraded and take advantage of that set bonus, however, these enemies are going to need to be farmed for drops. Some also have certain weaknesses; some may be especially vulnerable to arrows aimed at a particular weak spot or a certain type of arrow like ice or fire. Learning what tactic and what weapons to employ against each enemy is critical for success.
Within the world of Hyrule, literally over a thousand secrets await you. There are 120 shrines hidden throughout the game, 900 Koroks hidden for you to find, and at least four secret or otherwise hidden mounts. There are hidden easter eggs, special items, and references to past games for those willing to put in the time and effort to seek them out. If you have amiibos or a friend with them, then there are whole sets of armor and weapons that are exclusive amiibo unlocks including Epona herself. This is a game that definitely encourage exploration and reward thoroughness.
Throughout the game, you will find memories of Link from 100 years in the past when he, Princess Zelda, and the other four Champions first did battle with Calamity Ganon before his near-fatal wounding and memory loss. These memories are fully voice acted cut scenes, and they enhance the story telling and character development in this game in a way that has never been seen before in The Legend of Zelda. Zelda herself has her character developed wonderfully and in such a way that will likely leave most players wanting to know more of this brilliant and anguished princess. It is my hope that this level of character development is the start of a new norm for the series as it truly elevates the experience to something that's always eluded the series in my opinion.
There is no such thing as a perfect game; even the most rigorously tested and painstakingly developed game will have SOMETHING that could be improved. The Legend of Zeda: Breath of the Wild is no different, especially with regards to the aforementioned frame rate drops. Despite that, however, it truly is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. This game is not a yearly cash grab for which Activision and Ubisoft are infamous, nor is it a wonderful but bug-ridden game as Bethesda is known for releasing. This is a true work of art with a visual style gorgeous but well away from the Uncanny Valley, a narrative that is beautifully written and characters purposefully developed, and a musical score that does only what it needs to do in order to underscore the mood and tone of the game. As with any product of human effort, there are flaws, but this game perfectly captures what Shigeru Miyamoto meant when he said "A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad." Breath of the Wild faced MANY delays, resulting in leaving the Wii U the dubious "honor" of being Nintendo's only home console (and only its second dedicated platform in general after the Virtual Boy) without an exclusive Legend of Zelda game, but now that the game finally has been released, it was well worth the four year wait and then some.
My Rating - 5 Neps
I'm Mr. Deck
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach history at a high school in central North Carolina; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.