Note: This article contains minor spoilers. It does not reveal story related elements or solutions to puzzles, but explains some of the game’s systems in detail.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been called the best Zelda game ever made. Harkening back to the original exploration ideas put forth in the classic NES Legend of Zelda, this game has come out comparable to familiar titles like Skyrim. While the last few entries in the Zelda series have felt formulaic and sometimes even derivative, this game is like nothing the series has ever seen before. Is it worth all the praise it gets? The game has a lot of depth to it, so let’s take a deep look at how it works and what to expect.
The game is all about exploration. There are a few major places to visit where the game’s plot can advance, and there are shrines scattered all across the land. Shrines are mini-dungeons which have a small series of puzzles inside, sometimes have valuable treasure to gather, and have a collectable at the end. The game will start by asking you to clear four shrines before turning you loose on the world.
A few things you’ll notice right away are some new mechanics the game relies on: a jump button and climbing. Traditionally when Link has run toward the edge of a platform he’s on, he would jump automatically and land on the next one if you were close enough to it. Now it’s on you to line up the jump and pull it off at the right moment. Link can also climb nearly any surface just by moving toward it, which gives you a LOT of freedom of movement.
The stamina meter makes a return from Skyward Sword, allowing Link to sprint when you need an extra boost and make more powerful attacks. This meter also controls how long you can spend climbing, swimming, or gliding (once you’re able to), meaning that you can’t simply brute force your way to any location and do indeed need to think through just how you’ll get where you want to go. This meter was a turn off for some players in Skyward Sword, though I personally enjoyed the bit of strategy and possibilities it added. But if you’re one of those who didn’t like it, worry not—the meter can be increased over time and there are a number of items you can gather to help you restore it when you need it.
One reasonable complaint is the positioning of the run and jump buttons: B and X respectively. If you want to get a running jump, you need to put your thumb on the B button and press the X button with your index finger (a hand position my friends call “the claw”). You can reverse these two buttons, but that doesn’t get rid of the problem. It’s not a terrible flaw since you’re likely not doing anything else while lining up a running jump, but it makes for the occasional awkward moment.
Most of the game’s systems and controls are left for the player to discover. When you try something for the first time, you’ll get a help prompt telling you what you did and how you did it that doesn’t stop the game or interrupt your flow. Sometimes these abilities are revealed during hint text that is shown during loading screens, so even just discovering what you’re able to do is part of the exploration in the adventure.
Some further mechanics (such as the ins and outs of combat) will be explained in more detail in their own sections below.
Once you finish the first four shrines, the game will give you directions on where you can go next, but it will also give you full freedom. You can follow the game’s instructions for a while and it will direct you to a few places, but eventually it will just give you some broad objectives and stop telling you where to go. Whether you follow this “main path” or not, the abilities you’re granted in the early part of the game are enough to go anywhere you please.
This is an obvious example of something the game does subtly throughout—it offers you a simple starting place, but doesn’t restrict you from greater challenges in the same area. As you explore, your eyes will naturally be drawn to shrines, roads, or other interesting landmarks in an area. You can mark them on your map if you wish to make sure you visit them later, or you can just jump right in and see them! Usually you’ll see something that’s easy to reach, like a shrine nearby, but you’ll also see an eye-catching place that would be tougher to get to, such as up a mountain.
This formula leads to a LOT of getting sidetracked. Even if you’re following the path you feel like you’re “supposed” to, you’re bound to see something interesting off to the side that you’ll want to look into more. If I put a quarter in a jar for every time I said “ooh, what’s that?”, I would easily be able to pay off the game’s expansion pass with that jar alone. This leads to you naturally exploring the world and filling out your map over time, and it leads to completely different paths and experiences for each player based on what you’re most curious about.
What really amazes me and shows that there was brilliant world design behind this game isn’t just that the overworld if full of interesting places, but it’s easy to get a mental picture about the world’s structure. Having the in-game map is extremely helpful of course (and no one should be expected to memorize every stone and path), but it’s easy to remember “this region is next to that region”, “this town is over in this region”, and “this interesting area is at the middle of that region”. It never takes me more than half a minute to find a place I’m looking for on the map since I have a good feel for where things are.
When the game gives you quests, it marks it on your map, but it almost always gives you directions based on landmarks when it does. The design of the world is interesting enough that you can always recognize directions based on things like “go down this road and past those mountains, then turn left and follow the road to town”. This also makes it possible to share your discoveries with other players by describing where you’ve been with similar landmarks. And yet no matter how many quests I gathered from different citizens at once, I never felt overwhelmed by them. If I wasn’t remembering to gather bundles of wood for one citizen, I would remember that I’m supposed to be looking for a horse of a different color or a secret treasure stash in an area. The differences these quests offer make it reasonable to juggle a bunch of them at once without feeling like you’re doing busy work.
The one bad thing I’ve experienced about the environment is weather. Don’t get me wrong, I like the random weather and using it to my advantage when I can and avoiding places or changing equipment based on what the weather is doing—all of that is fine. The problem is rain. When it’s raining, you can’t climb surfaces easily—sometimes not at all. Normally if you don’t like the current conditions, you can wait by a fire to pass time quickly, but rain puts out fires in a number of places. Because of this, I’ve been stuck waiting for several minutes for rain to stop because I can’t move forward where I’m trying to go because of rain.
The last thing worth mentioning about exploration is the “big dungeons” you would expect in any Zelda game. While there are a few places like that, they basically feel like very big shrines. It takes longer to solve them and takes more thought than a shrine to work through, but it breaks from the standard Zelda formula of giving you an item and basing the dungeon around that item. They made sure that the tools they give you before they let you leave the opening area is all you need. Mix that with the fact that exploration of the world is completely free, and there is no set order to visit these at all. In fact, you can skip them entirely if you choose! They do have some nice rewards for finishing them though, so it’s well worth your time if you do!
Mechanically speaking, combat is simplified in this game compared to the most recent entries. The number of tricks you can do as far as attacks you can make and blocking with your shield feels just right—not an overwhelming number of options, and not to the point where you feel underpowered. There are some very cool tricks you can do as well that involve slowing down time, which is always fun when you can pull it off.
The biggest point of controversy among players is the way weapons and shields break as you use them. If you’ve played a tactical Fire Emblem game, you’re likely familiar with this sort of system, except that Breath of the Wild doesn’t tell you a number of uses remaining (just when it’s about to break). At the start of the game, you only have access to weapons that are fragile and not very powerful. Seeing a lot of weapons break early on gets you used to this happening, but it can also be disheartening since breaking a weapon feels bad.
However, it’s also possible to throw a weapon at an enemy, which usually causes it to break on contact but deals double damage (with a nice visual effect). Throwing a weapon that’s about to break usually does feel pretty satisfying (fantastic even), so it becomes a balancing act of managing your weapons like resources. Do you use the strong weapon you have until it breaks or keep it for those battles when you need a bit of extra power?
There are also a few weapons which can be reused after they’ve been used up, whether that’s by restoring after a set amount of time has passed or getting them repaired afterward. When you put this together with the fact that weapons get stronger and more durable as you adventure and the fact that your inventory can be expanded to carry more weapons, it really does seem like the issue is its most severe at the beginning. My only real complaint is that the weapon I have which restores itself after enough time passes can’t be restored until you use it up first. If I know I’ve been over using it, I feel like I should be able to put it away and let it recharge rather than needing to use it up before it can recharge at all.
Aside from weapon management, breakable weapons adds one more interesting facet to combat: the battle not fought. Enemies you defeat drop their weapons and shields and some spoils you can grab. These can be nice to build up over time, but sometimes they aren’t worth it for a specific battle. This encourages you to find ways to sneak around enemies or sometimes even run away from them so you don’t need to spend your resources. The game gives you a lot of possibilities for approaching combat, and having breakable weapons encourages you to explore them. You might find a way to make a fight easier by sneak attacking sleeping enemies or stealing their weapons before they can pick them up.
Worth noting, Link is relatively fragile in this game (and his voice makes me think he’s the most gentle Link yet). Enemies can often deplete most or all of your health with one or two mighty swings. Big hits will also send you tumbling, and you won’t be able to move until Link slowly rises to his feet. This means that you either need to keep healing items in plentiful supply, or you need to be careful in how you approach combat to avoid getting clobbered. The one major issue I have with this is that if you are defeated, you always get the same help text during the next loading screen advising you to be careful. If I fail to sneak by an enemy and am ready to try again, I don’t need to be reminded that jumping headlong into enemies is a bad idea!
When enemies are defeated, they stay defeated until occasional moments when all enemies in the game are respawned. These moments will be obvious when you see them, and they’re spaced out enough that it gives you plenty of time to explore an area you’ve secured. This is a very reasonable way for respawns to be handled, and it’s only come back to bite me one time—I defeated a group of enemies, sat by their campfire to pass time, and they respawned around me when I was getting up to go again.
New to this game is its cooking mechanic. You pick out a handful of ingredients, throw them in a pot you find somewhere, and see what you get. The more or better quality ingredients you use, the better the resulting dish or elixir turns out.
At first I started writing down recipes as I discovered them so I could remember the best dishes I found. Before long, I stopped doing this. That’s because the cooking system is based on pretty simple logic. If you mix food items together, you’ll get a food dish that restores health and might add an extra effect. If you cook insects or lizards with monster parts earned in combat, you get an elixir which adds an extra effect and might restore health.
Any dish or elixir can only grant one effect, so mixing too many will cancel some of them out. The more effect-granting ingredients you use, the stronger the result’s effect will be. The better quality ingredients you use, the longer the effect lasts. Recipes aren’t recorded anywhere in the game, though you can see how you made a specific dish by choosing it in your inventory before you use it. This means one less thing to worry about if you’re trying to 100% this game (which for the sake of your sanity is not a good idea to begin with).
Knowing the game had cooking frightened me at first because experimenting with this kind of system isn’t my strong suit. Finding out that it’s as simple and easy as it is was a welcome discovery!
This one is just for long time fans of the series. The Zelda timeline doesn’t matter to me personally as I’d rather focus on each game’s story and quality individually, but it is fun to keep track of it. What surprised me is that I’ve seen references to previous games which are in separate timelines from each other. Some of my friends have also been surprised to see Ritos and Zoras at the same time because of the lore of where Ritos came from.
Because of some of the historic events we hear about in the game, it’s clear that any games taking place before this one are in this game’s distant past. DC Comics once had an event called Crisis on Infinite Earths where they took all of their timelines and combined them into a single one. Perhaps this game is Calamity on Infinite Hyrules or something. Makes as much sense as anything!
Switch Feature Integration
Even though this game was originally built for the Wii U, it’s been marketed more or less as the face of the Switch and is the main reason most early buyers picked up the console in the first place. Consider that the Switch is a console that can be played at home on a big screen or taken with you wherever you go. Consider also that when you’re at home, you might like to play for hours, but you may only be able to spare 15 minutes here and there while you’re out and about. On top of that, you may need to stop playing at any given moment when you’re in portable mode (such as arriving at your stop on a train or someone telling you they need your help).
This game fits this philosophy perfectly.
Figuring your way through a shrine tends to be a good 15 minute task—if you can’t figure out the shrine in 15 minutes, it probably stumped you and will have you coming back later instead. I’ve also found that when I know where I want to go next, it takes roughly 15 minutes to get there. The very day I got the Switch proved to me that this worked as I was playing in short bursts on the go. But if you’re able to play for a longer period, finishing one shrine or conversation or reaching a new location will just leave you wanting to continue anyway. Switch and play your way.
If you are defeated in combat, you get sent back to the last save that was made. However, the game auto-saves very frequently. If you get felled in battle, you’re likely to find yourself standing close to where it took place (complete with an X on your map of the most recent place you died). If you need to be pulled away from your game quickly, you can save any time or go back to an auto-save without much worry. These saves are also VERY detailed, and you’ll usually find yourself standing in the exact spot you saved at the exact time of day with enemies around you in the exact state you left them (a nice change from previous games dropping you in set locations when loading a save!).
Once you’ve finished the opening area, the game allows you to scan Amiibo for prizes in the game. This usually means receiving a bunch of random materials, and some Zelda related Amiibo offer specific prizes or chances at specific prizes. This functionality is not required by any means. Since you can use it to stock up on supplies or get a reasonable flow of gear with good power, I consider it to be a paid easy mode. It doesn’t hurt anything for people who won’t be using this function, and it’s a nice bonus for people who will.
The way this game handles terrain rendering is amazing—as a programmer myself, I’m still trying to figure out how they did it as well as they did. No matter how high of a location you reach and how far out you look, you always get an accurate look at the places you can see, even if they’re really far away. Just as we’ve been shown in all the game’s trailers, this makes for some absolutely beautiful imagery. The attention to detail given to the world’s terrain is impressive in its own right (which can be noted by the location of many of the optional collectibles). As vast as the world is, there’s always something interesting to see no matter where you happen to be standing.
While terrain rendering and content in the world is great, object rendering has the occasional issue. I’ve seen pop in of trees and enemies in obvious ways. I’ve even had the occasional problem of an enemy popping in either near me as I was looking over an area or in the area I was gliding toward when it was too late to change course. This isn’t game breaking, but some players may find it annoying.
All in all, the game looks like a good quality Wii U game (those who have seen the visuals in Mario Kart 8 will know what I mean). Considering it’s basically a port of a Wii U game, this is exciting because it means a game this good looking is only really showing off a fraction of the console’s capabilities. It’s hard to imagine this beautiful game looking dated someday, but that might be what we’re in for.
I don’t believe music was this game’s main focus at any point. Many areas of the overworld don’t have any music playing at all, and what music is there is almost entirely ambient. There are some exciting tracks that can play in battle and peaceful songs that play in towns, but I couldn’t hum any of those tunes if you asked me to. This is probably the one definitive thing previous games have up on this one. That said, the game does have remixes of a few tunes from other games which will give you a smile if you recognize them.
Also if I may say… Lightning striking around you during thunderstorms makes for some of the most terrifying lightning strikes I’ve ever seen in a game, and I love it!
Breath of the Wild is an exploration-based adventure. It’s best to go in with as little knowledge as you can manage, because the game is all about the joy of discovery. Different players will discover things in wildly different order, and the discoveries can be anything from new places to new gear to new tricks. There’s enough to keep you busy for hours and hours on end (as many early buyers are keenly aware). Once you’ve finished the game, you can keep exploring to find anything you missed or start again and go through in a different order or as quickly as you can.
The game has its share of frustrations, and it would be foolish to pretend they don’t exist at all. But some of these are intentional in crafting the experience they intended you to have. Other issues are minor nitpicks along the lines of little visual artifacts. In the end though, you’ll spend a lot more time enjoying the game than you will being frustrated by it.
It can be difficult to compare Breath of the Wild to other Zelda games because it’s so fundamentally different from the rest of the series. Even so, it has the highest volume of interesting content to date with the possible exception of side quests in Majora’s Mask. The game is brilliantly designed so you’re never left with nothing to do or completely out of ideas, but it still allows you to make all the discoveries on your own.
Breath of the Wild has the kind of effort put into it that deserves all of the excitement, praise, and play time it’s gotten. While I don’t feel like this game outright replaces the rest of the series (each game has something about it I like), as someone who has played them all I feel safe in making this statement: it is indeed the best Zelda game made to date.