Release Date: March 3, 2017Platform: Switch (reviewed), Wii UDeveloper: NintendoPublisher: NintendoGenre: Action-adventure
I’m a few hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I’ve cultivated a new hobby: stalking foxes. At one early point in the game, Link receives a camera – an item which comes in handy at specific points in the story, but also allows you to capture the wildlife and majestic views waiting just about everywhere you look.
Nintendo’s new Zelda is one of a surprisingly small number of games that feels as though you’ve been let loose in a living, breathing world. Creating a convincing sandbox game is a technical conjuring trick: using design and programming to make you believe, in the moment, that the landscape you’re exploring would still exist if you turned off your console.
Which is where those foxes come in. They’re a tiny part of a vastly bigger game, yet they’re one of many delicate details which have evidently been labored over at length. Like all the other animals in the game, Zelda’s foxes behave believably like real wild creatures: they sniff around, apparently hunting for food, and they’ll rush off with a yelp if they spot you getting too close.
In many respects, the creatures in Breath of the Wild are an evolution of the approach first embarked on in 1998’s Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64, where night turned into day and, at the time, the fields of Hyrule felt unfeasibly sprawling. The new Zelda – both the Wii U’s swansong and the Switch’s big debut game – goes a step further, creating a world where Link’s deeply vulnerable to intense heat and cold, and where hunting, crafting, and cooking are now vital parts of the mix.
As Link wakes up in an eerie chamber and makes his way out onto a lush plateau, there’s the sense that Nintendo isn’t just looking back at its own Zelda lineage with Breath of the Wild – though it contains all kinds of familiar sights and sounds for long-time fans – but also at what other RPGs and action-adventures have been doing. The hazy landscapes, dotted with unpredictable monsters and wild animals, contains echoes of a western game like Skyrim. But there’s also a lonely, desolate atmosphere that’s distinctly Japanese – a melancholy flavor akin to Fumito Ueda’s arthouse action game Shadow of the Colossus, or a Hayao Miyazaki anime like Princess Mononoke or Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
That latter film may have been the inspiration behind Breath of the Wild’s backstory, which (and no spoilers) takes in an ancient race who’ve left behind a kind of technology that’s part science and part magic. Within minutes of waking up, Link winds up with a device called a Sheikah Slate – an in-game analog of the Switch’s core touchscreen tablet. In the context of Link’s adventure, the tablet functions as a key which can provide access to locked areas and a personal organizer, containing maps and an inventory.
The techno-fantasy angle builds the further you get into the game, with Hyrule dotted with the remains of octopoid robots which fire deadly laser beams, and a plot which requires the resurrection of four huge, dormant machines in order to defeat the evil Calamity Ganon. Exploring and solving the mysteries of those machines – called the Divine Beasts – form the most intense parts of the game, roughly analogous to the temples in earlier Zelda entries.
Far more time is spent traversing Breath of the Wild’s rugged landscape, which is by turns inviting and dangerous. Attempt to travel into a mountainous region without preparation, and Link will freeze to death. Swimming or climbing will start the rapid depletion of a stamina gauge; once it’s drained, Link will likely take a deadly fall or simply drown. Even Link’s trusty sword and shield – which provided a sense of victory when they were acquired in earlier games – can’t be relied on entirely here. Weapons and shields will degrade with use, and if you don’t have a back-up sword or spear when the blade you’re holding shatters, a swift death from all but the weakest enemies will probably follow.
That Breath of the Wild regularly auto saves, and also allows you to load and save at any point, means that death doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of progress – there’s little of the punishment you’ll find in, say, Demon’s Souls – but the regularity of Link’s deaths certainly establishes the game’s harsher, more uncompromising tone. Breath of the Wild presents a world that is entirely indifferent to your existence; wander into a forest teeming with heavily-armed monsters without the correct equipment, and you only have yourself to blame if you’re unceremoniously cut down.
Then again, Breath of the Wild isn’t about relentless action and swordplay, either. While there are camps of vicious creatures all over Hyrule, the game doesn’t force you to engage them. The benefits of wading in are clear – you can steal the food roasting on their camp fire, plus any other weapons and useful trinkets they have lying around – but you can also tiptoe your way around dangerous areas if you’re poorly armed or simply not in the mood for a fight.
Similarly, the way points on your main quest, as well as optional side missions, are dished out by non-player characters, most of them found in and around towns and villages, but the game doesn’t force you down one specific path. As ever, these towns and villages contain shops where Link can buy more weapons, ingredients and armor – albeit for a price. Indeed, what’s notable about Breath of the Wild is how scarce everything is. Remember how rupees (the game’s currency), hearts, and arrows were seemingly everywhere in previous Zelda entries? That’s no longer quite the case here.
Sure, you’ll find things like mushrooms, apples, and herbs all over the place – which can be eaten raw or, for extra energy, cooked up in different combinations to create more nutritious and useful meals – but everything else? You’ll have to work for it. Weapons have to be scavenged, purchased, or snatched from a fallen enemy. In more desolate areas, you’ll have to rely on eating the supplies already in your inventory for extra energy, or hunt wild animals for their meat. Even acquiring a trusty horse takes patience and effort in Breath of the Wild – but when you finally befriend one, the rush of speed and rare sense of companionship makes for a worthwhile reward.
Link’s odds of survival are gradually evened up by entering shrines – which are kind of mini-dungeons dotted across the map. Some will contain tricky one-room puzzles to solve; others will simply challenge you to fight the denizens within. Successfully completing the shrine’s task will result in a soul drop or a new skill being added to your tablet. Soul drops can be exchanged for extra health and stamina by praying to statues you’ll find elsewhere in the game. The skills, on the other hand, range from those tried-and-trusted bombs to more other-wordly powers, such as a Half-Life 2-like magnetism ability which allows you to manipulate or move metal objects – extremely useful for, say, dredging sunken treasure chests from the bottom of a lake.
These powers shine a light on the mixture of old and new Zelda in Breath of the Wild. The bomb skill and other trinkets dished out by the game – such as a special armor, which allows you to swim against the current of a waterfall – are very much classic Zelda, in that they act like keys to otherwise inaccessible areas. You need the bombs to blow up barriers, for example, while the armor allows you to take a step closer to one of those Divine Beasts.
The abilities like magnetism, freezing, and stopping time are all very much new Zelda. Breath of the Wild’s detailed physics engine means you’re free to solve puzzles in ways the game’s creators might not have intended; a deathly cold river could be crossed by creating blocks of ice as a stepping stone, say, or you could use your magnet ability to create a bridge from scrap metal.
All of this gives Breath of the Wild a less rigid, structured feel than previous Zelda games. Even as non-player characters are coaxing you through the main campaign with missions and waypoints on your map, the overwhelming sense is of a game that is far more organic than mechanical. Even the most intricately designed areas, full of puzzles, switches, and hazards, have a less hemmed-in feel than the dungeons of old.
In most respects, this is fantastic – it really feels as though you’re discovering these ancient, abandoned places for the first time. When you figure out the solution to a tricky environmental puzzle, it brings with it a thrill of satisfaction, underlined by a familiar jingly sound effect. There are rare occasions, however, where the lack of hand-holding leads to a bit of aimless fumbling about in search of a switch or button; a sometimes frustrating situation, if you’ve already spent hours fighting your way into a heavily-defended or hard-to-reach area. (Post-release, the wealth of Breath of the Wild player guides will likely be your salvation here.)
This is only a small gripe in an otherwise sparkling entry in the Zelda franchise – dare we say it, perhaps the most satisfying and bold since Ocarina of Time almost 20 years ago. While it doesn’t revolutionize gaming in quite the same way that 90s classic did – its lock-on combat mechanic was copied in dozens of games afterwards, and appears again here – it’s nevertheless difficult to fault either as an action-adventure or a showcase for the Nintendo Switch’s hardware.
Playing Breath of the Wild on the largest TV in your house allows you to appreciate all those spectacular vistas, yet it’s as a handheld title that the game really impresses. On the Switch’s crystal-clear screen, Breath of the Wild is perhaps the most beautiful portable game ever made; it’s difficult to think of another handheld title, even on something as powerful as the PlayStation Vita, where the landscape feels so wide and so palpably alive. At one point, as I crossed a tall hill looking down on a camp teeming with goblins, I watched something weird happen: a mountain goat, which had fled from my approach a few seconds eariler, rushed through the goblins’ enclave of look-out towers and campfires. The goblins, spotting something they could roast for their dinner, all leapt up and rushed off after the goat.
It’s an example of how real the world of Breath of the Wild feels in the moment. It’s a game that invites you to be observant, to take your time and figure out all the possibilities of the world around you.
There’s an element of delayed gratification inherent in Breath of the Wild’s design; getting to those mythical beasts requires you to cross miles of hostile territory. The scarcity of weapons and other resources means that every fight has to be chosen carefully, every major encounter planned and saved for in advance. Far from making for a frustrating or patience-trying game, this element makes each victory, each step of progress feel all the sweeter.
Above all, Breath of the Wild feels at once natural and beautifully crafted. Everything, from the mist descending on ice-cold mountains to the ancient, abandoned machinery, down to the foxes that roam the lonely hillsides, seem full of energy and life. For this writer, Breath of the Wild is one of the very finest Zelda games ever made.