By the time I got my hands on a copy of Breath of the Wild, it had already largely been considered the favorite for game of the year and many were describing it as the best game ever made.  It is with those lofty expectations that I threw my critic cap on and began my journey into Hyrule.

  • TL;DR: A fresh entry in the Zelda franchise that sets the bar for open world gaming.
  • Platforms: Switch, Wii U (reviewed)
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Time Played: ~55 hours
  • What I Played: Completed 65 shrines, found 80 korok seeds, and finished all main story quests

BoTW has most of the elements of a Zelda game that fans of the franchise will expect – you play as Link who is the chosen time-traveling hero set to save Hyrule, and more specifically Zelda, from Ganon.  Along the way you will meet familiar races and go to familiar towns.  But it’s the changes that really make this game stand out.

 

Divine Beasts replace traditional temples

In most Zelda games, you have to complete a series of temples, all with different themes.  Ordinarily these are fairly lengthy ordeals that involve finding a map, compass, small keys, a boss key and typically a new weapon or item.  BoTW replaces these traditional temples with Divine Beasts, ancient machines built to combat Ganon before he managed to take control of them and use them against the people of Hyrule.

Each of the four Divine Beasts brings you to a city occupied by a different race.  You will have to navigate to the city, complete some mission to prove your worth, and then perform a quick, fun mission to approach the Divine Beast (typically involving moving at high speeds and firing arrows).  Once inside, the Beast forms a complex dungeon.  These are not your typically Zelda dungeons as they don’t contain any enemies to fight or keys to find.  Instead, you have to approach five different terminals in the Beast to unlock a boss fight with a different, weaker form of Ganon.

After you reach the first terminal, you get a 3D map of the Beast and the ability to move the beast in some way, usually by rotating it.  Moving the beast shifts the entire dungeon and creates very innovative puzzles to navigate.  Once you complete the dungeon and beat the boss, you will get a special ability that can help you throughout the game via offense, defense, health, or mobility, depending on the Beast.  Each defeated Beast will point itself towards the castle where Ganon is waiting, shooting a red beam in that direction (which is a very cool visual you can see from all over the map) that will help you in the eventual battle against Ganon.

This fresh take on temples is very creative and requires some critical thinking to get through.  Personally, I prefer the old school temples as they felt more fulfilling to complete but BoTW is so large and packed with things to do that the 30-45 minutes to beat a Divine Beast fits better into the world.  The boss fights were challenging but lacked the creativity that exist is traditional Zelda bosses or that BoTW shows off in so many other ways.

 

Shrines, Towers, and Koroks – Oh My!

BoTW is all about exploration and there are a number of rewards for doing so.  You start the game by getting access to a Sheikah Slate, which is basically a Hyrulian smartphone.  You have a map which starts out completely black and broken into 15 different areas.  In order to reveal the map, you have to find a large tower in each region, climb up to the top which sometimes it requires some puzzle solving, and scan your Slate.  This will load the area map which will show the names of hills, grasslands, rivers, mountains, etc. but does not show villages or stables unless you have already been there.

The other big things to find are shrines.  There are 120 shrines spread out across the world.  Finding and interfacing with these shrines creates a fast-travel spot.  You then descend into the shrine where a self-contained puzzle requires creative use of your abilities or physics to get through.  Beating a shrine gets you a spirit orb, four of which can be used to boost either the number of hearts you have or your stamina (which is required for climbing, swimming, running etc.).  Most of the shrines are great – I found myself thinking how clever the design is on multiple occasions.  There is a good mix in difficulty with some being easy to figure out on the first try and others taking a lot of trial and error or outside the box thinking.  My only complaint is that many of the shrines would require you to figure out a fun mechanic only to ask you to use it just once or twice to beat the shrine.  It would have been nice to get more out of these seemingly one-off cool ideas.

Koroks are small leaf-looking creatures that hide all across Hyrule.  There are 900(!) to find and each one gives you a Korok Seed.  You can trade these seeds in to expand the inventory slots for your weapons, shields, and bows.  There are a few different ways to find Koroks, the simplest being picking up small rocks and happening to find one just waiting there.  More complex Koroks require racing to points in the distance, hitting moving targets with your arrows, or solving small puzzles.  For those who want to explore every inch of the map, it’s nice that there’s some type of reward for doing so but I found Koroks to be completely underwhelming.  The seeds were useful so I’d grab them whenever I saw one but I never felt compelled to go out of my way to look for them.  Like most things in this game, you can ignore something you don’t want to do so it’s a small reward for those who care and a neutral addition for those who don’t.

 

Out with permanent weapons, in with durability

BoTW is the first Zelda game that removes the idea of acquiring new types of weapons that you can use permanently and introduces weapon durability.  The benefit of this is that you will use all different types of weapons along the way.  Early on, you will be grabbing tree branches, shovels, and pitch forks to fight enemies and while later on you’ll be getting elemental swords, giant sledge hammers, and wizard staves.  However, it also means that your weapons are constantly breaking and you will spend a lot of time in menus trying to juggle what you’re carrying.

Overall I found the new weapon system to be a positive for the game.  Scrounging for what you can find, like having to use a skeleton’s arm as a club, and looking for upgrades makes for a good challenge.  However, I found myself missing the excitement of opening a chest to get a hookshot or boomerang and knowing I could use it for the rest of the game.  Every weapon in BoTW is more or less a loaner.

What constants you have come in the form of abilities from your Slate.  There are two types of remote bombs (round and square), the ability to control metal objects as if you have force powers, an ability to freeze certain objects (and later enemies) in time, an ability to create giant ice blocks out of any water source, and a camera which can be used to create a personalized compendium of items and enemies.  All of the abilities have their place in certain shrines and within the world in general.  There are a lot of ways to get through combat in this game and these abilities really add to your options.

 

A truly open world

Once you complete a few tutorial shrines to learn how to use your abilities, you truly can go anywhere and do anything.  The game will tell you where the Divine Beats are and where Ganon’s castle is but what order you do complete the Beasts in, or if you even find them at all, is entirely up to you.  That’s right, you could go straight from the starting area to the castle and fight Ganon right off the bat.  Theoretically you could “beat” the game without completing any other quests.  This gives players a freedom that no other game really matches.  Due to the limited main quests and everything being framed as you needing to get stronger to defeat Ganon, there’s a rational in-game reason for you to wander Hyrule looking for anything to help you in your quest.

There are many other open-world elements that BoTW does quite well.  There’s a cooking system that’s easy to use with a ton of different recipes to learn for those wanting to spend the time.  Dynamic weather effects lead to beautiful rain storms, thunderstorms where you can’t equip any metal items, and intense heat and cold which require appropriate clothing or potions to survive in.  You can domesticate different horses, all with various stats, that you can name and summon at one of the many stables scattered around Hyrule.  Even after my 55 hours of playtime, I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface in what BoTW has to offer.

Amazing as the experience was, some aspects of BoTW weren’t ideal.  The incredible freedom to go about the world in any order you want means you can miss seeing certain people or places until nearly the end of the game.  For instance, if you don’t make a point of finding the character that lets you expand your inventory, you could easily spend dozens of hours with very limited storage.  It’s a bit too easy to wander into a higher level area too early with no chance of survival or into a lower level area later on when you can breeze through it.  This takes away from the overall experience.  I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that when it rains, you will slip when trying to climb, making it practically impossible to get higher than a few feet.  Points for realism but it rains a lot.  There were times I’d get halfway up a huge mountain and it would start raining, meaning my only real choice was to just put the controller down and wait it out.

 

Conclusion: This game is great

There are a handful of things in BoTW that I would have chosen to do differently but even those seem like well thought out and executed ideas.  Completionists that want to scour the map for secrets will be busy for hundreds of hours.  Most importantly, whether you are that type, want to just do the main story and move on, or land somewhere in between, BoTW lets you play your way and feels rewarding regardless of play style.  I am typically not someone who goes back into a game immediately after beating it but all I’ve been thinking about is what else is out there to discover and where I should go next.

I know this isn’t a groundbreaking statement, but BoTW is a true masterpiece.  I would really have to dig hard to come up with a reason it isn’t among the best games I have ever played.  Much like the game itself, I am already thinking of countless things I didn’t even get to in this review because the world of Hyrule is so jam packed.  I won’t forget my experiences there for a long, long time.

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