This has proven to be one of the harder reviews I've written, because Breath of the Wild is a huge cultural milestone, an epic buffet of the best that video gaming has to offer, and my new all-time favorite game ever. I knew that any review worth writing or reading would have to encompass an awful lot. So here we go.
For starters, Breath of the Wild's mission statement was to rethink most of the standard Zelda conventions, and to bring different elements of the series into a more modern era. Part of the way it does this is by borrowing (arguably shamelessly) quite a few elements from other critically acclaimed games, and tweaking them to dovetail with the already-masterclass Legend of Zelda formula. Some examples:
• First and foremost, the game is now completely open-world. Whereas previous Zeldas gave the illusion of an open world while actually being cordoned off into discrete areas, BOTW takes the concept of "anywhere you can see, you can get to" (which was, arguably, invented by Rockstar with its Grand Theft Auto series) and pushes it considerably farther than most other games have dared. You see a giant mountain in the distance that looks like it might have some secrets hidden at its peak? Go for it. You see some unnamed ruins on your map that look like they might still hold supplies or treasure? Nothing stopping you from checking it out. It's a concept that sounds simple in theory, but this game executes it better than almost all games that have come before it.
• Link now has a "paraglider" item, which lets him glide down from any high point so long as he has the stamina to hold onto it. This mechanic was almost certainly lifted from the Batman: Arkham game series, another open-world game where players can use Batman's cape to glide down from any perch or rooftop. In both games, this is useful both as a method of traveling quickly and as a way to surprise a group of enemies and attack them before they know what hit them.
• In this game, there are 120 "shrines" to find – individual puzzle rooms that both add to your list of fast-travel points, and contain treasure and orbs to increase Link's health or stamina. Each of these individual rooms is comparable to a room in the Portal series, right down to the orange-and-blue aesthetic. And like in Portal, each room is a bite-sized (or larger) puzzle or combat situations that is solved with the tools Link has on hand throughout the game, whether that's creating blocks of ice out of water, bombs to blow up obstacles, the ability to freeze an item in time and impart kinetic energy on it, or the ability to manipulate metal objects via magnetism.
• For the first time in the Zelda series, Link does not collect hearts to restore his life meter. Instead, he has to hunt, harvest, or purchase food items (of which there are countless dozens) that can then be cooked into dishes that restore health or enhance Link in some other way (such as increasing his speed or restoring his stamina). This element of survivalism (especially early in the game when health is low) and foraging for supplies has quite a bit in common with Metal Gear Solid 3, where Snake (that game's protagonist) has to continually hunt for food and supplies to keep his stamina up.
• Finally, some people have compared this games difficulty level (especially in the early stages) to Dark Souls – whereas previous Zelda games have been very generous with the amount of damage Link can take, most attacks in this game take multiple hearts off Link's life meter – at least before he acquires and upgrades different armor sets. This requires you to play the game more thoughtfully early on, relying more on sneak attacks and carefully-timed parries as opposed to simply charging in and slashing at everything in sight. Personally, I find the argument that this game is much more difficult than previous Zeldas to be overblown – it's somewhat true at the very beginning of the game, but as you progress Link quickly becomes considerably more durable (read: badass), to the point where by the end of the game you can crush just about any enemy with relatively little effort. BOTW's progression in this regard feels somewhat more rewarding than in previous games.
Speaking of armor sets, this brings me to another gloriously overhauled element to this Zelda game: customization. Whereas previous Zelda games gave Link a small handful of unchanging armor sets to choose from, BOTW has dozens upon dozens of different armor pieces available, most of which come with unique, specific bonuses and can be upgraded to provide greater protection. Want to boost Link's attack power? Use the Barbarian armor, consisting of bones and war paint. Want to make Link climb more quickly? Use the climbing gear set, consisting of coils of rope and extra carabiners. Want to move quietly and stealthily? Dress like a Sheikah and ninja to your heart's content (for the first time in the series, Link can use a katana!). Or go with my favorite armor set, the Soldier armor – complete with full-on Medieval breastplate and pauldrons, and boasting a higher defensive power than almost any other armor. Not a bad choice for turning Link into a neigh-invulnerable tank after it's fully upgraded.
Not only are there thousands of possible configurations of armor, but most armor sets can also be dyed to just about any color you want. For example, many players will take the hooded Hylian armor set and dye it white, making Link appear like a character from Assassin's Creed. Stephanie's approach was to dye all of Link's armor dark purple. My own personal preference was to go the classic route, and dye everything green:
(God damn do I love that weapon's description.)
And as if that wasn't enough, Link's stable of up to five horses can all be customized in this game, with different saddles, bridles, manes, and names. Here is my one of my first horses:
I named her "Specklebutt" and put flowers in her mane. BECAUSE I CAN.
And the game's story? It's not bad, especially by Legend of Zelda standards. One hundred years before the game begins, Link and Zelda fought against Ganon (the series' main antagonist) in a battle that did not go well – it ended with much of Hyrule destroyed, and Link in a coma and barely clinging to life. He is placed in a "Shrine of Resurrection", while Zelda contains Ganon in a magical stalemate until Link recovers. 100 years later, Link awakens from his coma inside the shrine (looking pretty fit for 18 going on 118), but without any of his memories of who he is or why he's there. Zelda telepathically contacts him to tell him that she will soon be unable to hold Ganon back any longer, and that she will need his help to end him once and for all. Link then sets off to recover his memories and to regain enough strength to beat Ganon in their inevitable rematch.
So the story is pretty good, but I would caution against going in expecting the same level of plot depth and character development of something like Witcher 3 or Red Dead Redemption. The story is not necessarily the game's main strength (although the epic moment where Link finally storms Hyrule Castle was my single favorite gaming moment in all of 2017). But the game's strongest draw and greatest innovation is in its "chemistry engine". This is the term the developers at Nintendo coined to explain how the different systems within the game interact with each other, consistently and predictably like the elements on the Periodic Table.
It's a concept that's difficult to describe, but leads to massive flexibility and creative-thinking options for problem solving. Here's just one hypothetical example: say that there's a puzzle in one of the shrines that requires you to activate a switch with electricity to open a gate, and there's a circuit-like path leading from the source of electricity to the switch. You could do the standard Zelda thing and manipulate metal boxes with your magnetic ability to completely the "circuit" and trigger the switch – OR you could simply drop a metal sword on the open part of the circuit to complete it (because metal conducts electricity!) – OR you could simply pull out your electrically-charged shock arrows and shoot the switch directly – OR you could use completely unrelated items to build a huge fire on the floor of the shrine, and then pull out your paraglider and ride the fire's updrafts like a hot-air balloon to sail right over the gate entirely. Almost every puzzle in the game has several different ways it can be solved, and it can be EXTREMELY satisfying to try to come up with some clever trick that lets you use the consistent internal logic of the game's "chemistry engine" to "cheat" your way to a more expedient solution, instead of the one the developers intended.
Whether intentional on the part of the developers or not, I found that the game raised some interesting philosophical questions as well.
One example that sticks out in my mind is Gerudo Town – this city in the game is run by the Gerudo, an all-female tribe of warriors that does not allow men within the city walls (Link eventually manages to sneak inside, of course). On the surface, the philosophy of the Gerudo tribe is blatantly sexist, and the town is a feminist paradise. But the longer you poke and prod around the city, the more it becomes apparent that this no-men-allowed attitude has caused quite a few problems for the tribe. Many of the town's citizens are both deeply yearning for someone to share affection with, and hopelessly socially awkward around men outside of the village, to the point where they have to take classes taught by an instructor (to humorous effect) to try to learn how to approach and interact with men. One Gerudo ends up so frustrated by these problems that she had sunk into a drunken depression, sobbing in the town's tavern. (Unfortunately, unlike a similar-ish situation in Wolfenstein II, I was not able to help her.)
The town's sexist philosophy and the way Link has to sneak in had me groaning and bearing it, until it became more apparent that not everything was how it appeared on the surface. Learning more about the town's inhabitants and the myriad problems their one-gender policy had caused eventually had me feeling very sympathetic toward the tribe, and that unexpected emotional reversal led to Gerudo Town becoming one of my favorite areas of the game.
Another interesting question: technology. This game appears to take place at a very advanced point in the overall timeline of the world of Hyrule (a timeline which Nintendo keeps very vague intentionally). And as such, some of the world's technology has very clear analogues in the real, modern world. The most specific example of this is Link's "Sheikah Slate", the first item Link picks up after waking from his coma. The slate is, for all intents and purposes, a touch-screen tablet (Gizmodo states it bluntly: "Link Has a Goddamn iPhone"). But this sort of tech in the game is not powered by circuits and electricity, but instead by magical energy.
This is interesting, because the game has its own internal logic here that raises questions about the real world: if the sort of magic that exists in Hyrule existed in the real world as well, how would it have changed the evolution of our technology over the course of history? The inhabitants of Hyrule still fight with swords and ride on horses and light their homes with candles and lanterns, but they've also developed cameras (a function of the Slate), robots (the Guardian enemies), lasers (the weapons used by the Guardians), GPS (communication between the Slate and what are basically cell phone towers), rubber (part of the armor used for defense against electricity), and motorcycles (transportation added to the game via DLC). Obviously the developers added these items to the game because they improve certain aspects of gameplay, much like technology improves certain aspects of our lives in the real world – but intentional or not, it shows how the technology of Hyrule has advanced over the ages along a parallel track with technology in the real world.
This is very different from most other fantasy series, in which technology never seems to advance regardless of how intelligent or inventive or evolved the world's inhabitants are. Jalopnik.com states this in an article titled "The Game of Thrones Car Paradox: How Magic Makes People Stupid". Its thesis is that in series like GoT or Harry Potter, reliance on magic severely inhibits the development of technology:
This is where Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is different, even if it is, like Westeros, well over 10,000 years old. In many ways, it is still a medieval society – but in others, Hyrule is arguably more technologically advanced that we are in the real world.According to the HBO series and the books, the recorded history of Westeros in Game of Thrones goes back over 12,000 years, which is roughly comparable to recorded post-neolithic history here on our warm, damp Earth. As far as anyone can tell, the inhabitants of the fictitious GoT universe seem to be just like us normal humans, they seem to exhibit the same rough level of intelligence, and thanks to HBO's liberal policy on nudity, they seem to have very much the same biology and anatomy as us. Sure, they have seasons of random length, but they appear to live on a world with similar natural resources and basic laws of nature
And yet after 10,000 years of development, us non-fiction humans have cars and iPads and plastic tampon applicators and ham radios and spaceships and Pop Rocks and giant underground boring machines and radios that play A Prarie Home Companion (a different sort of boring machine) and Makita drills and all sorts of other highly advanced technology.
And what do the people of Westeros have? Windmills, ironwork and other metalwork, wooden carts, stonemasonry structures, woven fabrics, probably waterwheels, dyes, ceramics, glass, and not a whole hell of a lot else. It's essentially where humanity was in the 1300s or so, minus gunpowder.
We think of Hyrule's tech as being powered by "magic", but there's a well-known quote British author Arthur C. Clarke that states "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Certainly some of our modern real-world technology would seem like magic to people in the 1300's, but what if the "magic" that powers all of Hyrule's Sheikah tech is not magic at all, but rather "sufficiently advanced technology" and we simply don't have the language or capacity to understand how it works?
It seems highly unlikely that the developers at Nintendo deliberately intended to raise these sorts of philosophical questions about the evolution of technology in different magical vs non-magical societies. But this could be seen as an example of the interpretation of a work of art being out of the artist's hands.
Philosophical ruminations aside, Breath of the Wild is a tour de force, and one of the finest works of technological art ever crafted. If you think I am overstating my case here, just look at a sampling of its review scores, via Wikipedia:
According to Wikipedia, it holds the largest number of perfect reviews of any game on review aggregator Metacritic. And I have to agree with the consensus here.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is my new all-time favorite video game, ever.
Overall Score: 11 / 10