A Deep Breath Of The Wild.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
It’s been nearly six years since we’ve gotten a major The Legend of Zelda console release; Skyward Sword was released on the Wii back in November 2011 to universal acclaim, aggregating an average of 93 on Metacritic and selling an approximate total of four million units globally. Regardless of how well Skyward Sword was received, no one could deny the incessant handholding Nintendo provided players while traveling as the titular Link, something akin to (but not as bad as) Vector//Cell’s 2013 babysitter simulator, Amy. In a bold move for the family-friendly Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild forgoes handholding in favor of emergent gameplay and player agency, placing Link in an open-world where discovery and mystery are pillars of the experience. While this move harkens back to the NES-era’s The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Breath of the Wild has far too many similarities to modern games to feel truly unique, as well as too many obtuse design decisions to be truly satisfying.
It’s evident where Breath of the Wild draws its inspiration from. Games like Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, and Horizon Zero Dawn (to a certain degree) all seemingly permeated Nintendo’s development and show themselves unabashedly throughout. Interestingly, however, Breath of the Wild takes the trite open-world formula and subverts the expectation of the descriptor: The “world” is really “open,” and you can go just about anywhere and do just about anything (so long as it makes logical sense, of course, which is the single delimiter). The platitudinous “You see that mountain over there? You can climb that” mantra of game showcases is true of Breath of the Wild: Yes, that mountain you’re looking at off in the distance being caressed by the warmth of the sun, you can, in fact, climb that. (Unless it’s raining, in which case climbing becomes nigh impossible until the rain stops). This amount of freedom is titillating: No one playthrough is the same, and players will likely not experience the same thing.
You could be exploring the labyrinthine Lost Woods while another player could get lost in a completely separate set of woods altogether. The density of Breath of the Wild‘s world elicits an ardent sense of exploration, a burgeoning desire to see what’s at the top of the mountain. What’s at the top of the mountain, as you come to find out, is a vast world devoid of life. There are a few settlements around and a couple of cities still bustling with vitality, but Calamity Ganon has stripped most of the world of Hyrule of its pulse. Held back for a century by Princess Zelda, Ganon has plunged Hyrule into the throes of despair and steady depravation; as per usual, it’s up to Link to save the day, like he has for the past 30 years. The narrative is as old as time and though there is a fair amount of fanfare (like the Mikau and Lulu lakes, referencing the eerie and perhaps darkest and most despondent entry, Majora’s Mask), giving The Legend of Zelda series a facelift in both its gameplay loop and visual design clash with its antiquated storytelling: Link reawakens like Jesus and leaves a cave, and is immediately bombarded with, “Link! Thank God you’re awake. The Princess, you must save her.” Over and over and over again, reinforcing the worn-out damsel in distress trope The Legend of Zelda has pontificated for years. This story is at odds with the implied power of Princess Zelda, who has, as aforementioned, held back the almighty Ganon for a century, on her own. But Link is the savior of all, so he must save Zelda because reasons.
So Link embarks on his journey to save Zelda (again) and put an end to Calamity Gannon’s chokehold on Hyrule (again). After completing the “tutorial,” The Great Plateau, you could, theoretically, walk right up to the gates of Hyrule Castle and duke it out for the freedom of both Zelda and Hyrule, though you’re more than ill-equipped for the grueling battle ahead. You’re instructed to free the Four Divine Beasts (which serve as the game’s sole dungeons) from Ganon’s control, but this, like everything else in Breath of the Wild, is completely optional. (In truth, I suggest freeing the Divine Beasts, as they add a combat advantage when fighting Ganon). And thus, you climb, fight, paraglide, sprint, swim, trot via horseback, and break every single weapon in your inventory on your path toward saving everyone and everything—if you have enough stamina, that is. Back again by unpopular demand, just about everything you do drains stamina. While refilling stamina only takes a few moments and there are upgrades and potions that can be collected and used, having to stop for Link to catch his breath not only interrupts the gameplay, it can also lead to unceremonious and frustrating deaths like attempting to climb a tower only to realize, shit, I’ve run out of stamina. Weapon degradation grossly enters the fray, providing another layer of both interruption and vexation. Each weapon collected has a set number of times it can be used (though this is never made explicitly clear until a message states the weapon in question is “badly damaged” before it explodes in a cascade of ice blue crystals). Once the weapon bursts into oblivion, you’re weaponless until you either pick up a new weapon (which is the least invasive) or pause combat to pull up the inventory screen, then select the weapon you wish to use. Stopping in the middle of combat disorients you and, as aforementioned, can lead to abrupt and infuriating deaths.
Thankfully, however, combat feels smooth. Though nothing different from previous The Legend of Zelda games, playing Breath of the Wild on Nintendo’s new console-handheld hybrid has both a foreign air and sense of familiarity to it. Link’s usual dodges, jumps, spinning attacks, and the like return, and, interestingly, Nintendo takes a page out of PlatinumGames’ Bayonetta: When Link performs a perfect dodge, time slows down, allowing Link to unleash a flurry of attacks for massive damage (depending on the weapon in hand, of course). Sadly, the problem with Breath of the Wild’s combat is that it doesn’t change much throughout the game and hasn’t changed much over the years. For a series that went silent for nearly six years to release with the same battle mechanics is unfortunate. Although combat is passable and entirely competent — even electrifying (literally) and tense — rehashing old ideas for a new generation with no significant change is a disappointment.
And that is the entirety of Breath of the Wild: it’s disappointing. There are many instances where it teems with exhilaration and tension, sadness and anger, wonder and thrill. Unfortunately, for every moment that fills you with elation, you can’t help but feel a vehement sense of deja vu. At one point during this adventure, Zelda dejectedly asks Link, “May I ask, do you really remember me?” To no one’s surprise, Link doesn’t answer the question, letting it linger acerbically in the air. I wonder if The Legend of Zelda will remember itself, remember what made the series such a magnum opus. Breath of the Wild is a fine experience — in truth, a damn fine one — but it’s time for The Legend of Zelda to do more with this lore, this world, these characters.