Review: Breath of the Wild

Open your eyes.

I’m too far up the mountain.

I shouldn’t be here. The snow is driving from the west and Link is shivering in the bitter cold. I’ve got the warm doublet King Rhoam gave me before I left the Great Plateau, I’ve eaten nearly all my warming food, and it’s not enough. I’m still losing half a heart every few seconds. The Shrine is supposed to be here, somewhere – what was the riddle, again? Something about making the three cedars one and turning my face to the sea? I put the trees to my back and strike east towards the ocean.

I don’t find the Shrine. I fall off a dark cliff and catch myself, inching back up towards the ridge. Wolves howl somewhere close; I hope they do not come, for my spear is broken and wolves are too fast for my blade. Snowdrifts come up to my knees; I cannot see more than a few feet ahead of me. Where is this Shrine? Will I ever find it? Maybe I should turn back. Go back to the mountain and try and come at this from a new angle. I open my pack to check my rations. I only have enough hot food to last me another hour, maybe an hour and a half at most. I work my way back to the mountain for one last try.

As I approach the eastern slope, I notice something odd. There’s a light peeping out from the clouds overhead, a blue glow I can barely discern between the driving snow. Could it be the Shrine? No, I tell myself, Shrines glow orange, not blue. Still, though. There’s definitely something up there. I hesitate. The wolves are still howling. My spear is still broken.

I can’t make it, I scold myself, Link doesn’t have enough food. I’ve come too far up the mountain as it is, and it took me nearly an hour to get here. Link is going to freeze to death on his quest for some stupid treasure if I don’t give up on this and come back later. I shouldn’t climb higher, not in pursuit of some blue light I can barely see. That would be foolish. That would be –

A few moments pass. Inexplicably, I turn Link to face the mountain. We begin our ascent.

The light grows brighter, more insistent as we approach. Link scales the cliff slowly, white lines of snow leaking out from where his hands find purchase amongst the face. The wolves are howling and they’ve come to pace at the base of the cliff. We come up over the lip – there’s a path here. The snow is truly blinding now. Torches burn with pale blue fire along the path, showing the way – they spiral upwards, away from me, up into the sky, towards the strange light.

Link trudges forward. We’re nearly out of food. The wind is deafening, and soon the wolves will come. We move around a bend in the mountain.

That’s when I see it.

*

I’m not going to tell you what I found on the mountain.

What I will tell you is – it was worth it.

Such is the recurring story when it comes to Nintendo’s 2017 mega-blockbuster hit release, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This kind of tale – wherein the hero is lost and outmatched, only to press on and find something remarkable – is a recurring thing you’ll hear from the vast majority of players who embarked on this colossal journey either via the Nintendo WiiU or the Nintendo Switch. It’s a game of long, arduous journeys to places we really have absolutely no business being, only to discover some truly memorable secrets along the way. It’s a game where we get to be a hero again.

Much has been made of BoTW’s open world, and for good reason. The world is…enormous. Staggering, even. The last time I was so surprised by the sheer size of a sandbox I was playing The Witcher III for the first time. If Hyrule were relatively flat (as most games are) and you were to walk from the west edge of the map to the east edge, it might not take you an especially long time. Twenty, thirty minutes, if I had to guess. Still a pretty decent way, but nothing to break my mind.

Yet the secret of BoTW’s sheer scope lies in its topography; elevation comes into play on the continent of Hyrule in a way I’ve never seen before. All surfaces (with the exception of a few, intentionally left “un-climbable” by the developers) can be climbed, lending the world a real sense of place unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Mountains and canyons are enormous. They dwarf Link and buildings in equal measure. Elevation affects temperature, and if it gets too hot or too cold, Link won’t be able to survive without the proper gear and/or consumables. What may be a mere 1000 steps away in a straight flat line could very easily take you two, three, four hours to reach, depending on what sits between you and that point you’re working towards.

There wasn’t much about the world of BoTW that I felt it didn’t have. Beaches? Yep. Desert? Yep. Ruins? Yep. Forests, mountains, canyons, I’m-Not-Sure-What-I’m-Looking-At? Yep to all of the above. Each area of the map is unlocked by climbing its local Sheikah tower, some of which posing more of a challenge than others. Early on, I made it a personal goal to unlock every tower in the game so that I could have the full game map. I set out one night to do just that. After three nights (real time), and a total game time of about four and a half hours, I gave up on my tower quest. Doing nothing but unlocking towers was immensely difficult – they were incredibly far apart from one another, and were sometimes very difficult to actually scale. This should give an idea of the sheer scope of BoTW’s world. I’m at over sixty hours of game time and I unlocked my final three sessions ago. It’s a big place.

Yet a vast world with nothing in it neither churns the brain nor stirs the heart. (See No Man’s Sky for a tragic example of what I’m talking about.) Climbing that mountain, descending into that misty valley, exploring the deep steaming heart of the jungle or riding a sand seal to the windy edges of the moonlit desert have no purpose if you don’t get anything for the effort.

BoTW, fortunately, rewards you for everything you do. Want to climb that mountain just to see if you can? Go for it! You never know what you’ll find up there. Sometimes you’ll find a beautiful view that – frankly – is worth the climb. (I took so many screenshots that I’m a little embarrassed at my collection.) Sometimes you’ll…find a little friend. And sometimes you’ll find something else entirely – whether a lost Shrine or a cave of treasures, or a giant troll, or…

The list goes on. Sixty hours later and I’m still finding things that delight me, still meeting characters that are unique, still finding bits of armor and treasure that make me giddy.

Yet the game’s love for creativity doesn’t amount to a glorified climbing simulator – there’s plenty to do on the ground, as well. See that dog at the stable? What happens if you play with it? I wonder if it would lead you to treasure. (It does.) What happens if Link takes off all his clothes and goes and speaks to the townspeople? Will they say different things to him? You bet they will. Actually, the townspeople have a surprising amount of conditional dialogue, regardless of clothing. Do things around town, people will speak to you differently. Get pushy and try to talk to an NPC before they’ve finished walking somewhere and they may just scold you. Even inconsequential NPCs that don’t earn the title of “quest giver” might give you information which leads you somewhere you didn’t expect. At the very least, they will make you laugh, and on occasion, might even make you misty eyed.

Combat is solid and nuanced; the ever controversial “weapon durability” problem (wherein any weapon you pick up will break within a few battles of using it) adds a whole different layer to traditional RPG tropes. What amazes me most, however, is the game’s willingness to surprise and delight its players, even when fighting. Enemy AI is fantastic – so fantastic, in fact, that when an enemy you are fighting adapts to your techniques and does something unexpected yet wholly logical, you feel like you’re fighting a breathing opponent. It’s rare that in a moment of heated combat something happens that causes me to laugh out loud; in BoTW I laughed out loud more than four times. I caught myself grinning like an idiot more times than I can count.

There’s something bigger at play here, however, and that is the story of Nintendo and Zelda as a whole. The Legend of Zelda as a franchise (and indeed, Nintendo as a company) means a lot to a lot of people. For a lot of us, Ocarina of Time was our introduction to this world. For others, other titles carry the same gravitas. I for one still remember running around Castle Town when I was about nine years old, feeling like I’d discovered a world where I wanted to live.

I didn’t own a Nintendo 64. My neighbor, across the street, did. He used to let me come over to his room and play his games while he went outside and messed around. One day, as I sat on his floor and leaned over towards his little TV, I went into someone’s house in the game (I could just…open the door and go into their house! Pow! Super!) and crept through a little chicken door in the wall, out onto a small wooden ramp that dipped down into a chicken coop. This entranced me, for some reason. Years later, as I ran through Kakariko Village in BoTW as a 28 year old, I found a house with a chicken door in the wall. At the sight of this aperture my heart leapt and I remembered – quite abruptly – that moment from my childhood, which I’d forgotten all about.

The nostalgia was so intense I had to blink a few times to shake out the blur from my vision. I crept up to the chicken door, crouching Link and went to move him through it – but Link was too big. He couldn’t fit. I sat there for a moment, controller in hand, remembering what the developers said in their interviews about building the world of BoTW: Everything was done intentionally.

They experimented with randomized topography generated by an algorithm but hated the result, and so each tree, flower, pond, rock, house, book, journal, gravestone…every single bit of it was done by design. Every bit of it, somebody (or a team of people) had decided, “Yes, this goes here.”

That meant someone put this chicken door here in the wall. There was hardly anything else in the room, after all – a bed, a journal, a few bookshelves, a desk, and a lamp that emanated a soft orange glow. Some other wayward soul might have concluded this room was simply a decoration. Just here to be here. I knew otherwise. Someone made this room with this chicken door, making sure that Link – like me – had grown up in the time that had passed since Ocarina of Time. Someone had made sure that he could no longer fit through it. Back in 1999, I smiled when I found the chicken door. In 2017, I smiled again, for an entirely different reason.

Much like my experience with the chicken door, BoTW’s story is simple, lovely and profoundly sad. It’s not the grim, beat-you-over-the-head kind of sadness that games like The Last of Us employ to great effect, but rather is much like the color palette of the world itself; full of subdued shades and airy piano motifs. There’s hardly a soundtrack, yet music echoes in all the corners of this fallen Hyrule, free and delicate and immutable as a feather caught on a breeze.

Even at the point of this writing, I absolutely love the premise; Calamity Ganon has already won. Hyrule fell. Zelda is gone, the Champions are dead. Even Link, the royal Swordsman, died of wounds he incurred in the final battle. In the wake of their defeat, Hyrule has fallen into darkness, and one hundred years later what little light remains is generated by a smattering of little characters who feel larger than life, who cling to one another and their small pleasures in the face of an invincible evil.

I would be remiss if I wrote this review without spending a moment to discuss the characters in Breath of the Wild. Simply put, I think they are my favorite characters I’ve ever encountered in a game. There are no titanic heroes here – no John Marstons or Commander Shephards, no Joel & Ellies or Nathan Drakes or Big Boss. The closest we get to true heroes are Link and Zelda themselves, one of whom never speaks, the other we only see through memory. Even the Champions are remarkably gray – ranging from beautiful and sweet to arrogant and cruel. Hyrule owes her life not just to her wilderness, but to the characters that live within it – most of whom have names I doubt I could remember if I tried.

They are so loveable and simple, so transparent in their desires, in their hopes, in their dreams. They are perfect little microcosms of the human soul. They are selfish and generous, foolhardy and timid, brave and cowardly. One of them left his wife because he couldn’t bear to be away from his chickens. Another pines after the local innkeeper, and enlists you to help him gather ten grasshoppers to earn her favor.

My personal favorite is a blue feathered Rito (a bird-like humanoid) named Kass who travels Hyrule trying to decipher the ancient songs his late master taught him. “I know a song about this place,” he told me when I met first him, on my long, lonely (and ultimately doomed) journey to unlock all of the towers. “Would you like to hear it?”

Of course I wanted to hear it. I listened to the song and learned something in return. Hours later, when I found Kass again at a stable far to the north, I heard him from a distance playing Epona’s Song from Ocarina of Time. I ran to him, memories from my childhood flooding back. Days later when I found him again, he was standing in the rain playing his accordion. I thought to myself, “It’s too bad the developers missed this little detail. It’s immersion breaking.” When I spoke with Kass, however, he chided me for being out in the rain, and explained that Rito feathers are water resistant, as was the leather which bound his accordion. I was stunned. Again.

As time passed, in this wandering Rito bard I saw myself. In the rest of the characters, I saw all the best parts of the world in a time when so often it feels like the world has grown ugly. Between a young couple in a dangerous forest looking desperately for a Silent Princess flower, to the ever jubilant merchant named Beedle (who thinks we must have been married in a previous life, as he keeps running into me), these characters carved out a special little place in my heart. They are all my friends. It was fitting that the game never gave me the option to be cruel to them.

One night, I was sitting at my computer, working on something as Amanda played. (It was her turn.) Suddenly, Amanda got my attention from where she sat on the floor. She waved her arms and pointed at the screen, tears glistening in her eyes. On the screen, a Great Fairy stretched out her arms and gleamed in the light, her colors bright and sharp.

“Look!” Amanda said. “I freed her!”

We smiled at one another. It was a warm moment in an uncertain time.

I could no doubt write for days and not tell all the stories this game has given me. I haven’t told about the time I fought pirates off the south shores of Hyrule, or of the great Labyrinths hidden in the snowy north, or of the Horse God who brought back my fallen steed, Midnight, who died when I left him alone in a thunderstorm. I haven’t told you how I rode Midnight back to safety and fed him an apple, apologizing to him for hurting him. I haven’t told you anything.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most wonderful game I have ever played. I’m reluctant to name it the “best” game (because what does that even mean, anyway) but the title of “most wonderful” I give freely and happily. It is a vast, utterly wondrous world populated by loveable characters and rooted in a deep and moving history. Combat is fun, inventive, flashy and satisfying, the story is a blast of nostalgic and adventurous fresh air in a time when too often things feel stale and predictable.

It’s rare that a AAA title makes me feel like it’s giving me a hug. Yet every time I log into Breath of the Wild I feel as though I’m being greeted by an old and loyal friend. Nothing will ever capture the feeling I had as a child playing Ocarina of Time for the first time, but Breath of the Wild did the next best thing. It showed me that the chicken door I’d forgotten about was still there, and that while Link could no longer fit through it, perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

That adventure’s been had, the game seemed to say. Now let’s go have another one.

I did, my friends. I’m still on my adventure. I’m taking my time with it. I’m still out there, in a copse of trees somewhere in the wild, looking for a mirror to reflect back the gaze of an enchanted statue whose eyes only light up at night. An ancient song says there’s something hidden in this place, something lost under the silver mist. I wonder what it’ll be.

Don’t miss this one, folks.

Don’t miss it.

10/10

-R

All images in this article are screenshots from our play throughs. No copyright infringement is intended.