Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Where Grand Adventure is the Real Star
This is a first impressions ‘review’, and a meditation on what makes the game so special. We feel that Breath of the Wild is such a large game it really deserves extensive play time to understand or appreciate it for a full review. Further to this, there are many many reviews out there for you to read. This takes that usual ‘Voletic’ approach, looking to give more insight into the game than a typical review. Enjoy.
Games are often described as grand and epic affairs simply through virtue of having big maps, or big boss fights. It is rare that I play something that truly feels as epic in scope as the literature that inspires them. As grand and majestic an experience as Skyrim is (and I loved it), it never felt on a scale comparable to the likes of Tolkien and the journeys undertaken there. The game world of your average Fallout or Elder Scrolls feel large, sure. But I often felt that the scale wasn’t there. The mountains never feel daunting; the cliff faces rarely humbling in their sheer vastness.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that Tolkien would be proud of. It encapsulates the very idea of going on a quest, but not just any quest, an epic to rival those of Greek legend. The adventure across the fields, gorges, mountains, rivers and peaks of Hyrule have been like no other for me; the game is committed to making this environment and your journey across it as much the star of this show as the titular Zelda, or the ever popular Link. In reality, I actually don’t know if this is the largest game world I have ever navigated, but it sure as hell feels like it is.
It is vast, and it is deep, and it is varied. From freezing snow covered peaks, to lush corn fields of a Hyrulian farmstead, to the arid barrens at the foot of Death Mountain; there is a real sense of living breathing kingdom – from wildlife to local townsfolk running for cover from a rain storm. There is tangibility to this Zelda title missing from the excellent yet overtly cartoonish simplicity found in previous instalments. There are large expanses of woodland and plains, covered in fauna, with varying wildlife scurrying about. Insects hide in tall grass, or beneath rocks, whilst birds erupt into the sky from tree lines as you gallop into a grove. There is a sense that this world existed long before, and would have continued to exist regardless of Link rising from his slumber. Instead of Hyrule being a collection of respawning enemies, set pieces and linear dungeons to explore, it instead feels like an actual world and you are but a smaller part of this greater whole. In many ways, this dwarfing of the player character against vast backdrop serves to really accentuate the ‘heroic destiny’ narrative present throughout. The fact that you are one of the very few able to save this kingdom is all the more poignant when the kingdom feels so incredibly vast.
Perhaps “alive” isn’t the correct term for Breath of the Wild. It isn’t alive in the way that other modern open world titles are. The side quests are few and far between, and settlements are rarities to be savoured when found. In many ways, the environment is rather spaced out, with unique events spread across relatively large distances, when compared to your average Bethesda title where you would find it hard not to trip over another dungeon entrance. However, I feel that this allows the game to breathe. It paces the adventure in a way that allows you to savour the sheer sense of scale and adventure the game brings.
There is a departure from the meticulously crafted and structured worlds of previous Zelda titles. Twilight Princess flirted with wide open plains and horseback combat, whilst Windwaker had a real sense of exploration about its seafaring (which soon deteriorated into frustration and boredom). The world of Breath of the Wild has a grand sense of verticality to it – Link is now able to jump and to climb on command, scaling castle walls and cliff faces with relative ease. A stamina system means you have to judge your climbs carefully as not to be caught weakened and unable to hold your grip. This stamina system is used for running, climbing, special combat techniques and swimming. Whilst most super human video game protagonist have very little issue with traversing large bodies of water thanks to their inhuman levels of endurance, the most recent iteration of Link is not so lucky. Suddenly rivers and lakes are a very real obstacle much like it would be to you and I. They can be circumnavigated or crossed, but care and consideration must be taken. A route, often the shortest, must be planned, placing an emphasis on prior planning and making visibility a key gameplay mechanic. You will climb to the top of mountains to survey the bends of a winding canyon ahead, or the position of a Goblin Encampment below – whilst also using this vantage point to find the next map tower you need to climb, not unlike those found in Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry. Again, this climbing and looking to your next destination really helps to emphasis the sheer sense of scale on display here.
Further to this, the world of Breath of the Wild is a harsh one. Weather plays a very real role; rain makes climbing incredibly difficult as surfaces become rain slick and slippery. Rain storms coming on mid-mountain trek can spell real trouble for your manoeuvrability. Poor weather reduce visibility from vantage points, whilst thunderstorms push you to using non-conductive armours and equipment for fear of being blown to bits by a devastating lightning bolt. This is a world in which you are at the mercy of the elements, and they do not care much for some puny Hylian hero.
Most of this isn’t new. BOTW doesn’t do anything “new” for the most part. It simply refines many elements of the adventure and RPG genre into an incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable experience. It’s as if the studio have taken the atmospheric world and grand adventuring the franchise is known for and injected it with a physicality not often found in a Nintendo game. It feels like, for perhaps the first time ever, that Nintendo have taken to playing other big budget titles whilst designing and developing their latest release, and haven’t been afraid to let those influences shine through.
Breath of the Wild’s makeup is an interesting collection of influences and ideas. On the one hand it is reductive – boiling down the series to its bare bones – an examination of the root cause of Zelda’s popularity in the first place. It’s vast open world and non-linear progression begs for you to dive in. It yearns for you to move from the beaten track; you can explore the local woods, climb any peak on the horizon or even set sail to islands dotted around the eastern coasts of Hyrule. It’s an open ended choose your own adventure just like the original NES release. On the other hand, it is obvious that BOTW draws influence from its contemporaries – from Shadow of the Colossus to Far Cry and through to Skyrim, the influence on mechanics, world building and pacing are all evident.
None more so than the crafting and survival elements. Being able to cut down trees and plants in order to cook different buff granting meals is undeniably in line with the ever popular ‘survival’ genre launched by Minecraft in recent years. This is perhaps the most difficult of Zelda games ever released, with many enemies, including bosses, one shot killing you if you are inadequately prepared. A trial and error approach to some battles is inevitable, but made all the more fulfilling and gratifying when you finally crack the pattern and apply the methodology to bring down a mighty foe. If this all sounds very Dark Souls-esque, that’s because it is. The trial rooms at times feel like something right out of Portal (even if absent of the snarky condescension of Glados), whilst the combat takes so many queues from other action games it’s hard to put my finger on which ones it borrows from.
Seeing these influences shine through is incredibly refreshing when looking at a company that notoriously and almost arbitrarily goes against the grain – especially that of the Western gaming spheres it did so much to influence in the first place. Is this an indication of young blood at the company? New management in a post Iwata era? Or just a sign that the Wii U has shaken the company enough for us to see them taking on the innovations of other likeminded video game artisans?
Questions I don’t have answers for at present. All that I know that is in spite of these innovations to the formula, Breath of the Wild feels like an essential Zelda experience. It isn’t perfect. The characters feel one dimensional, which is an issue with Zelda as a series, and personally I would have preferred more musical nods to the previous games. But minor gripes aside, the game is more than simply undeniably fun – it is spellbinding, with the sense of adventure grander and more epic in scope than that seen in its genre’s contemporaries, due in no small part to a masterful grasp of scale and its importance to player perception and experience. Breath of the Wild will undoubtedly make its way on to “Top Games of All Time” lists for years to come, and it has earned that accolade. Now the real question is, Breath of the Wild or Ocarina of Time? Let us know in the comments below