The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I've ever played. It adds the expansive feeling of The Elder Scrolls series with that Nintendo magic to make an entirely engrossing experience. Breath of the Wild is the first significant move forward for the Zelda franchise in years, and the changes are comparable to those between A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time.
I had feared that Nintendo had rushed Breath of the Wild to market so it could debut as a Nintendo Switch launch title. However, I've found my worries to be unfounded, at least for the Nintendo Switch version. I haven't had the opportunity to play the Wii U version of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild yet, so any technical claims made in this review only apply to the Nintendo Switch version of the game.
Breaking the Chains
Nintendo has been increasingly ambitious with its star franchises lately, and has taken risks that would have been uncharacteristic in the past. Zelda games, in particular, have stuck to a formula proven by the original title way back in 1986. While the 18 main series titles in the Zelda franchise have differed in setting, style, and story, they've all shared a linear primary plotline experience. Previously in Zelda, you'd tackle a series of dungeons in order and gain the power you needed to defeat Ganon (or another stand-in villain). However, Breath of the Wild does away with linear gameplay for a much more open-ended narrative.
Instead of having to attempt dungeons in order, you're given the choice to tackle quests in the order you choose. You're not locked into any one way to experience The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Your journey will most likely follow an entirely different order than mine, and you can choose to explore the whole of Hyrule or beeline straight towards the conclusion of the game.
Where is My Mind?
This openness of narrative does come at a price, though. It's incredibly difficult to figure out everything there is to do in Breath of the Wild. You're given free reign of Link's destiny shortly after beginning the game after a small introduction area. You're told about some key objectives that are located in Hyrule, including the over 100 optional shrines that in-part take the place of traditional Zelda dungeons, and sent on your way.
The lack of hand-holding makes Breath of the Wild a title that requires a high degree of self-motivation. There are few waypoints in the game, and even with the main quests, you're given a general clue as to what you need to accomplish. If you're not mindful, you can get lost in this Zelda, and it is not difficult at all to completely lose track of what and where your next objective is. Hyrule is huge in scope, and Link's new abilities to climb virtually any surface and glide across huge distances make it all too easy to get stuck somewhere you don't want to be. For some, this will be disorienting, and for others, it will be exhilarating. It will depend on how much you enjoy exploration and open-ended gameplay.
Switch It Up
The open-ended nature of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's gameplay lends itself to the unique capabilities of the Nintendo Switch in a way that previous Zelda titles wouldn't be able to. Because the main plot is compartmentalized into multiple episode-like quests, it's easy to play either in a traditional manner, with the Switch hooked up to a TV, or one the go with the Switch in portable mode. You can play Breath of the Wild for hours at a time, completing whole swaths of main or side quests, or only pick it up for a short thirty-minute gaming session without forgetting where you left off.
Breath of the Wild is a massive game and can be at times overwhelming. However, it's not the kind of title you marathon through. Even now, after completing the entire main quest and exploring vast tracts of Hyrule, there's still plenty of side quests left for me to go back and finish and tons of places I've not even set foot. Hyrule's vast spaces don't suffer from the same issue that many open-world games do, though. Each area is deliberately laid out and filled with unique locations to explore. Even though the main quest doesn't require you to explore nearly all of Hyrule's landmass, just looking at the map and finding an interesting looking place you've never been compels you to leave the beaten track and head off on your own adventure independently of any active motivation from the game.
The Nintendo Switch is a great machine, but with a title as expansive and ambitious as Breath of the Wild, it has a hard time keeping up. It's too early to say that Zelda takes the Switch to its limits, but looking at the hardware specs I'm amazed that Nintendo was able to accomplish what it has. Breath of the Wild shows Nintendo's greatest strengths and unfortunately, its biggest weakness when compared to its rivals.
Breath of the Wild is obviously well-optimized for the Switch hardware, which is a testament to Nintendo's internal programming prowess. However, I still experienced some performance issues. At times you'll run into slowdown, especially in areas with a lot of foliage and wildlife. There is also present the telltale gray haze in the distance which has been the tool of developers wishing to obscure far off land as to lessen needed draw distance. While this haze doesn't completely obscure the scenic vistas Zelda: Breath of the Wild has to offer, it does take away some of the magic of looking down on the lands of Hyrule from a tall mountain cliff.
An odd quirk of the way the Nintendo Switch handles resolution leads to differing performance depending on whether the Switch is docked or in portable mode. The above issues are most apparent when the Switch is docked and outputting 900p resolution. When in portable mode, though, the Switch outputs 720p, which lessens the framerate issues and seems to produce a less blurry, more crisp picture. Hopefully, in the future, Nintendo will add an option to output in 720p while docked, which I believe would help mitigate some of the performance issues I saw during my time with Breath of the Wild.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Link's struggle against Calamity Ganon may be his hardest yet. The last few entries in the Zelda franchise wouldn't qualify as tough in my book, but gameplay changes in Breath of the Wild lead this one to be highly challenging.
Your weapons no longer last forever, and you can't depend on any of your offensive or defensive equipment for long. Melee weapons, shields, and bows all have limited durability, and even the most robust weapon will eventually break. Because of the need to conserve powerful weapons for when you need them most, stealth plays a more crucial role in Breath of the Wild than any Zelda title before it. Sneaking past enemies is not only a valid option; most of the time it's the best one.
Enemies themselves are much stronger than in previous titles as well. No longer can you cheese a particular enemy's weakness to an item and quickly kill them. Your foes still have unique vulnerabilities, but they're much less pronounced, and you'll hardly ever encounter lone enemies. Instead Boboblins, Moblins, Chuchus, Wizzrobes, and more, all coordinate their attacks against you in groups, and their increased strength relative to their previous incarnations can easily overwhelm, even once you've spent tens of hours improving your health and defensive capabilities.
This increased difficulty in enemies makes each engagement feel much more vital, and each successful exploration of a new area that much more rewarding. The number of foes that can one-shot Link can be frustrating, but it drives you to keep exploring and looking for new ways to increase your chances of survival. It also makes the deep new cooking and elixir making systems take front and center, as you'll need the health restoring and buff bestowing items you can make to make it in the wilds of Hyrule.
An Instant Classic
By avoiding the pitfalls, other open-world adventures have made too often, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild makes itself an instant classic. Instead of a generic, Zelda-themed clone of a Ubisoft or Elder Scrolls title, Nintendo has translated its unique know-how into a Zelda game that brings the franchise in line with current gaming trends. While no one would say that the classic Zelda formula was entirely stale, it would have been disappointing not to see a significant progression with Breath of the Wild, especially with it being the flagship product of Nintendo's latest system.
Though there are some technical issues with Breath of the Wild, they pale in comparison to the sense of wonder and adventure the title projects. By setting The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a launch title for the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo debuted with a system seller. If you're getting a Nintendo Switch, there's simply no question of what the best bang for your buck will be in the system's early days. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that is meant to be loved and savored for years to come, and I'm sure it will be looked back on with as much fanfare and admiration as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Nintendo's other hallmark titles.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch copy provided by the publisher. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be available in retail and digital stores on March 3, for $59.99. The game is rated E-10+.