MOVE ANY MOUNTAIN
At the start of Breath Of The Wild, I awaken after a 100-year long slumber. From the exit of my cavernous rejuvenation chamber, I can see the entirety of the world from this apex: a plethora of plateaus, pathways, and the cursed kingdom itself. I clamber down the mountain face rather than follow the trail towards a decrepit temple, hoping to explore a bit first. Soon after the dangerous journey, the earth quakes--a huge rockbeast called a Stone Talus erupts from the soil to battle me. With no equipment or experience in fighting, I'm quickly felled by the grand enemy, and two more additional times when I start over. Eventually, I gave up, and climbed back up to reach the path to the crumbling sanctuary.
Many, many hours later, I'm in the polar caps of a ruinous mountain range, fading slowly to the chills and perils. I parachute down to a thought-abandoned patch of flat land atop another peak. A Stone Talus emerges. Equipped with the necessary tools and quick-footed skill, this time the Talus falls to me, sprinkling amber pieces and minerals at my feet. Victory, for now, is mine.
Later, I climb one of the tallest structures in the game purely to see if I could do it. After much trepidation and several frantic dashes along the steep cliffs, I reach the top. There is a single rock; without thinking, I uproot it. I'm rewarded with a Korok seed--an item held by well-hidden faeire folk that can be exchanged for expanding your item slots. One down, 899 to go.
Breath Of The Wild is a fantastic example of how to create a diverse journey of discovery and wonder, and yet, it can be summed up quite easily: it is a game that never stops rewarding you for being creative, curious, and well-prepared.
To preface the rest of this review, I have to pose the following statement: I've never really given a shit about the sanctity of the Zelda franchise. Ocarina of Time isn't on my shortlist for anything, I never played much of Majora's Mask or Twilight Princess, and I detested the caged repetition of Skyward Sword. The extent of my Zelda gameplay lies within the handheld games, namely Awakening, the Oracle series, and Link to the Past. I was never a fan of the tired dungeon schema, the continued gimmicks in every game (ocarina time travel, turning into a wolf, motion control and boring bird flight). I was always more of a Mario and Metroid guy, so Breath of the Wild only got my attention when it became evident that this was a complete revision of the series tropes and traditions. As such, I want to try and completely divorce Breath Of The Wild from its siblings, much like how experiences like MGS5 or even the upcoming Prey should be judged based on their standalone gameplay and not their lineage.
As much as I fucking hate saying this tired phrase, Breath of the Wild--like Resident Evil 7--is a "return to form" in the most radical way. The original Zelda for the NES dropped you in a field, had an old man give you a tool for protection, and the rest was up to you. Breath of the Wild similarly puts you in a wide open space, has an old guy give you a semi-tutorial thing if you want (and you will want to, for the parachute item he gives you), and you're given a singular goal: Defeat Ganon. That's it. Whatever goals you set for yourself--whatever story beats, accomplishments, and rewards you receive--are completely optional from this point onward. Unlike previous Zelda games that consisted of the "3 or 4 macguffins followed by the Master Sword followed by 6 more macguffins" formula, Breath Of The Wild throws it all into the ocean; you can run right to the castle if you want, and have the guts to go through with it. Nothing is required and everything is permitted, so if you want to take part in things like recovering your memories, resurrecting 4 ancient beasts to help you, or even finding the well-hidden Master Sword, that's up to you.
The crux of why BOTW feels so good is partially within two facets: being rewarded for exploring a genuinely fascinating landscape, and having more means than ever before to conquer the world. Traversal in most open world games fluctuates, and is usually infuriating; Dragon Age had some truly awful ways to explore a world filled with boring minerals, and games like even Fallout promised things like "if you can see that mountain in the distance, you can go there." BOTW fulfills that promise by actually allowing you to get anywhere with the new climbing mechanic, which allows Link to scale almost every single object in the environment, provided he has enough stamina. This singlehandedly changes the entire game and the means you have to explore, especially with your parachute tool that lets you save yourself from steep falls or float over to distant islands. More than perhaps any open world created, Zelda's entirety is truly open for you to map out and claim for yourself. Even halfway through the map and I've still yet to uncover the depths and heights offered, as every turn may reveal new items, new characters, new shrines, and some of the 900 or so Korok faeries hidden throughout the earth.
One of the central themes of BOTW is the addition of shrines over dungeons. Each shrine offers a mini-puzzle room usually centered around one of your abilities, or several--or simply your ability to divine the solution from a perplexing situation. Not only will each one reward you with an orb--4 of which will help increase your Heart or Stamina meter--but they'll also function as fast travel points. Not all of the shrines are simply laid bare for you to enter, as some require anything from solving a small puzzle to actually engaging in some kind of epic encounter. Some of the most interesting moments came from events that I assumed were full-scale quests but actually turned out to be the key to shrine revelations. Some of the shrines can feel like padding, and not all of them are A+ puzzles, but in terms of the open world structure they work well as 1) meaningful discoveries to accrue orbs and solve fun little things and 2) as fast travel checkpoints along your way to exploring and scoping out areas.
The weaker shrines are just "use magnet thing here, use cryonis there" but some of the best moments in the game come from actually making a shrine appear through a battle with a huge enemy, navigating a strange area, doing some kind of platforming challenge, or some other weird shit like the "Twins" shrine puzzle. Running a gauntlet in a crumbling temple full of Guardians or shifting through haunted darkness just to find a shrine is pretty cool. There are more than enough of these special shrine scenarios to go around, and it's delightful to stumble into one and become enraptured in a miniature adventure.
Although shrines take center stage as functional fast travel checkpoints and as a means to upgrade stamina and hearts with every 4 orbs earned, the 5 or 6 main dungeons set in the bellies of massive mechanical beasts are quite fun and engaging in what tools and features they hand you to solve their mysteries. My complaint about them lies within the fact that they end in boss battles that are not as intruiging, and generally become annoying to deal with.
Central combat in Breath Of The Wild revolves around the durability aspect of your weapons and shields. Though it's a bit of a mixed bag for me--and others--I never really felt upset about this part of the game. Combat is such a fleeting thing in the big picture, and although it gives you the same lock-on and dodge aspects mixed with a new parry button, I never felt like it was ever the crux of any Zelda before, either. What does change are the physics in BOTW, which serve as part of your offense as much as any arrow or boomerang. Pushing or summoning boulders with your magnet tool, throwing rechargeable concussive bombs to separate enemies from weapons, blowing up objects, and even stopping time will be part of your arsenal as much as your inventory. Although I did feel a sense of paranoia about my rarer weapons earned in shrines breaking with too much use, I never felt like I'd ever be locked out of generally good weapons; luckily, many items like even knight greatwords and shields eventually respawn in set places after in-game days, and many enemies have decidedly good items on them to acquire at any given time. Besides fighting, items like axes, hammers, and torches have a great deal of uses, whether it's chopping a tree to get to its fruit, hammering a shiny rock for its minerals, or lighting an entire field ablaze to stave off attackers. Other non-breakable equipment like your head, chest, and leg armors can be upgraded and recolored with the right materials, which you can find literally everywhere.
Character sidequests range from a classic Cucco herding to re-discovering an ancient faeire fountain. Oftentimes, I found that some of the most interesting rumors and discussions amongst villagers and random travelers would lead me to truly intruiging journeys. A passing quest to find out what happened to a frozen shrine lead to an awesome boss encounter in the frozen peaks. A normal delivery across prairies leads to a short battle with a follower of Ganon, followed by meeting Hestu, the Korok ambassador residing up ahead. However, there are a majority of sub-quests given by other characters that are disappointing and not worth the effort, often rewarding you with little more than 20 rupees or something equivocal to that. As I've said before, the best discoveries and achievements usually came to me through simply going off on my own, accomplishing feats that I did not have prior notion were being hoisted along as NPC requests.
The journey in BOTW is as much about what you discover before even knowing about it --the Master Sword being one of the coolest "sequence breaks" in a game yet--and there are enough charming villages and settlements to walk around and play with. Exploring Hyrule is a beautiful thing, as this pushes the limitations of the WiiU to its threshold. From the lush grass-laden fields to the bleeding sunsets and lighting effects, every biome and atmospheric theme is breathtaking and is probably one of the most incredible graphical feats in Nintendo's history. The graphical power comes with a cost though, as I inevitably ran into framerate hitches in very intensive areas---mostly crowded towns, thunderstorms, and large clusters of enemies. I'm a huge asshole when it comes to FPS problems, though I will admit that the slight jitters you get sometimes in BOTW weren't a dealbreaker for me. Things never fell into a "day-one Fallout 4 on console" level of constant slowdown, and for the majority of the experience I was able to traverse throughout the game unhindered by the normal 30fps. Playing on a WiiU didn't see to have any drawbacks, either; this is still a visually wondrous game on the elder hardware. While it may be a matter of subjective taste, I also liked the more ambient musical score that reserves itself for either towns or grand encounters. Most of the game is populated by environmental sounds and only the occasional music notes accompanying discoveries or overlooking and climbing vistas. Given how free-spirited and liberating the game feels, I felt the minimal nature of the score was better fitting than a constant triumphant theme.
In even the most minute tasks and activities, such as finding and taming a horse or surfing down the rocky side of a mountain on my shield as dawn breaks, there's a simple and inimitable joy just experiencing what Zelda offers. The game has been a degree of freedom I did not think was possible coming from the longtime series, and I commend Nintendo on unshackling the old ways and handing the agency back to the player. I've been constantly impressed by how much more there is to see at every corner, even after the game's climax was reached--I still had much more to discover. Breath of the Wild is absolutely worth all the hype and praise if only for showing players how a simple yet exciting open world should look. It's my hope that future games take up the torch to not only show you the vistas waiting for you, but also assure you that yes--you can trek all the way there and stand atop the tallest spire...only to surf your way all the way down on a pot lid.
Amazing and topical!