The Nintendo Switch has been the surprise hit of the current console generation. I picked one up earlier this year and I’ve been incredibly impressed. Compact enough to not dominate the living room, powerful enough to run good looking games, actually portable, and a the usual great lineup of games. That last one inevitably includes Nintendo going back to the well of their greatest hits, like Zelda. This generation it is the very well regarded Breath of the Wild.
I’m a huge Zelda fan and I’ve played loads of iterations of the game over the year and loved them all in different ways. The formula for the games has become so well known that we compare other games to the Zelda series, meaning their construction and mechanics reflect the style of this series of games. You aren’t here for a history of the series of course, but sometimes it is important to put a game in context. Especially when Breath of the Wild doesn’t so much break the formula as smash it into tiny pieces.
Zelda games usually follow a pattern of unlocking areas of the game as you pick up different tools to access them. Breath of the Wild does no such thing, plonking you down on a massive map of Hyrule filled with dark forests, huge mountains, barren desserts, and raging rivers. You are the hero who years before tried to take down Calamity Ganon, were mortally wounded and put in stasis to heal. Now you are up and about and ready to deliver the final smackdown to that monster. The plot is basically the same as ever.
The previous games see you following a pretty rigid plot, spiralling into a finale with some form of Ganon. This time you have to really explore, digging into your past to get clues to your current predicament. You uncover lost memories, gather powerful allies, and of course help out the citizens of Hyrule with a variety of side quests.
After a small tutorial area you are let loose on this massive open world, with only a few pointers telling you where to head. I’d urge you to fully investigate the starting area as it really lays out the mechanics of the game. Unlike previous games, there is much less hand holding here and it can be easy to miss a tip or hint if you aren’t paying attention.
Nothing is locked off as such, but you can end up going into areas that are bit beyond you. Any compass direction is yours to explore, and no matter which you choose you will find something to see or do. This version of Hyrule feels vibrant and alive, full of secrets and activities to keep you entertained. Climb up that mountain, push through this forest, follow along a river and rewards will be delivered. Unlike a lot of open world games, Hyrule feels positively bursting with things to find, and you always feel like your trip was worthwhile.
Monsters, and there are lots of them, need to be dealt with and combat feels dynamic and threatening. Your weapons do degrade and break meaning you are constantly changing up your weapons and tactics. I didn’t mind this but I can understand it feeling frustrating and it does feel like the most un-Zelda of all the mechanics added into this game.
The famous dungeons of the series have been replaced by lots of smaller shrines and something else I am not going to spoil. I really liked the self contained puzzle of each shrine and I wonder if the design choice here is partly to do with the ability of the Switch to really be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice. Much easier to remember what you are doing in a smaller dungeon.
Where the game falls down for me is in the sense of escalation and challenge. The nature of Breath of the Wild’s open world, means that you can hit the main areas in any order you want. Lots of choice means that each of those areas has to be approachable by someone at any stage of the game. I found that this meant that my first bigger dungeon felt relatively difficult to what I had done up to then. All the subsequent dungeons felt much easier, and the bosses never really troubled me.
This was the same with the power level, well I never really felt like I got much more powerful than when I started. Since no areas are locked off, there is no real sense of progression in the game. You can get better equipment and you can discover some bits and pieces that make things easier, but there is just not that feeling of becoming more powerful as time goes on.
Breath of the Wild has a lot more in common with survival games than it does with (insert your Zelda game of choice here). For me that mostly worked. The last Zelda game I tried was Skyward Sword and I never finished it. I found that I was kind of done with the traditional Zelda formula. This iteration breathed new life into the franchise for me and I felt that sense of adventure and wonder I had in previous titles. If it had presented just a bit more of a challenge I think it would have been close to perfect.