Following the convoluted mess of ideas that was the previous Zelda instalment, Skyward Sword, and being the flagship title for the Nintendo Switch, Breath Of The Wild [BOTW] had a lot riding on it. By all measures, it has exceeded expectations.
The plot of BOTW can be summed up quickly. It is one hundred years after Hyrule was destroyed by Gannon and an army of robots, and it is up to you to vanquish Gannon, saving Zelda. The plot would be entirely forgettable, if the game didn’t do such a good job of keeping your attention focused on that inevitable end fight. Gannon’s fortress, Hyrule Castle, is almost always visible at the centre of the map, and the ruins of his invasion are strewn all around your travels.
This focus is present in almost all gameplay elements too, as each Divine Beast (ancient mechs for fighting Gannon) you gather and each dungeon you complete only serves to give you more of a fighting chance in the final confrontation. At any point in the game the player can choose to go fight Gannon, regardless of their level of preparation. This gives the player absolute control over their journey, and almost everyone’s paths through this world will be different. This is where the game shines the most; every in area you visit and quest you complete is something you chose to do to prepare for the ultimate task. There’s no requirement to trudge through an arbitrary number of tasks before being allowed to take on the final boss.
The gameplay is hugely satisfying. The varieties of enemies and weapons forces you up a rather steep learning curve. This challenge is compounded by the harsh weapon degradation system, which often forces the player to improvise from whatever they can scrounge together from dead enemies. While it may annoy some players that when they finally find a good weapon, it will be broken in a matter of a few fights, it does stop that standard RPG problem of just finding a good weapon and sticking with it for the whole game.
Link’s new suite of abilities allow you to really use the environment around you, which encourages the player to remain situationally aware at all times. This gives the combat a really satisfying feel when you manage to take on a group of enemies far beyond your current ability, by using all the skills in your tool belt to creatively handle situations. However, you can and do find yourself in impossible fights where you just don’t have enough healing items or attacking power to take on an enemy successfully.
The game does give players a way of overcoming this, through cooking; if you really devote yourself to becoming Hyrule’s greatest gourmande, you can effectively take on anything. For the majority of players not willing to spend hours on end hunting for the perfect health-buffing mushroom, you will have to manage your culinary resources a bit more wisely. With that said, for the particularly skilled player (cough cough, those Dark Souls Players among you) even the most powerful of enemies can be taken out at any level with a well timed block. In the end, the choice is left to you as to what playstyle you want to take without having to force through a skill tree system. This really makes the game feel like a personal journey, as if you really were a knight on a quest to save his princess by whatever means necessary.
The narrative elements of BOTW are a mixed bag. On one hand, the world itself is enthralling, with the map consisting of vastly different climates, races and settlements. Each place has its own story about how it survived the calamity and an entirely different design. One can pick pretty much any point on the map and find a ruin of old Hyrule, a camp of monsters or a shrine, with the ability to climb anywhere facilitating the adventurer.
Shrines are a new edition to the franchise and are typically one or two rooms of puzzles with one chest and one power up received at the end. Whilst they are satisfying to complete, they are a bore to look at, with all of them having the same rather flat, blocky design. Despite these dungeons being built by an advanced ancient race, we don’t learn anything of their story from them, so often they become rather forgettable – with the exception of a few of the harder ones.
It’s also a shame that with such a rich world, the NPCs are so shallow. Few of them have an back story, or much to say. The voice acting is uninspired, even for the more interesting primary characters. The worst offender of all is Link, who rarely reacts with any real emotion to the really heart-wrenching things we encounter in game. Thankfully Zelda was well created, with convincing voice acting and a developed personality. Overall, the characterisation amounts to a massive waste of potential in the game.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an immensely enjoyable game with tight combat, solid visuals and player freedom but it’s stopped just short of brilliance by one dimensional characters and poor narrative. Despite these flaws, BOTW still easily delivers one of the most compelling open world experiences the industry has seen in recent times.