Written by James Nicolay
Genre: Action, Adventure, RPG
Nintendo, 2017, reviewed after 185+ hours of playing on the Nintendo Switch
Where does one begin when reviewing a game that critics and gamers alike have been calling a candidate for being the greatest video game of all time? So many things have been written, discussed about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the past few days ever since it came out, and yet, here I am, almost two hundred hours into the game, having finished the main quest of the game and having found and solved all the 120 shrines and collected 645 of the 900 korok seeds (or merely 78% in completion rate), I still feel that the experience of playing this game cannot be put in a single review essay. But I will try.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a full reimagining of a rich gaming world, the Hyrule kingdom of the Zelda gaming franchise, that many gamers have been familiar with since the first Zelda game in the classic NES or Famicom era. The 'legend' of Zelda, in a nutshell, is a simple narrative of a hero (Link), a princess (Zelda), and an enemy (Ganon) that is retold again and again in many different ways, paving the way for some theories how they all fit in a single timeline. But what makes The Legend of Zelda games enjoyable to this day is how each and every game in the franchise gives the gamers different gaming experiences, sometimes pushing the boundaries of the technology of the gaming platform of the times when they were released. Fans have seen the Zelda games evolve into many different looks and gameplay throughout the dozens of releases in the past 30 years.
Personally, I haven't finished the first Zelda game with my Famicom. I would only appreciate a Zelda game when I gave the 3D version of Ocarina of Time a try--and man, the experience of finishing the best reviewed game of all time (according to Metacritic) was memorable. I went on to play at least six more Zelda games, and found most of them intriguing, challenging, and fun. Through out the years, I understand the common criticism against some Zelda titles--they're well-crafted games but the linear approach and predictability of the game aspects were starting to become more apparent. Gamers started clamoring for a Skyrim version of a Zelda game--where gamers can finally be free and roam around the Hyrule Kingdom however as gamers would please. Nintendo listened to the fans and critics, and this approach was finally applied in a smaller scale in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, a critically-acclaimed 3DS game released in 2013, where the formula of dungeon-solve-with-the-new-weapon-next-dungeon-rinse-repeat is finally broken. I remember at one point that Eiji Aonuma, producer and overall THE legendary man in charge of the Zelda games development, that A Link Between Worlds would definitely affect the next main Zelda game for the home console.
Gamers have waited patiently for Breath of the Wild since its initial reveal in E3 2014, originally slated for the Wii U console. Three years of delay, development, and rabid anticipation from the fans, the newest major Zelda game ends up getting released along side the latest home console, the Nintendo Switch. And wow, all the years of waiting have been so worth it. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the perfect amalgamation of traditional Zelda games and innovation brought about by the modern games of today. Breath of the Wild breathes new life to the Zelda series and, possibly, rejuvenates the entire gaming industry as a whole as it educates other game developers that THIS is how games should be released.
We live in a video gaming era filled with day one patches, required downloads that would make the game playable. The day I purchased my Nintendo Switch, I was able to play the game literally 5 minutes after bringing the console and the game out of the gaming shop. With the portability of the Switch and the quality control of the release, Nintendo has just schooled every other AAA game companies with how convenient it is to just play the Breath of the Wild in the quickest way possible. Granted that there was still a day one patch that took less than 2 minutes to download (to add the DLC option and amiibo function), and the game is definitely playable even without the patch.
More than a hundred hours into the game, I am pleasantly surprised that I have yet to encounter a game-breaking bug, that usually plagues open-world, sandbox games. Nintendo delayed the release of the game, but the result of the game being so stable that it is close to a phenomenon, if juxtaposed to the common trend of how many video games are released today as broken, unfinished, and, ultimately, buggy.
Wow, and I haven't even begun to describe the game experience just yet. (But I did warn you in the first paragraph: where does one begin in writing about a GREAT game, or possibly THE GREATEST GAME?)
What makes The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild great? Let me highlight three points.
I. The GAMEPLAY
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a video game that can appeal to many types of gamers. I have read and heard stories about non-gamers being able to find something interesting, exploring Hyrule kingdom at their own pace.
There are puzzle elements found in the 120 shrines in the huge overworld, which I personally found interesting as I like being able to feel intelligent when playing games--that aha! experience is pretty intoxicating especially when other games seem to hold your hand too much or give you tons of instructions, often insulting your intelligence or gaming experience.
But there is also a game in Breath of the Wild for hardcore gamers who want to be challenged--I have a friend who plays the game by limiting himself to play with only three hearts in order to maximize the difficulty and also to self-impose a hero mode, as featured in other Zelda games.
And there's also a room for people into looking for some stories in a game, exploration of every nook and cranny of Hyrule, and to those who are into collectibles and maximizing all aspects of the game.
There is a game here that can be enjoyed by almost any type of gamer.
As a gamer, I'm more into puzzles, action, and collecting stuff. Having solved and found all of the shrines in the game, I can conclusively say that the puzzle elements of Breath of the Wild are topnotch. You are given all the tools for solving the puzzles in the first two hours of the game, and just using your wit in solving (and even finding) the shrine challenges is deeply satisfying. The action-filled encounters with the enemies can also be approached in many different ways. The weapons, armors, abilities, and perks you collect ultimately count as you outwit and outplay every enemy you encounter from the simplest to the most complex of all the bosses in the game. The common complain about this game is the durability of the weapons--to which I actually contest that this is part of the challenge of managing one's inventory of weapons and planning one's game experience.
At the end of the main quest of Breath of the Wild, you can still explore and challenge yourself to collect what you have missed. I'm close to two hundred hours, and I still find excitement at the thought of finding something I haven't seen before. The adventure goes on to those who just want to revisit Breath of the Wild's expansive and challenge-filled world.
Granted that the game has some problems in frame rate dips and maybe it's not as pretty as other AAA games, but still, there are moments in the game that are breathtaking. I have probably abused the screenshot function of the Nintendo Switch when I documented a lot of times when certain scenes of the game just made my heart skip a beat. Hyrule Kingdom has never looked this beautiful. And little amounts of trivial details make the entire game deeply immersive.
The intricate specifics of the game also make the game very charming and challenging: how the music and lighting complement the landscape, depending on the time of the day, on the temperature of the climate, on the presence of enemies. The clarity of water in the ponds, the blinding brightness of the desert's sand, the menacing glow of the lava of the volcano, the dreary change in the scene during a rainy day or a thunder storm--these details are a marvel to look at and experience.
I have often complained about the changes in the weather, how lightning has struck me at the most inconvenient of times, and how the frequent rain just makes your climbing of a mountain a chore. But another stroll at the green cliffs during a beautiful sunset, climbing the pristine white snow-capped mountains, and just seeing the animation of the blades of grass swaying with the wind--they all balance the beauty and terrific powers of nature in the game.
There was a time that I told myself that maybe what makes Breath of the Wild better than the previous Zelda games is how the environment (the world, the wilderness) seems to be a character in the game as well. Quite literally, the 'breath of the wild' refers to how the world comes alive as you play. I'm reminded of how Ocarina of Time made use of music appropriately and effectively as part of the game and how Majora's Mask used the element of time as well--Breath of the Wild's use of the lush, energetic, serene, violent, kinesthetic, beautiful environment for gaming purpose is exceptionally done well as it adds a meaningful layer of challenge for the gamers.
Here's where The Legend of Zelda is defiantly and beautifully Japanese: the Shintoist virtues of showing the beauty and power of natural environment is part of the soul of the game. Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the original Zelda, was inspired by his walks around the idyllic Japan in his childhood. There are scenes and landscapes in Breath of the Wild that makes you just pause and appreciate how nature is majestically calm and powerful at the same time.
There are other gaming articles that have enlisted the various quirks and nuances of the game that make the gaming experience of Breath of the Wild unlike any other. I'm a fan of the weirdness of Japanese aesthetics at times--like how some details are sickeningly cute (like all of those collectible korok seeds, or even the dancing of the maracas-holding Hestu), strangely creepy (like Kilton's appearance and monster-obsession), sexually charged (how the faeries flirtingly improve your armor, depending on the level), and puzzlingly ominous (the entire story and landscapes).
The art direction is topnotch: the animation of NPCs, of Link, and other characters are done well. There are times I feel as if I were playing in an animated film, immersed in a community of interesting characters that react to the environment and everything you do.
The world is vibrant, animated, magical.
This is definitely what reigns supreme in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Every aspect of the game seems cohesive, important, well-thought of, and essential. Everything just works seamlessly, effectively.
A lot of game critics always point out how Nintendo's level design of Super Mario Bros iconic world 1-1 as THE textbook how game levels should play. Without any instructions, a player of Super Mario Bros would know how to play the game in the first minute of playing the level. The gamer matches a controller's button with Mario's jumping, and the placement of the bricks, question blocks, and goombas are meaningful, training the gamer along the way. You go on your way figuring out how to defeat enemies and get rewarded with power and abilities along the way without a single prompt of text instruction. Super Mario Bros was intuitively effective.
I dare say that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is this gaming generation's pinnacle of game design. You are the Link of our world, and you are thrown with hardly any instructions to just explore the vast kingdom of Hyrule. In the first 2-3 hours of the game, you just get how the entire world works. The design of the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild is our generation's World 1-1--it prepares us for an adventure. You are given all the runes you need to survive. But the innovation in Breath of the Wild from Super Mario Bros' World 1-1 is that we are no longer stuck in a single level in order to challenge ourselves. We are given an entirely connected yet vast world to explore. From there, we create our own experiences in Hyrule, solving puzzles, defeating enemies, doing fun side quests, and just exploring the world with your abilities, weapons, gears, eager curiosity, and thirst for adventure.
Some internet articles have been written how adventures in Breath of the Wild vary from person to person--and hearing another person's Breath of the Wild experience propels you to go back to the game and figure out how you could also possibly experience the same thing--or challenge yourself to do better than how the other gamers did it. Three weeks into the game, I am still intrigued by how the game manages to create many kinds of gaming experiences for everybody. The game level design of this game enables players to enjoy the game in countless different ways.
One of my most memorable gaming experiences in Breath of the Wild is the Eventide Island, where the player is stripped of all the inventory of weapons, food, and armors and you are left to finish the challenges of the island by being resourceful and using your wit to finish the shrine quest of the island. That single game level is designed so well that it beats the experiences of playing many other boring, predictable full games that have been released in the recent years.
This is why I am very positively excited to see what the DLC of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be like. The addition of a new story, new hard mode, and other features make me feel happy that I would be able to revisit Breath of the Wild's Hyrule for a longer time after I have reached 100% completion soon.
I have complete faith in Nintendo that the game design of the new areas in Breath of the Wild's DLC will be topnotch as well.
There are still many points for discussion why I consider The Legend of Zelda; Breath of the Wild as possibly the greatest game of all time. I haven't talked about the amiibo functionality of the game (being an amiibo collector, no other game has made me used my amiibo this much) or even how the official guide by Piggyback makes one realize how the game is just so full of details and challenges that you can experience for hundreds of hours with or without a guide. I also haven't even mentioned yet the quirks of cooking and mixing elixirs, the strange side quests, the taming of horses, shield-surfing, conquering towers, photographing almost everything (including Link doing some strange selfies), shooting dragons, catching a falling star, riding a Unicorn, etc, etc. I could go on and on probably for a thousand more words, and I would still have things to say about why this game is great.
But I guess this will suffice:
To me, it's the perfect game to defend the claim that video games can be considered as works of art: the masterful game design and the unimaginable number of experiences that gamers can have while exploring the vast, fantastic kingdom of Hyrule make it easy to see what is so special about this latest reimagining of the classic Zelda games we have come to love for thirty years.
Maybe the video game industry can finally present its very own Mona Lisa or The Godfather. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece video game.