I have held off from writing about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for some time. I didn’t want to do the game a disservice and write just about the hype that the juggernaut of a game gathered before it was unleashed on the world. The scores that followed actually put me off playing it a little as I felt no game could be that good to deserve such praise. I was a massive Zelda fan, and I approached playing with some caution. Could it really be that good?
Now I’m in my 85th hour with the game and I feel comfortable enough that I have put in the hours behind it to warrant being able to gush a little about Link’s latest quest.
The Zelda games have always had the appeal to me because they cast me back to a more innocent time when a game was meant to be fun. That’s not to say the Zelda games had no depth, far from it, the lore behind the series is one of the most in depth and confusing that you could find. You only need to look online and you will see fans arguing about where various games in the series occur in the timelines (yes, there’s more than one), whether it matters if there is a timeline, and general discussion all round that wouldn’t look out of place on a Tolkien forum – it’s that detailed!
So what is the appeal of the Zelda series for me? Well to start with I like to think of the Zelda series as a storybook game. Each one isn’t concerned with a joined narrative relating to the last game, the most you will get is a subtle nod to other incarnations at best, it’s the appeal of a story that links itself throughout time. There is something quite tragic about the character of Link. Forever burdened to be reborn when Ganon (or Ganondorf) comes into the world, and with him comes Zelda. They are essentially balance in a world of chaos. Evil cannot exist without Good sending a warrior to overthrow him. When we always start a Zelda game we will be reminded of the Hero of Time. An ancient hero, fond of green, who defeated evil so long ago – and we are often reminded that the evil can return again. Nintendo generally use the same recipe for each game, and it could be argued that you are playing the same beats with a tweaked story wrapped around it. I think that’s the appeal of the whole series for me though – it’s timeless.
Does Breath of the Wild pull the same trick though? Yes it does. It just gives us a bigger world to play in. When Nintendo first announced they were going to be developing a truly open-world Zelda game, even I scoffed at the idea. Nintendo have been very well-known for choosing their words carefully – what they consider open-world could be considered not by some naysayers. So I really was pleasantly surprised when I booted the game up and was presented with a map so huge I didn’t know where to begin. And that really is the trick here – there is no fixed path to follow. You are cast into this world, given the basics and the basic quest you have been put there to do, and you’re off on your own. You don’t even have to follow the main quest. If you feel like spending hours hunting, paragliding, or surfing off a mountain, it’s all here for you to do. At no time is there a pressure to do anything you don’t want to do. Nintendo haven’t just given us an open-world game. They have given us a world to live in.
Take the time when you load the game up. Look at the animals in the game. Look at the subtle movements they produce. Look at how they take off and react to you. They feel real. As though they are responding to a detected threat. When you first find a horse and have to tame it, it never feels like we are using a mode of transport but a living, breathing creature. These horses don’t always follow your commands, they will need calming down or encouragement as they react to the environments we encounter. It’s all the polish I have come to expect from Nintendo. And I think that’s what sets this apart from many other RPGs out there – it’s just so damn well made. The game feels like it’s a handcrafted labour of love. Whenever I play, and I have been visiting that world a lot, I never feel frustrated, I feel enchanted. One of my friends summed this up perfectly ‘I’m seven years old again,’ and he’s right in so many ways. The Zelda games have a way of tapping into our inner child. They offer us so much wonder and joy when playing them. There is always the hint that there is so much more out there in Hyrule, they offer a world of possibilities using smoke and mirrors to make us believe.
Whereas many games will rely on cutscenes, BotW doesn’t pull this trick. It has cutscenes in it but they are few and far between. Nintendo have followed the storytelling rule of ‘show’ don’t ‘tell’ we are left to discover the lore of this world ourselves. My mind boggled at where to place this in the timeline. I saw hints of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword offered up, and I found myself feeling those stories were myth, just as the characters in the game did also. And talking of characters many old favourites have found their way into BotW. Recast and reborn to fit new key roles in this game, but the gang is all here (mostly).
Breath of the Wild isn’t afraid to make changes to its status quo. Gone are Link’s trademark green threads. Instead we are left with heavy customisation options for our attire. In fact you never have to wear that suit at all if you don’t want to. It does exist in the game, but it’s not a requirement. The same goes for the Master Sword. It is there to quest for, but by no means is it necessary to complete the game. The game is so open in its narrative and questing options that you could just run straight up to Ganon’s attack on Hyrule Castle the minute you wake up. There’s nothing stopping you. I wouldn’t recommend this as a course of action, but the option is there if you wish to take it.
So where are we in the game? Well, we have awoken in a time when Ganon has overrun Hyrule. It’s only Zelda locked in an endless loop with him that stops him from covering the lands in his darkness. Link, mortally wounded 100 years ago, awakes with a bad case of amnesia, and has to piece together his consciousness as he journeys through the game. He’s building Link, we’re discovering who Link is. It’s a clever narrative move, and that’s another thing about this game, there’s never dialogue for dialogues sake. Most of the fame is still told through subtitles with the occasional grunt offered up by various characters. The character designs are varied as well. Each character you encounter will have some sort of personality to them. Whether flamboyant or shy, they all seems to possess idiosyncrasies that make us want to get to know them more. Some of the characters can be real jerks, some are con artists, some are thieves. They all have the failing we have as humans ourselves.
Take a moment in the game to look upon a bokoblin encampment. You’ll see various creatures that could have come straight out of a Jim Henson sketchbook, all dancing and talking. There’s something quite fantastical about the whole thing. It’s little details like this that make the game so enjoyable.
The game really is a masterpiece of design. Apart from another Zelda game there really isn’t much to compare it to. It would be unfair to ask the question is it the greatest game I have ever played? At the moment I would be inclined to say no, but it’s damn close to the top.
In a world that demands violence and blood from our RPGS, BotW treads a fine line between acknowledging their is evil in the world that should be destroyed, but not necessarily having to show you every detail. Nintendo aren’t shy of giving you details of battle, actually one of the pieces of loot you can collect are guts from the various creatures and use it to swap with traders.
The experience playing this has been nothing short of pleasurable. I would actually say it’s a work of art, like some painting that we have fell into. The game feels like a snapshot into another life and that’s what makes it almost perfect. We are treated to an experience rather than a game that distracts us for a few hours. I can envisage I will still be playing this game in some capacity this time next year. I was one of the fools who bought a Switch just to play the new Zelda on. Do I regret doing this? No, I think it’s worth the money. The fact I can take Zelda on the go with me is worth the price itself.
I’m keen to see what Nintendo offer in the way of DLC for the game. Whatever they have cooking, they have a hungry customer right here ready to eat.