It’s been four years since the Nintendo Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released in North America. At the time, I was just a junior in college doing my best to save money. I had recently sold my Xbox to buy some last minute books and all I had was my N64 to hold me over. I watched the release of the Nintendo Switch with envy.
The Switch looked like the perfect console for my lifestyle at the time, where I was rarely in my own home, and Breath of the Wild looked like the exact kind of game that scratched that exploration itch that I never could fully satisfy. As the months wore on, I secretly put some money here and there to buy the console and in November I finally pulled the trigger and got a Switch and Zelda. To say that I was addicted from the start would be an understatement since I think I racked over 90 hours in the game in the first week or two.
I was completely pulled into the world and since we were going into the winter season in Pennsylvania, I was inside more and more. I get restless when I have to stay inside long periods and games that allow me to explore other worlds and get lost in their atmosphere are typically my favorite games. Breath of the Wild didn’t disappoint and I believe it was the perfect game for me at the time.
However, that was four years ago. How does the game hold up and does it support several replays without becoming tedious? I will save you the trouble of reading on because it most certainly does but it’s how Breath of the Wild manages to stay fresh and thrilling that is so important to discuss.
Cue the training montage
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is about the downfall of the Hyrule Kingdom after a war 100 years before where a great hero and his sword disappeared. All the other heroes of the era were killed so the only chance the kingdom has to be saved is for that hero to resurface and defend the kingdom once again.
When Link wakes up in the Shrine of Resurrection, the only knowledge he has retained is how to get dressed and climb cliffs. Only the bare essentials are left in the mind of our hero as he is tasked with finding a way off the plateau that Zelda left him stranded on 100 years ago to ready himself to fight Calamity Ganon. The plateau is one of the best designed intro levels in gaming history with a variety of basic enemies to fight, a varied ecosystem, and a large part of the game’s sandbox to play in.
Link meets an old man who tells him he must use the Sheikah Slate to activate the shrines that have risen around the plateau because each one will activate new powers that Link can use to survive. The powers are the main way the player can manipulate their environment with abilities like magnetism which allows the player to move most metal objects. They are great fun to use and open up a lot of possibilities for combat and exploration. Nothing is as fun as lifting a discarded enemy weapon and dropping it directly on them while they sleep. The other abilities are just as useful with stasis freezing objects and storing up any momentum that it gains during the stasis period. The stored momentum is then unleashed all at once causing the object to fly into the horizon. Or the different shaped remote bombs that allow Link to take out enemies or break down weak walls in the environment.
Each of these abilities are locked away in a shrine which are mini puzzle rooms that the player must use different game mechanics to solve. They might require gliding, item manipulation or even using the Nintendo Switch gyro function to move a ball through a maze. They vary pretty significantly which is impressive since there are 120 of them in the base game. Each shrine offers rewards for navigating them successfully and rewards the player with items like weapons and armor and special items called spirit orbs. Every four spirit orbs allow Link to upgrade his health and stamina bars so it is critical to collect as many as you can.
The plateau tutorial organically encourages the player to learn the different mechanics to survive in the world like when the final shrine is located in a colder region of the plateau, Link must learn to survive. There are two ways a player might learn to easily traverse the snowy climate: they might find the old man’s cottage and read a journal entry about using food to stay warm or they might brave the weather only to admit to defeat around a Bekoblin encampment.
The Bekoblin’s campfire keeps the warmth in Link’s fingers and the player can realize that heat can be used for survival. Using a torch or tree branch, the player can bring that fire with them on the rest of their climb towards the next objective. The secret to moving forward is usually close by and only takes a little exploration and creativity to take full advantage of and that is the game’s biggest strength. The ability to give players this huge area to play in with challenging enemies and a merciless environment while at the same time giving them something to fall back on is very well done.
Whew, that was a lot to explain and that was just the tutorial level. The Great Plateau is meaty and gives beginner players plenty of time to properly prepare before hopping off on their adventure to liberate the Divine Beasts and stop Ganon. However, this wasn’t my first adventure in apocalyptic Hyrule. I knew the ins and outs of the different abilities so I chose to play through on Master Mode. Master mode not only makes the game harder but it changes enemy spawns so even the plateau has its own Lynel walking around ready to pounce on an unsuspecting hero. On top of that, enemy health regenerates if you take too long between dealing damage. The mode requires you to be strategic, fast, and concise in your attacks.
The journey truly begins
Finally, I dipped and dodged around all the Bekoblins and the Lynel on the Great Plateau, activated all the shrines, and let the old man (who is really the King of Hyrule) talk my ear off about the history of his defeat. After the history lesson, the King offered me a paraglider and I was free to liberate Hyrule’s countryside.
The paraglider allows the player to fall with style and safely ignore the heights of the Great Plateau. The only restriction the player has to contend with is the stamina bar but even if a player jumps from a great height and uses the glider at the last moment all of their momentum will be cancelled out. Effectively, falling to your death in BoTW isn’t something you normally have to worry too much about.
Once I was safely in the meadows below the plateau, I began to enjoy the game that way I typically do which is treating it like an adventure in Lord of the Rings walking from place to place and taking breaks at campfires to regain strength. The joy in BoTW is the scope for me. For instance, I was speaking to a man on a bridge who was stressing out about the shrines that had recently appeared all over the kingdom. While I listened to his worries, I noticed the shadows moving at our feet and looked up.
The clouds were moving across the sky indicating both a passage of time and changing wind patterns. The developers actually programed wind patterns into the game and that is just fantastic attention to detail. Austin from the Game Theorists actually made a really great video analyzing these wind patterns. Though it has very little impact on the overall gameplay, it’s these tiny details that make the world of BoTW feel so much more real and worth exploring.
These moments add up as you hike across the diverse terrain in the game and like many of the best games, you begin to develop your own stories to tell other people. BoTW is a single player experience but I can’t remember a game that I talked to with so many people. We all shared our own experiences and stories which were incredibly varied from one another. It was so cool to hear that some of them went in completely different starting directions which meant they had access to a completely different set of weapons and challenges than I did. It really makes you realize how replayable the game is when you hear other people’s stories adventuring in the game.
It’s not all sunbathing and Bekoblin hunting
As much as I enjoy the core gameplay loop of running around and exploring new areas, Link does have a mission to accomplish. Link is tasked with liberating four Divine Beasts to help him bring down Calamity Ganon. The game doesn’t force you to use the Divine Beasts but doing so makes the final fight with Ganon a lot easier.
Each Divine Beast is located in a distinct region of the world and is looked after by a different race of beings. For instance, the Divine Beast Vah Ruta, a giant elephant, is located in Zora’s Domain and spouts water from its giant trunk which rains down on the region like a perpetual rain storm. Or the Divine Beast Vah Naboris, a giant camel, stomps around the desert causing a giant sandstorm. They have tremendous power and until they are liberated will cause havoc for the regions they are located in.
However, before Link can save the ancient beasts, he must first gain the trust of the people in those regions. Each region contains their own quest line to gain access to the Divine Beast and for the most part each region’s quests are very enjoyable. I’ll admit that I really dislike the Gerudu Desert’s quest where you must sneak into the Yiga Clan’s hideout to steal back a priceless artifact. The sneaking through the hideout can feel tedious and sometimes I feel cheated out of my victory by an overly suspicious guard. Despite that, the quest is still enjoyable and the leader of the Yiga Clan reminds me a lot of season 1 Michael Scott from the Office.
The Beasts themselves are large dungeons that require some thought to figure out. I enjoy all of their challenges but they do make me wish that there were more challenging dungeons in the base game because the shrine puzzles can feel a little too easy most of the time.
Enemies are tough
After you complete all the puzzles in a Divine Beast, you are able to fight a piece of Ganon that is infecting the beast. Each mini Ganon is themed based on the hero they defeated in battle. They are tough and require that you use everything at your disposal to defeat them. In some instances, it is prudent to prepare before hand so that you don’t have to work harder during the fight like bringing enough arrows to shoot Waterblight Ganon while he floats in the water unconscious.
Speaking of Waterblight Ganon, I only just realized that version of Ganon is the only one that manipulates the entire battlefield. The second stage of the fight becomes flooded with water and four platforms appear for the player to fight on. I think it would have been a lot cooler if all the Ganon’s did something just as transformative instead of the powered up elemental attacks they normally use. The water is one of the most challenging defenses the Ganons can use because you can’t fight in the water. Your ability to fight becomes severely restricted by the lack of space and that makes it that much more exhilarating.
Imagine if Thunderblight Ganon had fought on a stage with moving metal platforms, walls, and other sections that Link had to stand on and avoid in order to fight back. Maybe even using the Divine Beast controls to move the platforms to secure a better angle. There is so much potential for these boss battles to be some of the most interesting in Zelda’s history but they just missed the opportunity to do so.
Enjoying the little moments
If you read my top ten moments in Breath of the Wild, you will know that I just love the atmosphere of this game. I am completely okay with wandering the forests, deserts, coasts, and mountains enjoying the serenity of the region before Bekoblin skeletons rise from the ground. I think the people who will get the most enjoyment from BoTW are the people who are okay with the slow pace of the game because at its core, Breath of the Wild is a game about exploration.
The games that completely absorb me will always be the ones that give me a sense of wonder. Breath of the Wild’s biggest accomplishment is that it throws you into an expansive world and says, “Now go!” You start walking and when you come across a mountain on the horizon, chances are you can go up there. Everything you see in the game, you can run to, climb up, and explore. There are few restrictions beyond Link’s stamina bar to prevent you from going anywhere you want in the world.
Of course, there are boundaries to the world, but the game’s map is so big that it is easy to ignore that fact. The developers also used the natural geography of the regions to help hide these boundaries even better like the Zora region is next to the ocean. You can’t swim all the way out there so naturally you will turn your search somewhere else.
The world does everything it can to prevent you from thinking that it’s just a video game with development restrictions. Besides the shrines and Divine beasts that I have discusses already there are other hidden details that you might never find in your first playthrough.
While climbing over a mountain, I found myself looking out onto a plain of horses who were being hunted down by Bekoblins riding their own horses. Or the time I was creeping through a Moblin camp while they were celebrating something at their campsite. The Moblins throwing their giant snouts in the air and bellowing wildly while I sat behind a rock and watched. BoTW is full of moments of quiet where you can notice not only the beauty of the game’s art direction and sound but you have the chance to enjoy the innocence of the AI and the world at large.
But there can be too much
Rarely, will you ever get me to admit that a game that I spent money on has too much of something but Breath of the Wild manages to do just that. The game fills its expansive world with more than just amber sunsets and curious enemy AI. It also includes Koroks.
Koroks are forest spirits that have decided to play hide and seek with Link. They can be found by moving rocks, manipulating blocks to fit a pattern, diving into water, shooting balloons, and more. It makes exploring much more interesting because you can find these hidden spirits who reward your curiosity with Korok seeds. The seeds can then be used to upgrade your inventory slots with each upgrade requiring a few more seeds each time.
Now this is a genius and low stakes way of making people explore this giant world that they might miss otherwise if they only played the main story. The problem lies with how many of these spirits there are in the game. I would be okay with 100, 200, and maybe even 300 but Nintendo decided that the best course of action was to include over 900 Korok seeds in the game. That is a little ridiculous. Not only is that a grueling number of collectables but the seeds are required for 100 percent completion. Breath of the Wild doesn’t give the player any way to track their progress and has no in game option to track the seeds down besides a DLC armor piece. The armor only makes a sound if you are close to a seed so it is still extremely limited in its benefits to finding all 900 seeds.
I try to 100 percent all my games to get the most bang for my buck but the challenge of collecting all the seeds just isn’t worth it. It takes too long and would require me to use a guide anyway to complete it. In the end, the task feels more like work than any real challenge. The concept is great for progression and giving more to the player for exploring but the extent to which the developers took the challenge was a bit much. I would rather start a new playthrough than waste my time collecting seeds long after Ganon’s spirit has been removed from Hyrule.
And then the developers added more
I don’t want to dwell too long on the DLC but Nintendo added two expansions to the game. The first was The Master Trials which are a set of challenges that take away armor and weapons from the player much like Eventide Island. The reward for completing the trials is an upgraded Master Sword. It is a fun challenge and requires the player to know what they are doing especially if they try it on the newly added Master Mode which makes all the enemies tougher. After completing everything else in the game, The Master Trials are a great opportunity to use everything you have learned over the course of the game.
The second expansion was The Champions Ballad and included a host of new missions, armor, and upgrades for Link. This is one of my favorite additions to the game because it offered so much more content for the player to experience while making them really over powered if they fully completed it. For my latest playthrough I definitely relied on it to upgrade my Guardian abilities. The missions are challenging and they even include cut scenes of the guardians which help to flesh them out much more than the base game.
Breath of the Wild is one of the best games to come out in the last decade. With its unmatched level of exploration, incredible art direction and sheer amount of content, everyone should do themselves a favor and try it at some point in their lives. I can only hope that the sequel to BoTW is just as expansive and innovative in its gameplay but I guess we will just have to wait and see what’s over the horizon.