The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild review – Polygon

[Ed. note: Portions of this review previously appeared in our pre-review for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The contents of this review are applicable only to the Nintendo Switch version of Breath of the Wild at this time.]

With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, one of the longest-running, most beloved video game franchises of all time feels like it’s finally moving forward.

It’s debatable whether or not Zelda as a series has been in a rut, and for how long, but it’s almost certainly fallen into a predictable pattern: an overworld with dungeons that offer items, which in turn allow access to new dungeons and means of traversal. Sure, each game had its own twist — a dark world, lycanthropy, sailing, flight — but there was a predictable path for each. It was a familiar loop, and a successful one, given the series’ regard.

Somewhere in the transition from the overhead perspective of the 8- and 16-bit Zelda titles to the third dimension added with the Nintendo 64’s Ocarina of Time, Nintendo seemed to lose faith in players’ ability to figure things out. One of the worst offenders: relentless, unskippable introductory sections that could drag on for hours as each game made absolutely sure you understood how to play it — by having you perform the same basic mechanical tasks in numerous mundane ways.

But five and a half years since 2011’s Skyward Sword, Nintendo apparently rediscovered that faith.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the biggest, most open Zelda game ever made, but it also brings with it a massive change in design philosophy, and the way it treats players. Breath of the Wild is the first main Zelda title since 1991 (2013’s Link to the Past sequel A Link Between Worlds notwithstanding) to feel like it respects its players implicitly.

In return, Breath of the Wild demands your respect. And if you forget that for longer than a few minutes, it’ll remind you by knocking you flat on your ass.

Breath of the Wild isn’t without some of the same basic Zelda foundation. You play as Link, the hero of fantasy world Hyrule, though what that means and who Link is differs from previous games somewhat (as it does in every Zelda game). The story opens as a confused Link awakens to a world he doesn’t recognize. Mystery is everywhere, from the hint of hyper-advanced fantasy technology to the evidence all around of a disastrous, society-ending war.

The narrative setup is more or less perfect for a Zelda game, because it provides just enough familiarity to feel like it’s supposed to for old fans, and leaves enough holes to instill a real sense of mystery. Link moves through the world like a ghost, and it suits the voiceless character well.

New spins on familiar Zelda archetypes are typical from game to game, but Nintendo’s EPD team has also retooled many of the basic character tropes and ideas that have remained a constant for the series’ existence. There are character relationships at work that are not what you expect, and I was genuinely surprised by a number of implied stories and relationships. I expect Breath of the Wild’s narrative and character departures from Zelda precedent to stir at least some amount of controversy, which is mostly a good thing.

All of this is painted in the most sophisticated visual style and presentation Zelda has ever seen. The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword were striking in their own ways, but Breath of the Wild is their clear culmination. It is a frequently stunning, consistently striking visual achievement, evocative of legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli’s films in a way that seems lovingly influenced rather than derivative. It also happens to include some of the best, most varied music the series has ever had, and, for the first time in a Zelda game, voice acting for a number of characters.

In all likelihood, Nintendo could have made a traditional Zelda game with Breath of the Wild’s art direction and production values and received the biggest accolades the series has seen since 1998’s Ocarina of Time. It looks that good.

Of course, that isn’t the game Nintendo made.

If you’ve played any previous Zelda game, the following statement should rock you on your heels: Every mission-critical tool and item in Breath of the Wild is obtained within the first hour or two of play in an expanded sandbox that acts as a tutorial without mindless compulsory tasks.

Breath of the Wild’s various locations are gated behind specific kinds of equipment less than in any other third-person Zelda game. The geographic options in front of me felt almost overwhelming right from the start, and that was just in the opening space. Once you obtain a specific item that allows you to leave that plateau, Hyrule is your oyster. It just happens to be an oyster full of really angry monsters and ancient death machines that will murder you if they see you.

Breath of the Wild is, without question or debate, the hardest Zelda game of the last 20 years. The first 20 minutes or so are pretty low-key — you can kill the scrub Bokoblins and other minor enemies you meet without much trouble, using nothing more than a tree branch picked up off the ground. But once you leave the initial learning spaces and venture into more typical zones, you’re probably going to die.

You’re probably going to die a lot, honestly. Often without much warning. Or at least I did.

Often, the only indication Breath of the Wild might give that you are under-equipped for the space you’re in is an enemy taking you from, say, six hearts to a quarter of one in a single axe swipe or spear lunge (assuming, you know, they don’t just kill you outright). Or, like I said, they’ll just kill you with no real fanfare or warning, and the game will reload you fairly close to where you were, with you hopefully having learned an important lesson about Hyrule’s ecosystem and its desire for you not to exist in it.

Comparisons to games like Dark Souls are probably inevitable, but they’re not exactly fair. You don’t lose anything when you die, other than the time lost getting back to where you were. You do have to contend with equipment with a finite life span, however, and resources will often be scarce unless you gather ingredients to make potions and meals.

A side note: While I wholeheartedly approve of Breath of the Wild getting out of its own way immediately, I really would have appreciated any tutorial whatsoever on cooking, something the game doesn’t care to elaborate on in any meaningful way until well into the experience.

Cooking and crafting is something I’ve typically avoided in open-world action RPGs in the last several years; I find this kind of thing incredibly boring. But for whatever reason, cooking and mixing in Breath of the Wild feels a little more loose and a little more immediately rewarding, and, well, it’s an absolute necessity.

There’s a practical reason for this. While spaces in Breath of the Wild aren’t item-gated, exactly, aside from the aforementioned enemies that will smash you, they can be beyond your physical capabilities. While Link is physically capable — he can climb most walls and use a sort of hang glider, and he can swim right away, no items required — more strenuous activity depletes Link’s limited stamina bar. However, if you cook the right things together, you can create meals and elixirs that, say, refill your stamina completely, or even give you temporary extra stamina that might allow you to reach a spot you otherwise couldn’t.

Also, if you don’t make meals that give you more than a heart or two back — or, eventually, that give you bonus temporary hearts — you’re not going to survive against more powerful common enemies you’ll find out in the world.

At first, this all feels like a lot to keep track of and consider while playing a Zelda game, but it quickly became second nature for me. And it all ties into the first idea I talked about above: that Breath of the Wild feels like the first third-person, big-budget Zelda game to eschew a meandering, elaborate, incredibly extended tutorial section. Breath of the Wild teaches you to play it, don’t get me wrong. The plateau you start on gives you the powers and abilities you’ll use for much of the game’s puzzle solving via shrines, and each shrine is a series of instructional scenarios for a particular ability. But you can also screw around and kill Bokoblins and climb and explore the area to your heart’s content, if that’s what you want to do, and you could spend hours doing it before you left for the rest of Hyrule.

That respect radiates outward. The puzzle logic in Breath of the Wild feels legitimately logical, and smartly physics-based. There are optional shrines scattered throughout Hyrule that act as mini puzzle dungeons, and almost without exception, they’ve all been a lot of fun to figure out. By the end of most Zelda games, I’ve felt that the game had just about exhausted its ideas for puzzles and dungeons. After solving 50 shrines over 60-70 hours in Breath of the Wild, I’m still looking for more.

Shrines aren’t the only place where Breath of the Wild invites quick thinking. Hyrule is full of emergent opportunities to push your basic understanding of the world and its rules, which only works because of how clever it all is. Weather and elements play a key role, and each act the way that they should, and, as importantly in a video game, Nintendo EPD goes out of its way to explain in multiple instances how that environment works. Many games — many Zelda games, even — are plagued by “video game logic,” rules that masquerade as common sense but are, more often, the solutions a designer thought a problem should have. But Breath of the Wild teaches you again and again how things work, and the end result was a feeling of achievement in figuring things out that didn’t just seem like guesswork.

Breath of the Wild isn’t just difficult for the sake of it, or unnecessarily complicated. All that discovery and progress is deeply, intensely rewarding, and it builds on itself many times over as the world opens up. I struggled to force myself to push toward the game’s conclusion for this review — a conclusion that could have come much sooner, as players are free to try skipping much of the game’s quest for a straight-shot gambit at Breath of the Wild’s main threat.

That sense of consistent achievement and discovery is incredibly important, because it’s the driving force behind Breath of the Wild. Combat is functional, and I rarely died because of systemic inadequacies — and can I just, for a moment, appreciate playing a console Zelda title whose controls were not designed around motion input?

It’s really nice to not have to swing a Wiimote to use Breath of the Wild’s arsenal.

Even combat is subject to the same sort of discovery that makes Hyrule such a pleasure to explore, and subject to Breath of the Wild’s experimental proclivities. Weapons are no longer permanent companions. This means you’ll need to learn how to use various options presented to you, and getting attached to any one thing is inviting heartbreak when it literally shatters on the last enemy you’ll ever hit with it. This includes bows, by the way.

Other series staples have gained additional utility with their temporary life spans. Example: Boomerangs are now dual-use tools that can be wielded as melee weapons or thrown in traditional Zelda fashion, but if you do the latter, you’ll need to be quick and catch it on the way back.

This adds another notable source of excitement to Breath of the Wild, which is important in part because of what the game takes away. While this new take on Hyrule is crawling with dungeons and full of treasure chests, the dungeons lack the same kind of reward loop that proved so deeply satisfying in every other Zelda game. Set-piece dungeons in previous Zelda titles yielded key gear required to advance in the game, providing new abilities and opening up new areas of the map. In Breath of the Wild, those chests have weapons that will eventually break, or Rupees or, perhaps most anticlimactically, crafting materials.

I can live with that kind of compromise, even if it was an absence that became more and more apparent over time. Breath of the Wild’s other minor issues are less understandable. While the controls are generally excellent, especially on the Switch’s Pro Controller, the camera can occasionally be a real jerk, particularly while using a bow around trees or fighting multiple enemies in tight quarters. And from a technical perspective, while Breath of the Wild is beautiful, playing the game docked on my TV often resulted in severe frame rate drops. It was never unplayable, but it was distracting.

These problems never manifested while playing Breath of the Wild on the Switch undocked as a handheld. While that wasn’t my preferred way to play — when the Pro Controller is an option, the Joy-Cons’ layouts feel like a punishment by comparison — there is something impressive about a full console Zelda experience on a handheld.

Breath of the Wild is the most vital Zelda has felt in decades

I guess, in the end, it’s not just that Breath of the Wild signals that Zelda has finally evolved and moved beyond the structure it’s leaned on for so long. It’s that the evolution in question has required Nintendo to finally treat its audience like intelligent people. That newfound respect has led to something big, and different, and exciting. But in an open world full of big changes, Breath of the Wild also almost always feels like a Zelda game — and establishes itself as the first current, vital-feeling Zelda in almost 20 years.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was reviewed using a pre-release physical copy of the game for the Nintendo Switch provided by Nintendo of America. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.