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Breath of the Wild Through the Lens of Truth

 
Let me begin by saying this is my sixty-second article for the site, but it took a little over sixty seconds to write. No apologies, I never would have gotten another opportunity to make that joke. Almost two years ago, I started writing for TGPZ, and one of my first few articles was the beginning of this series, reviewing the original Legend of Zelda in a setup for an objective ranking of the entire series. Honestly I thought it would be something I’d use when I couldn’t think of a unique topic for the week, but it ended up being one of my favorite things to write about, so some weeks I actually lamented writing a different article to keep the series from getting too all-up-in-your-face. Somehow I made it to the end, and today will be the final entry, solidifying the latest game, Breath of the Wild’s placement for all time! Well, to an extent.

As I have said many times, this series is as objective as I can make it, but I think objective reviews are imperfect by design, so be ready for a few opinions scattered in here and there. Oh, and if you didn’t notice already, we have a tie going on at the top of the rankings, so this entry will be shortly followed by a Top Five Zelda ranking of my five favorite games in the series, which may be objective, or just my opinions, I haven’t decided yet.

Now strap in, because this has been a wild ride of reviews so far, and this is going to be one of my favorite articles in the series, because Breath of the Wild is one of my favorite games in the series.

Graphics

I have heard only a small handful of complaints about this game’s graphics, and this has largely been by Nintendo naysayers trying to use the fact that a launch title only ran at 900p against it for the sole purpose of furthering their cause in an inane console war. This has a few problems. First of all, it does not take into account that the portable modes run at the maximum resolution of the console, nor the fact that this is an up scaled version of a game that was primarily developed for the last console generation. A Wii U game ported over for a simultaneous release on Switch cannot seriously be held to the same standards. It is clear that developers originally intended to release on Wii U alone, however the game required a few delays, and eventually it got to a point where releasing it on the Wii U alone would have left it dead on arrival. It would never have seen the staggering sales numbers it has, becoming the highest selling game in the series. Its notoriety would have been scarce, possibly being mentioned at the Game Awards due to Nintendo’s relationship with them, but alone winning Game of the Year? Maybe it still would have pulled it off, the game was great, but it would not have had the fan voices behind it, and only a select few of us hardcore series fans would be talking about it now.

Now that my required rant is out of the way, we can move on to the actual graphics. Were they below the current standard for game consoles, 1080p at 60 FPS? Yes. 900p at 30 FPS might not sound so great, but tell me this: who actually noticed? We all know what the numbers are technically, but did a single person point out that this game was ten percent more pixelated than the average game without being informed of the specs beforehand? Not that I know of, and in fact many have gone so far as to say the game’s stylized, anime-like graphics make it stack up to its contemporaries. Releasing a few weeks before Breath of the Wild was another open-world adventure for Playstation 4 that gained quite a bit of traction, you might remember Horizon Zero Dawn. While this title was the clear winner in all technical ways, (visually speaking) nobody noted this when comparing the two. The usual points of contrast were the game worlds, combat, and story. Graphics were not to be spoken of, and the reason is simple. Breath of the Wild took a different approach based on the fact that it was on a (partially) mobile platform, and so nobody noticed that the machine was less powerful.

The style of the graphics could not have gone so far as they did without the aid of a fantastic team of artists providing tons of quality illustrations from concept art to final productions for the game. This team was led by Satoru Takizawa, a long-time Nintendo artist whose first project with the company was to design the logo for Super Mario World 2. He went on to various projects including many early Nintendo 64 character designs, including Ganondorf, and was also the lead artist on Twilight Princess before this game.

Honestly, I cannot think of a better man for the job considering the art style. From the ground up, everything was true to the Zelda moniker, but still found an unparalleled uniqueness. Classic enemies like Stalfos, Hinox, Lynels, and Moblins now appear much different from before, but long-time fans will still recognize these foes through the game, and discover them all over again.

One of the sad parts of any Zelda game is that some amount of content must be cut. Beyond what was used in the game, or for promotional material, there were thousands of concept images drawn for the game, and many of them would be lost to the ages like those of games past if not for the recent publication of Creating a Champion. (or Breath of the Wild: Master Works as the Japanese version is known.) If you have not yet, I encourage anyone to check out this epic tome, as within its pages are every piece of art you know from the game, as well as an in-depth look at how these pieces came to be, and how characters were designed from stage one through the final touches. With this kind of perspective on it, I cannot help but give Breath of the Wild a perfect ten. Plus it’s just really freakin’ good.

Sound

At the time Breath of the Wild released, I had such strong opinions about the music that I actually detailed them in a musical analysis of the game, which you can read here. Largely my opinions are unchanged; the music was incredibly arranged, and other than a few outliers, I liked it a lot. Unfortunately, it just didn’t have that Legend of Zelda feel to it. This is a hard thing to objectively call bad, however, as it was generally well-received by the masses, and some go as far as to call it better than the traditional, bombastic Zelda music.

Even including my personal preference, though, I didn’t dislike the musical direction enough to discredit the rest of the sound direction. In this title above all others, the music is a minuscule portion of the overall sound in the game. The astounding attention to detail done by the designers outclasses every other title I have ever played. From the obvious sounds of flowing water and trees swaying in a breeze to the minute and minuscule auditory experiences such as a horse treading through the grass and the guttural linguistics of Moblins, every sound goes one step further than the last to immerse players into the world of Hyrule.

Now of course, every game these days has a large amount of attention paid to sound design, but this game even takes it further than most. An entire sound design team was assigned to do nothing more than record and edit the sounds of real-life horses to make the in game horses that much more believable. There is a distinct sound recorded for a Bokoblin picking its nose. As much as I appreciate modern gaming and its take on sound design, the average game contains but a fraction of the mastery seen in Breath of the Wild. A game can look great, play great, and have a great story, but if it doesn’t immerse the auditory senses, it can fall flat quickly, and kicking the butt of every other game I have ever played scores a second perfect ten.

Story

Okay, here is probably the one area which is criticized by most as being inherently flawed, and here I am to tell you that is an incorrect opinion. Okay, so we all feel differently about games and in reality. I completely support your right to have a different opinion than mine, but hear me out while I gently let you in on a little secret, and I think just maybe you’ll see it how I do. I don’t think I’ll necessarily sway you if you just don’t like the story, but I have a point behind what I’m about to say, and you’re already like halfway through my long-winded spiel, so you might as well.

Common criticisms for the story in Breath of the Wild are that it is laid out in short cut scenes which are not necessarily along a set path, there is not much detail in each cut scene, and overall there are just a ton of people who don’t like that it isn’t presented in a more “sensical” way.

Personally I thought this was a more sensical way to present a story than any previous game, but I will admit that people might not like it. Many expressed frustration in having to go out of their way to find the story because if you didn’t collect any of the optional memories, you would only have had a vague inkling of what happened in Link’s life before his amnesia. Others liked what they saw, but wanted more.

Here’s my argument to both of those: The developers made sure you experienced the story your own way, however that was. You experienced a different story than I did. I experienced a different story than any of our writers here on Two Guys Playing Zelda, and not one of them knows a single person who had an identical experience to either of us. I could go on from there, but it would mean that asking about the experiences of any number of players would simply yield a ceaseless web of new stories.

The pieces of the story are simple, but can be found in any order, or not found, or only part of them could be found. Depending on how much story you want, or what amount of story fits your particular play style, that is how much story you got. If you wanted to say screw the story and make a run for Hyrule Castle to kill Ganon naked, you could. If you found every hidden memory and the secret ending cut scene and that was not enough, you could talk to every NPC and read every book, ancient stone tablet, and road sign to discover the lore of Hyrule. Even if you did not like it, this WAS the developers’ intent, and IT WORKED. You had your own adventure, and nobody else will ever share quite the same experience.

Beyond the developers intent of writing the players’ playstyles into the story, they also integrated gameplay into the story like no other game. The story was not told to you, it was uncovered by you as it would have been along such a journey. In life, stories are never linear. On a journey as grand as Link’s, there is no way that everything would fall neatly into place and reveal the path he ought to travel every step of the way, but that is how nearly every other game has presented stories since the dawn of gaming. Stories grow and evolve differently based on who you meet and where you go, and no other game has captured such experiences like Breath of the Wild.

You have to admit, whether you like it or not, the developers set out with a mission to deliver a story in a new, unexpected, and somewhat experimental way. They wanted to deliver a non-linear experience that would be integrated heavily with the world design, and make every player see the game as something different. They dreamed of a new way to tell a story, and they brought that dream to reality. No matter what you say, it is undeniable that the intended presentation was achieved, and what higher praise can one give than that? This earns a third perfect ten. Oh, also I liked it.

Gameplay

Open-world Zelda is something I have dreamed of since the release of Twilight Princess, and many others probably hypothesized the very concept before that. The fact that it took so long for Nintendo to get on the bandwagon was a little annoying, but the end result is basically everything I had hoped it would be; it’s open world, and it’s Zelda.

Since the beginning, the series has been focused primarily on exploration, with a heavy focus on combat using a varied arsenal of weapons, and solving puzzles with those items along the way. Every single one of those aspects is found within Breath of the Wild, even though they may have changed slightly in the translation to an open formula.

Combat has changed significantly since Skyward Sword, but that goes toward the further advancement of being able to use many kinds of weapons, which is the core mechanic the series has always stuck with. In previous titles, you would unlock weapons as you progressed through the game, usually finding them in dungeons and adding to the number of ways you could approach combat. This formula was great, but it was largely identical between each game, so the new take on it felt very fresh in comparison to Skyward Sword, which felt quite like a game you had played before due to how heavily it borrowed from other titles in the series.

Breath of the Wild does not give you an item in the dungeons per se, but the Champions’ abilities serve the same purpose to manipulating the way you see combat. Urbosa’s Fury adds a lightning attack, Daruk’s Protection and Mipha’s Grace increase your defensive capabilities greatly, and Revali’s Gale gives you a way to quickly hail arrows on your foes no matter the terrain. In addition to this, the combat system gives you many different types of melee weapons beyond Link’s normal sword and board approach. These weapons break after a few combat encounters, though, so one must constantly switch out for those of their fallen foes. Not only does this teach players how to use every weapon style, and the advantages and disadvantages of each, in an expedient manner, it also creates a cycle of breaking weapons, finding new ones, and fighting more enemies to discover better weapons. This makes the game constantly feel rewarding when you take down a few hard enemies with some boko clubs and a pot lid before stealing their better boko club and finding a chest with a better bow, which you can use to quickly clear the next encounter, or save for a really tough fight later on. Outside of fighting Lynels and Ganon himself, there is no point at which it feels like you’re in danger of running out of weapons because nearly every enemy drops one you can use if yours breaks. Many decry this style in favor of a Skyrim-like repair system, which I would argue makes finding weapons and armor a bore. Every time you come across a weapon or piece of armor in Skyrim, if it’s not better than what you already have equipped, or it’s not the style you’re proficient in, you pocket it and sell it, so it might as well have just been a stack of gold instead. Who even cares about finding weapons at that point? Breath of the Wild makes nearly every drop from every enemy a useful one, even if you just pick up a Lizalfos’s spear and destroy it when you hurl it back at him.

Aside from these implementations of items, you also cannot discount the Sheikah Rune abilities, which are applied in an absurd number of ways to solve puzzles throughout the game. Combining the uses of your Champion abilities, different weapons and armor, and runic abilities, plus the way that all these can interact with the world through the phenomenal physics engine, you get one of the most varied combat systems to ever exist in a video game.

One more defining factor of the series I neglected to state earlier is the dungeon-crawler aspect that has been present since day one. As I said, every aspect that defines the series is present, and so is this, but again it has changed. Rather than having six, eight, or ten full-scale dungeons, this title only has four, and rounds out the rest of your thirst for underground exploration by adding one hundred twenty mini-dungeon shrines. This is another example of changing something without detracting from its effect, and yet again it was received with mixed reactions, but in general the short bursts of dungeon content broke up what otherwise might have gotten stale in wandering around the overworld. Along your way between story points, dungeons, or side quests, these shrines made a tangible reward of heart containers and stamina vessels fairly easy to acquire at a fair pace through the game, and it is just another thing to discover through exploration, which pretty much every aspect of Zelda comes back to.

Explore, explore, explore. That’s what Zelda means to me, and it has never been better than Breath of the Wild for this aspect. You explore to learn the story. You explore to see the world. You explore to get treasure. You explore to explore, and it’s the only thing you need to do to have a good time in this game. I’ve always loved exploration in games, and have gone out of my way to see places I wasn’t supposed to in other games. I’ve touched areas you were not intended to by the developers and seen the whole of worlds which were meant to be seen only from certain angles. Breath of the Wild not only let me see the world from any angle I wanted to, but it encouraged me to find new ways to see the world, new ways to solve puzzles, and that’s worth more to me than anything in a game these days. The gameplay rounds out Breath of the Wild’s score with its final ten out of ten.

Overall

Breath of the Wild was the first game to make me feel like as much of a kid as Ocarina of Time did, and that’s saying something because when I played Ocarina, I WAS a kid. This is my favorite open-world game of all time, and there is no aspect of it which does not stay true to the series’ staple qualities, yet it also feels like a new, unique experience. The most likely reason this is possible is witchcraft, but it’s also potentially possible that Nintendo just did an awesome and near perfect job of translating their classic series into a new form which in some ways surpasses the timeless quality the series has maintained over the years. I honestly cannot say enough about how much fun this game is, and how rewarding it feels to come back to, even after two hundred fifty hours exploring the wilds of Hyrule. This game defines the Zelda series, as well as inventing it anew. A perfect forty points is well deserved.

That’s just my take, though. What about you? Do you think I give too much credit to mechanics that work as the designers intended them, even if that does not click with every gamer? Do you think I’m just too hyped by a game that fits the very idea I have dreamt about for so long? I believe I have explained why this is, matter-of-factly, a good game, but if you disagree or want to have a chat about it, hit me up in the comments below, or on our Discord server and Twitter and we can keep the conversation flying!

Final Ranking:

Breath of the Wild: 40/40
Link’s Awakening: 40/40
Ocarina of Time: 40/40
Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons: 40/40
A Link to the Past: 39/40
Wind Waker: 39/40
Twilight Princess: 37/40
A Link Between Worlds: 35/40
Majora’s Mask: 33/40
Minish Cap: 31/40
Phantom Hourglass: 30/40
The Legend of Zelda: 30/40
Skyward Sword: 29/40
Four Swords: 28/40
Four Swords Adventures: 26/40
Spirit Tracks: 26/40
Tri Force Heroes: 26/40
The Adventure of Link: 19/40