This review discusses many aspects of Breath of the Wild, including the ending and various secrets within the game, so a big fat SPOILERS warning for you all.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild came out 3rd March 2017, on Nintendo Switch and Wii U, to almost universal critical acclaim. Since then various media outlets, both professional and amateur, have pored over the title and discussed it at great length.
However, the release of two DLC packs (The Master Trials and The Champion’s Ballad) throughout the year have kept BotW continually in the gaming consciousness, so I thought that with all the extra content now apparently released and done with, the year end would be a good time to sit down and ponder on it.
When I got a hold of my copy of BotW in May this year —as well as a Nintendo Switch to play it on— I had already seen plenty of reviews, message board comments and YouTube hot takes about it; most complimentary, a few not so much. I had even watched one of those ridiculous 50-minute speed runs of the game, which is obviously not a fair showcase for any game’s mechanics but it was still pretty thrilling to see.
Ever the cynic, I had paid particular attention to what reviews had picked out as BotW’s perceived “flaws”; the weapon durability, the lack of proper dungeons, the low-key soundtrack. I hadn’t played the game myself at this point, so I had no opinion of my own on this, but I was interested to see if I would be bothered by these things as well.
A scenario that will be familiar to any BotW player…
For the first twenty or so hours of the game, I admit that I found myself a bit underwhelmed. After being led by the hand through so many other open-world adventures (Skyrim, The Witcher 3, Fallout 4), I found the rather vague instructions you are given after you leave the game’s tutorial area —The Great Plateau— a bit of a shock.
You are prodded to head east to look for a riding stable, which in turn suggests that you seek out a village in the mountains, but that particular breadcrumb trail ends rather quickly and I did find myself thinking, “Well now what do I do?” So, left to my own devices, I decided to just have a look around the map and see what I could find. It didn’t occur to me until much later that this is exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
A subtle geographical suggestion by the game designers to perhaps head this way.
Into The Wild
I decided to head to the desert. I have spent a lot of time in deserts, both real and virtual, and I find them pleasant to look at and rather calming. I had stumbled upon a swamp area initially but previous experience with Zelda games has shown me that swamps tend to be filled with tougher foes, so I did a quick U-turn as soon as I realised. The sight of a snoozing Hinox confirmed that this was definitely not a place for someone with four life hearts and a sword made of rust.
“Sorry to bother you, I’ll just be leaving now.”
As I had no real map yet, I was only going on the rough directions given to me by a fellow traveller I had bumped into. This is a reoccurring theme in BotW, not being given explicit instructions on where to go but rather suggestions or clues. The game really does want you to find these things for yourself, not just point them out. Sheikah Towers, which fill in the blanks on your map, are enormous and easy to spot from a long way away, so the player will naturally gravitate toward them. The shrines, which give you Spirit Orbs to upgrade your health or stamina with, glow luminous orange and stick out like a sore thumb. Sure, some of them require puzzles to be solved before you can unlock them but even those will often have a handy NPC character nearby to provide you with essential clues.
When I reached the desert area I had become emboldened by my journey. I was climbing sheer cliff faces rather than sticking to the path. I occasionally fought camps of Moblins instead of sneaking past them, knowing that I could probably loot them for slightly better weapons. The temperature had risen high enough that I was starting to take damage, but I had yet to discover the recipe for a potion that could cool me down.
I thought to myself, “I can see an oasis from here. I reckon I can glide to that.” I knew if I miscalculated that I would be stuck in the middle of deadly terrain, with no way of safely making it back out. I took a breath, I jumped and began to glide. This was the moment when the game clicked for me; when I had shed my fear of the unknown and decided to just forget the story. I was writing my own story now.
I hope that whatever this was doesn’t have any living relatives.
Master of None
I continued to make my way around Hyrule, clambering up towers, completing shrines, discovering new locations and people. I got better equipment, more stamina and life hearts, new runes for my handy Sheikah Slate. I could create ice from water, stop time, destroy boulders with magical explosives. If a route looked like it was swarming with too many enemies, I would sneak around them or just clamber to higher ground and bypass them.
Eventually I worked up the courage to tackle one of the game’s “dungeons”, the Divine Beasts. These giant, mechanical wonders require you to solve various puzzles within them, before defeating the evil phantom inside that has corrupted their ancient programming. My first encounter with one of these, Thunderblight Ganon, went terribly. All my weapons broke and I simply couldn’t finish the fight. So, I went off to look for a better weapon. The ultimate weapon.
I have the poweeeee- No, wait, that’s not right.
Once I had got the Master Sword, it was pretty much a straight run to the end for me. I cleared out all the Divine Beasts in a couple of hours and decided to get this thing over with already. I headed to Hyrule Castle to kick Ganon’s ass.
Sorry, I’m here for Zelda. I appear to have ended up in Dark Souls by mistake.
After some effort, beers, maybe a few choice swearwords, I beat him. I sat back and watched the ending (one of the endings, anyway…) and then just stared at the screen for a few seconds. Then I picked up the controller and started playing again. There were still shrines to complete, memories to recover. I had been collecting Korok seeds, little poops left by a race of plant people, but where was I supposed to be spending them? I was far from done and even now, all these months later, I am still finding surprises in this game and answering questions I didn’t even know it was asking me.
The Road Not Taken
BotW did annoy me at times. The weapon durability was a pain at first, especially when you have limited inventory space for spares, but as you progress through the game your weapons do get better and you get more effective at using them. I didn’t find the Divine Beasts all that interesting and I missed the more themed dungeons of previous Zeldas, but this is a game where you can tackle the dungeons in any order. If the Divine Beasts had required specific equipment or skills to complete, it would have made the game more linear and forced the player to take a particular route. Sure, A Link Between Worlds had a solution for that problem but I’m not sure how well it would have fit in with the post-apocalyptic Hyrule of BotW.
The amount of hours I put into this game have made me realise that those issues eventually fade into the background, swallowed by the expanse and grandeur of the world this game offers you. If you found the initial game too easy, Nintendo offered two pretty decent challenges in the form of DLC packs. The Master Trials is an expansion on one of the more interesting shrine challenges in the game, Eventide Island, where you are stripped of all your equipment and left to scavenge for whatever you can find. Every arrow counts, every ingredient must be optimised, every swing of your weapon must land true. Thought the shrines were too simple? Try The Champion’s Ballad, where you might have to defeat a lava-covered Igneo Talus just to *open* the damned shrine, let alone solve whatever fiendish puzzle lays inside.
Except this one. This one sucked.
The overall feeling I have about Breath of the Wild is that I’ll never have enough of it. I wish I could go back and experience it for the first time all over again; to finally make it to the top of that tower where Guardians are shooting at me, to accidentally stumble into a pitch black swamp and navigate my way by torchlight, to tame my first horse and gallop across the plains on it.
I never want this game to be over. I still fire it up now and tootle about, looking for a hidden chest or an abandoned village, and every time I do I manage to find something new. There is so much to see and do in this game that is easy to miss a lot of it, unless you are willing to go out and there look for it. I can only begin to imagine how Eiji Aonuma and his team will follow this up (and they have confirmed that they already are) but even if they just re-tooled this game, with a new world and some new gadgets, I wouldn’t care because it is such a joy to play.
But that’s not Nintendo’s style, so I am already excited to see what comes next. Perhaps we’ll get a Majora’s Mask-style spin-off for the Switch, or the next Zelda will be on some yet to be announced new console. But this is speculation on my part, and I will be happy to keep playing this game until the sad day comes when I have nothing left to do in it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to give The Trial of the Sword another go…
Thanks for reading.