I can honestly say that this is the first time that I have ever been intimidated at the prospect of reviewing a game. Folks have been riding the hype train for Breath of the Wild since 2014, and a lot of the big guns in the game review industry that have preceded me gave the game perfect scores. So what can I possibly add to that? What do I have to say that other folks don’t?
Guess we’ll find out, eh?
MY SCORING METHOD
Adventure Rules Reviews are scored on a scale of zero to ten, with zero being total garbage and ten being near perfect (I say near perfect because realistically there is no such thing as a “perfect” game). This score is the result of examining five main aspects of the game: Graphics, Audio, Story, Gameplay, and Time. I also may add a score adjustment of some sort if I believe that certain aspects of the game should be weighted more or less, or that the overall experience is more (or less) than the sum of its parts. Each individual section of the review uses the following scoring system:
0: Awful – There are almost no redeeming qualities about this aspect of the game
.5: Poor – This part of the game was generally bad, but maybe had one positive feature
1: Average – This part of the game performed as expected but had some flaws
1.5: Good – This feature was overall positive but was held back by one or more flaws
2: Great – This aspect of the game was nearly perfect, with only minor issues
Finally, this review will be free of story spoilers with only mild gameplay spoilers. Also, I played it on the Switch, so I’ll be reviewing the game from that perspective.
I feel like this game needs no introduction, but for the uninitiated who might genuinely be reading this review to determine whether or not you should purchase the game, I will start with the basics. Breath of the Wild is the latest title in the Legend of Zelda series, which has been around for over 30 years now. It tells the story of Link, who wakes up in a strange chamber with no idea how he got there. He is immediately thrust into a vast, ruined world overrun by nature and filled with ancient technology. Link must explore this harsh landscape to discover what happened to this world, and his role in restoring it.
Exploration and survival are at the heart of this open-world title, which wastes no time in introducing you to the “no mercy” mentality of the forces that have brought it to its knees. You have total freedom to do what you wish – soak in the main storyline, explore the vast world with no regard for quests, or run around in your underwear setting things on fire and facing the final boss with a stick. Openness is the name of the game here.
From a philosophical standpoint, the goal of this game is to invoke a sensation called Gutto Kuru – to stir the soul. This goal was stated by developers at the Game Developer’s Conference. Additionally, producer Eiji Aonuma has frequently stated in interviews that he wants to challenge the Zelda conventions and innovate the series. He wants to discover what really makes a Zelda game – what is the core element of the series? How much can you change before this game is no longer Zelda? These sorts of questions along with their design philosophy led the development team to take a radical new direction with the series. As to how successful that direction was? Let’s take it a piece at a time.
Nintendo has never exactly been on the forefront of graphical performance (at least not since the early days) and the Zelda series has a checkered history anyway. It’s less about quality and more about design choices. Wind Waker was mocked for its cartoonish graphics and quirky style during its time. Twilight Princess was praised initially but aged poorly, with the muddy browns and greys mixing into a nasty palette of displeasing colors. Those who loved Wind Waker didn’t like how Skyward Sword became more realistic, while those who loved Twilight Princess felt Skyward Sword leaned too closely to the cartoony side of things.
Breath of the Wild, in design, resembles Skyward Sword in that regard. Characters are shaped more realistically but the animation style isn’t attempting to be photorealistic. That’s not the point. The point is color and vibrancy and style, and Breath of the Wild certainly delivers. This is a beautiful game where strong graphical choices were made.
The game world is full of different kinds of environments, designed to be seen from lots of angles, distances, and at different times of day. You may spend a few hours exploring lush, green forests before climbing up steep, jagged mountains to a snow-capped peak. Volcanic crags are lit by the harsh red glow of boiling lava. The game is full of color and never did I find myself saying “ugh, that doesn’t look good.” I mean, except for the times something scary was about to kill me, but that’s really a different context.
Breath of the Wild has one graphical failing, and it’s one that folks have been anticipating since it was shown off at E3 2016 – frame rates. In certain situations, this game can drop frames like they’re hot. The problem is admittedly rare – I’ve easily put in over 60 hours since I first got the game and I’ve only had the game freeze up on me about three times. Still, choppy frames are something of a cardinal sin when it comes to graphics – they interfere with your ability to play the game effectively and bring your appreciation of the experience to a literal and figurative halt.
I encountered frame drops in two main situations. The first was when the Switch is docked and the area is particularly hard to render. Areas with a ton of grass proved particularly problematic, as well as areas swarming with small enemies that filled up the screen. The second is when in handheld mode and the battery was low. Notably, the game actually performs better in handheld mode than in docked mode, so that’s something to consider if frame rates are a serious dealbreaker for you. Again, I’ll emphasize that this problem popped up rarely. It isn’t a defining experience of the game, and I’ve heard some other players online state they didn’t even ever see the frame rate drop. But it’s something to be aware of and it definitely hurts the game in the area of graphics (though I hate to penalize the game itself for something that realistically is a hardware problem with the console itself).
Another small complaint I have is that while character designs were pretty solid, enemy designs were rather lacking. Most of the common enemies you meet are the same few species over and over again with palette swaps. Even stronger enemies have recolored versions with new abilities; it would have been nice to see more classic Zelda enemies incorporated into the game in order to have greater variety. Bosses were a disaster of sameness – Breath of the Wild singlehandedly takes the cake for dull, repetitive boss design in a Zelda game. There’s story justification for it but that doesn’t really excuse it in my view.
Overall, Breath of the Wild is a gorgeous game. An expansive world full of distinct environments and bright colors makes exploration a treat. The character designs are great and they really made some bold choices with different races in the game. Story-significant characters in particular have very striking designs that make them stand out among their species. Enemy designs are weak, though, and frame rate problems detract from an otherwise positive graphical experience.
SCORE: 1.5 – GOOD
I honestly went into Breath of the Wild expecting to be disappointed with the music. I knew from watching E3 coverage and reading interviews that the game’s music was primarily atmospheric in nature. And personally, I hate atmospheric music. I grew up in the 90’s and every video game song I heard was destined to be a catchy single perfect for metalizing on guitars or performing acapella. Atmospheric music isn’t “catchy.” Its ambiance creates a mood but it doesn’t stick with you. At least, that’s what I thought.
Then I played this game.
In my opinion, if Gutto Kuru was achieved anywhere in this game, it was in the music. Even the most incidental of piano chords sat with me. I hear them as I go throughout my day, like little calls to adventure. The music of Breath of the Wild is definitely atmospheric, yet I remember many of the tunes and can see them as songs in their own right. It sets a mood for certain, a mood that is hauntingly beautiful and begs you to explore.
Like most Zelda games, in addition to the new stuff, you have familiar tunes making a return. Often these are subtle, found in the background as an emotional underscore or fading behind the hustle and bustle of a busy environment. From Zelda’s Lullaby to the Fairy Fountains to Zora’s Domain, there are plenty of familiar numbers here and they all satisfy.
Of the newer songs in the game, one of my favorites is the Guardian song. Few songs in video games have ever caused me to legitimately panic – this one does the trick. If it starts playing and I don’t see the Guardian (that is, I haven’t specifically approached that Guardian with a perfect plan for taking it down) then my heart is racing and my little Hylian feet are carrying me away as fast as they can. At the same time, the tune ends so triumphantly when you defeat the Guardian, it makes the panic disappear and morph into sheer joy.
Now this Zelda game added something a little different to the mix – voice acting. This is the first Zelda to introduce voices to the mix and it’s definitely a change that I received well. I would have liked to have MORE voice acting in the game, but this is a series that has never incorporated it and I understand their decision to do so carefully. I personally thought the voice direction in this game was well-done. Zelda, in particular, was a delight to listen to. Overall I thought everyone’s voice fit them well and that the characters were well-portrayed. There weren’t really any moments where I thought it seemed campy or soap-operatic.
Overall, Breath of the Wild has great sound design and I really enjoyed listening to this game as I played it. The music stays with me even when I’m not playing, and as soon as I hear those first few notes I’m drawn fully and completely into the game world.
SCORE: 2 – GREAT
As Zelda stories go, Breath of the Wild doesn’t necessarily stand out. The overaching story of the game is typical fare that has little to offer when it comes to surprises. For a longtime fan of the series, you pretty much know what to expect after the opening hours of the game.
Where Breath of the Wild really stands out story-wise is character development. There are multiple side characters in the game who help you along your main quests, and learning about those characters and their history is really satisfying. Some are fleshed out more than others, their people or their personal life closer connected with Link and therefore having more significance and impact.
In particular, Princess Zelda has never been as nuanced and fascinating as she is in this game. Zelda is rarely more than a damsel in distress, and when she is she still tends to fall into tropes (the tomboyish Tetra comes to mind). In this game, there’s a lot more going on with her. I don’t want to say much more at the risk of dropping any spoilers for what, in my mind, is the best part of the game’s storytelling. My advice? Pursue the “Locked Memories” quest as soon as you unlock it.
As an open world game, you get out of Breath of the Wild what you put into it. If you just power through the four parts of the game’s “main quest,” you won’t get all that much story and could potentially be left unsatisfied. However, going out of your way to explore, read diary entries, talk to NPCs, and complete side quests will reveal a lot of details that flesh out the world and make the game more interesting. There are fun, quirky characters with great personalities that you can totally miss by running forward with blinders on. Details about side characters are plentiful in books that you find lying around, but you can also learn more about Link and Zelda that way too. Embrace the theme of exploration and you’ll be rewarded with a story and world that isn’t empty.
Overall, I felt the story of Breath of the Wild delivered something special. While the “main story” isn’t anything out of the ordinary for Zelda, it’s not like it was bad. And taking the time to really fall in love with the characters by exploring the world beforehand increases your appreciation for the pivotal events in the game. By delivering in the areas of worldbuilding and character development, Breath of the Wild has given us one of the most compelling Zelda stories in quite some time.
SCORE: 1.5 – GREAT
Gameplay is probably where Breath of the Wild deviates from the traditional Zelda experience the most. This is an open world game where you can do any event in pretty much any order (after a brief tutorial area). Every problem can be approached from multiple angles and has more than one potential solution. Which is a really good thing considering how unflinchingly tough this game can be, particularly in the early hours.
Breath of the Wild is a survival game in many respects. Everything in your inventory save armor can be used up, whether by consuming it or by using up its durability. There are no healing hearts just lying around in the grass waiting to be scooped up. You can only recover in specific places like beds or hot springs, or by eating food you’ve prepared. Gathering ingredients is very important as a result, not only for healing but also for other effects that food can provide, such as defense against temperature conditions. That’s right – you’ve gotta worry about how hot or cold an area is, and adjust accordingly. Weapons and shields wear down as you use them and break, so you’ll want to have plenty on hand and be ready to switch at the moment the gear shatters. Of course, weapons deal double damage when they break, and a weapon on its last legs is perfect for throwing, so the durability system plays thoroughly into the strategy of the game.
Some conventions of Zelda combat have returned: blocking with your shield, side-stepping or backflipping away from blows, jump attacks, and spin attacks all make a return appearance. Of course, added to that you have things like sneaking, throwing weapons, using objects in the environment like boulders or open flames, plus special combat techniques like Perfect Guard or Flurry Rush. Just like with exploration, in combat you have lots of options.
The map of Hyrule is populated with all sorts of places to explore. You’ve got Guidance Towers which unlock regions of the map so you can view them in more detail, and which give you a nice high vantage point to look for shrines. Shrines are mini-dungeons with puzzles, environmental challenges, or tests of combat prowess that effectively replace heart pieces in previous games. Completing four shrines allows you to upgrade either health or stamina, and there are over 100 of these things in the game. While no single shrine is nearly as extensive as a typical Zelda dungeon, they offer bite-sized chunks of puzzle fun and are rewarding, offering not only what you need for health upgrades but also hiding rare weapons or moneymaking gems.
This game does have more traditional dungeons in the vein of previous Zelda titles, but even they are changed up. Some changes are positive – there’s a new gameplay mechanic exclusive to dungeons that allows you to explore them in really interesting ways. This mechanic was great and made the dungeons interesting. However, some changes were negative, in my view. I particularly disliked the low number of dungeons and how they all shared a similar aesthetic. They didn’t necessarily stand out or make an impression, and while your first dungeon experience will likely be impressive, the further you go the more you get bored with the same old same old.
This is definitely a trap you can fall in to with this game. Spend too much time exploring aimlessly and you’ll likely get burnt out. Spend too much time delving into shrines and they’ll lose their luster. Spend too much time in combat and you’ll find yourself getting bored. There are lots of things to do in this game, so take them in moderation. Going all in on one aspect of the game for too long can cause burnout and harm the quality of your experience.
My biggest complaint with the gameplay is that the world is so open and so vast, but it seems a bit empty. There are big chunks of the map that you can completely ignore and still experience the meat of the main game. Many difficult-to-traverse areas only offer a shrine as a reward, and while that can be pretty great in the early and middle parts of the game, by the time you’ve beaten the game you really have no reason to explore anymore. When the only rewards are more upgrades or unique weapons, there’s not much to drive you to wander to the outer reaches of the map. Even when the desire to explore struck me – “oh cool, this unmarked location on the map has a unique landform, I’ll check that out” – I often found that the side quest at the location wasn’t particularly deep and didn’t add much to my experience. Technically it isn’t empty in the sense that there are things to do, but there’s not much reason to do those things unless you just really love exploration for exploration’s sake. As far as story reasons to venture off the beaten path, there are very few.
Overall, Breath of the Wild has fun and engaging gameplay that still retains the feel of Zelda while making drastic changes to the formula. The focus on exploration can be rewarding, but the difficulty early-game and the feeble rewards late-game can also punish those who dabble too much in aimless wandering. Combat flows well and the ability to approach any situation from many different angles makes the game a delight to play.
SCORE: 1.5 – GOOD
The map is so big you can’t fit the whole thing on the screen even when zoomed out to the maximum.
When you spend $60 on a video game (and let’s be honest, $300 for the console to play the game on), you want to make sure that you get the maximum playtime out of it. Fortunately, Breath of the Wild had a ton of content to fill up your time. Just to put it in perspective, here are some numbers for you:
100+ Shrines, 42 of which have a quest associated with them
15 different regions to explore
15 main quests and 76 side quests
900 Korok seeds to collect
83 unique creatures to discover
78 different monster types to fight
36 ingredients separate from those dropped by wild animals or monsters
184 equipment pieces including weapons, bows, and shields (but not counting armor)
This game is a completionist’s nightmare (or dream, I guess, depending on how you look at it), and this huge amount of content will certainly keep you busy for hours upon hours. I mentioned earlier that I’ve put in 60+ myself, and the only numbers listed above that I’ve actually made a dent in are the main quests (I’ve done all 15), the shrines (I’ve completed 48 and discovered at least 13 more, so I’m around halfway done with those), and the regions (I’ve mapped the whole world, at least, though naturally I haven’t discovered every tiny detail). That’s a whole lot of hours to barely make a dent in this stuff. When it comes to playtime, you can absolutely get your money’s worth from this game.
We won’t even talk about the fact that DLC is on the way.
The good thing about all of this is that if you (much like me) would be turned off by a game that can basically never be finished, Breath of the Wild isn’t really that kind of game. Yes, you can push yourself to discover all the tiny secrets of the world, but ultimately that’s not necessary. I am very satisfied with my experience just playing through the main story and then exploring areas that I thought looked interesting. This is definitely the longest Zelda game for sure, but you can get as much out of it as you want to put into it, whether that’s only 40-ish hours to finish the story or 100+ hours to explore every nook and cranny of the game.
SCORE: 2 – GREAT
RAW SCORE: 8.5 – GREAT
Breath of the Wild is a game that has been given a perfect score by a lot of reviewers. And it is certainly a game that has flaws. Issues like choppy frames in rare instances, a mediocre main story with generic enemies and bosses, and little reason to explore besides the sake of exploration itself all add up to show that this game isn’t LITERALLY perfect.
Even so, there’s something special about Breath of the Wild. It challenges Zelda conventions while, for the most part, still feeling like a Legend of Zelda game. While the story itself is bland, I cared deeply for the characters participating in that story. There were times I wanted to explore just for the fun of exploration – and I’m the kind of guy who normally doesn’t get roped into that sort of thing. Yes, Breath of the Wild has its flaws, but it ultimately achieves its goal of Gutto Kuru – to stir the soul. It has an impact that resonates emotionally with the player, and the flaws of the game are easy to overlook and are ultimately drowned out by the quality of the overall experience. For those reasons, I will include a positive score adjustment for Breath of the Wild.
SCORE ADJUSTMENT: +1
Breath of the Wild is a truly great game. It has pushed Zelda to its absolute limit in a positive way that I think can be a starting point for future titles to soar. The world could benefit from being more narrowed and focused, and from telling a story that breaks conventions alongside the gameplay. But a focus on crafting interesting characters in a beautiful world where openness and creativity are paramount has created an experience that is both unique and yet quintessentially Zelda. I imagine that this experience has breathed life into the dream that the creators had for this series over 30 years ago, when the very first Zelda game was introduced to the world. I look forward to seeing where the series goes from here.
FINAL SCORE: 9.5 – GREAT