Thursday, April 27, 2017

[REVIEW] The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Played on: Switch
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer/Publisher: Nintendo

It has become commonplace over the last few years to refer to The Legend of Zelda as formulaic, but the franchise is no stranger to sweeping change. From Ocarina of Time's 3D revolution to the touch-based DS experiments, Nintendo's flagship adventure series has tried quite a few bold new directions, with varying levels of success. None of those experiments, however, were as comprehensive as Breath of the Wild. And, it can be argued, none of them were ultimately as fantastic.

This sense of newness is made clear from the beginning, in which the player gets immediately cast as a long-slumbering Link, without any sort of exposition. The character has no memory of anything, and only wakes up from his ressurection chamber following a mysterious voice echoing in his head. From there, the world of Hyrule opens itself up in quite an exhillarating manner.

The first moments of the game are spent exploring the Great Plateau, a location in central Hyrule that serves as an introduction to the game's main mechanics. However, after you're able to exit the Plateau thanks to your trusty paraglider and tablet-like artifact (called the sheikah slate), this is it: you can go anywhere you please, at any time, including straight to the decayed ruins of Hyrule Castle, where Calamity Ganon, the entitity that brought the world to ruin a hundred years ago, is said to be waiting in slumber. For a series that over the years became increasingly heavy on hand-holding, it's a clear-cut signal that things are off to a great start.

The astounding level of freedom given to the player is only possible thanks to Link's ability to climb almost any surface, which proves to be a game changer. Previous 3D Zelda titles would separate areas of the game by throwing mountains between them. Here, instead of an insurmountable obstacle, each mountain is simply a new invitation to explore. The full-fledged physics engine, meanwhile, makes traversing each area even more addictive, as things just click together and make sense in a very organic way.

As someone who often holds seamless exploration as the #1 reason to love a game, I can get frustrated by intrusive story-heavy sections, which is all-too-common in releases nowadays. Breath of the Wild eschews this approach in a way that's nothing short of genius: Link, with no memories of the apocalyptic events that unfolded a century back, is soon able to recover several pictures in his sheikah slate, apparantly taken by Princess Zelda during the days prior to the calamity. By finding the spots in those pictures, he can recover his memory piece by piece. This makes the story essentially a collectible, to be experienced according to the player's investigation skills, and one of the many reasons to thoroughly explore the open world.

The Hyrule in this game is a character unto itself: a post-apocaliptic world with signs of war and destruction at every corner, but which manages to also be extremely inviting in its pastoral beauty. Scattered over the game's fifteen seamlessly-connected, sprawling regions (of which the initial Great Plateau is by far the smallest) are plenty of ruins, but also towns, villages, stables, landmarks, quirky characters, enemy camps, and (of course) a ridiculously large number of secrets to uncover. The game's philosophy is that curiosity is always rewarded, sometimes with weapons or smaller collectibles, sometimes with large boss-like enemies or shrines.

Oh yeah, the shrines. You see, one of the longest-running Zelda traditions are its dungeons. You'd get to them (usually in linear order), solve their puzzles, find the items within (including the special weapons needed to complete them), beat the boss, and get whatever plot ticket they'd offer at the end.

Breath of the Wild, however, completely reimagines how this works. There are a total of 120 shrines for you to find, and those are like bite-sized dungeons with one or more puzzles to solve and treasure chests to find. At the end of each of them, you get a spirit orb (needed to permanently increase energy and stamina). I'm of the mind that some Zelda titles can overdo dungeons, making them interminable sections of puzzle after puzzle in which I'm unable to even save and continue from where I stopped; for that reason, this new approach was a huge breath of fresh air. It also helps that the puzzles are actually modular, in that many of them have several possible solutions, depending on how creative you want to get.

Of course, dungeons had a sort of imponence that smaller shrines just can't match. This is where this game's actual stand-in for dungeons come into play. Yes, they exist, there are four of them, and they are probably the most epic thing I've seen in any Zelda game, ever. They have some key differences from traditional dungeons in how they work: each is actually one giant puzzle you need to solve progressively, and the ingenuity of their interconnected designs made me feel like a freaking engineer at times for mastering them. They also have awesome story significance, which I won't spoil here.

Finally, speaking of story, I can safely say this is my favorite in the entire series. The melancholy of how devastated Hyrule has become can make each memory you recover extremely bittersweet, as you meet the champions that were supposed to fight back the calamity, each with their own particular relationship with Link himself, and get to delve into the most complex and well-developed Princess Zelda character we've ever been graced with.


As a fan of the series, it's tough to admit this, but Breath of the Wild may have single-handedly made the entire catalogue of previous 3D Zelda games somewhat obsolete. I just can't see the series ever coming back to the more structured approach of yore, as that would likely mean abandoning the extreme sense of freedom that pushes this game so much above everything else that's out right now. Add on top of that an extremely alluring world, intriguing secrets, and a wonderfully poignant story, and you have one of the best pieces of video game ever released. Viewed either under the lens of the Zelda series, the open world genre, or video gaming as an art form, Breath of the Wild is nothing short of a masterpiece.

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