In the weeks leading up to the Switch’s launch, the plucky little mobile/home console was receiving a lot of criticism for its lack of a robust game library. While most systems actually come with launch line-ups that can be lackluster or downright atrocious, they are typically sold on the potential of games that people will eventually be able to lay their hands on. Nintendo, on the other hand, went all-in with the opposite strategy – bet on Zelda (if you forget 1, 2, Switch…which it seems most have). The idea seems to have worked, with Switches selling faster than they can be restocked and Breath of the Wild reaching an attach rate of more than 100% (i.e. there were more copies of the Switch version of the game sold than the console that could actually play it).

Since there’s oh-so-much goodness to talk about in the game, let’s get one of the weaker points out of the way – the story. In embracing a model that allows you to choose where you want to go, what you want to do, and how you want to do it, the game almost necessarily shies away from delivering any kind of locked-in story. Calamity Ganon has ravaged the world for 100 years and it’s up to Link to stop it. For some players, that might be all they learn. Link, playing the mute amnesiac, doesn’t spill any details himself, and can only expand on the history by completing dungeons and finding memories locked away in various places around the world. It’s an interesting mechanic and while it’s fun to hunt down the various cutscenes, they still don’t say much and it doesn’t help that they feature subpar voice acting.

Cutscenes help flesh out the history of the world, but poor acting drains some of the impact.

Cutscenes help flesh out the history of the world, but poor acting drains some of the impact.

The main story may not live up to the epic tales of Link’s previous adventures, but that’s not to say there are no stories to tell. Hyrule is absolutely filled, from one corner to another, with all sorts of experiences. It’s so full, in fact, that occasionally the screen stutters. But for the most part the experience is smooth whether you’re playing in the handheld mode or on the big screen. The people seem far more alive than many other games, with villagers going about daily routines and turning in to sleep at night, merchants dashing for cover when rain begins to fall, travelers gathering around campfires, etc.

Some of the people allow you into their lives by offering quests. Admittedly, many of them are simple fetch quests but not locking progression or crucial skills, so they can be achieved at a leisurely pace. One woman tasked me with finding goat butter and I completely forgot about it until I found it later on in my travels. A few of the Hyrule residents become old friends by the time you’ve spent a lot of time in the world, like Kass or Bolson.

The best stories, though, are those made yourself. And that’s where Breath of the Wild truly shines. I went over this at length in an article on how impressive the open-world is, but the game does a truly excellent job of fostering an adventurous spirit. Rather than rely on waypoints, Link is tasked with climbing towers to lift the dark fog off of the map in a certain area, and then to discover spots through binocular vision and mark them himself. It lets you decide what’s actually worth visiting, and there’s usually something there to justify the travel.

The helpful Sheikah Slate allows you to decide what's important.

The helpful Sheikah Slate allows you to decide what’s important.

More than anything else, that something will be a shrine, often sticking out like a sore thumb jutting out of the ground, shining brightly with a welcoming glow. Simply activating one of them turns it into a fast travel point, making shrines a great way of getting around the map quickly. Most of the shrines contain a puzzle and there’s a good variety – archery challenges, physical exercises, logic problems, and more. Each of them share the same design scheme and music, which can get a bit dull if doing many at once, but clearing them grants a collectible that can be traded for a longer life bar or more stamina.

For a different sort of challenge, though, you’ll be looking for the dungeons. A long-time staple of the series, dungeons have a slightly different purpose in Breath of the Wild. After clearing a dungeon in previous titles, players were often rewarded with a piece of gear that was essential in unlocking new paths. Since there are no restrictions on where you can go and what you can do, the reward is instead a new ability that offers a quality of life improvement to exploring the world – certainly not necessary, but it makes things a bit easier. In addition, completing dungeons fills out the story a bit more, adding some much-needed context to the happenings in Hyrule.

Getting to those shrines and dungeons can be difficult, though, when Link is beset on all sides by enemies like bokoblins and lynels. Yes, the world is teeming with life and not all of it is friendly, though a lot of it is samey as a mere handful of the wide range of available monsters appears in the game. Combat is simple – one button to attack, another to block, another to dodge. There’s a bit of technique required in timing an attack so you don’t wind up taking a blow in the exchange or bounce off an enemy shield. Though the basics will get you through the game, the real fun comes in experimenting with the game’s systems, such as when I stole a bokoblin’s wooden club and tossed down a weak sword. He picked that up and, due to the thunderstorm going on around us, got to experience nature’s fury when a lightning bolt struck the sword.

Also fun: setting wooden weapons on fire.

Also fun: setting wooden weapons on fire.

The only major downfall of the combat system in Breath of the Wild is that weapons and shields have a hidden durability meter. Swing a sword a few times and a warning will say it’s about to break. Sure enough, it soon explodes into a million tiny shards. Impressive effect, but the sudden disarming is…well, disarming. In order to keep up the attack, you’ll have to pick up new weapons. Initially, this is incredibly annoying, as early weapons snap when hit with a stiff breeze. As the game progresses, though, stronger enemies begin supplanting the original weak mobs and they come with sturdier tools of war.

In many ways, Breath of the Wild is like an RPG, only without relying on things like character stats. There’s a definite sense of character progression, any number of quests to complete, and in the style of modern western RPGs, a lot of emphasis on letting players create their own experiences. There’s only one true end, though, whether it comes after you explore every inch of the open world or head for the final confrontation the moment you leave the starting area. Personal recommendation? Take the scenic route. It’s worth it.

KAIJU VERDICT

4/4 Pops:  Essential  The rarest of things, something that everyone calling themselves a game enthusiast should pick up and try once, regardless of preferred genres or themes.

Review based on a physical copy of the game played on the Nintendo Switch.

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