If you read my review of the first twenty hours of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, then you know that I was already loving the game from the word go. Now having beaten the game, my thoughts haven’t changed (and neither has my 5/5 score for it either. Can I give it a 10/5, is that possible?), so rather than needlessly scoring the game again, I’m just going to gush over how fantastic it is in the hopes I can convince everyone that it’s the best.
Breath of the Wild has, hands down, become my new favorite Zelda game. I knew I would love it, but I didn’t think it would surpass my other favorites, Wind Waker and Majora’s Mask. But it has, and that’s not because it’s new. Even as the newness has worn off off, this game has done so many things incredibly well that it deserves the number one spot on my list.
WARNING: major spoilers ahead for the characters and story of Breath of the Wild. Like, MAJOR. If you haven’t played it, stop reading here!
Breath of the Wild may be Big, but it’s not Empty
The strongest parts of Breath of the Wild is its open world, story, and characters (so basically all of it), because the effort Nintendo devoted to all three is so detailed and careful. The world-building is so well-done. The towns feel rich and developed. The characters and townsfolk feel real and genuine. The “technology” is both modern and fantastical, befitting of the Zelda universe (more so than the robots in Skyward Sword—yeah they were cute but the technology in Breath of the Wild feels much more grounded).
In particular, the race that felt most humanized to me were the Gerudo. In previous installments, they’ve either been warriors or pirates, very combat oriented and strong. This wasn’t a bad thing, but their race felt devoid of much culture outside of that. But in Breath of the Wild, the Gerudo have a distinct culture and way of life that is so new and refreshing. They still value the strength of warriors, but also (hilariously) express desires to leave their home and find suitable men to marry and actively participate in trade, making them more well-rounded and interesting.
Really all of the races—Zora, Rito, Gorons, Sheikah, Gerudo, and Hylians—feel very much like real cultures with wide ranges of people and ideas, and they’re so expertly crafted. While we’re on the topic of the different races, it does beg the question of where the game falls in the timeline since it references several earlier installments as well. While I found myself curious about it, I also don’t think I need to know.
Breath of the Wild very much feels like a standalone game that embodies much of the lore and jokes old fans are familiar with and love, so its placement in the timeline (or lack thereof as of now) doesn’t really bother me at this point. There’s something to be said about how Wind Waker is inextricably linked to Ocarina of Time, making the story in that game incredibly good. But here, the strengths of the story lie in the juxtaposition of the past and present, and it’s so well done. The one hundred year time skip is a perfect amount of time to show the passage of time, but not so long that it feels detached. The past is still very much felt and remembered in the present, and because of that, it doesn’t need a confirmed place in the timeline.
Needless to say, the Great Calamity really struck a chord with me. Sure, Ocarina of Time delved into the destruction during the seven years that Ganondorf ruled over the world, but the only town that truly experienced devastation was Hyrule Castle Town. And while that was a very revolutionary thing for its time, most other places didn’t experience that same level of pure destruction. Sure, Zora’s Domain was frozen and Gorons were being kidnapped from Death Mountain, but Kakariko Village and Lon Lon Ranch were still intact. They had issues of their own too, but the point is that they weren’t completely ruined by what had happened seven years prior.
So much of the world in Breath of the Wild is visibly scarred by the Great Calamity. Old ruins of cathedrals and villages are scattered across the world map, including Hyrule Castle Town. I found myself feeling kind of depressed exploring these ruins and realizing just how horrible the Great Calamity was on so many levels. Ganon may be temporarily sealed away by Zelda, but his return and subsequent control over the Guardians and Divine Beasts still left the world in chaos and ruin. He didn’t even need to completely return and rule the world to still leave a mark on it, and it shows just how horrifying Ganon’s power is. The fear of his return is very palpable in Breath of the Wild, and completely justified by the events of the game as well.
The world almost feels empty because of how few towns remain, and that really drives home this notion of isolation for Link, which is also done so well. In the past, he had the other Champions and Zelda by his side in preparation for the final battle, but in the present, he has lost that support structure and begins his journey anew completely alone. While the players can regain some of that support, it is optional, and so there’s the interesting choice it presents to either make Link a one-man army, or fight with the support of his allies once again and to correct the wrongs of the past. It gives players the freedom to choose how the story plays out, and it’s pretty awesome that Nintendo put in the care to make this possible. No matter how the player chooses to play their game, it makes the happy ending feel truly earned because of what happened in the past.
The Characters are the Strongest They Have Ever Been
Can I also say how amazing it is that Link has canonically LOST his fight against Ganon? Not only was he defeated, but he basically DIED. It’s such a crazy thing to think about. This has never happened before in a Zelda title. Now, if THIS was the game that caused the split timelines, I would totally buy it. Ocarina of Time gave no indication that Link fell in the final battle, causing the timelines to split three ways (which the fact that it split three ways at all is still strange to me, but whatever). But Breath of the Wild could totally justify it and it’s so neat and—sorry, back on track.
The point is, I think it’s a really interesting character development choice that Nintendo took to show Link’s struggle. Link has always been portrayed as courageous and fearless, and while that is very much present in this iteration, for the first time these qualities about him are challenged. His courage and the Master Sword alone were not enough to defeat Ganon. To quote Zelda herself: “As brave as you are, that does not make you immortal.” He couldn’t win on his own, and it shows that there’s more to being the hero than having courage and wielding the sword that seals the darkness. He wasn’t perfect and all powerful just because he was the “chosen one”—he still had to work hard and earn his power in order to eventually claim victory. It’s a really nice touch, and also emphasizes the importance of the support that Link has gotten from others in previous games, particularly in Ocarina of Time from the Sages, or in Wind Waker when he and Zelda both fight Ganondorf. Link NEEDS that support, and this game explores the consequences of losing it.
Nintendo did an excellent job developing Link’s character on so many levels. When I began regaining Link’s lost memories, I wondered why he was so serious. He never smiled, and at no point did he ever make a lot of facial expressions that weren’t solemn. And at first I was rather disappointed since previous incarnations of him have been much more lively in the past. But reading Zelda’s diary in Hyrule Castle suddenly painted Link in an entirely new way that I hadn’t considered before.
In her diary, Zelda writes that Link chose to be silent, feeling that he needed to be strong for those around him because he was chosen as the Hylian Champion, and he felt he needed to be silent to play his part. Not only does it give him a legitimate reason for being a silent protagonist (which is playfully teased throughout the game), it also gives him another layer of personality that hasn’t been seen before. Nintendo has made an artistic choice to keep Link as the silent protagonist, which fans have generally accepted for what it was. As the players, we are aware that Link speaks within the Zelda universe but we just don’t hear him. But now, not only is it an artistic choice, but it’s also used as a really cool way to develop his character. Link is the courageous character fans have come to know and love, but there’s also a layer of vulnerability that it presents as well.
This also leads me to discuss Zelda, who is arguably the most fleshed out character in the entire game. Regaining Link’s lost memories is part of an optional quest, but I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t want to complete it because, not only does it contain valuable story, it has excellent character development as well. For the first time in the series, Zelda is painted as a real young woman with real fears and struggles of her own. Now to give credit where credit is due, Skyward Sword went in the right direction with conveying Zelda as more of a real person rather than a damsel in distress, but Breath of the Wild took it one step further. She is not just wise and smart, but also passionate and stubborn. She gets frustrated like any other person, which is so refreshing to see from her character.
Zelda struggles to use the sealing magic her ancestors have been able to wield, and not only does she have flaws that stem from this, but her personality is so well-rounded. She outwardly despises Link because she so desperately wants to protect her kingdom, but can’t do it in the way she’s expected to. She’s both selfish and selfless at the same time, something we wouldn’t expect to see from Princess Zelda. Of course, she learns to respect Link over time and strives to better herself too. Her struggles are so relatable and real, and I loved seeing her change and work through her insecurities in the flashbacks. I wouldn’t have cared about saving her had I not regained those lost memories and tried to raid Hyrule Castle right away instead. But because the flashbacks to such an excellent job of developing Zelda’s character, I absolutely wanted to save her because she felt like such a complete, whole person. Nintendo really outdid themselves with her character development (and all of the main characters for that matter), and it was so incredible to watch it unfold on the screen.
Really, the only character that didn’t see any character development was the source of the Great Calamity himself, Ganon. And while he’s received some good treatment in past games like Wind Waker, I didn’t find myself needing Ganon to have any real development in this particular title. He’s portrayed as a monster that plagues the land, which really drives home the destruction he causes even more. I didn’t want to feel like I had to be sympathetic to the monster causing so much chaos and ruin. In both design and development, this is the most animalistic Ganon has ever been portrayed, and I think that’s an interesting choice in and of itself too. It really plays into the idea of good versus evil and the different forms both can take.
The Gameplay is Reinvented but Familiar
Breath of the Wild is by far the most difficult modern Zelda game. It’s not even close. The durability of the weapons forces players to be extremely careful but smart about how they play. The puzzles are also very unique and engaging. I love the challenge of the game (no doubt a homage to the original Zelda) because it made me a lot more mindful about how I approached battles and puzzles. The cooking mechanic (which I adore) means that ingredients need to be effectively combined to produce the best results, and I never thought I would be so obsessed with buying all of the different outfits for Link to wear. It all comes together to create a masterful and fantastic open world experience. Some people may say that Zelda doesn’t need to be open world, but Breath of the Wild has proven that despite having such a massive setting to explore and other open world game conventions, it still very much retains the Zelda charm fans have come to love and expect (like the classic invincible swarm of raging Cuccoos, or wacky yet charming side characters).
The level of interactivity with the environment was also incredibly detailed as well. Basic things like getting struck by lightning when holding metal weapons, cutting down trees for firewood, or creating pathways across cliffs were so simple but intuitive for the series. I saw the Game Over screen A LOT in Breath of the Wild, but being able to experience the setting and new abilities was so worth it. The new powers with the Sheikah Slate led to some really well-designed puzzles to solve, but also added to the creativity players can have while fighting enemies and encouraged bending the environment around Link to reach a treasure chest, for example. It elevated the game to a creative experience that players could actively take part in. The stamina wheel was a nice returning feature that both shaped the exploration and felt justified to include—but really, the fact that Breath of the Wild gives me the freedom to climb every mountain I see is so incredible. And can I say that I obsessively caught horses constantly? So much fun. The options Breath of the Wild gives players to participate in are massive and mind boggling to me.
Cell Shading is the Best Kind of Shading
I mean…need I say more? The graphics in Breath of the Wild are stunning. This is how Zelda is meant to look. The series (when it’s had color), has ALWAYS been bright and colorful. The backgrounds are so lush and beautiful. Twilight Princess was a somewhat unfortunate response to what “Western fans” wanted, to which I want to slap those people. Dull, gray realism? No thanks. It was fine for one game, but I’m much happier with this direction the series has gone in. More, Nintendo!
An Ambient and Quiet Soundtrack to Accompany the Experience
Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack is pretty quiet and piano heavy, particularly the field theme(s). It doesn’t feature the sweeping orchestras like in Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, which I don’t mind in the slightest because the last thing I need is an orchestra drowning out the sound of a Guardian tromping up behind me and blasting me to death with a single laser strike (which already happened constantly). A lot of the town themes are really pleasant, and the battle themes are pretty solid too (especially the Molduga theme), although I will say the Guardian battle theme is the most stressful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. So it really varies. Hyrule Castle’s theme is excellent as well, one of the most memorable and appropriately epic songs in the game. Hardcore fans will probably be able to hear when many of the melodies subtlety hearken back to older tracks in the series (in particular, I loved the callback to Dragon Roost Island. Such a beautiful, somber rendition!), and that solidifies the Zelda aesthetic that people love. It may look and play different, but the music is a nice reminder of where the series has been and where it’s going.
Breath of the Wild is an Absolute Masterpiece
I’ll admit that if I tried watching someone else play Breath of the Wild before experiencing it myself, I doubt it would have made as much of an impact on me as it did. It’s the type of game that needs be experienced by fans and newcomers alike. I would absolutely play a sequel to Breath of the Wild (or another game utilizing the same mechanics and engine, at the very least), but for now, I’m content with replaying it to immerse myself into the beautiful world, story, and characters once again. I love everything about this game. Good job, Nintendo.