The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the sixth 3D installment of Nintendo‘s beloved Legend of Zelda franchise and a follow up to 2011’s Skyward Sword. Releasing on the Wii U and Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, Breath of the Wild sparked the same kind of joyous fervor that every new Zelda game musters. Heralded as a return to the “open air” design sensibilities of the original Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild is an open world adventure game with environmental puzzle solving elements. Contrasting with its most recent predecessor, Breath of the Wild is almost entirely free of linearity, giving the player the freedom to approach problems however they want. That being said, the story and meaning behind the game seems ambiguous and empty because of it.
To detail my experiences with Breath of the Wild, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.
Technical Proficiency: 83/100
Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.
Overall Visuals Score: 89.25/100
- Style Score: 87/100
- Animation Score: 90/100
- Purpose Score : 90/100
Breath of the Wild’s visual style is very reminiscent of Skyward Sword albeit cel shaded and less saturated this time around. Low color saturation coupled with very basic textures and high quality lighting effects causes many areas and materials to appear claylike in game. This is far from a bad thing however, and sets the tone for many of the playful and creative interactions to come. Beyond that, Zelda’s style is faithful to the previous installments with intricate gothic designs flooding the Zora Domain with cool colors, mysterious yet utterly human adobe structures rising from the Gerudo’s sands, primitive and searing stacks of stone radiating beneath the Gorons on Death Mountain, and towering wooden huts spiraling up rock spires for the Rito. Even beyond the four races, each linked to an aspect of Hyrule through both their divine beast and specific stature (water, earth, fire, air), there are many beautiful Hyrulean vistas inspired by real life locales. Marshes, forests, snow capped mountains, plateaus, and more exist in this game. Filled with stunning lighting and particle effects that could only live in a Zelda game, Breath of the Wild receives a 87/100 for visual style.
From leaping Lizalfos to slumping Hinoxes, galloping horses to flying herons, every animation in Breath of the Wild shows an incredible attention to detail that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Many open world experiences of its magnitude have countless animation bugs and glitches but during my playthrough, I not only failed to encounter a single one but also spent far more time watching animations than I ordinarily would have. Guardians in particular entranced me with their multiple legs moving in unison and flailing as they burst in blue flames. Nothing in Breath of the Wild feels stiff or lifeless, and for that it receives a 90/100 in the animation category.
There was never a time while playing Breath of the Wild that I felt the game hadn’t told me what was about to happen. From enemies reeling back to swing, shoot, and lob, to lines of electric energy on the ground, everything the player needs to know is visually related to them. Each collectable item even has a helpful sparkle small enough not to cause frustration but visible enough to help you find every bit of loot at your disposal. Map pins and markers are also available to give extra clarity to the location of places seen easily from a height but impossibly on the ground level. Leaves, cracked rock, the classic red barrels, and lustrous metal clues the player into the options they have when approaching any given situation. For this, Breath of the Wild receives a 90/100 in the visual purpose category.
Overall Sound Score: 79.33/100
- Music Score: 79/100
- Sound Effects Score: 77/100
- Variety Score: 90/100
After the fully orchestrated soundtrack of Skyward Sword, fans of the Legend of Zelda’s memorable and soaring themes might find themselves disappointed with Breath of the Wild’s mostly minimal piano riffs and entirely synth based soundtrack. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild’s music is full of memorable themes such as the swelling and anticipatory main theme, the frantic brass piercings of the Hinox battle theme, and the ponderous and heavy movement of the Talus battle theme. Despite this, Breath of the Wild’s musical strength comes from its sensitivity to the player’s actions. If Link is trying to keep quiet, the music will die down to add tension to the moment. If Link is approaching battle, the music will shift to a thematically appropriate theme for that enemy. Because of Breath of the Wild’s lackluster music (in comparison to previous Zelda titles), it receives a 79/100 in the music category.
Similar to the quality of animation in Breath of the Wild, sound effects abound with such a high attention to detail that I’ve yet to play a game that rivals them. From horses panting and clopping with each clop ringing in your ears at the exact moment a hoof strikes Hyrule, to shattering weapons and ticking guardian lasers, every sound effect you hear lets you know about your surroundings. Breath of the Wild develops a world so realized that each animal has a specific set of sounds as the leaves rustle and fall from the trees. Ambient and gameplay sounds are only one half of the equation though, and the voice acting is monstrous. It seems that a mostly talented voice cast working with less than direct translations received sub-par directing for their lines. Misplaced emphasis, awkward tone qualities, and much more could have been eliminated from the performance with a simple request for another take with different directions. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.
In terms of variety in sound, Breath of the Wild is on very stable footing. Short piano riffs coupled with swelling brass movements and airy flute melodies meant that newer digital styles and older traditional Japanese styles could exist side by side. Most tracks present a different theme, from pentatonic desert meanderings for the Gerudo, to ethereal and soothing piano pieces for the Zora, soundtrack variety was not relinquished from the Zelda formula this time around. Coupled with the wide variety of sound effects for any occasion, Breath of the Wild earns a variety score of 90/100.
Overall Controls Score: 80/100
- Controller Score: 80/100
- Responsiveness Score: 100/100
- Functionality Score: 68/100
Breath of the Wild is playable with a Wii U Pro controller or the Wii U Gamepad but the Gamepad is required for some gyroscopic gameplay sections within shrines. This fact coupled with the frustration of an odd control scheme and no remapping options gave Breath of the Wild a bit of a learning curve and a pressure for the player to play on the Gamepad exclusively. I played on the Wii U Pro controller for the majority of my game, but I would suggest the Wii U Gamepad if gyroscopic aiming seems beneficial to you and you don’t want to have to switch controllers during play. Despite that, the Wii U Pro controller worked flawlessly after the initial learning curve. Breath of the Wild receives an 80/100 for its controller score.
Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Breath of the Wild, though this may differ if you intend to play on the Nintendo Switch with the Joy Cons disconnected from the system. Dodging, firing arrows, jump attacking, and much more all felt smooth in my playthrough. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 100/100 in the responsiveness category.
Breath of the Wild’s menus are odd to say the least. While most menus use a bumper systems to move between tabs, Breath of the Wild opts to force you through each page within a tab to get to the selection you want. Another frustration with Breath of the Wild’s controllers is the lack of a drop weapon button (this is particularly true for shields and bows, as melee weapons can be thrown), which forces you through the menu any time you want to pick up a new item. Receiving the notice that your inventory is full from a chest and not being given an immediate option to drop items is flabbergasting in this day and age. Another qualm with Breath of the Wild’s functionality comes from its wavering frame rates which drop for unknown reasons in many of the early areas and stutter when fighting Moblins or lighting large fires. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 68/100 in the functionality category.
Artistic Proficiency: 74/100
Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.
Overall Gameplay Score: 89.67/100
- Agency Score: 84/100
- Core Gameplay Loop Score: 96/100
- Variety Score: 75/100
Breath of the Wild is a game largely about exploration, but that does not necessarily mean it has a lot of choice within it, or that it gives the player agency within its parameters. In this case, the journey is far more important than the destination as “all roads lead to Rome” which for Link is the final boss, Calamity Ganon, inside Hyrule Castle. To take on the many enemies now patrolling Hyrule, Link has a variety of damaging abilities to choose from, but some, such as bombs, quickly become obsolete when enemies have higher resistances in harder areas. Collecting and seeking out the many ingredients that grow in Hyrule allows the player to explore cooking and create dishes and potions to further customize their playstyle. Player agency is at its greatest in the many shrine puzzles that line the landscape and in the four divine beasts that serve as Breath of the Wild’s main dungeons. There the player can think laterally to solve puzzles in ways the designers may not have intended, and are encouraged to do so. Sadly, the most interesting story in Breath of the Wild took place before the events of the game, so the player has little agency or interaction with it. For these reasons, Breath of the Wild receives a 84/100 in the agency category.
Breath of the Wild holds within it many separate gameplay loops that can be undertaken at any time during play. The first is the exploratory loop: find the map revealing tower, reveal a region of the map, use the Sheikah Slate sensor to find shrines in the area, find a new map revealing tower, repeat. The second is the main storyline loop: find a city belonging to one of four major races (Rito, Zora, Goron, Gerudo), complete a preliminary quest in which you are introduced to the new champion of that race, go to the divine beast, activate all the terminals in the divine beast by solving puzzles using its unique movement mechanic. There are other loops as well, such as the Great Fairy clothing upgrade loop, the cooking loop, the breakable weapons loop, et cetera, but these two are the most important. The shear scope of these intertwining loops gives Breath of the Wild an inviting, constantly changing, and rewarding gameplay cycle full of reflex/timing driven interactions and thoughtful but intuitive stat assignment. For this Breath of the Wild receives a 96/100 in the core gameplay loop category.
Games typically consist of one central gameplay theme or dabble slightly in many. Breath of the Wild is a perfect balance between those two styles. While it has fully formed puzzles as clearly presented and thoughtfully designed as (but more free than, in terms of possible solutions) those in Valve’s Portal series, it also contains rigorous combat against 18 unique enemy types complete with dodge, parry, knockback, freeze, shock, and burn mechanics that will keep the player on their toes. This is not to mention the horseback riding, gliding, climbing, and much more. Coupled with side quests of all shapes and sizes, from finding the hiding places of the forest Koroks, to recruiting people of all kinds to join together in a new village, Breath of the Wild offers a lot of variety to work with. For this reason, Breath of the Wild receives a 75/100 in the variety category.
Overall Story Score: 58/100
- Characters Score: 60/100
- Plot Score: 50/100
- Coherency Score: 64/100
The characters of Breath of the Wild are archetypal at best and never develop past that base level of nuance. The four previous champions, Revali the Rito, Daruk the Goron, Mipha the Zora, and Urbosa the Gerudo, are all the simple archetype of their race; in the previous order, each Champion’s primary trait would be arrogant (skillful), worried (diligent), selfless (compassionate), and controlling (vengeful). We seldom interact with them and all the meaningful interaction Link has with these characters takes place before the events of the game and out of our control. I would like to say that the defeat of each character at the hands of Calamity Ganon was due to the deficiencies of their archetypes but we are never presented with the events surrounding their demises. As for Link and Zelda, Zelda feels she is incompetent in her destined mode and so seeks her own way to contribute, eventually realizing the constraints she must work within to succeed. Link, alternatively, worked within his constraints and so is the true hero of the story, albeit a mute and blank one. Despite this each have interesting visual designs and many homages to previous games raising the character score to a 60/100.
Breath of the Wild takes place in a Hyrule that has seen Ganon rule in a pure calamitous form for 100 years. The Great Calamity, the event in which Ganon rested control of the many mechanical Guardians and the four divine beasts that were meant to defend against him, took the life of Hyrule’s King, the four Champions, and nearly took the life of Link who was put to sleep in a resurrection shrine until he could fight again. Now that he has awakened, Link must complete the shrines dotting the landscapes to increase his power, free the four divine beasts from Ganon, and recover his memories before putting an end to Ganon in a final confrontation. Link’s memories run the pre-Calamity storyline in which the Champions, Zelda, and Link prepare for the return of Ganon. Zelda struggles with envy at Link’s acceptance of his destiny until she gains her own power through protecting Link. I could break down the symbolism behind both storylines but each is a form of the hero’s journey most would be familiar with, either from old heroic tales and myths, or the religions of many cultures. No particularly nuanced or creative statement is made with the story so Breath of the Wild receives a 50/100 for its formulaic offering.
Sadly, there is a major disconnect between the story of the game and the story of Zelda’s memories. Not to say this wasn’t purposeful, but I personally would have preferred if the pre-Calamity storyline took place within a linear progression so that we could see more character progression within the champions and get to know them personally. Then whenever we are truly alone in the open world environment of the game, the feeling of freedom can be a frantic and crushing experience as well as an empowering one. That change, coupled with a less successful Calamity age Hyrule would have greatly improved the game as a coherent product. Nonetheless, Breath of the Wild is slightly above par what most would expect in terms of polish and understanding of itself and for that it receives a 64/100 in the coherency category.
Despite a less than perfect storyline, lackluster music given the series’ fame, and some UI and frame rate issues, Breath of the Wild stands out on the merit of its gameplay systems and attention to detail alone. With gorgeous visuals and sound effects, each romp in Hyrule’s vistas will be a spectacle to behold and lead the player to something new. In the future, I hope that Zelda stories can take on the mechanical and narrative complexities they’ve held in the past while retaining the benefit of the open ended design used in both Breath of the Wild and the original Legend of Zelda. For $60, Breath of the Wild may not be the best game on the market, but at $40 or less it’s a great adventure that puts the player in the role of the Hero of Hyrule as they grow in power to a satisfying end. Open your eyes… adventure awaits.