I may be a little late to the party here–I’m not a professional game journalist, so I don’t get games before release, and I didn’t want to rush through just to get a review out quicker–but that’s not going to stop me from writing a little bit about the biggest release of the year.
In brief, I love this game. It’s basically the game I’ve been wanting for years, and it delivered on my dream. Is this game amazing? Yes. Is it the best game in the Zelda franchise? Objectively, yes. Is it the best action adventure game I’ve ever played? Definitely. Does that make it above critique? No. There are a couple of small things that I’d like to to talk about that I saw as small flaws in an otherwise flawless experience. To be fair, compared to all other games like it, it’s by far the best, but that doesn’t make it perfect.
If you forced me to give it a grade, I would give it a 10/10 when compared to other games available, and a 9.6/10 when compared to my specific taste. I guess it just depends on how you want to grade it.
As a game, it does many things well. In case you didn’t see my reaction to the trailer and demonstrations at E3 2016, you can find it here. Basically everything I said there about gameplay turned out to be true and implemented exactly as well as I hoped, so I won’t go over how all that stuff is awesome again.
Visually, it’s amazing. We’ve known that since the 2014 E3 trailer, though, so I’m not going to belabor this point, other than to mention that the technical art is pretty awesome. I love how Link’s hands and feet would move to be correctly positioned on climbing surfaces, even in awkward little nooks. The rag doll effects when Link falls are also surprisingly impressive, and I actually enjoy watching him get flung off cliffs and fall like a dead leaf. These little details didn’t necessarily add much meaning by themselves, but they do help prevent players from being distracted by potentially weird looking moments.
Character designs are on point in this game, and I feel like the characters are iconic in ways that haven’t been seen for a long time. I loved how the use of simple silhouettes matched with a diversity of body shapes creates a diversity of instantly recognizable characters. There is no need for giant helmets or pauldrons to create recognition, because the game was brave enough to allow its people to look like different people rather than super models or body builders. Even the Zelda character (who is off the charts adorable, btw) is shorter, larger hipped, and less willowy than your run-of-the-mill Marvel or Blizzard heroine. By leveraging a larger scope of the human (and nearly human) form, the game creators have made characters that are both instantly recognizable and memorable without the need for idiotic ornamentation.
The soundtrack is pulled off in an equally tasteful way. Rather than try to force you to feel anything, it is reserved and holds off until only the exact moments when impact is desired, and does it ever create impact. The sparse music of the game world helps to reinforce the feeling of space and freedom that the game is trying to create by not imposing any conceptions about how the player should feel at any given moment. Anywhere that has constant background music is instantly more atmospheric and emotive than other places. This is most obvious in Hyrule Castle, where the combination of iconic motifs from previous Zelda scores come together to create an extremely moving piece to underpin the finale.
The story, especially the story of Link and Zelda’s interactions, is adorable and notable for the Zelda franchise, if not particularly unique in the larger scheme of fantasy stories in Japanese media. I feel that it is a very good performance of an already established genre, and I have no problems with it being what it is, even if it’s not particularly mind blowing.
So that’s the short version of the things that I love about this game. The exhaustive list is, well, exhausting–both for me to write and you to read–so I won’t go through it all.
Moving ahead to the critiques! Just to reiterate, this game is amazing and I love it. Even the largest flaw in this game is much smaller than the smallest flaws in other games, but there are a few things that I feel could have been different.
The one big critique: Zelda is not in the game. Now you may be saying, “Of course she is, she talks to you in your head all the time,” or, “Literally all the story moments in the game have Zelda or revolve around Zelda,” and that is correct. What I mean is that Zelda is non-interactable, she’s not part of the gameplay. Instead, she is relegated only to the filmic elements in the game. This isn’t true of any of the other characters from the main plot. The king is a ghost you can talk to, the companions each lend you a special power that allows you to summon them, and every other character in the plot is an NPC you can talk to whenever you want. Zelda is none of these things.
The reason this is a problem is because it basically removes Zelda as a “real” entity in the game. She is incapable of any action, even simple ones, like talking to the player. Robbing the primary female character of her ability to act continues to perpetuate the idea that men take action, and women can only react to the actions that they take. Basically, not allowing Zelda to have any kind of gameplay actions reflects and reinforces a larger cultural trend of not seeing women as agents with agency.
In the future, I would actually LOVE it if Zelda and Link were seen more as partners. The best model for the kind of relationship I’d like to see between them is a Frodo and Sam kind of dynamic, with Zelda being very obviously the person with a duty to fulfill, and Link being the devoted servant who does everything he can to make her desires come to fruition. I just find those kinds of stories very touching. In that kind of framework, it would also be pretty easy to make either Link or Zelda the playable character (which would be the best thing ever), or even to have a co-op mode.
My second critique is that the game ends like all Zelda games do. You defeat Ganon, and then the game ends. If you load the save file that’s created when you finish the game, you’re put back right before the Ganon fight. The problem I have with this is that this isn’t how open world adventure games work. The entire time the game is teaching you that you can do things and then they’ll be done and you can move on to the next thing. Except that doesn’t happen with the biggest, most important thing in the game. Because of this, you never get to feel like that quest is finished. Zelda is never REALLY saved, Ganon is never REALLY defeated.
The peskiest part is that there is so much potential for awesome stuff in a post-Ganon game. In the (spoiler warning) extended, “full” ending, Zelda even says (basically), “Omg, so much work to do, Ganon really messed everything up!” Rather than telling that to the players in a film, why not let them beat the castle, have it be cleaned out, then they can go visit Zelda there (or wherever her NPC sets up camp), and discover that idea for themselves. The whole point of the game is to discover stories, so why not allow the main story to behave the same way that the rest of the game does? It would also set the stage for a bunch of really cool “post-Ganon” DLC or expansions.
Those are my only two big critiques, what comes after are small things that could easily be resolved in future games, or just require a few more iterations of thought to perfect.
The first is that it’s kind of silly that I can just carry infinite extra health (in the form of food and elixirs) in my backpack, and that it can be instantly applied. I have nothing against the idea of items restoring player power, but I do think it’s kind of silly, and a little bit cognition breaking, to be able to apply them all at once. Other games have ways around this: the recovery items either work over time, or they have cooldowns, or the player can’t act while using them, or (like previous Zelda games) you can only carry so many of them. Any of these would have fixed the gameplay problem of being able to take infinite beatings. Of course, some of this is mitigated by the fact that the player is often brutally murdered in one or two hits (which I’m totally a fan of), so it doesn’t seem like a huge flaw.
The second small critique is that the English localization could have been better. That’s not to say I thought the voice acting was bad. Obviously, some of the voice actors were better than others (Zelda’s actor did pretty dang well, the King….. not so well), but that’s always going to be the case. I’m referring more to the classic localization problem of matching voice actor performances to on screen character motions. In English this causes all kinds of weird sentences, and is just an unfortunate side effect of localizing films. However, this is a game, not a film. They could have, pretty easily, written the English script, gotten a solid, unfettered performance from the English voice actors, and then gone and matched the animations to the performance. Unlike in traditional cell animation, where that would have required redoing literally all the work, with 3D game animation, most of the work is the creation of the art asset and getting it to move nicely. That work would not have to be redone. The animators would have to do a little more work, but it would be more like using a puppet than redoing the whole thing.
As it is, I kind of wish I could have the Japanese voices just so that the vocal performances matched the animations. Since Japanese was the original language for the work, I don’t think it’s a ridiculous request to make, and maybe the ability to switch to the Japanese vocal script will be available for download at some point.
That’s my review, and I’m sticking to it. In spite of the critiques I put forward (nothing is above critique), I love The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s a great game that demonstrates what’s possible with the franchise and genre, is great fun to play, creates deeply moving and emotional experiences, and makes me excited to see what’s to come (those DLC can’t come soon enough).