A flawed gem worth playing.
Let me begin by giving a little bit of background on my experience with this franchise just in case that helps put this review in perspective. This is the first game in the Zelda franchise I have ever played from start to finish. The only other mainline Zelda game I have played was Wind Waker, which I didn't finish because it felt like I had spent a lot of time playing without making any progress and like 90% of my time was spent in a village talking to people after more than five hours. I did love Hyrule Warriors and I love the aesthetic of this franchise but I never got into any of the main games. I wasn't too sure what to expect from Breath of the Wild but I came out loving almost everything. This review is being written on August 28th 2017, but I actually bought the game at launch with the Switch and finished it and put it on the shelf in late April. I have had some time to reflect on my thoughts on this game and this review reflects those thoughts.
To start off with, I have to say that the open world that has been created here is absolutely beautiful. Both graphically and in terms of art design and variety, I cannot think of a game with a more lovely world. The exploration is limited by a stamina bar you have that slowly drains as Link climbs up cliffs, but this stamina bar can be upgraded as you progress and it can be replenished by eating food or drinking potions. There is the quote that says "The journey is the destination" and that fits perfectly with this game. Often times the most memorable moments in the game will be those experiences you have on your way to your next quest. Running into a variety of monsters for the first time and deciding whether or not you want to engage, or running into a shrine that you decide to explore. It wasn't uncommon that I would turn on the game, decide on the quest I wanted to do next, and spend the remainder of that play session doing other stuff because I continuously got distracted doing side stuff as the world sucked me in. How am I supposed to care about my objective when I just ran into a sleeping giant in the middle of a field?
While randomly walking around and doing stuff can be a lot of fun and will likely take up the bulk of your time with this game, the actual main quests and story are no slouch either and I ended up loving those as well. The voice acting is great and I really wish it wasn't limited to cutscenes. The villagers and other random NPCs don't actually speak and instead just have their dialogue displayed via text at the bottom of the screen which sucks. I wish they had gone all the way and added voice acting for everyone. The story they set out to tell is fantastic and characters you meet along the way are all interesting. The story can be tackled in any order and it flows nicely regardless of which order you do things in. The story beats and NPCs all help make this giant world feel like an actual world with a history and each individual NPC you meet feels like a person. Boss fights are unique and varied as are the sub-bosses that you run into randomly scattered throughout the world.
I also loved that exploration in this game is not gated once you finish the initial tutorial. The game really lets you go wherever you want to go and do whatever you want to do once you are let out into the world. It is a feeling I have not had since I played Fallout 3. You are gently nudged in a certain direction initially but you are free to go wherever you want to go in whatever direction you want to go in. If you just want to march right up to Gannon's Castle and fight the final boss at the start of the game, you are more than welcome to do so. It will be incredibly difficult and you will be in over you head, but it is totally doable. I snuck in early in my game and used stealth to kill high level enemies in the castle and ended up making out of there like a bandit with super high level weapons that I otherwise would not have had. That kind of freedom to actually do whatever you want is liberating and honestly a tiny bit intimidating at times. This complete freedom in exploration allows you to really craft your own narrative and make your own journey in a way that makes it feel like your unique story, even if everyone else with the game is hitting the same beats you are.
Another thing that helps make your journey feel unique and personal is the amount of customization options you are given. Clothing can be upgraded to provide more damage resistance and you can also visit a clothes dye shop to change the color of any clothing item. I love being able to play dress up in games and I spent an embarrassing amount of time getting my outfit and colors to be exactly the way I wanted them to be. I also found myself buying multiple versions of the same clothing so that I would have it available in different colors depending on what my mood was. Then there is also your horse that can be customized and made uniquely your own. You get horses by finding them in the wild and while they each have there own predetermined stats, you are able to add some accessories to them and change the color and style of their mane. These little touches add a lot to the game and make you feel that much more invested in the world.
As you can see, there is a lot of really great stuff in this game. That said, there a few things that keep this game from being a true masterpiece that I would want to go back to again and again. The biggest one is the weapon fragility system. Every single weapon in the game is seemingly made out of paper mache and will explode into a million pieces after being used on two or three enemies. Maybe this is just a personality thing, but for me this made it so that I wanted to avoid combat all together. I would get this super cool awesome powerful weapon but then realize that it was only going to last against maybe half a dozen enemies if I was lucky and then I would get bummed out. Never mind if I am fighting a boss or sub-boss, where you will just burn through weapons without ever getting a chance to appreciate its unique abilities. Shields are just as fragile and while there is a really cool mechanic that allows you to slide down slopes by riding your shield, this wears out your shield so while it would be a lot of fun to slide down this hill, I am now just going to walk down because I don't want my golden shield exploding into a million pieces.
There are other more minor gripes that also bring the game down. Completing quests doesn't seem to ever bring about any actual useful reward, with villagers often giving you a handful of rupees for completing a quest when everything available for purchase is ridiculously expensive. The main quests will reward you with unique "Champion Weapons" that also break after five enemies which is a huge bummer because they look really really cool. The act of cycling through weapons is also clunky and actually becomes worse as you progress and increase your inventory. Then there is Nintendo's continued shitty use of amiibos. I personally have several amiibos and even I am annoyed by the shitty practice of hiding content behind these figures. Make it an early unlock or something but don't make it the only way to access certain pieces of content. Several costumes and weapons are hidden behind these $15 figures with no in game way to unlock them which is shitty no matter how you slice it. Also those amiibo exclusive weapons will break after being used a handful of times just like everything else.
There is a lot to love in this game, but the weapon fragility system drags the whole game down. For as much as I became invested in the world and the characters, the actual act of playing the game and fighting the beautifully designed enemies just constantly reminded me of this terrible weapon system put into place with all my accumulated items constantly shattering into a million pieces. I put over 100 hours into this game and while I absolutely think it is worth playing and would recommend it to others because there are some amazing highs to be had, be aware that this weapon fragility system will be a constant presence that will make sure you don't have too much fun with any of the toys you pick up throughout your journey.