Why The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is my game of the year

It’s been a shockingly packed year for great new video games. Over the course of the last 12 months, it seemed like there was never really a pause, or a moment when there wasn’t something interesting to play. To celebrate, this week Verge staff will be publishing essays on their favorite releases of the year, the games that spoke to us personally. Expect to see a new one each morning, culminating in a list of our collective 15 favorite games of 2017 on Friday. You can keep up with it all right here.

What more is there to say about Breath of the Wild? The latest Legend of Zelda title is the most acclaimed game to come out in a year of extremely acclaimed games. It will surprise absolutely no one reading this that it’s my personal favorite game of 2017 — no one, that is, except me.

I’ve liked rather than loved most recent Zelda games, and the prospect of the series dipping its toes into open-world design wasn’t all that enticing. Few of those games hit the mark for me personally. But I didn’t count on the extent to which Nintendo would assault the conventions of both with Breath of the Wild. This is a game that simultaneously revamps its series and turns an entire genre on its head, and the result is beyond sublime.

Breath of the Wild’s design is simply exquisite. Everything is laid out in front of the player like the components of a mechanical watch, and every element of the game’s structure has a clear effect on another. Nintendo designed a beautiful and expansive world, yes, but Breath of the Wild’s true achievement is the elegant synchronicity that the world shares with the design of the game itself.

In the center of the map, there is a great evil. In the four corners, there are four giant beasts that can help weaken the evil. Near the beasts, there are cities where you can solve quests to help you turn them to your side and acquire associated abilities. Scattered across the landscape, there are over a hundred shrines containing puzzles that unlock orbs to upgrade your strength and stamina, in turn making it easier to access and escape more shrines. And hidden around the world, there are nearly a thousand collectible seeds, each providing little reward beyond the joy of discovery.

The natural flow of these elements, where the importance of a task increases as the player’s focus narrows, is immediately apparent; the game is designed like a wedding cake, with ultimate target Ganon on the top layer and Korok seeds decorating the base. And the reason that this clear, minimalist structure is so important is that it gives the player license to ignore it completely whenever they want. Breath of the Wild’s purity of design reminds me of the original Crackdown, a wonderful game ostensibly about fighting crime, but really about searching and traversing the city for incremental agility upgrades, so that you can find more upgrades, so that you can take down targets whenever you damn well feel like it.

The vast majority of open-world games are actually very linear in terms of their core progression, with a series of primary story beats that have to be played through in order. Prior Zelda games were much the same, with a rote approach to acquiring items to solve dungeons to move onto the next. Not so with Breath of the Wild; in fact, most of its story is entirely optional. There’s so much to do in the world, and so much of it is delightful, that it’s easy to forget about saving the world from Ganon and get wrapped up in your own adventure. But you’ll always know how to get back on track, and the holistic design means that what you’ve been doing will rarely feel irrelevant or frivolous.

I’m playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins right now, for example, and I’m mostly enjoying it, but hell if I know or care what the dozens of icons littering my map represent. Breath of the Wild steps away from that conventional AAA idea of open-world design, content to let the player figure things out for themselves. It’s incredibly liberating.

None of this would matter if the game itself didn’t have a solid core. Combat in Breath of the Wild is better than it’s ever been in The Legend of Zelda, with even the most mundane enemies posing genuine risk right from the start. The weapon durability system is controversial, but constantly engages you in combat by promoting a dynamic attitude and forcing you to think about situational solutions. And the world’s logic plays into this with a brilliant system of physics: if you think something should be achievable with the power of fire, gravity, or magnetism, it probably is.

The single most important decision Nintendo made with Breath of the Wild, however, is how it lets you navigate the world. Nowhere is off limits if you have the stamina, which encourages you to climb ever-higher places, and once you do you’re able to effortlessly sail down from the summit with your paraglider, which continues to be thrilling over 100 hours in. The unparalleled liberty this gives you to explore makes the so-called open worlds of other games feel like smoke and mirrors. And I have to mention Breath of the Wild’s gorgeous art style, which squares the circle of The Wind Waker’s cartoonish flat shading and Skyward Sword’s pastel fantasia to create the most visually appealing Legend of Zelda yet. It’s an expressive approach that supports emotional levity while leaving space for lighter moments, and is at the heart of what’ll drive you to see as much of the world as you can.

Although 2017 has been one of the best years for games in memory, calling Breath of the Wild the best game of the year feels like insufficient praise. It’s Nintendo’s best game in decades — perhaps since 2002’s similarly transformative Metroid Prime — and I have no doubt that it will eventually be viewed as one of the greatest games ever made. Its systems and structures will be pored over in the future not only as a shining example of game design, but as what can be achieved when you’re willing to throw everything behind.

I came to it a skeptic, but fell utterly in love.

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Comments

Cannot agree more with this article.
I am playing it currently, and it feels like the first true open world game I played personally.
The story works simply as a device to piece the world together, and I couldn’t care less for it, if it wasn’t for the itch to complete all memories.

So its not story driven?

It is also easily one of the best games I’ve ever played.

Breath of the Wild is the first game I took the time to play start to finish in 20 years. My wife even loved watching me play it on the big screen. Brilliant game.

Lol.

My wife and daughter also enjoyed watching for a few minutes.

This game is amazing. Been pouring hours into this game and I’m determined to finish it on my Switch.

This article made me want the game even more than I already did. I told myself that I will buy only one game this month for my brand new Switch and Breath of the Wild is it (sorry Mario).

He’ll be okay.

Though you’ll probably be picking up Odyssey or Kart before long.

I love Mario, but you won’t be disappointed w/ BotW.

Breath of the Wild is a much better game than Odyssey. I’m struggle to find reasons to continue playing Odyssey, but BotW is an amazing game all the way through regardless of the pace or speed you chose to play it.

Nice article, you made some awesome points. The game is an achievement – I really hope moving forward, Nintendo can blend the best of old and new Zelda.

That said, I don’t know how you can say combat is better than ever in BotW! Twilight Princess is the pinnacle of Zelda combat, in my opinion. Wind Waker a close second, and Skyward Sword an extremely interesting and totally original take on combat that I also enjoyed.

Breath of the Wild’s combat is just Dark Souls lite – rather uninspired. You used to be able to control the direction of your sword swipes. You used to be able to access awesome hidden sword techniques. You used to be able to stab with your sword, not just swing it. All of that’s gone in BotW.

People say "oh cool, Zelda finally got a parry system in BotW!" But Zelda already had a parry system, and long before Dark Souls. Parrying in WW and Twilight Princess was awesome, you’d roll behind an enemy or jump up and chop their helmet. In Skyward there was even a motion-controlled, timing-based shield-parry system that was unlike anything in any other game.

All that said, BotW has the best bow combat so far, so credit where credit is due there.

Still, despite being the best bow combat, it’s not the best or coolest Zelda bow. That would be Skyward Sword also.

Never played SS, but I agree that TP and WW had much more refined melee combat systems, and overall more interesting enemies. Guardians are a good puzzle/challenge, and Lynels have different enough AI, but most of the other enemies are defeated in pretty much identical fashion, with each one having one or maybe two moves/behaviors you have to watch out for.

BotW adds more external systems with the physics engine, which can be used in combat to very good effect, but the swordplay is average. Having more weapon categories is handy, but not quite enough to replace all the fancy sword moves in TP or the more interesting enemy types of WW (Darknut in particular).

BotW was a great game. But I don’t see how somebody can play it and Horizon: Zero Dawn, and pick Zelda as game of the year.

I bought a PS4 just for HZD. I have played both games. I would still pick Zelda. It is hard to compare the open worldness of both when in Zelda you can go almost anywhere. Definitely cant say the same about HZD

But that wasn’t Horizon’s strength. It’s not "most open world" game of the year. The story was better in Horizon, as were the little details about the world, and the combat, and the voices, and the character development, and the newness.

I tried real hard to get into Horizon, and it really did suffer in comparison to Breath of the Wild. The article above hopefully explains why, but for a quick-shot explanation, I think BotW is the most consistently beguiling open-world game I’ve ever played. It subverts the entire concept by just letting you go wherever whenever, and wraps it up in a hugely appealing package of beautiful art style, quirky storytelling, and phenomenal game design.

If you did play both and preferred Horizon, that’s cool. This was a personal essay, as with everyone else on the Verge staff this week who are writing about their own favourite games of the year. I would just discourage you from
saying things like how you "don’t see" why anyone might prefer Zelda when I think I laid out my own perspective pretty clearly.

I did just get a PS4 Pro in preparation for Monster Hunter World, however, and I’m definitely planning to replay Horizon to figure out what I’m missing.

There were just countless times in Horizon where you saw or learned something and it made an impression. BotW was a steady drip of puzzling and exploration dopamine, but the number of those moments just isn’t there.

That combined with the fact that combat in BotW was easy to the point of practically being a mild annoyance on the way to where you want to go – if you weren’t avoiding it to preserve weapons in the early game – versus the combat in Horizon being a rich and rewarding challenge on its own without even considering the world around it…

They are different style games though, so I guess I see your point how they might appeal differently to different people. I just feel like Zelda gets more credit than it’s due because it’s Zelda, and that brings the associated existing nostalgia.

I did try to explain how Breath of the Wild’s franchise history actually worked against it for me in terms of expectations. The Zelda series was well overdue a shakeup, and you can’t say that BotW wasn’t a risky move. It would’ve been far easier for Nintendo to make Twilight Princess 2.

I don’t agree that Horizon’s regular combat has any more depth, but I do when it comes to the more elaborate battles, and Horizon does a great job of intertwining the two. Breath of the Wild’s boss fights are disappointingly rote given the rest of the game’s invention.

But ultimately Breath of the Wild was a huge surprise to me. If I had any expectations going in based on the fact that it was a Zelda game, I assure you they weren’t particularly positive, and that was kind of the whole angle I was going for with this essay. I wanted to analyse BotW’s design with the benefit of 9 months’ hindsight.

I can agree with Sam there. I always like Zelda a lot, just never loved it. BotW is the first Zelda I actively loved (and I played them all the way to the very first one) and felt like a truly complete game.

As for personal GotY, my vote will probably go to Xenoblades 2. Haven’t played it yet, but the two previous installments are my top 2 fav games ever.

It would’ve been far easier for Nintendo to make Twilight Princess 2.

Do you mean Ocarina of Time 3?

I agree, BotW was a risk, and it paid off. I just wish they hadn’t thrown out quite as much of the formula. The story in BotW has been so slight and "distant" (I haven’t finished it for this reason), compared to the cohesive progression of other games. Plus combat suffered a bit.

The exploration is still fantastic, and I loved the shrines for those quick puzzle challenges, where you didn’t have to commit to a full dungeon. The dungeons themselves though, have felt kind of … incomplete. I’m not sure how they could have fixed that.

BTW, loved this essay Sam.

quirky storytelling

No, no, no, no, no. I thought I’d honestly never meet another person that agrees with me that Breath of the Wild just doesn’t seem to meet the acclaim that is getting. There is no story to tell in Breath of the Wild, which is easily the most disappointing aspect of the entire game.

The common excuse is that it’s story is "implied" and not apparent. Yes, you can imply parts of a story, but not the entire story itself. There was no character development or progress. The plot is essentially nonexistent. The entire game is purposeless. "Because I can" is the entire reason why you play the game. There is no driving reason to go anywhere other than for the sake of initial discovery or to one of the four guardians. Even then, you don’t have to discover and story to beat the game. That’s because there is no story worth telling. The voice acting seemed like it was an after thought it was so spotty. Link’s only development as a character is that he gets a house.

And because I hit post on accident, here’s the rest of my thought:

…Almost every bit of story is just rehashing what has already happened in the world. Why not make the game about that chaotic past instead of having me scour the world for a handful of memories?

Conversely, other games of the similar genre have been pushing the boundaries of the story interacting with the game. Story is what makes a game, movie, or show memorable and not just "fun". Breath of the Wild seems like a beautiful, fun, sprawling tech demo. It is just…soulless. After the initial rush of discovery and toying around wears off, you’re left with practically nothing to remember. However, I will remember when Alloy found out that not only was she a clone, but that the world did die, or that heartwrenching moment when Geralt sees Ciri’s lifeless body.

Also, one last jab, it’s a little insulting that $20 for apparently the most acclaimed game of the year will get you some challenge shrines and a motorcycle – all that can be finished in about an hour. The Witcher 3 gave you hours of new content and story for $10 and $20, and even Horizon Zero Dawn does the same with The Frozen Wilds for the same price. Yet, no one will call bullshit on Nintendo because god forbid you speak ill of Zelda.

But, like, that’s just my opinion, man.

It is just…soulless

Yeah, as much as I enjoy playing BotW, this is not inaccurate. There’s the hint of great story there, but so much of it is in flashback, and really has no bearing on the actual modern-day story.

The Zora princess in particular. She was in love with Link, but it’s a different character, not really the one we’re playing. We the player have no way to experience any connections as Link, since everything is in flashback, with other characters making their own conclusions without any input (beyond just standing there) from our Link.

There were some good moments, but nothing that really felt like we had any investment. Founding the little village could have been great, but Link has no input beyond resources and finding NPCs, and once it’s done he’s not even allowed to live there (in accordance with Bolson company policy).

Played both. I didn’t want BoTW to end. Couldn’t wait for HZD to be over with.

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