A Boundless Breadth of Mild Meandering
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review
Platforms: Switch(Reviewed), Wii U
Developers: Nintendo EPD, Monolith Soft, and Tose
With the Legend of Zelda series having seen seen sequels, reinterpretations of familiar ideas, prequels, and elaborate changes in setting, the accumulated team behind the games thought a reinvention was deemed necessary, inspiring them to invest a great deal of time into adapting, reformatting, and redefining what the series was. A daunting task that had them take in inspiration from more contemporary action adventure offerings, as well as the very first Zelda game, a title often praised for its nonlinearity and inventiveness. A reputation the title built up over the years, despite the fact that it is clearly designed around an optimal path, is immensely cryptic without any external aid, and arguably has the weakest underlying gameplay in the entire series.
What the developers ultimately came up with was a vast open world affair set in a land rich with small secrets and driven by systems meant to allow for a more freeform and emergent playstyle, as opposed to the more rigid and absolute formula the series began adapting to following game 3. One that retains the core action, puzzle, and adventure elements of the Zelda, often branching them out to their logical extremes. While also adopting world that combines, mingles, and mixes elements from many games together, creating something lavish with lore and minor references to prior titles in a move that inspires wonder within newer or more casual fans, and offer a deluge of fan service to the more dedicated ones. It is all a transformation that sounds appealing on paper, but when executed… it gets a bit messy.
With that preamble taken care of, Breath of the Wild is set long after a deluge of permutations the cycle of this series repeated ad nauseum throughout hundreds of iterations of Zelda, Link, and the demon king Ganon. A cycle that the denizens of Hyrule sought to end once and for all by gathering all the warriors, resources, and forces they could, but right at the precipice of victory, everything went to hell, with the entire kingdom crumbled then and there. From there, Ganon’s forces transformed the region into a disorganized and wild landmass where things have been able to hold themselves in some form of loosely defined order for a century, while the shadow of destruction still lingers at the heart of the kingdom, ready to strike at any moment, but only when it is narratively appropriate. While just about anyone could try their hand at saving this land, the duty once again falls to the recently revived rendition of the de facto hero of Hyrule, Link, as he sets off to restore his dampened strength, bring order to this land by taming the four Divine Beasts, and go up to the miasma of corporeal malice that is Ganon and kill him dead for real this time.
Despite seemingly having a more narrative focus, boasting a richer narrative, introducing sparsely distributed voice acting, and having a lot of lore to uncover, the story here doesn’t take a back seat as much as it is thrown into the trunk and taken out whenever the player wants to break up their road trip around Hyrule and grab a bite to eat, or maybe just take a roadside wizz. Following a theatrical and directed introduction that instills the player with a false sense of urgency by pointing at the final dungeon and telling them to go and save Hyrule, the story effectively pauses from there. Instead focuses on what happened prior to Link’s death, with details and information being provided by finding flashback cutscenes that will almost certainly be discovered out of order, or obscure journal entries.
It all gives way to a very fragmentary and back-loaded story where very little happens in the present beyond searching for ways to remedy the past’s mistakes. I mean, all Link really does here is interact with characters whose roles are tertiary with regards to the greater narrative, take control of four colossi super weapons that became tools of Ganon, listen to the ghosts of the fallen heroes from 100 years ago mentioned in flashbacks, get his magical sword or ultimate power that can shoot laser beams from some condescending tree, and do the final boss fight.
Instead, the story seems to rely heavily on its assorted cast of characters for providing much incentive and drive to continue. The majority of whom boast the same charisma that has defined Zelda side characters for about two decades, but take more obvious inspiration from contemporary Japanese character archetypes, have narrow functionality from a gameplay perspective, and are exceedingly plentiful in comparison to the more modest cast of prior titles. It all makes for a cast that I honestly found to be quite forgettable overall, and that even pertains to the secondary characters, who consist of the champions and their descendents. A compilation of 8 characters who all come across as very tropey and undercooked, which I found rather surprising given how they were received by the greater Nintendo fandom. Though I will say that I do have a soft spot for the scientist who used an age regression tonic to give themselves the body and mannerisms of a 6-year-old. Their personality is bubbly, they have a significant gameplay purpose, their backstory is well stated and easy to uncover, they’re cute as all heck, and it’s kind of creepy, but in a way that I’m well versed in and, by extension, like.
Oh, but I suppose this is actually meant to be a more gameplay oriented affair, with the characters and story functioning more as set dressings. Following its organic tutorial with the Great Plateau, the player is given the ability to explore, to experiment, and to experience the game in their own unique way due to how the world reacts on a series of clearly determinable rules and systems, allowing for unique gameplay scenarios to pop up as players just happen to stumble onto situations they may or may not have prepared for or anticipated. However, few games can have longevity like this without definable goals, and metrics, which BotW has in spades.
There are weapons to collect, armors to purchase and upgrade, dozens of materials to find or farm, shrines to complete in exchange for permanent upgrades to Link’s maximum health and stamina, Korok Seeds to discover in exchange for a larger weapon inventory, and rupees to accumulate to buy things. There are also side quests to complete that routinely reward the player with additional liquid assets, along with main quests that reward the player with additional health or in one questline’s case, permanent upgrades to this title’s signature new mechanic, runes, which I’ll get to in a bit.
So the ultimate goal here is for the player to go off into this wide and fast world, try and increase these many metrics, and enjoy themselves while conquering this wild and uncharted landmass by climbing towers, discovering thousands of secrets, and also dispatching threats that arise during said journey. With the core gimmick of being able to go anywhere at any time and do whatever the player desires being something of a core conceit of the game. Yet while BotW does indeed accommodate this playstyle, it very strongly nudges the player to at least start by following a predetermined path.
Following the tutorial, the player has many reasons to venture east and north to Kakariko Village in order to achieve quite a lot of things. Activate more towers to make the map available, discover a scattering of shrines to accumulate upgrade tokens, discover the most accessible armor upgrade location, learn of a way to upgrade their runes, and meet a character who exchanges Korok Seeds for weapon slots. A rather frustrating character who will only offer a few upgrades before scampering off to a new location… twice, before they are readily available to the player. I will admit that my frustrations towards this tidbit are particularly petty, but in the early game Link has wafer-thick durability, pitiful stamina, and is unable to carry more than a handful of the fragile weaponry he encounters, so I was quite eager to remedy these deficiencies.
Only after I managed to get through this elongated introductory session did Link feel like a character capable of taking on the often harsh landscape of Hyrule without the shadow of death looming over him. That only took about 25 hours, as I was attempting to take in the landscape in more detail at that point, and was prone to episodes where my attention lapsed and I darted to another way of cataloging this world, often in the form of a shrine or tower. The entire game seems to be built to illicit this sensation, that of being distracted or sidetracked by the sheer excess of things to do or uncover, with the sheer breadth of activities before the player being a bit overwhelming.
I honestly cannot remember what order or reasoning I had behind my actions for most of the game, as I found myself being constantly drawn away from whatever loosely designated objective I had by a hunt for a specific material, a distant shrine, another tower, or something I needed in order to access what I call the 3 dead zones of the map. The mountains, Death Mountain, and the desert all feature harsh climates that necessitate the use of one or two pieces of environmental resistant armor, but in a baffling display said armor can only be obtained within these environments. So if the player wants to be able to go to the volcano without bursting into flames, they need to get to the center of the area and spend some elusive rupees on some astoundingly retardant metal trousers.
How does one go about entering these hazard zones then? Why, by crafting resistant tonics and sprinting to the main town, before buying up whatever vital armor they have available which, in most cases, is the only viable armor that can be worn in that area. I mean, sure, the player could technically forgo the armor, but… I find that very idea to be implausible from a resource management perspective. A sentiment that I honestly carried with me throughout the near entirety of this title. Yes, the player can do theoretically do a myriad of things, but they are regularly limited by mechanics that encourages a more methodical or reserved playstyle, because nothing is free, most nearly everything is limited, and the world hates you.
The best example of this is easily the game’s stance towards combat, a system punctuated by a weapon durability system that gives each weapon an invisible durability value that, when reached, causes the weapon to break, and requires the player to manually select a new one, lest they be unable to deal melee damage, because Link never learned how to punch. Because of the fact that every weapon, aside from the Master Sword, can be so easily destroyed, I began putting inscribing little value in shields, bows, or melee weaponry, and began viewing it all as mere ammunition meant to be expended and replaced as time goes on, or in the case of certain weapons, go unused for 60+ hours as I was waiting for a rainy day that never happened. All because my stingy item conservation mentality kicked in and I began using the tool that I have an unlimited amount of in lieu of anything else. Runes!
Instead of having discoverable key items, BotW instead gives the player most of their tools from the get-go, and makes them all a touch more practical and useful than, say, the Dominion Rod. Bombs are the player’s main means of damaging enemies without the use of ammunition, being an unlimited supply of rechargeable remote variable range damage dealers that are strong enough to outclass most of the player’s initial assortment of weapons. Magnesis is simply used to move things, and between fishing out treasure chests, dropping metal crates onto pigmen, or just manipulating other metal puzzle pieces, but is very contextual.
Stasis is used to freeze things in place and send them flying by hitting them a bunch, making it a very useful tool and the most abusable mechanic in the game, but it costs weapon ammo, so I barely used it. Cryonis is used to freeze water and allow Link to cross large bodies of liquid with ease and… that is about it. While the Sensor is used as part of a tedious scanning system that I never fully adapted to, and felt should have been less about taking pictures and more about scanning things a la Metroid Prime.
Elongated explanation aside, bombs were the main mechanical takeaway for me regarding combat, and led me to develop four strategies that I used to handle every encounter I had with the game, other than running away. First strategy: lob bombs at the enemy from a safe distance, or high ground, whilst switching between the round and cubic explosives in order to stun lock enemies and deal consistent damage. With the upgraded bombs, they will deal 24 damage per hit, making them as powerful as a decent melee weapon, but with notably better staggering capabilities.
Second strategy: Use the Master Sword, as even if it does break, it will be usable in 10 minutes, and most combat encounters tend to be spaced apart, making that wait a minor concern. Third strategy: play footsies with the enemy, try to rush them with a flurry of attacks, using up the reserves of ammunition (weapons) while occasionally dodging a telegraphed attack if possible in order to deal high damage freely. Fourth strategy: Reload to an early state because I’m not going to use my special arrows or anything like that. Those things are absurdly expensive and I never felt compelled to use them outside of story content or certain shrines that necessitate them.
Actually, on that note, let’s talk about money. When looking up information on the game, I saw many people comment that players simply manage to accumulate vast amounts of rupees within time, and I have no clue what these people are going on about. While BotW does routinely shower players with plantlife, bugs, meat, and monster giblets, very few of these are worth much in the way of rupees, and even if you can sell them to any vendor the player comes across, that does not mean they should. Materials are needed for quests, equipment upgrades, and for the crafting of specialized meals that provide Link with a temporary buff, so unless using a detailed breakdown of how many of each material one needs, which I did, I found it difficult to justify selling anything, even if it wasn’t on the list.
All because the amount you get per item is paltry, and who knows, the random Reddit user who made this breakdown could be a liar and I may need these 300 bokoblin horns later. Instead, I was only ever able to get a reliable stream of rupees once I heard about a bowling mini-game held at the base of the tower in the icy mountains, where I could reliably earn 280 rupees a minute if I placed Link in a precise manner. Once I figured it out, I did screw up one in three times, but it was fairly easy to replicate indefinitely.
The other core method of obtaining rupees comes from quests, which vary wildly with regards to their time investment, but most of them follow the simple “obtain X of item Y and deliver them to character Z” quest format, and offer a modest reward in most cases. One that could easily be replicated in a multitude of ways, such as bowling, making the side quests fairly pointless unless the reward is a unique item. Yes, they all have some unique flavor text, but even if the characters are brimming with charisma, they are so plentiful and have such limited roles that I honestly cannot remember a single one of their names, just their vague personality and quests.
When quests did stray from this established XYZ formula, it commonly results in more elaborate sequences that have Link scouring the map for various doodads or other characters, and often feels like it is only barely worth the effort unless the reward in and of itself is unique, such as a pair of boots that allow for faster traversal over certain terrain, which I wound up barely using because the snow boots do not keep Link warm. I repeat. Snow boots do not keep you warm.
The reward structure on display here is deliberately designed to offer the player a consistent amount of paltry rewards that mean very little on their own, but lead to a series of gradual improvements in Link as a character. His defenses, mobility, environmental versatility, and general combative ability all improved dramatically over my 85 hours of play, but I honestly did not feel it until I reached a certain point where re-encountered threats were trivialized, as opposed to feeling a more constant sense of growing strength, due to how small each individual upgrade was. It is an approach that I genuinely cannot say that I care for, as the road to get from the early game Link to the late game Link is one paved with a lot of indistinguishable wandering, combat encounters, bug hunting, chest opening, and most especially shrine exploration.
I consider the shrines to very much be the core showpiece of BotW as a game, being the most memorable element of the experience to me, and the most interesting locales from a mechanical perspective. Most of them are pure puzzle sections where the player must use the game’s mechanics in ways not often obvious in the overworld, and is consistently rewarded with upgrade tokens, four of which may be redeemed for another unit of health or stamina. They follow a series of clear rules, involve inventive thinking, can often be solved in a variety of ways, and while some of them are more than a little roundabout in how they are to be solved, they serve as refreshing reprieves from the wanderlust the rest of the game is so fixated on evoking.
If anything, I found myself wishing that I could simply go from one shrine to another at times, avoiding the transit between them, and being permitted to focus on what I internalized as the most important metric in the game. However, my enthusiasm towards them began to dampen as I continued to explore the world for stray shrines. Many of which gave me a copy-pasted “test of strength” instead of a puzzle, or were locked behind an obtuse overworld quest that was significantly less enjoyable than a game of hammer golf.
I think the worst one I encountered is the one in the southeast desert. Once reaching the exposed shrine, the player meets a Gerudo who will not allow them to access the shrine unless they are given a cool drink, requiring the player to return to Gerudo Town, consult with a barkeep, and be informed that they must bring a block of constantly melting ice with them throughout an area with respawning enemies who will assault Link if they see him. After playing footsies with them, killing them, or eventually trying to skirt across the sidelines and narrowly reaching the end point in the allotted time, the player is prompted to return to the shrine manually, (the shrine could not be registered as a fast travel location) and only then are they awarded with an upgrade token along with a weapon they probably don’t need or particularly want. All of which probably took me a solid 40 to 50 minutes, just so I could get a fourth of another heart or a twentieth of a stamina wheel. Thanks.
All of which can easily be considered side content that is meant to steadily direct the player to the four main quest lines of this game, all of which abide by a plainly illustrated formula. Link must travel to a town through vicarious weather the player probably is not equipped for, doing a small side quest to get something or someone, and then meeting with a designated important person to take on the Divine Beast, hitting them with Bomb Arrows, Shock Arrows,
Fire Arrows Bomb Arrows, or Ice Arrows some pontz made of Amber, before getting into their stony interior. Once there, Link is tasked with interacting with 5 designated terminals throughout the Beast’s body, all while maneuvering the Divine Beast’s body in some manner, allowing for more areas to be accessed.
Their designs very much veer on the puzzle angle, keeping combat encounters to a minimum, and putting an emphasis on the player’s understanding of 3D space, trajectory, and environmental comprehension. Then for the player’s trouble, they are sent to a boss fight against some calamitous mass that supposedly killed the designated champion a century ago. None of whom are particularly complex or challenging, with all of them being susceptible to a specific Rune and being no match for the Master Sword, which allowed me to end all of these boss fights in about two minutes tops.
For the sake of transparency, I only decided to do these main quests once my patience with the game began to falter, and I was growing positively bored with the grind its core gameplay presented, the magnitude of its world, and the fact that I genuinely stopped wanting to get any of its rewards, let alone keep clearing the checklist it presented before me. All of which happened at around the 75 hour mark, leading me to try wrapping things up with 93 completed shrines, and off to perform a directed assault on Hyrule Castle. A bombastic final encounter in the form of a dire infiltration mission that consisted of some dispatching of monsters with the Master Sword, gathering a few journals of character development and one flashback to show that this entire situation could have probably been avoided if the King of Hyrule didn’t have the personality of a rotting durian.
All of this led to a surprisingly underwhelming final boss battle that was shortened by my desire to complete the main quest, and a final cutscene that was shortened because of how the true ending works. Effectively, the player needs to go to Hyrule Castle, find the flashback hidden in the Castle, leave, talk to somebody, go somewhere else, see the real final flashback, and then return to Hyrule Castle and make Ganon deader than he’s ever been before. Because that makes more sense than, you know, staying in the final dungeon during the climactic finale, with the final boss just a stone’s throw away.
A lot of my criticisms towards BotW could be attributed towards my general game design preferences, which consider extrinsic and quantifiable motivators to be more valuable and rewarding than anything stylish, inventive, cool, or otherwise intrinsically motivating. I often view more mechanically heavy games as just that, a series of mechanics wherein the ultimate goal is to see the greatest measurable result possible, i.e. getting all the things, using the least amount of resources, and making numbers go up. Essentially, if a game provides the player with a me a clearly stated or obfuscated checklist of objectives, then completing them all in a mechanically optimal way should be the best way to enjoy the game.
Completing quests in order to progress the storyline and be granted assorted rewards. Completing shrines to unlock greater health and stamina. Complete the map. Gathering Korok Seeds to be granted to more weapons that function as situational insurance, but you only need about 100 of them. Getting money to buy things. And gathering materials. For as much as this title attempts to obfuscate these factors by minimizing the number of waypoints, making travel times lengthy, and packing everything into a dense and large world, this is about as standard as you can get when it comes to generalized marker-based open world games that have been popularized over the past decade. The only key difference is the fact that the game does indeed possess the systems necessary to facilitate a reactive world with a gameplay system that has players stumble onto situations they may or may not have prepared for or anticipated.
Shifting away from the mechanical banter to discuss the presentational characteristics of this title instead. Visually, BotW aims to build upon the art style seen in Skyward Sword, blending in a cel-shaded and painterly art direction with realistic proportions, landscapes, and general world design, creating something meant to evoke the visual trapins of a moving painting, with emphasis on moving. The game is peppered with subtle and small movements of the sind, sun, and clouds, creating a landscape that manages to consistently feel lively, and is populated with a plethora of wildlife, ruins, villages, and monsters who interact and settle throughout the world in a semi-believable manner.
From a more technical perspective, it is impressive to see it handle such large and open environments with as much ease, clearly encompassing larger details seen in the distance, while managing to avoid instances of intrusive detail pop-in, while also naturally adapting to the routinely shifting weather system. It’s general world detail and design are on a truly high level, but duch details are still afforded to the creatures occupying the world, with expressive characters, many detailed and somewhat unnecessary animations, and generally speaking a level of visual polish that is a bit surprising for a launch title.
Moving onto autiory attributes, I know that many people appreciated the ambiance established by this soundscape and found the reserved use of music in certain locales and circumstance to be appreciated, but personally I just found the game to be auditorily boring 90% of the time, and played my own music or a podcast using my stupid daisy chained audio setup. Yes, this approach caused me to ignore the careful curation put into creating a world as well realized auditorily as it is visually, but… I liked my way better.
Then there’s the voice acting which… I would be okay and fine with it if the developers more strongly committed to the idea of these characters being voiced and speaking an established language. In short, I do not identify the barks, grunts, or noises made by most NPCs as English, Japanese, or anything of the sort, and consider it something else. As such, it struck me as odd whenever voice acting did pop up due to how limited and different it sounds from the noises made by other characters, to the point where I would have preferred if everybody just spoke Midna-style gibberish. Yes, I know that is just a Japanese woman speaking garbled English, but… I liked it.
Over my 85 hours with BotW, I found myself bearing a number of grievances towards this title, and asking a multitude of questions. Such as why aren’t markers on the map removed once the player reaches them? Why is there no durability distinction on weapons? Why are there no stats beyond the damage value given when the player is looking at weapons in their inventory? Why aren’t weapons automatically equipped after one breaks? Why is there no way to transmogrify armor stats? Why are the materials needed to upgrade certain armor so out of wack? Seriously, you need like 13 Shard of Dinraal’s Horn to get everything.
However, I must admit that I truly consider the most important aspect of this game to be the minute to minute gameplay, and despite all of these broader mechanical grievances I have, I ultimately found myself losing afternoons to the compelling gameplay and feedback loop BotW offered. It always provided me with a list of things to do, and boasting gameplay that was polished and felt good enough for me to keep playing well past the point where I should have stopped to take care of some other household, school, or writing-based activity. I think that Breath of the Wild is questionably designed in many regards, I think it places far too much value in the act of exploration and discovery, I think that the series was never in need of reinvention, and I think it is far from the masterpiece many procclaim it to be. But, at the end of the day, I still had a lot of fun with it.