Gasp! Nobody’s perfect…
When I first started planning this article many (blood) moons ago, I’d just started playing the latest entry in the mainline Zelda franchise religiously, and I was hook(shot)ed. (Okay, I’ll stop.)
The first open world game I’d ever played, everything seemed fascinating and new. Even in the relatively low resolution of the Switch, the trees were textured to look like trees, grass behaved seemingly naturalistically, and the mountains were giant invitations begging me for exploration.
That version of the article would have had quite a different name: “Breath of the Wild Review: The Only Videogame I Never Want to End.”
But, as we all know, positive-sounding articles don’t receive anywhere near as many views as negative clickbate-y titles. So, here we are.
In all honesty, over the last few weeks I’ve been picking up my Switch less often, and when I do I’m more likely to load up the fabulous Rayman Legends or Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy than Nintendo’s sprawling Legend of Zelda masterpiece. And while I’m determined not to start a “serious” game until after I’ve defeated Ganon and saved the Princess (come on, we all know how it’s going to end), I’m looking forward to the day I get to play the Zelda-inspired, but more straightforward, Okami.
In short, I’m looking forward to calling it a day with Breath of the Wild and taking a breath of fresh air.
It isn’t that I haven’t had fun sinking my teeth into the immaculate photography side quest (where you have to take pictures of every moving thing you can find in the sprawling expanse of Hyrule), unlocking memories in the Sheikah Slate quest (finding very specific spots in the sprawling expanse of Hyrule with nothing but nebulous hints), or hunting down an infinite amount of Korok seeds (involving mini puzzles spread around the sprawling expanse of Hyrule), it’s just that — well, there’s a lot of Hyrule.
Searching out and climbing the towers that unlock portions of the map is one of the driving forces of the start of the game, and much of the early quest’s challenge is based around figuring out how to access all of these portal points. The towers closest to the Great Plateau, the game’s in-built tutorial area, are easy enough to find and climb, but eventually you’ll have to solve environmental puzzles to ascend heights your stamina bar would never allow you to reach, dodge vicious Guardians whose beams can take you out in one hit, and survive extreme heat or blistering colds before you can even reach a tower’s base.
Finding and conquering these towers, using all the tools at my disposal, was genuinely the most fun I had with the game. The issue is that while there is a near-infinite amount of side content to pursue, once you have climbed all 15 Sheikah Towers, you’ll likely find yourself powerful enough to blitz through the rest of the game. And while I continue to get lots of joy from filling out my
Pokedex Hyrule Compendium, many of the side quests feel aimless. Sometimes I will find they feel like fun diversions, but other times I feel like I’m wasting my time, and that sensation isn’t helped by scant rewards or certain NPCs outwardly mocking my avatar for expecting a reward for completing their errands.
One of Breath of the Wild‘s most distinctive features setting it apart from other Zelda games is its system of shrines. These mini-dungeons are scattered throughout the world, each one rewarding you – no matter how difficult the challenge inside, or how hard it was to find – with a spirit orb.
While previous Zelda games steadily increased the difficulty of the dungeons as you progress throughout the campaign, Breath of the Wild‘s shrines can be accessed in feasibly any order. More difficult shrines might reward you with meatier weapons (though you’ll probably find your Item pouch is full, or you already have 5 copies of the same weapon), but the reward for completing each shrine is essentially a quarter of a heart container or a stamina wheel upgrade, no matter how hard you worked.
This wasn’t an issue in previous 3D Zelda titles as their linear campaigns guided players through an increasing difficulty ramp, and while Breath of the Wild‘s non-linear, open-world nature is its biggest strength, the universal minuscule reward diminishes the drive to spend so much time on a difficult and potentially tedious shrine, knowing there’s a ‘Gift Shrine’ just around the corner.
Like climbing towers, finding shrines is more fun than what comes next. With only your scope and an infuriatingly precise Sheikah Sensor to guide you through the landscape, seeking out these shrines while navigating innovative hiding spots built into the environment is one of Breath of the Wild‘s masterstrokes.
The shrines themselves, however, are quite tedious, identical interiors betraying the fact that many of the designs within are uninspired. The use of tools inbuilt into your Sheikah Slate is fun at first, and I can only applaud Nintendo for programming multiple ways to solve the majority of the game’s puzzles, but after using a Statis/Weapon combo for the 50th time, I couldn’t help but miss the traditional Zelda item system.
The worst shrines by far, however, are the ‘Mechanism’ puzzles which rely on the Switch’s gyro controls. These are essentially impossible to complete on the Switch Lite, as you sometimes have to tilt the console until you can’t see the screen to navigate the ball to the right place. And while Nintendo (wisely) gave players the option to turn off motion control in other aspects of the game (scoping, shooting arrows), there’s no choice to use the analogue stick to control the ‘Mechanisms’ here.
Some shrines are only accessed through ‘Shrine Quests’, environmental puzzles whose solutions are often hinted at by various villagers around Hyrule. These are the most interesting shrines. Unlike the majority of the game’s shrines, which are self-contained puzzle shrines – the puzzle involves finding the shrine, which usually turns out to be a ‘Gift Shrine’ awarding the player with a Spirit Orb right away. These are far superior to the puzzle rooms as they often rely on a natural extension of Link’s natural move set, rather than switching up the game play to one focused around the somewhat artificial Sheikah Slate tools. However, these are few and far between, and many hidden shrines can be stumbled on somewhat accidentally, making the reward inside feel somewhat cheap.
There are still five ‘true’ dungeons for the Zelda purists however, though the Four Divine Beasts are still much shorter than fully-fledged dungeons in other 3D titles. Their is somewhat forgivable as they have some of the strongest and most original designs for any dungeons in the series. The player is able to control the Beasts themselves while wandering through their rooms, tilting and re positioning the living dungeons to add all-new spatial dimensions to puzzle solving.
The challenge that come in these dungeons (which are admittedly somewhat obscure to the point of frustration) are strangely offset by what is easily the easiest string of bosses in the series. No doubt compensating for the game’s nonlinear nature (the Divine Beasts, like the Shrines, can be completed in any order), all of the manifestations of Ganon can be taken down with a few well-timed arrows and a couple of swings of a sword. To add insult to injury, the bosses’ designs are simply variations of each other, and the interior of the Divine Beasts are as indistinguishable as the interiors of the Shrines.
The Only Way is Skyward
On the surface, Breath of the Wild serves as an antithesis and a rejection of its immediate predecessor, Skyward Sword. Its vast, uninterrupted open world is a remedy for the artificially divided map of the former title, its nonlinearity an apology for the imposing story of the Wii game.
However, the Switch masterpiece didn’t through out its big brother’s philosophy completely, and some of its most effective ideas (durable weapons that break; collectable ingredients for potions) are expansions of concepts originally found in the previous game.
It’s easy to nitpick a game three years after its release, and with a Breath of the Wild sequel seemingly coming in the next couple of years, maybe we’re just reflecting on what we’d like to see change. The game might get bogged down sometimes in its own best ideas, becoming an over-stuffed side-quest machine, but the core mechanics the sometimes flawed experiences are located in are still something to be celebrated.
Breath of the Wild is still at its most fun when you’re doing the things you don’t need to do, it’s just that sometimes you feel that there could be more motivating you to carry on with the quest. But the map is still vast and dense enough to be packed full of mysteries to keep you curious, with ruins to explore and mysterious environments begging for you to find an explanation.
But when you’ve seen the main sights, there feels little reason to carry on. The story is so thinly spread that the game has no sense of urgency. It’s easy to forget that there’s a kingdom in ruins, a Princess to be saved. Once you’re equipped enough to survive the initially omnipotent Guardians that patrol the map and your stamina bar lets you climb up mountains without taking a rest, you might feel elated and godlike at first, but it makes the most thrilling aspects of the game (survival and exploration) feel like a long walk in an albeit gorgeous park.
Ultimately, many of the tasks are satisfactory in and of themselves, regardless of rewards, but spend too long on side quests and you might start to feel like you’re playing Animal Crossing with a sword.
Shrines are most fun when you’re seeking them out but they don’t often feel worth completing; once you’ve got a solid eight or nine hearts and upgraded your stamina wheel by a half, you might not feel any need to keep on upgrading a Link who gets too overpowered too soon.
Finding Korok seeds provide a fun distraction until the currency exchange rate for item slots climbs so high it doesn’t feel worth it anymore, and the limited amount of Towers, the main motivation for exploring the map, might make you wish the map just had a few more segments to explore and some more true challenges to solve.
In the end, Breath of the Wild‘s biggest flaws are all inextricably linked to their biggest strength. There is a RIDICULOUS amount to do in the game – exploring villages, unlocking Link’s memories, crafting weapons to tear through Guardians with ease – but in the end, there just feels like little reason to do this. The stronger Link gets, the less challenging the game becomes – and Link gets strong while there’s still so much left of the game to do.
Just don’t mention the Lynels.