Series-wide spoiler warning
It’s been just over five months since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild opened to a landslide of perfect scores from the media at large. I was beginning to think we as a gaming community had gotten past hyperbole, but many have been quick to declare this the best Legend of Zelda game, the best open world game, and the overall best game of all time.
It’s a given that it will win numerous game of the year awards considering the love affair the press has with this game. This has even prompted Nintendo themselves to suggest all Zelda games going forward will be “open-air” like Breath of the Wild. Enough.
My job here is very simple. I don’t have to convince anyone that it’s a bad game because it’s not. I just have to explain that this isn’t some perfect masterpiece that all games need to aspire to be; that it isn’t the best game of all time.
If Breath of the Wild is your personal favorite game or favorite Zelda game, I’m not speaking to you. It’s the people foaming at the mouth at how it’s objectively better than other games, objectively better than other Zelda games, did open world better than other games, and want to enshrine it that I am addressing. This game is far too flawed to be getting this level of praise.
Put simply, Breath of the Wild lacks charm, character, personality, or that “Zelda magic.”
The story is so light that it may as well not even be there. Sure, not all games need a strong story or lore, like Tetris, but this isn’t Tetris. This is The Legend of Zelda, and a large part of a Zelda experience is the story and characters.
You wake up with a simple goal given by the disembodied voice of Zelda: defeat Ganon. There is brief exposition in Kakariko from Impa about how Ganon took over and defeated everyone 100 years ago while taking over four Divine Beasts. Then, since everyone likes to call those Divine Beasts and the memories “optional,” all that’s left is to go kill Ganon and watch Link and Zelda try to restore the land.
It’s not like you’re going to get any development by visiting the four villages, defeating the Divine Beasts, or collecting all the memories though. The core concept of “everything happened a long time ago this is just ruins” is a cliche that is rarely interesting (exceptions are Fallout and BioShock).
Memories, which feel very much like audio logs, show a snippet of Link and Zelda’s travels 100 years ago. However, due to the game latching onto this idea of freedom, you can pick them up in any order. Thus, none of them provide any pertinent plot nor character development. You know what the end result is already, and even in those memories Link and Zelda are already on familiar terms with Daruk, Urbossa, Revali, and Mipha. They chat, but nothing develops between any of them.
Surely then, if you go to Death Mountain, Gerudo Valley, etc. and defeat the Divine Beasts you’ll learn more about these characters, right? Uh, no. The villages are streamlined with no sense of adventure or story. You walk up to the elder, who tells you to go find some dude and then you make a beeline towards some on-rails event to get into the Divine Beast. There is no developing plot within the areas you visit, such as a Monkey accused of kidnapping a princess or the lead guitarist of a band trying to save his girlfriends eggs, they just conveyor belt you to the “dungeon” as quickly as possible. I’m not over simplifying; you can be in the Divine Beast within like five minutes of entering a village. The Rito village is especially weak, with the Gerudo Town the closest the game gets to having a mini-plot.
The former, dead champions speak to you as a ghost in the Divine Beasts and have a short scene after you defeat the boss which tries to steal emotion from you with touching music even though it has absolutely not earned it. I can’t feel bad about their death, pumped up about them shooting Ganon, or anything at all when I never spent any time with them. We do spend a brief time with what I can only call replacement champions, the only name of which I can remember without Googling is Sidon. They have even less development, and I don’t need to tell you the English voice acting is atrocious across the board.
When the young Goron is waving up at Daruk and Link after defeating the Death Mountain Divine Beast, I don’t feel anything at all because I just met him two minutes before I entered the place and got zero character development. Sidon has become somewhat of a fan-favorite character, if only because he has slightly more to him than the others, because he does the cute little thumbs-up and wink gesture. That’s the closest this game ever comes to personality. A thumbs-up and wink. Beyond that we know nothing about Sidon. He’s strong and noble?
They are nothing compared to Makar and Medli, for instance, who play similar roles in Wind Waker. You help them grow as characters, play music with them, and even complete full dungeons alongside them. And oh hey, I remember their names. Likewise in Ocarina of Time, you complete a dungeon with Princess Ruto and she grows to like Link. They aren’t just suddenly talking like lovers in a random cutscene like Link and Mipha do in Breath of the Wild.
Zelda is shown the most and has the most “development” of any character in the game but is still a stick in the mud. As aforementioned the openness of the game disallows linear progression for her or any character’s development (which is recommended as this isn’t Memento). You have a journal you can read too. She wants to save Hyrule and does. Her father, King Rhoam, wants the kingdom saved and that’s about it.
Compare them to Zelda/Tetra and King of Hyrule/Red Lions in Wind Waker. Do I even need to spell out how much more interesting Tetra and the King of Red Lions are? She’s a fucking sassy-ass pirate and her dad is your guffawing boat. Breath of Wild wishes it could have even a drop of that kind of personality.
Speaking of Tetra and the King of Red Lions, they serve as functional guides but also a way to reflect Link’s motivations as well. They served the same role as Navi, Tatl, Midna, and Fi from other games. People complain about their varying levels of interference to give you tutorials or information, but they also served as story companions and a voice for Link. They played progressively more important roles in the story. Breath of the Wild has no such thing.
Rounding out the generic go-to Legend of Zelda cast is Ganon, who has absolutely no presence in the game whatsoever. We’re told we must defeat him and in some cutscenes you see his dragon-pig self flying about. But you never really see him do anything bad, and we never really see Zelda in distress, for that matter. There is never a feeling of “I want/have to defeat him!” as there was in Ocarina of Time where you see him betray the kingdom and kidnap Zelda. He doesn’t come kick the door in once in a while like Ghirahim. Even Skull Kid and Ganondorf in Wind Waker show up to remind you who’s boss occasionally.
None of the NPCs in the game are really affected by what’s transpiring, and no side quests are about helping someone negatively affected by Ganon or his purple goo. Hateno Village was completely unharmed, but Kakariko, Zora Domain, Death Mountain, Gerudo Town, and RIto Village likewise seem unaffected. Some of the NPCs in those towns speak of how the Divine Beasts make life hard but you don’t really witness it. Kids are frolicking about in undamaged cities while they have plenty to eat and drink.
You see some ruins or dead Guardians here and there outside of the towns, but it just feels like old ruins rather than the aftermath of some world-threatening war. In Ocarina of Time you witness first-hand how Hyrule is ravaged. In Majora’s Mask the moon overhead creeps ever closer while people are constantly talking about it in denial and fear while many of the sidequests about helping people are a direct result of Skull Kid and Majora’s Mask. Before the moon falls there are people cowering in fear even.
Majora’s Mask has a similar premise to Breath of the Wild with four major areas being affected by the big bad which, when cleared, release a giant that helps you stop the moon and defeat the final boss. Only the world is more clearly affected than in Breath of the Wild, and you see people actually negatively affected.
In the Swamp, you don’t just talk to an elder and skip along to the dungeon. You are trying to save a monkey from execution, suspected of having kidnapped the princess. The waters are poisoned. Clearing the temple clears up the waters, frees the monkey, and opens up new gameplay. Defeating the divine beast in the Gerudo Desert of Breath of the Wild removes the sandstorm around it that affects no one (but none of the other sandstorms).
At Snowhead, the heat-loving Gorons are freezing to death. Maybe they shouldn’t live on top of a mountain if they love heat, but in any case you literally save several of them from ice, and go through a trial of courage to obtain the lens of truth which allows you to see Darunia’s ghost. You heal his soul and give him closure by promising to help his people in his stead, including a baby who dearly misses his father. Clearing the temple brings spring to the mountain so the Gorons can live comfortably, and again opens up more gameplay such as the quest to upgrade your sword. In Breath of the Wild, you talk to an elder, talk to a kid Goron, beat the Divine Beast, and then some magma bombs stop falling which have more impact than the other divine beasts because they can hurt you outside the city and trapped the young replacement champion I guess. It’s something, better than nothing, but still pales in comparison to the affect had at Snowhead.
In Great Bay you attempt to save a dying Mikau, who was mortally wounded trying to rescue his girlfriend’s eggs from a Gerudo hideout. You send him off, invade the Gerudo fortress to retrieve the eggs, and clear the Great Bay temple to end the dangerous climate that threatens the bay and murky water clears up. And yes, it opens up more gameplay, Zora Domain in Breath of the Wild has nonstop rain, but excuse me if I don’t find that particularly threatening to fish people.
Lastly, in Ikana, you save a girl’s dad who is a half-Gibdo abomination locked in their basement, reuniting them, before you learn the song of storms to bring water to the valley and end the mummy invasion. In Stone Tower you fight the ghost of the past King of Ikana. Clearing the temple will heal the girl’s dad if you didn’t already along with Sharp and Flat. Ghosts leave and the skies clear. Correct me if I’m wrong, but apparently nothing changes before and after the Divine Beast in Rito Village whatsoever, nor are there any character moments even a quarter as touching. They say “if we fly too high the canons will shoot us” but no one is in any danger if they just leave the thing alone. You certainly don’t see any danger.
All throughout Majoras’s Mask there are complex and intertwining side quests with characters connected in various ways. In trying to reunite Anju and Kafei, you must visit town hall to speak with Kafei’s mother and look for him yourself, learning the route of the postman. Near the end of the quest you can help the postman find a new resolution, give closure to Kafei’s mom, and get background on Kafei’s connection to the curiosity shop owner and the thief, Saikon. And you can only storm Saikon’s hideout if you don’t save the old lady delivering a bomb mask in the middle of the night.
Breath of Wild has its NPCs, but they are bland and as memorable as my ex-girlfriends’ birthdays. They don’t have unique characteristics, designs, or problems. Looking like they were born out of some generator rather than a human, they send you on shallow fetch quests. Collect 55 rushrooms. Tame that horse. The rewards are almost always just rupees, ingredients, or more generic breakable weapons. Oh I’m just shivering with excitement!
But you can encounter random events! Like saving generic NPCs by breaking your weapons on enemies to get some food reward. Or you might encounter some NPCs being attacked by enemies. It’s really revolutionary and is changing the industry! No other open world games have such interesting random events that really help the world feel alive, certainly not Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto 5. Definitely not Fallout 4 or Skyrim.
The only two relatively interesting side-quests in the game, Tarrey Town and Eventide Island, are only exciting in that “this is better than another fucking fetch quest.” Eventide Island is one of several “throw these balls in the holes” objectives, with a gimmick of having all your equipment taken. It’s fine, could have been better, but nothing to write home about.
Tarrey Town is just building up a town, which is done better in other games — particularly in games where it’s the town you can actually live in that you upgrade. It involves tedious fetching of tons of wood for little reward. Building up a town is cool. But it’s less cool when that’s not where my house is. It’s less cool when the shop vendors just sell the same stuff I can and have already bought elsewhere or don’t need. Other than the one or two side quests its completion unlocks, I never returned there. Nor did I ever spend time in the barren Lurelin Village.
It would be alright if some of the NPCs were generic if there were some memorable ones that played a role larger than nothing. It would be great if the mini-game organizers, store owners, and inn-keepers had some memorable charm to them that whenever a name is mentioned in the quest menu I don’t think “who?” Compare the men who operate snow bowling in Breath of the Wild and the Battleship knockoff in Wind Waker.
On top of lame NPCs and dull side quests, said mini-games are bland and pointless. Since they turned heart pieces into orb currency and restricted them to shrines, the only thing you can win from mini-games like snow bowling, racing a dude up a mountain, or paragliding as far as you can is 100-300 rupees.
None of them advance or increase in difficulty; there is no second race with a longer and more treacherous route up the mountain or a faster opponent, nor is there progressively better rewards. There is no harder snow bowling challenge with more pins, being further away, or competing against the NPC. Guess which game does advance them and give you various prizes and upgrades such as heart pieces, quivers, bomb bags, etc.? You’re damn right it’s Majora’s Mask.
The lack of advancement in difficulty and reward is a common theme that plagues Breath of the Wild. From the get-go, you are given all the runes and you never have to find or upgrade things such as quivers, bomb bags, bait bags, mailbags, wallets, or bottles. You don’t obtain new abilities or items (such as iron boots, masks, or songs) that allow you to explore new places or do more side quests. The teleportation ability is given at the start, and they made fairies only recover a small amount to justify making Mipha’s Grace.
There is never a moment of “I need to comeback here later” which sounds convenient but it takes away from the sense of progression and getting stronger that this game and its fans claim it has. There is no excitement of getting a new mask, new song, boomerang, bottle, or equipment item that lets me do more. No matter where you go, you know you will be sufficiently equipped, and that takes the thrill out of it.
Since the developers are so married to the idea of going anywhere at any time, they scaled it so everything is relatively the same difficulty, and the game isn’t very hard at all. Difficulty is irrelevant to a game’s quality in many cases, but when so many are claiming “Breath of the Wild is hard!” as a reason why it’s amazing, I have to speak up. The game feigns difficulty in the first few hours (only as far as combat is concerned, not puzzles). But very quickly as you get used to the controls and mechanics you can take on any of the repeat enemies and Bokoblin skulls aside from Lynels. But you quickly stop raiding camps and just avoid enemies in general, just as you slowly lose interest in exploring every ruin, because there is no suitable reward. You expend your breakable weapons, arrows, and food fighting easy enemies to get more breakable weapons; likely weaker than the ones you broke to get to it. The only reason to fight is to grind drops for upgrading armor, to help you do more useless fighting? Let’s go break weapons to grind guardians parts to buy breakable guardian weapons at Akkala?
Mini-Guardians in the Major Tests of Strength along with Lynels are only more difficult than other enemies as a result of being sponges that eat up a lot of damage. Even beginners are able to dispatch Guardians in the Major Tests of Strength, while sponges are the worst way to create difficulty and “progression.” Guardians are the best enemy in the game because they are intimidating but can be taken down easily once you know how to approach them.
Shrine puzzles are all about the same level of difficulty, as are all the Divine Beasts and their bosses. Again, since they want to let you go anywhere, there is no progression of difficulty in either the bosses or puzzles. You do not learn new things and compound them as the game goes on, as the Super Mario series does perfectly. You just do the same things with the same runes over and over.
The runes are not even that interesting. Gone are iron boots, hover boots, transformation masks, and hookshots. Now we have infinite bombs because…they wanted it to look like there are more abilities than there are? So people don’t ever get stuck due to a lack of bombs? Then why not give us infinite arrows? It’s one less thing to have in the already barren and pointless shops. The water rune is just an ice arrow except you use it to open a gate a few times while being the least-used rune by far. So we have magnet and stasis, the only worthwhile runes and which make up the majority of puzzles in the game. Two. They took away magic too though, so one less thing to upgrade, shop for, and develop.
But even the runes are stripped of any story or personality. The beetle item in Skyward Sword is an upgradable fluttering beetle, hence the name, that collects items among other uses. It’s not just a polygonal box called “Retrieve.” Likewise the Gust Bellows or the Oocoo from Twilight Princess are not merely “Vacuum” and “Teleport” because the developers added some flare and personality to the world, which is lacking when you just give the bare-bones “Stasis,” “Magnet,” and “Cryosis” (aka a boring version of ice arrows) in equally stale shrine locations that resemble science labs. The Aperture Science labs in Portal were going for that very aesthetic because its the setting of the game, unlike in Breath of the Wild shrines where the sterilized square rooms evoke nothing emotionally. When you don’t dress up your mechanics at all, not only is it boring but it makes it harder to apply it in creative ways.
The Divine Beasts are also nigh indistinguishable from each other. I love listening to people ask each other which was the hardest or most fun and they never remember which is which and even admit they’re all pretty similar. Instead of elaborate, area-specific themed dungeons with mini-bosses and unique dungeon bosses, they are all the same dull brown-colored rocks with the same gooey Xblight Ganon boss, and with the exact same objective: find five terminals. There are no enemies in any of them, only those gooey eyeball things which are not really enemies and serve next to no purpose whatsoever. If you want one epitome, one comparison that shows exactly how I feel about this game, then compare the bosses of the Divine Beasts with other games.
- Ocarina of Time: Gohma, King Dodongo, Barinade, Phantom Ganon, Volvagia, etc.
- Majora’s Mask: Odolwa, Goht, Gyorg, Twin Mold.
- Wind Waker: Gohma, Kalle Demos, Gohdan, Puppet Gannon, Helmorac King, etc.
- Twilight Princess: Diababa, Fyrus, Morpheel, Argorok, etc.
- Skyward Sword: Ghirahim, Moldarach, Koloktos, Levias, etc.
- Breath of the Wild: Fireblight Ganon, Windblight Ganon, Waterblight Ganon, Thunderblight Ganon
I mean come the hell on! How boring can you be? It’s like when you go to the Hunchback of Notre Dame world in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance and you wonder how the Frollo boss fight will play out but then you realize they just made a generic Heartless enemy instead. Every boss in Breath of the Wild leaves me with a case of blue balls. And despite the game advertising freedom and everything being optional, these generic blights are mandatory. Yet, they serve no story function as bosses in previous games did, and they serve no gameplay function because, unlike most bosses where you have to master skills or items you’ve acquired to defeat them, you simply slash or arrow them until they die. That’s because there is nothing to acquire throughout the game that gives the bosses any reason to exist, so they may as well not.
Everyone goes on and on about how cool is it you can fight the final boss right after the tutorial. It would be cool if you could just face the final boss but he’s too strong and you need to come back when you’re better prepared (i.e. played more of the game). But no, it denies you the pleasure of trying your hand at the final boss. The only difficulty comes in forcing you through a boss rush of all the Xblight Ganons you didn’t defeat yet. While none of them or the final boss itself are all that difficult, doing them all one after another is likely too much out of the gate for a non-speed-running casual player, denying you the challenge of trying the actual final boss right from the start. On top of that, the final boss feels almost as uninspired as the blights. There is no play on expectations or any sense of theatrics or any sort of speech; it’s just a weird creature that you’d expect. He doesn’t hold a candle to Wind Waker‘s nor Ocarina of Time‘s Ganondorf/Ganons, Majora’s Mask, Zant, or Demise.
The world is wide as an ocean but deep as a puddle with nothing worthwhile outside the major zones that would be in the game even if it weren’t open world (Kakariko, Zora’s Domain, Gerudo, Death Mountain, Rito Village, Hateno). There are 10-15 different types of Korok mini-challenges which like everything else in the game are at a consistent difficulty level and get very boring very quickly. Spending several minutes climbing up to the top of a mountain range just to find some rock with a Korok under it feels like the biggest “fuck you” since Nintendo made the reward for finding all 900 collectibles a literal pile of shit. Oh wait, that’s this game too.
They insult you for getting them all if you so choose because “you’re not supposed to get them all” just as you can’t have both max hearts and max stamina, which betrays the game’s philosophy of “play how you want” and also the fact that there is a completion percentage counter that includes finding all locations.
Even the biggest Breath of the Wild defenders can’t tell me with a straight face that a bunch of Korok seeds are what makes the world so “full of content” and exciting. They’re boring, repetitive, and most stop collecting them after like 30-50. So what is it that fills all that open space? A few non-progressive mini-games to win 100 rupees? Korok seeds? Oh, shrines. Of course 120 identical shrines.
Just as the four Divine Beasts are all themed the exact same way, so too are all 120 shrines, which people praise as better than themed and unique dungeons with unique bosses for some sick reason. All have the exact same aesthetic, same music, and same lack of connection to game’s world. But rather than 120, there are actually only 80. There are 20 “Blessing” shrines which nine out of ten times give you some generic weapon you probably already have, accessed by completing puzzles of sorts outside the shrine to unlock them. Those “puzzles” are often just putting balls in holes, shooting an arrow at something, or fetch quests, though.
20 shrines are combat trials which is the clearest sign of laziness in the game. All of them are identical, single mini-Guardians. The “major” ones have more arms than the “minor” ones but as mentioned none are too difficult. How about instead of the same damn Guardian thing you mix and match various enemies such as the cups in Kingdom Hearts‘ Olympus Coliseum or Wind Waker‘s Savage Labyrinth? Since Nintendo seems to be on the “you don’t need them all” mindset, they can be of varying difficulty. Have one with both a Hinox and a Stone Talus, another with one Lynel and two Guardians, etc. It wouldn’t be that hard but they chose to be lazy. I guess it could be due to system limitations, since the frame rate drops a lot as is.
Speaking of Hinoxes and Stone Taluses, during my first encounter I was delighted to have a random mini-boss-like fight out in the open, thinking it was the only one. Then I quickly realized they’re copy and pasted all over the map. I was expecting to see unique mini-bosses or fights in certain locations, but that wouldn’t be possible when they have the loot system requiring you grind enemies over and over to upgrade numerical stats on armor. Unique encounters beat out grinding any day of the week and I can’t believe I have to explicitly say that.
There isn’t even much enemy variety in the game. Depending on how you count, it’s roughly equal to if not less than the number of enemies in Ocarina of Time. When the world is so large you would expect more unique enemies, but they simply don’t exist. Wait there’s those dragons right? Oh right, you can’t even fucking fight them. Again, whereas a game that understands fun like South Park: The Stick of Truth has unique encounters in almost every single fight in the game, Breath of the Wild wants you to grind and do repetitive shit all day. Fighting the same things over and over in a massive world isn’t fun, it really isn’t.
Even the stables and fauna are copy-pasted all over. The only area-specific vegetation in the entire game are those baobab trees in the south. Stables are all identical in shape and theme. The first one I found out in an open field south of the Great Plateau intrigued me because of its Mongol appearance in a open field that resembles Mongolia. But then I found the exact same tent all over the world. Shouldn’t the stable in the desert be different than one on a grassy plain? That would involve more work. Because everything is the same shit pasted wherever you go, it never really, truly feels like I’m exploring new areas. I’m going to find that same stable, another Hinox, a Bokoblin skull, and a couple glowing blue shrines. The world could be 1/5th the size that it is and nothing would be lost.
Despite having a looting and hunting system, they didn’t bring back fishing from past games. Despite having a large open world with certain abilities on armor, they didn’t give useful abilities through them. OK, I can swim up a waterfall, but why not let me swim like a Zora as you could in Majora’s Mask? How about on top of just climbing faster, upgrading the climbing gear lets me climb in the rain without slipping? How about at least giving me a hotkey or shortcut to quickly change outfits on the fly instead of going through the menu every five seconds? Those would be things worth upgrading for, not just numerical defensive stats.
At least the armor can be upgraded and is worth collecting. I’m beating a dead horse here, but breakable weapons is not a fun concept at all. It’s tedious and makes finding and collecting new weapons completely moot because “well I’ll be able to use this for a few seconds til it breaks.” If you want more weapons while keeping the thrill of finding them alive but not having a stronger one that makes others obsolete, then make a bunch of non-breakable weapons that are used differently and better in certain situations than others.
Same with shields and bows. Even the Hylian Shield can break, which fucking sucks because I want to use it (even though it’s in Hyrule Castle, where most players won’t ever venture into until the end of the game, which is frankly a bad idea). Instead of rewarding, challenging quests to get a Big Goron Sword, Gilded Sword, or Great Fairy Sword, you just continually pick up toothpicks left and right. Nintendo did OK with unbreakable armor that have certain abilities and can be upgraded (though could be much better as mentioned), but everything else breaking just vacuums out all the fun and excitement of getting new items in the game. Especially since there is already a lack of bottles, masks, quiver upgrades, etc.
Otherwise, the only thing that you increase is stamina and health. But they even suck as much fun out of that as possible. While four orbs are virtually the same as four heart pieces, it’s different in the same way that Final Fantasy XIII‘s shops that are literally just menus are virtually the same as going into an actual building and seeing physical items behind a counter with an eccentric shopkeep. The directness of receiving a heart piece is a good, specific reward for doing a multitude of tasks in Zelda games.
Turning them into currency puts an extra wall between the reward and the player, and also creates the extra task of having to turn them in. That extra wall is like the difference between opening a Christmas present to get a new Nintendo Switch console and opening up an envelope with $300 cash in it. Not to mention restricting them all to the shrines leaves nothing to be gained from the few mini-games like paragliding, or snow bowling. Yes, it allows you the chance to upgrade your stamina, but given the choice, most opt for hearts the majority of the time. Getting just one full extra stamina bar is enough to do anything in the game.
They should’ve spread stamina upgrades around as unique rewards for the various quests and mini-games. Then, you say, what do they do for the shrines? Get rid of them and make more large and unique dungeons along with more developed side content to give these as rewards. It’s been the Zelda formula for so long because it worked magnificently. Did we really need stamina anyway?
You can climb anywhere, but how often are you actually rewarded significantly for a long, tough climb? Almost never. You don’t need to climb up every rock face and wall to feel free or to enjoy exploring. Climbing and watching the stamina bar is not fun, and it’s downright annoying when it begins to rain. Call it a mechanic or whatever you want but it’s not fun. It feels like they added a ton of mountain ranges just to pad the game length and justify a stamina meter when flatter land would have been just as acceptable. They don’t let you climb in shrines or on top of pillars surrounding Hyrule Castle for the same reasons you can’t just go everywhere in other games: it breaks intended progression.
Flowmotion made all level design in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance moot because you can just flip and fly between loading zones in seconds. Why make a unique landmark that say, forces you to climb winding stairs down to the bottom of a gigantic pit when you just paraglide down? If anything the focus on climbing and the paraglider trivializes all movement. That includes rendering horses completely useless and further discouraging you from opening a menu, carefully selecting which shield you want to break, and surfing rather than just jumping and pressing A. This actually weakens the sense of exploration. You never have to find ways to access something; it’s either jump and glide or climb. Assassin’s Creed did climbing much better because you can’t just climb whatever flat surface angle at 90 degrees and higher. You have to think about your approach and surmount buildings in specific ways, looking for footholds. In BOTW you just climb straight up nearly any wall without any thought. Being able to climb “anywhere” is not inherently good.
Instead of sprinting just make something like the fast running attribute on the Dark Link costume available earlier than completing all dungeons, kind of like how Majora’s Mask had a bunny hood unlockable deep enough in the game to feel rewarding and early enough to be useful.
The game is all about running around aimlessly with nothing unique to discover, no area-specific secret bosses, and overall very little progression. The only secrets or things to discover are shrines or Koroks, leaving the world with a profound lack of mystery. I don’t understand why people complain about sailing in Wind Waker but suddenly love running around grassy plains and climbing rocks that take five times as long as sailing between islands did. Yes a game this size and length would be amazing if and only if it was rich with content all the way through, but it’s not. Clocktown (from Majora’s Mask) alone has more depth than the entirety of Breath of the Wild.
Games like Majora’s Mask, Ocarina of Time, and The Stick of Truth don’t waste any time or resources. The former perhaps is due to creativity from limitations (in technology), and now that developers can make massively large worlds, they are doing that but forgetting to fill them with content.
In William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style his most famous commandment is “no needless words.” This is a mantra of many writers to avoid wordiness, useless rambling, to and stick to the point. Similar philosophies can be found in Chekhov’s Gun and William Shakespeare. Chekhov’s Gun says that if a gun is shown on the wall it must be fired by the end. In other words, don’t add anything that is needless or a distraction. William Shakespeare’s famous quote (that apparently he did not coin), “brevity is the soul of wit,” is similar to Strunk’s commandment to stay concise, or as Harry Plinkett translates, “don’t waste my fucking time.”
They all have an underlying philosophy of only using what is essential and cutting the fat. This is good philosophy to hold not only in writing or film, but game design as well. Yet Breath of the Wild is the largest violator of this I’ve seen in a while. So much mindless walking, fetch questing, grinding, and traversing barren mountains to reach a literal maze that could be designed by a six-year-old.
Frankly much of this is true of open world games in general. It’s time to stop using “open world” and “you can go anywhere” as inherently positive concepts, criticizing anything that is even slightly linear. Linearity allows developers to deliver you all the best content in a exciting and logical progression. It doesn’t have to be a Final Fantasy XIII-style hallway, but having goal in an explorable environment like in Majora’s Mask or South Park: The Stick of Truth is a great middle ground. Just cut out the 20 minutes of walking and climbing rocks between interesting places and the game will be more focused, like Ocarina of Time was with its, at the time, large yet not daunting Hyrule Field.
I think replay value is an overrated concept, but others who value it more will find none here. Usually, I like to watch others play games after I’ve beaten them myself, but when there’s nothing all that exciting to discover in the game it’s not that interesting watching people climb and mix bugs.
Like license-free stock music, the game is functional but doesn’t have a beating heart behind it. Manufactured almost robotically with an understanding of structure, but no delivery or soul. I constantly imagine a tired Aonuma just green-lighting whatever a bunch of fresh graduates ask who are still in a textbook-esque process mindset, lacking vision. It’s not going for any sort of vibe or theme like Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker did, sticking to just core elements with a standard Link, standard Zelda, standard Ganon, and standard Hyrule, Zora Domain, Death Mountain, everything. It all feels so standard and familiar, which doesn’t help in a game about discovery.
With all the shit I’ve given this game, you may think I hate it. I don’t. It’s a good game. Being able to make lightning hit enemies is cool, going into houses without a load is neat, Hateno Village has a great track, and the actual puzzle shrines are decent enough. But it’s simply not that good. Its components do not come together and mix to form a complete product that is more than its parts. Rather than a cake, we have a bowl of half-stirred egg yolk, flour, and butter.
It’s terribly boring for long stretches, but what I hate is the people trying to dis every other Zelda game up to this point and encouraging Nintendo to make more games like this. I hate seeing people call it a masterpiece or the best of anything when it’s a heavily flawed game. Good, but not great. Good enough to win game of the year? It will sweep despite superior games like Persona 5, Little Nightmares, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on the market.
I love Zelda as much as the next guy, but we need to collectively calm down with all the medals and awards we give this game. It did not innovate or do anything new. It used concepts from other games and no it did not reinvent or improve them just because it’s Zelda. People speak with such gravitas about this game, describing the most mundane of actions with flowery prose, acting like its the only game to ever have weather systems, climbing, or different ways to approach battle. “Name one game where you climb anywhere,” they say, as if being able to climb anywhere is inherently a good thing and as if you can’t pose the same request from any game.
Yes, there are little tricks you can do, some intentional, some not, most impractical. You can fly a short distance on a boulder or make a short-lived hover raft, but you didn’t, did you? Again, it’s not like other games don’t have such little tricks or glitches. You can get masks to deceive enemies, but why bother when it’s easier to just avoid them? The common counterargument to any criticism of this game is “yeah but you’re naming multiple games while Breath of the Wild does them all.” You can take any game, list specific features and not be able to find another game that matches it exactly. “Show me a game where I can [specific action only in Breath of the Wild]” is equally weak, because that format can be also be applied to any game. These are not arguments.
I know we all want to be a part of something and expect each Zelda entry to be revolutionary in some way, but the days where each entry changed the industry are past. When I see people claiming it’s their favorite Zelda or the best Zelda just a few hours in, before they’ve even visited any of the major towns, there is something odd going on. I’m not the only one who thinks the game is overrated, and I don’t pretend to be. I’m not just revolting out of a desire to be contrarian or unique, nor am I just trying to rile people up.
Expectations going in did not affect me either way; if you’ve read my pieces leading up to launch you saw I had lukewarm expectations to the direction it was going in, and of course I didn’t start until after seeing all the praise. Mixing those two kept my expectations level, and I simply don’t buy into the expectation thing. I’ve both loved and hated games where my expectations were very high, and both loved and hated games where my expectations were very low. They do not play a factor; I frankly do not think the game is good as advertised, certainly not the best Zelda game, and that we need to look at flawed games with a more critical eye lest the flaws repeat. They could have done much better with this game, but the way it’s being worshiped makes me worry if Nintendo will improve the next entry.