One of my vices is that I will never not buy a Zelda game. It holds a special place in my heart, and has helped me through some tough times in life, all while providing me hours of endless fun. I can recount layouts to dungeons years after I first played them, and I even have a custom Zelda tattoo I designed myself.
Which is why it pains me to say Breath of the Wild redefines everything a Zelda game is and should be, for better and for worse. It throws out nearly every mechanic that makes Zelda… well, Zelda. Gone are the nooks and crannies filled with heart pieces, the massive sprawling dungeons, and the unique items that defined the series. Despite removing these elements, Breath of the Wild is probably one of the best games I have ever played. And there are shades of Zelda present for sure, but it isn’t sure what version of Zelda it wants to be.
I blame all of my confusion about Breath of the Wild and what I want out of a Zelda game on Mark Brown. In his fantastic video series Boss Keys, Mark breaks down how dungeons are designed and executed from every Zelda game since A Link to the Past. He analyzes everything about the dungeons, from item placement, to keys, to shortcuts and everything in between. These giant themed labyrinths are the best parts about any Zelda game and the ones in Breath of the Wild are… not there?
Instead of getting around six to twelve tightly designed dungeons with a clear purpose and winding roads, Breath of the Wild replaces them with 120 onenote Shrines. While the early Shrines are quite simplistic, amounting to one or two rooms with just puzzles or combat, others feel larger than life, mixing combat and puzzle solving. These ones are great, while others are lackluster. Some are even just a set of stairs leading to the Spirit Shrine reward. Each shrine also uses the exact same environment with a blue glow, making none of them particularly memorable.
Later on in the fantastic story you start tackling the closest thing to a traditional Zelda dungeon, the Divine Beasts, but these are just more physics based puzzles with limited combat inside to four or five connected rooms instead of a single room. Like the Shrines, they all use the same textures as the others, this time browns and blacks with hints of Ganon’s corruption. All four follow the exact same pattern:
- Download the map
- Manipulate the environment to activate terminals
- Unlock a master terminal
- Fight the boss
This is a stark contrast compared to the dungeons in Twilight Princess where you are walking on walls or using a ball and chain to smash ice to open new pathways, or Majora’s Mask where you have to flip an entire dungeon on its head just to navigate it. The Divine Beasts are an awesome plot element, but they are sorely lacking as flavorful explorable spaces meant to challenge you. If it weren’t for the bosses at the end of each Divine Beast they could have just been called Advanced Shrines.
This frustration about the lackluster Shrines and Divine Beasts replacing unique and special Dungeons though is incredibly minor compared to how awesome everything else is. As the ultimate and genre-defining sandbox experience, Breath of the Wild should make any other developer making an open-world game sweat bullets. While its story is riddled with magic and heroism, its detailed physics and chemistry engine make every little thing you do truly magical.
In order to illustrate this, let me explain of how I climbed one of the towers in the game. It was covered in patches of bramble and I was halfway to the top. Climbing the first half of the tower was easy, as I just lit all of the bramble on fire using my torch and began to climb. In order to get past the bramble on the higher levels of the tower I dropped my unlit torch, dropped a piece of flint, hit it with my axe, pulled out my bow, lit my arrow on fire by dragging it through the torch, and then shot the remaining bramble. None of this was explained in any tutorial or through a hint system. I just figured it out, and did it. The game constantly rewards you for this kind of problem solving.
Another big change from previous Hylian adventures is how your inventory is managed. Juggling your key items between three or four different action buttons has been replaced with a system that allows you to equip anything to use in combat. Those spears your enemies are throwing at you? Pick them up and throw them right back! Need to deal some extra damage? Equip your giant two-handed axe and swing away. On your last leg and only have a torch? Good luck! Each item has an invisible durability score, so don’t get too attached to that powerful sword you found in a chest while clearing a Shrine. It will break right when you need it most.
Thanks to the expansive list of weapons, every combat situation has to be able to be defeated regardless of your equipment, so all gating has been thrown out of the window. Enemies that are difficult unless you have the Hookshot or the Fire Rod are gone. Puzzle solving items like the Dominion Rod are nowhere to be found (as far as I know). If you are skilled, and lucky enough, you can brute force your way through most encounters.
This makes the game feel more populated, but less unique. You do get different color variations of the same five enemies to fight against depending on your locale, but that game development trick should have retired years ago. Why isn’t the forest filled with Deku Baba’s, hiding in the soil to get the jump on you? Where are the Dodongo’s that are invulnerable until they swallow a bomb? Why don’t Ghoma’s start crawling out in the middle of the night, their glowing eyes their only weak point? I would even be happy with the jump-straight-at-you Tektites instead of a yet another Bokoblin camp or Chuchu ambush. Anything to break it up.
To be fair, there are giant world bosses that provide unique encounters, but even some of them get the recolored treatment. This turns what could have been fun one-time battles against a special boss into just bigger targets.There are a few unique encounters that are special and can’t be repeated, and those moments shine. The later enemies that hit harder, like the vicious Lynels, are typically fought one-on-one, giving the encounter a sense of a fight-to-the-death. I just wish this gravity translated to every battle.
The ever expanding world is as much of a threat if not more, than the encounters. You have to manage a stamina meter as you do things like climb and swim, and running out of stamina is almost always fatal. That is, if the world doesn’t kill you first. If you get to high enough altitudes, you start taking cold damage, if you go too far into the desert without proper protection, you will take heat damage. Most of the game ignores music tones, aside from when you are in hub area’s like Zora’s Domain, and just focuses on ambient noises like birds and running water. All three of these elements work in tandem to bring Hyrule to life.
From a story perspective, Breath of the Wild is incredible compared to the Zelda stories of the past. It finally feels like the cinematic wonder everyone had in their heads. While it does feature a mix of text and voice acting, it feels a little behind the curve compared to fully voice acted games like Mass Effect and Fallout 4. Once you unlock all of the cutscenes, you can basically watch a significant part of the game as a full blown movie.
Play It! I am so frustrated about this game. I can’t help but feel like there should be more to it. The transition to a breathtaking open world robbed Zelda of a lot of it’s uniqueness, be it dungeons, enemies, or items, but it is still the absolute best sandbox game I have ever played. I keep coming back to it, and love exploring this version of Hyrule. Breath of the Wild doesn’t hold your hand and it makes you think in the terms of the real world, ignoring the physical boundary of the controller you are holding in your hand. I can’t wait to experience this game over and over again, be it through watching speedruns or seeing something new I haven’t seen yet.
Author’s Note: This review was performed using the Wii U version of the game. While the gameplay and experience are identical between the Wii U and Switch versions of Breath of the Wild, there are slight technical differences between the two. I recommend watching this video from Digital Foundry breaking down the differences between the two versions.