Medium story spoilers follow. I’d advise playing the game before reading this review, but I try to avoid spoiling anything major.
I feel like I’ve come to Breath of the Wild a bit too late to add anything meaningful to the discussion, but this does at least mean that the inevitable backlash has already started. That doesn’t mean people are starting to think the game isn’t very good, because that would be silly, but people have at least started to reconsider what may and may not work about the gameplay. I myself (as always) will try and justify some sort of complex middle ground; my firm belief is that this game is a masterpiece, but elements of the gameplay remain very deeply flawed and need to be discussed in order to fully understand why the game has become a little bit more divisive. I think it’s also worth giving a bit of my background with Zelda; I’ve played all of the 3D titles, and my personal favourite is Majora’s Mask, something which remains true even after playing Breath of the Wild. I think that’s more because Majora’s Mask fits more nicely with what I love about Zelda games, as opposed to me thinking that it’s a better made game than Breath of the Wild.
I think that this review should probably start with looking at the game’s starting area; the Great Plateau, and then expand outwards. The Plateau is one of the best starting areas in a video game, because it functions so perfectly as a tutorial without the player really realising it. It’s a locked off area, with set tasks to check off that give you your basic abilities you’ll use throughout, but the freedom it provides is enough that it never starts to feel like this is some chore you have to get through in order to start the game proper.
Just leaving the Shrine of Resurrection teaches the player a lot. You wake up in a sci-fi looking room, and collect the Sheikah Slate. It’s the first thing the player is handed, which instantly signifies its importance. The room you’re in makes use of the Blue and Orange colour scheme that you use in the rest of the game to inform you when something has been activated. In the second room the game hands you some clothes in a chest, and by not equipping them instantly the game teaches you about inventory management, something that’ll become extremely necessary to know about throughout the adventure.
When you get outside (while first having to learn how to run, jump and climb to be able to leave), the game wrests control out of your hands in order to show you a few things. The first is the sheer scope of the game world, the second an old man in the near vicinity, and the third a broken down church. Here we see three of the game’s main tenants; spectacle and freedom (which I’ll group together under the vague heading of ‘Hyrule’), story, and something we’ll call ‘atmosphere’. Two of those three things are what make the game into what I consider a ‘masterpiece’, so make a mental note of those, because we’ll be returning to them in a bit. I’ll quickly say a few more things about the Plateau before I continue, because I think it’s an extremely clever opening area.
The game introduces you to so much in this small area; Shrines, Towers, enemy encampments, the four abilities, temperature variations, guardians, optional mini-bosses. The entire Mt. Hylia segment shows just how the game lets you approach challenges in a variety of different ways. I sprinted up the mountain after cooking some spicy food, unaware that a torch would heat you up, or even that you could get some warm clothing from the old man to make the challenge much easier. The Great Plateau has so much of my respect, I initially thought I could frame the entire review around this one area, and leave out talking about the others. However, that would do the main game a disservice, because there’s so much more to talk about that I’ve ended up feeling extremely overwhelmed.
Let’s use gameplay as a jumping off point for this review, because from there we can segue nicely into some of the main gameplay problems I have with Breath of the Wild (insert jumping off from the Great Plateau related joke here). I think what a lot of complaints have focused on is combat, but I think that’s the wrong area to direct complaints at. Yes, weapons break; but I feel that any focus on the negatives of that system remove an appreciation for it that I’ve gained from extensive play. You see, combat in other Zelda games was almost all sword play; the bow and arrow got some use, but it was mainly swinging around a sword. I think Skyward Sword was probably the best and most varied sword combat is going to get (even though that had its problems). Twilight Princess attempted to make sword combat more complex without motion controls, but there no enemies fully took advantage of the optional extra moves.
Breath of the Wild manages to fix the staleness of combat in a few ways. Firstly; swords aren’t always the optimal way to go. Other weapon types may be more useful in a given combat scenario, from bows to shield parries to magic rods. You can also opt to not use weapons at all; upgrading the ‘stasis’ ability allows you to freeze enemies in place, while a well-timed bomb attached to an octo balloon and floated towards an enemy camp may mean you never have to get too close to the action. And I’m sure you’ve all seen the video of a Cuckoo used as a weapon. Breath of the Wild aims to emphasise freedom in all ways, and combat is no exception. When you do choose to use weapons, the game still finds a way to make combat interesting.
Weapons breaking changes the flow and feel of combat; unlike in TP where no enemies took advantage of the complex moves; here all enemies take advantage of weapons breaking. They can break your weapon; you can steal theirs. The complexity and variety here comes from a frantic system of weapon exchanging. You also have to be aware of your environment. Because most of the fights in BotW take place outside, on craggy cliffs and near huge lakes, you have to be careful of falling off. Or, you could freeze your foe and blow them off the cliff with a gust of wind from a Korok leaf.
Enemies are equipped with an astonishing AI that allows them to react to these different scenarios, and their designs are all filled with personality. It’s a shame that the variety of enemy is extremely lacking, and towards the end game, only a handful of enemy types pose any threat (namely, the Lynel, Stone Talus, Hinox and Silver variations of the standard enemy types.) The threat is even more reduced by the ability to duck into a menu and eat away at various healing items. I do wish the short eating animation was played during combat rather than in-menu. This would reduce time spent in menus and give eating an element of strategy.
The complaints I mainly hear about combat are that good weapons break too easily and thus use of them is discouraged, limiting your freedom to use those weapons. I respectfully disagree with this notion, although I suppose if you play that way that cannot be helped. Personally I found myself never at a shortage for good weapons – and late-game combat so requires them that I was unable to ‘save my best stuff and never use it’. I would like to give a quick shout out to the problems of the Blood Moon. Cool idea – did it need an unskippable cutscene?
I’m going to devote a separate paragraph to the Guardians, who are, in my mind, so effectively terrifying as a piece of enemy design. It isn’t a unique idea in open world games; an enemy that is extremely powerful at the beginning, but can be defeated with relative ease with the right tools, but BotW does it very well. Guardians are very creepy spider like creatures (apparently influenced by the design of the Octoroks from the first Zelda game), that can be seen from a huge distance, and target you with a deadly laser as you desperately try and run away. They’re this semi relentless force that pursues you until either you’re dead or have hidden well enough that it loses sight of you. Given that they mainly appear out in the world, the change in music they bring calls to mind the Silent Realms of Skyward Sword (which incidentally also had robots from the past named Guardians). It’s no wonder they’ve become a mascot for the game.
I think, though, the Guardians are a perfect example of the problem of combat scaling in this game. The difficulty curve in this game seems to go strange ways. The game is perhaps toughest nearer the beginning. While defeating Guardians with a single arrow is satisfying as all hell, it makes other enemies (with the exception perhaps, of White Lynels), less threatening as a result. So the further you play, the more pointless combat becomes – which is a problem for progression. Luckily, before this becomes a real issue you’re in a position to face Ganon, and the weapon durability system does still add some needed excitement to post-game fights. But towards the end of the experience, it became more and more noticeable. That, I think, is why so many people love Eventide, because it strips back the player to the basics to make combat difficult again, even for those some way into the game. But I still don’t think it’s quite enough. I think this sort of weariness with the game structure is quite important, so it’s a theme I’ll revisit.
So with combat out of the way, let’s talk a bit about some of the other stuff you’ll be doing when exploring Hyrule. One thing that I noticed was a huge amount of ‘Nintendo polish’ when it came to animations. Link and other NPCs had a variety of animations for things that I wouldn’t initially think merited a separate animation (look at the number of ways you can mount your horse, or fall off a cliff etc). The world is clearly huge, and so a lot of thought has been put into how you move around it. There is, of course, quick travel for traversing large distances, but I found myself mainly shying away from that. There is more to be found by adventuring than simply warping from tower to shrine, desert to forest.
Running throughout the map would be torture, however, and so there is an extremely well made system of animal transport. Horses are the main beast you will be riding, and as such it is with them you will spend most of your time. My first horse, named Aziz, (guess which stand-up comedian’s show I was watching at the time) lasted the entire journey and was an invaluable companion. The initial taming process is frustrating for a strong horse like Aziz, and they will often do their best to disobey you and run straight into the beam of a passing Guardian. However, past that initial hurdle the riding process becomes much smoother and more enjoyable. I’m not sure, however, if it’s worth the hassle of having to fully tame a horse and ‘max out your bond’ in order to ride properly. It doesn’t gain much extra realism, nor does it enamour me to my horse. I would have liked Aziz whether I had to go through his teenage phase or not. Other animals can also be ridden, just not registered; I rode deer, bears and skeletons during my time in Hyrule, and this variety was a novelty that didn’t wear off. One secret horse I found after waiting at the top of a mountain for 15 minutes on a hunch is one of many of the game’s best hidden surprises.
Another movement issue I want to address is the stamina meter. This is laughably small at the start of the game, and the upgrades are simply not lucrative enough to be acceptable. Skyward Sword had a stamina meter of roughly the same size, but its world was littered with stamina fruit; its areas were much smaller in scale, and it had upgrades that could make it temporarily infinite. When climbing (a process that could have been boring, but instead becomes an oddly satisfying and relaxing endeavour), the stamina meter is a nagging concern when it shouldn’t be. Many people have also bought up the issue of rain, which is a real problem in certain areas, halting progress when it shouldn’t. It’s a shame, in a game so built around exploration, that movement is halted and frustrated by a core mechanic of the game, and something that could be so easily fixed.
I think when we’re discussing problems, we need to talk about player motivation. I think that Super Bunnyhop’s video on this game explains a lot of this better than I can, but please, bear with me. Aside from the main objectives (that is, destroy Ganon and free the Divine Beasts), the game motivates you to travel around its map in a variety of different ways.
The first of these I really like; the promise of something new and weird. Sometimes you stumble upon something that you’ve just never even heard of before; a scenic spot; a weird NPC with a story to tell; a massive dragon; a secret shop, or even a hidden mechanic (there’s a statue in Hateno village that allows you to swap stat increases, but the game just never tells you about it). This stuff is great because it all feels unique and exciting and natural. Even if the dragon will eventually become just a way to farm materials, for someone like me uninterested in that, it’s just an amazing spectacle that the game will never tell you about except in rumour.
The problem is when we get to shrines, Korok seeds (and, to a certain extent, Divine Beasts.) I’m going to tackle Korok seeds first, because as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to say about shrines. There are 900 Korok seeds, all hidden around the world in small puzzles. When you see a suspicious area, there will always at least be a small Korok seed puzzle hidden there. But the rewards for this are diminishing once you reach a certain point and your inventory is big enough to be manageable. For bows and shields, I only really had to upgrade about 3 times before I was happy with my inventory size. At this point, the reward of a Korok seed becomes null.
Shrines are a bit more complex, because a new shirine means an extremely clever new puzzle to discover. But there is something still a bit dull about finding a shrine past a certain point. Yes; the puzzle will be sure to be clever, and the reward inside useful. But the aesthetic of a shrine is always the same; and the same goes for the Divine Beasts, although at least they normally have some clever aesthetic gimmick (such as flying over an area, which appears to move around, or starting off shrouded in darkness). So doing a shrine quest to find a shrine may be fun, may be clever, may even be ingenious. But if a shrine is your only reward, then the focus is placed more on the discovery of the reward than the reward itself. Which, in a way, is fine. In fact, I think an emphasis on the puzzle, or the journey, rather than what’s at the end is a better solution than a dull or easy puzzle with some grand reward. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for both. It might be much easier to create 120 identical looking Shrines, but for the player it makes the discovery stagnant.
With the Divine Beasts, once again, making a smaller puzzle room rather than a sprawling dungeon may be easier, but it diminishes the excitement for the player, especially by their fourth beast. I think, then the big problem with Breath of the Wild is that there’s too much in it. Which is an odd complaint to level at an open-world game. Normally the complaint is the opposite. But here, one can’t help but feel that were the number of shrines and Korok seeds and side-quests scaled down, but more focus put on making each one feel special and unique, the game wouldn’t start to stagnate as much as it does. Incredibly, the journey of travelling around to find things does remain interesting throughout, and it’s that I’ll get too next. But sadly, the feeling of discovery wears out its welcome far sooner than the game wants it to. And therein lies the fault at the heart of Breath of the Wild.
But hang on – I introduced this review by claiming the game was still a masterpiece. So let’s turn our attention to what it gets right first. And given that we ended the negative section on shrines, let’s turn our attention to why Shrines are actually a good thing for the Zelda series. There are 120 puzzle rooms, and much like Mario levels, they often teach you a small way to solve a puzzle, then expand on that in multiple ways while increasing the challenge. The way the puzzles rely solely on your base toolkit learned in the Great Plateau means that the designers can have fun and play around with that toolkit in each shrine. What’s more, the puzzles can be solved in multiple ways. There’s often a “correct” or “intended” way, but that isn’t the way you have to complete it. Because of the way the shrines give you a situation and a goal, and aim for you to complete it in a variety of ways, they still fit within the game’s basic ethos, despite taking place in a mini basement room.
The Divine Beasts are, in a way, more like giant shrines than proper dungeons, and while I complained about this earlier, I will say that they do what they aim to do incredibly well. Puzzles that allow you to manipulate the environment tend to mess with my head in the good way, and these often have very clever solutions. The structure of all of them is annoyingly similar, but I’ll take most chagrin with the bosses. Past Zelda bosses have been a mixed bag, ranging from the incredible (Koloktos) to the dull (Tentalus), but the Breath of the Wild bosses tend towards the middle in terms of strategy, and towards the dull in terms of design. Their red-haired clusterfuck of a design is shared with the boss Calamity Ganon, but at least that is made up for with Dark Beast Ganon, which is a fantastic final boss. I will at least commend the Bosses for making use of the environment of the Divine Beasts, which you were forced to learn during the puzzle section.
I still haven’t quite nailed down what makes this game so good yet, however. In order to do so, we’ll have to turn to the big topic (literally) – Hyrule itself. Hyrule is huge, and yet it does maintain that balance of large open spaces and having tons of stuff to find. In the social media age, Hyrule had to be massive. The game developers knew that secrets would be easily shared across the internet, yet despite seeing some cool new Zelda detail on my Twitter feed every morning, I would find three more by myself while playing the game in the afternoon. Many people have filled their reviews with anecdotes, but I feel like that might take up a bit too much time, and really, isn’t as interesting to you as it is to me.
But despite my talk of diminishing returns during end-game exploration, for those first few days (if not weeks, depending on your play-style), the magical feel of exploration is something unlike anything else in modern gaming. Exploration is aided by climbing, which transforms what would be an impassable boundary in other games, to just another route, or a shortcut, or the only path up a mountain, on the top of which lies a mini-boss that could have been left undisturbed even after months of play-time. Climbing also allows you to glide, which means that a certain amount of the flow is going up in order to move across. Forcing you up again means giving you more stuff to see and explore, and so the emphasis on vertical spaces actually expands the amount you see and find. The amount I was sidetracked because of this is laughable, even though the game almost weirdly discourages you from this with constant reminders that ‘Zelda’s power is diminishing.’, something I imagine most players will ignore.
The open-endedness does actually contain a “proper” Zelda game within it, in the vein of modern 3D Zeldas à la Ocarina of Time. You see this during the passages to Zora’s Domain or the Goron village, where you’re slightly more boxed in that usually. Of course, there are still ways to circumvent the challenges faced along the way, but you can tell the game is more reluctant about you doing this at this point. I think I might divert a bit here to mention the story, something I was deeply unimpressed by. The characters are dull and uninteresting, the voice acting mainly awful, and during the main quest it all got a bit too repetitive. I liked the emphasis on the past, which ties in nicely with something I’m about to say, and the memory system made a good use of the player’s memories of areas to tell a story, but ultimately I felt rather unengaged. But the focus is so rarely confined to the story that for the most part it didn’t matter too much.
So what makes Hyrule in Breath of the Wild special? I don’t actually think it is that it is both large and full of stuff to do. No, I think what makes Hyrule, and to a large extent all of Breath of the Wild fantastic, is its emphasis on Romanticism. Remember at the beginning when I talked about the Great Plateau and asked for you to make a mental note of the three things that the game showed to you? Well, I think we’ve discussed two of them now; “Hyrule” and “Story”, with lots of diversions in between (see what I did there?) So that just leaves the third. In the introduction I called it vaguely ‘atmosphere’ and presented the Temple of Time as the game’s example of it. What I think it actually is, is Romanticism. Romanticism is an artistic movement from the 1800s, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for the topic shows a familiar image; Casper David Freidrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. The Romantic movement emphasised solitude among nature, and Freidrich’s image is a direct parallel to Link, back facing the camera, looking out towards Hyrule on top of a cliff, alone.
The ruined Temple of Time is also Romantic imagery – calling to mind Turner’s Tintern Abbey or Wordsworth’s poetry tackling similar imagery. Nature is emphasised by the Ghibli-esque art style as well, with echoes of Princess Mononoke’s lush expansive fields (you can even ride a deer, and Impa looks plucked straight out of Spirited Away). Much of Breath of the Wild’s content stems from these two Romantic ideas. The player is often alone; there is no fairy or boat companion to guide you. Towns are spread far apart, and many of the main NPCs you meet are dead and forever confined to solitude. The past is clearly a huge influencer for the game; most of its important story takes place 100 years before the events of Breath of the Wild. Huge sublime man-made structures destroyed by time are scattered across Hyrule, many of them almost irrelevant to the story, but that help in creating a Romantic atmosphere. Even the technologic looking Sheikah towers; robots; shrines are actually inspired by Japanese Jōmon period designs, from around 300BCE. The idea of the past even resonates through the beautiful soundtrack, which feature broken up versions of familiar Zelda tunes.
Note that this isn’t a concept unique to Breath of the Wild; other Zelda games have dealt with a similar theme; in fact, the Zelda series may be built around it. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are two 3D Zelda games that stand out for not taking place in a completely destroyed Hyrule, and Ocarina changes that half way through while Majora takes place on the verge of one. Wind Waker features a submerged Hyrule; in Twilight Princess, Zant has taken control, and in Skyward Sword much of the land (that which will eventually become Hyrule) is taken over by monsters. Even the first Zelda is all about a lone wanderer in a destroyed looking world. Most of the people in that game hide in caves, forcing you to find them.
So Zelda has always been a series obsessed with the past, but I think Breath of the Wild takes it to a new level. If I had to overstretch my welcome, I would say that it almost gels with Romantic preoccupation with the perceived threat of the industrial revolution; in that the Guardians are technological threats that become a threat to humanity and nature (perhaps this can be seen in the first great victim of Ocarina of Time; the Deku Tree). But even without pushing that idea to its limits, the Romantic influence on Breath of the Wild is the clearest it has ever been in Zelda, and it’s that which makes this game, for me at least, really special. Because the nostalgic fantasy Romantic adventure is an extremely appealing idea that has persisted for a long time, and this game feels like the natural embodiment and apex of that idea.
I do worry that in trying to explain the success of Breath of the Wild’s atmosphere I’ve veered too much into pointless theoretical discussion, but the idea of a game’s ‘atmosphere’ is both extremely important and extremely nebulous, so I hope I’ve at least made you look at the game slightly differently. There’s so much more to talk about here that I haven’t even scratched the surface with this review. But that’s partly the beauty and partly the curse of Breath of the Wild. And yes, I do think it’s too big and, towards the end, too familiar. But I also feel that to diminish its importance because of that is foolish. Yes – we need to examine a game’s faults, but focusing too much on them negates the underlying achievement made by Breath of the Wild. I hope then, that I have managed to, through this review, justify my position; that The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild is a flawed game, at times deeply so, but that it is also one of the best games that I think I’ve ever played.
 Again, Bunnyhop talks about these best, and I don’t want to get too much into them, but they are mostly very fetch-questy – i.e. go find x number of items for me.
 Both, interestingly, from Skyward Sword. That’s a game I’d quite like to talk about some day.