Thoughts on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Standing on top of a rock formation, looking out into the distant horizon across a sprawling landscape of monsters and ancient artifacts, only to see something in the distance that makes you go “What, the fuck, is that.”
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that’s made for moments like these, moments of discovery where the game continues to surprise its players even after they’ve invested dozens of hours into the game. It’s an effort to revitalize a series that’s last console installment, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, was critically hailed at the time of launch, but is now generally lamented for it’ over-bearing tutorials. Tutorials still exist in Breath of the Wild, the game introduces players to some of its mechanics and systems so they have the ability to establish themselves, but it doesn’t hold their hands and tell them every little thing they have to do.
Instead, Breath of the Wild does its best to remain open, to invite players to not only explore in its world, but to tinker with its systems. Unlike previous games, Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is more of a sandbox, a playground constructed with various systems and tools that allow players to experiment. A player could follow the path to climb up this tower, or they could cut down a tree, freeze it using stasis, hit it a bunch of times and detonate a bomb underneath it, then climb on top of it and sail into the air, high above where they need to go. Instead of collecting a wide array of items that all have very specific functions and are sometimes used as a way of preventing the player from accessing something until a certain point, Breath of the Wild blows the doors off, and hands players a small and versatile tool set up front. Of course none of these tools are mind-blowing, but their versatility is, as the game features 120 portal-esque puzzle chambers, on top of the uses for these in the open world as well.
Breath of the Wild’s sandbox doesn’t just extend to its worlds, but the way players navigate around it as well. To some it might not seem like it, but the paraglider and the ability to climb all surfaces are actually radical ideas for open world navigation. Now finding myself playing Horizon: Zero Dawn I lament the situations in which I find myself at the top of a ridge and have to find a path downwards. In that game there are intended ways to get around the world, routes players are meant to take, but in Zelda as long as your stamina can hold out you can go any way you wish. If there’s any one lesson I’d like other games to take from Breath of the Wild, It’s this.
While the game’s combat does embrace these ideas it does so in a way that’s somewhat questionable. Players will find weapons scattered all throughout the world, as dropped from enemies or as rewards for completing challenges. But no matter what these weapons will break after a certain amount of time. There is no way to repair them, and these is no indicator of when they will break asides from a notification when it is nearing that point. This leads to a lot of player hording of weapons and wanting to avoid encounters as not to use their valuable weapons. Why should I use a weapon with an attack of 60 on an enemy who will drop a weapon that only has an attack of 20? This system isn’t entirely fair to players in these situations and instead creates an economy that feels unfair. The intent to make a system in which players are constantly collecting new resources and looking for new weapons can be seen, it can feel a bit frustrating when enemies are under equipped and weapons are so fast to break.
But of course Zelda doesn’t strip itself of all its heritage, and Link’s plight is painfully the same. Save the kingdom from Ganon and rescue the princess as the prophecy has for told. Rinse. Repeat. Of my few complaints with Breath of the Wild, this is one of them. When I’m venturing out to discover new lands and new things how am I supposed to be excited to see the Zora gain? “Well the domain looks kinda snazzy” I won’t argue there, but there’s an odd contrast between the game’s mystery and discovery, and its use of the same tropes. There are other kingdoms to save and other reasons to save them, but instead I found myself in Hyrule Castle yet again taking down Ganon. Part of this complaint stems from the game’s ending, which I won’t overtly spoil, but I’ll say lacks the fanfare necessary to pull of the cliché it was aiming for. I saved a kingdom, but it didn’t feel like it. The game just ended, and reverted me back to a save right before I did, so that I could continue exploring a world that housed NPCs telling me to do something I had already done. In fact the game sets up a scenario in which the player could continue to explore the world after taking down the big bad, but doesn’t deliver on it. In the end, its finale didn’t leave me feeling overjoyed or satisfied, I felt melancholic, questioning the worth of what I had just done.
But it’s not all bad, the game does a decent job at setting up its plight, and offers players freedom in taking down its main quest. After its intro players are told to make their way to the four corners of the map and complete a dungeon in each, but the order they take them on in is up to them. They’re not forced to follow a set path and instead are allowed to meander as they chose, to start one section but to switch to another, or to decide they’d rather explore the world a bit and get more heart containers before they’re ready. In a specific way it embraces this concept for its story as well. Players are given hints and clues as to the whereabouts of some of Link’s lost memories and are invited to track them down so that they can have better insight into Link and Zelda’s relationship, a series first. The content of these memories and the way that players discover them is fresh, it provides a new take on trite ideas, but I think the ending fails to deliver the payoff that these needed.
For all its faults, there’s one thing that Breath of the Wild does nail, and that is its sense of wonder. The act of exploring it’s world and being genuinely curious about what lies around its corners, to find new things and to be surprised by them, and the excitement of completing some of its wildest challenges are all moments of incredible fulfillment. It’s something that some previous installments and other games had lost, but here it’s the star of the show.
Holistically, I think Breath of the Wild is a superb game, I recommend that people play it and I see it as a great starting point for many more games to come. But it is not without its flaws, and I think there are tweaks to be made to its formula, as well as an overhaul to its narrative.