The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Nintendo | Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
Elegy of Emptiness
I struggled with this review for a really long time, partly because of the overwhelming praise, and positive reception that this title earned. I had a lot of issues with this game, and every time I started writing, I felt like my opinions were coming across as wholly negative, overly critical and definitely ranty. So I just wanted to open up with a bit of a disclaimer: I do not hate this game. Nor do I consider my experience with this game to be awful; however, I do want to talk about the shortcomings that I feel this game has, and I apologize in advance if my review comes across as mostly negative. I do genuinely believe this is a good game, but it is not without fault, and this leads me to be apprehensive about where the series is headed. I also have to apologize about the word count of this review/critique, it is very long. And of course the final caveat that this is, as always, just my personal opinion. If you thoroughly enjoyed the game and had no issues with it, then you can ignore these criticisms and go on your way. My personal nitpicks shouldn’t diminish your love for the game. I’ve changed my usual title to reflect the fact that this is more of a critique than a review, so RIP continuity. With all that out of the way, grab your adventuring gear (we all know it’s dangerous to go alone!) and let’s examine the hills and valleys of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild!
Getting the lore of the land
Breath of the Wild introduces us to a completely foreign version of Hyrule, one that is set in a post-apocalyptic, after-war period. Link, the Hero of Time, is the personal knight to Princess Zelda. Just one problem: he has been asleep for the past 100 years, after being gravely injured in the battle known as the Great Calamity. He awakens to be greeted by this desolate version of the land he knows. Calamity Ganon hovers ominously in the distance over Hyrule Castle, a constant reminder of your endgame goal. In order to defeat him, the main game requires you to activate the four Divine Beasts – originally belonging to the four Champions, they were constructed to aid in Ganon’s defeat, but were instead corrupted by his influence and turned against their partners – in order to subdue Ganon (who Zelda has been holding back for all this time) so Link can vanquish him for good. The narrative in this game is fairly minimalist in its presentation, and while I felt this suited the structure of the game, it also resulted in the story losing a lot of its gravity. Much of the backstory is told in memory flashbacks (which you can find and experience in certain areas of Hyrule) which is an interesting concept, but the fact that they are so few and far between means that the emotional impact of meeting these characters, or seeing Zelda struggle to live up to her destiny is hindered severely. These short story beats get muffled and lost in the greater scope of this 100+ hour adventure, and this creates a fundamental disconnect between the audience and the weight of the narrative. Maybe this is just a personal gripe, but I think the narrative could have been presented differently in order to establish more of a connection to these important characters, and make it feel more present. I wouldn’t necessarily consider this an inherently negative point against this title – as I said, it didn’t work for me personally, but I can see why it suits the fluid structure of the game. At the end of the day, I feel like this story was just utterly forgettable and for a Zelda game, that is the most disappointing misstep of all.
I found a lot of the major characters in Breath of the Wild to be forgettable as well; while the four Champions are presented as these pivotal, important warriors, they are given the bare minimum characterization. This is fair, as they are all long dead so they cannot appear in-game, but because of this choice, they feel largely irrelevant. Upon stepping away from this game, I honestly couldn’t even remember most of their names. Urbosa and Mipha stood out to me because of a few heartfelt flashbacks in which we see them interacting with Link, but the other two (the Goron, Daruk, and the Rito, Revali) were both fairly bland. Nor are any of the side characters or NPCs particularly interesting either. There are a few quirky stand-outs, like the Zora prince, Sidon, for his playful antics, and Bolson, the construction company leader. Visually, his design is #aesthetics and he has an actual personality. Many side characters, just like the quests they give you, are stock and uninteresting. I wish more of the side quests involved revealing the history of Hyrule, rather than your tried-and-true fetch quests and “collect 50 of this item” missions. Though I will admit that I enjoyed the Tarrey Town/Homeowner quests. Because of the story set-up, and the fact that Link is essentially a newcomer to this land (having lost his memories) they had the perfect opportunity to slowly reveal the history of this Hyrule through the characters and side quests, as the player learns alongside Link. Instead, this is largely squandered. Sidequests could have been utilized to provide context to certain areas, or even to develop more of the central characters’ legacies, but the vast majority of them were along the lines of “my family member is missing, find them for me?” or based on item collection. Impa simply dumps huge amounts of exposition on Link at one time, and little else is offered to flesh out this expansive world.
A terrible fate
Zelda, however, is given much more attention and development in this title, and they’ve done a fantastic job at presenting her as both relatable and endearing. In many of the flashbacks we see her in, she’s shown to be every bit the leader that we would expect: knowledgeable, self-sacrificing, and strong. We also see her at her weakest. We get to look inside of her head, and experience her fear at being unable to tap into her powers, her guilt at having to leave her friends behind, and the overwhelming pressure she feels, having the weight of the kingdom on her shoulders. She seems resentful of Link, of the ease with which he seems to step into his own destiny, feeling more and more like a failure herself. She wants to be the hero, she wants to save her kingdom, but for reasons beyond her control, she can’t. I love this version of Zelda and I love every scene that she appears in. Her story is equal parts heart-wrenching and inspiring – this is a character we want to cheer for, that we want to see succeed. This game works wonders for humanizing Zelda, more than in any previous title. The only pitfall here is her lack of presence, and her voice actress – it does not suit the character at all. As the series’ first foray into voice acting, it’s a bit unfortunate, but ultimately doesn’t detract too much from this phenomenal character.
The side characters simply made Breath of the Wild’s sparse narrative feel even weaker. The infrequent memories and their sporadic presentation meant that I found myself completely uninvested in what was going on. When I think about the hauntingly solemn tale that Majora’s Mask told, and the incredibly resonant take on growing up in Ocarina of Time, I can’t help but look back on Breath of the Wild and feel let down. I think part of this is down to the recycled/repetitive feel of the Divine Beasts, as well as the bosses. Though there are clear stakes to conquering each one, with the end goal of weakening Ganon’s defenses by activating them, clearing them felt so blasé and inconsequential because of the lack of interesting dungeon design. When all you have to look forward to is more of the same, any impact that these narrative punches have completely evaporates. I’ll never forget the initial dread I felt entering the Shadow Temple for the first time (and still to this day) or the excitement at realizing I could flip the Stone Tower Temple upside down. Equally as memorable was the desolate atmosphere of the Arbiter’s Grounds in Twilight Princess, or the phenomenally designed Ancient Cistern (and its equally amazing boss) in Skyward Sword. When I think back on Breath of the Wild, I can’t even remember the names of the Divine Beasts. The fact that this aspect of the narrative felt so underwhelming is probably one of my biggest complaints about this title: it is just so un-Zeldalike.
We do have to talk about those Divine Beasts and bosses though, which are a definite low-point in a series known for its fantastic puzzle gameplay, and creative boss designs. Each of the four Divine Beasts are fundamentally the same: each resembles a certain animal, and shares the futuristic/mechanical aesthetic of the shrines throughout Hyrule. Because they’ve done away with the unique-item-as-a-treasure in each of the dungeons, you’ll instead rely on your Sheikah Slate abilities (Runes) to solve environmental puzzles, and you may encounter some light combat as well. Most of the puzzles are fairly simple, but I found some of the traversal elements frustrating. A main puzzle-point in each Beast requires you to go into the pause menu, where you can see a sort-of blueprint of the entire dungeon; from here, you can manipulate and move sections of the dungeon to access new areas, or otherwise solve puzzles. While this sounds like quite a good concept, the novelty wore off after about the second Beast for me. From a purely gameplay perspective, it is tedious to constantly have to flip in and out of menus. It’s disruptive to the flow of gameplay (similar to Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple forcing you to equip/unequip the Iron Boots) and just generally annoying. The ‘Blight’ bosses are equally dull and uninteresting. Again, they are all essentially the same in appearance, though I did find the puzzle elements of their fights to be enjoyable. Figuring out the correct Rune(s) to use, and being able to capitalize on aspects of the environment (for instance, the flooded boss room in Vah Ruta) was a great design choice, and easily the highlight of these dungeons for me. I found it strange that, considering Breath of the Wild’s attention to detail and dynamism when it comes to environments, that they dropped the ball so hard on the dungeon-crawling aspect.
It is in these environments, and exploration of this iteration of Hyrule that Breath of the Wild truly shines. Beginning on the plateau, you are able to see the entirety of Hyrule stretching beneath you, mountains, lakes, and desert-scapes on the horizon, feeling the excitement of knowing that if you can see it, you can reach it. If you ask anyone who has played this game, you’ll know that it’s easy to sink hours upon hours into simply wandering this vast landscape, exploring its ruins and plundering its caves. I personally spent an ungodly number of hours taming wild horses, endlessly searching for the colouration and stats that I felt suited my version of Link the best. There are ingredients to find, (with each region having unique vegetation) monster camps to raid if you’re feeling bold, and an astonishing number of secret locales to uncover. I remember bumbling into a section of forest that was completely shrouded in a veil of black fog – you were forced to navigate using a torch. It was thrilling, discovering a new area that employed a creative means of hindering your exploration. As with most ‘hidden’ areas, it only lead to a shrine, and (to my recollection) no actual history or reason was provided to explain the impenetrable blackness, but it still stands out in my mind as an exciting moment.
I also thought the reveal of the dragons was handled fantastically – you may hear about these dragons from some NPCs and decide to find them for yourself. I encountered the one at Lake Hylia first, and it was probably my favourite moment in the entire game – I was standing on a tower atop the bridge, looking around, unsure if I was in the right place, when the music kicked in. A yellow-green dragon (Farosh) emerges from Lake Hylia and makes a slow, graceful circle around the lake before disappearing into the sky. It’s a truly stunning moment (that also made me realize how much stronger this game would be with a more present OST) and for me, exemplifies the heart of Breath of the Wild: discovering new places, creating memorable experiences, and deepening your connection with this vast and awe-inspiring world. Unfortunately, this concept unravels the longer you play the game, when you realize the world (vast as it is) is largely empty. When weapons aren’t worth finding, the shrines are all the same, you’ve collected enough ingredients to feed the entirety of Hyrule, and finding Korok seeds becomes a chore, exploration starts to feel less and less interesting.
What’s in a sword?
Of the 99 problems I have with this game, at least 94 of them are the weapon durability system. Apparently every weapon (minus the Master Sword, but we’ll get to that) in Hyrule is made out of goddamn crystal because they shatter and break at a rather alarming rate. No wonder Calamity Ganon took over so easily when that’s what Hyrule’s army had to work with. In Breath of the Wild, every weapon is expendable, and therefore, has a limited use. Each time your weapon shatters, you are forced into a menu to choose a new one, which consistently interrupts gameplay, the flow of combat, and is honestly a baffling design choice. You’re constantly scrambling for weapons to replace the ones you’ve lost, and at some point, you realize that their expenditure simply isn’t worth the potential reward of whatever you’ve given them up for. For instance, you may blow through 2 swords raiding a monster camp, and receive some poor quality clubs and fifty rupees for all of your efforts. I personally find this to be a glaring issue – for me, this fundamentally undermines Breath of the Wild’s strongest aspect, meaning, its exploration.
I reached a certain point in the game when, without necessarily making the conscious decision to do so, I began to avoid any and all combat. I would run, I would hide, I would do whatever I had to, to avoid fighting any of the monsters that I came across. I wasn’t particularly enjoying the combat in this game anyway, but in order to preserve my decent weapons and be able to save them for a time when I actually needed them, I simply stopped engaging with anything. This also meant that every time I completed a shrine where I found a new weapon as a treasure, I felt the sting of disappointment. Why bother collecting these cool looking weapons when they were just going to break? When they were utterly expendable yet irreplaceable? Also important to note: with the exception of a few select weapons, none of the swords, spears, or clubs that you come across in-game can be remade. Once they are broken, they are gone – unless you find another one… which will also break after about 10 swings. This is somewhat rectified with the Blood Moon system respawning a lot of items, but having to collect them again and again was tedious. Even the Master Sword, the legendary blade, has a built-in cooldown period. Once you’ve used it for a set amount of time, you need to wait until you can use it again. What this all boiled down to for me was that I didn’t enjoy doing shrines anymore, I didn’t enjoy exploring anymore, because what was the point? The satisfaction of finding a rare treasure, or a new weapon was completely moot. I enjoyed exploring this version of Hyrule simply for the new vistas, and hidden environmental gems I could find. But eventually, that shine wore off, and it wasn’t enough anymore.
This game desperately needed some kind of blacksmith or forging system. A way to strengthen certain weapons, or re-forge/repair others when they broke. The way that weapon durability works in Dark Souls, I think, is well implemented – it’s never too pressing of an issue, and easy to repair your gear at bonfires and blacksmiths that you come across. There are other items (like rings) that help to increase the durability of the more fragile weapons, like katanas. There is even a consumable item, Repair Powder, for repairing your gear on the go, without having to worry about switching to a weaker weapon, or worse, giving up your progress and retreating to a bonfire. Even RDR2 had a sort-of weapon maintenance system – it was never intrusive, but it was still something that you needed to be aware of. A system like this would have improved Breath of the Wild significantly – after all, in a game with exploration at its heart, I would much rather have spent some time looking for items to strengthen my swords, or keep them in good condition rather than scrounging and scraping for new ones.
This also leads me into my final criticism of this game: the enemy variety. In Breath of the Wild, there are only about five monster types in the entire game (excluding the mini bosses, which are also limited in variety). I remember when God of War came out, one of the biggest criticisms for that title was its lack of enemy and boss variety – though I rarely see Breath of the Wild criticized for the same thing. All monster types function essentially the same, from the Moblins to the Lizalfos, and there is zero incentive to use specific weapons against specific enemies – and no, I’m not considering the Ancient Arrows/weapons that destroy everything with ease under this umbrella. Some of the elemental weapons will do serious damage to an element-based monster of the opposite type (i.e. a fire sword will destroy an Ice Wizzrobe) but these weapons are so rare, that it’s a mechanic that is essentially non-existent. More enemies like the intimidating Lynel, and more unique mini bosses like the Molduga would have been a huge asset; a greater variety of enemy types would have helped this game tremendously.
Onward and upward
I feel like a lot of the core elements of a Zelda game were sacrificed in Breath of the Wild in favour of a more Ubisoft-like checklist style. Truly, did anyone feel thrilled at the prospect of having to complete 120 shrines, or find a staggering 900 Korok seeds? It’s a clearcut example of quantity over quality, and as I stated, becomes more of a checklist to be completed rather than a genuinely fun challenge to tackle. There could have been unique mini bosses or enemies hidden in the “Test of Strength” shrines, but instead, the same enemy is recycled over and over. Seeing some of the wildly creative approaches that Breath of the Wild’s gameplay allows for, like turning trees into rockets, or propelling yourself through the sky on a piece of rubble, makes me wish the same amount of creativity and flourish had been applied to the dungeons, shrines and bosses – we’ve seen the developers do this in every single Zelda game, and it is glaringly amiss here. The weapon durability system could have created some unique opportunities to scour the corners of Hyrule for upgrade materials or one-of-a-kind monster parts, but instead, they simply made everything equally expendable with little recourse for re-forging or repairs. The Master Sword was just as limiting, with a built-in cooldown timer. The prospect of exploration, arguably the core tenet of this title, is constantly undermined by the lack of rewarding things to find.
These small, niggling issues plague what is otherwise a solid game, eating away at the foundations of the experience until the entire thing collapses in on itself, like one of the many ruins that dot the landscape of Hyrule. Because of the dull dungeon design, repetitive bosses, and somewhat weak narrative, the scope and ambition of Breath of the Wild is simply unsupported by many of its more basic elements. The engaging design of all the regions of Hyrule wasn’t enough to make the game successful by itself. The inconsistent narrative meant that important characters were mentioned in passing, or maybe shown in a handful of flashbacks, and then never brought up again. Its presentation seemed designed for a disconnect from the audience. For every engaging story beat (like dressing up as a woman to enter Gerudo Town, or aiding Prince Sidon to attack Vah Ruta) there was a lame payoff waiting in the form of the Divine Beasts. Whereas Zelda’s characterization was possibly the strongest it has ever been in the franchise, I found the majority of the supporting cast to pale in comparison. I also found the lack of music to be jarring – music can add so much to the tone of a game, I really believe that this title would have benefited from a more present soundtrack. The small amount of tunes present are enjoyable, and the ambient sounds (like waves, bird calls, etc.) were done so well, I expected more of the score.
While I would still consider the majority of my time spent in this game to be enjoyable, and my overall experience positive (despite the negativity of this critique) when I look back at Breath of the Wild, I simply see a Goron Mine full of untapped potential – this game could have been better, could have reached higher, but didn’t. It didn’t feel like a Zelda game, nor did it feel like a particularly exceptional open world game. Nintendo needs to go back to the basics, and return to the roots of the Zelda franchise in order to make a stronger game that incorporates both the novelty of exploring massive new worlds, and the fantastic dungeon and puzzle design that made the series so popular. I sincerely hope they make some changes to the formula for the recently announced Breath of the Wild sequel, in order to live up to all the potential that this game had. I’m apprehensive about the future of the series, but still hopeful for another revitalization of the beloved Zelda formula.