At the time I’m writing this I’ve completed…maybe 25% of the game? But I’ve also spent 40+ hours playing. I haven’t “progressed” very far, though I have seen a lot.
And what I’ve seen…is not my favorite Zelda.
But it is GOOD! I don’t have the opportunity to play games I don’t like (for numerous reasons) so it’s not like I’m playing begrudgingly. You could say I’m addicted almost. I haven’t enjoyed a Zelda game this much in a long time, but I think that speaks more of other recent entries than it does of Breath of the Wild. Side note: I’m directing my critiques at the console games, not the handhelds. I’ve played only a few of the handhelds since I couldn’t keep up with the GBA, DS, 3DS, etc., life cycles. I did play Link Between Worlds, which I liked and also didn’t, but I digress.
Returning to my point: Breath of the Wild is good, but I think it gets a boost from the quality of its closest comparison. Liken it to The Force Awakens: good movie, amazing compared to the Star Wars movies that directly preceded it, but is it Empire Strikes Back? No. Movies get away with some of this more than video games do. Of course BotW looks great – it should! A regression in graphics (unless somehow intentional) would be unheard of. Empire is still a better movie even if it doesn’t look as good as something made this year, unless you’re someone who only cares about visuals. In which case, your favorite movie/game is always something in the future. And BotW is such a huge world! And it’s great, but it’s not a fair comparison to others in the series. Many recall how expansive Ocarina of Time was at its release, but that was then, in the past. The future should always be a better place.
So if graphics and overworld size and other technical aspects are thrown out, I start to look at what should really be compared: story, characters, mechanics, and puzzles.
This is the hardest for me to completely judge (see: first sentence) but the part I’ve seen I like. A lot of history is thrown in that doesn’t serve much purpose other than to explain why the world is what it is this time, but at least the cutscenes help to make it enjoyable (instead of 50 pages of text that “would you like the owl to repeat that?” NO NEVER). The cutscene/memories also add a nice way of telling the story through flashback. I don’t know if seeing all the memories provides some kind of payoff in the end, but I like to hope it might. This Hyrule has the perception of one with history and the nuances in the world are rooted in reasons not just because the designers wanted it. Is the mcguffin of this entry the most interesting? Hardly. But I admit the way it’s presented is at least different enough that I can respect it.
Credit: A Zelda game where you already know you’re the hero from the very start. It doesn’t happen enough in any media so it’s refreshing to be exposed to a story of “here’s a guy, trained to be a warrior, saved by others to purposefully come back and fight evil when the time is right.” Oddly, also the story of Austin Powers…
Debit: There seems to be a disconnect going on of tying all parties together. Like, some villages don’t seem to be bothered in the least by what’s going on. Life is great, who’s Ganon? Which is fine since having everyone be gloom and doom would make me wonder what the heck were you all doing for 100 years. Speaking of, time/life is weird. Some people were alive 100 years ago but that doesn’t seem to be the norm. So what is a lifetime, who lives long lives/ short lives? And, unless this occurs in a part of the game I haven’t reached yet, there is no story for Ganon. Was he ever Ganondorf in this world? Mindless brute Ganon is my least favorite Ganon.
This one I feel had great planning, but somewhat poor execution. Those previously mentioned cutscenes means there are voice actors and animation. It’s a little heavy handed, to the point where some characters feel more like tropes than fleshed out characters. Again, this could change as I play, but that’s what I’ve experienced so far. But the underlying idea (and I’ll add in a lot of minor NPCs here) is great. These characters are not just one liners. No “I AM ERROR” here. Example: one lady wanted me to pick up some ingredients to cook her husband’s favorite dinner. I got the stuff and went back to her, but it was after dinner time when I got back. She told me she already cooked dinner (because, dinner time) but she thanked me for my effort and says maybe she’ll cook it tomorrow. This example is partly related to mechanics, but it shows a character that doesn’t just stand there and wait for my return.
Credit: Culture. Without beating you over the head with it, BotW does a solid job showing (not telling) the player how the different races/regions have their own identify and lifestyle. The people living by the southern ocean are slightly darker skinned and walk around shirtless while they live in homes without windows or doors because they have little interaction with monsters and are very open with each other (also I bet because it’s hot and they want as much airflow as possible.) Those of Kakariko, painted by their past, are tough and guarded although you can tell some younger members and/or outsiders who may not have experienced the events 100 years ago are more relaxed.
Debit: While you may get to know characters, you don’t seem to have the opportunity to gain intimate knowledge of them. There is some with major allies, but it feels lacking when it comes to minor NPCs (and villains). In all fairness, this is not something I expect from all Zelda games, but after Majora’s Mask, it’s something I always crave more of because it hits on all the major points so well. Done correctly, you can build your story, mechanics, and puzzles off the lives of people in the game.
Oh boy. This one is all over the place. Every review hits hard on these because of how new they are to Zelda games. They are also polarizing, as every reviewer strongly likes or dislikes brittle weapons, wall scaling, tropical weather patterns, etc.. I am in the camp that thinks they are welcomed additions to the game but (again) are perhaps better in concept than execution. I’m a little more forgiving here since I feel like the world explains away some of the more notable detraction. Take weapon durability as an example. Most of these swords are 100 years old! Of course they break. And there are no true blacksmiths to fix them because there are no more soldiers. The other races have warriors and people who fix their specific weapons, but for the dominating species, fighting is just what people with too much free time do when they “go on an adventure”. Their lives are filled with pitchforks and hoes. Which actually work as decent weapons in a pinch.
Zelda games tend to introduce new mechanics while building off something that came before. Think of time and transformations in Majora’s Mask. Majora took Ocarina’s basic use of time as a plot device and expanded on it in a way that made it more integral to the story. Majora than introduced the idea of Link transforming in a useful manner (not counting Link to the Past bunny form here) as something new it brought to the table. BotW borrows, reintroduces, and creates a lot and in doing so is perhaps where I find fault. It wants to do so much that everything feels a little under-cooked (and to my other points, they feel like they didn’t get the attention they deserved because mechanics took over so much of the game).
Credit: Creating a great balance between reality and Zelda-ality when it comes to items and inventory. Having a subplot to expand the number of weapons Link can carry – that’s fine. It adds to the game and the way you do it is both addicting and happenstance (I never want to see a map of where the seeds are because finding one while I’m walking around is the right amount of whimsy this game needs.) But the Zelda-ality says Link can carry way more stuff than physically possible and so leaving out a limit on number of apples I can carry was a good, traditional move. And hey, I’ll even give double credit for removing the limit on items that used to be limited (mainly because only carrying 30 arrows in BotW at a time when you can’t just chop some grass for more would have SUCKED).
Debit: Lack of information. It’s great that you can see the recipe for something you’ve made, but what happens after you consume it and you want to make another? I get that, as a real human being, I can write it down outside the game, but what about Link? He needs a diary for this stuff. How do you make things. What weapons work best on what monsters. Giving you the option of buying a house is great and decorating it is fine, but there needs to be a way to make it into a full on war room. Example: I ran into an enemy that was owning me until I switched weapons and then I killed it in one hit. In hindsight, I could have reasoned it out prior to starting the fight, but it would be nice if Link could learn that (either through first hand experience or knowledge gathering), then keep a record at home being like “make sure you have this stuff if you’re traveling to this region.”
Here’s where I feel the game lacks. Puzzles are what define Zelda games. Characters always point to Link’s courageous spirit as the edge he has on his adversaries, but I would say it’s Link’s resourcefulness. Whether they’re environmental puzzles, item related, mazes, or what have you, Link (and you as the player) need to be able to reason out a variety of obstructions to move the game forward. Traditionally, these were done with large, themed dungeons with some overworld puzzles thrown in for good measure. BotW, for the most part, takes all the puzzles and divides them up into small chunks. Shrines, some Korok seeds, a few environmental ones, and then finally the “dungeons” of this game. I’ve only completed one of the main “dungeons” and…it did not take long. Maybe 15 minutes? Double that if we include the prologue to actually reaching the dungeon. That’s pretty short, like shorter than 2D Zelda standards.
You can point to the shrines as the replacement for dungeons. They are a combination of puzzles and fights that, if you pieced a bunch together, you would essentially get a dungeon of other Zelda games. But the shrines and their puzzles seem merely an end that doesn’t consider its means. The futuristic but also ancient technology of the shrines, and their odd, sterile physical appearance, makes them feel really out of place in the world. I would have accepted if shrines were somehow related to their surroundings (like all the shrines on a snowy mountain involve snow) but instead they feel like someone took the puzzles of a dungeon, chopped them up, and stripped them of their character. I praise them for moving away from dungeons that are focused around a particular item, but am disappointed to see they moved too far in the opposite, bland direction.
Credit: Open-ended puzzles. I’ve solved a few now by ways that were clearly not the intended way. Now not only is Link resourceful, I feel resourceful. Giving the player all the “hero powers” up front allows for creativity, knowing that you always have the tools you need to solve something and there may even be more than one way to do it. That is something other Zelda games tend to lack and so props must be given to BotW on that front.
Debit: Not enough Kass shrines. The emphasis is on the open world in this game: a vast, multi-faceted place, yet the rate of puzzles I’ve encountered involving the overworld is smaller than I expected. If overworld puzzles featuring riddles and scenarios related to the region you were currently in were more abundant than the cookie-cutter shrines, it would make up for the lack of in-depth dungeons and then some. There’s want by the game makers and players to interact with the environment and have it feel rewarding. And it is, but the rewards need to be more Zelda-esque.
Extra Credit: Music
Zelda games are well known for their themes and leitmotifs and Breath of the Wild is no exception. It also has phenomenal sound design and production that create a full immersion experience that is arguably essential to playing the game, but those are technical aspects I’m trying not to discuss. So why does BotW get extra credit for doing something that, at this point, is standard for Zelda games? For the first time in the 3D era, a Zelda game does not feature music as integral to the story (at least, as far as I can tell). Instruments and batons don’t magically change the environment/physics/concept of reality in this world. The music we hear is there to paint our perception and drive our emotions. From the diegetic (think the tunes of Kass the minstrel) to the thematic(the poignant and yet heartwarming piano melody that plays as Link travels), the designers put a lot of effort into the sound that goes along with the game even when it could have been an easy out for them to recycle old music and focus on other aspects of the game since music is not a mechanic this time.
So where does that leave us?
When considering how much I enjoy something, I’ve started to force myself to separate the entertainment from the “franchise” of it. There are many examples (sports, movies, video games) where some part of the whole is what actually drives my interest. I saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in spite of bad reviews because it was Indiana Jones! The Last Crusade is possibly my favorite movie of all time, it’s quoted often around our apartment (you’d be surprise how many times “the floor is on fire” comes up in our daily conversation), so of course I’m going to see another Indiana Jones movie. The franchise or branding of a thing usually boosts our enjoyment and that’s not a bad thing. I’ve just found it helps me realize where I should devote my time, energy, and honestly money when I can look at the whole more objectively.
To that point – it’s a Zelda game. I am deeply involved with the franchise. A “bad” Zelda game is still better than most other games I play because I know from past experience that the standard is higher. My investment is also greater and having investment in something really does influence your subjective thoughts.
But what if it wasn’t a Zelda game? That’s the real question: would I be enjoying this game as much if the first three words of the title weren’t “Legend of Zelda”? My perception would be changed at three key points: initial interaction, the current, and the nostalgic point. Without it being Zelda, by initial interaction would be none. I would not have bought a new console for just some random open-world game. However, my current perception would probably be unchanged. I’m critical of where it lacks in Zelda-ness, but not so much as a game in general. That means it probably doesn’t fair well for the nostalgic factor, but it will be a long time before I know for sure.
All in all, it’s a good game. Best I’ve played in years. On the Zelda scale though? Right now, I’d say it falls somewhere around 3rd or 4th best.
Conclusion: Other Zelda games
My opinions on Zelda games change over time…and at this point in my life I’d say my taste is somewhat not the norm. Earlier this winter I watched Helen play Majora’s Mask, stepping in only on occasion when the boss battle was too hard or the timing of something needed to be precise, and I was reassured in my opinion of how it truly is a great game. If you hadn’t noticed yet, I love Majora’s Mask and it is indeed my favorite Zelda game. Side note: 10 years ago my favorite game of all time was Ocarina of Time, but the nostalgia factor was huge at that time. Now, I’d say Ocarina falls in the bottom half of Zelda games.
Majora receives high marks in all four categories I look at for Zelda games and it has a premise I would play even if it wasn’t a Zelda game. I wish there were more games like it. Or, you know, just more Zelda games in general.