This version of Zelda is definitely not the one you know from recent entries. It’s an ‘open air’, choose your adventure kind of Zelda. The narrative starts out as compelling as ever and then abruptly drops your ass out into the wild void of busywork. The sheer volume of freedom right at the outset is inspiring and unlike anything I’ve played. It takes your breath away in it’s simplicity. You walk to a tree or a cliff-face and start climbing not because a tutorial told you to but because you just know you can. You grab an apple out of said tree because it feels like you should. It’s intuitive, engaging and awe-inspiring. It’s the epitome of the silly claim “see that mountain, you can go there”. And that’s where this game really shines. Everything feels so effortless at the beginning, in that way that only a game that’s been meticulously and thoughtfully crafted by experts can. You kinda know that the whole world is a video game constructed by people for you to play because you’re a human with a brain holding a controller but you really feel that you’re simply Link, wandering this ancient Hyrule. It absolutely encapsulates you. In these ways, BotW is an unbelievable achievement and success. Almost every inch of the world is at least somewhat interesting, the controls are wonderful and random exploration turns up almost unlimited rewards. The feeling this game gives you will carry you extremely far in BotW, maybe forever.
And what’s so wrong with that? I mean, as an open world exploration game…nothing. Those qualities are excellent. They’re so great in fact, that my personal grievances for this particular Zelda didn’t develop for many hours. It wasn’t until I finally set my sights on the final battle that my negativity matured into a strong opinion. I even remember my exact tipping point. There was a moment of clarity when I realized that, after completing the fourth ‘dungeon’, I just couldn’t bring myself to repeat another session of: 1. unlock a new tower 2. scope out the land and mark interesting locales/shrines I could see and 3. wander generally towards my markers whilst getting distracted every 10 ft and never actually arriving at my goal location. It became tired, a chore even. With little to no narrative left to speak of, the force driving my exploration was suddenly absent. The little quirks and repetitions became more hollow. The fucking STORMS and RAIN became MORE ANNOYING. The constantly breaking weapons and seemingly endless korok seeds made me feel like I was running on a treadmill indoors, not taking the final hill as I approached the goal line of a marathon.
Naturally I felt inclined to conquer the last bit of story left, the ever-looming and mysterious Hyrule Castle. And then I snapped. Just as I had finished my hour of preparation and began my final hike to the castle…food and equipment all meticulously arranged and at the ready… a lightning storm began. Poetic? Not exactly! The absolute fucking maddening task of OPENING MY FUCKING MENU ONE MORE FUCKING TIME to UN-EQUIP ALL MY METAL SHIT was enough to tweak me. Could I have slept at an inn? Sure, why not? But that was so far beside the point at that particular moment in my Breath of the Wild experience. Also, that’s simply another rigorously stubborn, time consuming design choice that forces the player into a rigid workaround for the inconvenient crap the game throws at the player. So I do the menu shit, it’s quicker, and get Link so his ass doesn’t get fucking blasted by lightning and I start running. Soon enough I run across a cliff that’s my most direct path forward at the moment. Well, we all know what good climbing in the rain does! This was my moment. The things I found novel and interesting at the beginning had now sent me into a rage. I literally just wanted to get to the end and the game wouldn’t let me. I felt like I was going to be stuck in fucking Hyrule for another five hours and, in that moment, nothing felt worse. Of course I made my way through, ignoring the splendor and design of Hyrule castle and quickly ascended to the promised place where I easily ganked the dumbass robo Ganon and his over 9,000 pig form in what is easily the most underwhelming final boss scenario is Zelda history. Thank god that shit was over. Turned it off, put the disc back in the case and filed it away for good.
After roughly a hundred hours or so Breath of the Wild taught me a few things. The most important of which is I don’t ever want to be held hostage by a game. Which is decidedly different than holding myself hostage, something I frequently do and enjoy. You like finding these cute little seeds? Well there’s 900, so good luck. Shrines are kinda fun right? There’s not quite 900 but boy it’s sure gonna feel like it after you’re in your 75th one that looks identical to the 74 before and after it! You want to fully upgrade all of your hearts like every other Zelda game ever? Don’t spend orbs on your stamina bar then, because you can’t max both. The game expertly dangles prizes in front of the player only to slide them out of reach every time you get a step closer. The formula they’ve dreamed up is both maddening and addicting. It employs a collect-athon mindset in a RPG framework that both seem to be at odds with the open world philosophy. I can’t continuously be expected to feel engaged with messaging consisting of “the reward is the exploration of the world itself” when I’m on seed 658 and I feel like I’ve checked every area already. And when you learn that the prize for finding all 900 is a worthless joke item, you feel like you wasted your time. I wasn’t doing that just to collect seeds assholes. It isn’t funny.
Secondly, I guess I want my Zelda games to have more story, dungeons, GanonDORF (remember him??) and maybe the FUCKING TRIFORCE than I got in BotW. A good chunk of the story is told through memories (because Link has amnesia) that are triggered by special locations you have to go out and find. It’s a great idea in theory. Everyone will experience the narrative in a slightly different order, some people will see less…some more. Honestly, the memories were probably my favorite part of the game. Searching for them based on visual clues with the promise of a narrative reward was, I think, the closest this game gets to being an actual Zelda. The backstory is interesting, the old heroes are dynamic and the bond they all share (or what little is shown of it) is compelling and heartfelt. As the memories begin to weave into the present world, it elevates the new characters to a height they wouldn’t be able to achieve on their own. Because memories are one of the only things in the game that are limited in quantity (there’s only 18!) it gives them a more special feel compared to everything else. Uncovering one is much more fulfilling than hundreds of korok seeds, making them even duller in comparison. I wish similar restraint was used in almost every other aspect of the game.
That isn’t to say the story is a home run though. There’s no real baddie to speak of. No face to the danger other than a giant monster with no real emotional consequence. In fact, across the whole game there’s very very little in the way of a personal ultimate objective. Yeah, Ganon is a big evil spirit monster and the four little versions of him that serve as bosses at the end of the dungeons serve their basic purpose, but Zelda games are built on emotionally driven showdowns. Instead it seems the game nudges you toward the climax environmentally, fitting the design concept, but not nearly as compelling. Hyrule castle is covered in black goo and sits in the middle of the world. Okay, well I guess that’s the objective. I feel like they were going for a more natural and intuitive approach to suggesting how to tackle their game instead of guiding you along a path. Sadly, moments like Ganondorf galloping out of Hyrule Castle’s gate on a stormy night and imposing his fucking terror on little kid link in Ocarina aren’t even attempted. That thirty seconds have more impact on the player and expresses more atmosphere than BotW’s entire geographical world could ever hope to achieve. After going through four dungeons with nameless mini Ganon clones you knew exactly what you were going face in the castle: a big stupid Ganon that has no impact on anything other than being the biggest monster in the game.
I have many other small complaints…the game suffers from a litany of quality of life missteps that make certain things a chore (that could be fun). I already mentioned constantly swapping equipment, how about equipment presets for certain environmental situations? Many things you have to do repeatedly are three clunky menus deep and it just fucking wears a person down. Ubisoft towers suck…Nintendo should be able to do better. Rockstar employs a fog of war style map reveal in GTA V, why not copy that? Weapon durability is fine for a while until it’s not. The pressure of being in the middle of a tough fight and having your weapon bust is intense the first five hundred times, less so after that. A recipe catalog would be amazing and should be in there. My list goes on, honestly.
So, a mixed bag it is. I like a lot of things about the game and I don’t like a lot of things. And some of the things I really liked…I started to really not like over time. By the end, so many things moved into the “not like” category that I ended up with an overall negative opinion brightened a bit by the things I was still really impressed with. The art style is cool and the world is really inspiring. I’ll never forget wandering into new areas and the sense of exploration I felt, or the freedom. This version of Link and Zelda are great and the NPC characters are too. It just didn’t feel enough like Zelda to me. I know, I know…it’s okay for things to change and evolve. Trust me, I get it. I just prefer my Zeldas to be more Wind Waker and less Metal Gear Solid V. I want real dungeons, real villains and real triforces. Maybe on their next attempt they will stick with the majesty of what they created here and plug back in some of the traditional elements that were left out.
-LIST UPDATE: THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD-
2. Chrono Cross
10. Mass Effect
11. Dead Rising
14. Brutal Legend
15. Paper Mario
16. Radiata Stories
17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
BotW is an impressive new take on the open world genre with little else going for it. The story is the worst in the series and the enormous amount of busywork and lolopenworld stuff just isn’t all that acceptable to me, especially coming from a company that has made a name for itself by ignoring modern day gaming tropes and usually inventing their own shit.
18. Kingdom Hearts
22. Final Fantasy XV