Link’s latest outing comes with some of the series biggest revelations. A vast open world environment, an expansion of the series’ RPG systems and an overall structure that may take many Zelda fans by surprise. Breath of the Wild makes a very deliberate effort to be different and in doing so hits many of the series greatest highs, yet unfortunately, this is undermined by some implementations that don’t quite click.
Breath of the Wild’s opening hours really exemplify everything I both love, and disliked about this particular entry in the series. Granting you almost immediate freedom, Link awakes to a vague plot about defeating a malevolent force and saving Hyrule. You’re thrown into the wild with an intelligently crafted tutorial segment which slowly, and naturally introduces you to the games’ core mechanics. Significantly, the games’ introduction achieves this without feeling like a tutorial at all, freeing the player to explore from the moment the game begins while gradually introducing them to new facets of the gameplay, within a controlled and largely risk free environment. This immediate freedom is a fantastic and liberating feeling that really exemplifies the role of player agency in Breath of the Wild.
After an introduction to various gameplay systems, the player finds themselves leaving the the confines of the opening region, a smaller area of the game designed for the player to experiment and learn without risk. This is also where the game truly opens up, allowing you to for the first time in the series, select your own path to progress through the games’ world. In the past, while open world, Zelda titles have been relatively linear., forcing the player to approach each dungeon, town and ultimately, narrative beat in a very specific sequence. While there were some exceptions to this rule – such as the original Triforce quest in Wind Waker – players familiar with the series would generally know what to expect next, yet Breath of the Wild defies this expectation.
By defying these structural expectations, the world itself becomes much more entertaining, and rewarding to explore. The games’ four main dungeons, and one-hundred plus miniature dungeons can all be completed in any order; the player is free to roam the land and complete tasks as they see fit. Disregarding your present objective and walking in the seemingly wrong direction never feels like a waste of time, because there’s inherently no explicitly wrong direction. There’s always something new, and valuable ahead of you – be it a new region for you to chart, a new dungeon to delve, or one of the games’ many, novel secrets.
Some of the Breath of the Wild’s mechanics can begin to feel a little formulaic over time however, climbing towers to unlock new portions of the map can feel repetitive. Fortunately these segments only consume a small portion of your time, and they do serve a good purpose in encouraging players to visually survey the land and investigate their discoveries. Despite some repetition, the sense of wonder afforded by the potential for novel discovery persists throughout the games duration, and it was this feeling that had me hooked by Breath of the Wild’s world.
This sense of discovery extends to the gameplay mechanics too, with Breath of the Wild introducing various little nuances for players to stumble upon, over time. For instance, most players won’t know that they can surf on the back of their shield when they first load up the game – this is certainly something that the game didn’t need to include – but it’s neat little extra that extends the players discovery beyond merely the aesthetic and functional. This is also true for various other, small mechanics that come together to enhance the richness and interactivity of the world.
Despite this praise, it does feel that all of this player agency comes at a cost. While Breath of the Wild is the most open world Zelda game to date, some crucial components that featured in previous games, are oddly absent here. For instance, the game doesn’t contextualise Links adventure very well, and players are given little narrative incentive for the adventure other than a tired plot that regards ridding the world of evil.
In contrast, previous entries in the series have encouraged Link and the player to develop connections with various characters, so that when crisis does present itself, the player already feel connected with the world, and motivated to resolve the issues. Breath of the Wild meanwhile, is much harder to connect with. Princess Zelda speaks out to you and calls for your help, but there’s no depth to either Zelda, or your own character during the games’ early hours. There’s no compelling justification for your connection to Zelda or Hyrule, and despite this, the simply assumes the player will care, seemingly hoping they’re familiar with the world and characters.
As you progress, Breath of the Wild’s narrative does offer some encouragement, slowly unravelling the connection between Link, Zelda and their relationship to the present state of affairs. Most of this isn’t especially revolutionary story telling, but it’s enough to help build a stronger connection with the player, and Hyrule – more appropriately contextualising the adventure. Many of these story sequences feature voice acting – a first for the Zelda series – however these are an unfortunate blemish on the experience, with characters sounding dreary, disinterested and sometimes outright weird.
Despite these narrative stumblings, gameplay is where Breath of the Wild tends to shine, and combat generally does the game justice, especially during the early hours. Breath of the Wilds’ combat mechanics continue the games’ theme of affording novel solutions, to previously traditional problems. Link and his enemies can incorporate various elements of the environment into the fight. Set fire to grass to burn enemies that pursue you, cut down trees and roll logs onto enemy camps, or kill them by igniting one of the conventionally placed explosive barrels. There’s more environmental interaction this time around, and these solutions can be fun to discover and incorporate into combat sequences.
Unfortunately the way these environmental hazards feature can become a little predictable with time. Just why are so many Moblin camps laced with explosives? The big red barrel trope gets criticised in shooters and in the same way, it’s a relatively boring solution to a problem in Breath of the Wild. If you consider each goblin camp an environmental puzzle – one where you’re tasked to figure out the most efficient solution to overcome the enemies ahead – then it’s quite dull that so many of these encounters share a similar and obvious solution.
Link’s melee options are rather underwhelming too. Although the game features a vast variety of weapons for Link to scavenge from the environment, the differences between the majority of these are largely arbitrary. Some weapons hit slowly, but with longer range, others strike quickly, at short range, beyond a few idiosyncrasies you’ll experience almost all of the games’ weapon archetypes within 30 minutes of play. Due to this lack of functional variety, the weapon system lacks the tactical involvement and subsequent sense of reward that comes from selecting the right weapon for the right job. Some enemies have ranged attacks, others have melee, but the strategy is almost always the same. Wait until they attack, then hit them with what you have as they open themselves up. The most significant difference between one weapon and the next is the damage it deals, so when you an encounter a tougher enemy, such as a boss, the weapon that deals the most damage is almost always the best for the job.
As a result, there’s very little calculated decision making required from the player. The process of figuring out which weapon is best suited to which enemy type often facilitated by other games, is very rarely encouraged in Breath of the Wild, and combat feel less rewarding as a result. Problematically, there’s also very little diversification between the dynamics of one fight, to the next as a result of the enemy attack patterns, across different types of AI. Moblins, and Lizardos are the games’ most common enemies, and you can approach each in a very similar way. You walk towards them, wait until they strike, then take your turn to strike them. Objectively, if you master the combat system then the best way to defeat an enemy in a head to head encounter is through a well timed series of parries, but there’s no meaningful differentiation between how these parries are performed, so again the best weapon is the one with the highest attack.
There are some exceptions however. For instance some weapons might have a elemental trait, and these are incredibly effective when exploiting an elemental weakness. Similar is true for Link’s bow and arrow, which provides the combat system it’s most significant point of diversification and allows you to exploit certain vulnerabilities that other weapons cannot reach. Flinging arrows is in itself, a satisfying mechanic, and can provides a different avenue for approach from the typical sword and shield melee combat- it felt satisfying learning where and when to use my arrows, and nailing a perfect headshot on an intimidating foe never became old. At times the lack of arrows can feel a little crippling however, these aren’t in infinite supply and yet dungeons and enemies will sometimes seemingly require these for progression.
The issues with the combat and overall lack of diversification of the me games melee weapons wouldn’t be so bothersome if it wasn’t for the weapon durability. In games like Dead Rising, durability is used to encourage the player to try out a varied array of different weapons and crucially the functionality of each weapon is genuinely varied, mechanically different in some way, and fun to experiment with. Unfortunately Zelda lacks that variety, having my weapon break only to pick up another that’s functionally very similar does not make the experience more varied, or indeed interesting. It feels like Breath of the Wild’s durability mechanics are intent on pushing you to try lots of different weapons, but the game just doesn’t sport the diversity that would make such a system interesting.
Making matters worse, every time your weapon breaks, you’re required to enter a sub-real time menu in order to switch out to something else. This often takes a few seconds, as you select the weapon that’s most appropriate, creating a very jarring, stop and start dynamic to the games’ encounters. The interface itself isn’t as accessible as you might like either, in order to switch weapon the player must either open the full inventory, or hit a direction on the d-pad, then scroll to the weapon of their choosing. Both of these options pause the game, and having to repeatedly interrupt combat to change weapons, shields, bows and arrows can really harm the pacing of a fight. If the player is forced to pause a gameplay segment to make a choice then it should be a meaningful one, not simply selecting the weapon with the next highest attack so that combat can resume.
The sheer presentation of this exchange presents its own problem too, as in order to switch weapon with the d-pad, you need to move off the analogue stick, this really spoils the fluidity of the battle leaving Link vulnerable for a moment while you move your thumb from the left analogue stick which controls his movement. The quick select menu that presents itself could have been more user friendly too, requiring you to scroll horizontally to choose your next weapon, other games achieve the same result faster with weapon wheels, and sometimes Zelda’s awkward implementation feels longer than using the full inventory.
Ultimately, it’s the lack of functional variety that really hurts the weapon durability system more than anything else. With more in-depth means of acquiring diverse array of weapons, the durability system could have encouraged experimentation and adaptation in a very positive way. However picking up weapons with more attack, or defence, that are incredibly similar to those you’ve already have or recently used, fails to lend the variety required to make exploration of your options feel satisfying. This is only hampered further by the clumsy implementation of the weapon selections user interface, and the negative implication this has on the games’ pacing.
Making matters even worse, weapons have a tendency to break within a very small number of swings, whether it be a steel forged sword, or a simple wooden club scavenged from an enemy. Many of these weapons don’t last the duration of a single fight, and in some cases this can even act as a barrier to the games’ much touted exploration. Exploring early on in the game it wasn’t difficult to encounter enemies that would sooner break my entire inventory than be killed by anything I had available. Later on in the game some of these issues are alleviated by weapons that are semi-permanent, and others that have much more sustained durability, yet the issues presented by the durability system never disappear.
Moving beyond the durability systems issues, head to head combat itself is merely serviceable. Escape enemy strikes with either the shield, or a well timed dodge, and then it’s your turn to attack, take your turn, rinse and repeat. It’s basic but ultimately not dissimilar to what players have come to expect from the series; you won’t be disappointed, but you’re not likely to be enthralled by your options either. There are some odd omissions too, for instance each weapon you obtain only has a relatively basic set of attacks, lacking the variation in attacks that weapons in previous Zelda games featured. Still, overcoming your foes to land that final blow can be a satisfying experience, especially due to the games rag-doll physics system which sees enemies flying off into all sorts of directions when struck.
However, Breath of the Wild’s more innovative gameplay systems come in the form of it’s puzzle mechanics, and on occasion, the means in which these can be integrated into combat. Near the start of the game Link is given various magical powers – for instance, one which can turn water to ice, another which allows you to grab large objects and move them around with tremendous force – these come into play in creative ways through the games Shrines and Dungeons, as Link is required to use each in order to solve various puzzles.
The sheer extent to which these abilities can influence the world affords some of the most creative puzzle mechanics in the history of the series. Solutions to these problems can feel genuinely remarkable and satisfying, and although some can be a little obtuse, the majority follow a logical sequence based on the rules that the player is taught very early on in the adventure. Something I loved about these puzzles is that in many cases, there’s no single, clear cut resolution. You’re free to use your powers in all manner of different ways and crafting a solution to a puzzle that feels like your own comes with an incredible sense of reward.
These puzzle solving powers can also be used in the environment too, providing alternative approaches to otherwise simplistic problems. Don’t have enough stamina to cross that river? How about creating some ice blocks and hopping across. Think you could use a boulder to destroy a camp of Moblins? Chuck it at them with your magnetic powers. These powers are good fun and help diversify not only the games’ puzzle solving, but potentially exploration and combat as well.
Shrines are the best format that these puzzles feature, as they generally only task you to solve one, or two puzzles in sequence. It’s not too frustrating if you don’t come to a solution straight away, because you don’t have to worry about the prospect of being stumped at the next puzzle. Larger dungeons can be a little less tolerable, feeling like several shrines melded together. These lengthy series of puzzle sequences offer very little in terms of the platforming or combat that often characterised the dungeons in the previous games. Their lack of variety makes them feel similar to, yet longer versions of the smaller Shrine’s, and as a result they feel a little anticlimatic, particularly when they’re compared to dungeons from previous Zelda titles.
The games’ boss fights do offer a pleasant finale to these dungeons, but these aren’t as well contextualised as they perhaps could be. While bosses in previous Zelda titles fit the overall theme of each individual dungeon, Breath of the Wild’s are a little more generic in their design, with each taking similar forms regardless of the dungeon in which they feature. Pleasantly, the fights allow a similar level of flexibility as many other elements of the game. Instead of the typical weak spot and sequence repetition, bosses in Breath of the Wild can be damaged – and subsequently defeated – in all manner of different ways, using the full range of your equipment. They’re less like a dynamic puzzle with a specific solution, and instead feel more like a real battle where the player fights tooth and nail, incorporating all of their tools in order to triumph. Still, these fights aren’t necessarily superior to those featured in previous Zelda titles, and this flexibility often allows them to be defeated with trivial levels of difficulty thanks to the games’ equipment and resource systems.
Specifically, the games food and cooking system can trivialise even the toughest boss fights and other combat encounters. As Link travels the world you collect all manner of ingredients which you can turn into cooked food – or if need be, simply eat raw – in order to gain various beneficial effects. These effects can range from healing you a small amount, to healing you to full and then some with some extra bonus hearts, or providing a significant boost to stats such as attack, defence or stamina. This system really rewards exploration and experimentation as you find yourself searching for various ingredients and then crafting new concoctions as you progress through the game.
The downside however, regards how these healing items are implemented into gameplay, and how that affects combat difficulty. At any one time I often found myself carrying twenty plus cooked food items, many of which capable of restoring my health in full. These aren’t especially difficult to obtain and problematically they can be used in a moments notice, healing and buffing the player at any time. The game encourages you to pause the game and use these items as and when you need them, but in doing so, tougher battles can feel like battles of attrition rather than a test of the players skill. The significance and resulting implication of the mistakes I make becomes diminished when I can erase them by simply pausing the game and healing up, and this process also harms combat pacing, adding yet another reason to interrupt a fight by going to and from the games’ menu.
That’s not to say that these components of the game aren’t enjoyable though. Combat is simplistic and that’s no surprise for the Zelda series, but overcoming your foes still comes with a sense of satisfaction when you pull off a perfect parry, or nail them with an arrow and a quick follow up strike. There’s plentiful strategy to how you move around, isolate, enemies, and utilise the environment, and prepare for the fight ahead with various potions and food. It’s just a shame that some of the surrounding systems feel unbalanced or pull the player out of the gameplay experience so frequently.
A highlight however, is its inclusion of various towns and points of interest for the player to explore. Each settlement has a unique aesthetic, populated with inhabitants who have a distinct set of problems for Link to help out with. For the first time in the series Breath of the Wild features an in-depth quest system, capable of tracking your progress on various quest lines, and pointing you in the right direction – should you feel you require it. It’s a pleasant addition that helps keep track of everyone’s problems, as well as ensuring the player always has some form of direction or goal, should they want it.
Beyond its gameplay systems and interfaces, Breath of the Wild has undeniable visual appeal and this too relates back to that persistent desire to explore more of the world that drove my progression. The games’ art direction affords stunning vistas and for the most part manages to mask many of the games’ technical limitations. For instance, Breath of the Wild doesn’t boast especially impressive draw distances, but the water colour art style gives distant objects a very soft appearance that both masks their lack of detail and yet, fits the scene very naturally. Some performance issues are more difficult to ignore however, aliasing is very noticeable throughout the game (especially in portable mode on the Switch) and considerable frame rate issues affect the games’ fluidity, especially during busier sequences. While I found these technical problems to be relatively minor overall, the result of a significant frame rate drop can be quite jarring at times, pulling you out of the game with a swift reminder that you’re playing a video game.
Dynamic environmental effects can create a stark contrast in aesthetic too, rain often plagues Hyrule giving the game a sudden and dramatic shift in tone. Sadly however, rain does little to benefit the core gameplay, preventing link sustaining his grip on rock surfaces. Depending on what you’re seeking to do, rain can feel like a blight on the experience, forcing players to simply wait the rain out to continue exploring. There were instances where I found myself half-way up a rock surface, only to have the skies unleash a downpour, forcing me to find a ledge to settle on until the rain stopped.
In other games with environmental changes – such as the racing – weather effects are often used to diversify the gameplay, changing the way that the vehicles control, forcing the player to be more vigilant and cautious as they take turns, yet never preventing the player from progressing. In Breath of the Wild however, the rain doesn’t diversify the experience, it restricts various activities and ultimately stifles the players agency. Lightening storms are similar, use a metal weapon in a lightening storm and you’ll be electrocuted, but there’s no incentive to use typically worse, wooden weapons either. It’s far easier to just avoid combat until the lightening ceases. These environmental systems provide pleasant visual diversification, yet narrow the players options.
Breath of the Wild’s audio doesn’t quite hit the mark either, providing appropriate, mellow backing to your mostly peaceful jaunts across the Wilderness, but lacking the punch and personality from the scores of previous instalments when the game really calls for it. I was disappointed to reach a new town, only to realise that its score felt as if it could be the lobby music to another Dynasty Warriors game – a generic oriental chime that while pleasant, felt utterly unremarkable. Aforementioned issues with the games’ voice acting also affect the games’ audio presentation, and it’s hard to deny that the emotionless, awkward and sometimes straight up unusual voice overs don’t harm the otherwise pleasantly animated cutscenes.
This is the problem with much of Breath of the Wild’s experimental approach to its design, very few of its new features exist without some sort of caveat or strike against them. The art style is wonderful, but the developers couldn’t manage to include any anti-aliasing. The game is beautifully animated, but the frame rate drops significantly, hampering that sense of fluidity. Combat can be satisfying, but you’re interrupted every few moments to switch weapon as a result of the durability system. The game facilitates an abundance of player agency, but then tells you that you can’t begin to meaningfully charter each region without following its formula. It’s impossible to deny that it’s a phenomenal feeling, exploring a brand new Zelda universe that doesn’t feel like you can predict it’s every move, delving into all of its new features and gradually unravelling layered gameplay systems that feel genuinely and meaningfully responsive to the players influence, but these features don’t come with a flawless implementation.
However despite that criticism, Breath of the Wild manages to successfully lay the foundations for a potentially ground breaking open world experience irrespective of its issues. With expansion of its strengths, a little refinement of some of its weaker areas, it’s easy to see how a similar approach to open world game design could be the revolutionary adaptation that Nintendo wanted for the series. Breath of the Wild’s experimentation ultimately comes as a step in the right direction, and despite significant issues the game manages to achieve more hits, than misses. An astonishing attention to detail, commitment to facilitating player agency, and fondness for novelty makes Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, and all of its gameplay systems an absolute pleasure to explore, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for the series.