The short answer is that, yeah, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a great game. But on the question of whether it’s the ultimate Zelda game or the best game ever, or whathaveyou…
Anyway, with The Legend of Zelda, the action-adventure series about some guy called Link teaming up with some princess called Zelda to take on some bad guy called Ganon ad infinitum (with these archetypes taking on different permutations in different games). Nintendo faced a problem that maybe only has been more acutely felt by Disney’s animation studios: when you’re responsible for completely revolutionizing and laying down the principles for an entire medium, how do you do you keep making stuff which will live up to that? Ocarina of Time wrote the rules for how 3D gaming works, and even if you’re capable of delivering more of the same high quality stuff cut from the same cloth, it’s going to feel a bit more “business as usual,” with that initial spark feeling a little more dim (Majora’s Mask was really fortunate in this regard by having severe budgetary and time limitations, forcing the devs to make something which would exist at an acute angle to Ocarina, rather than simply an Ocarina 2).
And here’s where things get a little more vague on my end; I largely tuned out of Nintendo for all of my teens and a sizable chunk of my twenties; most of the JRPG nonsense I was interested in was under the Sony banner, and my undergrad years in general were ones where console gaming was an unaffordable luxury. Hence I’m not really in a position to diagnose what happened to Zelda after the early 3D years. But at least, in paying attention to how the fandom has received them, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword all kinda were unable to escape Ocarina’s shadow.
The next big-ish Zelda game I had a chance to play was A Link Between Worlds, which was very much a “Zelda’s back, baby!” moment for me; the ancient, 2D Zelda of my early childhood had been resurrected, with some modern, free-form insights carefully integrated into the mix. It was delightful and bubbly, and it convinced me that Nintendo was still capable of delivering a classic Zelda experience.
Which made me a tad disappointed when it was announced that with its latest entry the Zelda franchise would take on the very modern “Open World” style of gameplay that has become so ubiquitous and fashionable as of late.
In essence, the open world game is one which has a geographically seamless, 1:1 scale game world, with systems that are meant to simulate a real world rather than an obviously “designed” video game world. They’re almost intoxicating at first, often being graphical and artistic showcases, and dangling that possibility of infinite adventure and exploration. Go anywhere and do anything! Have an adventure! The game is your oyster!
But as I’ve played them, I’ve found myself becoming a tad disenchanted with the idea. For one, the sheer size of the game world often means that the developer has to make sacrifices when it comes to complexity and depth; you’re given a lot of stuff to do, but said stuff tends to be a lot less varied and interesting than it initially seems, and can easily start to feel like busywork once the aesthetic charm of the world wears off. It’s a bit like going to a buffet: so many choices of food! But it’s all kinda bland, and you wind up eating a combination of things that lack the careful planning and attention that can go into a more traditional three course meal.
This is amplified by another factor: many developers are aware that with a really huge, nonlinear world, the player can easily get intimidated or be unable to find things. So many games provide you with maps that point out all the points of interest for you, as well as pathfinding assistance that does the navigation for you. You can wind up feeling a little more like a tourist than an adventurer.
Last is simply an issue of homogeneity. When Metal Gear, Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls all share a lot of the same ideas, it just feels like, well, more of the same. And now Zelda was going to be more of the same, so getting my hands on Breath of the Wild wasn’t a priority.
And when I finally started playing the thing, it had to overcome some scepticism in its early hours. It did that in an unexpected way: by using a game idea I’ve held in my head for a while.
My idea was that a game would begin in a manner similar to Myst: the player would find themselves in an isolated area, alone, without any idea as to what’s going on. After a couple of hours or so, the player would find a way to escape the starting location, and in doing so would discover the actual plot of the game, would meet other characters, and go on a bigger adventure.
This is almost exactly what Breath of the Wild does. Our ever reliable hero, Link, wakes up in the middle of nowhere with virtually no fanfare or any explanation as to what’s going on. There’s a total of one (not very informative) npc and no clear long-term goal. After a couple of hours messing around in this little starting area, you get a big exposition dump about the backstory and what you really should be doing, and then you’re off (and even after that happens, it takes a while for you to reach any semblance of civilization). It was really cool to see that idea suddenly materialize in an actual game, and so I was pulled in.
But also it turned out that “Zelda is now Open World” doesn’t completely capture what Breath of the Wild is going for here. It’s not just that the developers have played Skyrim; you see bits and pieces of a lot of 21st century video game darlings floating around – a little bit of Shadow of the Colossus here, a little bit of Portal there. It feels a little bit like BOTW is trying to sum up post-Ocarina gameplay.
This dovetails with the story. The closest building to the starting location turns out to seemingly be the ruins of Ocarina’s Temple of Time. It receives no notice except an NPC telling you that this was once the centre of Hyrule’s civilization. And then you find out that most of BOTW’s plot has already happened, and what you’re playing is just the distant finale, the endgame before you tackle the final boss. In the lore of this game, the franchise’s central Link-Zelda-Ganon conflict is already well known; it’s already happened countless times in ages past.
BOTW is very much a game about realizing that the glory days are behind you, both in the game’s story, and in how it approaches the references to franchise’s own legacy like a collection of museum pieces, rather than in a nostalgic manner; and in how the gameplay tips its hat to the other games and franchises that have built upon the Ocarina formula. That last point may be ascribing a little too much meta to the game design, but it’s how I felt, playing it. It’s all history, now, and there’s no magical time traveling back.
It’s a very autumnal, melancholy game. I know that this won’t be the case, that Nintendo’s gonna keep on cranking out Zelda games for as long as they’re profitable, but if there’s ever an entry that feels like a final one, like a Zelda Gotterdammerung, this is it.
To my surprise, I wound up really liking the story a lot for these reasons. I have an inkling that it would come across as tedious if it were presented in a more straightforward, Ocarina-esque fashion, but as it is, it has a unique tonality to it.
When it comes to the actual open world stuff, BOTW actually ameliorates a lot of my complaints about the genre. Rather than treat its world as a large backdrop for a lot of small tasks to be carried out, the world is, in a sense, the task. As everyone has pointed out ad infinitum, you can go anywhere and climb just about anything in the world, provided you have some plan for dealing with the different environmental hazards you face. The main quest is linear at first, but the structure quickly falls out, becoming a handful of things you can tackle as you like, and the maps you get only provide you with the topographical information of a particular region. Finding things of interest is entirely based on observation and exploration, and the world has been carefully designed to make going from point A to point B as interesting as possible. This is, indeed, an open world where you are an adventurer rather than a tourist.
It’s also a world where there’s more geography than anything else; towns and npcs are few and far apart, and it’s possible to go for stretches without even bumping into an enemy. For a good amount of the time, BOTW is content to be Nature Hiking Simulator. I can see someone finding that a bit dull, but I found it restful, and added to the tone of melancholy solitude that the game was going for.
All that said, the game does commit the open world sin of giving you busywork: a lot of the sidequests are boring, rote variations on the typical, “bring my X amount of Y item!” or “kill this monster for me!” trash. But the game provides a handy way of separating the wheat from the chaff that I’ll get to in a moment.
BOTW is a game where common sense trumps abstract video game logic. It’s not just that there’s one particular object that conducts electricity; anything metal conducts electricity. If something on fire comes into contact with dry grass, the fire will spread quickly. Jumping into freezing water will probably kill you. And so on. When tackling any given task, if there’s something that should logically work, it typically will, even if it isn’t the “correct” way that the game wants you to use. This is extraordinarily fun, and even redeems some of the more annoying moments (although it can at times backfire in some unfortunate ways: hope you’re not doing anything fire-related when it starts raining!). Even late into my playthrough I was still discovering various side-effects of Link’s abilities and arsenal.
On that note, you get virtually all of Link’s critical abilities at the very beginning of the game, so it’s never the case that you arrive at an area and realize that you need to come back later once you’ve found the hookshot or whatever other item you need to overcome its obstacles (you may not have the protective equipment you need to stay safe, but that can still be worked around). This, combined with the common sense stuff, invites a very improvisatory approach to tackling the world.
The one area where BOTW really kinda drops the ball is with the dungeon design. Though I’m not sure if that phrase gets it right – it’s just obvious that dungeons were an afterthought here. There’s nothing here equivalent to Ocarina’s Forest Temple, or Majora’s Stone Tower Temple, where you have an intricate, atmospheric indoor area to explore and solve.
Instead you get the four Divine Beasts, giant mecha animals that each have a specific quest associated with them. That quest always has the same three part structure: first there’s some task you have to do in preparation; then, you have an action sequence where you approach the Divine Beast; lastly, you go inside and fix it. The interior of the Divine Beasts is the most dungeon-esque element, with puzzles to solve and a boss to defeat, but they’re all very short and very samey in terms of what you’re doing (just activate a few nodes scattered within). They wind up feeling more like a climax to that particular quest than a dungeon in their own right.
I think this alone is enough to prevent BOTW from being the definitive Zelda title. Dungeons are so essential to Zelda’s identity that seeing them get the short shrift here feels disappointing.
Of course, scattered throughout the world are 120 shrines that act as mini dungeons. Many of the shrines are just out in the open, but a lot of them are hidden behind side quests, and it’s these ones that are usually worthwhile, as it’s rewarding to use hints and clues to unlock a hidden secret. A lot of these consist of Portal-esque physics puzzles. They’re not all made equal: some of them are enjoyable little brain teasers, while others are insultingly easy. Then there are the combat focused ones, which are fine in theory, but a little lame in practice: you always fight the same enemy, with the only variation being that sometimes he’s bigger and other times smaller. I did find that they added some necessary variety to the gameplay, and they’re overall more interesting than the Divine Beasts, but they still felt like a substitute for having Zelda dungeons, rather than the real thing.
BOTW is accidentally a very Final Fantasy-ish game. It takes heavy aesthetic inspiration from Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Laputa. That, combined with the very low key plot makes the world feel rather akin to Final Fantasy’s very early days. And Ganon this time around is a lot more abstract, more closer to an FF style manifestation of pure evil than to the conniving villain of other games. It actually wound up scratching that classic FF itch more than the recent FF entries have.
I wasn’t expecting to like the music as much as I did: for most of the time it’s rather impressionistic and fragmentary, sounding a lot like Debussy’s piano Preludes, but that makes it so that when an actual melody soars up, it really strikes you. A lot of the classic Zelda tunes are hidden away, but occasionally you hear evocative pieces of them and get goosebumps.
It’s hard to tell now where BOTW will sit with me. I suspect that a lot of it will hinge on the possibility of a second playthrough: will this be the sort of big game that becomes even more fun when you return to it with greater knowledge and experience, or the sort where it just becomes more tedious to to the same things over again? At least with its sheer quantity, I feel like it’s already made up for my missing out on a couple generations’ worth of Zelda titles.