First Impressions – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U) – An Open-World Critic’s Take

I have always been critical of open-world games, but one of my favorite franchises has gone in that direction now, so I’ve tried this game despite my misgivings. Perhaps I should have held this back until or unless I finish the game, for a review, as a lot of this is probably stuff I would like to say there, but I want to write this now, so I’m posting it. I’m sure there would be more to say for a review anyway, or I could just reference this and add to it.

INTRODUCTION

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or BotW, is the latest Zelda game. It released only a few months ago, and because I got a Wii U earlier this year I am able to play it. After some indecision because of the games’ genre I bought the game a few weeks ago. I am still early in it, but I have played enough to write up my initial thoughts on the game so I have done so.

To describe where I am in the game, after getting the game I explored this plateau area that you start on and, a little while later, finished that section of the game and got off of there into the main overworld. Then I went south towards the tower south of the start point, then stopped playing partway there after dying a bunch. I got back to the game over a week later, and have been more consistently playing it since. I got to that tower in the south area, found a stables and a horse, found and did a few shrines (I will describe these later, for anyone who has not played the game), then started heading towards the next story point, to find Impa. I got up the tower in that area and did a few shrines there along the way and then stopped. Later I got to Impa’s town, and have done a few more shrines as I go east from there. So yeah, I’m early but I do think I get the idea of the game.

So, what do I think? Well, there are some things about this game I like, but also others I dislike. My main issue with the game is its genre: I have never liked open-world games. I love the Zelda franchise, it is one of my favorites for its fantastic gameplay, but I strongly prefer a more directed experience over a more open-ended one. I definitely do not think that just by making a games’ world bigger, you make it better. And that is a big problem because BotW is an open-world game first, and a Zelda game… sometimes. There is fun to be had here, but there is also a lot of tedium.

CONTROLS

First though, I would like to discuss the controls. Zelda games always have great controls and for the most part that is still true here, but I do have a few issues with it that can be annoying. With the face buttons you can move with the left stick, quick-switch weapons, shields, or special items with the d-pad, and attack and jump with the face buttons. Jumping is now entirely manual, the opposite of the auto-jumping of all 3d Zelda games since Ocarina of Time. I really like that they added a jump button, but getting used to the fact that you won’t auto-jump at platform edges anymore takes some getting used to and makes the game harder than its predecessors. On the shoulder buttons you block, shoot arrows, and use your special abilities. Combat is simplified versus the last few 3d Zelda games, as I will explain later; this is perhaps an issue. The game also has a weapon durability system, and it is another huge issue with this game; you will often need multiple weapons per fight! Additionally, for me personally, I’ve always hated dual shoulder buttons on controllers, and keep hitting the wrong ones when trying to do the thing for the other button… bah. The game also has an endurance system that I will get to soon. There are also a lot of on-screen indicators, all quite useful.

Much worse, though, while the game was originally designed around the Wii U Gamepad, with a map and inventory on the Gamepad just like the Wii U versions of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD. However, in order to foolishly make the Wii U and Nintendo Switch versions of the game as identical as possible those features were completely removed. This is kind of a tragedy and leaves the game feeling kind of incomplete for a Wii U title. If they had to remove some more advanced gamepad functions that is possibly understandable, but there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to remove the basic map and inventory features that should be on the gamepad. Even just putting the map on the bottom screen would have been fantastic and there is NO excuse not to do it! “We must make the two versions identical” makes no sense when they are not the same console, and this really does hurt the game.

More positively, since the Switch does at least have a tilt sensor in its controllers at least the tilt-based motion control elements remain, though they work the same as they do in Wind Waker HD, which means that you can only use motion aiming some of the time. I wish that there was an option to look around with the tilt controls all of the time (as in Splatoon), I’d use it! For looking up and down particularly, motion works a lot better than an analog stick. Instead, much like the Wii U version of Wind Waker, you need to use the first-person view to use motion, or the items (bombs, icemaking item, magnet, and such). Why limit motion to only certain items and not just let people use it? It doesn’t make much sense, and you’d think that given that this is the third Wii U main Zelda game like this (I presume, if TP HD is the same) they’d have improved on the aiming. Ah well.

ENDURANCE AND DIFFICULTY

Except for swimming in Wind Waker I don’t believe a Zelda game has had an endurance system before, but this has it and it is central to the game. You can swim and can climb almost any surface, but all of that burns stamina, and your stamina meter will run out quickly early in the game. The problem is, if you run out of stamina while swimming you die. If you run out of stamina while climbing you fall, and will die if you fall too far. There is also a similar cold system, as you will slowly freeze and then die if you go into a cold area without equipment that blocks the cold or food items which give you temporary cold immunity. No Zelda game has done any this before — in the past, if you fall into deep water or a pit for example you’d just respawn near the edge and maybe take a little bit of damage. Here, though, you die. Fortunately the game does let you save when you want and also autosaves regularly, but these don’t pick up right from where you left off, but go back to the last invisible checkpoint, and you will lose the progress you’ve made since then. Dying is not punished much here, but there is just enough of a punishment for it to sometimes be more frustrating than nicely tense.

Indeed, whether it is from running out of stamina or being killed by the also-challenging enemies BotW is a tough game. It does supposedly get easier much later on as you power up, but until you get to that point it’s a hard game and I have died often. In this way the game is very different from previous 3d Zelda games, and gets back to more of the challenge level of a classic 2d Zelda. The challenge comes from several places. One is the stamina system mentioned above. Second, though, is the next subject, the open-world nature of this game. Since Morrowind the Elder Scrolls series has handled damage by scaling the enemy difficulty, so that enemies everywhere differ in challenge relative to your level. This game doesn’t seem to do that, though, and you can go just about anywhere right from the start, so it is very, very easy to get into hard fights from early on. Enemies do a lot of damage, and I’m finding a lot of enemies who kill me in one hit. As much as I dislike scaled enemies, and I do, this is pretty frustrating for different reasons. It is no fun to die constantly because enemies, even those along the main path, can kill me in one hit.

Breath of the Wild makes some major changes to traditional Zelda progression, in that you have only four key items this time, and you get all of them at the beginning. Even so, this game does have progression. There isn’t a levelling system, but as you beat Shrines you get orbs, and for four orbs you can upgrade your stamina meter or get another heart added to your health. You can also buy clothing from some shops which give you bonuses. Food items, weapons, bows, and shields will come and go thanks to the weapon durability system, but these bonuses are more permanent. With how hard the enemies hit, and with how fast your stamina meter depletes, finding shrines to upgrade both of those is important.

THE GAMEPLAY AND ON EXPLORATION

Now, on to the gameplay and its core focus, open-world exploration. Breath of the Wild is a huge game with a large world to explore, and while there are other things to do, the focus is on wandering around that world. I’ve never liked this genre though as I said above, and I don’t love this game either; they’re too open-ended to hold my interest. Open-world games feel unfocused and usually lose me very quickly. First, I don’t like having to make choices if I don’t have to, and these games are all about choice. And second, the concept often seems to be “more space” instead of “better gameplay”; just letting you climb all the hills doesn’t make the whole game better, it just means you can do the same three things in more places… except because the designers had to spend so much time making the huge world, it is very likely that you won’t have encounters along the way that are nearly as carefully designed as you would in a more linear title. In this game for instance the amount of terrain is vast, but the enemy variety is quite limited. So, you will fight the same enemies, in slightly altered ways, over and over as you explore. And because you can go almost anywhere right from the start since traditional Zelda progression has mostly been abandoned here, the difficulty progression is uneven since the world is not all scaled to your ability and you can, and will, wander into hard areas all the time. I would rather see a more traditional sequence of events, as you start from easy areas and move up to harder ones as you go. This also allows for much more interesting puzzle elements in the world than you will find in any open-world game; compare Skyward Sword’s overworld to this one to see that contrast in full. SS’s overworld may be a bit too puzzle-dense, but this was not the solution. While some elements of the controls are similar, the core gameplay of BotW is totally different from any Zelda before. I knew it would be of course, and I am having some fun wandering around, finding shrines, and fighting the badguys, but it’s hard to not compare this to other Zelda games and find it wanting.

While this game is mostly a traditonal open-world game with a slight Zelda flair, Breath of the Wild does do a few new things, such as in its map system. You can bring up the map with a button. Much like how Ubisoft apparently does things, though I’ve never played any of Ubisoft’s open-world games, the map does not fill in as you explore. Instead, the map is broken up into districts. Each district has a large, easy-to-find tower somewhere in it, and once you climb that tower up to the top that whole district’s map will be revealed. On the map, shrines (these are puzzle-rooms scattered around the world), towers, and stables are automatically marked, but that’s it. In an Ubisoft game the map would be loaded with symbols for all kinds of things, but here you can mark the rest of that stuff yourself, if you wish. I like maps a lot, so this is great. There are limits though: there are only maybe twelve icons you can use, you can only put 100 icons total on a large world map that can take far more than that, you can only place icons in one color, yellow, and you cannot write text on the map. These limitations are unfortunate, but even so this is a pretty good map system, one of the best in the Zelda franchise. It is also probably a better solution than those done previously in the open-world action/adventure game genre. Now, BotW’s world is huge, but empty; it takes forever to get from point to point! Fortunately the game does have a pretty good quick-travel system, as from the map you can instantly travel to any tower or shrine that you have reached. Even so, getting from place to place takes a long time. There is a sense of adventure here, but I prefer the world size of a standard Zelda game over this.

One more huge change from past 3d Zelda games is that you get a lot less help this time. Nintendo has long wanted to help players out, to make sure that they know how to play the game and have a good chance of getting through it, but this game leaves more things up to the player, for good or ill. So, despite the large open world, there isn’t a helper character traveling around with you in BotW, telling you what to do and where to go. Some people love this about the game, but I’m fine with those characters myself and think that they are usually helpful; you need something to help you navigate a game! This game has some things to help you do that, but not a dedicated helper character. But because of that design, people have compared BotW to the original Zelda for the NES. There is some truth to that. However, while I like the original Zelda game, between its high difficulty and too-open design, it is far from my favorite Zelda game. It isn’t even my favorite Zelda-ish game on the NES, in fact; StarTropics is, because I prefer its linear style and absence of annoying randomly hidden stuff you need to find like the NES Zelda games do.

But while it may hearken back to NES games, fortunately BotW does have far more there to help you figure out what to do than the original Zelda does. There is an indicator which helps you find nearby shrines, which is incredibly helpful as while some shrines are easy to find others are hidden away; there are quest markers on the map telling you where to go for quests; you can place indicators when in the first-person view that add a marker on your map at the point that you mark, which is pretty great; those towers (that you go up to reveal the map) are large and easy to see from a long distance; and more. I know I’m still relatively early in this long game, but I haven’t gotten lost yet. I will say though, this game does demand more from the player than a Zelda game has in quite a while, and this surely has driven some people away early on; this is exactly why helper characters were invented in the first place. On the Plateau for example, there are pretty much no hints at all about how to survive in the cold area! In order to survive there you need to figure out how to cook those cold-resistant herbs into something which gives you longer-term cold resistance pretty much, just eating them one at a time won’t last long. And then if you happen to go to the right place (as I fortunately did) you get that cold-resistant outfit at the top of a mountain there, making that whole effort kind of pointless… hmm, it was satisfying once I figured it out, but from a design standpoint I’m not sure what I think of that. There should be more help there than they give you for things like that.

Now, some people say that in open-world games you should not try to follow the games’ main quest path, but instead should wander around, explore, and see what you can find. That may be how these games are designed, but that is close to the opposite of how I usually do anything. There are a lot of things to see on the map, though I imagine most are just the usual slight rehashes of the same stuff, and it is probably true that you’ll need to go off the main paths to find them. And even if a lot of those areas and encounters are very similar I won’t say that there’s nothing to that kind of exploration, because seeing interesting places in games can be pretty cool. I have quite liked finding some nice vistas and such in Guild Wars, for example.

However, I just would not want to randomly wander in order to find those places, that is not how I do things. I of course don’t just randomly wander! It’s pointless, or worse, boring — think of grinding in RPGs, which is similar in that your only objective is “level up” and not “get to a specific place”. Either in games or in real life, if I’m going somewhere (in a game, for a walk, what have you) I want to know where I’m going before I start out. If you had to explore to reveal the map that would be a pretty big thing pushing me to explore (and yes I wish this game did that, video above or no), but since it gives you each area’s map all at once all, what I have done so far after getting off the plateau are going towards either a tower or the next quest marker, while following shrine-sensor pings along the way when it goes off since those can be fun. That works. Maybe at some point I’ll try going to other map points though. As for on the plateau, there I just had to explore it, but it’s small enough that that’s quite reasonable.

But overall, the sheer size of the world already has gotten me kind of bored sometimes because of how spread out everything is. And saying that yet again is not nearly as repetitive as running across the world in an open-world game is!

COMBAT AND PUZZLES, AND OPEN-WORLD DESIGN

I discussed the basics of the combat system above, under Controls, but some elements of it require more discussion. These are side-effects of Breath of the Wild’s open-world nature; on the one hand this is an open-world game, but on the other hand Nintendo did want at least SOME of that classic Zelda gameplay style to be somewhere in this game. But to make a world large you need to make compromises elsewhere, and that is as true here as anywhere.

For whatever reason, but possibly because making a large world is difficult, BotW has a relatively limited number of enemy types; you see the same few enemies a lot. I referenced this earlier, with how a more linear game — like all past 3d Zelda games — has a constantly changing set of enemies and experiences to see as you progress through the game. This game has constantly changing scenery to explore through and a lot of things to find, and has a lot of different weapon types to pick up and attack enemies with, but not only will you be fighting the same enemies often, the way you do it is in some ways more limited than it was previously. Combat has been simplified in comparison to the last three 3d Zelda games, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword. In some ways it is perhaps even simpler than the Nintendo 64 games were, in fact. Basically, you seem to be able to swing around weapons at whoever is in front of you, use your bow or bombs, lock on to targets and circle-strafe them, and that’s about it. The game has fewer items and fewer combat moves than past titles, it’s not even close. As I dislike QTEs I have always had mixed feelings for the almost QTE-like “press A for a jump attack” moves of the Gamecube games, but entirely removing those moves from the game was probably not the right solution. Sure you have more weapons in this game than ever before in a Zelda game, but all any of them do is basic swing and poke attacks.

There is one big addition, though, and that is a physics engine. It allows you to do some amusing things, including rolling rocks down hills, starting small fires, blowing things up, and more. I’ve only seen a little of this myself, but having seen more online, yes, you can do some cool things… but that is not a full replacement for the more complex combat of before. And anyway, like usual with open-world games, that results in a lot of scenarios drawing from that same limited playbook. I’d much rather have fewer but more carefully designed encounters and physics puzzles that are each more interesting and fun, versus more things that all blend together because there are so many of them and many are not as special. The different environments do change things up, and I’m not far enough in to the game for combat to feel repetitive yet, and I know that there are some monsters which require different strategies such as the Guardians, giant rock monsters, etc… but still, while this game is good, it’s not a design style I’ll ever like as much as a conventional Zelda game like OoT or TP.

On that note, while there are a lot of reasons why Zelda is one of my favorite videogame franchises, including the action, puzzles, exploration, and more, puzzles are a huge part of why I love Zelda games, so I need to talk about the puzzle element of BotW. Where previous Zelda games have a series of puzzle-heavy dungeons to play through, BotW has a large open world, and they chose to make this open world just a world to explore, not a puzzle-filled one like the overworld of Skyward Sword. There are some hidden corners you will need to work your way to with your climbing and abilities, but for the most part this games’ puzzle elements come in the aforementioned shrines and in the games’ four dungeons, not in the overworld. I have not seen the dungeons yet, but they kind of sound like expanded shrines conceptually and apparently are sadly not on the scale of classic Zelda dungeons. As for the shrines, those I have played some of. Each of the 100-plus shrines is very small, and gives you one or two classic Zelda-style puzzles to solve, or one challenging boss-style enemy encounter to defeat. Either way these are always pretty fun stuff, and they make good use of your very limited selection of special abilities. I like the shrines, and if I actually stick with the game for a long time (which is unlikely?) could see wanting to find a lot of them; these are the part of the game that feels the most Zelda-like in the ways that I like Zelda games. But then they end after a couple of minutes and it’s back to the too-big-for-its-own-good overworld… ah well. Traditional Zelda dungeons are definitely better, they usually don’t leave me wanting more like BotW shrines do. They also don’t usually have much in the way of combat in them, which works with how short they are, but hurts them compared to past 3d Zeldas — the nine shrines I’ve gone through so far, all combined, would not be as great as the first dungeon of a traditional 3d Zelda, I think, though the puzzles (or fight, in one) in them are often pretty cool stuff.

ON ITEMS

Now, all through this article I have mentioned this games’ limited selection of key items. In all past Zelda games, you start with only a few abilities, but gain more as you go. You almost always get a new major item for each dungeon, and it helps you reach the place and also to complete it. This game is completely different, however. In BotW, you have only four main items, and you get all of them on the plateau at the start of the game. Beyond that you can have large inventories of food/potion items, weapons, shields, and bows, as well, which are all things you will be collecting and using or dropping all the time as you go along.

But first, the key items. They have two problems. First, there are only four of them, which is way too few. One is the old item, bombs, brought back again. The other three are more new, though, as they create ice platforms out of any water source, allow you to move around metal objects, and allow you to freeze certain items in time. It’s always great to see the new item ideas Nintendo comes up with, and these are some good ones. Why are there so few of them, though? These are interesting, but for a game this long I would have liked to see more. Now, some weapons are usable in interesting ways, to light things on fire, blow things around with bursts of air, and that’s great, but isn’t a full replacement. You also have a VERY limited inventory at the start; if there’s a way to expand that I badly need to do it, because the weapon inventory particularly is way too small. When you combine the tiny inventory with the constant need for new weapons because of the annoying weapon-durability system that requires you to constantly switch weapons while fighting because of how fragile everything is, it gets annoying fast.

The other issue is with the decision to give you all four of those items right at the start of the game. I understand the reason for doing this, as they want you to be able to explore the whole world right from after you leave the plateau, but I don’t like it. Previously, Zelda games always gave you items over time, usually one per dungeon. Nintendo first experimented with something different in A Link Between Worlds, but I didn’t like that design much at all; there you can only rent most of the items, and can do so in any order so there isn’t a clear progression from dungeon to dungeon as you usually expect in Zelda games, as they could not make dungeons assuming you had any items other than the one required for that area. Many Zelda games may make poor use of items from previous dungeons, but that goes too far. And anyway, I want to permanently get items, not just rent them! This game doesn’t do that, fortunately, but even so, allowing people to go anywhere in your game right at the start can be problematic, because one of the best ways to design a game is to have a steady increase in difficulty and, in a game like this, item selection as you move through a game. Allowing players to play levels in any order can work, as it does in Mega Man, but too often it leads to flat difficulty “curves” that bore players because the challenge almost never picks up, as in Knuckles Chaotix. Whether that flat curve is too easy or too hard, it’s not as good as a more traditional design which steadily increases as you go. Here, if anything, the game is apparently harder at the start than the end, because once powered up you are quite strong. That may be satisfying, but is it really good design?

Beyond the key items, BotW makes even bigger changes to the usual Zelda formulas with how it handles the rest of your inventory. First, all of your melee weapons, bows, and shields have that durability system added which means that they will break, CONSTANTLY. You also start with a very small amount of inventory space for weapons, which doesn’t help at all. This can be expanded, slowly, if you find the right semi-hidden items, but it is still a problem. Weapon durability in this game is ridiculously low to comical levels, and the mere feact that weapons are left all over does not make up for it. This has been one of the more criticized elements of this game, and it deserves it.

Less bad, though, is how BotW handles healing. Previously, some enemies, chests, pots, or what have you would drop hearts, and you would heal if you pick them up. Alternately, faries can fully heal you if you die. Some games also allow you to buy limited-used healing potions you can put in your inventory. This time, however, healing hearts are gone. Instead, you need to collect different types of foods and then eat or cook them. Fortunately they use their own separate inventory section, and you seem to be able to hold a lot of the stuff right from the start, unlike weapons. That is good. These foods come in two types, for food or for potions. Edible foods mostly come from collecting plants, killing wildlife creatures, and such. You can also make potions; these require you to mix bugs, frogs, and such with body parts that you get from killing enemies.

So yes, Zelda has a crafting system now. For either, you can either eat the raw items and get a limited amount of healing, or find cooking pots that are scattered around at certain points in the world and cook together ingredients there to make meals or potions. If you put together ingredients that form a good recipe you get that item, but if you don’t you get junk food that barely does anything. This is an okay idea, though I’ve always greatly disliked crafting. At least this crafting system is fairly simple and isn’t the main focus of the game, thank goodness. The big issue here is, there is no ingame recipe list at all, so either I’ve got to just not care much about what I make, try to memorize it all, or look up a list online. This is really bad game design with no excuse, you need an ingame recipe book in anything like this.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND

Finally, graphics and sound. As I said, the game looks great. For overall art style I do think that TP has the best art design ever in the franchise, but this game builds on the “cartoony but with a bit of realism” style of Skyward Sword, but probably because of the better hardware it looks even better than that game does. This is a really nice looking game. There are a lot of great vistas to see as you climb the mountains, forests to explore, lakes to be afraid of because of the stupid endurance system, and more. This is a very good looking game despite the somewhat dated hardware it is running on, and it runs pretty well.

Aurally, however, the game seriously lacks, as most of your adventure is done to just sound effects and environmental sounds! Previously the Zelda series always had some of the best soundtracks ever in gaming, but this one ditches that in favor of a very understated, minimalist soundtrack and a lot of environmental sounds from the things near you. This works I guess, and the sounds can be alright, but the overall audio presentation is mostly forgettable and average in ways Zelda music never has been before and that is very disappointing.

CONCLUSION

So overall, maybe ten or more hours in, Breath of the Wild is a good but flawed game that takes the Zelda series in a direction I wish it hadn’t. It was probably inevitable that Zelda would eventually succumb to the open-world tide, but while there definitely are things I like about this game and I will keep playing it, I, at least, wish that Nintendo had made another traditional 3d Zelda game. But with the rapturous reception this game received, will we ever see one of those again? That’s sad to think about… but we’ll see, I guess.

With this game, here’s the question I am thinking about above all others: if this was some other game, nearly identical to this one but not Zelda, would I be playing it? And if I was, would I stick with it? I’m leaning towards “maybe” and “probably not” as the answers to those questions. However, is that because of my just not giving it enough of a chance, because of my very longstanding bias against open-world games? … Maybe? Right now I don’t know.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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