Nearly three months after its release, I beat Breath of the Wild. I could have much sooner, but I really didn't want it to end.
In this post, which is nearly entirely spoilers, I wanted to discuss some of the things I wish the game did differently. Ultimately, my decision about the way the game works was set fairly early: Zelda games are about the thrill of exploration and feeling like you—vicariously, through Link—are the champion Hyrule needs. The freedom and openness and overwhelming insignificance that I felt very early on in Breath of the Wild were something I've never felt in any game before, and that instantly vaulted it to the top of my favorites list. With that said, no game is perfect and there are a few things that would have made it even better.
A few shrines—specifically Myahm Agana Shrine, Toto Sah Shrine and Katosa Aug Shrine—are just brutal. I'm not sure how these made it through testing. Many of the shrines felt like they had a cohesive goal that required thinking in addition to execution, but the motion-control puzzles in these just felt awful. Myahm Agana I solved by flipping the rotating maze on its side. After struggling with the Katosa Aug shrine in handheld mode (I literally was rolling across my bed trying to give the club enough torque) I used the Pro Controller and, lo and behold, it was much simpler that way. I'm not upset that some shrines are weaker than others, but for the difficulty to vary with the user's chosen control scheme on a console marketed for its ability to play anywhere is unacceptable.
Bullshit Patriarchal Story
I suspect that you, just like me, do not play the Zelda games for the story. They differ about as much as stories in the Mario series differ: Bowser / Gannon captures or otherwise incapacitates Peach / Zelda and Mario / Link has to come and save the day.
It feels stale and silly in both cases, but we're not talking about Mario today! We're discussing the fact that Link has to save Zelda yet again. Here's Jeremy Winslow writing for Feminist Frequency:
It’s not that she actually isn’t strong enough, but that she was designed to not be strong enough. Even after every denizen in the world states that Zelda is strong and has held off Ganon for 100 years without Link, the underlying issue remains that she needs to be rescued. Once again, without Link’s presence, the fate of Hyrule would be darkness and defeat, and Zelda, it seems, can never stop it, regardless of how strong she becomes.
I actually found that the story in this game was more compelling than in many of the series' titles, but still really weak. Specifically, I thought that the last two memories I found were #16 (Despair - photo 12) and #17 (Zelda's Awakening - Impa's Photo) really brought the story together and made me feel for Zelda and the futility of her efforts to save her Kingdom. To have faced the pressures she was facing and then for her frustration and anger to build up and release after it was too late for it to matter must have been agonizing, and Nintendo gets that across very well, I thought.
I just feel the game would have worked just as well if Zelda was in hiding... if Zelda was in a Tetra/Sheik-esque disguise helping you on your journey. If Zelda was waiting for you where your memories were, trying to help you to regain your memories and giving you words of encouragement on your way (and how much darker would the story have been if the stables were full of people groaning about how they just saw the princess running around the forest instead of actually doing something to make things better for them, her people?)
But here's what really gets me. Jeremy Winslow, again:
With Breath of the Wild, it’s apparent that Nintendo wanted to breathe bold new life into the gameplay of the series, and in that regard, the game is a tremendous success. But the dramatic shift in gameplay is linked to a narrative structure that refuses to shift in the slightest, a complete failure of storytelling imagination in a game otherwise brimming over with creative energy.
And they really did change so, so much about the game, but the story is just stuck in place. Why? Why does it have to be this way? Does Nintendo think that you wouldn't have felt as powerless against a daunting task in the early game, or as heroic to have completed it in the end, if the goal were slightly different than saving the princess?
Nintendo seems slow to change these things. They were content changing Zelda from 2D to 3D in the late 90s and then making the game more and more linear through Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword before finally changing things up... And that's their wheelhouse! They're much slower than that when it comes to social issues, which is disappointing, and Nintendo still doesn't clearly get it (remember Linkle?)
Also, it sucks that Nintendo can make a powerful race of women warriors in the Gerudo, and then make link crossdress to get into town. 2017 to Tokyo: get with it.
Me, The Player
This is, of course, not a real complaint. Nintendo broke so many conventions in this game that it's hard to keep track of them. For friends of mine who aren't familiar but see me play for a few minutes or watch short videos I sent, it's astonishing how many conventions the game introduced to the series: multiple weapons/weapon classes, durability, jumping, gliding (Korok Leaf in Wind Waker notwithstanding), food (apples, meat, etc.) and cooking, climbing, stealth (save for isolated incidents like barrels in Wind Waker), temperature and surely some I've forgotten.
So, one night I was lamenting to a friend how hard it was to find wood for the Tarrytown quest because I was going to all these stables and could only find 1-3 at a time. She said "You can just make it yourself. Chop down a tree, then chop the log."
MIND. BLOWN... I mean, how was I supposed to know that you chopped down trees to get wood?
Obviously, in the real world, that's how it works. But many a Zelda game has engrained in me finding materials, not making them. And weapon durability in this game had engrained in me that chopping trees broke weapons faster than not chopping them... so I just never chopped trees down after the first one or two on the Great Plateau. BotW rewards experimentation and this is something me, the player, is still not totally used to.
Distinctness in an Open-Air World
Okay, this one will take a bit to explain, and I'm not sure I love this title for it, but... I'm curious to know how Nintendo arrived at the size of Ruined Hyrule.
I'm almost certain that Nintendo did not set out from the start to create a world map larger than Skyrim for instance. I do think that distinct features of the map like shrines, quests and other POIs (the Colosseum, for instance) were developed independently and then combined to create the map you see today, and I think that's a bit of a bummer.
Let's take a look at some snippets of the game, sorted by scope, from largest to smallest.
Side Quest: From The Ground Up
The Tarrytown quest is one of the game's best. Without getting into too much detail, this quest requires you to travel from the questgiver to an unmarked spot multiple zones away, collect 100 wood total, travel to Southern Goron Mines, Rito Village, Gerudo Town and Zora's Domain—and none of those locations are specified, but you can deduce them—then back to the questgiver. It takes place in 40% of the game's zones and rewards you for being observant and talking to NPCs throughout your adventure and remembering what they had to say.
Main Quest: Divine Beast Vah Rudania
Vah Rudania's Main Quest is an example, since the other Divine Beast quests work similarly, but these take place across one zone and give you the lay-of-the-land before you take on the Divine Beast. They thoroughly immerse you in a zones' lore and unique environment and introduce you to relevant minor characters.
Shrine Quest: A Fragmented Monument
Unlocking Kah Yah Shrine is a small fetch-quest on Palmorae Beach in the Southeastern corner of the map. The entirety of the quest happens on Palmorae Beach and the nearby Cape Cresia.
Note that many Shrine quests are about this size. The Three Giant Brothers requires you to kill three Hinoxes in their own semi-private arenas in close proximity to each other. The Stolen Heirloom takes place entirely in Kakiriko Village. Trial of Thunder, which requires you to place colored orbs at the base of their respective statues, takes place entirely on and around Thundra Plateau.
Shrines are totally self contained puzzles, regardless of size; those are the smallest and obviously totally self contained, so... There are two things that bug me here:
Very few quests in the game take place across zones
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but they're more fetch-quest-like than anything else. For instance, snapping photos of three leviathan skeletons for the brothers at Serenne Stable requires some long-term planning and exploration. The Eighth Heroine, given just outside Gerudo Town, rewards you for exploring Gerudo Highlands (and again if you explore Gerudo Highlands... again). The Serpent's Jaw, given by Kass, requires traversal of a dangerous forest and then chasing down Farosh (who patrols Ruined Hyrule) before returning to the Serpent's Jaw.
Very few quests overlap
- A Fragmented Monument: Nothing is really going on on Palmorae Beach / Cape Cresia, other than a few enemies / some wildlife to keep things interesting.
- The Three Giant Brothers: The Hinox arenas are secluded from most everything else on the map other than some bokoblins and wildlife.
- The Stolen Heirloom: Kakiriko Village is bursting with quests and shops, but I wouldn't call this quest overlap since... it's a town.
- Trial of Thunder: Nothing else is happening on or around Thundra Plateau other than some enemies and wildlife.
So... notice a trend?
It's this second item, that quests don't overlap, which really irks me. It feels like hand holding from a game that otherwise seems to go to great lengths not to hold your hand. I'd love to have my opinion of this changed, but it seems to be that Nintendo developed these quests and the land they exist on as units, and then placed them on the map where ever there was room. Obviously, you couldn't put Thyphlo Ruins just anywhere on the map, but it could exist as an island off the edge of the Mainland (like Eventide Island), which would result in a smaller Ruined Hyrule overall.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting Nintendo artificially inflated the map size, or that I'm not excited about all the land there is to explore. Rather, I think the map's size is residue from Nintendo's first crack at developing a map this size and some of Nintendo's legendary map design is missing from the resulting world. I think Nintendo's focus was more on creating interesting topography and the like, and that a future game with this engine and with the knowledge learned from BotW under their belt would have a much better designed world.
I think a strength of the game is having the ability to complete a number of things at a time, and to slowly accomplish some smaller goals while working towards more overarching ones: I'd love to collect some more Yellow Lizalfo tails to upgrade my rubber armor. I'll look for those while finding the Yiga clan. Oh, and that guy at Gerudo Canyon Stable wanted me to find Rushrooms for him, and I see some over there... and... Why not let quests lead you to other quests? Why are so many shrines and quests in distinct spots, rather than being jumbled up? I'm not sure, but I'd love to know.
I think the non-linearity of the game is one of it's biggest strengths, and the Shrines' ability to be completed in any order with just your runes) is wonderful, but... the Divine Beasts as this game's Dungeons proper really suffer because of it.
Overall, I loved the epic, often cinematic lead-ups to each Divine Beast. Getting to know the Zora, Goron, Rito and Gerudo peoples, their respective Champions through flashbacks, their zones through "prove-your-mettle" quests and partaking in epic final trials to unlock each dungeon were all terrific. It's unfortunate that the worst of these was a stealth mission with a slow and dopey partner in Yunobo, and the other three were nearly identical archery sessions, but I digress...
Something that did bother me was the linearity of these sections. Breath of the Wild shines because of how freely it lets you make decisions about how you spend your time, which is why nearly two hours of approaching Zora's Domain without a Shrine to save progress / teleport out felt so linear. See also the time spent running to the Yiga clan. See also the time spent climbing Eldin Volcano with Yunobo, where if you try to teleport out you lose all progress and get a "Leave this Area" screen. Oh, please! These sections of the game felt claustrophobic and less fun because of how they required you to either stay focused on one task for a few hours, or lose your progress and start over, which is a damned shame.
The Dungeons felt eerily empty, with a few enemies there for... some reason? I guess to convey how truly evil they were? But I'm not sure those few enemies added much to the Divine Beasts. It seems the difficulty was kept super-low regardless of how far through the game you were, but that strikes me as the wrong way to go about doing it. I feel Nintendo should have modified the intensity / quantity of enemies depending on how many hearts you have or how many other Divine Beasts you've conquered. In this way, the dungeons could have been intimidating sparring grounds with Guardian Scouts, Lynels or even Decayed Guardians / Guardian Turrets.
I also cheesed Vah Naboris by using Revali's Gale to ascend into its humps, which strikes me as ridiculous: why are Champion Abilities even usable inside Divine Beasts? They should be disabled inside / on the beast and re-enabled when you activate the main control unit for the boss fight. If you need Daruk's Protection, Mipha's Grace or Urbosa's Fury during the Divine Beasts, you're doing something wrong. If you need or benefit from using Revali's Gale, as I did, then I don't think the puzzles were designed very well in the first place.
And then... You can't revisit the dungeons. Is there any reason for this? Would it have been so bad if the Divine Beasts hung out where you found them until you began to fight Ganon, at which point all of the beasts would assume their positions and fire their lasers? That seems like it fits the story, wouldn't get in the way of the rest of the game, and wouldn't have this awkward, final, you can never come back here message the game presents you with.
I found the fight against Calamity Ganon easy—far easier than the Lynels that dot the landscape—and the fight against Dark Beast Ganon comically cheesy... but part of that is because Nintendo Rewarded me for playing the game "correctly". You see, to complete the Divine Beasts, you need to defeat Ganon's elemental phantom constructs which he summoned 100 years ago. These bosses, Waterblight, Fireblight, Windblight and Thunderblight Ganon, once defeated, pave the way for the Champions to aim their Divine Beasts at Hyrule Castle.
What you may not know if you completed all four Divine Beasts is that any ____blight Ganons you didn't defeat in the Divine Beasts will be waiting for you in Hyrule Castle before you fight Calamity Ganon. So, for defeating the Divine Beasts Nintendo makes the end of the game easier because you can save all your hearts—and you've got four more hearts for completing the Divine Beasts— for Ganon himself, right?
Sure, but they also cut Ganon's health in half, right in front of your eyes. This is, I think, more a problem with messaging than anything else. Showing Ganon's health get zapped feels like the game is robbing you from a joyous, momentous battle that I only lost a few hearts during. Why not hit him with the laser beam and show, maybe, some of his non-vital limbs fall off? Why not make him take more damage (show him dripping malice or something) but not lose any health (so that his health was effectively reduced from, for instance, 1000/1000 to 500/500 instead of 500/1000).
Dark Beast Ganon was literally target practice on a mostly immobile object that shot a laser beam that never came close to hitting me. It felt like such an anticlimactic ending. Skyward Sword ended with a swordfight against Demise. Twilight Princess ended with riding a horse around as well (not that game's finest moment). Wind Waker—which featured, for my money, the finest ending of the recent Zeldas—ended with Puppet Ganon and then a swordfight interspersed with deflecting Zelda arrows. Why couldn't we have had something like that, at least? Horseback combat is such an optional part of Breath of the Wild (relative to the forced segments in Twilight Princess) and ending the game on that note was a real let-down.
One More Thing
What's your reward for defeating Ganon? It's one itty-bitty star on your save file: ★
The game dumps you back on the main menu and sends you back into battle with a few differences: Your Hyrule Compendium is updated with photos you may have taken during the final fight, your map shows a completion percentage in the lower left hand corner and... your save file simply has a star to indicate that you've beaten the game.
That feels like such a strange and minuscule reward for completing such an epic adventure. Now, I understand that Nintendo has to do something and that this is in line with what they've done in previous games, but I've never cared before because I never wanted to go back and explore a Zelda game after I've beaten it before. I also know it'd be super weird to run around in a world inhabited with Bokoblins and Lynels and possessed Guardians, but not Ganon. I don't want to go back into the world and there's no danger there, either...
But at the same time, it would feel really rewarding to have key NPCs across the world congratulate you on your quest. I'd love to hear what Revali or Mipha had to say to Link after they finished their mission, 100 years later. I'd love to talk to King Rhoam again. Robbie and Kilton would surely have hilarious things to say when you told them about what you'd seen in the castle. Would it be that crazy or story-breaking to have a Ganon-less castle, with the evil still existing in the rest of the world? Maybe the "reward" could be a little stranger and more mysterious, like all the malice being scrubbed from Ruined Hyrule as a first sign that it would soon be restored to its former glory. I just wish such an epic adventure did a little more to make the destination feel as magical as the journey.
Some of these gripes are as long (in terms of number of words) as those above, but I see them as far less crucial issues with the game.
Draw distance has wasted time or left me unprepared for serious battles a few times. The first time I saw East Lomei Labyrinth (NE corner of the map, in Akkala) I had < 10 hearts (so no Master Sword) and had never killed a Guardian. So, imagine my surprise when, midway between the Akkala mainland and the Labyrinth, Flying Guardians appeared over the Labyrinth and a Guardian Stalker popped-in in the center. There are also a number of instances of tiny fishing outposts—you know the ones, with some wooden planks arranged in a circle, held up by some massive fish bones—which might have something interesting, but might not. When they have no enemies on them from the vantage points at which you can often see them, it makes deciding to investigate a bit tricky.
Completing the Hyrule Compendium (which is by no means mandatory, but still...) requires many photos that can only be taken once: Each of the Dungeon Bosses, The Master Sword (not once, but not possible once you obtain it), etc. I'm not sure what the solution to this is, because reentering dungeons (see above) still wouldn't help you fight the bosses again. Perhaps an option in the Sheikah Slate to visit a "memory" of previously slain bosses would have let you fight them again?
Pacing and Discoverability in a Vast World
I found the pacing of the game pretty good in general, but I felt that I went from being terrified of Guardians to confidently slaying them in no time. At the start, being targeted by a Guardian felt like a death warrant: if you couldn't line of sight the thing, you were toast, and forget about Stalkers entirely. It was only after I had the Master Sword that I felt comfortable taking them out on my own. I may have missed some NPC who advised you to do this or something, but I wish I knew about parrying guardian beams sooner in the game. It requires good enough timing that I still wouldn't seek them out, but would have given me half a chance a number times in game when I felt I had none. Defeating Guardians with a Pot Lid is possible from the start of the game if you have good timing and know that you can:
Switch Control Schemes
I played the Switch version of the game and felt that it would have been great to allow players to adjust the Motion Controls setting per controller type (a la Splatoon 2), so that the setting would allow different default behavior for the Tabletop, Handheld and TV Modes would be saved during play sessions. It's very difficult to use motion controls while the bus you're riding to work makes a right-hand turn and Link compensates by turning 90º to the left.
Also, while on the topic of controls, pressing the Left Stick to crouch is something I still do inadvertently after 100+ hours of play. I wonder if that behavior should have been switched with either Whistle (D-Pad Down) or Switch Rune (D-Pad Up) since whistling would likely not cause any detriment during battle and the other would pause action in game until you undid it. Crouching mid-combat feels really bad and usually doesn't end well for poor Link.