Breath of the Wild Rock Climb

My Problems with Breath of the Wild

I’m a Zelda fan; always have been, always will be.  Loving something is not just praise, but also communication and honesty.  So I have to talk.  I’ve played most Zelda games, and finished about eight of them.  It is my favorite series of video games.  So you can all imagine that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had me more excited than any other game in the series.  This was going to change everything.  After the tropey mechanical mess that was Skyward Sword, we were seeing a well-deliberated risk.  The second open-world game in the history of Zelda.  A game with survival aspects, voice acting, a visually stunning art style, high mobility, and the promise of distractions everywhere.

This was a rare day-one purchase for me.  It was my obsession for month of March 2017.  It was undeniably the most beautiful Hyrule, maybe the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen.  I completed the story, finished most of the side quests and all 120 shrines in the game, and obtained all the armor.  I played the game for 100 hours.  I wrote two articles outlining my first impressions.  Then nine months passed.  I took a lot of time away from the game to think about it.  Two DLCs for the game came out, which I’ll admit I still have not played.  After all that time, I wanted to write about it again.  To break down the experience in a critical manner.

Then I realized something.

I barely remembered it.

I entered something of a crisis.  I was honestly freaked out.  I watched Breath of the Wild win Game of the Year at the Game Awards.  I never saw a single review south of 9/10.  The most common adjectives to describe it were, “breathtaking,” “a perfect open world,” a “masterpiece.”  And I was in a sad position — I just didn’t agree.

DISCLAIMER — Breath of the Wild is not a bad game.  My personal experience is not as amazing as everyone else’s.  Just because the game is not perfect to me does not mean it is not excellent.  My goal is to air out my personal issues and describe what I would’ve changed.

Furthermore, this is not, I repeat, NOT intended to get attention.  My site is small, and I prefer it that way.  I don’t want to seem like some contrarian who’s trying to get clicks by angering the masses.  My opinions are my own, and I use this blog to publish them.

Hylia give me strength.

Shrines

Shrines are hard to talk about, because they’re not…bad.  You happen to find shrines around the overworld.  Some of them are in hard-to-reach locations, others require you to solve some kind of overworld puzzle to reach them.  The ones that require some kind of doing to reach are my favorites, and they usually have shrine quests.

There are 42 shrine quests in the game that make you fulfill some kind of quest to gain access to the shrine, where you get your reward right away.  For example, one shrine in the desert is blocked by a Gerudo who needs a cold drink.  This cold drink requires a special ice that needs to get from a storeroom to the bartender in town.  It takes all your tools to get the ice overland to where it needs to be, and it’s such a nutty quest that it stuck in my mind.

The thing is, these are kind of an exception.  You find the rest through exploration, and before you get the reward, you have to solve a puzzle specific to the shrine.  They actually use the mechanics of the game in clever ways.  The problem is that I remember 20 out of 120 shrines at most.  A lot of patterns are repeated.  Hell, 20 shrines are “tests of strength” that just require you to fight one of five different variations on a guardian robot.  At a certain point they actually made me angry.

The rewarding feeling of completing a puzzle is great, but it wears off quickly for two massive reasons.

1: The shrines all look the same, and have the same music.  2: They all have the same reward.

Here’s the intention with Spirit Orbs: they’re meant to be an incentive for progression by offering increases to strength and stamina by exploring the world and completing shrines.  That makes sense.  I understand what they were going for, but having the knowledge of what every single shrine is going to give you is frankly a drag.  When you lose the mystery of what a puzzle is going to give you, it gets hard to keep going back.  And although the satisfaction of completing a puzzle is the most important thing, after 100 times manipulating the same assets to obtain the same reward, it becomes hard for me to remember the specifics.  It would’ve been nice every so often to get a map to some rare treasure or piece of technology, or something unusual.

As far as aesthetics go, it would’ve helped if a few of the dozens of shrines had a different visual theme.  Anything to make me wonder if the next shrine I entered would be a different sight.  Seeing the same gray, flat walls, blue lights, and hearing the same spacey music honestly gets old after the hundredth time.

Granted, each shrine has a secondary reward: some kind of weapon or material that can be used in the overworld.  A few shrines give you parts of an armor set, which are exciting to get because 1) they last, and 2) they change how you interact with the world.  Weapons I have a problem with because, again, they all feel the same after a while.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left these shrine treasures behind because my inventory was full.  Beyond that, I became disaffected with the weapons because they break so damn fast.  I just grabbed whatever I found on my journey because no weapon was particularly more helpful than any other.  I lost interest in the secondary treasures about 60 shrines in, but that didn’t stop me from finding every one.  Most were left unopened.  I didn’t have use for 17 flame blades.

Dungeons

Shrines essentially replace true dungeons.  There are the four Divine Beasts, which are rather like five shrines combined, which end in a battle against a Blight Ganon.  The Divine Beasts are neat because you can physically manipulate each one in a different way to get where you need to be.  Personally, I think they should stay as they are.  They all look and play out the same, but this makes sense thematically and mechanically.

My issue is with the amount of shrines.  Now, let me use an analogy here with The Elder Scrolls.  I know I’m going to raise more than a few eyebrows comparing BotW to TES, but both are open-world RPGs with side-quests and mini-challenges.  More specifically I want to talk about the difference between Skyrim and Morrowind.  I’ve talked about this before.  I like both of these games, but I grew tired of Skyrim mini-dungeons for the same reason I grew tired of shrines.  There are hundreds of them all across the world, and while finding some through exploration is nice, eventually they feel like going through the motions.  They feel like filler.

I know it sounds absurd, but I think Breath of the Wild could’ve done with being a bit smaller.  Hear me out.  The expanse of the world is impressive, and the use of empty space is understandable, as described by Writing on Games.

I think BotW‘s use of space is better experienced in Pro mode, with the Shrine sensor off and without using the map to figure out where everything is.  The game has road signs and landmarks to guide you through the world without as much convenience.  Actually, I admit that I played through the game with these conveniences, so my criticism of the overworld is colored by them to a degree.

The thing is, a game like Morrowind (2003) had less space, so it placed its mini-dungeons (AKA ancestral tombs) in nooks and crannies around the world.  They weren’t hidden away, but there were about 90 across the whole world.  The game’s enemies don’t scale in strength to the player, so a given tomb might be easy, or it might kick your ass.  Sometimes it will end with nothing in particular, sometimes it ends with a dangerous unique NPC with badass gear.  Finding a tomb or cave felt like an event, to be approached with caution.  Less is more.  I could’ve done with around 2/3 as many shrines that were longer.  Reducing the amount of shrines would also make it more reasonable to have the same reward each time.

Or better yet, I would’ve loved fewer shrines, and instead seeing massive open dungeons with unique assets and enemies.  If there had been two other areas like Hyrule Castle or even the Yiga Hideout that took a series of actions in the overworld to reach, and hid armor or a unique weapon that would’ve added a great element of mystery and visual variety.  Instead of an area that hides ten shrines, what about an area that hides three shrines, along with an underground dungeon that you have to follow hints and rumors to find, that’s full of undead enemies and ends in a fight against a ghost warrior from days of old?

These unique narratives you find by looking closely enough at the world are what I loved about games like Majora’s Mask.  MM also made brilliant use of masks as unique rewards for strange quests.  Some of these quests required you to first get another mask from somewhere completely different.  This is the kind of thing the most highly-praised 3D Zelda games did well, but I found pretty lacking in Breath of the Wild.  There are some exceptions, but I’ll mention them later.

The land of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild is a joy to traverse.  Stamina is better, paragliding is fun, and climbing is interesting.  But after a while, it falls victim to the open world problem.  The magic of exploring wears thin when it stops speaking to the player’s sense of caution and wonder.  Shrines make pretty neat puzzles, but I always went into one knowing I’d beat it in no time.  And I always did.

Quests

I’m the kind of guy who enjoys good narratives in a game.  That being said, I’m not a fan of Assassin’s Creed style walking around behind a guy as he unloads exposition.  I like a story that fits in with mechanics, but also with the tone of a game.

Twilight Princess did this well.  That’s an example of a game where the world is in danger of being consumed by shadow, but there remains hope.  There is light in the face of darkness.  The interactions that Link has with most of the characters in this game reflects that.  Breath of the Wild is suppose to take this idea even further — the world is already destroyed.  Monsters run amok, with only Princess Zelda holding the greatest of all evils at bay.  Hyrule is in ruin, and you’re the only one who can save it.

But for a world of desolation where everything is in ruins, everyone seems quite chipper, don’t they?

OK, so this game was meant to be pretty somber in tone.  That’s why it’s so much less ridden with tropes than other games.  Everything is basically ruined.  That’s why the soundtrack is minimalist, and only occasionally hints at well-known tracks.  And honestly, I think it’s a great soundtrack that way.  The wispy piano as you look over a snowy bluff is truly magical.  Hell, I’m listening to it as I write this.

However, there aren’t a whole lot of true cutscenes or questlines where you hear about how things have decayed.  All the side quests seem to be about trivialities.  Get somebody a bunch of mushrooms, catch a bunch of frogs, fight a bunch of things, take a picture.  There are no quests where you have to fight off an invasion, or where a family has lost loved ones to the Guardians.  Considering the fact that you can find what’s left of Lon Lon Ranch, I figured there might be some story there, where you walk the path of the Hero of Time.  Not so.  I understand that this is an open world game where story takes a back seat, but I was expecting whatever quests are in the game to have a little bit more weight.  There’s no looming sense of hopelessness in this game to me.

The best I can say for the “quest” of this game is that if you’re willing to use your imagination, it’s kind of a story of rebirth.  About being defeated, and becoming stronger.  Because although there is a clear ceiling for enemies (I’ll explain later), the first bit of the game is pretty unforgiving if you’re not careful.  The tougher challenges are always there, but you have to get out there and understand the game before taking them on.

That’s no to say there are no good quests.  I enjoy characters like Riju and Sidon who help you reach the Divine Beasts.  I also like Impa and Paya.  The most interesting quest by far is Tarrey Town.  It’s a quest where you have to travel across the different regions of Hyrule and gather workers to build and inhabit a small town.  Sure, it’s kind of a series of fetch quests.  But the wedding at the end of the quest is extremely moving, and it actually feels like you’ve impacted the world.  You’ve affected change that couldn’t happen without you.

But you know what’s a problem?  Not even the main quest does this.

Story

So you go to the castle and beat Ganon.  Instead of having everything clear, the princess free, and placing you back in the world after you’ve beaten this huge, titanic evil and giving you a sense of accomplishment, you get NOTHING.  Sure, the enemies get harder, things get more dangerous, but that’s it.  No new things to explore, no new enemy types, no new gear.

I think the reason for this is, Aonuma’s team wanted to leave the option of completing the Divine Beasts and obtaining all the memories to get the true ending.  Especially since there’s only one save slot.  And I suppose that’s valid.  But from a player feedback standpoint, it feels like a missed opportunity not to have the destruction of this all-powerful presence come back from a gameplay standpoint.  Now that all the mysterious dark goo is gone, maybe it could open up a new area?  Maybe you could get a unique quest from the Princess to help restore Hyrule?

And besides, it would’ve been reasonable to be able to do the Divine Beasts after beating Ganon.  It could’ve left room for different dialogue with the ghosts of the Champions.  You still could’ve gotten their unique powers, which help with combat and mobility anyway.  Considering how the goal was to let each player craft their own story, I think this might’ve been a good way to do it.  For example, if you found Mipha (Link’s pseudo-love interest) after saving Zelda, it could’ve triggered some dialogue like, “It’s obvious you care a great deal about her.  I hope the two of you are happy together.”  Then maybe Link reacts in some way that expresses the conflict he feels about her.

As it is, the game takes an interesting approach by giving you more story depending on whether you explore the world.  It also focuses the story more on Princess Zelda and her struggle to live up to her father’s expectations.  You get to see her reach her lowest point when all is in ruin, but then go hold off Ganon herself for a century.  Pretty darn badass.  I think generally this is a good idea, making Zelda more human and relatable.

But in case I haven’t dug a deep enough hole, I have some problems.

See, I think the story is meant to creature an emotional throughline for the player.  Since the whole point of the story is to defeat Ganon and save Zelda, the only goal should be to make the friendship between Link (the player) and Zelda as remarkable as can be.  Sure the Champions are awesome and unique, and their stories are expanded in a big way by the Ballad of the Champions DLC, but the core relationship is between Zelda and Link.  A lot of people raise the problem, though, that Link is a complete non-character.

He doesn’t have voice acting, or lines of dialogue, or…facial expressions.  He’s more of a blank slate than he should be, at least when he interacts with Zelda.  I looked at the story cutscenes wondering the whole time why Zelda values Link as a friend when he has no emotional affect.  There are bits and pieces in the game that explain why Link is so stoic, but I don’t think some show of emotion was out of the question.  Body language and expressions did the job in Twilight Princess, but I don’t think they were enough in this game.

When Zelda is free, and she asks at the end if Link remembers her, and then the scene is left hanging, I couldn’t help but laugh.  Because I certainly don’t think he did.

And what about the actual people of Hyrule?  Do they all rejoice at the destruction of the great Calamity, do they play any part in the climactic moment of triumph?  Not really.  Or at least, you don’t get to see it.  That’s a shame, because I thought the NPCs in this game were pretty charming.

Gameplay

This game is pretty fun to play actually.  This is the first Zelda game with true physics, and the devs make the most of them.  Things go flying and tumbling, which lends great energy to combat.  Items are replaced by runes, most of which you get on the Great Plateau at the beginning of the game.  I think this was an attempt to emulate the renting system from A Link Between Worlds.

I think I like this idea.  The game doesn’t get bogged down by useless items that have to be used in specific situations.  Instead all you need is stuff that manipulates the world around you, and I think that’s kind of cool.

The biggest problem I have is that I felt no real sense of building an arsenal.  I think that’s partially because you don’t obtain items.  But I think it’s more because of weapon degradation.

Shields, bows, swords, and spears all wear down in this game.  This is kind of a good idea from a survival point of view, because it means you have to rely on the items you find.  It especially kicks in on places like Eventide Island, another awesome shrine where you temporarily lose all you equipment.  But when you get the best weapons in the game, you’d hope that they last a good long while without breaking.  Instead I feel like I can’t rely on this stronger equipment, like I have to preserve it because I don’t want to lose it.  Even the Master Sword, the most powerful weapon in all of Zelda, runs out of energy constantly.

I wouldn’t suggest getting rid of weapon degradation, but I think it should be rebalanced, or replaced with a repair system.  For example, if some of the guardian materials you find from shrines went into fixing your super-strong guardian swords, it creates a good use for them.  Maybe wood could be used to repair Boko clubs.  Heck, maybe this could open the door for an upgrade system.  This would add to the whole survival aspect and add value to scavenging ruins.

I loved customizing armor, and I collected all the armor in the game.  Most of it I didn’t use.  I can’t criticize the armor much, however, because I think it’s meant to fit the different tastes of different players.  Nothing necessarily wrong with that.  In fact, the armor was one of the few genuine rewards in the game, and re-coloring it was one of my favorite things to do.

Not counting bosses or different levels of enemies, there are 15 enemy types in the game.  Not counting rare enemies or particularly easy enemies, that number goes down to about 7.  After a certain amount of time, fighting Moblins and Bokoblins and Lizalfos to the tune of the same music became almost maddening.  I decided to avoid combat altogether, because it wasn’t fun anymore.  All of the mechanics in the world you can use to destroy a camp don’t really help when destroying a camp is unappealing.

Like I mentioned before, the progression of the difficulty comes from making the enemies tougher and more powerful.  For example, some regular enemies are replaced with white enemies that are tougher and stronger.  The positive spin on this: sometimes it forces you to be more clever and use the environment to dispose of tough enemies.  The negative spin: in a lot of cases these enemies just make you waste more weapons.  The worst spin: it makes me just want to avoid fighting them.  I already got sick of fighting Bokoblins, so I’m not keen on fighting ones that will kill me at worst, or take two or three weapons to kill at best.

Cooking, people seem to love that.  The idea of gathering ingredients and cooking is a good one, and I admire the amount of different things you can do, but I got by just making three things over and over again really.  Sure, you can get stat boosts by making certain things, but let me break it down for you.  You gather ingredients and cook to get food.  Why do you make food?  To replenish health, stamina, and get certain stat boosts.  Why do you need these things?  Stamina helps you navigate, that makes sense.  Health and stat boosts aid combat, though…and I’ve already said that combat isn’t really all that fun to me.  So is going to the trouble of cooking everything under the sun really worth it?  A lot of quests or NPCs will give you cooked food anyway.  I only bothered to use a cooking pot about five times over 100 hours.  I spent more time just eating ingredients to get health back instead of cooking them.

Conclusion / I guess I suck…

If you’ve reached this point without thinking I’m insane, congratulations, you’re one of a kind.

I want to shed light on this whole thing by saying, once again, Breath of the Wild is a great game.  I wouldn’t have played a game for 100 hours if I didn’t enjoy it.  I have a Breath of the Wild T-shirt, and poster.  Believe me when I say that I want this to be my favorite Zelda.  There are just a lot of things about it that didn’t fit for me.  There were things about its execution that weren’t memorable for me.

Is all that a “me” problem?  Well…yes.  Absolutely.

My whole intention in writing on Screen Looker is to give my own opinions and insights on video games.  If I didn’t, there would be no point.  I’d be joining a bandwagon, calling things masterpieces even though I felt differently.  That’s exactly what happened with Skyward Sword, and now years later, look how people feel.

Breath of the Wild is a million times better than Skyward Sword.  But I don’t think it’s a masterpiece.  While its breadth, overlapping mechanics, and world design are incredible, I think it lacks a certain degree of character and depth.

And no, I don’t expect the brilliant, gifted developers at Nintendo EAD to work 20 years on a game just to fulfill the wishes of some idiot blogger from Philly.  What I’m saying is, I think it would be awful for Nintendo to get stuck providing quantity over quality.  Breath of the Wild is like the ultimate realization of the vision that was the first Legend of Zelda from 1986.  It does that job beautifully, and I think the magic for all these millions of people is the beauty and interactivity of the vast, open world of Hyrule.  Maybe I would’ve gotten more out of the game if I kept the shrine detector off the whole time, who knows?  I guess I should give it a try.

I think my bigger problem is, as someone whose favorite Zelda games are Wind WakerTwilight Princess, and Majora’s Mask, I suppose I place more value on the most focused Zelda games.  The thing is, a lot of other people love those games too.  These games and their stories are what make The Legend of Zelda shine as a series, and I hope games after Breath of the Wild still reflect their legacy.

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