Set Your Course Without A Horse
HIGH Stealthing through Hyrule Castle towards the final battle.
LOW Anytime it rains.
WTF Why such a love affair with two-handed weapons?
In his main review for Breath of the Wild, Mike Suskie laid out a strong case for awarding it the highest possible score, and there’s little that I disagree on. Even as someone who’s not an “everything Nintendo makes is awesome” sort of guy, this is the best trip to Hyrule I’ve taken in a while, and there’s no question that this new Zelda is a fantastic accomplishment.
(PROTIP: Before you leave me an angry comment below, please re-read the previous paragraph.)
The biggest thing the game nails for me is the feeling of exploration and freedom. While it’s a little silly that Link can climb nearly every vertical surface in the world, suspending disbelief isn’t hard because of the options it affords. The handy hang-glider gives even more options. Link can approach nearly anything from any angle, and being able to engage with (or avoid) any aspect of the world as desired allows for a great deal of satisfying player agency.
In fact, simply exploring the world and navigating its peaks and valleys captivated me for a large portion of the time that I spent with it. Seeing something intriguing off in the distance and then making my way there by any means that suited me was incredibly immersive, and more satisfying that I would have imagined. So much so, in fact, that it’s not a stretch to say that Breath of the Wild will be a strong influence on the open-world genre from this point forward.
Of course, that’s not to say that Nintendo got everything right. Since Mike successfully celebrated its virtues already, I’m going to use this second opinion to outline some of the things that didn’t quite land for me – or worse, the things that I found outright baffling.
The two biggest problems in Breath of the Wild are bad on their own, and worse because they’re each compounded by the other.
First, the weapon degradation. There are very, very few games that manage to get weapon breakage correct –I can probably count successful examples on one hand — and Breath of the Wild is not among them.
As anyone who’s tried it knows, the weapons here are laughably fragile. Even the hardiest sword breaks after a scuffle or two, which leads players to spend too much time managing the constantly-changing inventory. When the player’s stock is inevitably full (and it’s always full) and a new item is found, damage needs to be compared and the weaker weapon needs to be dropped. It seems like a small thing, but it happens so often it’s a huge annoyance. Worse, weapons often break in the middle of battle, halting the flow of action while Link equips whatever he has handy.
It’s possible for a system like this to work, but concessions have to made and the developers just fumble it hard. Most weapons can’t be repaired, Link can’t craft any on his own (not even arrows) and he’s almost entirely dependent on drops — there’s generally no way to equip Link as desired unless the player becomes a weapon-miser, and doing so means, again, spending too much time managing something which shouldn’t be a hassle.
In my particular playthrough, the game gave me, literally, nothing but two-handed weapons for several hours, and I do not like that weapon type. Worse, Link’s shield is only accessible when using a single-handed weapon, so my basic combat functions were limited because I didn’t have other weapons to use. I lean towards players having more options – not less – so this randomly-imposed limit was a pain. In what must be a worst-case scenario that actually happened, I got to a boss which required me to use my shield, and I had nothing but two-handed swords. It was a ridiculous dance of unequipping my sword, equipping the shield, taking a hit, switching back to the sword, attacking, unequipping the sword again, going back to the shield, and so on.
Apart from the weapons, too much time is spent switching outfits based on their properties — I needed one for climbing, one for swimming, one for combat, had to take metal things off during rainstorms (because lightning!) and let’s not forget swapping in the hot- and cold-resistant sets, too. The same goes for the cooking system — instead of keeping a list of recipes like every other game that features cooking, the player has to remember what ingredients made which dish, and then manually select the same items of food over and over again to cook each one. Why? Breath of the Wild spends a nearly unparalleled amount of effort on creating a world that’s easy to to become deeply immersed in, so it’s absolutely baffling that the menu and item systems were released in a state that constantly takes the player out of it.
Another example of wasted time is the frequent rain. When a downpour starts, Link is unable to climb walls – it makes sense when used judiciously in specific areas as a test or a challenge, but there were too many times when I would be in the middle of exploring wilderness and then have to sit and wait for it to pass. Realistic? Perhaps, but there’s so much belief already being suspended that the inability to keep progressing is not appreciated or welcome.
As far as horses go, I don’t know why they’re in the game. Stables litter the landscape and the final battle requires one, but they just don’t make sense. It’s far quicker to fast-travel around the map, and if Link is traveling to a place without a warp point, it’s better to go on foot in order to accumulate items and search for secrets that would be passed up on horseback. Additionally, if Link is too far from his horse, it doesn’t come when he calls. Useless.
In terms of pacing, completing the game takes too long. By the time I wrapped it up, I was just on the verge of being sick of it, and I had been playing at a quick clip skipping side quests, not combing every inch of the map, and so on. Part of the problem is that stamina is an integral part of crossing the landscape, so I’m guessing that there are many others (like myself) who notice that adding hearts isn’t nearly as beneficial as adding stamina. However, by the time I discovered that the Master Sword requires a certain number of hearts, I was nearing the end of my “good time” and wanting to wrap up. Instead, I had to go on an unwanted shrine hunt to earn the hearts that would bring me to endgame.
While using amnesia in games is incredibly tired, I have to admit that recovering Link’s memories was actually one of my favorite aspects because the cutscenes were rich and the cast of characters were likable. In fact, after a number of hours I was wishing that Breath of the Wild had taken place during that time, and not a hundred years later. Doing so would have given impetus to some of the tasks, and things would feel more exciting and immediate without taking away from the ability to explore. With everything being past-tense by the time Link shows up, there’s never a rush to get anything done, and in general, Breath lacks pace and drive. Simply exploring is rewarding, but after hours of it, I needed more reason to keep pushing forward.
There are other areas where the game could have used a few nudges, but instead of continuing the critique, I want to circle back and restate for the record that even while putting up with the things I’ve outlined here, Breath of the Wild remained a fantastic experience that is both intrinsically enjoyable and critically important. It definitely rubbed me the wrong way more than a few times, but I have great respect for what Nintendo has achieved, and have no hesitation in saying that this is the best Zelda in years — it’s easily recommended to long-time fans, as well as those who have an interest in open-world or exploratory experiences. In fact, this is the rare title where I’d say nearly anyone would gain something from playing despite all the rough edges.
Disclosures: This copy of the game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the WiiU. Approximately 55 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.