The Warts on Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild was a good game. It wasn’t a great game. It wasn’t a 10/10, definitely not GOTY 2017. It’s not the best Zelda game, or the best open world game, and I don’t actually know much about the Nintendo Switch’s library but I’m willing to bet it’s not the best Switch game, either. Some parts of the game are fantastic, but others were so awful or so tedious that the game, as a whole, averages out to merely “good”.

I want to spend most of this post harping on one particular aspect of Breath that I hated, but first I want to touch on the one thing I really liked: exploring the open world was very, very enjoyable. I believe I spent ~40 hours just criss-crossing the map, not going anywhere in particular, just taking adventures as they came. I settled on something like this for my routine:

  1. Open the map.
  2. Identify an interesting-looking feature somewhere vaguely opposite my current position.
  3. Drop a pin.
  4. Go.

Pictured: a green circle.

 

Of course, this is my standard routine in any open world game; I played quite a lot of Skyrim and Horizon Zero Dawn like this. (I also tried a few times in The Phantom Pain, but that game resisted any attempts to make pure exploration fun.) The difference is, in Breath, it really feels like this is how the game is intended to be played, rather than just one possible option.

I want to stress just how good that ~40 hours was, once I hit my stride. In my opinion, if Breath were just that ~40 hours, and contained no other content, it would still be worth a purchase, if you like open world games. I don’t think I’d offer that same praise to other open world games I’ve played.

The problems, then, came largely in the form of expectations not being met. Breath of the Wild is by far the most grossly overhyped game I can think of. (Disclaimer: I have not played No Man’s Sky.) Everyone who said anything to me about the game since its release offered nothing short of glowing praise. I was told you could go anywhere and do anything in this game. I was told the combat never gets old, and rewards creative thinking. I was told the shrines and divine beasts were, pound for pound, worth ten standard Zelda dungeons. I was told the vast weapon variety more than justified their low durability. A few helpful Twitch viewers dropped by my chat while I was streaming Horizon to inform me the game I was playing sucks because Aloy needed specific handholds to climb walls and mountains.

“But you can go anywhere else!”

I realize a lot of this praise comes from the game being in its honeymoon phase, from Zelda fans enamored with the newest installment of their favorite franchise. And I did try to approach the game objectively once I had it in my actual hands… but it’s hard. The positive response was so total, so over-the-moon, that knee-jerk became my natural response. I honestly could not believe how bad very large parts of the game turned out to be. Squaring what I’d heard and what I’d read with the deeply flawed game I was actually playing left me dumbfounded.

The rest of this very long post consists of a break-down of the three worst aspects of Breath of the Wild. There won’t be a lot of positive remarks after this point, so if you’re a fan of the game and you find yourself getting annoyed I invite you to re-read what I said above re: the value of the game’s open world content. I liked this game a lot, I plan on buying it if/when I upgrade to a Switch, and the thought of playing the planned DLC content excites me. I booted up the game to take a few screenshots for this critique and lost three hours orbiting this world I’ve already spent so much time in.

But the more I like a game, the more its flaws sting. And in Breath I got stung very, very badly.

What Not To Do

My friends and I have a little ritual whenever we re-play Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. In that game, you start by stepping off a boat with nothing but your underwear, maybe a stick, and a note telling you what to do. Our ritual is to walk to the nearby creek and throw the note away.

This seemed like a very common way to begin Breath of the Wild. There’s a tutorial area that’s so large some players might not even notice it’s a tutorial area, but once you’ve cleared that, the game just pushes you out the door. You get a dot on your map and the guy says “go here next”, but my impression was that most players gave that guy the finger and just struck out on their own. And that’s exactly how I planned to start my own experience: I was going to throw the note away.

If you haven’t played Breath for yourself, I want to caution you not to make the same mistake I did. Do not throw the note away. Do not tell King Ghost Santa Lumberjack where he can stick it. Follow the quest markers until you’ve been to the lab and met the NPC who upgrades your cell phone. By all means, feel free to explore every inch of Hyrule between here and there. Look at things, blow stuff up, get into trouble. Pick on some moblins. Climb everything in sight. Have fun with it. This part of the game, staying on the critical path, will take a very long time, and be very enjoyable, and will still be only a taste of how great the rest of the world will feel once you’re on your own.

But you’re not on your own until you’ve been to the lab. The game is not as open as you’ve been led to believe. If you strike out with your own explorations straight off the Great Plateau, you are missing out on some crucial game systems.

Here’s how my experience went.

First, I turned off the quest marker. Didn’t need it. Straight into the creek. I looked far into the distance and identified some glowing orange towers. I marked them, thinking they were nearby, but they turned out to be miles and miles away. I struck out, exploring every inch between here and there. I got into trouble, I blew stuff up, I picked on moblins. I spent ~10 hours doing this, and had a blast doing it. Then I got into a fight with an enemy camp where every monster was able to kill me in one hit.

At first this was exciting. After a bunch of hilarious game overs, I managed to scrape together a win by spamming bombs, grabbing every weapon I could get my hands on, scrambling around, eating my entire stash of food, and maybe cashing in some dumb luck. It was exhilarating. It felt like I took down a foe who was way, way out of my league. But it was wearying, too. I think that first fight took 20 or 30 minutes of hard and stressful work, and the reward was not worth the effort. The experience was worth the effort; finally eradicating that first impossible camp was incredibly fun. But in terms of what Link put into that fight and what he took out of it, it was a net loss. I got a Korok seed and a few weapons. The weapons were much stronger than what I’d been using up to that point — the benefits of fighting higher-level monsters — but weapons break. My victory was tangible, but temporary.

Here’s what nobody will tell you about Breath of the Wild: the world levels up as you play. The monsters don’t just get stronger the further away you go from the Great Plateau, they get stronger everywhere. If you’ve played the game extensively and you don’t believe me, load up your endgame save and wander the Great Plateau for a while. You’ll see zebra-striped mobs with dragonbone weapons who weren’t there at the start.

For me, this meant I was in a terrible position. The second impossible enemy camp I came across, which I painstakingly cleared after many retries, wasn’t as fun as the first. The fifth was even less fun than that. By the ninth I stopped trying to fight the monsters, opting to sneak around them instead. This worked sometimes, but it wasn’t satisfying, because it meant there were very clearly places in the world I could not go, and things I could not do, which was counter to all the glowing priase that had been heaped on the game by its fanbase. Shrines within eyeshot of an enemy camp were inaccessible, and I was depriving myself of the opportunity to use the powerful weapons I was accumulating. Since those weapons were the only measurable progress I was able to make, I felt like I was in a hell of a rut.

After banging my head against this for a while, one of my Twitch regulars stopped by and said, “lol is Brick still running around wearing rags?” Which was my indication that something was very, very wrong.

You need to wear armor in Breath of the Wild. There’s a dramatic difference between the rags you start the game with and the first set of clothes you’re able to upgrade to. However, you cannot loot armor off of slain monsters, the way you can weapons. You’ll never find new armor as spoils of war. You won’t get any as a reward for completing a shrine, with very few exceptions. (I found maybe four pieces of armor in shrines, total, and none in the first ~10 hours.) The only place you can get armor is to buy it from an armor shop.

There’s an armor shop in each village, but there are so few villages and they are so far apart that it is possible to play the game for ~10 hours and never stumble upon one. Indeed, this is exactly what I did. Throw the note away, remember? I was purposely avoiding the main quest marker, which was in what I assumed was the main village in the game. I figured striking out in any random direction would eventually bring me to some sort of settlement, but that didn’t happen. All the villages are in the eastern half of the map, and I had struck out to the west.

Eventually I gave up. I decided the “go anywhere, do anything” mantra I had heard repeated time and again wasn’t true, or at least wasn’t working for me. So I admitted defeat and fished the note out of the creek. I turned the quest marker back on, teleported as close to it as I had explored, and followed it exclusively for a couple of hours.

Here’s what I found during that time:

  1. Shops with three full sets of armor, one of which was quadruple the strength of the starting rags.
  2. An entire game system I didn’t know existed which takes your crafting items and makes your armor even stronger. (The first level of these upgrades was super cheap, trivially easy to afford with all the exploration I’d done.)
  3. A special piece of armor that displays enemy HP, helping me to make better decisions about which fights to pick and what weapons to use. (This became a crucial factor in all my combat strategy going forward.)
  4. A new cell phone app that made farming specific materials an option. (I ended up never using this, admittedly.)
  5. Upgrades for my other cell phone apps that made them viable in combat.
  6. An NPC who gave me an arrow that could kill anything (only half true), plus a new quest marker showing where to buy more of these.

I am racking my brain trying to think of another game where my power level increased this much in this short of a time. It didn’t feel like I had overcome a grand adventure that I’d forged for myself, which is the experience Breath fans had been promising. It felt like I had stubbornly ignored half of the game’s tutorial and tried to play an expert-level challenge run as my first playthrough. Like I had somehow played half of Metal Gear Solid with the Soliton radar turned off.

I got really mad at the game around this point. Not only wasn’t the game as open as I’d been led to believe, it wasn’t even as open as the other open world games on my shelf! Horizon‘s world opens up only in stages tied to the main quest, but it also doesn’t let you stumble into hopeless battles with Thunderjaws before you can concievably take them on.

Most of the Thunderjaws are on Death Mountain, anyway.

I realize mine may not be a common experience. It’s entirely possible (and perhaps even likely) that had I picked a different random direction to strike out in, I’d have stumbled into a settlement rather than a canyon filled with one-hit kills. But I can’t judge the game based on an experience I didn’t have. My advice is, if you’re reading this and planning on playing Breath of the Wild, don’t start exploring until the tutorial is over. Listen to Ghost Santa. Go to Kakariko. Get some armor, find the big fairy, get your cell phone in order. There will be plenty of time to go to every nook and cranny of the world once you have all your available resources. Don’t give yourself a reason to hate some of your earliest experiences with this game.

Towers, Seeds, and Purplies

I found the reward structure in Breath of the Wild to be incredibly unfulfilling.

It took quite a long time for me to reach this conclusion. After I’d got my armor situation sorted I spent the next ~30 hours resuming the explorations I’d already started: marking distant towers, forging paths towards them, stopping to take in anything interesting along the way. For much of the early game, as disastrous as I beleive the weapon durability system is, the steady drip-feed of new types of gear did feel pretty rewarding. I developed a respectable playstyle with each of the four weapon types available, and–

Well, let’s stop there a second. Yes, there’s really only four weapon types in Breath. There are one- and two-handed weapons, spears, and bows. There’s a huge variety of make and model within these four types, but the core playstyle stays confined. Everyone’s going to have a preference, and there’s definitely some gameplay to be explored in using the right tool for the right job, and making decisions that assure you have all your tools available at all times. But by the time you leave the Great Plateau you will have seen just about everything Breath‘s weapon system can do.

So finding new weapons just wasn’t that exciting, and this is the most common kind of reward the game gives out. You get new weapons from monsters you kill, and from treasure chests in monster camps after you clear them, and from almost every shrine. These are the rough equivalent of those annoying chests in previous Zelda games, the ones with paltry amounts of rupees, which you can’t open because you already have max rupees and there isn’t anything to spend rupees on anyway. They’re technically rewards, in the sense that your character is better off having them than not, but they aren’t exciting or particularly worth your time.

That leaves towers, Korok seeds, and the purple spirit coins you exchange for health and stamina upgrades. Initially, these are the game. Each tower you climb unlocks an area map, and with it the promise of another enormous region of Hyrule to explore. Each Korok you find brings you a step closer to increasing your weapon carry capacity. Each shrine you complete gives you a purplie that makes your base stats a little better.

Towers are by far the most important of these. The actual act of climbing a tower is pretty dull, but you’ll often have a grand adventure fighting your way towards it and figuring out a way to claim the top with what little stamina you have. There’s a lot of variance in how these towers can be approached, and a lot of gameplay to explore here. Nothing feels better than watching a huge area of the map fill in, stuffed with interesting geographical features to pick apart. It’s the promise of the game given form.

Problem is, there’s only fifteen of these towers. Marking these, and enjoying all the distractions and shiny things along the way, is how much of my initial ~40 hours of the game were spent. The majority of those shiny things, as it turns out, were Korok seeds and shrines. The former are hiding in virtually every interesting place you stumble across as you traverse Hyrule. The latter can be spotted by the handful from the top of each tower, and be picked up by radar as you’re gliding around.

0.111% complete!

My experience was — and again, this may not be typical — by the time I had climbed all fifteen towers, I had found enough Koroks and turned in enough purplies that my inventory, health and stamina were all good enough to finish the game. (This is in part due to the way healing works in Breath. I won’t go into it in this post, but it’s pretty dumb, and it devalues heart containers immensely.) There was nothing else the nooks and crannies of Hyrule could reward me with.

There are 120 shrines in Breath, and every four purplies can be exchanged for a heart or a stamina chunk. By the time you finish 40 of these you’ll have enough of both to comfortably coast through any of the game’s content. There are 900 Koroks (no, that’s not a typo), and by the time you find 50 your weapon inventory will be large enough to carry more swords and bows than you can possibly use. You can keep searching for Koroks and shrines as long as you want, for the pure completionist satisfaction of it, but that’s all you’ll ever find.

Hmm, I’m not being fair. You will also find the beauty of the world of Hyrule, the little hand-crafted places that someone put a lot of love and hard work into. You’ll stumble on a lot of places that make you smile and hide a Korok. But you know, there’s also an awful lot of nothing out there. Lots of bare rock faces, vast empty snowfields, and the same couple trees over and over. Sometimes you find a darling little secret that makes the world come alive, but there are also long stretches of time where you’ll be climbing and gliding over not much in particular.

There’s something to be said for game content being its own reward. You don’t really “get anything” for beating World 6 in Super Mario Bros. except the chance to play World 7, and in that game it’s enough. I’ve never found this argument to be very compelling in regards to open world games, though, because these are games you’re meant to play for 40, 50, 100 hours plus. You just can’t put that much time in a game and still be impressed by each new place you discover, even a place as wonderful and lovely as Hyrule.

It’s not all bad, though. By the time I’d reached this point in the game, I still had most of the main quest ahead of me. The four divine beasts each involved exploring a section of map I hadn’t been to yet, visiting a new village, enjoying a unique action setpiece, and solving what passes in Breath of the Wild for a dungeon. At the completion of each of these you are rewarded with a powerful magic spell which will change the way you approach the remainder of the game. This part of the game was wonderful, and included a ton of content unlike what had come before.

There are other slivers of structured content to enjoy, too. There’s a town you can build. There’s an island that strips away all your equipment and forces you to play naked for a while, living off the land. There’s an accordion-playing birdman who tantalizes you with riddles. But the rewards for these things, in terms of tangible in-game benefits that increase Link’s power level, always come back around to Koroks and purplies. And those just aren’t exciting.

There are treasure chests out there, in the wild. More than you can possibly imagine. You’ll find them buried in sand, submerged in riverbeds, hiding behind ruined brick walls, guarded by wizzrobes. Hundreds and hundreds of them, each with a pointless silver rupee. L-l-lucky!!

The Biggest Disappointment

I didn’t like a lot of things in Breath of the Wild, but you know, I’m a charitable guy. I can file most of them under “no big deal”. Every game has flaws, and most flaws aren’t dealbreakers. It’s stupid that all Link’s weapons are made of styrofoam, but it’s a game system you acclimate to, and eventually you don’t even notice it. (I mean, that didn’t stop me from complaining about it non-stop on stream every day for a week, heh heh.)

There’s one aspect of Breath that made me real buttmad though, and I think it’s the most damning part of the game. It’s something I never got used to while playing, and I doubt will ever get over as long as I continue playing Zelda games. The idea that people at Nintendo did what they did makes me actually sad, because I think it really for-real means the things I loved most about The Legend of Zelda are, at long last, well and truly dead. This sounds overly dramatic but it’s how I honestly feel. I’ll just come right out with it.

I love Zelda dungeons more than anything else the series does. A well-crafted Zelda dungeon is among the top experiences a man can have with a video game. I am, right now, looking at my shelf full of games, NES through Xbone, and I am seeing exactly zero examples of Zelda dungeons outside of Zelda games. Nobody does this specific kind of experience the way Nintendo does, with this specific series. Nobody even comes close; the games that come closest aren’t even in the same ZIP code.

When the first trailers started appearing for Breath of the Wild, I voiced my concern about the suspicious lack of dungeon content. “Don’t worry,” I was told by fans and well-wishers, “they’re just holding it back to build suspense.” But then reports came out that the game, in fact, didn’t have traditional dungeons at all. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “there’ll be plenty in the game that’s dungeon-like.” Then the game came out, and with it descriptions of the bite-size shrine puzzles and the four divine beasts. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “there’s enough great content in those shrines and beasts to fill two Zelda games!”

There are no dungeons in Breath of the Wild. The divine beasts are not dungeons. They are great fun, each one being built around a few minor puzzles wrapped up in the core mechanic of moving and shaping pieces of the structure you’re exploring. But they’re short. I took my time with each of them, and barely scratched an hour in each one. There are only four of these, and aside from a map, none of the traditional Zelda dungeon trappings made it in. You don’t find a new toy, there’s no sense of building on puzzle concepts, there are barely any enemies to fight. Ocarina of Time‘s Ice Cavern, a six-room area of the world that is generally not even counted among the game’s dungeons, is far more dungeon-like than these divine beasts.

I say all that, and the divine beasts were still my favorite part of Breath by far. I am not against change; I realize that games need to grow and evolve over time. If this is the future of Zelda dungeons, so be it; but four tiny bites just isn’t enough. An open world of this scope, with the wonderful tower-based exploration, and maybe ten divine beasts would leave me with absolutely nothing to complain about.

But the shrines. Good lord the shrines.

The shrines are warts. They suck, plain and simple, and they are in a very real sense the “goal” of Breath of the Wild. Yeah, it’s an open world, explore on your own terms, yadda yadda, but it’s really hard to make the case that these shrines are optional, except in the sense that no particular shrine (outside of the first four) are required. The reward for completing shrines is more health and stamina, and you need health and stamina to explore the world. I said earlier that after fewer than half of the shrines you’ll have more than enough of both, but that’s still a large number of shrines you will need to complete on a typical run.

Every single second of development resources spent on building shrines for Breath of the Wild was a profound waste of time.

There are 120 shrines in the game. I completed 81 of these, and seven of them were good. I do not mean that most of the shrines were okay and there were seven I really liked. I am saying there were 74 shrines that were boring, pointless, or worse. The seven I liked were structured very much like mini-dungeons in previous Zelda games. Not quite as substantial as something like the Ice Cavern, but decent enough that if there all 120 were like this, or even only half of them, I’d have nothing to be disappointed about.

“Franklin did what to a kite? Hold my beer.”

The first four good shrines are the ones on the Great Plateau, in the tutorial area. These are the only shrines that give out what might be called a traditional dungeon item; you get bombs, a magnet, a stopwatch, and a block of ice. In each of these shrines you receive your gift, are taught how to use it, and then are tasked with a few simple interactions using your new power to reach the end. If you’re familiar with Link to the Past, think of the Swamp Palace. You find the hookshot in a room with lots of hookshot targets. You learn what it will connect with and what it won’t. You fight a few monsters with it, and before long, the hookshot is required to advance. When you make it to the end, you use the hookshot to help kill the boss. You get a satisfying toy, are taught a few things to do with it, then the game doesn’t let you win until you demonstrate you’ve learned your lessons. The four tutorial shrines are a lot like that.

The fifth good shrine involved babysitting a blue flame from beginning to end. Link has a few ways to transfer fire; he can light a torch and throw it a fair distance. He can nock an arrow and hold it to a flame, then fire it across the room. You have to do both of these things and more to complete this shrine. You have to figure out how to maneuver your precious fire through a gauntlet of running faucets. Careful aim and careful timing are required, and failures can have hilarious consequences (at least, mine did). At the end you need to perform a cool move that lights six torches at once, a great end-cap that fits the theme of the place. With a little filler and a few monsters, this would make a great early dungeon based on the idea of using fire.

The sixth good shrine involves bombs. Link gets round bombs and square bombs in this game, and 99% of the time they are interchangeable. In this shrine (and, aside from I think one other interaction in the game, only this shrine) the differences between the two types of bombs matter quite a lot, and the shrine doesn’t let you win unless you know them for sure. I was stuck on the final puzzle of this shrine longer than any other puzzle in the game. It took a bit of trial-and-error to figure out the sequence of events the shrine wanted, and then a few tries on top of that to get the sequence right. It was satisfying to solve, and the puzzle is designed in such a way that the solution is satisfying to watch, as well.

The seventh (and, as far as I know, last) good shrine involves electricity. Link finds an electrified block that he needs to manipulate in order to get platforms to move and doors to open. There’s a section where he can throw this block on a metal floor, frying a bunch of bad guys. There are lots of opportunities to accidentally bump into the block, resulting in electrocution and a potential tumble into a bottomless pit. The puzzle value of keeping electric circuits lit is slightly devalued since one of the divine beast dungeons is entirely designed around the idea, but it’s a cool idea and this shrine does stuff with it that the divine beast doesn’t. If this shrine had been rolled into the divine beast and presented as part of that whole, it would feel right at home.

The rest of the shrines were not worth the time it took to load them in. A large portion of them were “Tests of Strength”, where you fight the robot spider. The robot spider is the worst enemy in the game. It might be a worthy mid-dungeon boss, if you only fought it once, but you will fight it over and over again, until you can remember nothing but the robot spider. I mentioned earlier that you can buy arrows that can insta-kill monsters. I bought lots of these and used almost all of them on the robot spider, not because it was a difficult fight, but because it was a long fight and I was so sick of it.

Combat challenges are great, as long as they’re challenges. Most Zelda games play around with this idea; many of the recent ones have dedicated challenge towers where you fight gauntlets of foes, one after the other, in large groups or in novel combinations. You fight a darknut, then two darknuts, then a darknut flanked by moblins, then a wizzrobe flanked by darknuts, and on like that, yeah? That’s not what this is. This is one monster, individually, repeated again and again. There are twenty of these shrines, out of 120 in the game.

It gets worse. Many of the shrines are empty. No puzzle, no interaction, no nothing. Loading screen, treasure box (which is probably garbage you don’t want), and a purplie. Nothing to think about, nothing to do, nothing at all. Some of these empty shrines can be forgiven, because they’re tied to interactions out in the world. Accordion-playing birdman gives you riddles, and interpreting these riddles leads you to shrines, for example. Or you play a little minigame, or put a block on a pedistal at a particular time of day, and — poof! — shrine. These aren’t my favorite kinds of Zelda puzzles, but I see the merit in them. They’re similar to the little tasks you accomplish on the tiny islands strewn across Wind Waker.

But sometimes there is no quest, no riddle, and no world interaction. You stumble on a shrine, go inside, and nothing. Dead air. I don’t know how many of these there are in the game; it’s hard to judge because I can’t know how many are just “naturally empty” and how many are tied to NPC quests I didn’t initiate. But that doesn’t matter, these empty shrines always felt like a gut-punch, no matter how I found them or what I did to open them. I think the only way I could have hated these more is if I went inside one and an old man demanded I pay him for door repair charge.

It gets worse. The majority of the shrines I found weren’t empty, and weren’t the robot spider… they were just flat out insulting. The very lowest of the low in video game puzzle design. Think of any classic or modern Zelda dungeon where you find an important item in the big chest. Usually, you need to use that item to get to the next room, and usually, that interaction is the most basic form of the item’s use. You grapple across a gap, or dominate a statue and bounce it out of the way, or fire an arrow into an eyeball switch. Then the door opens, and you do the rest of the dungeon.

Most of the shrines in Breath of the Wild fall into that category, except replace “do the rest of the dungeon” with “finish the shrine.”

You step into a shrine, there are leaves everywhere. You use one of your many firestarters to burn the leaves. They were blocking a door; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are wind gusts blowing across a gap. You glide across; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are two metal blocks with ladders on them. You stack them and climb up; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there’s a raft floating on the water. You jump across effortlessly, and now there’s another raft, except this time there’s an obvious cracked wall. You blow it up; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there are balls arranged in a pattern and a sign saying “put this pattern in the other shrine.” You leave, and across the gorge is another shrine, with a second pattern and the same sign. You swap the ball patterns; that’s it, two shrines over.

You step into a shrine, there are balls rolling down a ramp. You use your stopwatch to freeze the ball and now it’s safe to run up the ramp; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a ball dangling from a rope. You shoot the rope with an arrow and it falls on a switch. The next room has two balls dangling from two ropes, so you do the same thing again; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a ball bouncing back and forth in the air. You use your magnet to grab it; that’s it, shrine over.

You step into a shrine, there is a thing. You do the immediate obvious thing without thinking about it, because why think about it, who cares, it was the right thing; that’s it, shrine over.

Folks who say Link “only” has four toys in this game (magnet, stopwatch, bombs, ice) are selling him short. He has a bow with lots of arrows, a torch, a boomerang, a wind-generating korok leaf, a glider, a camera, a fifty-foot vertical jump, a massive electricity-generating swirl attack, various passive equipment, bananas, the list goes on. More than enough to fill an entire inventory screen, and even more than that when you take into account his basic movement is vastly expanded over previous games. There are countless great gameplay concepts that could be explored with these items, or combinations of them, and with 120 shrines you would think these would get explored. But they never do. Not even close. There are “bomb shrines” and “glider shrines” and “ice shrines” but they simply don’t achieve a level of complexity beyond “do the immediate, obvious thing”.

I had been told by so many people who had played Breath of the Wild that these shrines were awesome, that they could stand in the place of traditional Zelda dungeons and maybe even surpass them. I was so excited at the prospect of 120 of these things, even forewarned with the knowledge that some number of them would be combat challenges or NPC interactions. To say I was disappointed is a massive understatement. Virtually the entire game I was looking forward to, that I was expecting, simply wasn’t there.

Oh yeah, and you know how Link can climb anything? One of the game’s major selling points, leading to the sense of freedom and exploration that is Breath‘s core experience? You’re not allowed to climb inside of shrines. For some reason. A major key feature of the game, easily the most iconic new thing Link can do, and there are zero puzzle shrines designed around the idea. But don’t worry, there are four (that I know of) designed around motion control gimmicks! Have fun!

I admit, I am overstating this point for dramatic effect, but only slightly. I can recall a handful of shrines I didn’t like, but also recognize weren’t absolutely pointless. There was an observation puzzle, which I cracked after three minutes of mulling it over, that didn’t amount to more than simple counting. I didn’t like it, but I can see how someone might find the process enjoyable. There were a few shrines I simply bypassed by using some piece of equipment. Some designer cooked up lots of interesting ways to move fire around, but these “puzzles” were always thwarted by fire arrows, of which I had a functionally limitless supply. Maybe if I went back to those and solved them “fairly” I’d find something to like, but I doubt it.

Some shrines had hidden treasure boxes to find. (Well, all shrines have treasure boxes to find, but only some have boxes hidden with more thought than “look up” or “pick up the metal treasure box with your magic magnet”.) These boxes were, on average, more cleverly secured than the shrine exit. Some required grasping a genuinely clever twist on the shrine’s main idea to reach. Outside of the seven good ones, this was the most fun I was able to eke out of the shrines, but of course the boxes only ever contained weapons or rupees that I didn’t need.

Pictured: a shot from the upcoming Zelda/Final Fantasy XIII crossover.

I liked Breath of the Wild a lot. I also didn’t like it a lot. And I’m worried. This is the most popular Zelda game to come out in a very long time, maybe since Ocarina of Time. If this is what Zelda is changing into, the future looks like a Zelda without dungeons, or at least, with only the most trivial of dungeon content. This isn’t like losing Mega Man or Castlevania, where passionate indie developers are ready to pick up the slack with spiritual successors. Only Nintendo does Zelda dungeons, and it looks like the overwhelming majority of Zelda fans are happy to see them go away.

I’m glad people love this game, I’m happy so many people have exactly the game they want. I’m not a monster (usually), I don’t want a world with less joy in it. But it’s still a bummer for me, because nobody’s got my back with Zelda dungeon content.
I play a lot of adventure-ish games that almost get it, you know, your Tomb Raider and your Ittle Dew and maybe even Beyond Good & Evil if that sequel ever comes out. But these games don’t have Water Temples. I can’t eat a picture of a sandwich.

Thank you for reading many thousands of words about Zelda!

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5 comments to The Warts on Breath of the Wild

  • gord

    Well put together but i feel you are selling your opinion short by saying it’s just the shrines, it’s just the reward system, it’s just the structure.

    personally i loved my first 20~ hours with the game, then i got grumpy for the next 40. i played it the day it came out so i didn’t have people telling me it was the greatest game ever made.

    After 6 months or so to think about it I’ve basically decided what it does have is promise, I can see something in this game design but once those 20~ hours were over – the theoretical game i thought it would be never materialized.

    The dungeons never came, the interesting towns and villages never came, my interesting combat never came, my traversal systems never came. the game you are playing in the first three hours is the exact same game you’ll be playing in your 60th hour. there is no progression, not in the game design, not in the world building, not in the items you carry nor the equipment you bare.

    so what you are really left with is a game that feels primordial – Nintendo can put their shine on that primordial game – which is where you’ll find your ounces of fun. but it’s still that 10% of a game in a world where i have all these other games that feel 100%.

    it also doesn’t help that I immediately played Horizon: Zero Dawn after this game and had 10x the fun. so i can’t climb a mountain who cares, it’s actually fun to play.

  • OwenQuillion

    Apologies for this short spam comment, WordPress is being mean to me and I’m trying to see if it’ll let me post at all.

  • OwenQuillion

    Well here’s the actual meat of the thing, for the third time. Let me see if I can be concise for one in my life; I want to thank you for doing a full article on it because I’ve always enjoyed your writing, Brick. It’s a shame I wasn’t able to lurk in the streams, but perhaps that was for the better.

    The most important thing: I think your opinion is generally overly critical, but I agree – the Zelda dungeon is certainly an endangered species.

    Breath of the Wild was grossly overhyped because it was a Switch launch title – many folks I spoke to/read/whatever pushing it as the best thing since whatever were either the type who’s checked out of Nintendo games or gaming in general since the Wii era, and thus don’t have much else to compare it against. Others just aren’t very introspective. I was lurking in a Twitch stream a month or so out from the game’s release and Brick had an opinion that basically amounted to ‘everything people say Breath of the Wild does was done by Morrowind or some similar game’.

    That got me pretty miffed because while true, it felt dismissive of the Nintendo polish applied to it. I think that polish is present in the world design, the traversal mechanics, but missing in the overall structure of the game as the article points out, most egregiously in the shrines. I don’t know how much of what you say is intentional hyperbole (like, at all) Brick, but most of the Shrines are either busywork or a physics gimmick. I enjoyed wrapping a ball and chain around the rafters the first time, but otherwise they were closer to those holes you fall into in Ocarina of Time than a proper dungeon. I feel similarly about the Divine Beasts, especially once I realized they all share the same dungeon-flipping gimmick.

    I find it amusing to criticize the combat, which is serviceable-if-not-revolutionary z-targeting Zelda style combat when the previous kings of the genre (Skyrim, Fallout) had core conflict mechanics that were imbalanced, wonky, or both. (I confess to not having played Horizon or really anything similar since Fallout 4 / MGSV)

    At this point I feel that the best we can hope for is BotW-esque Zeldas and the somewhat-more-classic-but-still-experimental games like A Link Between Worlds. The guard seems to be changing at Nintendo, and while that’s producing some great new IP, we may be losing some of those classics. (I saw this in the-Metroid-game-that-must-not-be-named-but-isn’t-Fusion-or-Other-M, too).

    Anyway, thanks if you read all that – it’s something I’ve wanted to puke out on the page for months. Hopefully WordPress doesn’t screw it up again.

    • rscibbe

      I know what you mean by “Nintendo polish”, it’s part of why I enjoyed exploring BotW for as long as I did, absent some other motivating factor (like Skyrim’s quest lines). 40 hours is a long time for me to play a game. We were discussing Zelda tonight at my D&D game and we agreed this is something that makes the game special.

      I didn’t want to get much into combat in my post, because I needed those precious paragraphs to whine about shrine content, but a short summary is that I think combat in the game is mostly fine. Switching weapons on the fly is something I did often, learning when to go for the big swing with an axe vs. quick pokes with a spear. Definitely more engaging than combat in an Elder Scrolls game. What I have an issue with is the healing system, where you can carry upwards of 60 full life bars in your back pocket, and tap them whenever you want. There’s no tension in BotW combat unless you make up rules for yourself to not just heal back up to full after every hit.

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

  • TE-Ryan

    Have you played the Darksiders games? They have VERY Zelda-esque dungeons.

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