By overwhelming players with tons of stuff to do, see, and collect in a “free” zone, open-world video games speciously condition us to believe that more is better. The audiovisual beauty alone of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is liable to convince you that this is actually true. The latest entry in the storied Legend of Zelda series invites players to gaze at and traverse natural wonders as diverse as dry grassy valleys and slippery mountainsides. And throughout your adventures, you may stumble upon technologically advanced temples that walk, or tucked-away cities where citizens remark about the harshness of the landscape. If you sneak up on monsters guarding a road, you can sense a collegial expressiveness in their grunts, and you may wonder what malicious tales they might have told each other as they sealed shut the treasure chests that the game’s hero, Link, seeks to pry open.
In Breath of the Wild, things appear to happen at random, so there’s pleasure in finding an item that makes your journey a less arduous one. A bow that can mightily shoot arrows across long distances feels like a godsend after having to make do with one that couldn’t help you get past the first round of a basic sharpshooting competition. But there comes a point in this game where its pleasures begin to feel like the engine of its tedium. Indeed, after you’ve traveled back and forth enough times through a particular territory, you can become desensitized to the sight of the same three or four types of animals—especially if you aren’t in any need of hunting them for their health-replenishing meat. You may even experience a sense of déjà vu while climbing yet another tower that, for the most part, isn’t that distinguishable from the last few you scaled in disparate parts of the game’s open world.
From a standpoint of action, Breath of the Wild goes out of its way to step beyond every Legend of Zelda title before it. This time, Link can jump whenever you want him to (as in the side-scrolling sections of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link), climb any mountain (provided that his paltry stamina wheel doesn’t run out), cook a stunning variety of dishes (you’re frequently rewarded for trying different combinations of ingredients), chop down trees, and more. Here the rules of gameplay, such as nearly every weapon breaking after repeated use, inspire a type of urgency and forethought that wasn’t demanded by the game’s predecessors, and variations on familiar elements of the series, such as having infinite bombs with cool-off times, allow you to develop fresh, individualized approaches to combat and puzzle-solving.
But it can take a player hours to leave the Great Plateau, Breath of the Wild’s introductory area, and actually experience the massive world beyond its seemingly mile-high walls. You cannot leave the plateau until you follow the orders of a mysterious old man, and as you explore this area, ransacking the same type of Moblin camp can get old fast. If you’re well versed already in the fight mechanics of recent Legend of Zelda adventures, you’re certain to find a run-in with a giant hidden rock enemy to be anticlimactic at best, especially given that this foe telegraphs its attacks too transparently and has an obvious weak point. Your weapons also deteriorate very quickly at this early point in the game, and even though switching between items is more convenient here than in most inventory-focused video games, it’s reasonable to balk at this tutorial-like annoyance of incessantly needing to replace your equipment.
Once you attain a paraglider, Breath of the Wild’s exploratory promise is fulfilled, but only up to a point. Nature’s elements will prevent you from doing what you want, and when these factors force you to adjust your actions in the moment, like not using a torch in the wind so as to avoid setting the grasslands around you on fire, the environment feels dynamic and alive. However, some elements, like cold and heat, will drain your health, so assuming you haven’t found special armor to protect yourself from these conditions, you may have to flip the circumstances in your favor by crafting the right kind of meals and elixirs, which require components scattered on the ground, under rocks, in chests and trees, and so forth. For some, this busywork may represent the sort of realism that makes any open-world game more fun. If so, then, why would anyone want to be so frustratingly taken out of Breath of the Wild’s splendorous vistas in any moment, especially after how long it takes for the game to grant you access to the wilderness in the first place, by necessitating that you open up a menu system after finding a suitable place to cook the ingredients necessary for your survival?
On top of this, the player must also account for Link’s rapidly depleting stamina throughout the game. It’s true that a stamina variable isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Nioh’s “Ki Pulse” stamina-management system, for example, is groundbreaking for how it establishes a rhythmic method of preventing stamina loss), and Breath of the Wild does provide you with ample opportunity to increase your maximum endurance. But given how the game dangles attractive countryside vistas before your eyes, worrying about how long you can run before needing to catch your breath means having to also wonder how long it will take you to finally and necessarily reach a scenic destination far off on the horizon. (It also bears noting that no amount of swinging or jumping will similarly deplete your stamina.) Making us experience the frustration of toil is Nintendo’s idea of realism with this game, which is at least more explicable than the developer’s trendy indulgence of the superfluous OCD-triggering features common to many open-world games, like a camera that allows you to collect snapshots of the animals, materials, vegetation, and other things contained within your surrounding environment.
Breath of the Wild’s questionable design choices might have been more excusable if Nintendo had dreamed up a better story. Losing sight of the mature attention to community-based heroism, world-weariness, and “love thy enemy” morality in the narrative of Majora’s Mask, Nintendo rolled again with the premise of having Link save Zelda and beat Ganon. Supporting characters will repeat exposition, and with little variation in detail, about an event 100 years ago during which Ganon took over the kingdom of Hyrule. At one point, a character named Mipha says, “Save her, Link. Save the princess. Save princess Zelda,” and the redundancy of this exchange laughably literalizes the single-minded devotion of the game to a tired formula. This is how Nintendo preaches to a largely converted choir instead of elaborating upon the Zelda myth in a humanizing or distinctly new way. And when the game does wind up for a curveball, the results can be jejune, as when Link must, for cheap laughs in the vein of Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud-in-a-dress scenario, don feminine attire in order to enter a woman-only city.
Ironically, the most compelling moments in Breath of the Wild, a game that seeks to be a trailblazing reinvention of a familiar property, revolve around a Zelda tradition: puzzles. Throughout, you can visit shrines that are basically miniature dungeons. The variation in design between these shines is vast, though not always equally rewarding, as some will feature a memorable brainteaser, such as a trial where you must guide a ball through a maze by turning and flipping over your controller, while others are little more than throwaway tutorials, such as the multiple cases where you fight the same kind of foe so as to learn a new evasion or countering technique. Thankfully, the full-fledged dungeons, though small in number, are more consistently imaginative. For example, when you find yourself inside a mechanical elephant, you’re not only able manipulate its internal mechanism but also the movement of its trunk from your map screen—and in this moment, you might realize that conquering this isolated device is what true heroism feels like.
Such electrifying and rewarding moments are scattered across the game and work to bring Nintendo’s dubious decision to draw inspiration from prototypical open-world games into sharper focus. Breath of the Wild could have taken a page from Westerado: Double Barreled, which rejected inventory menus and made nearly every screen in its open world relevant to an overarching theme of exposing a murderer. But Nintendo looked to the big-budget mainstream for answers, and that, along with the undeniable creative impulse that still exists within the company, is why Breath of the Wild plays as a conflicted combination of marketing logic and staggering artistry.
Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: March 3, 2017 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol Buy: Game