Let’s start with the good stuff. Breath of the Wild is a fantastic example of open world done right. I talked a little about this in my First Impressions post, but it’s something worth repeating. With so many recent open world games adhering to such formulaic structures, BotW is an incredibly refreshing experience.
After an initial tutorial zone, you can go anywhere in the world that you wish and you can tackle the core content in any order you choose. The only restrictions to your exploration are enemy strength and environmental hazards – but with careful planning, even these can be overcome. BotW offers a remarkable freedom to explore that puts so many recent ‘open world’ games to shame.
And this is a world worth exploring. As vast as the game map may be, every piece of it feels meticulously crafted. No matter where you go, how far or how high you climb, you’ll always find something on your travels. There will always be something to see or do.
The world of BotW is the real star of the show. But as large as it is, it’s not the size that’s truly impressive. It’s the small details that really matter. BotW is packed full of small details. Small details that bring the world to life in a way that the artificially structured zones of other open world titles nearly always neglect.
These details range from enemy animations and behaviour, to npc interaction, to wildlife, to environmental details . . . every piece of the world feels carefully considered. This isn’t just a collection of assets haphazardly thrown together to fill out a needlessly large map. This world feels real. It’s one of the most immersive open worlds you’ll ever experience and it’s an absolute joy to explore.
But not everyone may like this open approach to design. As I said in my post about the durability system, Breath of the Wild represents a significant departure from the formula of previous Zelda titles. In those, exploration was gated and progression structured by way of key items.
But in BotW, your key items – runes – are all unlocked after the initial tutorial zone. This a necessity to give the player the freedom to tackle any of the content in any order they wish. But if you’re a player who prefers a sense of progression similar to past Zelda titles, that’s not what BotW is offering.
Instead, its sense of progression comes primarily from your exploration, and the expansion of your map as you enter new zones. It also comes in the form of upgraded health and stamina bars, as well as new weapons and armour. But there’s no real progression in terms of quests, story or key items, even items as important as the iconic Master Sword.
You could, if you wanted to, head straight for the end boss after leaving the initial zone. The game gives you the freedom to do so, with or without completing the four main ‘dungeons’, any of the shrines, or even knowing the Master Sword exists. And I can understand why some people may not like this completely open approach to progression. For those expecting a more structured experience in terms of narrative and gameplay, you won’t really find that here.
So once you’re out in the world, free to go wherever you wish, what is there to actually do? There’s no template to zones in the sense that each has a set number of core and side objectives. In fact, some regions of the map will go entirely unexplored if you stick to purely ‘main’ quests. But each region does feature a variety of side quests and shrines to discover and complete.
The shrines are essentially puzzle rooms, based around the use of your runes. A few do offer combat challenges, but these are actually the most disappointing, as they’re all exactly the same, only with varying difficulty. In terms of quality, the puzzle based shrines are somewhat mixed. There’s over 100 shrines to discover in the world, the majority of which can be immediately accessed upon arrival, but others which may require a quest to unlock.
Some of them (including the associated quests) are very simple, easy and straightforward to complete, whilst others offer a genuinely clever and elaborate challenge. I completed over 60 of the shrines during my time with the game and overall, I’d say I enjoyed the shrines a lot. But I also can’t deny that there’s nothing particularly special about these ‘mini-dungeons’ either.
I’d have much preferred if they’d strung say, 5 or 6 of these puzzle rooms together. We’d then have less shrines, but perhaps more meaningful and challenging shrines. Another issue with the shrines is the disappointing reward they offer upon completion – a Spirit Orb which, when you have 4 in your possession, can be used to upgrade your health or stamina.
One of the joys of previous Zelda titles was completing challenging puzzles and dungeons and feeling that you received a unique and worthwhile reward for your trouble. But there’s nothing unique, surprising or interesting about the rewards for completing shrines.
I’d have loved it if they’d not only combined the shrines into more substantial experiences, but also provided more meaningful and randomised rewards – such as heart or stamina upgrades, armour pieces or unique weapons. Here’s the thing – I enjoyed the shrines, but there was no sense of mystery to them. I always knew exactly what to expect and exactly what I’d be getting at the end.
Side quests are also mixed in terms of quality. I completed so many I lost count, some of which were short and easy, whilst others featured multiple stages and were far more elaborate. I’m pleased to say that on the whole, very few fall into the tedious ‘go fetch X number of Y’ style quests, and the majority have some kind of narrative drive. The personal highlight for me was the side quest for purchasing and decorating my own home, which then branched into a lengthy secondary quest of helping to construct an entire town and recruiting new residents.
And then we have the main quests, although only one of these is technically required to complete the game – defeating Ganon. The others involve recovering your lost memories, finding the Master Sword, and freeing the Divine Beasts from Ganon’s control. And although none of these things are strictly necessary, you won’t be getting the ‘full’ experience if you don’t. This is especially true of the ‘lost memories’ quest, which you need to see the full ‘true’ ending to the game.
That’s something that kind of irritated me though, because one of the memories is actually located just before the final boss, but you’re then required to leave the area in order to complete the quest. It feels pretty silly fighting or sneaking your way to Ganon, only to turn around and f**k off at the last moment. And then you have to go all the way back again.
The Divine Beasts are essentially the main ‘dungeons’ of Breath of the Wild, but if you’re expecting anything similar to previous Zelda dungeons you may be sorely disappointed. Each Beast is pretty much just a large puzzle room with the odd (and pointless) enemy thrown in, based around a mechanic that lets you reconfigure the room on the fly.
And they’re . . . not that great, to be honest. I really don’t mind BotW doing something different with its approach to dungeon design, but given the top quality of the open world, the Beasts are rather disappointing in comparison. They’re all very short, basic and easy to complete. They all share the same aesthetic and the same puzzle mechanic.
They’re not terrible. Don’t get the wrong idea. A couple of them are actually quite clever. But in many ways, they’re less interesting and elaborate than some of the shrines I completed. And when compared to dungeons in previous Zelda games, they lack variety not only visually, but in terms of design, challenge and puzzles. There’s no unique theme or puzzle mechanic requiring the use of a particular skill or item. Also, the bosses kinda suck.
Each Beast ends with a boss fight, and this is the other major issue I have with BotW. The bosses are weak. Like the Beasts, they’re fairly short and easy fights. And both visually and tactically, they’re all essentially the same. If you’re expecting unique and varied boss fights, requiring clever solutions to defeat, then you’re going to be very disappointed.
And this sadly applies to the final boss fight which, due to the open nature of progression, has no real build up. There’s no sense of achievement at being ready to face the ultimate foe. Instead, it just involves running into a room, watching a cut scene as the big bad arrives, followed by a rather anti-climactic battle and a somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying ending.
It feels like the game would have benefited by dialling back the freedom just a touch, to help build that tension, that sense that you’re preparing for the ultimate battle. If it made securing the Beasts a necessity. If the bloody Master Sword was actually vital to victory. But it’s not.
It can’t be, because they’ve purposefully designed the game so that nearly everything you do is entirely optional. But when everything is optional, none of it feels important. As a result, when you do find the Master Sword, it’s incredibly underwhelming – especially when you realise you could have just as easily gone into battle against Ganon wielding a bokoblin club and prevailed.
It almost feels like BotW forgot about the Legend part of the title. The Legend of the Chosen Hero. The Legend of the Master Sword. Except in BotW, you can run straight to Ganon and start smacking him with a soup ladle. So much for the legendary ‘sword that seals the darkness’! I can see why some people might see this as a positive, but to me, it’s more of a negative aspect.
I missed that sense of needing to go on a grand quest to unlock the key items that are required to defeat the ultimate foe. In BotW, you don’t really need to do anything because it gives you all the necessary tools right at the start. So why bother? What’s really at stake? Where’s the sense of purpose and drive? I know there are those who will think this silly, that there’s no more incentive to doing these things just because they’re mandatory and it’s actually better if they’re not.
And I can’t quite disagree with that. I guess I’m kind of torn on the matter. I enjoyed everything I did to prepare for the final boss, choosing my own path and tackling each Beast in my own time and way – but when I finally reached Ganon and realised none of it really made any difference, it all felt a bit hollow.
In terms of story, I actually really liked BotW. It’s surprisingly bitter sweet. Essentially, the first battle against Ganon was lost and everyone died. But now you’re back to take one final shot. I liked it, and I liked searching for my lost memories to piece together exactly what went down. I just wish the gameplay progression more appropriately reflected your story progression.
Also, the ending. It’s so short and abrupt and then just kicks you back to a save prior to fighting Ganon. I’d have loved an ‘epilogue’ style post-game world and final quest where you recruit the other races to help you rebuild the castle or something. This would have been the perfect title to offer a meaningful post-Ganon experience, because there’s still so much to explore, discover and do.
Combat in the game is simple, but effective. I’ve already touched upon the durability system, so I don’t so again here. When combined with the environment and runes, the combat in BotW offers an enjoyable, varied and creative experience. Alongside the open world, it’s one of the highlights of the game. There’s so much to do, so many creative ways to combine your skills to explore or just f**k around.
It’s easy to lose yourself in the world of Breath of the Wild because the world is so damn fantastic. But I think you need to step back and look at the experience as a whole. Look at the real key elements of the game – those elements that push you forward throughout the experience. And those key elements – the core quests, the Divine Beasts and the boss fights – are all a little lacking. They almost feel like an afterthought, as if they were tacked on at the last moment.
They’re not bad – they’re just not as good as everything else in the game. But, for me, they are the most important elements of the experience – and ultimately, they failed to provide the quality, variety and challenge I expected. It’s such a damn shame, because if they’d nailed those aspects as fantastically is they nailed the open world, then maybe we really would have the perfect game.
Despite my criticisms and odd irritations, there’s no denying that the overall experience of playing Breath of the Wild was incredibly engaging, engrossing and most importantly – fun. It’s one of those rare titles that comes along and reminds you why you love video games so much. Breath of the Wild was a joy to play. I highly recommend it.