The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild review

Bigger isn't always better.

Let’s just rip the bandage right off: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (hereafter BOTW) is one of – if not the – worst 3D Zelda games in the series’ long history. Take a second. Let that sink in. Breathe. Now let’s keep going.

It’s been six years since the last console entry in the Zelda series – the Wii’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. After originally being in development for the Wii U, it releases March 3 on both the Wii U and as a launch title for the Nintendo Switch.

But after all that, BOTW wasn’t worth the wait. Along the way it lost something in its attempt to break many conventions of the Zelda series, while also somehow clinging too tightly to others. It’s a long-winded, bloated affair that is the video game equivalent of double spacing your homework just to try to make something lengthy.

The long development time for BOTW did result in one thing: It’s by and large the vastest Zelda title yet, and it does represent change to a series that was in need of a shake up. However, most of BOTW’s changes are frustratingly implemented in ways that hinder the overall experience.

The game also never manages to justify its size. It’s a Jurassic Park-esque example of a studio doing something because they could, not because they should. Essentially, BOTW takes a disappointing and mediocre Zelda story, shatters it into pieces, then spreads those pieces thin across hours and hours of walking and exploring. Almost everything BOTW does has been done better in one form or another in a different game in the series.

Players can even avoid the story altogether if they choose, and walk right up to the lair of the end boss.

BOTW is giant open-world game (which here means you can walk from one end to the other without any loading or screen changes) that drops you off at the start of the adventure with little but your skivvies. Right from the start of the game, players can pretty much do what they please, however they please to do it. You are equipped early on with runes that you can use to manipulate various objects with factors like time and magnetism. From there on out you have pretty much everything you need to complete the game. Players can even avoid the story altogether if they choose, and walk right up to the lair of the end boss. Dealer’s choice.

I do think that BOTW has a chance to appeal to people who either haven’t liked Zelda in the past or have fallen away from the franchise. Fans of the series, however, are going to be in for some potentially disappointing culture shock.

The Trail We Blaze

Link’s stamina meter frustratingly hinders the main new pillar of the game: exploration. A comparison to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is probably apt, because you are going to be climbing and walking and traveling and riding horses and scaling a lot of rocks and then walking more and I could keep going on and on and on but you probably get the point by now. Except a book doesn't prevent you from flipping a page every few moments because your stamina meter ran out.

You can expand Link's stamina meter just like his health with orbs you get from shrines, but if a game wants to foster exploration, it shouldn’t be punishing players at every step of the way.

For a game based around travel, there’s no reason that actually traversing it should be a chore.

Let’s just call it the “After Slowly Climbing A Billion Rocky Walls and Towers It Isn’t That Fun Anymore” rule. Given the size of the game, getting places takes time, and the traveling you must do to further story is onerous. For a game based around travel, there’s no reason that actually traversing it should be a chore. Why make climbing slow and harder than it needs to be? The same goes for swimming. At one point, climbing got so boring, I got on social media while Link slowly dilly-dallied. Walking around gets boring, too. You can travel by horseback, but the horse controls -- at least for the horse I had -- are never great, either.

Starting off to explore, travel, or leaving a location to set out again can be fun and exciting, but like many other parts of the game they become a chore. The exploration isn't woven into the narrative, and starts to become exploration simply for its own sake, not there to serve any other purpose besides eating up your playtime.

These core tenets of the game are continually at war. Some people will climb and explore stuff just because it’s there. I need a reason. Even after beating the game, there are entire areas of the map that were unused for the story that I haven’t gone to yet. Are there little discoveries along BOTW’s sprawling journey? Sure. But it’s mostly a wide and empty world.

There's also a reason most stories we experience don't tell us every second of every moment of a character's life; most of the little moments don't matter. Most stories don't lie in the in-between So it is in BOTW, yet the game makes you experience them nonetheless. Added to that, the side stories you do create have no bearing on any of the larger narrative arcs that BOTW includes and don't have any impact on Link. Most of BOTW can be summed up as: So what? So what if I can climb that mountain far away? Why does it matter? Why is so much traveling fun? BOTW fails to present a convincing answer.

With that, the other Nintendo titles that BOTW is bound to draw comparison to is Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X. But while the Xenoblade games have interesting alien landscapes, BOTW’s trees and fields are plain by comparison. It just doesn’t have the interesting environment design that the Xenoblade series does.

Most of Breath of the Wild can be summed up as: So what?

For people looking for classic Zelda puzzles, so-called shrines dot the landscape. The problem with the shrines is that puzzles removed from any environment or dungeon structure exist as puzzles just for the sake of having puzzles. It takes away the genius of the Zelda series and how puzzles usually slowly build and teach player’s a certain type of puzzle language over the course of a dungeon. Here, that language isn't really developed, with the shrines often lacking any larger kind of context.

The game does have dungeons, though only four. They can be completed in any order, a la The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. This approach does break up the linearity, but it also means that the dungeons have to be roughly on an equal difficulty. Most of them were pretty easy, but I also did get stuck more than I've been stuck in a Zelda game in some time.

To be fair, BOTW’s dungeons are possibly some of the better parts of the game, but they are also too short, repetitive, and rely on very similar mechanics throughout all of them, even down to the boss fights.

Tooth and claw

When playing most games, there’s normally a feeling that the game likes you, that it wants you to ultimately persevere. Not so in BOTW. In something that goes against almost everything Nintendo has previously communicated through its games, BOTW makes every task you need to do harder than it should be.

Your inventory is too small, and expands slowly. Weapons continually break – even the good ones you get – leading to one part late in the game where I ran out of swords and had to go around and continually attack a fort to reclaim some. If all of your bows break and if you are in an area that needs them... same thing. It didn't end up being a huge deal, but it’s bad design, and something that just shouldn't happen.

Another new element is cooking, which serves as how you make food and elixirs to bring back health and add other buffs to Link; no more finding hearts willy-nilly. The problem is that cooking is mostly done by trial and error, with no way to keep track of what recipes are successful, and which ones aren't. It’s another new and interesting idea thrown into the series in a way that isn't perfect, and I didn't like the necessity of it or how reliant on luck it was. Again: I'm not sure why Nintendo made almost everything in BOTW much more complicated than it needed to be.

That being said, difficulty is probably one of the few areas that I think BOTW did actually do something right: Zelda games have gotten too easy. But there’s a difference between actual difficulty and a game that just pummels you. Dying is an extremely common occurrence in BOTW, where it isn’t unusual for bosses or even run-of-the-mill monsters to take you out quickly. The constant death cycle wears on you – Zelda isn’t supposed to be Dark Souls, for crying out loud – and seems to be more of a result of enemies just hitting really, really hard, not because they are well-designed or offer a fair challenge.

Made even worse, the game’s save system makes you reload each time you die, meaning if you travel and then an enemy kills you (Which will mostly likely happen), you get the lucky reward of having to do that traveling again. I ended up in the habit of saving all the time. All. The. Damn. Time.

Zelda isn’t supposed to be Dark Souls, for crying out loud.

BOTW also seems to think that fans of the series love and relish the intro the GameCube's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where Link has to sneak around and avoid enemies. It’s probably one of my least favorite parts in any Zelda game, personally, and one of the reasons I don’t replay Wind Waker that often.

Stealth is the worst. Especially in Zelda games. If I wanted to play Assassin’s Creed, I’d play that. BOTW presents a version of Link where preparation or stealth take priority over rich and enjoyable sword combat, mostly due to the difficulty and strength of enemies.

I also feel like music needs to be mentioned, given how it's become such a huge part of Zelda games. BOTW’s quiet score fits the game, but it’s not the epic fanfare that Zelda’s titles usually have. I don’t think there’s a single new song in the game that would be worth revisiting, and there’s really only one redone theme that caught my attention. For a series that has been so thoroughly connected to music throughout its history, it’s a shame.

Tale as old as time

While some things have drastically changed, others have drastically reverted: Without getting into spoilers, BOTW’s story is pretty much the same old tale that Zelda games have been weaving for decades now. It’s a shame to see the main trio of characters – Link, Zelda, and Ganon – all reduced to their most basic forms, especially after the developed characterization the heroes received in SS.

There’s still a lot of Zelda’s backstory I haven’t unlocked – the unlock conditions are ridiculous – so there may be some more definition to Zelda buried in the game somewhere, and I’ve seen some hints to that. But Link and Ganon are pretty much as black and white and flat as ever, if not more so. Ganon exists as a lingering threat, but remains squarely in the background for most of the adventure. It’s fairly clear early on how the story is going to play out, and it follows that path pretty much to a Triforce-shaped tee.

It’s almost as if the giant world is trying to obscure the fact that BOTW is really just a plain, basic Zelda story surrounded by a lot of fat and fluffery. While there are some areas that BOTW seemed OK to really experiment with, story apparently wasn’t one of them.

Missing links

BOTW is also missing is a lot of what makes Zelda games feel like Zelda games and what fans have come to expect. The nuanced sword fighting and combat of SS? Gone. Most of the series’ classic items? Gone. Getting new items in dungeons? Also gone.

Honestly, I’m not sure how Nintendo got convinced that this is what fans want or expect from a game in the Zelda series. There’s no reason for Zelda to be open world when it's as empty as BOTW or traversing it becomes such a bore. It’s almost like Nintendo has forgotten why people like the series, and have instead modified its DNA to appeal to fans of other series and genres.

The control scheme takes getting used to and never really ends up clicking.

On the technical side, BOTW also struggles. The control scheme takes getting used to and never really ends up clicking, to the point I don't think I've had so much trouble controlling a Zelda game since the DS days.

Many reviewers (myself included) also had a repeated problem with the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers responding correctly: I’d stop pressing the stick and Link would just keep walking – and that problem continually happened on and off throughout playing. There’s also some really bad slow down when fighting a specific enemy type, and especially on bosses, there were camera problems too.

At the end of the day, BOTW is all about the journey – not the destination – and if you are the type of player that loves giant worlds and getting lost in them (or continually delayed satisfaction) BOTW is probably going to appeal to you. With it, Nintendo has created a sandbox, and there are good and fun moments to be had in said box, but there’s not enough of them compared to the amount of surrounding sand. Remove the excess, and BOTW really starts to fall apart. Some players are going to be content to just play in the sand box regardless — and that’s fine! — but this reviewer need more than that.  

All the time spent making a big open world could have gone into making things Zelda fans want and expect: many varied dungeons, cool new weapons, or an interesting story. Instead we got BOTW. Exploring can be fun, but it doesn't make up for a lack of other things I want and expect in a Zelda game, and while there are enjoyable moments in Breath of the Wild simply extending the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B does nothing to advance the series in a meaningful way.

Also, yes. Your horse can die. At the very least, learn from my mistakes.

Verdict: No