Breath of the Wild is a top-class Zelda game, the best since Majora’s Mask at least. If Majora’s Mask had a combat system like this one, and the Sheikah Slate and its runes instead of frequently putting up gates in your path as most games in the series have done, it’d be hard to imagine a better Zelda at all. Move on to the next paragraph before I say something like “Unless you count Dark Souls.” Sorry, too late.
It’s shocking how thoroughly the series dropped what it was previously doing to commit to the open-world genre. With the towers you go climbing to reveal map regions, it seems like Nintendo would have been walking into the trap of the bland, focus-tested Triple-A experience of Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, which not even The Witcher 3 resisted. This is what I was most worried about before the game was released. But I don’t really think that’s its problem. It hasn’t cut corners on that Nintendo charm; the atmosphere and approach to dialogue is up there with the best of their games. It’s super-Japanese, with NPCs standing outside of stores and calling you to go inside, and just being ushered into the inn in Goron City had me grinning stupidly, to say little of the process of getting into the Gerudo town, or more out-there encounters like the lady cooking mountainous piles of dubious food. There’s a real sense of character to the game, and you see it especially in the tribute to Satoru Iwata as a Princess Mononoke-esque noble beast.
As far as other series go, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dragon’s Dogma was actually the biggest influence on the Zelda team, being a well-received open-world title made right there in Japan, and it also letting you climb all over stuff and follow NPCs from their workplaces to their beds in that day-night cycle I love so much — even though here it’s mostly just used so you can get yelled at for trying to talk to people at 2 AM. Neither game tried to be Skyrim; Link is not a potential criminal. Geralt (in The Witcher 3) is fundamentally a good person too, but his is a rough world where he can be caught on the wrong side of the law for no reason other than that the laws were written by bastards. But Zelda games are bright worlds where the only evil is a reincarnating pig demon. There are no guards in the towns keeping an eye on you while you move between market stalls, and when you try to interact with a pumpkin in a cultivated field in the middle of the night, the game helpfully suggests that you come back in the daylight and try again when there’s a farmer you can give your rupees to. It’s more consistent in its good-heartedness than most games ever try to be, including Dragon’s Dogma.
However, the game is too extreme in its approach to open-endedness. I think this is the central flaw of Breath of the Wild. Yes, I love that you can run straight to Ganon once you leave the starting area and beat the game in an hour without having to glitch through a wall or something, and I love that you’ll most likely get your ass kicked if you do. But they gave up far too much control over the difficulty curve. Since they went as far as ruling that any place in the world can be the first place you travel to, everything is modular and feels disconnected. There are a few good exceptions, namely the forces of climate, which can be both very limiting in the early game, and also can be circumvented if you make the right preparations, such as by creating heat-resistance elixirs. I think this is the best way to do openness: you can go anywhere, but most options are a bad idea unless you really know what you’re doing. But you should just be doing this to get some good stuff early-on before returning to where you were, in your place in the linear questline. Morrowind was another game that let you push beyond your current level of progression by using the right scrolls or potions at the right time. But this only reflects the early game of BotW. Later on, climate means nothing beyond taking a couple tedious seconds to switch armor sets when fast-travelling to the other side of Hyrule. There’s nothing like The Glow from Fallout, where no matter how long you put off going there, you’re going to have to pop a lot of Rad-X and take it seriously.
In BotW you don’t find yourself taking many things seriously at all. It has its challenges (including the Trial of the Sword stuff I didn’t even want to do, because it spikes into being so hardcore that it doesn’t even let you save your game), but as a whole it’s dissatisfyingly easy in a way that can’t be fixed by playing on Master Mode. Frankly, it’s just too accommodating to be letting players teleport out of any situation or safely eat infinite food from the pause menu. And while I think climbing all over the terrain is cool, it wouldn’t have hurt to limit players more in this area without just by using the random element of rainy weather, as they do in shrines. The lead-up to Zora’s Domain, where it’s always raining the first time you make your way up there, feels like kind of the right idea, but I suppose you could even cheat your way around that one if you already beat the Rito dungeon and got the absurd Revali’s Gale power, which just lets you fly up over pretty much everything, and which I did not have when I was activating all the towers.
The world also feels a little too empty: rings of rocks hiding Korok seeds don’t fill a space the way a good sidequest does, and good sidequests are sorely lacking — hence the early mention to Majora’s Mask and what a good game the marriage of the two would be. And while you’re in for some amazing combat when fighting a lynel, most of the time you’re fighting bokoblins, moblins, and lizalfos. Humanoid enemies that can be killed without breaking three swords in your inventory are ideal, naturally, and the game is way more dynamic than most action games in terms of the way your ability runes come into play — distract the enemy with a bomb, drop a metal crate on their heads, and so on — or the way you can disarm enemies and make them use gimmicky weapons you drop. But these couple species just don’t go far enough to cover the Hyrule map.
There were some clever ideas hidden away in shrines — there are so many cool ways to make use of the remote bombs, stasis, magnesis, and cryonis powers and the shrines take full advantage — but they are the game at its most modular: they interrupt the exploration, rather than feeling like a part of it. Remember the interconnected caves in Link to the Past, where you’d fall down some hole and exit on a different part of the cliffside? Or experiencing the same places with changes when transitioning between the Light and Dark worlds? There’s none of that interconnectedness in BotW. Hell, there aren’t even caves, really. It’s all just surface — literally and figuratively. Hyrule Castle itself is pretty cool with its numerous entry points, waterfall paths, and bombable walls coming out from the dungeon cells back to the cliffside overlooking the castle moat, but that’s just a tiny fraction of the game.
The nostalgic power of the Zelda franchise is a nuclear bomb, with the music obviously right at the front of that. I’ve liked to see the series not rely too heavily on what came before, at least ever since Ocarina of Time 2: Twilight Princess followed the much stranger Wind Waker, but when it comes to the music and all those incredible motifs, it would be a shame not to use them. Unlike the recent Metroid game where I felt like they relied on the power of old tunes too much, BotW’s soundtrack is sparing. They really didn’t phone it in, say, pulling from Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Island for the new Rito Village. Other favorites include Vah Medoh, the horseback night music (with its original Zelda theme callback), and various offbeat tracks that would probably feel at home in Mother 3.
The DLC also goes in heavy on the nostalgia, especially if you count Amiibo clothing sets, but the Amiibo stuff is kind of ridiculous, and I won’t go much into that. I’m all for dressing up as older versions of Link and checking out the differences in their fashion, but it’s a little sad the way some of the more unique items are implemented. Take Majora’s mask itself. In The Witcher 3, there would’ve been some fantastic sidequest where the mask had already turned up and Link would have had to nip some situation in the bud before some NPC went insane. But instead, it’s just buried in the dirt near the start of the game. And all it does is combine the effects of other monster masks you find in the game. Couldn’t it have added some kind of hexing rune to the Sheikah Slate menu while worn? Something to target an individual enemy with, like the stasis rune? Wouldn’t that have been something?
The big piece of DLC, though, culminates in a whole new dungeon Link is ostensibly clearing because he wants a dirtbike, and for no other apparent reason except maybe to test his own mettle. It’s in line with what the players are in it for, I’ll give them that. The DLC dungeon may be the best of the dungeons in the game (a low bar really), with a rad boss fight and a set of interesting puzzles based around cogwheels that actually have to be lined up and connected properly. The dirtbike itself is fun, but unfortunately seems to use some horse code in determining where the bike is allowed to be ridden, even though the bike can launch off a lot of cliffsides and the horse can’t. Even if using it on Death Mountain would be suicidal, it should be my choice to die, goddamn it.
Perhaps this sounds like I’m leading up to a thoughtful closing statement about open design in the game world and what the freedom of the dirtbike says about the greater picture, but no, not really. They’re conflicting thoughts, if anything. I want tighter design in the game, but the freedom to make the elf boy to ride a dirtbike off the side of a volcano.