I’m sure this won’t surprise any long-time readers, but I don’t like open-world games. The reason for this is quite simple: open-worlds don’t exist for a gameplay reason. Games started getting bigger as technology improved. This allowed developers to create vast, virtual worlds the likes of which we’d never seen before. It was truly amazing! However, this technical innovation was completely divorced from gameplay. Sure, you had more to do, but there was no mechanical benefit to making your game’s world so large.
As a result, we’ve seen the sub-genre devolve into a collection of games that prioritize quantity over quality. They’re chock full of repetitive busywork that, more often than not, feels like going through a checklist of chores. I know this is some folk’s bread and butter, but I find it really unappealing. Furthermore, most of these games feature traditional linear narrative structures, despite their open-ended design, meaning the story feels at odds with the rest of the game. Thus whenever I play one of these chonkers, I quickly become disinterested and check out well before the story has made any meaningful progress.
Despite my immense dislike for this style of game, I think it is important to stay somewhat up-to-date on the state of the industry. As such, I occasionally slither out of my cave to see if the open-world sub-genre has evolved at all. My hope is to find a game that actually utilizes its world in a meaningful capacity to create an experience that otherwise couldn’t exist. However, thus far I’ve been rather unsuccessful on that front, and am always greeted by a never ending checklist of things to collect, experience bars to fill, and skills to unlock. I still have a tiny ember of hope though, so I’ll continue experiencing disappointment for as long as it takes.
So with 2022 shortly on the horizon, I decided that it was once again time to check in with open-world games. Looking at what was released over the past few years, I wasn’t able to narrow down exactly which game to play, so I put it to a Twitter poll. Voters had the choice between Red Dead Redemption 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Breath of the Wild. After a week-long voting period, Breath of the Wild narrowly won by a few votes, so it was decided that I would play through it to determine the state of open-world titles.
After 8 days, 86 shrines, 130 Korok seeds, 4 divine beasts, and a fuckload of broken weapons, I can say with confidence that Breath of the Wild utilizes its world for gameplay and mechanical reasons. While this was a refreshing change of pace, it still runs into a lot of the same problems as its contemporaries, while suffering from some uniquely Zelda problems. So, here’s some mind-stew on my time with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Your journey starts off on the Great Plateau. This area is designed as a tutorial and all players, regardless of skill level, are forced to play through it. I found the extremely long-winded nature of the tutorial zone to be a little frustrating. Instead of having everything laid out for me, I would have preferred to discover things on my own. Don’t get me wrong, I think the tutorial works well for certain types of players, but I’d have appreciated being able to bypass it.
After escaping from the tutorial, I was dropped into the same Hyrule we’ve seen Nintendo use again and again for the past 35 years. There’s a volcanic mountain, a lake, a desert, and a big green nothing to connect it all. For folks who are more attached to Zelda than I, I’m sure seeing Hyrule rendered on this scale was amazing, but for me, it wasn’t a great first impression. Using the same landmarks in almost every Zelda game gives the franchise a sense of homogeneity that I find makes it a little bland. This introduction did little to challenge my existing preconceptions, so I was convinced I was in for more of the same. However, I would soon learn that would not be the case.
As I went about my merry way, I continued to have my preconceptions go unchallenged for quite some time. It wasn’t until I was working out how to climb to the fiery summit of Mount Doom, aka Death Mountain the iconic volcano featured in numerous Zelda titles, that things changed. As I was scouting the surrounding wastelands for an obvious path up the mountain, I eventually found myself in the Akkala region. This location is home to many bright primary coloured trees and rolling hills not unlike the various wildlife parks where I live in Canada. Visually it was so far removed from the placid, green, grass filled Hyrule Fields that I was in awe as I rode through the area on horseback.
While I expected the joy of discovering Akkala to be a one off event, I felt a similar sense of wonder when I later discovered the tropical jungle of the Faron region, as well as the snow filled mountains of Hebra. It may sound like a stupid thing to be excited by, but these areas are so far removed from what Nintendo typically throws into Zelda games. Finding and exploring each was a much needed breath of fresh air and I thoroughly enjoyed going through them. Akkala still stands out as my favourite, but I’m fairly certain that’s because it reminds me of home.
My experience finding Akkala, Faron, and Hebra encapsulates what I believe makes Breath of the Wild special. Nintendo went all in on the idea that players would feel intrinsically motivated to explore the game world. There are several areas where discovery and exploration are meant to be a reward and gameplay. In my previous examples, finding the colourful fields of Akkala was a breath of fresh air. While it didn’t benefit me mechanically, I appreciated finding something so different in a game that otherwise appeared to be treading familiar ground. Likewise, scouting for a path up the volcano required me to take in details about my surroundings. Sure, I could just run in blind, but I might have a far easier time if I plot out my route in advance by engaging with what I’m observing. In this way, the world design in Breath of the Wild feels like a part of the gameplay experience instead of the glue that connects the various hubs.
While the world design is utilized for gameplay, it should be said that Hyrule is too big. Way too big, in fact. There is so much map and the overwhelming majority feels underutilized. While I enjoyed finding and exploring Akkala, it’d be disingenuous for me to say it wasn’t sparsely populated. The same can be said for the other fourteen regions, creating a pervasive feeling of emptiness across Breath of the Wild. In truth, if you told me an AI generated the map I’d believe you. There are small areas that feel handcrafted, but the overwhelming majority is thoughtlessly thrown together. This problem of size is brought into even sharper focus if you compare Breath of the Wild to its contemporaries.
One such game that I feel handles open-world design better on a smaller scale is Outer Wilds. This game has a similar approach to exploration and discovery, but puts the player into a space that can be explored in its entirety in a much shorter time frame. Getting to the next exciting discovery in Outer Wilds takes a matter of minutes, instead of several hours. As such, the play space doesn’t feel sparsely populated in the same way that Breath of the Wild does. So, while Breath of the Wild utilizes its world effectively, it still struggles with the scale of it, and I’m of the opinion that the game would be improved by dramatically shrinking the world.
Shrinking the world’s size would also help in addressing Link’s glacial movement speed. While you can ride on horseback, you’ll run into an issue whenever you want to head into the mountains, or any of the vertical spaces that are littered all over the map. The real rub is that Nintendo knows Link’s movement speed is too slow. I say that because there is an armor set that allows him to climb faster. I always think it’s dumb when there is an annoying aspect to a game that is patched up with a skill, and it’s no less dumb seeing Nintendo do the same thing here. I spent a lot of time wishing Link could move faster, and doing so could have helped to make the world feel less large.
Apparently the denizens of Hyrule are also intimidated by the sheer scale of Hyrule, because few of them appear to interact with groups outside their own. I understand how it’d make sense for each of the home areas to be mostly populated by their native inhabitants, but it feels very video gamey never seeing Goron, Rito, or Gerudo shops in any of the Hylian villages or vice versa. Outside of the Zora, none of the groups seem to have ill will toward one another, so you’d think there would be a lot more diversely populated cities and towns across Hyrule. While this wouldn’t make the game more fun, the lack of diversity was a persistent reminder that I was playing a video game.
You know what feels even more video gamey than the population distribution though? Towers that fill in your map. I had to go out of my way to visit these throughout my journey and they offered very little aside from the aforementioned filling in of the map. There’s already so much vertical space strewn across Hyrule that players can use to navigate by sight, so the inclusion of towers feels extremely awkward. I’d have preferred it if I was able to explore and fill in my map as I went, much like you can in Hollow Knight. Having to go out of my way to visit a tower was such a pain in the ass. However, climbing the 14 towers across Hyrule wasn’t anywhere near as persistent of a problem as the Koroks.
While sightseeing was my favourite aspect of the game, there is more to Breath of the Wild like the Koroks. They’re cute little forest gremlins hidden throughout the world, which act as a piece of Breath of the Wild’s progression system. Once the player interacts with a specific trigger, the Korok will reward them with a seed that can be traded for additional inventory space. Some of these triggers include moving a rock, shooting nuts out of a tree, or simply existing in the right spot. If that all sounds fairly random: congratulations, we’re on the same page. And let me tell you, the more I had to deal with Koroks, the more I hated the little scrungaloids because of how repetitive they were.
To illustrate why Koroks feel repetitive, you only need to look at the volume of them. There are 900 Koroks spread across the map, but obviously Nintendo didn’t create unique “puzzles” for all of them because that would be insane. So most players, like myself, are going to run into a lot of repeats and that quickly becomes a frustrating exercise in tedium. While I thought Koroks were cute at first, by my tenth time lifting a rock I was already exhausted, and this only continued to get worse as I hunted down more of them.
“But Frosty,” I hear you ask, “Why didn’t you just ignore them if you hated them so much?” Great question. You already know the answer though: I needed additional trouser space. We can’t have anything nice so Link starts the game with limited inventory. You’ll be swapping weapons an annoying amount until you unlock an additional 8 or 9 slots for melee weapons, along with some spare shield and bow slots. It took me over a hundred seeds to bump my inventory up to a size where I wasn’t constantly having to hot swap every time I came across something new and I think that’s completely unacceptable.
Tight trousers and Koroks may have been the source of many woes, but I found Shrines, the other half of Breath of the Wild’s progression, far more agreeable. Shrines are scattered across the world map, though with far less frequency as there are only 120 of them. Completing one will provide players with an orb, 4 of which can be traded for a health or stamina upgrade. Unlike Koroks, the majority of Shrines have a unique puzzle, challenge, or quest associated with them. They also make use of Link’s tools and the systemic mechanics of the games, so they have more depth than the comparatively barebones Korok puzzles. Despite this, Shrines still fell short for me in a lot of ways.
Thanks to the non-linear design of Breath of the Wild, Nintendo can’t assume which Shrines you’ve completed, so none of them build on one another mechanically. This is a huge miss as puzzles that gradually ramp up in complexity are a hallmark of what most people, myself included, enjoy about Zelda games. I believe this could have been accomplished if puzzles were grouped together into a set, and swapped dynamically as players entered various Shrines throughout the world. In this way, Nintendo could increase the complexity as players demonstrate their understanding of a given set of mechanics. It’s not a perfect solution, but it would add some much needed depth to Shrines as many of their puzzles are painfully easy to solve.
Despite being limited to one off mechanics, the Zelda team still managed to sneak a handful of clever Shrines into the game. One of my favourites required navigating a maze filled with powerful guardian enemies. Once I made it to the centre, I was rewarded with my prize. Or there’s Eventide Island, which strips you of all of your gear and asks you to solve a few combat related challenges using only what is available on the island. You could run into battle screaming like a caveman, but a stiff breeze can blow Link over so each of these encounters is a lot more tense than standard combat. Furthermore, smart use of your Sheikah Runes or creative use of gravity can help players to more easily navigate the challenge of Eventide. I really wish more Shrines had been like this as it highlights how much more interesting the game would have been if every Shrine was this involved.
Unfortunately, a few clever ideas don’t save Shrines from eventually sinking into the same tedium Koroks do. With so many of them being simple puzzles, it was really hard to stay interested in them long-term. And just like Koroks, players will need to keep engaging with Shrines to buff up Link’s pitiful health and stamina because we aren’t allowed to have anything in Breath of the Wild without first putting in the work. Yay.
However, while some problems vanish after you spend enough time upgrading Link, combat never stops being kind of crap regardless of your time spent on it. It’s been my experience that each new 3D Zelda game has introduced some new combat gimmick while building on the lock-on system from Ocarina of Time. Unfortunately for Nintendo, the industry has come a long way since 1998 and Breath of the Wild’s heavy reliance on lock-on feels antiquated. While you can flail around without using it, every weapon’s moveset is built around locking onto your target. Counter attacks (called flurry rush) and parries are also impossible to perform without first locking onto a target. Thanks, I hate it.
Of course, we can’t mention combat without also mentioning the much maligned weapon durability system of Breath of the Wild. Weapons break so often that players will need to treat them as if they’re completely disposable. While I can see why folks hated it, I wasn’t personally that bothered by it. I decided fairly early that combat was toilet water, so I went out of my way to avoid engagements wherever possible. The few times I did end up fighting I’d rely on bombs as they did incredibly high knockback, which created a large enough window to escape. Bombs also cause most enemies to drop their weapons, which can help with restocking if you need a new whacking stick. This was such common behavior that Miranda started calling me the Unibomber whenever she was watching me play. So…yeah. Boomsticks good. Weapon durability bad.
Disposable weapons aren’t the only contentious change in Breath of the Wild, as Divine Beasts were introduced to stand-in for traditional Zelda dungeons. Unfortunately, they’re awful. The Divine Beasts are 4 giant robot animals that roam around Hyrule, which you can tackle in any order you’d please. Because of this, there is a completely flat difficulty curve for this part of the game, so they’re all dead simple. Each contains 5 unrelated “puzzles” that are usually easier to solve than most of the Shrines. Compared to the long legacy of dungeons from across Zelda’s history these things are shameful, but even in the context of Breath of the Wild they come up short.
Finally, the story. It’s bad.
The overwhelming majority of open-world titles don’t work on any level when it comes to story. They always feature completely linear narrative structures (i.e. the three act structure) that force the player into restricted gameplay paths or solutions, which feels completely at odds with the free, open design of the world. There’s also a common joke in gaming circles about how players will eschew the main story in favour of completing side content. This always hinders the pacing and delivery of the story while entirely invalidating the stakes of time sensitive objectives or plot points.
Breath of the Wild exists as yet another example of a game that completely fumbles delivering a narrative within an open-world context, by electing to not even have a story. Instead, players can watch a random assortment of flashbacks which focus on characters and events from a hundred years prior. Seeing snippets of these events through flashbacks does very little to actually engage the player with any kind of story. Furthermore, you can view them in any order so if you view one of the later ones first, like I did, you’ll be extremely confused. Not that it mattered as the narrative scraps don’t amount to much.
While many of my points were negative, I had a fairly enjoyable time with Breath of the Wild. This is owed to the majority of my time being spent on exploring the various mountains, forests, valleys, and ruins of Hyrule which happened to be the one aspect of the game I enjoyed consistently. So, yes, while I thought the Shrines were lacking and actively disliked the Koroks, combat, dungeons, story, and towers, very little of my time playing the game was spent on each of these aspects which meant their ability to damage my experience was minimized.
As far as open-world games go, I think Breath of the Wild is a star student in a remedial class. This is the first game I’ve played where the open-world was actually used for a gameplay purpose. I was actively using vantage points, seeking alternative routes, and running off to things in the distance. I was engaged with the open-world design, which puts Breath of the Wild ahead of many other games I’ve played. However, it still employed the majority of the same design decisions that make other games in the sub-genre tedious, leading to an experience that feels similarly uninspired. Every fucking open-world needing to recycle content to fill out the game should speak for itself. If you don’t have enough unique and interesting gameplay to fill your giant map consider shrinking it down. It’s not about the size, it’s about how you use it.