Breath of the Wild: The Open World Dilemma

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been showered in a chorus of praise since its release, and while I wasn’t ready to jump on the Nintendo Switch hype train, I did dust of my Wii U to give the game a shot.

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Reviews painted a picture of a world bristling with possibilities, a massive canvas to be unlocked through cleverness and ingenuity. I was particularly captivated by discussions of how to cross through wintry terrain. The author of one review mentioned that he and his friends had each found their own solutions, like cooking a warm meal or finding more heat-resistant clothing. In my play through, I devised a third solution: carrying a torch and simply running past any monsters that stood in my way.

The beginning of the game was a work of art. You learn various survival skills, from strategically chopping down trees to bridge a chasm, to raiding a camp full of sleeping mobs to steal their roasted meat. While restricted to the tutorial section, the game felt like the perfect mix of classic Zelda and modern game design. None of the extended tutorial of Twilight Princess. Off the bat the game felt right. And exciting. And fresh.

That magic carried me through the opening ours of the game, joyfully discovering landmarks around the map, sneaking through areas that seemed to exceed my character’s power level.

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Eventually I worked my way to one of the game’s four major dungeons, where I found myself stuck, momentarily. As you enter the dungeon, the game pans to a treasure chest containing a map. The chest itself is blocked behind jail-cell bars. The same bars that had, in a previous shrine (mini-dungeons that pepper the map), opened upon completion of a puzzle. I made the assumption that it would (again) open once a later objective had been met. Unfortunately, without the map (which holds controls for interacting with the dungeon itself), progress became impossible. I spoke with a friend who made the exact same “mistake”, so this may be an issue of poor communication on the game’s behalf.

Regardless, once I found the map, the dungeon became quite breathtaking. The mechanic for manipulating the dungeon via the map was novel, and the process of solving the total puzzle felt adventurous.

After completing my first major dungeon, I wandered through the map, gaining hearts en route to my second. This dungeon was almost insultingly easy. Boss included, the whole thing took a brisk 15 minutes. Even by the second time novelty of manipulating the dungeon via the map had worn off. This is where the game started to lose me.

The game incentivizes exploration by awarding items that strengthen your character, and this process implicitly links exploration to the primary goal of defeating Ganon. But what if your character is already strong enough? The connection to the main goals is severed. And without that connection, the act of exploring the map and completing shrines felt not only pointless, but actively counterproductive. My friend echoed this sentiment, claiming that over time the game felt more and more “chore-like”.

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Over time I found myself passing shrines without entering them, merely running to my destination. I never had to chop down a second tree, and eventually didn’t feel the need to engage enemies at all.

After finishing three of the four major dungeons, I took on the game’s final boss, and beat it rather easily.

Fundamentally, Breath of the Wild is a fairly challenging game, but once I had mastered the challenge, the game’s magic was lost. The game’s core mechanics were delightful, but I found myself wishing they were tied to a game that preserved its difficulty and early-game charm better. A Zelda roguelike perhaps?

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