BotW’s Rain is the last thing to worry about
My love of Zelda started when my parents first brought home that iconic, purple lunchbox. There’s a saying that your first Zelda game is likely your favorite. I am by no means an exception to this rule, and the Wii U only reminded me how amazing my pick was with the phenomenal Wind Waker HD remake (Side Note, WWHD speedrunning is more alive now than ever. Look forward to plenty of speedrun features on that in the future). As time went on, I continued to buy and play every Zelda game I could get my hands on. Love Twilight Princess; highly conflicted by Skyward Sword; refuse to acknowledge the DS Wind Waker sequels (sorry Spirit Tracks fans).
Of course I bought Breath of the Wild. It’s an undeniably fantastic game. It was so good, in fact, I ranked every Breath of the Wild character (except for Beedle, whoops) Critical reception for the game has been unprecedentedly positive with Metacritic placing it as the second greatest video game to have ever been made before it even came out (currently dropped quite a few places).
However, Breath’s magic quickly disappeared. I became frustrated with the narrative structure and relative absence of key characters. I listened to podcasts, read reviews, scanned the comment sections of articles and found nothing but unbridled support. Declarations of unconditional love plaster the internet. I was frustrated by the Breath-colored blinders.
It is far from a perfect game. We just passed the game’s seven-month anniversary, so I feel enough time has passed to address some lingering concerns that the internet seems to largely be ignoring. As we dive into my persistent criticisms, remember that I really like this game. I just don’t think it comes close to being one of the greatest Zelda games of all time, like the entire internet seems to believe.
By the way, expect spoilers.
Player Freedom Kills BotW’s Characters
I ranked every single one of them. As far as I can tell, I’m the only person on the internet who even attempted such an absurd feat. If there was a person with enough credibility to discuss Breath of the Wild’s character-problem, it is probably me. After speaking to every single one of them, I can make this claim with confidence. They’re great. The writing is awesome. The characters are incredibly memorable (even if their names often aren’t). The character design is some of the best in the series. So what’s the problem? If I speak so highly of them, why do I cite this as one of Breath of the Wild’s failings?
This ties closely to the game’s issue with narration. Let’s look at a couple of fan favorites to emphasize some of the different problems. First, we have Riju and Sidon. I’m a huge fan of both for reasons I’m not going to get into here (again, see my rankings). They’re both critical when tackling their Divine Beasts and in those moments, they shine so brightly. When it’s done, they’re done. That’s it. Everything they’ve done, everything they are, their entire character arcs exist in these tiny fragments of isolated gameplay. Finish their Beast in the small, 15-45 minute Divine Beast lead-in and then they’re doomed to repeat the same dialogue tag for the rest of Breath of the Wild.
All of Breath of the Wild feels like four DLC mission packs layered on an open world, exploration game. All these awesome characters exist in their small questline. Look at the Bartender from Twilight Princess or Medli from Wind Waker (not to mention Midna, easily the best character in the franchise). They keep returning and influencing the story. They’re real characters who constantly shape the narrative at various times. Sure, you only talk to the Great Deku Tree (WW) before Forest Haven, but it’s a crime for such an interesting character like Riju to be confined to such a limited sliver of gameplay.
Then there’s Zelda. Link’s memories are clearly not about Link. The collectable cutscenes chart Zelda’s journey of self determination. In these moments, she makes for a pretty compelling character. She has doubt, failings, anger, sadness, things real people relate with. She also talks to you a couple times on the Great Plateau then goes radio-silent for the rest of the game. This dichotomy of “awesome in flashbacks” and “completely absent in the real game” is brutal. If there was ever a game to make the case for “Zelda should be the playable character,” it’s this one.
But, just like every other character in the game, Zelda is locked away in a prison of player agency. Riju can’t have a large role because the player has the right to completely avoid Gerudo Desert. Speedrunners do it all the time. This applies to Zelda as well. Every player’s adventure will look completely different. This freedom is Breath of the Wild’s biggest draw. To make Zelda an active NPC in the overworld travelling from spring to spring in attempts to awaken her power would strip that choice from the player. So, she’s locked in Hyrule, demoted to an end-game reward.
A Musically Challenged Soundtrack
I love soundtracks, especially Zelda ones (I express that love concisely in our “Definitive Soundtrack” list). Zelda has always been about the music, ever since the very first game’s title screen. No other franchise pairs fuego songs like “Gerudo Valley” and “Dragon Roost Island” with sad songs like “The Song of Healing” or “Midna’s Lament.” In fact, no other franchise has as many classic songs as Koji Kondo has produced for Zelda. Breath of the Wild contributes to this growing list as well. Breath’s title theme is haunting, natural, and a masterpiece in its own right (even Kass’ accordion cover rocks).
That rest kills me every time.
Name another song. Sidon’s theme is kinda nice. Mipha’s Theme will go down as a Zelda great, but otherwise Breath of the Wild is borderline devoid of any music. I vaguely remember the musical cues in Revali’s cutscenes working well, but “working well” should never be the best praise a Zelda song can get. The game’s ambient music is fine, but ultimately redundant and unimpressive. The adaptive battle themes are definitely there, though fall far short of the musical strikes Wind Waker Link delivers in combat. I partly blame the lack of dungeons. Some of Zelda’s best songs come from its dungeons. They build atmosphere, instilling dread, optimism, or both.
What comes after a dungeon? Boss battles. I’ll touch on Breath of the WIld’s bosses in a moment, but Zelda has some amazing boss themes as well:
I find a way to include this song in every article I write.
Breath simply doesn’t have these moments, lacking a fundamental aspect of the Zelda franchise.
Repetitive Enemy Re-Skins
Breath has snow, deserts, forests, volcanos, and everything else good Zelda games have. It doesn’t have enemy variety (leading to repetitive combat), memorable boss fights, or particularly diverse gameplay. The four Divine Beasts house four Ganon-clones, one for each theme (Water, Thunder, Wind, Fire). Their character models look almost identical and fit with the stone-carved aesthetic that drapes the entire game. Boss battles used to be series highs in the Zelda franchise. With bosses as creative as Bongo Bongo, Goht, or Skyward Sword’s fantastic Koloktos, even the biggest Breath of the Wild advocate must admit the element-blight’s were a misstep.
Even if Skyward Sword was a divisive game, Koloktos remains one of the franchise’s best bosses.
The Divine Beasts all look very similar as well (again, Breath’s overdone stone-machine motif). They emphasize Beast mechanics over unique and memorable designs. The puzzles are solid, but few. There are only about six puzzles per Divine Beast. Twilight Princess, on the other hand, had us saving monkeys, fetching stew-ingredients, chatting up elders, wrestling, and mini-bosses. It’s fine Breath of the Wild strayed from Zelda’s dungeon-item mechanic, but placing all the emphasis on “move the elephant’s trunk” is not a favorable substitute.
In the game, you’ll fight Hinoxes, Bokolins, Lizalfos, and the occasional Lynel. Instead of scattering unique enemies in different locations, Breath’s combat challenges stem from “This time, there’s just a whole lot of them. Hope you’re weapons don’t break.”
(As a quick sidenote, this lack of diversity kills Breath’s soundtrack for me. Every piece feels like some solo piano concert rather than versatile, mood-setting tracks. I would have mentioned it above, but it’s a repetitive thing, not an irrational piano problem)
So What Now?
Breath nails the sense of wonder and exploration that Zelda has stressed since that old man in a cave gave you a sword, but so much of the classic Zelda-formula is lost. A lot of people argue that’s a good thing. Abandoning what makes a Zelda game feel like a Zelda game does not make for a good Zelda game. Breath of the Wild is a great game. Is it perfect? I believe even the most diehard Zelda fanboy (to which I’m pretty close) would say no.
Breath of the Wild will live on for a very long time, marking an incredible Nintendo experience no gamer should miss. However, if you’re looking for an authentic Zelda experience, this game has a lot holding it back.
Okay, real quick. I have two more pieces of Zelda content you may be interested in. We ranked the best Zelda dungeons (bases solely on Small Keys) as well as a great piece on the best video game soundtracks of all time. You better believe Zelda makes an appearance.