NA Release Date: March 3, 2017 (NS/WiiU)
Initial Playthrough: c. April- July, 2017 (WiiU)
Replay: February – April, 2023 (NS)
I find it difficult to sit and write about BOTW; what is there to say that’s not already been said a thousand times over in regard to this semi-controversial, yet near-universally revered entry in the Zelda franchise?
Harder still to try and refine down the enormity and scope of this expeirnece into a few thousand words, but since this is the final entry (for now!) in our project, we’ll give it go. Even putting it right at the very end, this game still has the shortest gap between my initial experience and the replay. Part of the motivation for doing it this way though was to cleanse the pallet, so to speak. My first run of BOTW made such an impression, I didn’t want to dilute that experience by going ‘back to the well’ only a year later.
…so instead I played another 15 other Zelda games, taking notes and writing extensive commentaries on my impressions of those games as a way to kill a few years. Can’t really argue with the result though: I was thrilled to find just how much of the game I’d forgotten, so that sense of discovery and wonder was largely recaptured.
A Long-Expected Replay
My love of the franchise is rooted most deeply in the immersion of the Hyrule fantasy- the epic scope of an adventure coupled with the brain-teaser puzzles that must be sorted to progress the story. While BOTW takes a totally unique approach, it still checks all these boxes for me: the shrines give you bite-sized puzzles periodically throughout your adventure, the memories quest lets you reconstruct both the more present story in parallel to some pretty deep lore, and the vastness of the map provides a sense of scale and gravity that no other Zelda entry can really hold a (red or blue) candle to.
Out of curiosity, I pulled up my old WiiU file before getting underway on my second tour through post-apocalyptic Hyrule, to get a sense of how much game I’d really seen. The relevant stats were: 83 shrines completed, 71 seeds collected, 102 hours played (23.87%), no DLC. In reading plenty about the game since putting it down, I knew I could do better with a little planning, so I sketched an outline of benchmarks: in what order I wanted to complete a certain portion of shrines, how I wanted to tackle the Divine Beasts, and when I wanted to collect certain memories and finish the DLC.
Still, I’m not a completionist, as I’ve professed more than a few times in this forum, so I wasn’t about to drive myself crazy with all 900 Korok seeds like some sort of masochist… but I tried to cover most everything else. Even then, the final accounting wasn’t much more impressive: 120 shrines completed, 158 seeds collected, 135 hours played (37.81%), Trial of the Sword and Champion’s Ballad complete. By the end of it, I definitely felt like I’d really wrung just about every last drop out of the game (that I wanted to get), so I can gladly live with this.
In fact, maybe I actually prefer this. For me, the true beauty of BOTW has always been the vastness of it; not procedurally cobbled together via some RNG, but hand-crafted with care and attention even though most players aren’t going to see half of it. The idea that, by some metric, there’s still another 62.19% of game out there is rather comforting. At least for me personally, with my play style and appetite for the game, I never fully exhausted what BOTW had to offer. Clicking on the Hero’s Path toggle on the map, there are still decent size patches my path simply never crossed. My hope is that, maybe in another five years, when I might return to it again, I have some new reason or cause then to explore these yet-unseen corners. Not for the sake of pushing some arbitrary counter to 100%, but simply because that’s where my curiosity took me this time on a whim.
An Aggressive Subversion of Expectations
In comparing virtually any other main entries in the franchise, it often comes down to subtle preferences: the implementation of the boomerang in one game might really outshine it in the others, or maybe you can compare and contrast the travel mechanics (ie: horse, bird, train, boat, etc.). Some have more elaborate set-piece dungeons and others more sophisticated combat systems. In the end though, it’s mostly the finer points that differentiate the games- or at least it feels that way now when you compare any prior game with BOTW, since it changed so much.
Before continuing on, we spare a moment now here to mourn the passing of the World’s Coldest Zelda Take:
Breath of the Wild is a very good game, it’s just not a good Zelda game.Countless Idiots on the Internet
Now it’s pretty clear what these folks actually mean when they say this. They mean that BOTW was well-crafted, and that all the care and thought that went into it paid off in making the game a truly stunning achievement of the medium… but because it doesn’t hew close enough to the recycled formula (let’s be honest here, friends) keeping the franchise going since LTTP/OOT, it is somehow undeserving of the Zelda title? I suppose I can find my way to seeing how someone might have that point of view, but using the line above feels like such a dismissive and disingenuous way to articulate it.
It also puts such strict limits on what can and cannot be ‘a Zelda game’ that I just don’t want to think what would become of the franchise if Nintendo held the same sentiment. I think of how much fun I had playing BOTW, all the hours I poured into it without hesitation, and that we got to spend that with our favorite protagonist, exploring our most cherished fantasy world at a level of scale never seen before, steeped in lore we’ve been obsessing over for (some of us) decades- there are really fans who would have rather this just been Some Other Game? I guess I can only speak for myself when I say, “Not a chance In Hell.”
For the sake of completeness: BOTW eschews the traditional Zelda formula which can roughly be sketched as follows: after the Call to Action (see: waking from sleep), Link quests around to get Three Things. Upon getting them, the game world is usually altered in some fundamental way, quite often coincidental with Link acquiring the Master Sword. From there, a variable number of dungeons (often, 5 – 7) must be completed usually in a set order gated by the acquisition of a key item in each which expands the accessible portion of the map. The terminus of this is a final assault on some citadel of evil culminating in a battle with Ganon, with his human form of Ganondorf making the occasional appearance. The motivating factor is quite often coming to the aid of Princess Zelda, typically already captive or becoming so somewhat early in the narrative.
Conversely, BOTW has no set structure, and everything outlined above promptly flies right out the window. There’s only four sort-of main dungeons, but there’s also 120 mini-dungeons, and the order doesn’t matter at all. There are unique abilities which are useful to combat and puzzle solving, but you’re given every last one of them in about the first hour of the game. The final confrontation is available for you to attempt immediately after completing the intro tutorial. The game’s main story has largely already happened before a 100-year time-skip preceding the start of gameplay, and is told only through a series of optional flashbacks.
Imagine a museum, and on a series of plinths stand ancient, beautiful vases representing all of our Sacred Zelda Tropes. BOTW then casually walks in, and gently tips each off, smashing into the floor, one by one, and walks out without ever looking back. It cares not for your expectations. Freed from them, it can become something we never imagined a Zelda game could be. We the player are in turn free ourselves to do… whatever we want. Run, ride, climb, fight, glide, cook, solve shrines, collect photos- and all of this you do however you want.
What makes this so rewarding is that the world is still constrained, and in such a way that is logically consistent. Heat will roast food whether it comes from a cooking pot or a forest fire. Metal weapons conduct electricity for shrine puzzles but also draw lighting in a thunder storm. Link is harmed by extremes in the weather, but this can be counteracted with proper clothing, cooked food, or equipping the right elemental weapon. Heavy, two-handed weapons will more easily stagger foes, but they take longer to swing. Cutting down trees yields acorns, leaves, and wood, while breaking open ore deposits extracts the gemstones within. The interplay of these systems all works exactly like you’d think, which sounds like it should be boring but is quite the opposite. The system is rich enough that people are still only finding some small new details years later.
Oh… and just one more thing: you can jump. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always pretty keenly felt the absence of a manual jump in Zelda games. The handful where Roc’s Feather/Cape make an appearance just made it that much more apparent that this mechanic really adds a lot. BOTW goes beyond that, though. Not only can you jump but now you can climb, and not just vines or ladders- you can climb anything. The paradigm shift this presents is simply seismic when comparing to how the player interacts with the environment in previous games. I will never forget that moment right at the outset of the game in the Shrine of Resurrection where you find the exit. Realizing you can simply climb the wall to reach the exit is a revelation that instantly communicates BOTW is ready to serve up a completely unique gameplay experience for the franchise. A review I still remember described it as the game ‘saying yes‘.
Freedom Isn’t Free
Now, there’s a cost to a game purpose-built to be this flexible. While the physics/’chemistry’ engine is defined by a collection of set axioms and simply allowed to play out, narrative doesn’t work that way. I really have to applaud the solution the creators came up with though: having Link experience amnesia (a painfully common story trope) and only regain his memories in fits and starts, out of linear order, was a very clever solution and worked perfectly with the story they wanted to tell (or perhaps shaped and informed the plot after this mechanic was decided first). I made an attempt to purposefully collect the memories at regular intervals, in the order they occur chronologically (the same order they are in the album). This helped me experience the story in a little more satisfactory manor, but I did still find myself wanting twice as many of those cut-scenes as we actually get.
To wit: I actually really enjoyed the voice acting in the story scenes. It was weird at first, but only because it was unfamiliar. On my second go-round, with my nostalgia for the first playthrough wrapped up in those performances, I actually really love the voices. And adore the fact that Nintendo stood firm on still making Link silent, even when people are speaking directly to him. Is it weird? YES. Is it one of the most delightful quirks of this franchise that I would be devastated to lose? ALSO YES. (In this vein: Link’s now-gone left handedness.)
While I wished there were more cut-scenes, one thing this game doesn’t want for is hardware. Melee weapons, bows, arrows, shields are present in limitless quantities, which can be fun. The hardest foes you’ll fell often drop the best stuff, which makes for a great feedback loop in much of the early game, since better weapons let you take on stronger monsters. The other shoe must drop however and so we arrive at the cursed topic of Weapon Durability. This one has proved divisive, and I’ll confess it’s the aspect of the game I have the most trouble with.
In the end, I think it was the right call. In my late-game travels I’d frequently run into Silver Bokoblins and Moblins. With so many hearts and fully buffed armor, it’s trivial to just bum-rush these guys usually; a minute or so of hack-and-slash and you can snag their monster parts and gemstone loot, then clean up any lower-tiered cronies still hanging around the camp. The catch is you know you’re going to put some pretty significant wear on one of your better weapons since they’re such damage sponges. The moment of hesitation this fact gives you is important, I think. Many times I would look for some high ground to loose a few bullet-time headshot arrows to make a decent dent before plunging into the fray. Other times you see if you can set off a nearby explosive barrel, or perhaps exploit an elemental advantage for a one-shot KO.
The point being: weapon durability adds a lot more texture to something (fighting hoards of unfriendly critters) you’ll do hundreds of times throughout the course of a playthrough. Even if it’s stashed behind a series of grueling trials, high-powered unbreakable weapons would suddenly render the combat much more flat and repetitive. Plus, there’s a lot to be said for the early/mid-game experience of taking on an enemy that far outmatches you, and frantically swapping through weapons as they shatter trying to bring the hostile’s health bar down to zero. Making the Master Sword the exception to this was clearly the right call as well, even if the ‘cooldown time’ mechanic is a little hokey from an immersion standpoint (ie: the Mythical Sword that Seals the Darkness sometimes gets… tired).
A Stealth Soundtrack
Another consequence of the extreme flexibility of the gameplay loop is how this impacts use of the soundtrack. Without question, the nature of this game calls for a different approach. While towns still have their own unique themes that you’ll hear plenty of, dungeons are no longer where you spend most of your time, and virtually everything else in this game is overworld. Even the most cherished of overworld themes would certainly grate after the time BOTW demands you spend wandering, so I must again confess that the creative team made the correct call here.
The sparse, dialed-back piano melodies dynamically flit in and out as the situation demands. Variations on themes from day to night add extra dimension and work well to define the mood, but also serve as an auditory reflection of the desolate nature of this iteration of Hyrule. Link spends so much of this game alone, and the sparse orchestration is a constant reminder and not much of a companion. I found myself yearning for the high-flying themes of games past, which would often lift your spirits. BOTW never quite lets you forget that this is the darkest timeline, where 100 years ago everything went about as wrong as it could. Trying to avert the Calamity proved a fool’s errand with the land’s greatest warriors, a small army of ninjas, and large army of lethal technological wonders; to attempt it without any of that feels such a desperate and lonely task. The music accents this, while also suggesting the delicate beauty of a land returned to a more primal, natural state.
In the few places where proper grand themes are employed though, BOTW can go toe-to-toe with the very best. This game’s Hyrule Castle piece is an absolute masterclass- seamlessly transitioning between the outdoor orchestral bombast of an full-on assault to a quiet, subdued rendition for stealth movement through the decayed and defiled ruins of a once proud and beautiful citadel- and back again. It might have just been a trick of my own mind, but the pace and intensity certainly seem to scale with your proximity to the sanctum. In my first time playing I saved the castle for the absolute last part of the game- only making the approach when I had made up my mind to defeat Ganon. The soundtrack of that incursion could not have been more perfect, and I still get goosebumps on returning there.
The main theme is also owed some recognition. It is repurposed and remixed in several different ways and makes many subtle appearances, but stands so tall in its own right. It seems to be a sort of sonic heir to Joe Hisaishi’s work with the Studio Ghibli films, strongly evoking the soundtrack to Princess Mononoke in my own mind, which right or wrong makes me love it that much more. A final arrangement of it serves as the backdrop for the ultimate confrontation against Dark Beast Ganon. I hear a lot of complaints about the underwhelming nature of this battle, but I loved it from the moment I first heard that theme emerge from behind the typical Ganon motif and Zelda’s Lullaby. Even the huge expanse of Hyrule Field, despite being big enough to fit the enormity of Ganon’s Dark Beast form, barely seems to contain all of the emotion brought on by this monumental musical effort.
Lastly, I am excited for the Zelda game coming in 10-15 years that dusts off the Guardian targeting melody to strike instant panic into the souls of an entire generation of gamers at a particularly opportune moment.
A Training Ground for the Hero
One of the most immediately obvious (and controversial) departures from convention is the replacement of traditional dungeons with shrines. In lieu of 9 – 11 large, enclosed areas with puzzles often centered around a thematic thread and/or key item are 120 short-form puzzle rooms hidden throughout the map. Completing them usually nets you a few goodies (gems, elemental arrows, various weapons, the occasional armor piece) and a Spirit Orb which can be exchanged for additional hearts or stamina. While there are often many exotic ways to solve a given shrine, there’s usually a very straightforward solution that doesn’t require any extreme mechanical prowess to execute. Most often it’s just a question of simply being aware of how your runes interact with a particular environment.
The closest analog to traditional dungeons are the Divine Beasts, which can be imagined as essentially a series of smaller shrines cobbled together. An additional mechanic allows the environment to be modified from the map by directing the Beast to change its position/orientation, which is key to accessing all of the checkpoints within. When these have all been toggled, Link then encounters the Blight Ganon who has taken up residence in a given Divine Beast and serves as the boss.
Generally, I enjoyed both the shrines and the Divine Beasts. Something I am only realizing in hindsight is that there’s a remarkable variety among the puzzles, too. Some might lean harder on a given rune, but I never found myself rolling my eyes at ‘just another magnesis shrine’, for example. The small number of rune abilities (bombs, magnesis, stasis, cryonis) belie the incredible range of challenges found in the shrines. The multitude of ways they can be used in combination with one another really allows the creativity of the shrine design to show through. The puzzle solving could be difficult, but never so tough that I found myself looking up solutions or needing to leave and come back. Plus, the shrines in particular go a long way to bolster what I imagine to be the intended feedback loop: explore outside, climbing and fighting until you come across a shrine; take a break from the outdoors to solve a few brain-teasers, earning you some supplies and equipment, then return outside to explore further using your new loot.
Is this executed successfully to enjoyably get you through all 120 shrines? Mostly yeah? I organically came across the first 100 or so without much trouble: forcing myself to walk everywhere (almost no warping) played a huge role in this, though. If you are zipping all over the map with fast-travel, many, if not most, can be easy to miss. Some have their own dedicated side-quests, a handful of which were some of the most rewarding side content I can recall playing. Around that century mark though, knowing I wanted to complete them all, but not really having the spare time to wander for hours at a time to track down each of the remaining few, I did consult a guide to help me find the stragglers. Most of the outstanding ones were in Hebra (which was bigger than I remembered) and the Gerudo Desert (which I find kinda aesthetically boring so I was spending somewhat less time there voluntarily).
If I had a complaint, it would be the segregation of combat and puzzle-solving mechanics into their own lanes. Some shrines are puzzles, some are combat encounters. The Divine Beasts feature minimal combat from the floaty-skulls emerging from especially nasty pools of Malice, and of course the bosses, but those places still felt pretty barren. Not that I want to be harassed constantly by mobs of enemies while trying to sort out brain teasers, but in the more traditional format the frequency between which you jump from puzzles to combat and back is higher and I think that’s the part of the experience I missed most.
Still, I don’t necessarily think that’s an indictment of the system overall. In the cacophony of discussion that has preceded TOTK much of it has focused on how Nintendo might attempt to bring back more traditional dungeons while preserving the fundamental gameplay of BOTW. I’d argue that the DLC’s Divine Trial is an excellent jumping-off point. The Divine Beast-esque structure housed below the Shrine of Resurrection comes as close as anything to uniting the mechanics of BOTW with the ideal of a ‘classic Zelda’ dungeon. The main rooms still boiled down to four shrine-like challenges, but the way in which they mechanically coupled to the large door in the main hub certainly evoked some of that old magic. The fact that after completing each one increasingly tough Guardian enemies were waiting in the hub I also like, better blending combat and puzzles into a central structure.
One could imagine if these rooms were arranged in a more labyrinthine pattern, with maybe twice as many and populated with a smattering of enemies (maybe a mini-boss!) that you’d have something that most people would agree on as a ‘real’ dungeon. I’d imagine that key items which re-contextualize the space are likely still out, since that would essentially break the premise of the overworld. Certainly the Divine Trial has the right idea with Moz Koshia as the boss though- he was probably the most challenging and engaging battle of the entire game.
While she’s not given quite as much to work with as Zelda is from a story perspective, I thought Mipha was quite well executed. Soft-spoken but certain of herself, the story of BOTW’s other princess made quite an impression on me. As opposed to the earlier entry in this tradition, where OOT’s Ruto’s betrothal to Link was played mostly for laughs, Mipha’s feelings for Link were deep and solemn- and dare I say reciprocated? I know we’ll never be sure, but I just don’t think that Mipha went to all the trouble to make that ceremonial armor without at least some indication Link might feel the same way.
It’s alluded to that Mipha and Link were close friends when they were younger. This hint at intimacy is reinforced in the recovered memory of Mipha healing Link’s arm, while further complicated by the fact that Hylians age much faster than Zora. It’s not given much more room to expand than that, but I loved the idea of this doomed romance which gives us the tiniest window into who Link was before he was the person in the memories, and whomever he’s become over the course of the game itself.
Not really coming in with anything new or novel here, but this guy was a huge tool. The script and VA work takes him right up to the edge of being insufferable beyond redemption. I get that he thought he was better than Link, but now he’s dead, and Link’s trying to free his soul from being trapped with Windblight Ganon for eternity, and he just nitpicks you the whole time from another plane of being? Ugh. I guess we were supposed to love to hate him, but I mostly just hate him. It cuts even deeper that his is far and away the most useful champion’s skill.
Winner: Master Sword (post-DLC trials)
The first time I played this game through, I was a little underwhelmed at the hand the Master Sword had been dealt. 30 damage is nothing to sneeze at, but by the late game it’s pretty pedestrian; couple that with the still-breakable nature of it, and the Master Sword felt like an also-ran, which is tragic for such a mythical weapon. The Trial of the Sword is a pretty great mechanic to fix this, though. A series of three sets of trial levels really test your skills and know-how of the game mechanics work; the reward for each is a +10 buff to the sword’s damage output. Completing all three results in doubling the offensive capabilities of the sword and drastically increasing its durability. This final incarnation is what truly felt like the proper legendary blade, and it’s absolutely worth the effort to tackle all three Sword Trials.
An extra bonus was that in the memory where Link falls, the Master Sword speaks to Zelda and we hear the familiar ‘Fi’ sound effect from SS. This was such an overt lore callback it took me by surprise, but was wonderfully executed and confirmed that after all this time our somewhat-beloved robotronic companion still resides within the blade.
Loser: Tarrey Town.
I see the associated quest From the Ground Up on many ‘Best of…’ BOTW content lists. Certainly, I’ll grant that it’s one of the more involved and lengthy. I’ll even accede that the quest itself is pretty fun- scouring the world for people with the requisite skills who also have the suffix -son in their name made for pretty solid side-questing. But Tarrey Town itself? ‘Useless’ seems too harsh, but it’s rather how I feel. I never played the game to the point that I was drowning in rupees, so the idea that I would pay Pelison’s insane prices for gems rather than just wailing on a few stone taluses seemed crazy. The one set from the armor shop is obtainable far earlier in the game, and the arrow shop… sells arrows you can get countless other places?
It just felt like a disproportionate amount of work for such little payoff. Grante, who shows up when the town is complete, does help you replace exotic items like the Hylian Shield if they’re lost, but this still feels minor. Maybe it’s because I only completed it near the end of my game, but the function of the place just did not impress me at all.
Winner: Zelda (the Person)
While it’s unfortunate that in the contemporary sense of this game Zelda is absent, she is still quite present through the memories quest. She is unarguably the main character of these vignettes, and after the huge step she took in SS, I think we can finally say that Nintendo has this figured out. A Zelda who actively participates and steers the development of the story makes the same so much more interesting to play. BOTW Zelda is written to be strong-willed, opinionated, anxious, self-doubting, intelligent, having a sense of humor, brave, and resourceful. The depth and range of emotion Zelda has here impressed me deeply.
Does Link come to save her at the end of the game so they can defeat Ganon together? Sure, but that’s only after Zelda is coordinates delivering the Master Sword to the Great Deku Tree, makes sure Link is taken to the Shrine of Resurrection, and then single-handedly seals Calamity Ganon for 100 years. It can’t be stressed enough that the decisions she makes in that moment basically forestall the End of the World as Hyrule Knows It. She does so much of the practical and emotional heavy-lifting in this story I feel like it might be the first time the creators have truly earned her titular status. It’s even more incredible that we get to see her story continue further in TOTK, so here’s to hoping she plays just as big of a role there.
Loser…?: Zelda (the Game, as We Knew It)
There’s a lot of consternation in the fan community about where Zelda goes from here. With the benefit of another six years since 2017, we know TOTK will largely follow the same philosophy of a massive overworld with even more sophisticated crafting mechanics next time, with islands in the sky and caves beneath the surface expanding the accessible terrain just that much more. Looking beyond that, though, the outstanding question is ‘will we ever see a Traditional Zelda Game again?’
I’m inclined to say ‘no’. Will I miss games built off the OOT design template? Of course, but after playing BOTW, those feel smaller now and more limited in their scope. While you could imagine Nintendo still keeps the format around (like how we used to get top-down games on handheld systems), I just don’t see them expending resources to keep the old kind of games alive. It’s my gut feeling that BOTW has changed the franchise in the same way OOT did, and it will inform subsequent entries for many, many years to come. Just a guess.
It’s just an unmitigated triumph, there’s simply no other way to put it. While there are a few growing pains, and certainly I missed a few things from the older style of games, BOTW has taken the Zelda series to its highest mountaintop. No other game can compare in scope, scale, or beauty. It’s a stark lesson that in order for this series to stay vibrant and relevant and push the boundaries of artistic achievement in games we, as fans, might need to let some things go. Our personal nostalgia always colors our experiences to be sure, but for me BOTW has cut through all that and staked its claim as Zelda’s crowning achievement.
It’s an impossibly hard act to follow, but after experiencing this game again in the full context of those which preceded it, my faith in Nintendo has never been stronger.
Tears of the Kingdom (NS)
[To Be Released 5.12.2023]