Second Opinion: Breath Of The Wild Is Far From Perfect

A nuanced critique you probably won’t bother to read before leaving an angry comment.

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

I’ve got to be very careful about this video, and not just because the last website that dared to say that Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was anything less than perfect got DDOS’d. You see, the game has become insanely popular, a critical and commercial success, and that means that we’re about to get all the people claiming they don’t like it just to seem cool and counter-culture. And that’s really not what I want to do here – in fact, I’ve criticized people who do that on this very show. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again no matter how often people choose to ignore it: Second Opinion is not just a series about taking a dump on popular media for views.

However, it is a series about challenging narratives. And in Breath of the Wild’s case, the narrative surrounding the game has quickly outpaced any discussion of the actual product. It’s one of the highest-rated games of all time according to Metacritic, though this week it has dropped from a 98 to a 97, making it merely the 15th-best game in recorded human history instead of the 4th. A ridiculous number of sites having been giving it perfect scores, and we’re no exception – Hey Poor Player’s Anthony Pelone gave it a 5/5 and called it “nothing less than Nintendo magic.” You should read that review, by the way – Anthony’s a great guy and I think his piece is very well-written and well-argued. He explains that while the game does have its flaws, the overall presentation and amount of content is so impressive that he thinks it stands as a stellar example of its genre, which is why he gave it the score he did. Unfortunately, that nuance has gotten lost in the public discourse and all anyone can remember is that the game is perfect. It’s perfect, I tell you! And if you say otherwise, then WE’RE TAKING DOWN YOUR WEBSITE! THAT’LL SHOW HOW REASONABLE AND LOGICAL OUR OPINION IS!

Obviously, that’s the sort of thinking I can’t let stand unchallenged. So here it is: a critical examination of the many flaws in Breath of the Wild, flaws which by no account mean that you can’t love the game, but which exist whether you like it or not.

The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild 1

It’s appropriate that this video is coming right after a Second Opinion dealing with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, because in my mind the two have very similar issues. Both are revivals of a classic series whose recent releases had been disappointing which combined classic gameplay with new mechanics in a way that doesn’t quite work. In Symphony of the Night’s case, it was a combination of action platforming and RPG mechanics. In Breath of the Wild, Nintendo decided to combine more traditional 3D Zelda gameplay with open-world mechanics. And that sounds like a great idea – in fact, it is a great idea. What makes Zelda games great, what has always made Zelda great, is the emphasis on exploration and adventure. At their best, Zelda games are about exploring a fantastic and mystical world, and what better way to do that than to open up that world completely?

Unfortunately, Nintendo just couldn’t commit to the bit. Because as much as they understand the importance of innovation, they’re also terrified of breaking the formula that’s made them so much money over the years. Which brings us to shrines. Rather than just turning the player loose to truly do whatever they want, the game effectively still has traditional dungeons, but now instead of being intricately-designed adventures where exploration and combat is guaranteed to be fun, they’re essentially escape rooms. Also, there’s 120 of the damn things.

If you’ve not played, let me explain how this works. So you’re going along, enjoying your adventure, running around on some quest or maybe just doing something you yourself want to do for the heck of it, when suddenly you spot a shrine. Effectively, the game you were playing is now over, because shrines are easy to lose track of once you’ve found them, and you need to complete as many of the shrines as you can. (They’re technically “optional,” but only if you don’t want to win the game, because the benefits they give you are absolutely essential to making any sort of forward progress in Breath of the Wild’s unforgiving world.) So you go to the shrine, you’re taken to a little pocket dimension outside of the world proper, and now you have to complete a puzzle or a combat challenge, one that’s probably going to involve wiggling and/or waggling the JoyCons because oh yeah motion controls are back guys.

Okay, shrines aren’t really that bad, most of the puzzles are pretty fun. But why did they need to be in the game? Why couldn’t you just get those bonuses and upgrades through completing quests or, I dunno, through some kind of point system that would keep track of the experience you’d gained throughout a game and gave you rewards at incremental levels. Why couldn’t they just appear on the map so that I could do them when I wanted to, in the same way that, say, Saint’s Row IV lets you hack stores at your leisure. There are so many ways to do this that don’t involve bringing the game to a screeching halt, and while shrines aren’t a huge problem on their own, they’re indicative of something far worse about the game: Nintendo has no idea how to create an open world.

the legend of zelda: breath of the wild

You see, even in an open-world game, you want there to be a sense of progression, and the most frustrating thing about Breath of the Wild is that its progression isn’t variable. Hypothetically, sure, you can go and fight Calamity Ganon from the very beginning of the game, but only if you want to die instantly. Because the bonuses you get from doing other missions and exploring the world aren’t “bonuses,” they’re absolute necessities.

Much has been made of Breath of the Wild’s difficulty, but there’s a difference between being challenging and being frustrating. A challenging game, your Dark Souls or Super Meat Boys of the world, is harsh but fair, and you can overcome challenges if you get good enough at understanding the game’s systems. They give you total freedom and complete control over your character, but then place you in a challenging world that will require all of your wits to survive.  Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, thinks that difficulty is just making it so that the player can’t do things. Most enemies in the game, rather than having unique combat mechanics that force you to think about encounters in different ways and learn strategy, just have an enormous amount of health and one-or-two-hit kills, requiring you to go and complete a few dozen shrines, collect better weapons, search for hearty food, etc., before you can have a hope of beating them.

And this design philosophy of just withholding things from the player can also be seen in the ludicrously pitiful stamina meter. Running, climbing, swimming, and paragliding all require stamina, and if Link runs out of energy while climbing or swimming he’ll just accept the inevitable and sink to his doom. I mean, you can chug stamina elixirs as you go, but that’s still going to require completing a bunch of other unrelated tasks, and it’s also still going to break the flow of gameplay as you pause mid-swim to open a menu. And yes, there are ways to boost your stamina, but that’s my point – you’re not really free to do whatever you want in the world. You can only start to have fun after you’ve completed an arbitrary number of shrines.

Oh, and if it starts raining while you’re trying to climb, something that’s 100 percent determined by the whims of RNGsus, then you just can’t climb anymore until it stops, because that’s immersive and fun. That sort of stuff does not make me feel like exploring. It makes me feel like, “Oh, that looks like a cool mountain, but I don’t really want to die because I ran out of stamina or be forced to wait if it starts raining halfway up, so I guess I’ll just go do something else. Probably more motion control bollocks.”

legend of zelda: breath of the wild

Speaking of bollocks, yes, there’s no way I can do this article without talking about Breath of the Wild’s weapon durability system. Part of the problem with doing a Second Opinion this close to a game’s release (and part of the reason I usually pick games that are at least a year old) is because this is still a sticking point for a lot of people. Fans of the game are still passionately defending the fact that even the most durable late-game weapons snap in half after a handful of encounters. The argument is that it encourages variety by forcing you to play with lots of weapons and learn lots of playstyles, but the key word there is “forcing.” Remember: Zelda is about exploration and adventure, or more generally, it’s about freedom. Forcing me to do anything takes away some of that freedom, and I don’t feel rewarded for exploration when every weapon I find besides the Master Sword is worthless, and I don’t feel particularly adventurous when I’m taking down foes with swords made of sand and sadness.

Also, just gonna throw this out there: do a hundred thousand identical shitty clubs really count as “variety?” Because I’m unconvinced.

The counter-argument to people like me saying that the game’s difficulty is unfair and un-fun is that the game is designed to be unfair and un-fun. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. The game’s defenders say that the game is all about realism and the moment-to-moment physicality of the journey. In my opinion, this is an incredibly weak argument – you’re talking about realism in a game populated with monsters and magic, first of all, and second of all, real swords do not break after you use them twice. If a Hyrule blacksmith came to our world they would be immediately fired for being so bad at their job. And I truly cannot understand how someone could think that suddenly, randomly, not being able to keep climbing a mountain because of the rain and being forced to either leave for an inn where you can speed up time, pray that you’ve been stuck close to a place that lets you light a fire, or just sitting and waiting is good design.

I respect the opinion of those who felt these mechanics added to their experience playing the game. But it is just an opinion. That’s just how the game affected you specifically, and I’m allowed to have and express different opinions based on how the game affected me. A second opinion, if you will.

Zelda Breath of the Wild Burning Grass

And I still maintain that the game is not very well designed, because Nintendo’s philosophy seems to have been to just throw in every idea they had, kitchen sink and all. I don’t think they were trying to craft a realistic and focused experience about the hardship of survival, I think that some developer said “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if the world had real weather patterns that affected gameplay?” and nobody said no.

Now, to be fair, the sheer number of things you can do and the quirky interactions of mechanics is also the game’s greatest strength. You’ve probably seen the video of what happens if a Moblin hits a Cucco, for example. As much as your progression is tied to completing certain activities that claim to be optional but really aren’t, Breath of the Wild really does encourage trying lots of different and weird things, making every player’s experience with the game very different. It’s awesome to listen to people talking about the things they did, the adventures they had, the stuff they tried that I would’ve never even thought of attempting. But then there’s things like finding 900 Korok seeds, 500 or so of which give you no gameplay benefit, in order to get a golden statue of a poop. And you just kinda go…what? You know that “there’s no bad ideas in brainstorming” is just a phrase, right? There are actually bad ideas that you should not implement.

(There’s another nail in the fans’ argument, by the way. The game about battling the elements in a miserable and intentionally un-fun world lets you find a golden poop? I don’t think so.)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2

Look, Breath of the Wild is a good game. It’s a great game. It’s one of the most fun and exciting games to come out this year, and it’s more than earned its place in the hallowed canon of great Zelda games. It’s also poorly-designed even if the bad design works more often than it doesn’t, frequently frustrating even if the frustrations don’t ruin the game, and features a forced progression that doesn’t really jive with what a good Zelda game should be even though shrines are still pretty fun. It’s possible to acknowledge these flaws and still feel that the game deserves a 10/10 just because, in your opinion, everything else about the game is so spectacular that it outweighs these complaints. But to pretend that these faults don’t exist, that they’re part of some grander design the game has or that the people bringing them up are just trolling for views is to just lie to yourself.

You can disagree with my opinion – in fact, I welcome you to do so. But denying that the game has any problems at all is just intellectually dishonest.

Plus, the framerate issues when the Switch is docked are just ridiculous.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct with years of experience writing for and about games.

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