Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best puzzle games ever created. It breaks the formula of past Zelda games, taking cues from A Link Between Worlds, and gives the player all the tools they need right at the beginning. The player has tremendous freedom, sometimes exhilarating freedom of solving problems the way they want. The open world is beautiful and full of secrets. Breath of the Wild is one of the best puzzle games ever created. Unfortunately that game is buried inside a slog of survival game elements that are tedious, frustrating, and most importantly, not fun.
Calamity Ganon is your enemy in the game, your first and last quest, to save the Princess Zelda from her 100 years of capture alongside him. Shrines, however, are the true driving force of the game because they hold the key to the fun in the game. Each is a puzzle. Some have clear themes, but most give the players several options about how to solve them. Most of them are fun, smart, and sometimes challenging. There are some where the challenge itself is getting to or finding the shrine. Others are simply combat challenges, which are the worst simply because they reveal the shallow nature of the combat when taking place in a staid environment. They also provide you with one quarter of either a heart container or a portion of a stamina bar, meaning every four shrines you receive an upgrade to your health or stamina.
Stamina is the most important resource in the game. More important than any of your abilities, more important than your Master Sword, and only somewhat more important than your map. It is important because stamina is your climbing currency. It is also your swimming and gliding currency, but swimming never felt incredibly vital, and gliding is incredibly generous with its exchange rate, so it never felt particularly tiresome. Stamina is the most important resource of the game because climbing is the most important part of the game.
There is more climbing in Breath of the Wild than in any other game I’ve ever played. Nathan Drake and Lara Croft could combine their franchises and they wouldn’t stand a chance. It is a double edged sword, one I felt cutting too deep, too often. On one hand, it is incredibly freeing, because you can climb most things in the game. There are very few artificial boundaries, allowing you to scale almost any object. On the other hand, the mechanics of climbing, for something you do SO OFTEN are incredibly monotonous and unfun. You push up, and watch your stamina meter drain. You slowly climb a surface, and hope your meter doesn’t run out before you reach the top. You do this over and over and over again, each stamina upgrade allowing you to go further. For a traversal action you’re using so much, it is incredibly boring. As you move through the game, you find ways to make the climbing easier and faster, all of which I used as often as possible. And all of this only applies if it isn’t raining.
Weather is one of the interweaving systems of Zelda, and again, it is inventive and impressive at times, and then it rains and stops you dead in your tracks for ten real world minutes while Link clings to the side of a mountain and you wait for the rain to stop so you can continue to climb, because it is simply impossible to climb when it is raining. It is also impossible to carry open flames when it’s raining, so multiple quests involving fire also require long moments of staring at your phone until the weather clears. That is definitively not fun.
Breath of the Wild subverts a lot of accepted open world design elements, avoiding the map clutter that often clogs up your map in similar games. It relies on line of sight from the towers that dot the map, and physically marking the map with elements you think are important or interesting. It’s a fun inclusion, because it lends itself to the mystery of the game. You have to go hunt down every shrine, and investigate every corner of the map if you want to find everything. It also clearly demonstrates the weakness of Nintendo’s hardware, as your vision is severely limited to only major landmarks. There is no recon of enemies, no real foresight available because the systems simply aren’t able to load all that detail in at the same time. It is not the only technical shortcoming of the game (I had sometimes severe slowdown, freezes, and even screen tearing at one point) but it is the most vital to gameplay.
Elements from survival games intrude in the game in almost every regard. Weapons degrade at unbelievable speed. Cooking is essential for survival and it is a tedious mess. Your inventory will be full of dozens and dozens of ingredients that you never really need to engage with. Of all the food you can make, you for some reason can’t craft arrows (most likely because you’d be unstoppable if you could). You are constantly grabbing plants and mushrooms and hunting animals to cook food to refill your health.
You will need to refill your health constantly, because you will take lots of damage in combat. It is difficult, but it didn’t usually feel difficult because I was overmatched. It often felt difficult because your combat controls are limited, your weapons break almost constantly, and rewards for even the most challenging combat felt terrible. Why should I engage the group of roaming moblins? Why should I fight the Guardians at all? I could just run away from them, and get back to the fun puzzles. Encounters could sometimes be beaten by using the numerous systems in the world to find emergent solutions, but too often I found myself equipping my most powerful weapon and wacking the enemies in the face until they died or the weapon broke. The lock on system is directly from Ocarina of Time, and was mostly useless, especially when facing multiple enemies.
The lack of fun combat made me mostly avoid combat encounters, and that adequately describes my experience with the game, which is avoiding a lot of the tedious systems so that I could get back to the puzzles. I engaged with every Shrine I saw, and beat each of the four actual dungeons in the game. I found and retrieved the Master Sword. The only main quest I didn’t finish was unlocking a series of memories that told the events that led to the decrepit state of the world. For a game that punishes you unless you are constantly exploring, there is no penalty for not engaging with the story whatsoever.
My favorite games make me constantly engage in their systems because they are inherently rewarding, but so much of Breath of the Wild is rewarding me for finding ways to not engage with their systems. There is so much of the game that I will never see because getting to it was tedious and unrewarding. Zelda is grand adventure and solving puzzles, and that Zelda is still in Breath of the Wild. You’re just going to have to slowly climb for a while, wait for the rain to pass, and then continue to slowly climb to get to it.