Finally got around to this, 4 years late. It’s good!
I think my most important takeaway from this game is that it’s very different from other Zelda games. It’s good at what it is, but it scratches a different itch. I wouldn’t want all Zelda games to be like this one going forward.
The puzzles and dungeons that make up the core of the Zelda formula were really sidelined here, with most of the shrine puzzles being trivial and even the divine beasts being remarkably small in scope. Each one is roughly only half the length of a standard Zelda dungeon, if that; I would frequently finish a divine beast and go, “Wait, that’s it?” They’re all beautifully designed and the buildup to each is glorious, but there’s just not a lot of substance underneath.
There’s definitely a very heavy shift away from puzzles and towards combat and exploration, and I think it’s important to note that those are very different kinds of combat and exploration than what’s normally seen in the franchise. In most Zelda games, all aspects relate to puzzle-solving in some way — almost every Zelda enemy is themselves a puzzle designed to be taken down through a specific application of tools, and exploration similarly requires the use of tools to overcome complex obstacles. In Breath of the Wild, to facilitate the nonlinear open world approach, you get all your tools at the very start, making this approach impossible. You’ll never encounter an obstacle you can’t overcome with your current toolset — which is great for being able to freely explore the world, but results in a lot of the obstacles feeling flat and repetitive. There’s no real learning curve of challenges becoming progressively more complex, it’s pretty much the same all the way through.
And the combat definitely got tedious towards the end, especially since the game’s idea of making enemies harder is to give them a zillion hit points. Even the miniboss monsters all have very predictable attack patterns and counter-strategies, even lynels. (Surely I’m not the only one who figured out you can stunlock hinoxes to death just by shooting them in the eye every time they got up? Bows in general were pretty overpowered.) I think I wore Majora’s Mask (which keeps you from provoking enemies) more than any other headgear, and as I frequently say, if players are trying to avoid your mechanic, it’s a bad mechanic. More enemy types might have helped, as would have been making stronger variants qualitatively different instead of just having bigger numbers, but I recognize that school of design is uncharted territory for the Zelda franchise, were every monster is normally a puzzle designed to engage with specific tools.
The bosses were actually very good, though. Each one had a gimmick that had to be figured out like a proper Zelda boss, and they all engaged with interesting mechanics and required clever use of your tools. I particularly liked Thunderblight Ganon, who could only be harmed through counterattacks.
…Except Ganon himself, who was a total chump. Even if you haven’t completed all the divine beasts, the game hands you so many healing items you can drip-feed yourself through all his attacks. His attacks are all telegraphed from a mile away anyway, so they’re easy to dodge. And the final form seemed like it was ripping off Shadow of the Colossus without seeming to understand that the crucial part of Shadow of the Colossus was climbing on the monster. Running rings around it and leisurely shooting its enormous neon weak points with ranged attacks is trivial.
It was bizarre how much the game seemed to be pulling in opposite directions there — we’re told from the start that we’re supposedly on a time limit and that Zelda can’t keep Ganon contained much longer, yet you can faff around for in-game months and it doesn’t change anything. It would have made sense for Ganon to become stronger the longer you waited — that would have been a great way to rubber-band the difficulty to account for how much easier the fight becomes with the divine beasts and top-tier equipment.
The much-touted survival aspects seemed very half-baked, to me. I never once felt short on resources — you can pick up piles upon piles of food just by wandering through the wilderness, there are no inventory limits on materials, and cooking (which vastly improves the healing effects of food) is free. Even weirder, though you’re encouraged to cook food to get more healing, most recipes are actually pointless, because any food that boosts your maximum health also gives you a full recovery no matter how many hearts you have — cooking a single hearty item is therefore better healing than food made out of the rarest top-tier ingredients. That seems a rather glaring oversight! You will never, ever be short on money, either, because cooking materials (which, again, is free!) triples their value — though you hardly even need that, since you’ll have so many raw materials they can likely get you enough to buy out Hyrule all on their own. There needed to be some sort of constant drain on your resources to counterbalance the influx, like hunger mechanics in most survival games. (I was very surprised to find that weapons, the one resource you are likely to run out of, can’t be bought or sold at all — that would have given money a lot more use.)
Despite those complaints, it’s still a great game! The environments were fantastic, I loved having the freedom to explore in any direction I wanted, and there was so much cool stuff to stumble over. I felt that the worldbuilding was really the stand-out winner here — there are so many wonderful NPCs who really make the world feel alive. I loved all the random travelers and merchants you could meet, and how they foreshadowed later locations by noting they were bringing goods to or from certain locales. It’s particularly fun that, due to the huge world, we actually get a lot of details on Hyrule’s economy! We see the various races discussing each of their specialties and how it relates to their culture. It was so much fun just to talk to the NPCs in each town and learn about all their little life stories and petty disagreements in addition to what they thought of the big plot things — they really gave a sense of real community. I grew genuinely fond of the recurring NPCs like Beetle and Kass, not just because of how helpful they were but because of how enjoyable they were to talk with.
It was also really awesome to see the Gerudo return and not be evil! Their original portrayal in Ocarina of Time was so incredibly racist and awkward, and it’s really encouraging to see the writers’ willingness to completely throw that out. They’re now just another one of Hyrule’s races, who are perfectly willing to work with everyone else to fight Ganon. (I find it particularly interesting what Urbosa says about Ganon once manifesting as a Gerudo — that seems to imply they see Ganon as an inhuman monster who was simply wearing a Gerudo skin as a suit, which both fits with the Demise lore and neatly dodges the implication that all Gerudo are evil.) We see several Hylians with a spectrum of skintones, too (possibly from interbreeding with Gerudo), which helps. I also liked that after their original characterization as thieves, their defining cultural trait in this game is being honest merchants. (The “disguise yourself as a woman to sneak into the women-only sanctuary” subplot was super uncomfortably transphobic, though, especially since the premise doesn’t even make sense in the first place — why would a mercantile town cut off access to half their clientele? Pls stop being weird about gender, Japan.)
The memories were a really great solution for how to tell a story in a non-linear game, and I was impressed by how much characterization they were able to pack into such short scenes. This was definitely the most well-developed Zelda in the franchise, and it was really interesting to see this tension between her personal interests and her struggle to fulfill her destined obligations. I’m normally very 9_9 at Zelda/Link romance, but this sold it very well, I thought, especially since it was so understated and felt like a naturally evolving friendship.
Oh, and I loved the koroks. I can understand why some people find them annoying, but I found them genuinely fun and cute. They spice up and incentivize exploration by just the right amount, and there are a lot of clever twists on their basic puzzles over the course of the game. It was also fun to note just how dangerous a lot of their games would be to most people — leading you out over slippery rocks into the middle of the ocean? Leading you up or down a steep cliff? (Shout-out to the one on the Tarrey Town bridge that requires you to climb under the bridge.) It’s exactly the kind of danger a game needs to keep things exciting while also making perfect diegetic sense for the kind of thing a fairy would think is just good fun.
Overall, the game was a fun and interesting experiment, and I’m curious to see how the sequel improves on it. I do hope we go back to the standard formula eventually, though.