Opinion: ‘Breath of the Wild’ Loses the Series’ Soul Chasing Sandbox Sprawl

Opinion: ‘Breath of the Wild’ Loses the Series’ Soul Chasing Sandbox Sprawl

'Breath of the Wild' is unquestionably Dave Meikleham's least favorite 3D 'Zelda' Nintendo

It may offer up more magical real estate to explore than ever before, but Link’s open-world Hyrule can still leave some players cold

It may offer up more magical real estate to explore than ever before, but Link’s open-world Hyrule can still leave some players cold

I’m an awful human being. I think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is merely a good game and not a great one. Despite sitting pretty with a score of 97 over on review aggregator site Metacritic – in the process attracting the most effusive praise for a Nintendo game since 1998’s Ocarina of Time – there’s something about Link’s latest that leaves me cold. The elfin hero’s first open-world entry may showcase a dazzling sense of scale, but I can’t help feel Zelda has sacrificed a little of its unmistakable spirit along the way.

Since Breath of the Wild launched alongside Nintendo’s Switch on March 3rd, it has gone on to move a quite remarkable 2.76 million copies on the handheld hybrid. Granted, those numbers won’t keep GTA up at night, but considering Nintendo has only shipped around two million Switches, the fact there are more copies of Zelda out in that breathless wild than systems that can run it is pretty darn impressive. Couple that with the near universal critical acclaim, and by any metric, BotW is an all-conquering success story.

And yet, I’m just not feeling it. Even though I finished the game a few days ago – committing some 55 hours to the Ganon-vanquishing cause – I can scarcely recall five genuinely memorable moments. My personal highlights? Finding a giant horse in Taobab Grasslands, then promptly naming him Big Barry at the nearest stable; climbing a whole bunch of Far Cry-esque towers, before paragliding from their summits; and, um... dressing Link up in snazzy mountaineering gear so I could scale cliffs a tad quicker.

In contrast, I can rattle off dozens of cherished memories from both Grand Theft Auto V and Metal Gear Solid V years after both those supreme sandboxes launched: that Rockford Hills jewel store heist and subsequent canal chase; Snake’s unbearably tense sniping duel with Quiet amidst a raging Afghan sandstorm; donning scuba gear with Franklin and then swimming with a pod of Orcas off the coast of Paleto Bay; helping Big Boss save a clutch of child soldiers from a labyrinthine diamond mine deep in the Congo. All amazing moments. Riding a slightly enlarged horsey? Not so much.

Breath of the Wild is unquestionably my least favorite 3D Zelda. That must read like the freshest of madness, doesn’t it? After all, how could I prefer the often-derided Skyward Sword, with is awkward Wii waggle controls, or the altogether overly safe Twilight Princess? The answer: every other main entry Zelda over the last 19 years feels bespoke and endearingly intimate in a way BotW simply doesn’t.

Nintendo has crafted a hugely commendable, systems-driven open-world with Link’s Switch debut/Wii U swansong. In many ways, this is the most self-aware game the company has ever made. BotW demonstrates an acceptance of what’s going on outside the Nintendo development bubble quite unlike any other title I can remember. This is an adventure that reacts to the wider world of games in a way no 3D Mario or Metroid game ever has, exhibiting a clear awareness of modern classics like Far Cry 3, Red Dead Redemption, and even Minecraft. Trouble is, the lauded final product doesn’t feel like a true Zelda game to me.

I’m thrilled almost every other critic and Zelda fan out there is absolutely enthralled with BotW. I really am. I derive little joy from taking a contrarian stance, believe me. I so wanted to love Link’s sandbox, and going into the game, I was certain I was about to embark upon an all-time masterpiece. Of course, in the fullness of time, that’s exactly how BotW will be remembered. Yet for this Zelda zealot, the price of achieving all that open-world terrain has resulted in an experience that feels almost generic.

Part of what I used to adore about the series has been eroded in BotW. The biggest loss? Dungeons. Yes, I know there are over 120 Shrines to tackle, and ticking off the mini temples in any order you like is addictive. But c’mon, these bite-sized underground conundrums can’t compare to the exquisitely designed, multilayered efforts past entries were famed for.

And don’t get me started on the four Divine Beasts. These Shadow of the Colossus-aping leviathans may come closer to the full-fat dungeons of the past, but they lack the canny design and masterful puzzles of old. Each towering monstrosity essentially repeats the same key gimmick: rotate the beast’s innards until you find and unlock five data terminals. The first time I tackled one of these goliaths, manipulating my surroundings with Link’s Remote Bombs, Magnesis and Stasis Rune powers was invigorating. By Beast number four? I was pining for the end credits.

Crafting such a vast open-world must have been incredibly challenging. I understand why Nintendo had to jettison traditional Zelda mechanics to make BotW work. With an environment that big, it’s only natural this version of Hyrule feels less handcrafted than previous iterations of the colorful kingdom. Past games dealt in highly choreographed, interconnected corridors. Of course traversing a map the size of Texas doesn’t feel quite as bespoke as wandering the windswept, delightfully quaint cobbles of Wind Waker’s Outset Island. Still, I miss that precisely engineered, intimate exploration old Zeldas revelled in.

Link’s newfound platforming prowess is super empowering. As for messing with the game’s malleable physics systems to solve puzzles and screw over goblins in ever inventive ways? Outstanding. Yet for all the mechanical improvement, my enduring memory of these cool new systems will be a hazy recollection of bumbling around a rather bland (if pretty) fantasy world in directionless fashion.

Zelda deals in sharply defined "wow" moments unlike any other series: mastering Z-targeting while fighting the titanic arachnid Gohma inside the base of Ocarina’s Deku Tree; trying to keep virtual vertigo at bay as you swing to increasingly lofty heights with the Dual Hookshots in Twilight Princess’ exquisite City in the Sky temple; awakening among the petals of an otherworldly field in strangely serene style on the surface of the devilishly grinning moon in Majora’s Mask. BotW has better systems than any of these games; that much is not up for debate. What it doesn’t have are set-pieces that match up to its more linear predecessors’ best moments.

The newfound playfulness and freedom that comes from exploring a seamless sandbox Hyrule is intoxicating. Given the choice, though, I’d take Ocarina of Time's authoritative agency and tightly-choreographed dungeons and boss battles over open-ended ambling any day.

It won’t be a popular opinion, but for me, BotW is neither a truly great Zelda game nor a classic open-world experience. Link’s quest to stop Calamity Ganon lacks the persuasive flow that made past Zelda titles so hard to put down. As for the recent sandbox competition? I genuinely believe Horizon: Zero Dawn runs rings around BotW. Obviously Guerilla’s game has a huge technical advantage by running on far more powerful hardware, but that’s not why I prefer Aloy’s adventure. Instead, it’s Horizon’s vividly drawn missions, sharp scripting, and increasingly awe-inspiring combat that elevate PS4’s latest blockbuster franchise above Zelda.

So yes, I’m both an awful human being and an unbearable contrarian. Shoot me. Breath of the Wild is often a very good video game, and certainly a successful modern reinvention of a 31-year-old series. In years to come, though, I fear I’ll always look back on it as the slightly disappointing turning point where Zelda lost its way in the wilds.