Critical Design Review:
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Let me preface this that I am going to take a critical look at LoZ Breath of the Wild without any DLC (that is, the base game upon initial release, with any standard patches included). From here on, I'll refer to the game as BoTW. I'll start by stating the Breath of the Wild was one of my favorite games of 2017, alongside Nier Automata, and Doki Doki Literature Club, so understand that these criticisms are less of "this game is garbage" and rather an attempt to at least critically discuss some of the mechanics. I may skim some things and may update some later. We are here to discuss design decisions and how they might propagate through the game, affects player choice and action,and how that might be experienced from the perspective of a Designer or Programmer.
Lastly, I just want to thank the team at Nintendo for being so daring with an IP that they easily could have went the safe route on (though that likely would have yielded a great game too) as it is becoming frequent in the AAA industry to go safe because of the increasing cost of development.
1. Outstanding Design
I won't address all of my favorite weapons or things about them, but I will highlight some of the best parts of some of the weapon classes.
1.1.1 1h Swords
The only 1h sword worth talking about is the Master Sword. It is fun to use, but takes a tad too long to get as it requires a collected 13 hearts.
1.1.2 2h Swords/Clubs/Hammer
This is my favorite class of weapons, the spinning attack is seriously one of the game's most satisfying ways to play
I find the throwing and catching mechanic really fun, but on my first play through I got the hang of throwing these and then proceeded to not do it anymore. They do decent damage, but are best to keep around for when other stuff breaks.
Lightning Wands do good damage, but aren't something I'd run around wielding, other wands didn't really do it for me at all.
1.1.5 Bow and Arrows
The bow may be one of the best weapons in the game and is probably one of the most fun to use. But shortages of even basic arrows make it a somewhat sad experience.
The best weapon for: Killing enemies, breaking walls, rolling down hills, putting on switches, spamming, cutting down trees, there really is very little you can't do with bombs. These are the best.
One of the most fun abilities in the game, the mechanic to freeze enemies allows the player to flip the tide of battle with most of the most powerful enemies in the game - yes, even lynels.
Shrines contain the kinds of puzzles that used to be present in dungeons in bite sized chunks. They contain fun and interesting puzzles, use all of the slate abilities and act as the replacement for finding heart containers which in a way is welcome. The only gripe here is similar to the later one about dungeons in that they all look rather similiar from a texture perspective.
Do I even need to say it? This is hands down one of the best exploration game's ever. Climb all the things, bomb all the walls... chop - no BURN all the bushes.
Great mechanics, the horse was so pleasant my girlfriend fed her horse all the time because she developed a bond with it.
This is one of the most satisfying mechanics in Botw. Jump off stuff, and hover over to other stuff.
1.6.1 Revali's Gale
This is so important they should have made it easier to get early. It is even better than being Resurrected. It outright changes how you navigate the game and is one of the best complement to the glider's mechanics.
2. Questionable Design Choices
2.1 Tutorial Island
The beginning of the game may as well be a tutorial island, with a mandatory traversal of 4 shrines in order to collect the game's first 4 abilities. This island does a fantastic job of letting the player find the core game loop, however there is one key point I question in its design. This is the choice to force the player to use cooking, or campfires in order to progress to the shrine in the icey area. This normally would be a great way of teaching the player to learn a new mechanic on their own (which I'm all for) however I find that it is a tad too non-obvious that this is the intended path for the player. The game spends a lot of time giving the player exposition early on, but does not seem to give them this single, important hint about the single most confusinng part of this early part of the game.
The cooking element of the game is actually rather awesome but lacks a few things that would make it a more accessable and less annoying from a player perspective.
- Not expecting the player to just figure out they have to "Hold" and then "Drop" the materials to do the cooking. Yet again, another area where this could have been in the menus as they tell me so much information (that is rather useless to a long time player of games) but not things that actually might be needed for any player of games.
- Batching: I can only imagine others have mentioned this, but not having an option to hold multiple object types together with the intent of cooking a lot of the same recipe at the same time gets rather irritating when in reality you probably just want a lot of the same thing.
- Recipes: See the section on the Shieka Slate.
- The Core loop being to cook many different things in order to encourage experimentation is laudable, as this is a similar design decision with breaking weapons however this decision cannot coexist in its current form with Batching and as such, as a matter of preference as a player I would have preferred to spend less time cooking and more time exploring.
It was inevitable that we would have to have a converation about weapons and there is so much to say about them so lets start at the mechanic that had half the community up in arms and the other half happy with the daring decisions of the Zelda team - Breakable weapons.
2.3.1 Breakable weapons
Weapons in BoTW must have been a substantial internal debate for Nintendo, I can't imagine everyone felt that weapons should break, or even nearly as easily as they do. As a Designer, I know I would have agonized over these decisions quite heavily because this is one of the 3 pillars of a Zelda game, Adventure, Combat and Quests/Lore. So what is so bad about these breakables? To be honest, its not a single thing, if you didn't read above, check it out to see what I love about breakables, but I think this subsystem ended up being largely a negative, rather than a positive for me in the BotW's design, and its a shame because in many ways they did it right.
Breakable weapons may undermine the Zelda traditional post Zelda 2 format, but that doesn't mean they don't belong in the game. Forcing players to try new things keeps the player on their toes and makes them become familiar with the entire possible arsenal of weapons at their disposal. This however does hurt BotW in a single, obvious way and that is when it comes to the speed at which weapons break - In short, too fast. Even the strongest weapons in the game break amidst a single encounter with some of the highest health enemies. One could argue that this justifies carrying more than one of that weapon, and while I would agree this is rediculous because your inventory will quickly fill up with Royal Greatswords (one of my favorite weapon types was definitely the broadsword, also loved the electric variety).
Solution 1: But there were a few relatively simple solutions to this. Make weapons repairable and make them repairable beyond max durability if you contribute more than one of them to a blacksmith such as to free space in your bag.
Solution 2: Monster parts + special items (metal materials etc) give the player the ability to upgrade their weapon of choice to an unbreakable state.
Solution 3: Cherry pick from solution 1 and solution 2 to result in late game unbreakables that use up excess bag clutter.
It should seem obvious that these approaches achieve both the things that the Botw team was aiming to achieve - having the player try multiple forms of weapon while still maintaining the sort of permanance of weapons found in traditional Zelda's all the way back to Zelda 1.
Archery equipment is a hassle, not having craftable arrows or a quicker source of Rupee income resulted in me being unwilling to purchase arrows. I relied primarily on drops, and only even began to use archery for much of anything near the game's end when I had a large stockpile (despite archery being one of my favorite combat forms in all zelda games).
- Boomerangs are just a massive headache... and also break. They are fun to use, but I would have greatly perferred the old style boomerang that was autocaught by link.
- I believe it is possible to play the entire game only using bombs. See section on the Sheika Slate for more on this.
- I love shields, but shield surfing adds too much damage to a shield to make this a desirable mechanic. Again, being able to compile weapons would have been a wonderful solution to this.
2.7 The Sheikah Slate
The Sheikah Slate offers the user continuity of experience with regard to the menus making the player aware that they aren't simply conjuring a menu out of thin air but actually using a high tech ancient technology. I'm not a huge fan of how this fits in the Zelda story or lore, but it mostly works and given the Zelda timeline I can suspend disbelief. What I can't get over is how bad the UI on this thing turns out to be. This may be one of the game's weakest points aside from when dealing with the Map (this part, plus the map camera and pinning are actually wonderful interface design.)
I love bombs in games, as a fan of Bomberman, espeically the N64 iterations I can appreciate having the opportunity to blow everything up in Botw this is obviously a personal bias. However this comes as a double edged sword because in spite of the breakable weapons in Botw the design team thought that bombs would be the only thing I didn't want to have to replenish - they were right, but also wrong. Unlimited bombs fundamentally changed the game's core loop in a way I can't outright say was all for the better. I played more Bomberman than I spent time with any other weapon in the game. Bombs became a First Order Optimal Strategy for nearly everything for me. Want to use a boomerang, naw, those break, just use a bomb. Want to use archery, naw, arrows are too expensive and bows break, just use a bomb. Want to use a sword, maybe if the enemy is big enough, but likely, just use a bomb. My complaint here isn't really with the Sheikah slate's UI, this is more with the fact that the Sheikah Slate gives me something for nothing, but hinders the diversity of the game experience as a result. My preference would have been to have weak, baseline conjurable arrows with the Slate and maybe a baseline conjurable boomerang as well.
2.7.2 Equipping Weapons
Equpping weapons is another pain point in Botw, either you are going to have to open your menu and and assign things to your bottom bar, or open your menu and just equip an outright new weapon. Both of these leave a lot to be desired. I'll address in menu below, but from the hotbar I find that it is really irritating to have to scroll through weapons when you just want to switch to the SAME ONE you were already using. The game should automatically pull out your next Royal Greatsword.
2.7.3 Snapping Pictures
Pictures are rather useful, I just wish I could tag pictures to pins on the map. This would be more of a wishlist want rather than a "the bad" option but I'm not going to make a wishlist.
Easily one of the worst menus in the sheikah slate, I already described many of its flaws above, but to reiterate, grouping multiple sets of items to cook at once should be a feature.
2.7.5 Instruments and Fast Travel
Fast travel via the map is one of the few things that really does not fit the experience well from multiple angles in my perspective. In Zelda games since A Link to the Past musical instruments have been the primary form of fast travel to set points on the map. Instruments discouraged spamming fast travel, but were a ton of fun and really added to the core gameplay loop and feeling of the game. It is possible they were cut from the game due to time constraints and that I can definitely relate with as a dev but I feel that a big part of the game's flavor and overall feel was lost by the exclusion of such an important element. Learning the various songs will go missed if not brought back in the next zelda game < ^ > < ^ > Zelda's Lullaby. Being able to pop a menu open and just go anywhere is convienient in the exact way I kinda feel sad about. Building a big world should encourage movement through it, and when you fast travel, I feel like the core loop would be better served by the player earning it.
2.5 Breath of the Menu
If all my hints in prior subsections haven't given it away, I think menus are the single weakest element of LoZ:Botw. They are cumbersome, required, and immersion break the player. They don't feel like a part of the core game loop but are a mandatory part of the core game loop. I also find it absolutely irritating that we got the Sheikah Slate, an ancient advanced tablet computer, but didn't get the ability to save recipes in it, or at the least have a notepad in it to write our own recipes down.
2.4 Exploration Issues
Rain, Rain, Go AWAY! Don't come back any day.
Rain. I don't know how I can say this in a kinder way. Rain is a terribly executed mechanic. Maybe the single other thing I feel outright needed to be straight up FIXED in Botw. Nothing quite ruins the game better than being on a quest to do something, setting up to climb, and getting 3 consecutive rain clouds on a sunny day. Why might you ask is this such a big deal? You slip off rocks, and even if you wanted to use the waiting mechanic at a fire, guess what, that only works if you have shelter. With no way to build shelter, and with areas that outright have none. This can outright hinder gameplay for up to what seems like 15+ minutes. Give me spiked climbing boots. Give me waterproof fire. Give me a bedroll to sleep anywhere or a tent but please, please do not bring back rain in its current incarnation in a Zelda sequel. It is enraging. Both Dev me and Player me hate this.
Epona is only acquirable by Amiibo, I'm generally fairly critical of pay to win business decisions and doubly critical when those decisions lock an iconic and legendary character behind a limited run item, even if it is a horse.
Dungeons are my third biggest sticking point in Botw. Mechanically the dungeons are less interesting than those found in Zelda 1. I don't know if Zelda 1's dungeons are boring are not by modern Zelda standards, but its worth pointing that not only do Botw's dungeons evoke a sameness that I can't even think of a single other zelda game having, but really, a lack of depth and creativity rivaled by no other Zelda game. The strongest puzzle being the water wheel, which was by no stretch of the imagination a short puzzle, around 10m maybe 15 for me. The sandstone texture of the divine beasts, reused in each of the dungeons is samey and feels like this could have just been 1 dungeon stretched across 4 locations (the length of these dungeons also makes them feel this way). As a developer I know it takes a lot to make tons of textures and such, as a programmer I struggle with diversifying the environments in my game Audiozoe, but it is worth pointing out that this is Nintendo, this shouldn't be a substantial challenge for them.
The minimap is a core gameplay element of the new dungeons, while I respect the the Nintendo Design team's want to make the map a more important element of gameplay - which in turn makes the Sheikah slate a core element. It feels like this is a cheap way of doing what Zelda used to do by having the player shoot crystals. It isn't very obvious at first as it is hidden away in your map and breaks the core loop for me, fully taking me out of the experience. These dungeons should have been designed like the amazing shrines.
The enemies in these dungeons come in effectively 3 varieties, standard monster,
hanging eye enemy spawner and boss. Gone are the days of interesting Zelda minibosses in dungeons or dungeon specific enemies. As a programmer I know that it must have taken a lot to make the already varied existing behaviours in Botw,as a designer I also respect this, but losing out on interesting dungeon enemies is a big sacrifice to make. Get a master sword and the enemies go from mediocre to out right laughably easy. The bosses, aside from the one found in the Lightining divine beast are also quite easy. Hyrule castle which could be considered a 5th dungeon is by far the best, and most interesting, having Lynels as minibosses add a lot of flavor to the beautiful castle which is oozing with juice and its capstoned by a fun bossfight with Ganon.
I don't want to see dungeons go away in Zelda games, I would even take these half baked experiences over none at all. But these to me are so subpar that I feel that they almost do not meet Nintendo's generally high bar.
3 Final Thoughts
3.1 On comparisons to the prior games
Every Zelda fan came into this with different expectations, I personally left most of mine at the door though you'll notice mentions of instruments and a few other things that harken back to old Zelda.
3.2 On my overall feelings about Botw
As a designer I feel like the actual world design in the overworld was best in class, but a lot of the core mechanics actually left some things to be desired. As a Software Engineer, all the subsystems are so well crafted I can't help but admire the talented team of programmers over at Nintendo.