Let me start off by saying The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of my favourite games and definitely my favourite Zelda that I’ve played thus far. That statement is, of course, marred by the fact I’ve only played this latest instalment in the franchise and Wind Waker: I still have yet to play fan favourites like Ocarina of Time. However, there’s something about Breath of the Wild, to me, that captures an urge to explore that few games fulfill. Whilst I am interested by the various worlds this genre of games is comprised of, I’ve never really wanted to explore them as much as I did in Breath of the Wild. Unlike in Wind Waker, for example, I felt compelled to explore the vast lands of Hyrule almost to completion (I’m using completion tentatively as even my love of the game doesn’t stretch to completing all 900 of the mostly simple and similar Korok puzzles).
Stepping out of the dark cave Link awakes in and into the sunny Great Plateau, I felt excited to explore this vast open world that I had been itching to experience since that first brief cutscene trailer debuted a few years ago. This excitement continued long past my first Divine Beast (Vah Ruta) where I was traversing every corner of each area for hidden loot and shrines before moving on. However, my excitement began to wane as I approached my second Divine Beast (Vah Rudania). Now, you have to bear in mind I was trying to complete every shrine without a guide, so I had already sunk several dozen hours into the game. By this point in most other games, I would have been finished and have completed the final boss, but in Breath of the Wild, more than half of my map remained totally unexplored.
By my third Divine Beast (Vah Medoh), I only really searched for shrines, only straying off the beaten path to follow the buzzing of my handy shrine detector. I still enjoyed exploring, but I became less focused on finding chests. I would still plunder enemy camps, but only if they were nearby: Why would I waste a few minutes going out of my way to reach the enemy camp in the distance when my reward would probably be a weapon I had already used before? Extra arrows and rupees were always handy, but I had already amassed a large enough stockpile of them to easily see me through the rest of the game. This lack of reward for exploration is prevalent throughout the game, likely because of its length. There’s a wide variety of weapons and items, but even hundreds of different items will become repetitive if you play a game for long enough. This would be fine if there was more variety and differentiation between landmarks, but there isn’t, the landscape also becomes repetitive as a result of how long you spend exploring it.
Most of Hyrule is comprised of the same trees and grassy fields. Bokoblins and almost every other enemy and mini boss live everywhere, from the hot volcanic region of Death Mountain to the icy extremes of the Hebra Region. But to me the most egregious example of this “samey” feeling to the world is the enemy camps placed throughout it. Sure, the layouts of each camp may be subtly different, but they all look the same. The same skull-shaped caves are found throughout Hyrule, and enemy camps in the Great Plateau feature the same stairs and platforms as in the Faron Region. This problem could easily be solved by making larger camps. For example, some Sheikah Towers have swarms of enemies guarding them, with platforms built on rock faces and large towers with snipers alongside bridges over water and barriers strewn about to provide cover. This use of the environment to design camps, like placing platforms on cliffs, is rare in the game which, is a shame as it really adds variety compared to the almost “copy-pasted” tree-houses and skull-shaped rocks. Since each of these larger camps has enemies placed in different locations because of this use of the environment to create unique bases, it makes them more unpredictable and interesting. It’s a shame these camps weren’t dotted throughout the world instead of only being around towers as I would have happily gone out of my way to attempt them.
However, when I journeyed into the Gerudo Region to fight my fourth Divine Beast (Vah Naboris), the landscape rekindled my interest in exploration. The area features a desert which isn’t seen elsewhere in the game, alongside a new boss to fight, Moldugas, compared to the Hinoxes, Taluses, and Stalnoxes elsewhere that I had already fought within my first few hours of playtime. It also introduces the Sand Seal, a new method of transport that was just different enough from using a horse that it didn’t feel particularly stale.
After completing all 120 shrines, I journeyed over Hyrule field to fight Ganon. By this point, I had begun to get bored of the stale grassy fields and hills again. However, the final area, Hyrule Castle, is the region most unlike anything else in the game. Instead of large, bright and picturesque landscapes, it has dark winding paths and large almost maze-like interiors. It features a new booming musical track that’s a breath of fresh air after the subtle and relaxing background song found in most of the other areas. This new architecture and look spurs you on to investigate the castle’s various pathways with renewed excitement. There are a few new weapons, as well as the final piece of loot to complete Link’s arsenal, the Hylian Shield, but – like most of the other areas of the game – I was driven more by an urge to explore. Though there are no new monsters apart from some turret guardians which attack just like their larger, more common counterparts that you’ll have already encountered, for me this wasn’t a problem. Several new mechanics are also briefly introduced, like metal bookshelves concealing secret pathways that can be moved with the Magnesis Rune or switches to open jail doors. Furthermore, unlike the Divine Beasts and other dungeons in the series, Hyrule Castle focuses on exploration over puzzle solving, which only further serves to make it more unique and interesting.
As I scaled the castle and vanquished Ganon, I was still enjoying my time with the game, even after having played well past the 100 hour mark (normally only multiplayer games hold my interest for this long). Make no mistake, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Breath of the Wild, and it’s finally persuaded me that I need to play the other entries in the series, but perhaps because it’s such a large game, I became less excited about exploring its world around the halfway mark. I certainly became more excited about it after reaching the Gerudo Desert, but I can’t help but feel like some of these larger repetitive landscapes using the same trees, monsters, camps, flowers, items and loot could have been trimmed down. Diverse areas like Hyrule Castle where almost every room was decorated differently were a blast to traverse from start to finish. Imagine if the map was smaller but had more of these interesting and amazing landmarks. If this entry in the series was the evolution of the Zelda franchise, then I hope that the next instalment will improve on this game’s flaws to create an open world that is both vast and filled with unique details that justify sinking dozens of hours into exploring and finding every single one of them.