I know I am late to the party, but I’ve defeated Calamity Ganon and loved pretty much every moment of Breath of the Wild. One of the many interesting things about this game is that it does not handle leveling up the way that most other RPGs, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age or Skyrim for example, do. I know that this is very much in line with the Zelda series of games, but the only Zelda games I’ve actually played are the original, Legend of Zelda, Wind Waker, and now Breath of the Wild.
Player Skill Development
There are cleverly hidden tutorials for things like shield surfing and the perfect block and perfect dodge, which are all skills that depend on the player’s dexterity. Each of the shrines is also potential skill development, as it teaches you various ways to solve problems that reflect some situations you find while exploring the world. Of course, this is an open world, so the shrines don’t necessarily happen in any particular order (after you leave the starting zone), but frequently I would have to learn something to solve a shrine, and then later realize that I could use a similar skill to solve a problem in the world.
This is the part of game design that builds up player mastery or system mastery, which makes a big difference, at least to my experience of games. This can also reveal when a game is too complex for the people playing it. In a current D&D campaign for example, we are at 12th level and players are still realizing features their characters have had for months. My character has so many different abilities to use in combat that I regularly forget one of them in a given fight – and fighting is what D&D is built for.
5th edition D&D is a lot of fun, but by the time you hit about 5th level your character has a ton of abilities, even in a system that is clearly slimmed down compared to 3.5. I have pretty much never been in a game where the players remember all of their abilities, me included. Similarly, after learning in theory how to perform a perfect dodge and a perfect parry, I never again used those skills in Breath of the Wild, getting through to the end of the game without them (except for learning how to deflect Guardian blasts, which seems to simply be necessary). Though it does say something for the flexibility of the game that without a difficult setting, I was able to ignore two significant skills and still complete the game.
Player mastery really comes up in the shrine quest of Eventide Island. You are stripped of all of your equipment, and have to complete three shrine quests on the island starting from nothing. This depends much more on your player skills than normal, as for a lot of the game you can power past mistakes and tough fights by force-feeding Link and using your best weapons until they wear out.
“Leveling” – Hearts and Stamina
The closest to leveling up that you do in Breath of the Wild is when you complete four shrine quests you turn in four Spirit Orbs for another heart or portion of stamina. There are no built-in increases aside from these two things – if you want to deal more damage, or absorb less damage, move faster, etc., then those things have to be accomplished in other ways. But in terms of ‘leveling up’ in the traditional way, this is it for BotW.
Hearts and stamina also provide difficulty settings for the game. If you find the game to be difficult, you can solve more shrines and gain more hearts and live longer in fights. If you want to explore more freely, then you can turn in more Spirit Orbs and gain more stamina so you can climb higher and swim farther.
Or you could leave the starting zone, go straight to Calamity Ganon, and fight him at the equivalent of ‘level 1.’ There are whole YouTube channels devoted to this kind of mastery.
Ingredients for Cooking
Finding new ingredients and new recipes allow you to heal up and create self-buffs, and this is another way that you advance in the game. The farther you travel from your starting zone, the more exotic ingredients become available to you, and as you gather these various ingredients, you are also able to use them to upgrade your weapons and armor (which I discuss below). If you need to, you can also just travel around gathering apples, which are very common and safe, and devour them in the middle of fights to help you survive when your skills and equipment aren’t enough. You can also create food that gives you 25 bonus hearts when you eat it, or triple upgrades your armor, etc.
Weapons and Armor
Breath of the Wild is interesting because of the speed at which your weapons break down – a very durable weapon will survive at most a handful of fights before it explodes into bluish shards. I thought that I would find this more frustrating than I did, and there are so many weapons in the game that my weapon inventory is never empty, and most of my korok seeds go to expanding my weapon stash. This is something like D&D, with the classic question of how will we carry all of our loot back to town. The main downside is that when I find a weapon I really like (I’m looking at you, Thunder Spear) it only survives a fight or two before it explodes into shards. But when I read about the game, I expected to spend more time scavenging weapons.
I suppose the other way that you “level up” in the traditional sense in BotW is when you can improve your armor with the help of up to four Great Fairies in the game (with, yes, a bonus fifth who resurrects horses). Like cooking and selling, upgrading armor is the reason to travel the world harvesting strange things, and is like the soft form of the “fetch” quests that are so central to MMOs.
Exploration and Unlocking Travel
Breath of the Wild is, above all, a game of exploration. And it is so well designed, it is at times stunning. There are shrines and korok seeds to find, and the game rewards climbing every cliff and ever tree and literally looking under every rock.
There is a history of ‘hex crawls’ and traditional RPGs that focus on exploration, and ideally a dungeon crawl is first and foremost about exploration. I’ve never seen exploration done better than Breath of the Wild, however, on or off a screen.
One of the ways that you ‘level up’ in Breath of the Wild is not only through exploration, but by unlocking travel options. When you find a new stable and have access to your horses, or especially when you unlock a new tower and expand your map. Teleportation between shrines and towers becomes necessary and commonplace, but even after dozens (hundreds?) of hours of play, I find myself returning to already-explored areas to discover new things.
Lots of Ways to Win
What Breath of the Wild masterfully provides is an open-world game that is also open as to how you can win it. You can depend entirely on player skill, and beat Calamity Ganon to death with three hearts and scavenged equipment. You can travel around gathering ingredients and create super-foods that give you bonus hearts and upgrades and survive regardless of your skills. You can upgrade all of your equipment and have amazing armor to wear, or travel the world gathering powerful weapons to use. You can solve all of the shrines and have a huge number of hearts. Or do all of the above.
For all of their complexity, most tabletop RPGs have only one way to win – do the thing the game rewards with XP (almost always fighting) and get XP and improve. But if you are playing D&D 5E, there’s no way to just ignore leveling up and just rely on your skill as a player. You couldn’t go and gather amazing equipment rather than level up either. One way or another, you need to get XP. That is the only path to winning. This narrow window is the case with pretty much every tabletop RPG I can think of, even the really clever ones. I’m just left in awe of the designers of Breath of the Wild, including for this reason – that they created an open-world and open-victory game.