Design Analysis: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Skills and Key Items

This is the first of a several-part series analyzing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

It can be difficult to pin down what makes a video game great, and what makes a video game mediocre. A lot of buzzwords get tossed around by gamers and critics alike. There are many recurring phrases brought up in reviewing a game, but among the most archaic and vague is the term “polish”. Polish is used to describe the indescribable – the vast number of minuscule details that take a game from memorable to revered. In the most notable cases, a large amount of polish is what makes a game greater than the sum of its parts.

Another common term is “cohesion”. This is the idea that the game’s systems and mechanics work together, rather than separately. One of the criticisms that games like Assassin’s Creed 3 received was that many of the gameplay elements felt disjointed, and that the various ideas worked as small separate mini-games, but didn’t

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is among the highest rated and most talked-about games to come out this year. Many people are touting it as “the best game ever made”, and I can’t really blame them. Something about playing Breath of the Wild just feels so right; every aspect of the gameplay is so satisfying.

So, it’s time for an analysis of Breath of the Wild. What works, what doesn’t, and why is this game considered to be one of the greatest of all time. What makes this game feel so “polished”, and what can players and game designers learn from Breath of the Wild’s design?

For Part 1 of this analysis, I’ll talk about core skills and key items. This does NOT include mechanics such as weapon degradation or weather, those will be addressed in a later analysis.

It’s important to note, that this analysis will contain spoilers to nearly every aspect of the game, including story elements, regions, unlockable and hidden items, important side quests, and weapons. If you intend to play Breath of the Wild in the future and don’t want to be spoiled, you should stop reading now.

A couple more disclaimers:

  1. All controls referenced will be for the Nintendo Switch.
  2. Comparisons in gameplay to previous Zelda games will not be made, as the difference in gameplay style between them is too great.
  3. Comparisons in story elements and references to previous Zelda games will be made.
  4. While I do greatly enjoy Breath of the Wild, this is not meant to be a game review. My opinion on the quality of the game is unimportant.



Skills, Abilities, and Key Items

The following abilities, items, and skills are listed in order of importance. This does not include individual weapons, items, clothing, etc.

The Sheikah Slate

After waking up from his restorative sleep to princess Zelda’s beckoning, the very first thing Link receives is the Sheikah Slate, even before receiving clothing or learning how to climb. The Sheikah Slate is the quintessential item in Breath of the Wild, with importance arguably greater than the Master Sword.

The Sheikah Slate carries value across all aspects of the game:

  1. Gameplay – The Sheikah Slate is the source of roughly half of Link’s resources, including the map, scope, camera, compendium, bombs, stasis, cryonis, magnesis, and more. The slate is also what is used to activate shrines and towers. This gives the Sheikah Slate significant gameplay ramifications of similar scale to something like the gravity gun from Half-Life 2. The Sheikah Slate is at the core of a huge chunk of the overall gameplay.
  2. Story – As the history of The Great Calamity unfolds, the Sheikah Slate is referenced directly and shown in a series of flashbacks, as well as in several journals found throughout Hyrule. The slate is also how most main characters identify Link when he meets them for the first time.
  3. UI – The slate serves as the menu for anything tied to the minus button — abilities, map, photo album, compendium, etc. The general aesthetic for the Sheikah Slate is also carried through the game’s UI, giving it an “ancient technology” feel. The slate’s font and eerie blue glow appear when Link discovers a new area, or enters a shrine trial.
  4. Character Design – The slate is the only thing besides Link’s flowing locks of hair that consistently appears on every potential outfit in the game. While this is more of a minor detail, the Slate is always visible, further stating its importance.

I’ll talk more about the individual abilities downloaded onto the Sheikah Slate shortly.



Climbing

Climbing is the only movement skill besides walking that is forcibly taught to the player before they can exit the Shrine of Resurrection and take free reign over where they do and where they go. It is also one of the unique “hooks” that this game has.

Every good game needs a hook to differentiate itself from the competition, and to keep players interested in the gameplay. Very few open-world games grant the player the freedom to climb nearly any surface. Restricting the player’s movement to specific areas gives the developer the ability to guide the player in a set direction. However, as anyone who has tried to jump up a mountain in Skyrim rather than taking the road knows, sometimes the player wants to play the game their way, rather than following the “rules”. In this case, the rules were changed to match what most players would likely want to do. Free climbing gives the player that ability.

Of course, the climbing ability has its restrictions in two forms — the stamina bar, and the weather. There are pros and cons to both of these.

Stamina bar:

  • Pros
    • Gives the player a strong sense of progression as the bar is expanded throughout the game
    • Prevents the player from climbing ridiculous heights at the beginning of the game, giving the developer a bit more control over where the player can go without placing invisible walls or unclimbable surfaces
  • Cons
    • A bit too small at the beginning of the game — the player’s movement is heavily restricted until the bar is expanded. This is arguably more detrimental to swimming, as swimming uses far more stamina than it should.

Rainy weather:

  • Pros
    • Allows the developer to restrict movement enough for the Zora’s Domain segment to be effective
    • Forces the player to improvise when a rain storm rolls in
  • Cons
    • Takes away one of the key gameplay elements from the player. In some major setpieces, this can be a smart tactic for designers to use, but making this randomly occur is detrimental to the gameplay experience
    • The randomness of the event almost always acts as an inconvenience to the player

Overall, the balancing works, but it could have been handled in different ways. Perhaps having some surfaces become entirely slippery in rain, but making others remain climbable at the cost of more stamina usage. That would allow the developer to cut off certain routes in rainstorm, without completely halting progress in areas where it would be frustrating. One of the most common complaints about Breath of the Wild is the inconvenience of rain, and that is a very valid complaint.



Paraglider

The paraglider has a dual purpose during the Plateau segment of the game. Story-wise, it acts as the motivator for the player to complete the tutorial segment of the game, granting Link the ability to leave the plateau and explore the world. Mechanically, the paraglider is the final tool that Link needs to have complete mobility.

In a similar vein to climbing, giving Link the ability to drop from any height safely with the paraglider is a design choice that not many developers would make. When designing a game, the designer has to think about every possible outcome for a player’s actions. Giving them the ability to climb great heights and fall safely from anywhere makes it difficult for the designer to control where the player goes. As the developers of Breath of the Wild decided to give the player completely free reign over their direction, granting the player the ability to fall from anywhere with no consequence makes sense.

Having the paraglider as a reward for completing all of the plateau’s shrines also makes sense. Making sure the player has a firm grasp of all other game mechanics before giving them the ability to truly move freely is pragmatic tutorial design. The build up of the plateau segment of the game makes the receipt of the paraglider feel like a rite of passage for a new player, proving that they have what it takes to take off the training wheels and venture into the unforgiving world of Hyrule.

Combat

The bread and butter of any action game is typically the combat. Breath of the Wild keeps the mechanics here simple enough to be easy for gamers to grasp, but complex enough to keep combat interesting for a long while. The following are the elements of combat (barring Sheikah Slate abilities, such as bombs, and champion abilities, such as Urbosa’s Fury):

  • Sword & Shield
  • Polearms
  • Heavy weapons
  • Bow & Arrow*
  • Special weapons (Deku leaf, squeaky hammer, etc.)
  • Stealth

It’s important to note that the bow & arrow has significant usage outside of combat, and is arguably more important than the other weapons on this list. I’ll talk more about that during the Shrines & Puzzles segment. Overall, the combat of Breath of the Wild is approachable, and has a fair amount of depth.

Let’s start with the first three components — the melee weapons. The basics are familiar to most gamers, and are easy to pick up. There is a bit of depth added once the player gets comfortable with the parry and dodge mechanics, but aside from that, combat doesn’t change much from the beginning of the game to the end. It’s actually a bit unfortunate; the relative lack of enemy variety causes the basic combat to get repetitive about midway through the game for many players.

The latter half of the list is where the combat shines, and players are able to get creative with how they deal with combat scenarios. This is more useful in the master mode playthrough, but players beginning to get bored of the melee fighting will typically begin employing more unique strategies to entertain themselves.

The bow and arrow is possibly the most interesting and fun weapon to use in the game, which is greatly aided by the types of arrows the player can use. Each arrow ties in with another core game mechanic in some way.

  • Ice arrows freeze enemies, allowing you to blow them around with the Deku leaf. It can also instantly kill fire-type enemies.
  • Shock arrows will create a bubble of electricity when fired at bodies of water or enemies wet from the rain.
  • Fire arrows can burn grass, creating an updraft for the player to use to get off the ground and use the time slow mechanic. It can also instantly kill ice-type enemies.
  • Bomb arrows can blow things up at a distance and do more damage to enemies.
  • Ancient arrows can kill guardians when shot in the eye, and instantly evaporates all other enemies, including Lynels (which is balanced by destroying their equipment and spoils as well).

In addition to the types of arrows, the bow has the ability to slow time when used mid-air, and headshots can instantly stun most enemies. The bow & arrow, in true Zelda fashion, is used in many of the shrine challenges and dungeons as well.

The bow & arrow is at the core of what makes Breath of the Wild feel so satisfying to play – it interacts with many other game mechanics, giving the player creative freedom on how combat is approached.

Special weapons such as the Deku leaf, wands, and squeaky hammer are less useful than the previously mentioned, but they do add quite a bit of variety to the gameplay and open up new tactics for the player to use. Additionally, the Deku leaf is used for sailing the various rafts found throughout the world. While not a critical inclusion, these items are a nice distraction for players.

Finally, stealth. The stealth mechanic is a nice inclusion for trickier fights, and allows Link to take out entire enemy camps while the monsters are asleep. Additionally, stealth allows Link to sneak up on horses and other mountable creatures. The addition of stealth may seem unnecessary at first glance, but the mechanic does add a new dynamic to combat that would have otherwise been sorely missed.

Unfortunately, the stealth mechanic is required for the short Yiga Clan segment. Line-of-sight based stealth is a mechanic that many people struggle to excel at (myself included), and having this segment as a mandatory part of the main story can be detrimental to some players. It makes sense in the context of the story, and is a powerful segment, but perhaps making it an important side-quest would have been a better move. Additionally, this segment is the only part of the game in which stealth is required, making it difficult to strike a balance in gameplay challenge — for many players this segment will be easy, and for others it will be punishing and repetitive.

Stealth does tie in nicely with the melee combat, as it can be used to perform a sneak attack, which does considerably more damage to enemy monsters than a standard attack. As an optional mechanic, this is a nice inclusion that adds a bit of depth to the combat, as well as some improved quality of life for new players that find themselves dying often.



Sheikah Slate Abilities

Now that we’re past all of the components that are actually required to beat the game (barring climbing, technically), let’s talk about the four abilities Link is given during the plateau segment. Breath of the Wild deviates from most modern games with these abilities, as they are all given to the player at the beginning of the game, as opposed to the more traditional route of unlocking them throughout the game. I believe this design choice paid off in two ways:

  1. The player is given full freedom after leaving the plateau; no areas are barred due to a lack of item or ability, including Hyrule Castle
  2. The level and world designers could create every area under the assumption that the player has all of the abilities.

One of the more exciting design choices related to this is that the final area of the game is open to the player from the very beginning, and the player is told so. Typically, game designers prefer a player to experience the full content of the game before tackling the last area, it’s quite rare for a game to allow you to continue to the final fight from the get go. Considering fanbase reception of this decision, it’s safe to say we will likely see considerably more games following this structure in the future.

I’ve digressed a bit — let’s talk about the abilities.

Bombs

The bombs in Breath of the Wild have had a huge amount of thought put into how they are designed and how they work. While bombs could have probably just stayed as a collectible item that explode on a timer, the new way bombs work in Breath of the Wild is a great design choice in the following aspects:

1. Spheres vs Cubes

This is one of those things that seems so simple in hindsight, but is actually not something most game developers would think to include. In Breath of the Wild, you can have bombs that roll down hills, and bombs that don’t. Giving the player the ability to have both out simultaneously, and detonate individually, has led to at least two interesting shrine challenges.

2. Remote detonation

While not a new feature in games, the choice to entirely remove timed bombs in favor of remote detonation with a cooldown is a good quality of life decision for players. Early on in the game, when getting chased by a group of bokoblins, one of the most viable tactics is to drop a square bomb and detonate when Link is outside of the blast radius, and the bokoblins are not. Furthermore, the ability to detonate the bombs remotely rather than being forced to wait for the fuse timer to finish disrupts the flow of the game far less.

3. Unlimited bombs

Having unlimited bombs with a cooldown timer ensures that the player will never get stuck in a situation where they need bombs and don’t have any. This allows the designers to create more bomb-heavy scenarios, or scenarios where a well-placed bomb could be used in place of a weapon or arrow. The cooldown timer is admittedly long at the beginning of the game, likely to prevent spamming bombs and retaining balance in the early game. The timer is also leveraged as incentive for the player to upgrade their bombs at the Hateno lab, acting as a mid-game ability upgrade.

4. Lightweight

Making bombs lightweight is a decision that wouldn’t make sense if it weren’t for the way weather works in Breath of the Wild. In the simplest scenario, when Link is in a a windy valley, he can let the wind carry the bomb into an enemy camp, preventing him from being noticed by the monsters, and allowing him to get a jump on the fight. This interaction between wind and bombs allows for some more interesting uses when the player gets a bit creative. For example, if Link attaches an octorok balloon to a bomb, the bomb will begin to float. Link can then get out a Deku leaf and blow a gust of air at the bomb, sending it flying in whatever direction he wants. I had to resort to this tactic once or twice to take out flying moblins in master mode when I had run out of arrows. Going a step further, I’ve even seen players skip through parts of shrines by getting to a high vantage point, pushing a bomb out into a gap, shield surfing onto the bomb, detonating, and allowing the explosion to launch Link over the wall into the shrine’s goal. This simple mechanic allows the player a plethora of new ways to interact with the environment.

 



Stasis

Stasis is an idea that, in practice, is quite fun and interesting to use. When an object has stasis applied to it, the object can gather force; the culmination of the force is applied when the stasis timer ends. The primary purpose of the stasis ability is to move heavy objects not made of metal.

This relatively simple mechanic opens up many new gameplay possibilities. First and foremost is the speed run potential — applying stasis to a boulder followed by mounting the boulder allows both Link and the boulder to be launched across the map. Using the forward momentum has shaved minutes off of speed runners’ times.

From a design perspective, this mechanic has some interesting uses, such as Goron golf, or time and momentum based shrine puzzles.

The only thing that is a bit disappointing about stasis is its upgraded form, which allows you to stasis enemies for a short period. A very short period. Too short of a period. It would have been nice for weaker enemies to be ragdolled and launched in a similar fashion to other stasis-able objects, even if just for a short distance. In terms of keeping enemies in place to get in a few free hits, it’s almost certainly more effective to use an ice arrow or a shock arrow to stop a monster in its tracks. The most fun use of stasis on enemies, as far as I have seen, is the ability to stasis a horse-riding monster, and laughing as the monster helplessly falls to the ground as the horse gallops away from underneath.

 

Magnesis

It was an interesting choice to make magnesis the first ability the player can receive. It’s arguably less useful than the rest of the Sheikah Slate abilities, and can only be used in a handful of specific objects in the environment. It was most likely selected because it is the easiest ability to understand the usage; you fire the beam at an object, and move the object around. This can be used on metal crates, doors, and even treasure chests, which tend to find themselves hidden beyond view at the bottom of bodies of water.

When the magnesis skill is equipped, Link gets a sort of “metal vision” that allows the player to see all nearby objects made of metal. This can be useful in solving puzzles, as you can see items beyond reach that are intended to be used by the player. The most interesting use of this ability is in the Yiga Clan hideout. After passing the stealth segment, the player finds themselves in a lavish room with a large treasure chest at the top of a staircase. The player expects to find the Thunder Helm within, but finds bananas instead. Interestingly, the designers added some half-buried treasure chests in the sand at the bottom of the room to entice players to equip magnesis and unearth them. Once magnesis is equipped, a segment of the wall lights up a bright purple, indicating that the wall can be moved. This is a phenomenal example of leading a player without directly telling them what to do. The player is presented with a familiar scenario — the chests half-buried in sand — and use that familiar scenario to discover a new possibility associated with an existing skill. This is later used in Hyrule Castle’s library, which has a secret moveable bookshelf concealing the king’s study room and diary, with some juicy story details inside. The room itself showcases the attention to detail, but I’ll talk about that in a later part of this analysis.

More interesting than the magnesis ability itself is the material it interacts with — metal. Many objects interact with metal in interesting ways, aside from Link’s ability to move them around. metal weapons can interact with electric currents, meaning Link can sacrifice a spear to complete an electric current shrine puzzle without fully solving it as intended. Metal weapons, shields, and bows can also cause Link to be struck by lightning. An interesting tactic during a rainstorm would be to take out a metal weapon, wait for the indicator to show that Link will shortly be struck by lightning, and throwing the weapon at an enemy, causing the lightning to strike the foe instead.

 



Cryonis

Cryonis is one of those abilities that, while being quite useful in many scenarios, people tend to forget about. A friend of mine who recently started Breath of the Wild for the first time said to me,

“how to I get into the shrine near the Dueling Peaks stable? It’s surrounded by spikes.”

“Is there water on the ground?”

“Yeah, why?”

“…”

Cryonis has one very specific use — to create pillars of ice on bodies of water. The usage of cryonis is far more limited than the other Sheikah Slate abilities. On the overworld, there are many scenarios in which cryonis could be used, but there are many equally viable options for the player to navigate bodies of water, including the Zora armor, boats, Revali’s gale (which I’ll talk about during the mid-game upgrades segment in a later part of this analysis), etc. This relegates much of cryonis’ usage to shrines, which has a couple of interesting uses. Typically, cryonis is used to stop the flow of objects on running water, including a particularly infuriating pinball-esque segment in which you guide a stone ball down a path with some well-placed and well-timed cryonis uses.

Cryonis, while useful, is one of the least useful abilities tied to the Sheikah slate.

 

Camera

Finally, the camera. Nintendo seems to have realized how much people like taking in-game pictures and selfies after the inclusion of the pictobox in Wind Waker, and the selfie mode in the HD remake for the Wii U. The camera is primarily used for side quests, many of which task the player with finding an object and taking a picture of it. While that is more of a glorified fetch quest, there is some value in asking the player to take a photo of a terrifying beast like a lynel, or a vast ruin like the sword of the eighth heroine. While fetch quests still exist in Breath of the Wild, having them use the camera does break up the monotony some.

The camera is also used to fill in the Hyrule Compendium — an optional and relatively unsatisfying completionist-oriented goal. I’ll talk about this more in the “motivating the player” segment of a later part of this analysis.


 



Alright, that covers most of the important core mechanics of Breath of the Wild. There are a few more things to cover, such as weather, health & stamina modifications, status effects, etc. but those tie in heavily to other components to be analyzed later on, and I’ll address them as they come up.

Thank you very much for reading, this is only the first of several parts of this analysis, so subscribe and stay tuned for the next part: Mechanics & Weather.

Harrison N