Why isn’t Breath of the Wild hooking me?

When Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild came out a few months ago, it got rave reviews from both the critical press and from my friends. Everyone seems to LOVE Breath of the Wild and people are still talking about it. By any objective measure I can think of, it is a great game. I couldn’t wait to finally try it.

But a week after it arrived on my doorstep, I’m still not hooked. I’m not saying it’s a bad game for me. It’s certainly pleasant to play, but after an hour or so I’m happy to put it away and move on to something else and it can be days before I pick it up again. I haven’t played very far into it because of this and maybe I just haven’t given it enough time yet.

Still being so much ‘the odd man out’ on this topic has led me to do a lot of introspection on why it isn’t hooking me, and I think it boils down to one thing: in my heart I’m an RPG guy. I crave a sense of progression and so far BotW isn’t giving me that; it’s very much an action-adventure rather than an action-rpg. Now to be fair Link does progress in some ways: you can increase his pool of hit points and stamina by solving the 120 Shrines that litter the landscape. For every 4 of these you can bump up either HP or Stamina by a unit.

But (so far) that’s the extent of the character’s progression. I had to find some runes very early on but I feel like I have all of those that there are (but maybe not…I hope not). It’s not the kind of game where killing monsters earns you exp or helps you unlock skills in a skill tree. Link is Link.

You can improve his armor and his weapons, but weapons in this game are completely temporary. It feels like spinning my wheels to attack a monster camp, break a weapon in the fight, and my reward is a chest that just replaces the weapon I broke. The idea is that you fight the monsters because it’s fun to do so, but so far I don’t find the combat system that compelling. Again, the combat is fine but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of depth to it. Often I just kite things while dropping the (unlimited) bombs I can conjure up.

But what about the world? The world is beautiful, yes. But Link is an ideal citizen (in real-life terms) in that he leaves nothing behind. He doesn’t impact the world he passes through. If he was a camper on the Appalachian Trail this would be a good thing. In video game terms I’m not so sure. He passes through an area, maybe takes out some mobs which will respawn at the next blood moon but otherwise once he’s gone, he’s gone. There is no sense of taming an area or unlocking stuff or making a difference, at least not locally. (Globally he’s going to save the world, of course.)

In my brief time of playing I’ve explored the plateau, then headed to a stables (kind of a truck stop for a world without trucks) and from there headed to a village where I was told to head to another village. I’ve talked to a bunch of NPCs and met a handful who needed my help but so far the side quests have been literally forgettable. The only one that I remember is a quest where a woman asked me to light 5 torches that stood in a pond. I used fire arrows to light them. My quest reward was 20 Rupees which I used to purchase fire arrows to replace the ones I used…from the woman who gave me the quest. Yeah that worked out pretty well for her, not so much for me. In another game I could think “Well at least I gained some exp or increased faction or…something.” Here it was a zero-sum activity.

I don’t like adventure games. Never have. For example the Telltale games that everyone loves? I can’t abide them. No progression. I need numbers to go up to make me happy. I think that’s the core of my issue with Breath of the Wild. Not enough numbers going up. And I’m NOT saying that’s a bad thing. Clearly it doesn’t matter to the majority of people who’re loving this game. But for me personally, yeah it’s not ideal. I’m also not really a sight-seer.

In contrast, the game I have been playing is Assassin’s Creed III which is not one of the better loved games in the franchise, nor do the AC games have levels or skill trees. Plus I’m playing via Backwards Compatibility which introduces some wonkiness (or the game was wonky on 360). It is a MUCH worse game than BotW and a game that is sometimes really frustrating, so why do I keep picking it up instead?

I think it’s because even though Conner (the assassin in this game) doesn’t have levels or anything, he does have an impact on the world. He works to wrest control of Boston and New York from the Templars. He builds up his homestead which leads to simple but memorable side-quests: helping a couple find love and eventually marriage. Helping a woman and her child get away from an abusive husband. Helping another couple to put down roots and finally have the child they’ve always wanted. I can look around the game world and think “I did that.” and it makes me smile. Conner can train assassins and he can amass wealth by sending out convoys. I’m constantly unlocking/changing something in the world and that makes up for the fact that Conner himself doesn’t ‘level up’ and even his gear is fairly static. (And when I’m not unlocking things I’m Forrest Gump-ing my way through the American Revolution. Protecting the rebels while they dump tea in Boston Harbor. Riding along with Paul Revere as he lets everyone know the Regulars are coming. Chilling with George Washington. None of these things have to do with progression but I guess they just prove the some ‘adventure-ish’ things can grab my attention because these did.)

I’m going to keep poking out Breath of the Wild and I hope eventually I get swept up in the current of events and feel more engaged with the world. I KNOW it is a great game. I’m just having trouble finding that greatness hidden within.