On the surface, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks like a game with no limits. You can go anywhere, fight anything, and eat EVERYTHING. It seems as though the player has total agency in his or her own actions, but this is not true. As limitless as BotW feels compared to other games, it has its limits and that is part of what makes it such a good game.
Some gameplay mechanic limits are:
• A health bar
• A stamina wheel
• Weapon durability
• Limited ammo
• Limited weapon storage
• Fall damage
• Cold/heat damage
These are all obstacles put in front of the player to stop them from doing whatever they please, limiting the scope of activity available to them at the start. All of these aspects, however, can be upgraded in some form to bypass the limit. You can acquire more health, more stamina, and more weapon slots. You gain a paraglider to negate falling damage. You can acquire stronger weapons that have better durability and you can acquire clothing to negate the harsh environments.
Once the Stamina Wheel is depleted, it is Impossible to move forward unless you use a food item to replenish some stamina.
The game is set up for you to test these limits and see what you can achieve within them, and it is your choice if you want to make the game easier by upgrading yourself, because these upgrades are not mandatory for you to beat the game. The only challenge you have to complete in order to see the final cutscene is to enter Hyrule Castle and defeat Calamity Ganon, which is possible from the start of the game.
The bulk of the game for most players is going to be preparing for the final battle, making it easier to defeat Ganon. You do this by beating trial challenges, earning more Heart Containers and Stamina Vessels, expanding your inventory, and collecting a huge assortment of items and weapons.
Acquiring four of the spirit orbs is the only way to expand health and stamina permanently.
You have to collect hundreds of korok seeds in order to fully upgrade your weapon inventory.
Both spirit orbs and korok seeds are locked behind small puzzles hidden throughout the world. There are 120 shrines that hold spirit orbs and 900 koroks with korok seeds to uncover. They are an in game currency, limiting how fast you can grow stronger, and that is a good thing. These items have a weight to them, an importance. It feels good to collect these items and it sets the pace of the game. The time it takes to find these currencies and the puzzles you have to solve to get them slowly teach the player how to play the game and survive in the environment. You start with little health, little stamina, and no knowledge of how to fight, but as you grow stronger, the difficulty of the game rises with you and so does the fun. If this game had complete agency where you could run unchecked by any sort of rules, there would be no conflict to push you forward, no driving force to keep you playing. Free agency works for games meant to be played with no objectives, but it does not work for objective based games.
Finding resources pushes the game forward more than anything. After every monster is defeated, they drop their weapon and monster parts which can be used for a number of things
• Selling for Rupees
• Crafting potions
• Use in armor upgrades
That is one part of the resources you can collect in game, the other half is forage items. A HUGE portion of the game can be spent just foraging for food items. These can be cooked into different dishes that give you buffs in an assortment of fields
• Stamina boost
• Heart boost
• Cold resistance
• Heat resistance
• Electricity resistance
• Speed boost
• Attack boost
• Defense boost
All of these boosts are put in the game to incentivize players to be prepared when exploring and battling and limit what you can do without these boosts. The cooking system is meant to supplement the battle system, but the cooking and foraging aspects take far more time than the actual fighting, making the game feel more like a resource management game than an RPG at times. You have a limited number of weapon slots but there is no limit to how many resources you can collect, making the cooking more accessible, but the combat more challenging and rewarding.
You have more freedom in cooking than you do in fighting. That being said, just because there is more freedom, that doesn’t mean it is better. I’d like to argue that having less freedom makes the game more fun, like setting rules for a board game. Monopoly wouldn’t be fun if everyone could just take as much money as they wanted. Within BotW there are rules that tell you what you can do as stated above; limited health, limited stamina, etc. within these limits we find the challenge of the game, the stimulation. You learn how to move within the game, learn the rules; how you can’t climb the mountain without enough stamina, you can’t go into the snowy summit without proper gear to keep you warm and you can’t beat a lynel until you learn its attack patterns.
There is an argument that absolute agency is what is best for players, complete control of the game and what they can do. That can be good in a game made for creativity, like Minecraft or other building games, but in a story driven, action adventure RPG you need rules to stay grounded in the story in order to feel immersed.
The most exciting part of the game is the one that gives you the least options, the combat. It is not right to say you don’t have many options because you can think outside of the box in order to defeat your enemies. When battling, you have 3 types of weapons you can battle with that each have their own battle style: the sword and shield, the Heavy weapon, and the lance. Another limitation you have is that every weapon you use will break, no matter what. This was put in the game so you don’t rely on one type of combat. This limitation forces you to think of different ways to beat your enemy outside of the implemented combat system. Along with the rules that limit, there are rules that can help you greatly, whenever you just barely dodge an attack, time slows down and you have the opportunity to attack with a Fury Rush, a quick succession of attacks that deals extra damage. Along with the Fury Rush, another advantageous rule of combat is that on the last hit of a weapon before it breaks you gets critical damage. These always happen, no matter what, and even though they help the player, It still is a limit in the amount of agency.
Here I am fighting a Lynel, the toughest enemy in the game. I have prepared myself completely before fighting him. I have the strongest armor available to me, a high strength and durability heavy weapon, a defense boost from an earlier food item, and I am stuffing my face with apples to frantically heal myself before I start fighting again.
This is the same fight as above when I finally manage to beat the Lynel. I defeated it by following the rules the game has set. I barely dodge, which triggers the Fury Rush, and I swing my sword until its durability runs out and I get critical damage. After I finish it off with a few stabs of a lance, It falls and drops all of it's precious loot that I can use to defeat another big scary monster, and the cycle continues.
As I had stated earlier though, there are other, more creative ways of fighting monsters
There are limits to the game that can be argued are bad, but most complaints about the game and it's limits are small things that the players just wish were tweaked slightly. Climbing while it's raining is impossible because you slip off of the rocks, you can only swim for as long as your stamina bar will allow, and you can only have fully upgraded health or stamina, not both. All of these things limit the players agency in a negative way. These are minor parts of the game that could be changed if the developers really wanted, but a much bigger limitation is the size of the map. It is absolutely huge but it does have a limit, and when you try to run past the limits, this happens:
This limitation makes it impossible to run infinitely through the playspace, showing the player concrete limitations to where they can go.
Past gameplay limits, there are some Limits of the Nintendo Switch that hinder the experience. There are zones that have trouble loading and sometimes enemies and npcs have trouble loading that makes the gaming experience worse.