War of the open worlds: Breath of the Wild versus Skyrim
by on January 17, 2018

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was my first taste of open-world gaming. It featured a vast, new world to explore and so many options for what I could do. I didn’t have to follow a structured storyline and could do as I pleased. This idea, once so foreign to me, had swiftly become comfortable and entertaining; so of course, I wanted more of it! Lo and behold I was informed that one of the most famous open-world games was being ported to the Switch: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

I had longed to play Skyrim for the longest time, but I had never owned a system that could play itLuckily, my investment in the Switch finally allowed me to try my hand at this game, and instinctively I began to make comparisons between the two games. There were certainly similarities but also many differences. So for the curious, I decided to map out the resemblances and contrasts of two of the biggest open-world games to come out to date.

Before we delve into these two fantastical realms, I would just like to provide a disclaimer that my intent here is — despite this article’s title — is not a competition. Rather, it is merely a comparison of the two games, providing feedback on both in a manner of how a player of one might personally enjoy or dislike the style of the other. In other regards, as most of this feedback is observational statements about each game, there may be a dash or two of my own opinion, so feel free to disagree if I point out something that may have altered my perspective of the game.

Spoiler Warning
This article will be discussing both Breath of the Wild (DLC included!) and Skyrim extensively, so be advised that there may be spoilers for both games.

The Main Quest

As the norm of video games, each of the two has a central story for the player to pursue. (Or not. It’s really just an suggestion, really.)

Breath of the Wild begins with a young man named Link awakening from a 100-year slumber. He learns that he fell in battle all that time ago, and the world has been under the threat of the evil Calamity Ganon’s imminent emergence ever since. His quest is to gain the aid of the fallen Champions and their respective Divine Beasts so that he can infiltrate the corrupted Hyrule Castle and save Princess Zelda, who has been sealing Ganon with a powerful magic all these years.

Skyrim on the other hand starts with a blank-slate character who has been taken as a prisoner after a dragon abruptly appeared and destroyed the keep where you were to be executed. Dragons have not been seen in the continent of Skyrim for centuries, but suddenly they have taken to the skies once again. Upon aiding the city of Whiterun in slaying one of these beasts, the player absorbs its soul, meaning only one thing: You are the Dragonborn. The Dragonborn are rare individuals born with the blood and soul of a dragon and has the mystical power of the Voice — an ability that is destined to defeat the devourer of worlds Alduin.

Each game has a great amount of content, and while in both the main plot can be completed in about 40 minutes if you’re rushing through, each has nearly endless content that can have you playing for months straight without them growing stale.

While in both the main plot can be completed in 40 minutes, each has nearly endless content that can have you playing for months straight without them growing stale.

Breath of the Wild was more cinematic than Skyrim in terms of story. It had interesting characters, film-like cutscenes, and a world worth fighting for. Players may find that obtaining all of the memories may not make too much of an impact with regards to the game’s “special” ending, but Breath of the Wild excels when it comes to making you emotionally invested in the game. For me, it gave me drive to aid each Champion and save Princess Zelda.

Personally, Skyrim‘s plot was a bit more by the books and less of an emotional experience. There is a threat, sure, you’re the chosen one, check, and thus you are the one who has to make it right; nothing more, nothing less. It’s a breath of fresh air to see that the citizens (or at least the guards) actually acknowledge what you’ve done to save them, but, as for the actual plot, there is a lot of dialogue without any true cutscenes. The world of Skyrim is filled with interesting and bizarre characters, but very few of them are integrated into the main plot. It would have been worth it if they were a tad more interesting and spewed out anything other than just exposition.

Breath of the Wild has a deep story behind the memories that you locate, and at times can get a bit dark. When you see the moment Link falls in battle can even be a little hard to watch; needless to say I cried. Overall though, I would say the story is still rather lighthearted compared to Skyrim. There is a clear distinction between good and evil, you know what path you’re taking, and the people are on your side.

Skyrim can take dark turns very quickly. While you are given a fair deal of choices in Breath of the Wild, those choices are more prominent in Skyrim. If you don’t want to do what a person tells you to, you don’t have to — or you can simply kill them off! There are no clear “good guys” and “bad guys.” You have to determine that for yourself, and, even then, if you know that a character is psychotic, you can still choose to aid them in their reigns of terror.

While these major choices happen more frequently in the sidequests than in the main plot, they can creep up from time to time within the context of the main storyline, such as choosing between asking the dragon-slaying Blades or the Greybeards, teachers of the Voice, for advice and picking sides at the truce meetings. Things like this can be stressful if you’re like me and just want to do the right thing! I just wanted to help people and slay dragons, and now I’m somehow part of the Dark Brotherhood planning to assassinate the Emperor. Things got dark real fast.

Sidequests

There comes a point in both games where you want to take a break from your main adventure or when a wandering NPC comes along and asks you for your assistance. Being the noble (maybe?) hero you are, you put aside your priorities to help this soul in need. Those would be the sidequests. They’re optional, but they offer the player extended gameplay and generally gives a reward, such as equipment, abilities, or money — and both Breath of the Wild and Skyrim are loaded with these.

Breath of the Wild has 76 sidequests to complete (if you don’t include the DLC), and to be quite honest — a lot of them are not all that great. Don’t believe me? 900 Korok seeds, and your reward for collecting them is a golden poo. Need I say more?

Okay, technically speaking, collecting the Korok Seeds is not a part of the official sidequests; however they nonetheless are a huge role in completing the game 100%. There are a precious few select quests in Breath of the Wild that will live on in Zelda history. “From the Ground Up” — the eventual foundation of Tarrey Town — and solving Kass’ many riddles are among the fan favorites. However, aside from those and a few others, many of these mini-adventures were mere fetch quests for very easily accessible items. If they had been harder to find or required you to go through a trial to get said item, I think the quests might have been much more engaging. In my opinion, previous games like Majora’s Mask outshine Breath of the Wild in the sidequests department.

Skyrim, on the other hand, is filled with quests! There are about 500 official quests for you to complete, and even after that the game continues to generate new missions so the adventure never has to end. While the main story is quite short, that’s not what really draws people into the game; it’s everything you can do after (or during or before) that. There is much more variety in quest types as well, including those with additional story arcs and side plots that help flavor the overall narrative.

Even the results for similar quests are never quite the same because you get to choose how you approach the situation. If in one quest someone asks you to go and talk to another character, one time you can choose to quietly bribe them while the next you can intimidate them to bend to your will. How can that be made even better? The NPCs can react any way they want! If they’re not persuaded by you, they’ll turn you down. If they’re not intimidated, they can decide to brawl with you. This doesn’t even consider the very real implication that your choices can alter the world around you. There’s a civil war going on when you enter the scene, and you can choose to be on either side — or neither! The possibilities are utterly endless!

Gameplay and tools

Both games move in the same way by using the right joystick to move and the left to control the camera angle and the direction of the character. You can dash in both, and in both you are metered by a stamina bar. Both characters also have the ability to sneak and jump. This is completely new for The Legend of Zelda as in previous titles, Link could only jump if he ran off the edge of a platform. However, what makes Breath of the Wild unique is that, while the Dragonborn can get slightly higher off the ground with his or her jump, he or she cannot cling onto ledges and haul themselves onto higher ground, making travel more limited.

Link’s newfound ability to climb almost any surface has also made him more versatile in means of travel, whereas in Skyrim movement overall is much more restricted to horizontal movement (with the exception of horses that can somehow vertically scale mountains). You cannot climb in a world filled with mountains, which can make traveling off the path a chore if you don’t know the way to your destination.

Lastly on the subject of movement is water travel. In both games, you are able to swim, but the controls and speed vary significantly in each title. In Skyrim, moving in the water is almost like moving on land — except you sink. If you’re not constantly holding up, you will drop to the bottom of the body of water you’re swimming in. Now in Breath of the Wild, you can not swim underwater at all, which I thought was a real shame. The scenery under the sea was so gorgeous, it could have lead to some more exploration opportunities! Not to mention Link slows down a lot in the water unless you are wearing the Zora’s Tunic, which truthfully doesn’t help that much.

When it comes to weaponry, both games have an inventory where you can stash all your weapons, supplies, and other finds. They seem similar enough, but they function rather differently. In Skyrim you can pick up most items; from weapons to books to dishware to human remains. The catch is there’s a weight limit. Once you go over your limit, you can no longer run. As you level up you can upgrade your stamina which also increases the weight you can carry.

In Breath of the Wild, it’s a little different. Like Skyrim, there are limits, but Nintendo, with reason, was a little more generous. There is no limitation when it comes to weight, but they employ another method to keep things balanced. Your weapons and shields have durability, meaning they will eventually break. Many didn’t like this about this title, but it served to keep the game balanced and interesting throughout. An additional limitation on carrying capacity is that you’re limited by the number of each type of item you can hold. Though, you can collect a million of those Korok seeds to increase the inventory space for these particular items.

In terms of combat, the simplest form of it can be boiled down to just mashing the attack button. Yet if you want to get into the meat of it, the games take rather different approaches. Breath of the Wild relies more on strategy than conventional combat. You are given runes, things that replace the traditional Zelda items, and you are nudged to use them throughout the game. The four different types of weapons — swords (which include boomerangs), heavy weapons, spears, and bows — change up the pace of combat depending on the player’s preference. For instance, you can only use your shield with the swords as the heavy weapons and spears require two hands to use. Furthermore, each of the melee weapons has a unique charge attack that varies from its counterparts, and, if given an opportunity to dodge, each weapon can be used in a flurry attack where time slows down and you get to batter your foes around.

Skyrim’s weapons don’t offer as much variation in terms of their attacks as Breath of the Wild, and they do not offer spears at all. Outside of bows, they are all swinging weapons; the prime differences between the various weapons is the amount of damage they do (which can be increased by holding down the attack button) and whether you need one or two hands to wield them. However, for one-handed weapons, you are allowed to dual-wield. You can also choose a shield or a weapon for blocking. Not only that, but magic is also an option. You can learn spells for a variety of things — healing, conjuring, destruction, and more! With all of these choices and dual-wielding as an option, the combinations are endless and interesting! There also happen to be cinematic critical hits where you destroy your foes — but they can also land these hits on you, and I must say, it is incredibly disturbing to see your characters head get chopped off and then slowly roll across the screen. I’m glad Breath of the Wild chose not to do this.

I also wanted to bring up armor because, being used to the effects of the different armor types in Breath of the Wild, I was shocked that Skyrim did not do this. When I entered a snowy region of Skyrim, I worried, recalling how Link nearly froze in Breath of the Wild when going up the mountain without the proper attire. To my surprise, my character was not losing health or even shivering. Now, taking a step back to look at the reasons why it makes perfect sense. Breath of the Wild used their armor more for exploratory purposes with the obvious exceptions of a few sets used to boost attack or defense, whereas Skyrim used their armor strictly for battle-related functions. When you look at the focus of each of the games, their respective choices make perfect sense.
Lastly (bear with me, I know there’s a lot), there’s the physics. Breath of the Wild implements real-world physics brilliantly. For example, metal conducts electricity, so you don’t want to stand in the middle of an open field during a lightning storm with the Master Sword equipped. Fire will burn grass and other flammable substances, holding an ice weapon will make you cold, and so on.

Skyrim, on the other hand, did not touch upon this subject very much. They do have elemental enchantments which will affect your opponents in different ways; ice slows them down, fire causes burn damage, and shock damage can stun your opponents. However, the overworld elements do not affect your battles at all. Unlike Zelda, using electricity in the rain will not make your attack stronger — But then again, in Skyrim, you can stand on a fire pit without consequence. In the end, when push comes to shove, both Link and the Dragonborn will ragdoll when they die, and that’s all that really matters.

Dungeons

Navigation is key in an open world game. There needs to be some way to tell you where you’re headed in a world where it’s so easy to get lost. In Breath of the Wild, you place a marker on your map, then follow the glowing pin on a corner map (provided you didn’t turn on the advanced HUD). In Skyrim, you can similarly create a place marker on your map or, if you are following a quest, click that option on the menu screen and to automatically place a cursor on that location. Then you use a linear compass on the top of your screen to follow the arrow. For a newcomer, I would say that Breath of the Wild’s navigation system is a lot easier to use… at least until it comes to navigating the Breath of the Wild‘s dungeons, where the map becomes a three-dimensional blueprint of the mechanical Divine Beast you’re inside of. Then things get complicated.

As for the dungeons, Breath of the Wild features five main dungeons as well as 120 shrines — essentially miniature dungeons. Four of the main dungeons are the Divine Beasts that rampage throughout the Hyrule. The interior design of the dungeons are nearly identical in appearance and featured a different blight of Ganon as the bosses. This was a bit of a letdown to most fans, but what did catch people’s attention was that these puzzles were based on rotating or otherwise transforming pieces of the dungeon.

There is a division amongst fans on these dungeons, but the one that everyone seems to rave about is Hyrule Castle. It’s not a traditional dungeon by any means, but it is absolutely fun! You are storming the castle, sneaking past and staving off guardians that surround the hub, all to get to Calamity Ganon.

Lastly, we have the shrines, which are something like a huge, traditional Zelda dungeon cut up into bite-sized pieces. Each shrine has a unique (and not so unique as a few are similar in structure) puzzle inside for the player to solve using the runes and techniques you have learned throughout the game. Of course, there are the exceptions of both, namely the blessing shrines and the various levels of tests of strength.

In Skyrim, there are about 197 dungeons, or rather, underground exploration routes. Amongst these underground routes is a strong variety of scenery, including caves, mines, dwarven ruins, and keeps. The dungeons of this game differ a lot from those of Zelda as they are more exploration-heavy. In all honesty, there are very few puzzles within them with the most offered one being a “match the pillar to the tile” puzzle (if you can even call it that). With the exception of a few hidden levers or keys, the dungeons are fairly straightforward. However, the thrills of a Skyrim dungeon come in the form of not knowing what kind of danger lurks ahead. You can go in stealthily or go in swords ablaze, whatever floats your boat.

Music and atmosphere

The Legend of Zelda has always had brilliant musical scores throughout its lifetime, and Breath of the Wild had some fantastic tunes, but nowhere near as many as previous titles. Though the music wasn’t as grand as usual, it worked perfectly with the atmosphere of the game. Featuring mainly a solo piano, it serves mainly as background ambiance. Sometimes, there was no music at all, just so you could take in the visuals.

As for the more orchestral pieces, I think the main theme has to be the most impressive! Then there are the battle themes, and those are quite memorable. The mini-bosses scattered around Hyrule each have their own theme — the Stone Talus’ as far as I can see being the most popular — but none of them surpass that feeling of terror when you hear the keys of the piano go frantic and see a little red dot on your screen. You know what’s coming, and already your heart rate will be rising.

Many times you hear Guardians before you see them, and that alone makes your heart race.

I was so engrossed in Skyrim that I actually never noticed that the music glitched and stopped playing during my second week of play, but once I reset it and the music returned, the game felt complete. The main theme of this game is also so memorable and my favorite of the tracks. I love the use of the choir in this game. As for the orchestra, they use every instrument to their advantage. Though the melodies aren’t as strong as those found in Zelda, the variety of instruments make everything feel monumental. The dragon battles become more intense when the chanting begins!

The graphics and visual style between the two games are significantly different. Breath of the Wild sports a more artistic look, using a lot of pastels in the overworld with bright, vibrant characters to match. It feels like a watercolor painting come to life. Skyrim is the opposite, featuring a world of gritty realism and an earthy color scheme — but again it fits the tone of the game wonderfully. Skyrim is a land torn by war and losing hope as the dragons begin to return, so it’s only fitting that the world is devoid of warmth. If you really want to be picky, the graphics, while not perfect, are better and more refined in Breath of the Wild, but we also have to remember that Skyrim debuted back in 2011.

The world and its inhabitants

We knew this was coming — the map size. Yes, Breath of the Wild’s map is bigger; but not as big as you may have thought. Breath of the Wild is 166% larger than Skyrim. Granted, that is nearly twice the total area, but earlier claims stated that Hyrule was even larger than that, claims we now know as false. In terms of walking, it took YouTuber K. Huntington about 32 minutes to walk across Skyrim and 50 minutes to travel through Hyrule. But alas, it is not the size of the world that matters, but the content within.

Breath of the Wild seemingly has a never-ending world. Even when returning to areas you have visited before, there’s almost always something new to discover. However, this world is a post-apocalyptic setting with only a few remaining villages. We have familiar settlements such as the Zora’s Domain, Death Mountain, and Kakariko Village as well as a few new locations such as Hateno and Lurelin villages. Including minor outputs such as the Akkala Ancient Tech Lab, there are 14 settlements in Breath of the Wild.

Most of the world is open fields, forests, mountains, and ruins. Though there is a lot of empty space, there are still plenty of things to do and sights to see. Yes, there are the 900 Korok seeds scattered across the vast land, but there are also shrines to locate, memories to recall, Yiga Clan members to encounters, and so many special areas to explore! Go to Satori Mountain when the glowing aura can be found in the night sky and you’ll know what I mean.

Where Breath of the Wild encourages you to make discoveries for yourself, Skyrim gives you more of a heads up. Along the paths, there are signs leading you to the cities and towns, and points of interest are highlighted for you to find on your navigation bar. Following the paths, you can encounter merchants, fellow travelers, soldiers with captive prisoners, and thieves.

Including DLC, there are 10 major cities in Skyrim, each brimming with life and excitement. In each, you can become a high-titled Thane and most you can buy property in. The individual towns in this game have their own personality, easily distinguishable from one another. There are also many more smaller towns as well as settlements, strongholds, farms, mills, and private estates.

We have seen all the races of Breath of the Wild before, but never to this degree. The Gorons and Zora vary in color, the Rito have become full-fledged bird-people, and the Gerudo have different body types and skin tones — not to mention we finally have age differentiation between all of the races!  As diverse as Zelda games were before, they are now even more so, and that doesn’t just go for the more exotic tribes. We finally have an actual Shiekah tribe! Finally, after all these years, Impa and Impaz (and technically Sheik) aren’t the only remnants of the near-extinct Sheikah race; we finally get to see them as a thriving society, taking heavy inspiration from old Japanese culture. There are also Hateno and Lurelin villages, which are Hylian-inhabited villages.

Not only does Skyrim have a large variety of races, but they have deviations withinthe same race! Take the Elves, for example. There are three different kinds: Wood Elves, High Elves, and Dark Elves. In addition to these three races, there are also the human tribes — the Nords, Bretons, Imperials, and Redguards — the cat-like Khajiit, the reptilian Argonians, and the Orcs. Unlike Zelda, you can choose which of these races you’d like to play as in your customization of the Dragonborn. You do get to see all of these races, but you will mostly be dealing with the Nords as Skyrim is their native land.

Finally, we can’t go without talking about the dangerous creatures that roam each land. Breath of the Wild takes an interesting approach to this subject. When it comes to variation in enemies, there really aren’t many. With just the base species, there are 11 enemy types; if you want to include the overworld mini-bosses, add three more. However, what Nintendo did instead of variation in creatures was an alteration to difficulty and form. For example, the Chuchu can come in different elemental forms, the Bokobolins, Lizalfos, and Moblins all have a cursed skeletal form, and, when you see a silver Lynel as opposed to the standard brown, you know the battle will be more difficult. Most of the standard enemies actually feel rather intelligent and aware of their surroundings. If a Moblin runs out of rocks to throw at you, he’ll gladly chuck his Bokoblin friend who is standing nearby just to ensure your demise.

Where Zelda cares to focus more on monster-type enemies, Skyrim tends to use more humanoid opponents. A great majority of the enemies encountered are bandits, soldiers, cultists, and even undead; oh yes, there are zombies and vampires. But of course, there are fantastical (and not so fantastical) creatures, including the main conflict of the game, dragons. The dragons are the equivalent to the mini-bosses in Breath of the Wild, but they can appear anytime and anywhere — even in the middle of towns, where they can kill innocent civilians. You won’t find that in a Zelda game. Then there are ones you can encounter in the wild, ranging from wolves to spriggins to trolls to mammoths. Now I’m not going to lie and say there are that many more enemies in Skyrim than Breath of the Wild, but similar to Zelda, Skyrim holds a multitude of enemy variations, offering new challenges for the player.

Final thoughts

All in all, these two games that were being compared so often upon the release of Breath of the Wild are vastly different! In short, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers more exploration-heavy gameplay, more complicated puzzles and challenges, and a more engaging main story. This is a more family-friendly game and will not have you questioning your morality. It is filled with surprises, thrills, and moments you will be sure to remember!

On the other hand, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will keep you engaged for hours upon hours, constantly throwing more content your way. It offers the player more choices, and those choices will stick with you throughout your journey. There is no pressure if you start a quest and choose not to finish it. In general, it has overall Dungeons & Dragons vibe as you complete quests and gain rewards. While it is an exhilarating game, it may not be suitable for younger players with its M rating.

To put it simply, both games have their distinguished strengths and weaknesses, and there are some things I like better in one game than the other. But if you asked me to pick a favorite, I don’t think I could. In my own opinion, they are both excellent games. I found myself spending hours upon hours in each of them! Perhaps today you came to this article curious as to how one game holds up against the other. I’ve told you all that I can, and the last piece of advice I have for you is to try them for yourself and experience the magic that each game has to offer.

Stephanie Cusumano
Stephanie Cusumano is a columnist and feature contributor on Zelda Universe, as well as a cosplayer and artist who is always ready to show off her Zelda side. The Legend of Zelda began her journey as a Nintendo gamer, and her love for it shows no sign of stopping.