In recent times, I’ve seen a number of complaints about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s shrines. Many players miss the elaborate dungeons that were seen in previous games in the Zelda series. The Divine Beasts were intended to take the place of dungeons, but many weren’t happy with that solution.
However, I rather like the system that Breath of the Wild employs due to the fact that they are indicative of the game’s “do what you want” attitude. In previous Zelda games, you would enter a dungeon and, from the very beginning, your reward would automatically be determined for you. Upon completing the dungeon, you would receive a heart container, a specific key item, or something else that you ultimately needed. In previous Zelda games, this was fine, as the games were largely linear, employing a Metroidvania-like system of locking off content until you acquired a specific item or completed a specific task.
Breath of the Wild changed that. In Breath of the Wild, you can go wherever you want at any time. While you have specific story goals, you don’t have to do them in order, or at all really, in order to experience the wider world. You may have to obtain a specific item in order to survive a specific area, but all of these obstacles can be overcome in multiple ways, none of which require the player to complete specific content. Because Breath of the Wild is structured in this way, it makes sense that Nintendo would opt to eschew the system of dungeons that was used in previous games. In an open world setting, you can’t be sure of what players are going to be doing at any one time and thus, there can’t be a system of gating content in a specific way.
The replacement that Nintendo opted for was the system of shrines. As you play the game and explore the world, you will encounter any of more than 100 shrines. You enter these shrines, you complete a themed challenge, and you receive a Spirit Orb. Upon obtaining four Spirit Orbs, you can return to a statue and obtain either a heart container or a stamina vessel, thus increasing either your health or stamina.
This system is perfect for Breath of the Wild. Instead of completing dungeons that provide fixed rewards, players can take on smaller shrines, the equivalent of a single challenge within a dungeon in the previous game, and obtain what is essentially a token that can be exchanged for whichever buff they want. As they complete these challenges, there are also opportunities to complete additional challenges for mid-grade weapons and other items.
It’s this level of choice that contributes to the experience rather than detracting from it. While I am of the mind that there are far too many Tests of Strength and that the truly novel challenges like those that make use of the game’s various apparatuses are too few and far between, the freedom to do what you want is what makes this system a perfect fit for an open world game like Breath of the Wild. Frustrated with a specific shrine’s challenge? Find another one, complete it, and you’re still able to progress. Want a stamina vessel instead of a heart container? It’s your choice, so long as you have at least four Spirit Orbs.
On their own, the shrines may not seem like they are worthy challenges or like they are a particularly good replacement for the dungeons of previous games, but when you consider that it is a total of four shrines that provides you with a similar reward to that of previous games and that they provide you a choice of what your reward is, the design decision begins to seem far more reasonable. There were a number of problems that I had with Breath of the Wild, but I can’t say that the choice to replace dungeons with shrines was ever one of them.