I have been vocal in the past regarding my feelings on the modern 3D Zelda games. I have not had the passionate history with the titles in question (or the N64, for that matter) that a lot of gamers my age exhibit. I enjoyed Windwaker’s world and aesthetic design, and while I have a great deal of respect for it, I didn't play it or Ocarina of Time until years after they were relevant. Since then, the only entries in the series have been poorly paced, frustrating, and sullied with the dreaded arm-waggle motion controls. I had all but wrote off the main console series, especially considering Nintendo’s storied decade since the launch of the Wii. While Link Between Worlds was an unexpected gem, I was unabashed in my public criticism of the series since Windwaker. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them bad games, but they certainly disappointed me. I think that disappointed feeling is what makes it all the more poignant when I got my hands on The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild and discovered it to be one of the greatest video games I have played in a decade.
With so much going on in the game on every level, there really isn't a great place to start to talk about Breath of the Wild from a design or mechanical standpoint, so I posit to start where Zelda started: on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The original Legend of Zelda took a few influences from the then budding games industry, but it blazed more trails than it followed. It wasn’t just challenging or obtuse, it was open and inspired awe like few others. It encouraged exploration and experimentation, and didn’t pull any punches if you wandered too far off the beaten path. Breath of the Wild shows its many influences on its sleeve to a keen eye, but the biggest of the bunch is The Legend of Zelda. This isn’t a game that slow-rolls your opening with fetch quests or children claiming proclaiming your tardiness. You learn the controls, and old man gives you advice and a few simple tasks, then you are open to do as you will.
It’s not immediately open to the extreme extent that classic Legend of Zelda was, there are a few introductory quests that grant your baseline abilities and equipment, but it succeeded where other entries didn’t by not making it feel onerous. The main abilities Link uses throughout the game are gained early on, and the introductory shrine puzzles teach the player their ins and outs without insulting the player’s intelligence. The result of completing these initial puzzles is primarily learning, but also presents you with one of my new favorite items in the series: the paraglider. The paraglider enables, to no one's surprise, gliding. In a game where exploration and traversal have never been more important, the paraglider quickly becomes the most useful tool in your arsenal. What you need to do in order to grab ahold of this retro hang glider teaches you most of what you need to survive in the harsh lands of Hyrule, and with it the world is yours, for better or worse.
|Even after dozens of hours the scale |
of the world continues to impress
For the ‘worse’ I don't mean negativity, I mean challenge. Challenge I haven't seen in a Zelda game effectively ever. Despite my lifelong adoration for Link to the Past, it’s not its difficulty or complexity that I appreciate it for. It may spend less time holding your hand than a Skyward Sword, but I still don't consider it exceedingly challenging. The challenge to Breath of the Wild is early, systematic, and constant. The aforementioned ‘survival’ is a huge aspect of the game, and it’s clear that the designers spent time analyzing popular games of the previous years. Nintendo took a close look at PC survival games like Minecraft and Ark and their smashing success, and actually took modern gaming trends into account in spectacular fashion. To some players, this challenge may be a turnoff, but considering my frustrations with the series in the recent past, I embraced it with open arms. The challenge and the openness of the game are intertwined, and it’s safe to say that I would not have had as enjoyable of an experience if it had been in the supremely approachable style of the more recent Nintendo titles.
A major contributing factor to the challenge is the new item durability system. Gone are the halcyon days of one sword, one shield, and world of monsters to take on. The endless deluge of baddies remains, but you aren’t simply given a sword. After a beautiful moment of stepping out onto the plateau and seeing the world for the first time, you pick up the nearest tree branch and that’s all you have. Swing it a handful of times, maybe defeat a basic enemy, and it’s broken; gone as quick as you found it. This came as a shock, not so much because of the implicit challenge, but because of how wildly it eschewed the decades of series’ history. Your sword in a Zelda game doesn't break! It’s your rock. It’s one of the only objects you have for the entirety of the game, it’s a tool the protects you from enemies, clears out obstacles, and reveals secrets. Your sword a constant, even if the specifics of the arsenal change, and taking away that comfort is something I applaud Breath of the Wild for. Adding onto this challenge is the limited inventory, only allowing a handful of hand-weapons, bows, and shields from the start. This can be expanded using collectibles obtained throughout the world from environmental puzzles, and will eventually become a non-issue if you put in a significant amount of time, but I appreciated that it emphasized choices over options. Not only do you have to learn your personal style and types of weapons you enjoy using, you have to make decisions about what you want to take and what you can live without. This can leave useful items like torches on the table in favor of more powerful weapons, making for interesting player choice, but luckily the game often cleverly hides the more tool-like weapons nearby if you really need them.
The constant need for new weapons and items keenly reinforces the ‘survival’ aspect of Breath of the Wild. I would still consider it in the traditional Action/Adventure genre, but the survival game elements are everywhere. Scrounging for weapons and shields, and finding items to cook and eat to aid you; even if you aren't following a quest or personal goal, the hunt for materials and edibles is constant. This gives the game a feeling like you are never lacking something to do. The cooking aspect of the game has been similarly divisive to that of the item durability system. While I think it could use vast improvements in the interface and quality of life department, I love the preparation and experimentation aspects of the system. Cutting grass and defeating enemies doesn’t produce hearts like in past games, so elixirs and food need to be consumed for healing, another drastic abjuration from the series roots. The game is sorely lacking in a recipe book or more systematic solution to cooking in vast quantities, but for my money that is totally made up for by the musical treatment, animation, and jaunty whistling that comes out of Link as your ingredients cook up into something useful. There are multitudes of ingredients that you can mix and match to make more powerful healing items and foods with extended effects. Knowing that I was a quick menu away from healing, bonus maximum hearts, and other bonus abilities grants a little reprieve in a game with juxtaposed wonder and pitfalls around every corner.
|The overall aesthetic mixes a |
cell-shaded and realistic style perfectly
Wonder is the single word I have found myself using the most when conversing about Breath of the Wild. There have only been a handful of games I can think of that have inspired feelings of awe and wonder like Breath of the Wild has. From first stepping out into the sunlight, all the way to the final castle approach, a sense of wonder that I wasn’t sure I would never experience from a game ever again was present. Everywhere you look there are massive mountains, sky-scraping spires, and environmental beauty. Not the beauty of realistically-rendered features, but the splendor of bright colors and scale more ambitious than Nintendo has ever tried before. But it’s not just visual wonder, the wonder extends to the systems and experiences. Complex systems to observe with and experiment with are amongst my favorite parts of video games as a medium. With Link’s baseline abilities to magnet-around metal, stop time for objects, and freeze water, mixed with the environmental elements like spreading fire or thunderstorms, Breath of the Wild is a game that had me constantly asking “What if?”. And the most wonderful part about it was that the answer was almost always “yes!”. I’ll spare you the details, as the discoveries in question were some of my favorite moments of emergent gameplay in the entire game, but I compel you to try your ideas, no matter how crazy they may seem. Breath of the Wild may once again surprise you.
What surprised me the most was what my most enjoyable in-game pastime turned out to be: just exploring and finding the world’s ancient shrines. The shrines are effectively micro-dungeons full of puzzles and the occasional enemy. They also replace the concept of ‘heart pieces’ by each of them awarding a spirit orb, four of which can be exchanged for a heart container or extension of the stamina wheel. Puzzles are standard fare for the series, but they are different in important ways. Past games inspired folks like me to call into question the validity of calling ‘shoot the eye with an arrow’ a puzzle, and I don't disagree, but what always frustrated me about Zelda dungeon puzzles was their linearity. It wasn’t so much that they were easy or hard, but that they had one hard and fast solution with limited wiggle-room. This is where the shrines separate themselves. The shrine puzzles not only cleverly use Link’s new toolbox, but more importantly make use of the player’s creativity. Their difficulty varies, but after a clever solution or two I found myself trying out non-obvious theories to puzzles I had already solved just to see what I could get away with. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and attention to detail. Not everyone thinks the same way, and while some of the solutions may be more laborious, most of my more interesting ideas came to fruition with solved puzzles, and a smug feeling like I beat the system.
|Classic Zelda combat is back |
with a few twists and lots of polish
Despite what you have read thus far, Breath of the Wild is not without its flaws. You can climb basically anywhere from the start of the game, but the amount of stamina you are granted with at the start is punishing, as is the speed at which you climb. The now cliched ‘see that mountain, you can go to there’ is here, but good luck getting there in a reasonable amount of time unless you spend a lot of the early game doing shrines and upgrading your stamina. On top of that, it’s nearly impossible to climb when it’s raining, which apparently in Hyrule is about four times a day. From a technical standpoint, Nintendo unfortunately couldn’t live up to its own traditional standards. The smooth 60fps frame rates you may be used to aren’t here, and the frame rate drops are both frequent and jarring. Having something of a technical background and playing a lot of games, this generally doesn’t bother me so much, and the game is so fantastic that nothing about this took away from my experience Breath of the Wild includes a series-first in having voice acting, and while I didn’t come out of it upset, its quality is closer to a kid’s show than a triple-A game. But what the voice acting enables is more to be done with the story in Breath of the Wild, and despite the fact it is still mostly the archetypal ‘kill the pig man, save the kingdom’, Nintendo makes impactful changes to how it handles story.
The fine details of the story aside, the delivery is via ‘memories’ which are cutscenes unlocked by finding specific points on the map. I loved this as it added even more incentives to explore the map, an experience that was already so rewarding. As with everything you do in the world, digging in and trying to find these locations led to countless hours of advantageous distractions: enemy camps, side quests, shrines, and the like. Tracking down all the memories was a challenging task, but one with a refreshing conclusion. Finally, after 31 years the team at Nintendo made a Legend of Zelda game that was truly about Zelda. After decades as a damsel in distress and a plot device, Princess Zelda herself gets a treatment of proper characterization. She struggles with family drama, and the concept of destiny. Her characterization features real interactions and intrigue. Zelda finally has a personality; she has wants and needs, and it’s more than just a novelty.
Despite the ambitious scale and massive moves forward for the series, I don't think this release marks the end of the ‘ten years behind the times’ Nintendo that we have maintained our love/hate relationship with. Considering some of the decisions made with the Switch (seriously Nintendo, friend codes?), playing Breath of the Wild feels like a portent of a future with a new Nintendo hayday instead of continued appeal primarily to the fanboys and kids crowd. Breath of the Wild feels modern and intelligently-designed, and does so without losing the fun factor or charm that has come to define Zelda as a series. Breath of the Wild is a game that fits into the rare category of being ‘many games to many people’, and the game it was to me was truly a masterpiece.