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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Rules of nature!
This is a hard review for me to write.
I’ve done this sort of thing for many other games, and I have also done reviews for previous Zelda games. But Breath of the Wild is a different beast. It is a game so massive, it requires a massive, sloppy look at it from every angle I can think of. Within this note, you will find what I consider to be a comprehensive look at The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. If you would like to read about a specific perspective of the game, I have them listed here. Simply use your search function to skip right to a specific section by typing in the number listed below:
001: The Social Experiment (Introduction)
002: A Zelda Experience (Key Features)
003: A Game of Logic (Criticisms)
004: Placement (Conclusion)
Well, let's get to it, shall we? 

001: The Social Experiment (Introduction)

I am a huge Zelda fan. Previously, in ranking my favorite Zelda games, I mentioned the first entry of the series was a “social experiment,” I’d like to explain that claim. The Legend of Zelda is purposely obtuse- there are secrets that are hidden in weird places, and the game has difficulty spikes that can dissuade a player from completing it entirely. While former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata claimed that earlier games were harder because the developers play-tested and refined them, the Legend of Zelda was designed to be purposely obtuse, for a number of reasons. Nintendo published a Fun Club magazine with the American release featuring a slow trickle of tips and tricks, helping players discover new aspects and ultimately work further towards beating it. Ultimately, however, the game was designed so that players would share their experiences with one another, and hopefully combine their efforts in order to complete the experience. For a modern gamer, the original Legend of Zelda is difficult, frustrating, and overly cryptic- but I only wish I had been able to play it when it was first released, to experience this “social experiment” myself. It was an attempt to create a game that generated discussion, and I think it did so very well.

Breath of the Wild shares many similarities with the first game in the series. Even after playing an absurd amount of the game and reaching 113 Shrines on my own, I did resort to seeking the help of others. If I hadn’t, I likely would have played the game even longer, but I wouldn’t have been enjoying myself. Likewise, a friend revealed the location of a specific item to me long before I would have ever attempted to get it myself, and while I was a bit disappointed with having that knowledge, it did not spoil the game for me, and I was actually thankful for it.

Video games have been a medium of personal experience for a long time, although many games and many creative people have challenged that idea. However, even the most Massive Multiplayer Online Game depends on the enjoyment of the individual in order to keep a subscription. The games that use this concept in order to encourage discussion are some of the best in the medium, and I think that Breath of the Wild accomplishes that easily because of the number of complex systems and its vast amount of content and literal space. Each player will have a unique experience, and be able to help one another in different ways. However, I think Breath of the Wild is experienced in the same way by those who seek to play all of its content: The opening hours are difficult, trial-and-error gameplay, and not until about 30-40 Shrines in will the players settle into a comfortable rhythm that allows them to explore without fear of death, save for an unexpected or terrifying event. When those do occur, they are the moments that stand out the most, and are most-likely to be shared with others when describing their experience.

At this point, I think it’s only fair that I detail my own experience with the game: I was committed to completing as much of it as I could without the assistance of anyone else. I started my journey by traveling to the Southeast, making my way up the coast of Hyrule until I reached Death Mountain, at which point I went to the Southwest, exploring Gerudo Desert, and then finished out the Northwest and central parts of the map. Is this how everyone will play? No. I did not obtain the Champion’s Tunic, one of the earlier rewards in the game and a very useful item, until about 100 hours into my own experience. I did, however, learn a number of combat tactics in that time that impressed my friends upon display, stemming from the trial and error process I have gone through in my own personal struggle through the opening hours. That is the beauty of an open-world, non-linear game- everyone’s experience will be different.

002: A Zelda Experience (Key Features)

Breath of the Wild is not just an open-world (or, in the words of Nintendo, an “open-air”) game, however. It is also a Zelda game. In many ways, Breath of the Wild represents the best and worst elements of 3D Zelda.

Combat is much less restrictive, and the amount of variety present in different enemy encounters is impressive. While Skyward Sword primarily focused on sword fighting, bits and pieces of its enemy interactions are present in this game, resulting in a number of interesting situations. The catalogue of enemies, though impressive in concept, is somewhat lacking. The game needs an enemy tier between Chuchu and Bokoblin, as well as one between Moblin and Lynel. It could also use more Lynel-like encounters. I ask for the first of those two for the opening experience, and the second for the endgame experience. What the game lacks, essentially, are Skulltulas and Darknuts. And yes, you are now aware that neither is in the game.

Dungeon gameplay is separated into two portions: Shrine and Divine Beasts. While the homogenization of aesthetics is present in both forms and might be a point of contention for some, I never really had a problem with it, seeing as the game was aiming for a very specific look and feel from the start. I also think that the Divine Beasts are stellar examples of dungeon design, with some being easier than others to manipulate but always novel. I was consistently impressed with how much variety was present in Shrines, with some regional gimmicks at play but unique experiences as a whole. This element is tied with exploration as one that Breath of the Wild performs with excellence and is one of my favorites in the game. I have little to no complaints.

In terms of story, Breath of the Wild is both minimalist and non-intrusive, which may come as a surprise to some. As Zelda has developed more and more, it has told a number of interesting stories, and Breath of the Wild’s own is, in concept, quite engaging. But it never reaches a level of great importance, mostly because its key events have taken place in the past. On the other hand, the story segments that unfold as the player progresses through the game are quite good. This is another area where the developers truly succeeded in making an open-world title that is also very much a Zelda game. The path to Zora’s Domain and all the events that unfold in that area are a concentrated narrative that utilizes the unique elements of that region perfectly.

There is the question of difficulty, however, which has been a diminishing element in Zelda games recently. As I mentioned before, the opening of the game is challenging and forces the player to learn a number of systems: combat, cooking, climbing, environmental manipulation, noise, and weather. However, if a player is attempting to play all of the game, they will find that, around the 30-40 Shrine “timestamp,” some of these systems become easier to exploit and overcome. At the 70-80 Shrine point, the game becomes less about the threat of dying, and more about resource management and utilizing the tools available to you properly. What I am trying to say is that Breath of the Wild’s core gameplay cycles become less taxing as the game goes on, and this results in diminishing difficulty.

Again, I went into Breath of the Wild hoping to see as much of the game as I possibly could, and I think I have certainly done so with a 120+ hour save file. But towards the end of my experience, I couldn’t help by wonder what would have happened if I had not done certain things in the game. It would have made the experience more challenging and rewarding in a number of ways. Breath of the Wild is a game that demands replaying, but because of its lack of save files, punishes the player for restarting their file by erasing their previous progress. While I would like to try to approach the game from a different perspective, I am fearful of losing all of the gear, weaponry, and shrines that I have taken so long to gather. I sincerely hope that the Hard Mode being introduced this summer will allow for a second save file, but I doubt that will be the case.

003: A Game of Logic (Criticisms)

Whereas many of the previous 3D Zelda titles have funneled the player from one set piece to the next, Breath of the Wild is truly open-ended. There are a number of ways to approach the game, and those options are staggering. In spite of the game’s flaws, which are few, I have to commend the massive amount of different gameplay styles it juggles and succeeds with. There is stealth in both sight and sound, an expansive cooking mechanic, one of the best archery systems I have ever seen in a video game, and much, much more. However, the game is also constantly challenging the player to use their tools in different ways, both in the world and puzzle design. So, in a game that is very heavily centered around coming up with logical solutions, it hurts to see some very illogical choices made.

The amount of Great Fairies in the world is excessive, as is the number of fairies. Some side quests require extremely obtuse solutions. Ore is useless for anything other than currency and upgrades, but is not rare enough to be considered valuable. Sheikah Slate abilities are underused in boss fights. The Sheikah Sensor is flawed. The difficulty curve is negatively impacted by each positive step you take. And for goodness’ sake, the inventory management is in desperate need of review.

These are the most irksome aspects of the game’s design.

004: Placement (Conclusion)

With all that I have said, you might think that Breath of the Wild is not a good game, but that is not true. Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I have ever played. To say that I had high expectations for this title would be an understatement, but I am not exaggerating in saying that it has exceeded those expectations in a number of ways. I have neglected to mention the soundtrack, which I personally enjoy very much. I think it strikes a fine balance of quietness and bombastic, epic feeling when it needs to do so. It has few memorable tracks, but upon listening to a number of them on their own, I realized how much I actually liked them.

What Breath of the Wild does for Zelda is not as revolutionary as Ocarina of Time, but what it does present is a game without borders. I mean, sure, there are borders, but the freedom of choice is so heavily emphasized in this game, it feels as if the possibilities are endless. What Breath of the Wild does do is create a new standard for Zelda titles. Ocarina of Time is a fine game, it is well-made, but its reverence caused developers to continue designing sequels that bowed to the design choices established within it. We finally have a product that is a new golden standard, not only for open-world games, but also for Zelda. I am not finished playing the game, and I intend to replay it many times, to test new ideas and challenge myself further.

One of the last things I would like to talk about is the final boss. Without spoiling anything, I was disappointed with this fight. Not because of the design of the boss itself, but rather, I was disappointed in the way I chose to play the game in order to confront him. As I said before, each positive step you take negates the impact of this final fight, and I think that’s a very interesting balance to strike. In my experience, it was the journey that was much more important than the final boss, and that reflected in how the game itself played out its closing moments. On the other hand, if a player wants the end to be challenging and rewarding, they have the freedom to change the way the play the game in order to make that fight harder. While this was originally a huge point of discontent for me, I have come to accept and respect this design choice.

Lastly, I would like to place this title on my list of Zelda games:

17) Oracle of Ages
16) Tri Force Heroes
15) Majora's Mask
14) Phantom Hourglass
13) Spirit Tracks
12) The Wind Waker
11) Adventure of Link
10) Ocarina of Time
9) Oracle of Seasons
8) The Minish Cap
7) Skyward Sword
6) The Legend of Zelda
5) A Link to the Past
4) Twilight Princess
3) A Link Between Worlds
2) Link's Awakening
1) Breath of the Wild

If you are a fan of video games, I highly recommend this title. If you are not a fan of video games and you want to see what all the fuss is about, I strongly recommend this title. If you are not a Zelda fan, I would politely ask you to give this title a try- it is different from every other game in the series.

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