Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Thoughts


[contains minor spoilers]


Zelda is back baby!

Well actually, for many fans of the series, Zelda never left. Similar to the Super Mario games, The Legend of Zelda franchise is one that's never really fallen from grace—the most it has done is momentarily waver in quality at the high end of the spectrum. Sure, you'll find plenty of people that detest Skyward Sword and Phantom Hourglass with a fiery passion, but all of the games have been well produced and meticulously designed, making it difficult to fault them for more than just their shortcomings. There are no embarrassing blemishes on the series like Final Fantasy XIII, Mega Man X6, or Metroid: Other M; The Legend of Zelda has been a dependable name ever since its humble debut back in 1986.

But it was about damn time the series got more experimental. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild eschews with the traditional Zelda formula and places the player in the director's chair, allowing them to explore according to their whims. So many people have become enraptured by Breath of the Wild that the game has been talked about to death, igniting a heated discussion over the usefulness of Metacritic craze and flooding YouTube with a bazillion Let's Plays. Therefore it's unlikely I have anything groundbreaking to add to the general consensus, but I'll try my best to go beyond claiming "It's really good!"


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild succeeds on the most basic level as a video game because it never stops asking the player, "hey, what's over there?" A lot of open world games technically do this, but Breath of the Wild is a wildly different beast; being able to climb anything and everything is completely unique, brilliant mechanic. And notice that I said "climb" and not "hookshot to"—Breath of the Wild makes you earn your pioneering badge by forcing you to manually scale every landmark, which means you'll be surveying the world constantly for vertical routes. My favorite adventuring experience was attempting to shimmy up a thin wooden windmill located at the bottom of a seemingly inescapable gorge. My stamina was barely upgraded so halfway I up I had to chug my last remaining stamina potion and fidget atop a metal nut until I was ready to climb again. It was brutal—and felt clunky—but it was so satisfying when I finally reached the top, even though it didn't really lead me anywhere. My goal was to mount that windmill, and by god I did it.

Being excited to tell a small, pointless, yet awesome tales like that is perhaps Breath of the Wild's greatest strength. Since the game hands the player the reigns once they glide off the Great Plateau, everyone learns the game in their own way, whether it be by traipsing towards a tower in the distance or skipping off to find adventure on their own. I began by exploring the southeast region, struggling to cope with the copious rainfall and getting struck by lightning while climbing trees. It was here I learned how to use Cryonics to make a stairway up waterfalls, blown away that I had discovered a gameplay mechanic that the game in no way pestered me about how to perform. Deciding to push Breath of the Wild to its limits, I charted course for Hyrule Castle, determined to see how the game would gate me from reaching Ganon.

Yet despite all odds, I did it! Well, I reached him anyway—obviously with my puny arsenal I wasn't going to stand a chance. But the cool part was pushing myself to my limits, trying to find ways to avoid the turrets while making decent headway into the defiled castle. What helped me succeed was—to my delight!—the Cryonic's waterfall ability, the ice pillars forming makeshift cover from turrets as I hopped up each block to reach the castle's pinnacle. Honestly that was probably my favorite experience with the game, as it taught me just what Breath of the Wild was trying to accomplish as a game, and it was where I was tested the most (well, that, or my first Major Feat of Strength).


The rest of the time I had with the game was fantastic as well. I got to slowly learn the world piece by piece, discover which recipes gave the most hearts, and figure out which weapons I liked (those elemental spears—oh baby) and loathed (slow weapons booooo!). I initially thought the low durability on the weapons would drive me nuts but I really enjoyed having to swap my equipment depending on my enemy and situation, though I was considerably less enthusiastic about the paltry amount Link could carry (I had to constantly ditch my dupes). The shrines scattered about provide some nice puzzles and I was pleased with the spacial awareness required in each of the Divine Beast dungeons. The scope of the world and the amount of side quests to engage in is staggering even by Zelda standards, and I'm extremely pleased that, like Horizon, this is a game that stands tall on its own two legs without the need for DLC or a sequel to polish its mistakes.

However,

I weep over the lack of proper dungeons in this game. Don't get me wrong—I think the Divine Beasts are cool and creative—but they're essentially extended shrines, only testing your combat prowess when they conclude with one of four disappointingly similar bosses. There's no grand adventure like Hyrule Castle that lets you carve your own path through the dungeon while avoiding difficult enemies; each Divine Beast contains a handful of guardians to fight and only one solution to each of its five node puzzles. Again, I think these dungeons are pretty good for what they are, but The Legend of Zelda series is the only one I can come to for that sweet sweet "map->compass->dungeon item->big key->dungeon boss" gameplay loop Nintendo has peerlessly perfected. Being bereft of that—as well as any sort of gameplay challenge that would test my equipment & consumables—ultimately meant I was let down.

There are some other unfortunate blemishes on the game I can't ignore, like the abysmal frame rate for the Wii U version of the game. Also considering how long the game is, I desperately hoped for more enemy variation than I got (I've murdered countless Lizalfoses and never want to fight them again), and once you've collected every type of weapon the treasure chests you stumble upon start to lose their luster. At one point I realized I wasn't going to finish all of the shrines in the game simply because I felt that my time with it had come to a close; my journey was finally complete. There's a part of me that wants to go back and keep playing the game—the feeling you get when climbing stuff you aren't supposed to is addicting—but I also need more of an incentive beyond seeing overfamiliar content recycled and reoriented.

I must note that these grievances truly underscore the copious amount of personal experiences Breath of the Wild offers. The first dozen or so hours are among the best since everything is fresh, funny, and new; you'll stumble upon hundreds of humorous little moments, like chasing after an apple rolling down a hill or witnessing angry bees butchering bokoblins. There are some breathtaking sights to behold, like the first time you spot an ancient dragon or when you finally arrive to the gorgeously rendered Zora's Domain. The story and score are neither here nor there—I like the way in which some citizens remember Link and the Hyrule Castle theme has an epic feel to it—but they are both secondary to the pedestrian joy of wandering around Hyrule with no particular destination in mind. Plus it's also nice for the first time in decades to play a Zelda game that is unafraid to kill the player.


The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the change the Zelda series needed. Even though I lament the loss of the classic dungeon-spelunking item-collecting gameplay, I can't ignore how great it feels to sit down with the game and simply goBreath of the Wild is simultaneously a serene and invigorating experience, recapturing the same emotions that made the original NES game so magical, long after we've grown up and gotten used to what a Zelda game was supposed to be. To evoke that childhood wonder; to rekindle the desire to mess around in sprawling virtual playgrounds; Breath of the Wild is not only a fresh breath for the series, but it is perhaps the perfect distillation of the word "adventure".
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Images obtained from: zelda.com, pvplive.net, destructoid.com, zeldadungeon.net

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