Zelda no Densetsu: Breath of the Wild (2017, SW)

By Saf / March 20, 2017


How do you make Zelda relevant again? By reimagining what a game like Zelda is supposed to be. Where do I start with this game? How about the fact you really go can anywhere you want — horizontally and vertically? How about the fact the physics in this game actually matter and you can truly manipulate and approach every situation differently because of it? How about adding voice acting and cutscenes and some of the best writing I have ever read in a videogame?

   Breath of the Wild is a huge surprise after the shitfest that was Skyward Sword, and easily the best Zelda game so far, drawing elements from across the series and modern free-roaming stuff. There's very little hand-holding and you really can go off in pretty much any direction and do tasks in almost any order. It feels like, since Skyward Sword, the design team sat down and played modern Western titles for the first time in their lives. They've even improved on some aspects of free-roaming design compared to some of their competitors.
   For example, you still have the Ubisoft towers which reveal a part of the map, but they don't reveal any "points of interest". You have to find them by looking around, with key places (shrines, towers and a couple of other things) glowing orange. Things that are meant to be hidden don't stick out until you start poking at the environment with your abilities. The game wants you to mark your map yourself when you see interesting shit. NPCs guide you on a pretty clear path through the main story, but they do so by giving you directions, and you can just ignore them and do things in a different order if you want (you can even just make a beeline straight to the final area of the game as soon as you leave the tutorial area). You do get upgrades to let you track things with sound (they beep annoyingly as you get close to whatever you're tracking), but you can turn all of that off (as well as the minimap, which you should at the first opportunity).
   The environments, besides being beautiful and distinct, are also surprisingly interactive. Trees, grass and wooden weapons catch fire, wind spreads it across fields. Random bouts of rain make cliffs slippery and difficult to climb. Snowy areas deplete your health unless you've got the right gear, or you're carrying torches. Exploding barrels are common. All mountains can be climbed and all waters can be crossed. The interactions between object and environment are delightful to discover, and the game gives you a lot of abilities at the start rather than doling them out through linearly-placed dungeons and quests. Unlike previous games, puzzles and enemy encounters you find don't limit you to a single solution. Here, you're just limited by your tools and perhaps stubbornness. This environmental interactivity is new to Zelda, and it comes together in a way that makes the game feel as dynamic as Just Cause, sometimes more so.
   For another example of interactivity and detail, instead of just being given a horse, you have to find 'em in the wild, sneak up behind them, grab hold and break them in. You can even name them and keep multiple in a stable. They're hard to control at first (reminiscent of the horse in Wanda to Kyozou), but as you increase their affection they'll even start moving semi-automatically if you let them, following the trail so you can focus on looking around. It was only by stumbling onto a group of wild horses while exploring that I figured this stuff out, and not until a fair bit later that I discovered the stables and NPCs that tell you about them.
   Combat is fairly simple overall, but they've brought together all the combat elements of past Zelda games into this one, and with every action requiring stamina it does feel a bit like the Souls series. You can't just button-mash like in previous titles. You've got stealth, there's a basic parry system, all the different weapons, powers and elemental effects, mounted combat etc. It gives you a lot of ways to approach encounters. Enemies also have cool, more reactive AI, using objects in the environment and sometimes adapting to your attacks. Once you're sufficiently strong, a lot of them do become trivial to deal with. That being said, with the openness of the map you can easily stumble onto more difficult enemy encounters while heading off towards more remote parts of the world. Things tend to get more dangerous the further out you go from the central starting point of the game.

   The stamina system ties everything together, as well as your limited inventory. Shit breaks so easily, you can carry so few items at a time, and you tire so easily (be prepared to fall off cliffs or drown a lot at the start) that you're compelled to go out and look for upgrades, equipment and money. Basically, at least to some extent, they've made all the often pointless item-collecting and side activities endemic to these kinds of games more fun and useful. There's no experience system so your strength is tied entirely to items and upgrades you find or buy. Skyward Sword had a stamina system, but it was utterly pointless and annoying. All it did was make you take longer to run to places. In this game, stamina is vital.
   The flaws start to become apparent past the first few hours. There is stuttering and slowdown in high density areas. The UI is a little cumbersome and makes you wish you had more buttons, as switching items and dealing with your inventory takes several steps and pauses the action. Also, despite limiting your weapons and shields, you can carry an unlimited amount of consumable items, and it becomes trivial to cook up food and elixirs that give you absurd amounts of health and stamina. While the elixirs give you cool buffs, I tend to avoid using items so it's not too easy, unless I'm outside of combat and near death (consumables are the main way to heal yourself, as towns between the wilds are usually very far apart). Besides that, it just feels off that you can only carry, say, seven swords, but hundreds of apples and mushrooms and shit. They should have gone the whole way and limited your entire inventory, though resource management on that level could have gotten annoying with the awkward UI.
   Exploring can also be a mixed bag. Finding shrines is fun and the main reward for exploring, as you get to do a little puzzle and get an item to upgrade your stamina (or health), but some of them are very simple and easy to solve. Due to being so short (they're usually just one room), they can't be very complex. Many of them are combat shrines, which are mostly pretty much the same. Also, due to the abundance of shrines and the size of the world, fully-fleshed dungeons are fewer in number and smaller than in past Zelda games. The actual story is simple and there's not too many cutscenes (a good thing overall as it frees you to explore). The game can potentially be completed in a short time if you ignore most of the side stuff, as it gives you almost all the tools you need at the start. There isn't enough variety in enemies, as you'll be seeing the same three or four types quite often depending on where you are, albeit that's offset somewhat by the weapons they might carry and the environment they're in (as it might force you to approach them differently).
   Not to mention the map is maybe too big. The pacing is often relaxed, and the "lonely wanderer" feel you get from wandering a ruined Hyrule bereft of much civilisation or other people is great. The combination of colourful cel-shading and a more realistic style (somewhere between Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword) gives the game a beautiful look despite being stuck on a crap system. And they have failed to fill a map this big with enough unique content to make up for the amount of space.
   With all that said the game is great and still full of surprises. I have yet to be tired of looking out into one of the beautiful vistas, picking an interesting point and heading there to see what I can find. In the overview of the world as seen in the picture on the box cover, every viewable (and not viewable) crevice is an entirely different world of exploration that is both gorgeous and fully interactive.
   Even the music approach has been redefined for this game. Eerie, peaceful, and epic. I do not think a single note in this game is synthesized and the sensation feels like the game is calling to you or empathizing with you. The music element is used in a way that is unlike anything you probably have experienced before. The best sensual reference I can give is that the music feels like water hitting your skin, that is how tangible it is.

   Nit-picking:

1) Not all NPC dialog is voiced. This was a similar complaint that I had with the last two home console Zelda titles. If the production values on the game are high enough to immerse you as this title has done, all NPC lines should be voiced rather than only a few.
2) The obvious cloud shadows during high sun are so realistic that it makes you look up, however the clouds in the sky do not coincide with the shadows. Often I would expect to see a close cloud or a storm front coming in, and not have either.
3) Some powers suffer from quirky control mapping.
4) Simple textures and meshes often are crude for the sake of object and environment scope. Forgivable, but noticeable.
5) The interactive detail in the game is so high that it is noticeable when Link's hands don't line up with climbing elements or when objects quickly "transition" into items *cough* tree trunks *cough*.
6) Greatly miss the presence of at least a few major in-ground elements or dungeons. Most of the world is the same "trial" format with huge surface landscapes.
7) More purpose, depth, and variety in the lives of the NPC characters that inhabit Hyrule would have been nice. (As far as planning, this element could require as much preparation as the development of the world itself.)
8) Inability to change the view if needed. (When in a tree, avoiding being seen or fire from horseback bokoblins, the leaves and branches become too much of a visual obstruction from accurately shooting arrows or observing.)

   But these are, as aforesaid, nitpicks. At this point, I could not imagine the game industry without this game. Every once in a while, a game comes out that just says what everyone is thinking subconsciously but cannot quite make out the words (except icy, of course), an itch that needs to be scratched, that puts all the pieces together in entertainment culture and builds the foundation for the next age for the game industry. This is that game.

Zelda no Densetsu: Breath of the Wild is current runner-up to Insomnia's 2017 Game of the Year.

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