By MooseyMcMan 22 Comments
Back in my younger days, I rented Ocarina of Time, as I did with many a game. For better or worse, the game didn't click with me then, and it wasn't until a decade or so later that I actually played the game to completion (after having finished several others in the series). But, back when I first tried the game, my big issue was that the game didn't have a jump button, and now, in 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a jump button.
Finally, young me is vindicated.
Because of the nature of some of the things I want to discuss about this game, I'm giving fair warning that there's going to be some SPOILERS. Spoilers related to anything story, or let's say "dungeon related" will be marked as I always do, but if you're worried about me spoiling game mechanics and stuff of that ilk, the don't read this! If you just want my quick take on the game before I get into that: I think Breath of the Wild is probably my favorite Zelda game, but it's not without issues, and some disappointments. I don't think it's quite a masterpiece of gaming unrivaled amongst its peers, but it's my favorite game that I've played since MGSV, and it'll probably be years before a new game hits me the same way this one did. That good enough for a quick take?
Breath of the Wild is, in many ways, what Zelda was originally, and what it always should have been. It puts exploration and adventure ahead of almost everything else, and in doing so, it's a game that really feels like you're on not just a scripted, plotted out story, but your own adventure. I don't just mean that you can do the dungeons in any order, or skip them all and head straight to Ganon and finish the game. I mean that while the game does point you in the direction of story quests, it leaves how you get from point A to B up to you, and the world is crafted in such a way that it usually feels like there are countless ways to get there.
Even more importantly is that these don't just feel like picking which road to take, or like a choice between heading straight to the quest or dawdling (though those certainly are choices to be made). Breath of the Wild makes traversing the world fun and engaging in ways that few, if any, other games of this scale does. Certainly more than the previous Zelda games did, because those did feel like just traveling down a handful of paths, some of which led to the story, some of which led to smaller areas with a puzzle to get a Heart Piece, or something similar.
When I think back on Skyrim, a game I quite enjoyed, the act of moving around that world felt tedious in comparison. Yes, it was the origin (so far as I know) of the, "See that mountain? You can go there," joke, but once you actually got to the mountain? Either you went up the one or two paths they built into the mountain, or you struggled with the clunky controls as you inched your way up something you weren't really supposed to climb.
It's one of those nebulous "feel" things that is difficult to actually explain, but running and jumping around Breath of the Wild just feels good (at least when the frame rate is cooperating, which is most of the time). Not only that, but the game is built in such a way that aside from the edges of the world, your only real limitations are your ingenuity, and your stamina. Who needs a path up the side of the mountain when Link can climb basically anything in the world? And who needs a path back down it when Link can just glide off the mountain, and float gently downward? Or float over to the next mountain, and the next one, and then that little hill over there, and then that pond, oh, and I need to check out that forest, and- wait, is that a camp of monsters?
It's so easy to get distracted, and sidetracked that it's almost a wonder I actually did any of the story stuff. That's not quite true, because my meanderings would have gotten me to those points eventually. I'm having trouble thinking of any other games I've ever played that have really done the simple act of exploring and adventuring as well as this game has. Yes, I could say what others have said and say it reminds me of playing games as a kid, but honestly? This goes way beyond anything I felt playing games back then. And more modern games like Skyrim certainly feel big, and have plenty to do, but those worlds ultimately feel like they're only in service of making the game bigger, so it takes longer to get to the next quest giver. In Breath of the Wild, the huge world is the point. It really is about the journey, as cheesy as it feels for me to type that, without a smidgen of joking.
There's plenty to do along that journey as well, even if aspects of it do get repetitive. Reaching the top of a hill, or a mountain and looking out over an area I hadn't seen before never got old, but finding a rock at the top of that mountain with a Korok under it did. Not that I mind having the Korok there as a way of knowing I'd already climbed it, but in general I wish there was more variety to the Koroks. Push a boulder into a hole, pick up a rock, put a rock in the empty space in a circle of other rocks, and my least favorite, putting an apple into a bowl in front of a statue. Or, if you're lucky, maybe bananas instead of an apple. Of course there's more to the tasks required to make the Koroks appear and hand over their seeds, but they were the first part of the game where I felt the repetition set in. That's not to say I didn't still enjoy doing stuff to get them, but I really wish there was more variety, especially given that there's NINE HUNDRED of them in the game.
The Shrines, the other oft repeated thing in the world, were another source of great joy...and of some disappointment. The idea of bite-sized dungeons strewn about the world is great, and for the most part it works. You descend into one, spend some time solving puzzles, get your reward, and then return to the world to venture onward. The puzzles themselves are frequently great, but rarely did it feel like they lasted long enough. Some of them are meatier, and those were definitely my favorites, but most of them feel like they're over just as soon as they start.
And then there's the Tests of Strength. The game has 120 Shrines total, and 20 of them are Tests of Strength. Compared to the number of times I genuinely enjoyed them, I'd say that's 19 more than there should have been. I could be generous and say 18 more, and concede that the one that teaches stuff like how to parry was useful, but that shouldn't have been a Shrine, that should have been a thing the game taught on the starting plateau, along with the rune powers and whatnot (the parry was the only bit of that I didn't know). Anyway, it was consistently disappointing to enter a Shrine and see it was a Test of Strength. Perhaps if the game did more to vary them, I'd give it a pass. But each one is just a fight against a single mini-Guardian, with the only differences being its health, and what weapons it's equipped with. The only time I really enjoyed one was when I found a Major Test of Strength early in the game, and it was a legitimate challenge. After that, I found a long string of easy ones, and didn't find any tougher ones until I was too well upgraded and equipped, so they were cakewalks.
That said, I still did them, because I wanted those Spirit Orbs. I ended up completing 98 of the 120 Shrines throughout the game, and part of me wants to go back and find the rest of them. I did enough of those Tests of Strength that I think most of the ones left must be regular Shrines, so I'd like to solve those puzzles. And I do know that some of them are hidden Shrines, which I have mixed feelings about. Plenty of them are engaging enough puzzles or riddles to solve to get them to appear, but they were inconsistent with what was in the Shrine after the fact. Sometimes I'd bomb an odd wall in the side of a cliff, find a Shrine, and get excited only for it to have no puzzles inside, only a chest and a Spirit Orb. But then sometimes I'd spend a long time trying to make a Hidden Shrine appear, feel like I had accomplished enough just getting it to appear, and then enter to find a proper Shrine. I'm not complaining about that, I just think it's odd. And there's some of them that require doing something at a specific time of day, or even worse, during a Blood Moon, and trying to line that stuff up can be a nightmare. I was lucky enough to find the Blood Moon one on the night of a Blood Moon, but I've heard from at least one other person that wasn't. Apparently the Blood Moon happens randomly, no less.
The Blood Moon is a good example one of the experiences I had playing this game where I discovered something for the first time. It was my first night out in the world beyond the starting plateau, and I was just poking around some ruins, not really doing anything of importance, when I looked up in the school and completely forgot what I was doing. In the sky was a deep red, nefarious looking moon, creeping its way up. At first all I could think was that this game was trying to one-up Majora's Mask in terms of creepy moons (not sure that it's actually creepier, though), and wondering how I hadn't noticed it when on the plateau. As it rose higher, music started to play, and fiery particles started to appear around, and at I was starting to worry. "Wait, is this game also Bloodborne???" After it fully rose, I learned the Blood Moon resurrects all the enemies around the world, and everything went back to normal.
There's plenty of other experiences I had throughout the game where I saw something wild and had no idea what was going on. Of course, not all of them ended up being especially great once I did figure out what was going on, like the dragons. The first time I saw one flying in the distance, I was completely in awe. It was huge, majestic, and all I could think about was wondering what kind of rad stuff would happen with it. But, it turns out that aside from a Shrine Quest involving one of them, the only interactions you have with them is shooting arrows at them to farm materials to upgrade armor. It's not only tedious, but needlessly difficult to actually hit them and get the stuff. Or at least it was for me. But for the most part, the moments of discovery in Breath of the Wild were magical, and great.
Then there's the combat. On its surface it's not really that different from previous 3D Zelda games. You lock onto an enemy and whack 'em with whatever you've got. If you dodge with good enough timing, the game goes into slow motion and lets you really wail on them. It's the same with parrying attacks, but you can only parry with a shield, and you can only use a shield with one handed weapons. There's also slower weapons, and spears, which are all enjoyable in their own right. I do wish the spears/slower weapons had something for the A button to do, given that's the parry button, but sadly not. And there's boomerangs, which can be one or two handed. When thrown, instead of breaking after hitting an enemy, they keep flying, and will try to curve back to Link. Sometimes they hit stuff and don't make it back, but even when they do, you still have to hit a button to pick it back up. They're a lot of fun.
The thing that gives Breath of the Wild easily the most engaging combat in the series is the way a whole bunch of different parts of the game interact with each other. First is the AI. The enemies in this game not only don't hesitate to gang up on you, they try to do it constantly. Getting surrounded is easy if you're not careful, and that can be a recipe for disaster, especially early in the game when a blue Bokoblin with a spiked club can kill Link in a single hit. But it's not just that they're aggressive, it's ways they interact with the world around them. Is there a lit fire? Okay, then a Bokoblin might try to light its club on fire so it'll do even more damage. If you knock a weapon out of an enemy's hand, it'll be visibly angry, and scour the area for something to replace it (assuming you let them, and don't just them them have it). I've seen huge Moblins pick up smaller Bokoblins (about the size of Link) and literally throw them at Link as an attack! Skeleton monsters will pick up the heads of fallen comrades to replace their own, or the limbs of others to use as clubs. They'll kick your bombs back at you if you don't detonate them fast enough, and they are capable of much better aim with a bow than you would expect.
Then there's Link, and everything his abilities bring to the table. Want to chop down a tree and roll it down a hill into some enemies? Go for it! But why not use Stasis on it first, and then smack it a few times to increase its momentum, and watch it hurdle into the enemies at hyper speed? Shoot a fire or bomb arrow at some explosive barrels? Sure! Or you could climb a hill, glide over the camp, drop a remote bomb on them, and watch the explosion from the sky. No hill to jump off? Then light some grass on fire and use the updraft to soar up with the paraglider! Metal boxes around? Well, it's not exactly efficient, but you can totally use Magnesis to pick those up and use them for mobile cover, or to smash into enemies! Or, at least try to smash, I wasn't exactly great at getting a lot of momentum with them.
What to just stick to weapons? Great! I know a lot of people complain about the weapon durability, but I really like how it works in the game. I love the scramble after a weapon breaks mid fight, when I'm not exactly sure what to do. One of my favorite strategies was to throw a weapon that was about to break into an enemy, which tends to knock the weapon out of its hands, then pick up that weapon and finish off the monster! For better or worse, as the game progressed, the answer to that question of what to do increasingly became just equipping another weapon, rather than running around wildly looking for something new to pick up. It's why I sort of regret upgrading the weapon inventory. Sure, I was armed to the teeth, and beyond, but I really loved that early game scramble.
I will, however, say that the interface for a lot of that stuff in the menus is not very good. Really, all of the interface is kinda bad. Being able to quickly swap weapons, shields, bows, and arrows is great, but not being able to equip a new bow after one breaks without going into the pause menu is a drag. Especially when the menu goes into my pages and pages of ingredients when I hit the pause button, and I have to scroll all the way through that, and clothes, and other weapons to get to the bows.
One other nitpick I have about the combat is the music. First off, I think the combat music is great at getting me excited about fighting monsters, this isn't me complaining about the music itself. But it has this weird habit of resetting midway into a fight, as it'll go back to the early ramping up part when the combat is still going. I'm not sure if it's because they didn't really get it to loop right, or if the game isn't great at detecting when combat is actually dying down, so it tries to dynamically adjust, but doesn't always get it right. I dunno, all I know is that it's a bit jarring, but certainly doesn't ruin anything.
The music in general is fantastic, both in the actual music itself, and how it's used in game. Yes, I'm referring to the fact that large swathes of the game have no, or very little music. I'm not going to fault anyone for wanting a sweeping, dramatic score, but I think it fits the mood and tone of the game to have so little of it when exploring. And, when the music does kick in, it kicks in, and has all the more impact. This may make me sound a little, I dunno, but also the fact that (so far as I know), this is the first Zelda game where all the music was done with proper instruments helps. I'm not saying anything against the music in the older games, a lot of it was fantastic, and classic, but actual instruments just fit better for these sorts of games.
Less fitting, sadly, is the voice acting. While I've been saying these games should have properly orchestrated soundtracks and voiced dialog since Twilight Princess eleven years ago (I feel old), it turns out I was only right in wishing for one of them. I mean, the voice acting in Breath of the Wild isn't terrible, but that in itself doesn't help. What I mean is, the voice acting in this game ranges from wooden to mediocre after school anime, whereas when I want bad voice acting in a game, I want bad voice acting. Reliving Shenmue last year through Giant Bomb East reminded me just how much I love bad voice acting when it's comically bad. The voice acting here is just bad. Of course I wanted good voice acting, but I can't help but be disappointed that if we couldn't have that, we also couldn't have comically bad voice acting. Oh well. At least the various "guffaws" and "oohoos" from NPCs are goofy and decent.
And while I'm on disappointments, it's time to get to the parts of the game that I found most disappointing. If you didn't heed my SPOILER warnings before, then take heed now, because I'm getting into story quests and dungeons!
I think a lot of the story quest stuff in the game is kinda bad. None of the game's dungeons have a particularly interesting "lead-up," for lack of a better term. At least not once you get to the quest giver for each, because obviously the long trek to get there in the first place is a lot of what I love about the game. That's actually part of my problem with the story stuff. Exploring around the world, discovering things is tremendously enjoyable, because I can go about it however I want, and at whatever pace I want. And part of what I don't like about a lot of the story quests is that they tend to go out of their way to restrict you in one way or another.
In the case of the Zora area, that meant constant rain, which funnels you down a specific path, because the rain makes it basically impossible to climb large distances (not something I hate with a passion like many seem to, because unlike some I have the patience to use that time to just walk around things and look for other ways up). Now, I didn't hate that one, and if anything it was actually my favorite lead-up to a dungeon. After going through that path and talking to the Zora king, the next step was to acquire some electric arrows. I don't know what happens if you already have enough of them, but they had me climb a mountain and steal some from a Lynel, a horned, lion headed centaur. I didn't have to, but I ended up fighting this Lynel, and it was definitely one of my favorite fights in the entire game. This completely optional duel with a Lynel on top of a rainy mountain was more dramatic and challenging than many final bosses in games I've played. Certainly more so than the actual boss of the dungeon, but I'll get to the dungeons later. After getting the arrows, and returning to the Zora, I went off with everyone's favorite shark man Prince Sidon, and engaged in a bit of swimming as I shot those arrows at the dungeon to gain entrance.
I enjoyed all of that, but I didn't enjoy the Rito lead-up as much. After I got to the Rito village (really, even calling the villages in this game "villages" feels like an insult to real villages because these are so small, but that's an issue I have with a lot of games), all I had to do was go through a tutorial about shooting arrows in midair (which I already knew how to do), and then I went up with a bird man and...shot arrows at the dungeon to gain entrance. But this time they were bomb arrows! So that's...slightly different.
Then the Gerudo dungeon, which has my least favorite parts of the game in its lead-up. Also, keep in mind, this is just the order I did the dungeons in. First I had to wander around a desert until I found a specific NPC, then I had to put on a ridiculous outfit to sneak into a town of all women (which is a WHOLE OTHER THING that I'm not going to get into because plenty of other people have covered it better), and then, my absolute least favorite part of the game. After trekking out deeper into the desert, shield-surfing behind a desert walrus (which is rad (though the game calls them seals, in an effort to get in seal puns, which I appreciate, but they have walrus tusks)), I got to a desert ninja lair...and had to partake in a basically forced stealth section.
If you read these blogs, you know me. I love stealth games. But what I don't love are games that aren't built for stealth that force you into stealth, because stealth is very hard to get right. The stealth in Breath of the Wild is fine in open environments, when all you're doing is crouching through tall grass and hiding behind the occasional tree or rock to avoid being seen by a Bokoblin. It doesn't work at all when I'm trying to creep around a contained space, and avoid enemies that kill Link in a single hit. NOT ONLY THAT, but they instantly game over you in a single hit, and are the only enemies in the game that do that, and they only do that in this specific part of the game. They appear out in the world after this sequence, but then, they work like everything else, where they just do X amount of damage, which can be mitigated by whatever defense rating Link's clothing has. But in that area? One hit, game over, start at the start. Fairies won't revive Link, and neither will the resurrection skill received from the Zora dungeon. And unlike most of the game, you can't manually save, so no save scumming either!
Mercifully, this section is pretty short. I did end up having to get myself into a corner where the enemies couldn't reach me and kill them with arrows to actually get through it, but I got through it. And then after that, there was a fun boss fight, and I returned to Gerudo town, only to set off to...shoot arrows at the dungeons to gain access to it. I think they were bomb arrows again, but this time there were more sand walruses, so it was kind of different!
Then to add insult to injury, the Goron dungeon has ANOTHER bad stealth sequence in its lead-up, and that one might actually be worse in terms of getting spotted, but it didn't have instant game overs, so it didn't irk me as much. And instead of shooting arrows, I was shooting an actual Goron at the dungeon, so that was at least a little humorous.
But then there's the dungeons themselves. You may have noticed me emphasizing the similarity in the lead-up to the dungeons. You will also notice that I think the dungeons are disappointing in this game, and a major reason for that is they're all basically the same. Each one is a Divine Beast, or in other words, a giant robot animal. There's an elephant, a bird, a camel, and a lizard. They all have the same visual aesthetic, and follow the same formula. You get the map, which lets you move some part of the dungeon, and you use that to assist in solving puzzles, which all result in activating control panels. There's some optional treasure chests to open, but aside from that, it's just the boss at the end, and the bosses aren't especially great, or challenging. Especially not if you have the Master Sword, which gets more powerful (and unbreakable?) in dungeons. Because you can do the dungeons in any order, that means they're all roughly the same in terms of difficulty, which resulted in them only getting easier as the game went on.
They're also all too short, because in every one of the dungeons, I got to the boss and was out of things to do just as I was getting into a good puzzle solving groove. When I think of Zelda dungeons, I think of these huge, sprawling structures that take hours to explore, and to solve all the puzzles. I think of them all being different, having different looks, different gimmicks, and different goals. I think of them as being unique. In Breath of the Wild, the only difference is what you can move in them. The elephant moves its trunk, which is spewing out water, for example, whereas the bird tilts from side to side.
Actually, that's not entirely true. In the lizard, it begins with it pitch dark, and the first few puzzles involve running around in that complete blackness, using torches to see. It's cool, and the only unique feeling thing in any of this game's dungeons. But once you get the map, it gets well lit, and turns into just another of the dungeons, and no longer feels unique.
It's even more of a bummer because in the early hours of the game, I was getting so excited just thinking about the dungeons. Conceptually, the idea of the dungeons being giant robots you manipulate from inside sounds amazing. And for the first one, it was really cool, at least while it lasted. By the end of the fourth one, all I could feel was disappointed, even if the individual puzzles in them were good puzzles. It's also a bummer because there are enough cool things out in the world that feel like they could make interesting gimmicks for dungeons. Using the wind to find my way through the Lost Woods was cool, as were the huge labyrinths I found on the edges of the world. An expanded version of Eventide Island, which takes away all your equipment, weapons, and inventory, aside from the rune powers, could've made for a great dungeon. Just, you know, with the ability to save intact, so I wasn't trying to rush through it because I started Eventide Island with only an hour to play (I did get through it just fine).
I would even be fine if they has drastically reduced the number of Shrines in the world, and just used those puzzles (more or less) as parts of dungeons, and spent some more time making them more visually distinct (also all the Shrines look pretty much the same, which didn't bother me much). I feel like if you were to (somehow) count the number of actual puzzles in this game, it's at least as many, if not more than a lot of the previous games; I just would've liked them to be more concentrated. Oh well.
That story quest stuff, and the dungeons are really my two biggest gripes with the game. But, let me put it another way: Were it not for those, this would be, for me, one of the greatest games ever made. If the dungeons were on par with the best in the series, and it didn't have awful stealth sequences, it'd be practically perfect. Okay, not perfect, it still has a variety of other, smaller issues, but you get what I mean. I just wish those parts of the game were as good as the things I really love about it.
Overall, I really, truly love this game. At its best, it's a phenomenal game, and so much of it is so good, that it makes it very easy to overlook the times when the game missteps, even if those missteps are pretty bad. There's so many wonderful discoveries, and moments that will stick with me for a long time. Like the first time I figured out how to actually defeat the Guardians, and what once seemed like unstoppable death machines now became a doable challenge. Or my quest to transform Tarrey Town from a pile of rocks into a nice little village. Really, the whole thing is going to stick with me for a long time. Probably until whatever the next big Zelda game is. Let's just hope the team at Nintendo learns the right lessons from this one, and they come back next time to make a true masterpiece.
Thanks for reading.