The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The games in Nintendo's much revered Legend of Zelda series have always juggled, more or less effectively, two primary elements: nonlinear overworld exploration and more focused subterranean puzzle-solving (maybe with a few entertaining mini-games tossed in for good measure). Accordingly, there have always been different specialized camps within the broader Zelda fanbase that appreciate the games more for one element over the other, either adamantly declaring that the series is "all about" the dungeons and the puzzles, or claiming that its appeal lies exclusively in the freedom of navigating a vast uncharted world and uncovering all its tantalizing secrets. Personally, I have never been able to whittle my tastes down to such narrowly refined standards: to me, Zelda has always been about the sum of its parts, or more accurately, the remarkable effectiveness with which it seamlessly integrates multiple gameplay styles into a single coherent whole. Consequently, I have seldom felt slighted by any one entry's choice to emphasize one aspect to the potential detriment of another: I enjoy all parts of the game equally, and any particular skew in one direction seems not so much cause for critical acclaim or censure, but simply a point of neutral distinction—a unique flavor that serves to define its place among the rest of the series' installments.
Some games have nailed the balance of the two primary aspects just right: the SNES and N64 classics spring most immediately to mind, and admittedly these tend to be my favorites—the ones that I would consider to be the most deserving of any attempt to apply the pretentious epithet of "masterpiece" to a video game. Others have been more effective at emphasizing one element over the other: I had a lot of fun exploring Wind Waker's nautical-themed overworld, for instance, but I found its dungeons somewhat lacking in both quantity and complexity. Breath of the Wild clearly leans more heavily toward the exploration end of the scale, bouncing sharply back from Skyward Sword's focus on more linear puzzle-solving, and many, in fact, would probably consider it Nintendo's first official foray into the modern-day genre somewhat ambiguously designated "open world."
I will forgo the debate on what constitutes a proper open world game, and whether the original Legend of Zelda, consisting of a large interconnected world and enforcing relatively few restrictions on how the player chooses to travel through it, might in fact qualify as one of the category's pioneering prototypes. Judging it purely on the standards for nonlinear exploration-based gameplay represented in the other Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild has easily set the new benchmark, and those who appreciate the games for the license they afford them to sate their virtual wanderlust will find themselves fully enrapt. When Link emerges from his subterranean stasis barely five minutes into the game, and the screen pans out to reveal the title graphic fading in over a vast uncharted wilderness, the game's intent to solicit your inherent spirit of exploration is quite evident. You can almost sense the invigorating assault of the wind washing over your elven avatar's inert features, awakening that latent urge to wander off in any direction and begin your expedition into the world's undisclosed bounties.
"Judging it purely on the standards for nonlinear exploration-based gameplay represented in the other Zelda titles, Breath of the Wild has easily set the new benchmark, and those who appreciate the games for the license they afford them to sate their virtual wanderlust will find themselves fully enrapt."
My main complaint with the majority of modern open world games is that, even in the more interestingly designed settings (the planet Mira from Xenoblade Chronicles X, for instance, with its awe-inspiring sense of verticality and enticing abundance of subterranean nooks and crannies), the world itself is still relatively static: it serves as a basic visually appealing backdrop for the designers to sprinkle with monsters and treasure chests, but there is little to no interactivity occurring between the occupants of the world and the actual world itself. It should not really be much of a surprise that Breath of the Wild bucks this trend. All Zelda games, whether they were categorized as "open world" or not, have always done a good job of demanding interaction between the player and the game world, usually via Link's arsenal of items and special abilities. Breath of the Wild boasts a mostly original set of abilities called "runes," which can be implemented in tandem with the game's physics engine to effect multiple solutions to various situational puzzles and predicaments. Need to reach a treasure chest that has been cruelly teasing your covetous gaze from across an untraversable bog? Use your Magnesis ability to convert a metallic piece of the surrounding desolation into a makeshift bridge. Ambushed by a giant mechanical spider thingy as you attempt to make your way across an exposed wetland? Summon an ice block out of the soggy earth with Cryosis, and use the improvised parapet to shield yourself from the enemy's incoming laser barrage.
The game's dynamic weather system contributes further to this sense of a living, breathing, fully interactive Hyrule, as it directly influences gameplay and forces the player to adapt his strategies to the ever-changing meteorological conditions. A fire set to a single tuft of grass will spread across an entire meadow in the direction that the wind is blowing, allowing you to engulf an enemy encampment in a sweeping conflagration without ever alerting them to the hand you played in their devastation. When you enter an area of extreme temperatures, your steadily depleting heart meter represents the toll that the inclement clime inflicts upon your frail mortal physique; but you can combat the bitter asperities of nature by equipping appropriate cold- or heat-resistant gear (even certain ice- or fire-aspected weapons have a noticeable effect), or you can use spicy or chilled ingredients to concoct a meal that will temporarily boost your physical tolerances. Perhaps, your carefully planned raid of a bivouac of boisterous Bokoblins has been interrupted by a freak thunderstorm: you may need to forgo the use of your more powerful metallic weaponry if you want to avoid attracting the tempest's violent fulminations; or turn the heavens' wrath to your advantage, and hurl your iron blade into the midst of your foes moments before the lethal levin-blast renders their feeble flesh unto ash.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as a gentle rainfall can represent a serious obstacle, as it makes every surface slick and temporarily imposes a severe hindrance to your natural climbing ability. This can prove a little frustrating, as the mischievous spirits of the ether can occasionally open their sluice-gates just as you get it in your head to commence your conquest of a particularly provocative pinnacle. But the game offers so many solutions to this mild nuisance that it's probably more of an inconvenience to attempt to formulate a tenable argument against it. For one thing, the game's standard HUD includes a predictive timeline, informing you of the current and forthcoming weather conditions and allowing you to plan your activities accordingly. You can acquire and upgrade specialized gear to increase your climbing speed, thus offsetting the periodic retrogression caused by the slippery weather; and there are various foodstuffs that you can cook and consume to replenish your stamina meter all but indefinitely, ensuring that you don't entirely lose your grip during your extended escalades. Failing any of that, you can always have recourse to the vast quantities of flint and firewood likely to have accumulated in your inexhaustible inventory, construct a campfire under the nearest natural overhang or man-made shelter, and rest beside it to trigger a timesaving lapse forward to some point after the downpour has subsided. Whether or not you perceive the rain as a valid design choice, no different than any puzzle, combat scenario, or other obstacle meant to challenge the player's capacity for adaptive strategies, its presence is justified, from a purely aesthetic perspective, simply for the reactions it elicits from the game's NPCs. It is always a delight to watch a roving merchant or frolicking child divert suddenly from their wonted activity, produce a speech bubble muttering something about the unexpected turn in the weather, and conduct a frantic dash toward the nearest shelter. These amusingly subtle flourishes evince the loving dedication with which the developers have crafted their world, endowing it with that indefinable extra touch—the breath of sentience that the game's grandiose subtitle would brazenly promise.
My other major grievance with the open world super-genre is that, often, the brunt of all development resources seems to be spent on awing the player with the game's massive scope, and the actual gameplay that populates so much space is little more than mindless busywork. You spend most of your time following blinking lights on your HUD and map telling you exactly where you need to go next. There are a fair number of side quests in Breath of the Wild, but the blinking markers they place on the map only serve to remind the player of the location of the quest-giver. If your objective is, say, to locate a secret treasure cache, the clue to its whereabouts may be provided in the summary text, but it is left to you to decipher its meaning and discover the treasure's location via your own investigative prowess. This is the first game I've played in a long while where I have been actively engaged in taking written notes. Info particularly pertinent to any given quest is recorded in the in-game journal, but some of the more interesting secrets (the ingredient lists for special recipes, the whereabouts of unique pieces of armor, etc.) are only mentioned in passing by the NPCs.
Truth be told, my note-taking may have been more compulsive than strictly necessary, since I was often able to remember most things without referring back to them. This is due in no small part to the highly detailed and customizable in-game map, which allows the player to set her own markers wherever something of potential interest catches her eye. If she stumbles across some strangely conspicuous formation of rocks, for instance, whose purpose for the time being manages to elude her wontedly keen powers of deduction, she can quickly set a visual reminder of its location for when the deferred "eureka" moment inevitably strikes. But setting aside all the extra conveniences the game provides to improve the player's navigation, the world itself simply boasts an inherently memorable handcrafted design that facilitates ease of exploration. Breath of the Wild's version of Hyrule is one of the most dauntingly expansive virtual environments that I have ever experienced, and one might think that in a world of such immense scale, the player might stand a significant risk of becoming lost. But there are numerous readily recognizable landmarks always visible on the horizon from any given location—from the miasma-cloaked desolation of Hyrule Castle ominously beckoning at the realm's center, to the magma-drenched summit of Death Mountain pulsing like a blazing red beacon against the night sky. It is incredibly easy to orient oneself without suffering the constant disorienting transition between multiple screens of information.
Aside from the map, Breath of the Wild boasts an abundance of other helpful features to guide the player on her journey, but equally as beneficial to the ilk of gamer who would aspire to greater self-sufficiency, their use is completely optional. The Sheikah Sensor, for instance, serves as a sort of sonar for pinging the location of the game's 100+ shrines, but since I preferred letting the world's mysteries unfold before me in an organic fashion, so as not to risk any potential diminishment to the gratifying sense of personal achievement each discovery occasions, I only activated the sensor near the end of the game to help me wrangle in the few defiant strays my more leisurely ambles had overlooked. The champion powers you receive for completing the main dungeons are extremely potent—almost to the point of feeling more like superfluous exploits than essential upgrades—but they can always be disabled from the inventory screen if you begin to sense any danger to your personal code of gaming morality. In one of the game's main story quests, you are charged with recalling your past memories by visiting key sites throughout the realm of Hyrule. Initially, the game gives you a single photograph as your only clue for each site, and I enjoyed using my inherent skills of observation and spatial extrapolation to discover the stead from which the photograph had been taken. But if you need a little more assistance precisely pinpointing the exact location, a helpful NPC appears in several areas throughout the game to lend his amicable support. Past Zelda games have been criticized for their excessive tutorials and handholding, and I think Breath of the Wild does a nice job of addressing that complaint, allowing the player the choice to rely on the game's built-in help systems as much or as little as her personal discretion dictates.
"There are few things as consistently gratifying as charging at full gallop into the midst of an enemy encampment, vaulting in a heroic flourish from your valiant destrier's back, drawing your bow to trigger the theatrical transition into slow-motion, and sniping four or five Bokoblin sentries from their perches before they even have a chance to reach for their alarm-sounding bugles."
The game's combat is as varied and freeform as the exploration, encouraging the player to experiment with different strategies for dispatching his enemies with equal parts flair and efficiency. Dodging an enemy's attack at just the right moment triggers an opportunity to unleash a flurry of counterattacks. Sniping your enemies in their most vulnerable spot (usually the head or eye or suchlike) will deal twice as much damage as a standard attack, while also temporarily stunning them and interrupting any attack animation they may have initiated. Ranged combat is most typically executed with a bow and arrow, and the controls for aiming rely on both the right analog stick and the built-in gyroscopes, for broader 360-degree turns and subtler adjustments respectively. It is extremely satisfying, and even more so when you launch your volleys from an aerial advantage. Drawing your bow while in mid-flight, either by leaping from your horse's saddle or descending via paraglider from a loftier elevation, triggers a slow-motion "bullet time" effect (is that still a popularly understood reference?), allowing you to aim and loose multiple projectiles at your relatively stationary targets for as long as your stamina meter remains filled. There are few things as consistently gratifying as charging at full gallop into the midst of an enemy encampment, vaulting in a heroic flourish from your valiant destrier's back, drawing your bow to trigger the theatrical transition into slow-motion, and sniping four or five Bokoblin sentries from their perches before they even have a chance to reach for their alarm-sounding bugles.
Somewhat akin to the rental system introduced in the 3DS's A Link Between Worlds, in which nearly the entirety of Link's customary arsenal of tools was made available from the start, the player's primary abilities in Breath of the Wild are provided to him within the adventure's opening hours. This upfront unloading of the player's complete skill set was introduced in an effort to shake up the traditional Zelda formula, in which items were normally acquired in a strict linear progression throughout the game, with each one tied to a specific dungeon, whose puzzles and climactic boss fight were purposefully crafted to take advantage of its use. Personally, I have conflicting feelings about this new system. It does an exceptional job opening up the overworld right away, affording the player the full means to indulge her adventurous spirit and poke her nose around in whatever random pocket of the world most clamantly beckons to her investigative urges. I truly love the freedom of being able to tackle dungeons out of the intended order—it allows me to become the author of my own experience, giving me the sense that I'm discovering the world on my own terms, rather than rigorously adhering to the set path defined by the developers and experiencing everything in precisely the same manner as everyone else. On the other hand, without the prospect of a cool new item lying at the heart of every dungeon—something that fundamentally transforms how the player interacts with the game world—the enticing mystery and sense of reward traditionally associated with these subterranean incursions is somewhat diminished.
Personally, I would enjoy a compromise between these two game design philosophies. The developers should group the dungeons into distinct tiers of escalating difficulty. The dungeons that constitute the first tier would be accessible in whatever order the player chooses, containing puzzles solvable using the basic ability set with which he begins the game. The items obtainable within each of these dungeons, then, would unlock access to one or more of the second-tier dungeons, which would each contain items that unlock third-tier dungeons, and so forth. If the puzzles inherent to any given dungeon would require the utilization of a particular item, then the entrance to that dungeon would simply be positioned where only the use of said item could access it. It may be a slightly more curated sense of freedom than what Breath of the Wild aspires to offer the player, but I feel it strikes the best balance between unfettered player agency and the kind of handcrafted ingenuity that can only arise from more authored game design.
There are relatively few traditional dungeons in BotW, and even those that would purport to fulfill that role might be considered on the "lighter" side in terms of actual content. But there's still enough shrewd creativity on display to merit that smugly witting smile (and nod, and wink, and convoluted sequence of fist bumps and finger flourishes mimed at the air, and audible exclamation of "You the man!") that all of us enigmaphiles involuntarily express whenever we suss out the solution to a particularly cunning quandary, thereby subtly communicating our acknowledgment of the unspoken intellectual bond shared betwixt puzzle solver and maker. The best Zelda dungeons have always been the ones where the dungeon as a whole functions as one gigantic puzzle—where what initially seems like several self-contained, single-room scenarios reveal themselves to be the interlocking gears of a greater clockwork conundrum, and one overarching mechanic constantly changes the face of all lesser puzzles (see: the adjustable water level and reversible river current in the two brilliantly designed—albeit inexplicably maligned—water-themed temples from the N64 Zeldas). Their emulation of this model may be a tad on the nose, but the dungeons in Breath of the Wild definitely fit this description of a singular beast made up of seemingly disparate parts. And not unlike another one of my favorite Zelda titles, Majora's Mask (which was also slightly deficient in terms of dungeon quantity compared to its predecessors), the process of gaining access to each one often feels like a miniature dungeon in itself, with some really fun puzzly stealth sequences and entertaining mini-bosses to keep things interesting until the main attraction arrives.
The brunt of the traditional puzzle-solving, however, occurs in more isolated chunks scattered throughout the world of Hyrule. There are over 100 shrines, most of which contain some sort of puzzle or combat trial. Somewhat disappointingly, around a quarter of these consist of nothing more than a treasure chest, a straight flight of stairs, and the exit, with the disembodied voice of the shrine's keeper proclaiming something along the lines of, "…simply by entering this shrine you have proven your worth." Granted, gaining admission into these spartan sanctuaries usually entails executing the solution to some sort of riddle or successfully completing a mini-game in the overworld, so the lack of anything of any substance to do within the shrine itself doesn't feel like a total gyp. Even so, there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to whether you will be rewarded with a proper challenge or just a congratulatory pat on the back: there have been several "you've already proven your worth" shrines where the only real "trick" to entering them was, say, scaling a very tall cliffside or shooting a specific kind of arrow at a clearly marked target; while other shrines that have entailed a more complex process of admission have also provided a fully realized puzzle once inside. It feels like the designers had either run out of time, ideas, or both when it came to fleshing out the content of these isolated chambers. But there are still a significant number of well-designed challenges on display within their depths, and discovering a shrine unexpectedly while venturing through the overworld is one of the most gratifying rewards for exploration. The fact that the game includes puzzles at all puts it ahead of most others in my book, since outside of the puzzle genre itself, it has always surprised me that relatively few games feel comfortable mixing up the monotony of their RPG grinds and dexterity-based combat systems with some good old-fashioned brain-teasers (mind you, not that I expect games of differing styles to incorporate elements that would clash with their own design; it's just something I personally enjoy that I find to be in relatively short supply).
More dungeons akin to Breath of the Wild's climactic centerpiece, Hyrule Castle, would have been nice—large internal structures that emerge unassumingly from the hidden corners of the landscape, immediately plunging the player into a whole new world of winding passages and secret alcoves just begging to be explored. Perhaps because I often conducted my periodic incursions into the castle's desolate chambers and corroded corridors long before my final endgame run, and I was, thus, less than ideally accoutred to handle the more perilous enemy encounters contained therein, I found my expeditions into the fortress to constitute some of the most exhilarating and memorable moments of my time spent exploring Hyrule. It almost felt akin to the stomach-churning elation that accompanies one's progress through a From Software adventure, where the promise of wondrous new threats and rewards lurks around every unexplored bend. Here's hoping that Breath of the Wild has laid the necessary groundwork for a timely sequel (we already know a downloadable expansion is in the works, complete with an extra dungeon and story content), and having already achieved resounding success with their redefinition of what properly constitutes a Zelda overworld, the developers' focus for the next go-round can turn toward a similar reinvention of its underworld. I would love to see them integrate all dungeons into one seamlessly interconnected labyrinth: there could be various differently themed sections, each initially accessible only from its own separate entrance in the overworld, but their internal connections would gradually begin to reveal themselves as the player obtains the treasures contained therein and uses their corresponding abilities to unlock previously inaccessible shortcuts.
While we're on the tangent of offering our personal wishes for future additions to the series, this is as good a time as any to describe what I would like to see included in the upcoming "hard mode" (announced as another part of the paid DLC package arriving later this summer). It would be neat if this mode limited the locations at which the player is allowed to save his progress. Random enemy encounters on the field then might have more inherent risk, as perishing therein would force the player to restart from his last manual save, wiping out any rare items or resources he may have gathered during the interim. As it stands now, being vanquished by the enemy is a trivial concern, as the game almost invariably triggers an auto-save seconds before any potentially fatal encounter. The game's difficulty in general is rather uneven: it starts out challenging enough, as you begin your adventure with only three hearts and barely a stitch of defensive clothing; but as you earn more heart containers and upgrades to your gear—not taking into account the temporary stat boosts you receive from consuming certain meals, or even just the natural evolution of the player's skill as he masters the controls and learns to read the pattern of enemy attacks—the risk represented by even the most fearsome opponents becomes negligible. Maybe the developers could impose a limit to the amount of stat-boosting foodstuffs Link can carry on his person at any one time, or there could be a new rule restricting the player from changing his currently equipped weapons and gear while out in the field, thus requiring him to prepare ahead of time and consider more shrewdly the most efficient allotment of his resources. I don't necessarily need or want my Zelda games to play with the punishing intensity of From Software's Dark Souls series, but I think a stronger sense of peril would fit well the "wilderness survival" theme that Breath of the Wild seems to have going, and an optional hard mode that fully capitalizes on that would be nice to see.
For nearly two decades, Majora's Mask has remained my somewhat unconventional pick as the ideal embodiment of everything that makes the Zelda games so universally revered. But it may finally be time for nostalgia's reign of tyranny to end. For obvious reasons, this is not a transference of authority that I dare to make lightly, and I will reserve my final judgment for at least a solid year or ten, allowing time for it to become fully assimilated into the rest of the febrile, fetid sludge of futility that remains of my presumably once-fertile mind. In the meantime, however, if you enjoy Zelda games for the wealth of hidden treasures and challenges sprinkled across a vast, intricately designed, fully interactive world, Breath of the Wild easily represents the pinnacle of the series in that regard—an explorer's paradise to which you will ungrudgingly relinquish the next 100+ hours of your leisure time. It could use some refinements to its dungeon and puzzle design, and in my opinion there's still no topping the brilliance of Majora's repeating three-day time loop, which expanded the series' sense of exploration in a really clever way—not by increasing the spatial dimensions of the world itself, but by appending to them the extra dimension of time. Notwithstanding, Breath of the Wild can hardly be said to be devoid of its own touches of brilliance. There is an awe-inspiring sense of freedom and an inexhaustible font of creative ideas on display in the open fields of Hyrule, which should likely prove more than sufficient compensation for any shortcomings observable in its—ahem—nether regions.
*: too long; didn't read (but I'm actually literate--pahlease! omg**! seriously!
**: ow, my groin!