How do you build a world?
No seriously, where do you start? There have been so many open world video games since the inception of the genre (some executed with greater success than others), but at the end of the day, the goal is always the same: to create a lived-in world that feels brimming with life without sacrificing the integrity of what makes a video game a video game.
This weekend, I put the finishing touches on my first playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch (a Wii-U version is also available). Now, while I will agree that this title certainly earns its place on the list of the highest-rated games of all time – but this won’t be your typical review. After all, Breath of the Wild simply isn’t a typical game. This is a game about moments, very slick and nuanced moments that allow every player to carve their own path in Link’s latest journey. The story allows you to take your time exploring the super-massive land of Hyrule, and the entire process feels like a perfect evolution of the very first Zelda game…only nestled lovingly in the third dimension.
This is obviously not the franchise’s first attempt at a 3-D Zelda game, but it certainly feels the most necessary. It’s not going balls-to-the-wall reinventing the wheel and pioneering new gameplay mechanics the way Ocarina of Time did way back when, and instead chooses to return to the roots of what made the series so appealing right out of the gate: a sense of constant danger and adventure. A struggle between man and the impossible. Most importantly, I’ve never seen an open world game exercise the airtight seamlessness and integrity of a game that hand-holds you through its challenges (like the Uncharted Series), but instead opts to give you complete freedom and very little instruction on how to survive it’s world. It’s you versus nature. Ready, go.
With that, I wanted to point out some of the more nuanced joys of Breath of the Wild. The things that bring this world to life as a result of the impossible sense of freedom that 2017’s version of Hyrule offers those who tread with open eyes – and a pack full of fire arrows. It’s all about creating those “Zelda moments”. Let’s begin.
MINOR SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW.
For the first time ever, I didn’t hate crafting or handling breakable weapons. For those who know my intolerance for tedium, the idea of crafting potions and scrounging for new weaponry felt like the worst possible time I could have in the next iteration of a series that traditionally hosted unbreakable swords and shields. But the struggle in Zelda is not finding the materials to craft with, but the empowerment that comes from remembering what you will need to survive the encounter ahead. The Dark Souls games are notorious for keeping the player on his/her toes by featuring breakable weapons, but make that struggle a punishing and tedious affair. Breath of the Wild wants you to enjoy experimenting and exploring its finely-crafted skermishes over resenting the game you paid $60 for because you constantly have to retread old ground for that perfect ingredient, or a strong enough weapon. They just want you to enjoy the most basic human instincts: hunting, gathering, and crafting. And it only rewards you for those struggles. Bless you, Nintendo.
At a glance, enemies may seem a little clunky and stupid. But when backed into a corner, they are vicious and unpredictable. I’ve lost count of how many “Zelda moments” have come my way through fighting any of the countless enemies scattered around Breath of the Wild’s vast landscape. Each battle is like a sloppy, reckless game of chess where you are constantly in a struggle to gain the upper hand on your opponent. Forget to dodge once, and it could be the end of your journey. With that knowledge also comes the fact that your enemies maybe become disarmed with a swift critical hit, but they have every instinct in the world to run frantically over to a nearby corpse and steal their weapon. What makes this special is that each enemy has a very differently programmed way of handling defeat. Lesser bokoblins will panic in fear and throw a little tantrum if you pick up their weapon after they hit the ground, while a nasty moblin may burst into a blind rage and charge at you if a similar situation occurs. We get a sense of bullheaded pride from the creature that others may not have, creating a sense of character within a brief moment. This is one of the many ways in which you build a world.
Dress for the weather. As you probably seen with many of the preview videos, Link will have to wear various outfits that protect him from a harsh weather all around the different areas of the game world. Switching outfits is not only determined by geography, especially when a wizard casts a spell that turns an entire lava environment into an icy grave. You have to switch your outfit on the fly, or else you’ll freeze to death. This also applies during thunderstorms where you will quickly have to remove all metal items in order to stop yourself from being electrocuted in a one hit kill. It’s not as tedious as it sounds, especially when you sit back and accept that this is a living, breathing world, and you’re just living in it. And you will get to that point.
When you conquer a dungeon, the level of gratitude expressed from the citizens of the town in peril rewards your struggle. This goes double for the Zora kingdom, who easily have the most heart-wrenching story to tell in this game. I won’t spoil it, but after defeating the boss of that dungeon, you’ve gone from being a resented former Guardian of the Princess, to the brand-new hero of the land. Emotional rewards are few and far between these days in video games. Companies try to get by showing you cutscenes and expecting you to be invested at an arm’s length. The way Breath of the Wild handles its storytelling is through a series of glimpses (or hearsay from NPCs) into events that have already happened. A great tragedy has befallen the kingdom, and the writers want to make sure you feel the gravity of just how destroyed Hyrule actually is. Which means, in classic Nintendo fashion, your victories are timed flawlessly within the narrative at critical moments in the story. By the end of every dungeon, you are loved. And you are thanked. And then you are sent on your way, back to the hero’s journey.
With that said, the entire game is a sequel to a paint-by-numbers Zelda game that never happened. You read that correctly. All throughout the narrative, you are told of a great battle between the Princess Zelda, her guardians, and Calamity Ganon. As I said before, these elements are expressed through hearsay and small cut scenes to help you piece together the events of the past. But the amazing thing about it is, we’ve played the events of the past before…in every single Zelda game EVER. Slowly, we come to find out that the epic journey of Link has actually already happened, and guess what! You lost. That’s right, you didn’t win and Ganon wreaked havoc on the entire kingdom. This game is all about redemption, and it’s your job to clean up the mess. This isn’t just a sequel to one or two entries in the Zelda franchise – this is a sequel to all of them. This tale, in an open land filled with danger, is what the entire series has been building up to. Are you up for it? Of course you are.
These are only a few aspects of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but they matter. Honestly, these points in a flippant review simply don’t do the game justice. There are so many nuanced aspects of the experience constantly at work and rubbing up against each other to convince you that this world existed long, long before you did. It doesn’t do so with the photo realism of a game like Horizon Zero Dawn, but with the charm and confidence of a wise old grandfather romanticizing about how he met your grandmother. And I think that’s what sets this game apart from all the rest, and why it’s being received better than any game in the last 15 years: it is just so excited to be what it is, and to make you a part of it.
It’s an experience that makes you feel important, and loves you no matter how you choose to live your life – or in this case, save the world.
SUMMARY & RESULTS
While not without a handful of framerate hiccups in the Switch version, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild rewards the adventurous gamer. It truly makes them feel a part of something spectacular and critical, and there is simply nothing else like it.
A Master Sword Masterpiece
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