Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The Legend of Zelda: First Impressions of the Wild
Some caveats: Technically this would be a "seventh" impression since I have now played "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" through seven sessions across approximately fifteen hours of gaming. I played deep enough to have beaten the first dungeon and boss, met a sexy fish prince, and gotten a good handle on most of the game’s systems. Most of the game was played on a WiiU but I’ve also played a bit on a new-fangled Nintendo Switch.
A little bit over five years ago “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” came out to what was then very high praise. I was in the minority back then when I called it "a game from the past, too restrictive, too structured, and too small". I didn't want to be in the negative camp, I really to love "Skyward Sword". But slowly all the little weaknesses tore it down for me, I still consider it to be the worst game in the series. "Skyward Sword" was badly padded between dungeons and story segments, it lost all sense of freedom, and it offered no new innovation other than motion controls. As it turns out, I was on the right side of history on that debate. Motion controls were not the future of the franchise, "Skyward Sword" was a mistaken dead-end. Thea actual future was in pure expanse, the adventure of an open world. Thank goodness for that.
"Breath of the Wild" is a game that borrowed ideas from a million other titles of this decade. It has "Assassin’s Creed" climbing, it has "Metal Gear Solid V" combat variety, it has "Dark Souls" ruthlessness, and it has the maddening scale of many other open world titles. But it also feels like a natural extension of Legends of Zelda past. I chuckled at gaming sites reporting that "Breath of the Wild" would be the "first open world Zelda". They forgot that Zelda was a pioneer of open world gaming back in 1986 along with things like "Hydlide" and "Ultima" and "Dragon Quest". Zelda might be borrowing concepts from other games. But those games are its grandchildren, and they owe Zelda a lot more. "Breath of the Wild" isn’t Zelda fighting to keep up with trends. It’s Zelda finally returning to what it was supposed to be.
Open world has been a genre I’ve had my personal issues with over the last few years. It’s reaching market saturation, where virtually everything has to be an open world sandbox when it doesn’t have to be. AAA gaming has become depressingly monochromatic and even storied franchises are losing their identities. "Final Fantasy XV" lost most of what makes Final Fantasy special by looking for sandbox filler and generic action instead of a great storyline and strategic gameplay. I was worried looking at "Breath of the Wild" that it too would be homogenized. This could have been the Zelda as imagined by EA or - god help us - Ubisoft.
Instead this Zelda feels cohesive. It’s a revolution that ticks off a lot of boxes that Ubisoft would salivate over, but it’s still a Zelda game. Only it’s shaken off a lot of the dead weight that had been holding the series back in "Skyward Sword" and even "Twilight Princess".
"Breath of the Wild" starts off by dropping you right in the middle of a world with nothing but your underwear. The next few hours are a tutorial segment to teach you how to fight, how to use your various skills and items, and how to explore. But instead of it all being painfully slow story segments, it’s just you in the woods, learning how to survive. The only friend you have in your starting area is a weird old man who sends you out to complete tasks without much guidance. It's up to you to realize how to fight, how to find weapons, how to gather supplies, and importantly, how to explore. You then realize how free you are in ways that you could have never imagined with Legends of Zelda before. Any peak, any cliff, any valley, all of it can be reached, nothing is just scenery. The only limit is a stamina meter* and your own dedication to push forward.
The map is entirely blank in "Breath of the Wild". The game avoids the paralysis of a billion icons of nonsense sidequests by making sure that every sidequest or even main quest is something you stumble onto. You see a mountain in the distance and you can climb that mountain. Maybe there’s something interesting up there, maybe not. But you’ll find at least a new vantage point for which to survey the land and organically discover the next thing that looks cool. Since "Breath of the Wild" is the first game I've played in what feels like a decade not to use a Batman-style Detective Vision, you need to physically look around the corner to find what's behind it. Maybe you’ll fall into a nest of enemies far stronger than you can handle, maybe you’ll find a Zora leading you to your first big adventure. Either way, none of it feels overwhelming or insulting. "Breath of the Wild" is not a timesink, it's not an infinite checklist of busywork grinding.
The other key difference between "Breath of the Wild" and the Generic Ubisoft Open World Experience™ is that "Breath of the Wild"'s openness is as much as survival as it is freedom. This game doesn’t plop you down and say "oh, do whatever you want, idk", it’s still a Zelda game with a clear objective of defeating Ganon. You can actually beat the Dark Lord right from the start. But with just a few hearts and the weakest items and armor, you won’t have an easy time of it. Instead you have to go around the world experiencing the variety of the Hyrule, saving races and defeating dungeons to grow stronger.
The point is that "Breath of the Wild" is hard. Actually shockingly hard for a Zelda game. Right from the start blue orcs can eliminate you in a single hit. If you climb a height too high and run out of stamina you’ll fall to your merciless death. Physics can also be your enemy. Lightning will kill you if you run around with a metal sword. Enemies will roll boulders down on you. Cut logs can push you off cliffs. Accidentally set fire to the forest and you can destroy yourself, the enemies, and the local deer population in a horrifying medieval ordeal. Weapons break very quickly (but are easily found), food supplies must be gathered before hand, and money is scares. The Minish of games past just dumping free hearts and items are gone. You're gonna have to fight for every inch until you get into a comfortable rhythm of combat and crafting.
This is a physical universe, but one that is decidedly Nintendo. "Breath of the Wild" has a fraction of the graphical power of "Horizon Zero Dawn"** but it's easily just just as beautiful. Some of the rock textures are hideous and the frame rate can be ugly in towns, but otherwise this is a gorgeous game. The character models for everything are a bit cartoony. Even the terrifying monsters that can obliterate all of your life in one blow have a charm to them. This stylized universe lets us also have dancing Koroks and tiny genius inventors. If you're up in the snowy areas, Link will shiver in the menus until you get him proper clothing. Cook something inedible it will appear censored out like Japanese porn genitals. This game really does look and feel like somebody took "Twilight Princess" and multiplied by some ridiculous number like 100 or 1,000. (Or took "Skyward Sword" and multiplied by a billion.)
The Nintendo style also means that the story is minimalist but appropriately so. Zelda has never been about hours of cutscenes or huge dramatic character arcs. But we haven’t lost the joy of traveling to a location, meeting characters, and completing an epic quest to save those characters. Zelda was perfect for an open world storyline in a way that Final Fantasy just was not. I don't feel like anything is missing here, you just have to go looking for it.
Actually finding the storyline is a major sidequest in of itself. "Breath of the Wild" is set a century after a previous epic quest to defeat Ganon failed. Link has lost all his memories, meaning that you have to hunt down locations to remember major scenes and key character interactions. You had a crew of great friends that were ready to defeat evil, but somehow you all failed. Their fates are a mystery and often tragic. There’s a melancholic drama to "Breath of the Wild" that "Wind Waker" had, but somehow worse. In both games you feel like you’ve come in on the story too late. The world has already fallen. You’re just trying to pick up the pieces of whatever remains.
But what’s brilliant about this and why "Breath of the Wild" works as an open world is that the story is largely hand’s off. You can go out and rescue all the races of Hyrule from their various threats or not. You can go out and discover your relationship with Princess Zelda or ignore it entirely. There is no rigid list of objectives to overcome to complete the game. Padding is nonexistent, or only exists as much as you want. You can climb miles and miles to find that tower in the distance, or you can head off to whatever the narrative tells you to do. Everything in this world has been stuck in a stalemate for a century, it’s your addition to the plot that makes events in a location move forward. Or maybe you just want to see what's in that cave.
All those years ago when I reviewed "Skyward Sword" (and filled the review with typos and grammar errors) I asked for six things: 1) don't use motion controls as a crutch for innovation, 2) stop all the insulting handholding, 3) make the story meaningful and remove the padding, 4) bring back the grand scale, 5) have Link and Zelda kiss, and 6) have a strong idea. So far I've seen five out of those six in "Breath of the Wild", and the fifth one was mostly a joke. Some motion controls crept into the game in a few awful puzzles, but you might complete the entire game without seeing these.
The most important thing, however, is that I see a clear idea behind the design of this game. Nintendo knew what the series lacked better than I did and have filled that gap up brilliantly. The WiiU's swan song has become the solution for the failures of the Wii's swan song. But it's so much more than just better in comparison. There's more here than any Zelda before.
"Breath of the Wild" is the kind of game that's so impressive I want to go out and show people it. You could sit around a couch together and point in a random direction and find an awesome adventure together. Just point in a direction and you might find an entire epic labyrinth full of treasure. I asked years ago for Nintendo to "Be bold. Be innovative. Be awesome! That's what made Zelda great in the first place. BE GLORIOUS!" And they've been all those things. "Breath of the Wild" is bold, innovative, awesome, and GLORIOUS. It's a monumental shift forward in what open world games can be. It's the freshest and most confident game Nintendo has made in a decade at least. And assuming 2017 doesn't get better, this is Game of the Year material right here.
So this started out as a first impressions and ended up immediately being a full review. Apologies.
* Unlike "Skyward Sword", the stamina meter has a point. It’s your limit to stop you from going everywhere right from the start. It also can be upgraded. And you have horses, a glider, quick travel, and other options to quickly move rather than just running, so the stamina limit isn’t as annoying.
** Which I’ve also played a small chunk of and is actually a very good game. Only it pales in comparison to Zelda in my opinion. And that’s a shame.