Friday, July 7, 2017

Video Game Review - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Photo courtesy of NintendoEverything.com

Genre: Action-Adventure RPG (open-world)
Year Released: 2017
Publisher: Nintendo
Director: Hidemaro Fujibayashi
Platform(s): Wii U, Nintendo Switch
Rating: Everyone 10+; for Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes (cleavage), alcohol references and a drunken character (via ESRB)

This review contains mild story spoilers.

You have been warned. 

The Premise

The hero Link awakens in a mysterious cave with no memories of where he is or how he got here. He discovers he's been in stasis for 100 years, all while Princess Zelda has been single-handedly holding back the ancient evil Calamity Ganon. But Zelda's seal on Ganon can only hold for so long; it's up to Link to help the princess and defeat Calamity Ganon for good.

The Visuals

Breath of the Wild takes place in a gorgeous, varied landscape. My in-game camera (yes, there's an in-game camera) is full of beautiful vista photos, from frozen icy cliffs to sunset-tinged forests. These aren't mere "key points" you'll only see once for three seconds during a certain cutscene; you can find any of these gorgeous views while simply wandering the world. This makes the world feel just as alive as it is beautiful.

This game shines not only through the lovely vistas but also in the little touches. There are just as many details for players to squeal over as there are wide, expansive shots to gape at. Animations, especially Link's, are attractive and functional, offering both detail and character building. I found myself spending at least ten minutes on the inventory menu just watching Link eat different types of food. His reactions ranged from delightedly scarfing down a meal and patting his happy belly to grimacing before swallowing a bad meal whole. Animations generally run smoothly... except when the game lags, which will happen--especially when things catch fire. However, I never experienced so much lag that it affected how well I could play the game.

There are also a couple wonky visual issues (like the fact the bushes stretch around you when you're crouched inside), but overall, the game tends to be too lovely for you to notice these little quirks.

The Music

Zelda games are known for their memorable and often sweepingly beautiful tunes. Heck, the series has its own five-movement symphony that tours to showcase the franchise's most memorable soundtracks. Naturally, after gawking at the visuals, I couldn't wait to hear Breath of the Wild's take on some of the classic Legend of Zelda tunes.

I have to say, while I appreciate the skill of Manaka Kataoka and Yasuaki Iwata's work, Breath of the Wild's soundtrack has left me less than wowed. Many of the tracks are incredibly subtle. Now, that works just fine for riding around the game's vast, open world where almost anything can happen at random; after all, you wouldn't want a stirring, memorable theme to start playing only for the combat theme to abruptly cut it off. Buuuut...

Many of the songs are too subtle for my taste. I'd love to have the classic theme burst into high gear as I'm fighting a particularly hard enemy, only to softly fade as I complete my victory. Needless to say, this has yet to happen in my playthrough. And while I have yet to complete the game, I haven't even heard the iconic "Zelda's Lullaby" at all. I can only hope it'll show up once I encounter the princess herself.

I can't imagine the skill it must take to compose music for a game, but the lack of noticeable Legend of Zelda classic tunes has left me wanting.

The Writing

As Breath of the Wild is an open-world game (meaning the player is free to do whatever they want in whichever order they want, at whatever pace they want), there's much less story here than in some of the more recent Legend of Zelda games. A game with this much freedom means the players may miss out on almost all of your narrative content, so I can see why they would opt for a more bare-bones story.

The basic plot is the classic "boy saves princess and defeats evil" trope. While I personally will never tire of that plot line, I could see some people yawning at the premise. That said, this story does have a nice twist on the classic trope: in Breath of the Wild, the hero has been unsuccessful before. In fact, the player discovers that Link's hundred-year sleep is because he failed to defeat Ganon in the past. This creates an interesting tension. Will Link be able to do things differently this time, or is his quest simply doomed to fail a second time?

As for the cast, most of the main characters' development is fleshed out through flashback moments the player can activate by finding and traveling to certain locations. These flashbacks usually consist of Link interacting with Zelda and her other "champions." These cutscenes make the player feel like they are Link, trying to sort through broken memories and remember what happened in which order. They're short but sweet, standing on their own while also building up the overarching plot. They're also a sufficient length to showcase who each of these characters are (or were).

My only complaint is that some of the characters come across as sadly one-dimensional. The main offender in my opinion is Mipha, the fish-like Zora champion whose sole traits seem to boil down to 1) her people love her and 2) she loves Link.

And what of the protagonist? Well, Link is, as always, a silent character that the player can project themselves onto. However, while he has no dialogue, Link isn't a totally blank slate; he does still seem to have some personality all his own. His animations give you a taste of what this hero is like, and that impression is complemented by NPCs occasionally commenting on his body language--for instance, on faces he's making in response to something they said. However, the player doesn't get to see these reactions; this means that much of Link's disposition and mannerisms are left up to the player's interpretation. That can be somewhat disappointing if you're not as interested in blank slate characters, especially if you compare it to other iterations of Link, such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's incredibly expressive (and sometimes downright sassy) green-garbed protagonist.

The Mechanics

And now we get to the meat of the game.

Open-World


Breath of the Wild is one of the best open-world games I've played; certainly on par with Final Fantasy XV. The world is populated and varied. I don't get bored riding through areas, but there are also plenty of fast-travel points on the map in case you don't want to (literally) hoof it. There's plenty to do (with enough incentive to do it all) in every area in between, leaving no room for boredom.

"Oh look! There's a monster! I can kill it and get more weapons!"

"Oh look! There's a tree full of fruit! Now I can make that dish I wanted to try!"

"Oh look! There's a korok! Now I can increase the size of my inventory!"

Finishing quests and goals feels fun, but letting yourself get sidetracked is just as fun.

All that said, I will admit that I'm a bit nervous hearing open-world will probably become the standard for future Zelda games, for two reasons. Firstly, it's very difficult to pull off a satisfying open-world experience. And secondly, the Zelda franchise has had a history of getting stuck in a rut once they hit on a popular template--and boy has Breath of the Wild been popular. I'm glad to hear that Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma knows that Zelda concepts have gotten stale before (Hulfish, "Future Zelda Games Will Have an Open-world Design"). Let's just hope they don't repeat the mistake with the open-world concept.

Difficulty Spikes


One of the issues with open-world games is also one of its strong points: the player can go wherever they want... which means the player can run into some areas that are definitely too hard for them at that time. However, usually these areas are well-marked: designers will plant warning signs (sometimes literal signs) to inform the player that they may be wading into deep waters.

But Breath of the Wild often lacks these warning signs. There are only a few obvious difficult areas (Hard enemies right around the castle, the focal point of the end-game? Makes sense). However, most of the difficult areas look the same as all the others. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the difficult enemy placement. Maybe if I follow through with my threat to plot out the enemy difficulties by hand, I'll be able to find a pattern; but if there is a pattern, it's invisible to players in-game.

Needless to say, this enemy placement results in some very irritating difficulty spikes. And that only exacerbates my number-one complaint with Breath of the Wild...

Breaking Weapons


The weapon system in this game sucks.

I have no issue with weapons that eventually break; Dark Cloud 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and it revolves around this mechanic. But the thing with Dark Cloud 2 is... you can actually fix your weapons before they break. And even if you forget and your weapons do break, you still have the broken weapon in your inventory until you get to the store for repairs. And even in the brutally difficult first Dark Cloud (where your weapons were gone for good if you let them break), you could still buy new weapons if you needed to. Sure, it sucked to accidentally break a high-level weapon and then have to rebuild it from scratch, but at least it was possible to re-acquire weaponry appropriate to your level.

But Breath of the Wild has no weapon shops, no "repair powder" (as in the Dark Cloud series), no blacksmiths to fix any of your regular equipment. Repair services are only available for a grand total four weapons in the game: the "champion weapons" you acquire by defeating each of the four dungeons in the game. This means that when all your other "regular" weapons break, they're essentially gone forever.

"So why use regular weapons at all? Why not exclusively use the champion weapons?"

Because these repairs are relatively costly. And with the absurdly rapid rate at which some of these weapons break, you're going to need more than four weapons in your arsenal to do any amount of fighting in this game.

Breath of the Wild tries to compensate for this by regularly reviving all enemies throughout the game. This allows you to, in theory, take and re-take their gear ad nauseam; but come on, how am I supposed to remember exactly where I got that high-damage Spiked Dragonbone Club? Not to mention, a vast majority of the higher-level weapons are only available from treasure chests... and therefore do not respawn. Once they're gone, they're gone for good.

This results in the very real possibility that by the time you've got enough armor to reasonably take on the harder enemies in the game, you might have also destroyed all your high-level weapons... And this results in hours spent running around trying to find those illogically-located high-level enemies to try to whittle one's health down with enough low-level weapons until you get that new Spiked Dragonbone Club. Oh, and you'll probably break every one of those low-level weapons along the way.

I would have loved to see a system that allowed players to repair all weapons before they broke. Set the cost for enough in-game currency to encourage players to explore the world more as they run around picking up rupees and the necessary resources to restore their damaged equipment. And if the cost is high enough, it'll prove to be a great money sink, thereby preserving the in-game economy.

Another major complaint is this game has no storage system whatsoever. There is no bank. There is no armory. There is no treasure chest at home where you can store the good weapons you want to save for harder fights while you carry around lower-level gear for your run-of-the-mill battles. The closest equivalent I could find was when I stored three of my high-level weapons in display cases at my house. And no three weapons will get you far in this game, not when used on high-level enemies.

All of these complaints converged when I had to fight one particular boss. This boss required certain kinds of gear in order to defeat: during one phase of the battle, the player must deflect the boss's lightning-fast attacks with a shield in order to progress to the next phase. Now, you can't use a shield with a two-handed weapon. Makes sense. The only problem was, I didn't have any single-handed weapons. Oh, I had plenty of high-level two-handed weapons I'd been hoarding for such a time as this... which were all temporarily useless. So, just to open up space in my inventory, I was forced to sacrifice some of my two-handed weapons (the kinds that you can only find in treasure chests; ergo, the ones that don't respawn) and store my three best weapons at home. After that, I had to spend hours tracking down any and every single-handed weapon I could find. Despite an inventory full of single-handed weapons, I still barely made it through the boss fight with any weapons intact. It was one of the most frustrating and unenjoyable experiences I have had with the game.

Dungeons


Despite my frustration with abovementioned dungeon due to the weapon issue, I do enjoy the "dungeons" (that is, the four Divine Beasts) in Breath of the Wild. They're not too long to get frustrating or boring, but they're long enough to take 1-2 typical sessions of play to complete. The puzzles are varied enough to remain interesting, but they all have a shared element of utilizing rotating maps to get where you want to go. It's an interesting mechanic and one I haven't seen used to this degree ever before.

That's not to say the dungeons are without flaws. Sometimes the dungeons don't make it clear how to open some doors to access some areas. This, coupled with the fact that at a certain point you cannot reenter the dungeon, can be pretty frustrating, especially if you're looking to get every piece of loot you can.

Overall, however, I think the Divine Beasts are very fun, and well worthy of seats beside other classic Zelda dungeons. The only downside is that once you're done with the Four Divine Beasts, you're done with "dungeons" for the rest of the game. The much smaller and far more numerous shrines will keep you entertained to a certain point, but most of these are single-room puzzles that can be solved relatively quickly; I certainly wouldn't put them on the same level as Zelda dungeons.

The Conclusion

Breath of the Wild has its flaws and frustrations. There were some points I honestly put the game down for days because I was stuck or irritated.

But at the end of the day, I still can't deny how purely addictive this game is. It's little wonder it gained so much praise virtually overnight. From the dazzling variety of fun things to do to the gorgeous landscape to roam through, this game successfully encapsulates the sense of adventure that older Legend of Zelda embodied. Breath of the Wild is a great back-to-basics game that has revitalized the series for a modern audience.

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Photos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Works Cited:
  • Hulfish, Garrett. "Future Zelda Games Will Have an Open-world Design, Says Producer Eiji Aonuma." Digital Trends. Designtechnica Corporation, 6 Apr. 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.

Review format adapted from Curtis Bell's Iridium Eye. Bored of the usual flicks on Redbox or Netflix? Check out Iridium Eye for a medley of movies and shows I can guarantee you've never heard of.

From Him, To Him

13 comments:

  1. Great job with the review. Even though you enjoyed this game, I really liked how you balanced out the positives with legitimate shortcomings. I really liked how you explained in detail of various aspects of the games. Also, great job remixing the Iridium Eye format for games while adding your own original elements for the template.

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    1. Thanks so much, man! I'm normally a whole lot more positive when I'm biased toward something I like, I'll admit, haha. But BotW just has that "I love you, but..." thing going on too much for me to ignore.

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    2. Don't feel bad. A lot of the 8s and 9s I've given out on Iridium Eye fall in that category of "I love you, but...". I'll even say that things like This Is Not A Film, Kurogane Communication, and even Kimba are like that and I like those things.

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    3. I appreciate knowing that it's okay for me to still like something while also acknowledging its flaws. I feel like a lot of people tend to forget that and assume anything negative a reviewer says is a banner that screams "This media is awful" when that's often not the case.

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    4. Definitely. It's something I had to learn over the past year and it's becoming stronger after reviewing stuff on Iridium Eye. It's like people can't find a happy medium: either it's garbage or immaculate.

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    5. I've noticed that about your reviews, and I really appreciate it! I think that makes a review stand a bit above the rest. But it's always nice to have a mixture. Sometimes it's fun just to watch someone fan over one of their all-time favorites.

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    6. No problem, Jeannette. Hopefully, I haven't been too much of a fanboy for the reviews I've given 10s to.

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    7. I'll let you know if I ever finally read them! ;P

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    8. Sure thing. I know you've read a few more, but I hope you can check them out again. I have three reviews coming tomorrow. Three of them are interesting and I know two of them will get attention, but for different reasons.

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    9. Looking forward to checking them out! Again, make sure to check out Iridium Eye, everyone!

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    10. No problem, Jeannette. I'll give you a hint for the things I'm going to review.

      -A recent-ish anime movie that was made by a certain director who used to animate everything off his laptop. Also, it's confirmed that an American live-action remake will be made.

      -A short anime film that's part of a much older series that is famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) because of a certain controversy. It should be incredibly obvious what it is.

      -An Israeli movie from the late 00s that involves a criminal of sorts who's mission is botched before learning to live with some people in a major city.

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    11. You've got me stumped! Guess I'll have to check out your blog to find out!

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    12. All three of them are up now. After 2 days, one of the reviews is already my most liked and commented posts on Iridium Eye ever bar none. I partially wasn't surprised for that particular review. Once you see it, you'll see why.

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