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Monday, April 3, 2017

My Impressions of Breath of the Wild

The following write-up represents my personal perspective on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There are no story spoilers and only minor references to principle mechanics. 


141 hours, 125 Korok seeds, 59 shrines, 15 hearts, a little over 2 stamina bars, and 1 Master Sword later, I've defeated Ganon and completed Breath of the Wild. Of course, reading that, you probably know that there's actually a whole lot more in the game for me to do and see. Regardless, I've decided to share a few thought and impressions of my experience so far, as I feel like I've finally put enough time in to have a solid, well-rounded perspective.


Gameplay


Breath of the Wild presents the most varied toolset ever seen in a Zelda title. Through the massive selection of weapons and a few extremely versatile runes, the efficient, multifaceted design of the game encourages and rewards players for unconventional ideas and experimentation, making for problem solving and combat that have never felt so satisfying or open ended. 

Taking advantage of this are shrines, small puzzles and challenges that litter the land to test the player’s wit and understanding of the tools they’ve been provided. There are also the hidden Koroks, your standard sidequests, and riddles. These things are all optional, diverse, unafraid of providing a challenge, solvable at your own pace, and, in most cases, completely respect your intelligence.

The introduction of free-form climbing and paragliding are the game’s not-so-secret weapons with regards to really driving home the amount of freedom available to the player, allowing you to scale almost any surface and make your way to anything you can see in the distance. The added sense of verticality isn’t superficial either, as the tools lend themselves to varied play-styles and the discovery of content in unusual places.

Breath of the Wild also embraces weapon degradation in a much more all-encompassing, intelligently implemented way. Link himself doesn’t grow latently more powerful outside of stamina and heart upgrades, meaning that, in the typical Zelda context, there are no functional means to adjusting difficulty that wouldn’t undermine a sense of progression or result in a permanent imbalance later down the line when facing old foes in familiar locations. The application of weapon degradation works to make Breath of the Wild's open world successful by ensuring that players can, through a few successful engagements, match the enemies in a given location, but won’t stay that capable for long when returning to less taxing areas.

When starting the game, the initial selection of weapons is deliberately fragile, functioning as a passive tutorial that ensures players understand and apply the core aspects of the combat-loop in a low-risk environment and a condensed context. This is done while coaxing them to engage with a variety of weapon types and appreciate their advantages and disadvantages. Players learn to adapt, experiment, and strategize early, which gets them ready for the world and possibilities that’ll be experienced later, even when the weapons become more varied and less feeble.

Overall, the gameplay in Breath of the Wild is extremely well thought out and diverse. Almost all of the systems in the game are integrated with each other in a way that means it’s unlikely any one player will have the same experience as another and that most folks will feel intelligent when they come up with their own unique solutions and strategies. 

Story


This is a part of the experience that I have a lot of thoughts about, but -to avoid spoilers- I’ll leave those aside and speak in more general terms instead.

The short of the long of it is that the primary narrative in Breath of the Wild is fairly barebones. It’s minimalist, exacting only the details necessary to make it sensible and justify the journey the player embarks on. It trades its heartier origins for subtlety, and while that isn't necessarily a bad thing, it feels less fulfilling as a result when considered individually.

The fact of the matter is that the story was built to best compliment the type of gameplay experience Breath of the Wild is meant to provide without compromise. On that front, the developers were successful, presenting the narrative through a combination of an interesting mechanic and a less typical plot-structure, allowing it to sit well with the open nature of the game.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that this is the first mainline title in the Zelda series to implement Voice Acting in a prominent way. Though I don’t think anyone is miscast, I do have to say that I’m not entirely a fan of a lot of the deliveries. I think that there are a few possible reasons for some of these issues, but I’ll get into that another day. 


World


In Breath of the Wild, the world is the real star of the show. More accurately, your journey through Hyrule is at the heart of the experience.

It’s true.

Every facet of the world is configured to encourage exploration. There are towers in each region that give you the opportunity to get a lay of the land from above and provide you with relevant segments of the map. These segments don't, at any point, contain direction or overt indicators of where to go. Instead, you're allowed up to 100 markers and 5 waypoints to place as you see fit. This alone is a pivotal design decision that encourages players to forge their own path, but the developers don't just stop there. 

From these towers, interesting landmarks and key shrines are visible. The shrines are deliberately placed in areas that are typically dense with things to do, at the ends of paths with points of potential interest along the way, or close to the border of neighboring regions to pique your curiosity. 

Though these things are true and the world is built to entice you, it’s also built to be believable. As such, it doesn't have everything just checker-boarded conveniently and evenly for you to find. A fair number of the more interesting things are spread out and require a trek to get to even if you know where they you're going. With this daunting spacing in mind, Koroks are hidden in large amounts across the land. This ensures that the plausibility of the world isn't sacrificed to satiate impatient players and that the attentive are always being rewarded for keeping an eye out for oddities.

Pulling back a bit and looking at the big picture, the geography in this game is incredibly interesting. For a fan of the franchise and its world, seeing such a detailed and cohesive map of Hyrule is an amazing thing. Not only is finding familiar places exciting, but seeing how they exist in this post-apocalyptic era is especially engrossing. The names of areas, landmarks, and lakes are all painstakingly detailed and many offer appreciable references to the history of the series, which I think will have some players grinning ear to ear. It really is a love letter to and a culmination of everything that makes up the Zelda universe.

If you end up playing Breath of the Wild, old fan or not, be sure to take the time to explore and enjoy the well-constructed world, as having your own personal adventure in it truly is a special experience.


Where Does it Stand?


Coming right down to it is a question that I think a lot of people have: Is this the best Zelda game ever made?

The cop-out answer is maybe.

It really does depend on what you want out of a Zelda game. For better or worse, Breath of the Wild really pursues the core of the original Zelda on the NES and pushes it farther, perhaps a lot more than some folks realize. It doesn’t hold your hand in an excessive manner, it’s built with the intent to allow players to discover at their own pace, and even lets you miss wonderful things unabashedly. 

Breath of the Wild honestly seems to have been developed in a similar way to Super Mario 3D World: by looking back at the early days of its franchise and considering what made it special to begin with. However, while the Mario franchise had its whole 2D legacy to observe, things were different for the Zelda franchise, which experimented heavily from its inception.

The earliest Zelda game is unique in that it’s the only title that truly embraces exploration without any reservations. Zelda 2 was mostly a side-scroller, and while A Link to the Past returned to its roots in principle gameplay, it was designed to guide players and give them a relatively more pleasant, specific, and mostly defined experience as opposed to asking them to discover things on their own and make the adventure a personal one. A Link to the Past is the game that became the core of the franchise moving forward, and, though A Link Between Worlds rethought those conventions before it, Breath of the Wild is the first game in the series that puts those conventions and the ones built on top of them aside entirely to ask an important question:

What really makes a Zelda game a Zelda game? 

The answer, fortunately, has resulted in a title that is unrestricted, enormous in scope, generous in content, respectful of player intelligence, welcoming of unique solutions, and that gives you the space to have an adventure on your own terms, all while staying true the spirit of the franchise. 

With that in mind, I’d say that anyone who wants to go on an adventure, explore, get lost, or be challenged will very likely enjoy Breath of the Wild. Zelda fans that are looking for the return of those things after all these years might be pleasantly surprised and find that this does so in a big way and that it IS their favorite game in the Zelda series. However, fans who are looking for the next big tale in this universe might find themselves dissatisfied with what’s been put on their plate. 

The standard, linear story that’s been seen in most Zelda games is gone, and what is there with regards to the overall narrative really takes a back seat. To be fair, the world is filled with smaller stories to be made and had through sidequests and general NPC interaction that may ease the worries of escapists wanting to experience life in Hyrule. Unfortunately, that likely won't leave those who are mostly interested in a meatier, more typical narrative from this world feeling like Breath of the Wild is near the top of their lists. 

At the end of the day, most people lie somewhere in the middle with regards to what they’re looking for in a Zelda experience. There are those who will consider this their favorite Zelda game and, I’m sure, a fair number of folks who won’t. With such a well realized world, incredible gameplay, and design that succeeds on all intended fronts, I think that most fans who play Breath of the Wild will hold it in exceptionally high regard, even if it isn’t their number one. 

Every title brings something special to the franchise or has its own spin on beloved characters and conventions, so no matter where Breath of the Wild ends up ranking with Zelda fans, I’m sure that they’ll look back fondly on it in much the same way as they did its predecessors.

Tips for playing


When playing the game, I noticed that there were a few things that really contributed to my enjoyment of the game or would have made things better. These are my recommendations for an ideal Breath of the Wild experience. I'm fairly confident in their importance, so please keep them in mind.


Go in as blind as you can

This is a game of exploration and discovery. If you want to get the full experience, find things out about the game yourself when playing and not from friends, articles, or videos before hand.

Fight Ganon only when you feel like you're done

Consider fighting Ganon a means of closure. He's there for you when you've decided that you've done everything you want to in the game and that you're ready to move on. I think that it's extremely important to keep that in mind and that playing with this mentality will, more likely than not, leave you more satisfied with your overall experience after completing this major, overarching goal. 

Experiment constantly

This is a game bursting with possibilities. The deeply integrated systems mean that the potential methods of engagement in combat and puzzle solving are hard to count. Don't be afraid to do strange or even reasonable things you'd like to see work. The game might end up surprising you.

Don't rush

Do. Not. Rush. I put in about 130 hours before deciding that I'd rush to the end and be a hero. I don't think that there is any case in which this was smart, and if I could do it again, I'd do play the way I was before those last 10 or so hours and really enjoy the experience.

There's a whole world out there waiting for you. It's not going anywhere, so don't feel compelled to end things abruptly or before you've really taken in everything you want to.

No guides

No guides. No tutorials. No walkthroughs. 


As I've said earlier, this is a game of discovery. So Discover.

Every puzzle you can't solve or thing you can't find is so much more rewarding when you finally succeed, so give yourself the pleasure of experiencing that personal satisfaction instead of sacrificing it for convenience or ease. Believe in yourself. It's worth it.

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