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Sunday, May 28, 2017

My Criticisms of Breath of the Wild

The following write-up consists of my criticisms of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There are some spoilers, so look sharp.

Last time I talked on Breath of the Wild, I gave my general impressions separated from what might be considered spoilers. Today's post is a reflection of the things that I found questionable, misguided, or that needed to be improved. I initially thought that this would be a spoiler heavy write-up, but I can safely say that, outside of the portion where I talk about Ganon in the Maintaining Tone section, it's pretty clean. Enjoy!


Technical Issues


Let's get this out of the way to start. I'm not going to sugarcoat it, and I'm not going to exaggerate:

There are framerate issues.

These drops aren't usually extreme or frequent throughout the majority of play time and haven't degraded my personal enjoyment of the game, but they are absolutely worth noting. I’ve found that slowdown is most prominent at two major villages, some parts of Death Mountain, and in the Great Plateau, the latter of which is particularly unfortunate considering that it’s where the game starts. Sending a Moblin rag-dolling will typically cause stuttering or a momentary freeze, and that’s definitely the worst kind of performance dip in the game. Fortunately, Breath of the Wild keeps reasonably stable most of the time and patches have been released that make it so that frame drops are even less common than before.

The handheld mode on the Switch version allegedly ran with little to no problems even before patching, so that's great. However, I can't help but find it odd that, with a sizable GPU speed boost, the docked mode doesn't run just as smoothly when resolution’s been bumped up. With handheld mode already running well, I'd think that doing this would at least allow for parity of performance assuming that there weren’t somehow an increase in CPU dependent processes or disproportionate graphical changes. Maybe there's some other bottleneck causing this? Regardless, it’s unfortunate, and I feel there should have been an option to allow docked mode to run at 720p instead of 900p if this were the case.

It's important to mention that the game actually hasn’t been optimized for the Switch when looking at its peformance. This means that there’s a great deal of potential for improvement moving forward for Breath of the Wild and that further work can easily benefit future titles that use the new engine. Personally, I'm playing primarily on the Wii U, and it’s worth noting that the game was designed with that hardware in mind. Because of this, there aren’t any obvious avenues of improvement I can really point to. There's a chance that there'll be tweaks where possible until the second content pack from the expansion pass releases, so we'll see how things are changed by then. 

Otherwise, though not perfect, things are pretty good right now.


Voice Acting


Voice Acting is a weird topic.

There have been two very clear sides of the fence on whether or not proper VA should be introduced to the Zelda franchise, and Nintendo's first foray into this is a compromise between both. This is to say that the game’s cutscenes feature full-VA, but Link himself is as quiet as ever.

I think that functionally, Voice Acting can allow for more expressive and deliberately paced interactions that better reflect the emotional state of the characters speaking than plain text typically would. Fortunately, Nintendo leverages this potential in helping define the turmoil Princess Zelda experiences and reinforcing the personalities of other characters much more respectably when considering the limited screen-time they're given.

I don’t believe that anyone was necessarily miscast, and I was actually pleasantly surprised by how fitting I came to find the voices by the end of the experience. Though this much is true, I do have a problem with the delivery of some lines. Mipha in particular is a notable case, as I found that her actress maintained a general consistency that ironically made at least two scenes sound very unconvincing within their emotional context. I don’t know if this is partially a shortcoming on the Voice Actors’ side, but I do recognize the difficulty that could have come from Nintendo’s secretive nature during production and how that allegedly results in very constrained context to work with for VAs.

Another problem I have with the delivery of many lines comes in through unfortunate pacing. This undermines the impact of their content even further, not to mention that some of the lines seem a little odd to begin with. Thinking through this, I realize that these things are likely the result of the localization team attempting to write within the constraints of particular timing and work with the Voice Actors to match set lip-sync. I appreciate that this was likely very challenging to do, but I’m doubtful many will consider these qualifiers when their immersion is broken or when they feel that something is off. In the future, I hope that things change to facilitate better delivery and that there are less constraints on everyone involved.


Maintaining Tone


In two ways, the game seems to have trouble sticking to what it wants. The first problem is how the game portrays Link and what that means for how players engage with him throughout their adventure. The second is inclusive of certain aspects of how the game portrays the need to face Ganon. These may seem like they wouldn't constitute much of a problem on the surface, but for a game that is centered so heavily on facilitating a certain kind of experience, I feel that they're important to consider. Link in particular is worth noting as I feel that how they handle his character is something that can easily go beyond this title and affect the entire series moving forward.

Link


Link is typically supposed to be a stand in for the player. He's mostly blank so we can plant ourselves into the world with little to no problem or sense of disconnect. Though it seems like this is still the aim with the character in Breath of the Wild, there are unfortunately a few things that undermine and conflict with it.

To start, players could usually use their own names when playing a Zelda game. That isn't the case this time around due to the introduction of voice acting requiring characters to refer to Link by name. It's a small, necessary change, but it seems stranger than it might otherwise because Link himself still doesn't have an active voice. This was a decision that reflects the goal of maintaining his connection with the player as indicated by the following quote:

"If Link said something the user doesn't agree with, that relationship between the user and Link would be lost" -Eiji Aonuma

However, the way that NPC interactions are handled stand in stark contrast to this. While funny, many of these engagements imply that Link has an eccentric, often sarcastic personality and, time and time again, would say things in ways that most players would not themselves. It doesn't help that these responses also don't seem to match Link's mannerisms in cutscenes.

Taken in terms of the full package, all of these things seem to indicate a conflict of intent. Link is kept a silent protagonist and is even given a specific reason for choosing to hold his tongue, but the game has been made in a way that makes that seem true in only the most superficial sense. I can't help but feel that this could have been dealt with a little more carefully. As it stands now, the compromises make it so that Link is either a meagerly characterized individual and/or a partially jarring conduit into the world. 

Not ideal on any terms.


Ganon


While Breath of the Wild is constructed to facilitate and encourage exploration at every turn, certain things go against that almost universal direction.

The primary objective marker text, Impa, The Great Deku Tree, Princess Zelda, and a few lines from other characters will egg you on to face Ganon whenever you make major progress. You aren't forced to do so, but a fair number of things make it seem like it’s what you should do. Ganon himself was designed to stay out of the way of the adventure to avoid piling on additional, unnecessary narrative and constraints that would reduce player freedom. This makes how he's presented by these subtle nods particularly odd, as it does precisely what the developers were trying to avoid with little to show for it at the end of the day.

Encouraging players to cut their adventure short by posing the dire nature of confronting Ganon in these ways could easily end up taking away from the enjoyment of the experience, as he doesn't represent the same purpose as a more traditional boss fight in other games.

Facing him isn't climax: It's closure.

In much the same way that the rewards in Breath of the Wild aren’t really the treasures at the end of the road but the journey itself, Ganon is more of a garnish than anything else. Dropping everything to be the hero with the expectation of the greatest challenge yet and the satisfaction of overcoming insurmountable odds will leave you wanting for something far more fulfilling than you'll end up getting. Ganon isn't difficult to face if you're prepared, and while the game is designed to allow you to fight him whenever you’d like, the ending doesn't represent any sort of major payoff.

I think that these little nudges were made in an attempt to strike a balance on basis of how different players approach the game. Yes, this is an enormous open world built for exploration and discovery, but there are those who’ve come in with the expectation of, or an interest in, a more linear experience and won’t feel that the conclusion is impactful without having this monstrous enemy colored as an imminent threat. Unfortunately, I think the payoff is limited on these terms as well.

With no real post-game, swaying players to seek this narrative conclusion early might have them feeling disconnected from the world when returning to complete other content and explore, and that's not something I think should be humored when it comes to an experience of this nature. Unfortunately, parts of this are necessary to make for a compelling narrative, and the nature of massively open-world games that give you this much freedom doesn't exactly mesh well with doing that. Regardless, I still feel that pulling a few punches would have allowed the story to be just as effective while easing the sense of urgency that goes against the experience it's been set in.


Final thoughts


If you've read this far, you might have seen my criticisms and thought "These are really mundane things to nitpick. Where are the real complaints?". The fact of the matter is that these really are the most notable problems I have with Breath of the Wild. 

This is a great game that succeeds in the majority of its endeavors, and though it will be refined and improved on in the future, what is here is a brilliant experience with a strong foundation that's ripe to be learned from and well worth enjoying. I think that the shrines are extremely enjoyable, that the combat is superb, that the attention to detail is awe inspiring, and the degree to which the game respects player intelligence and choice to be notably appreciable.

That doesn't mean there aren't other things I didn't like, but those are more a matter of preference as opposed to flaws in execution or failures in design. On that note, I'd like to list a few things I want to see in the future, whether they be in a sequel or through the content packs coming later this year. I think we'll be getting some tweaks and changes in the Expansion Pass, so maybe I'll get lucky and find that one or two of them happen.


A more robust map marker system              

Breath of the Wild is a brave game in providing an open-world full of content that its willing to let you miss or find on your own terms. The map isn't filled with pre-configured markers that tell players where to go; instead, players are given 100 map markers and 5 way-points to assign and save themselves when on their adventure.

Though I appreciate this implementation, I can't help but think that they could take it farther and provide more robust charting options. I'd love the ability to attach notes to markers and save secondary overlays  with my own supplementary material drawn on top. The touch screen is already on both consoles the game is available on, so I don't doubt this sort of things could be added in an intuitive way.


Full Silence, Full VA, or a more thoughtful implementation of both

While the first attempt to bring Voice Acting to the mainline Zelda series has been quite commendable, I think giving players the option to change audio tracks or turn off VA outright would be a great feature.

I'd also like them to consider how they go about Voice Acting a fair bit more carefully moving forward. Link doesn't have a speaking voice, yet interactions with those that do indirectly characterize him to avoid making things seem unnatural. I don't personally think the story in Breath of the Wild necessarily gained enough from voice acting to call it an undeniably great inclusion, and the balancing act played for Link's character probably didn't do it any favors. Ultimately, I hope that whatever's done next is planned in conjunction with all aspects of Link and the player in mind from start to finish and that the direction taken is communicated internally to ensure a cohesive result.


A real Post game

The nature of Ganon and how pivotal he is to the world means that a real post game isn't a simple thing to set up. For the story DLC, I'd like to see the constraints that make this true somehow overcome, if even in a meager way from a player content standpoint. Enemies would have to permanently disappear from the game world, certain recipes would become much harder to make, and the dialogue and routines of many NPCs would need to be modified to reflect Ganon’s defeat. Unfortunately, all of this would require a great deal of work and realistically would add little content overall. I’d be pleasantly surprised if Nintendo actually went this route, but I hope that they at least keep the possibility of this in mind for future games that adopt the open-air format.

Fortunately, I do think that there’s room for an expanded resolution in the second DLC pack considering that Princess Zelda wants to go to Zora’s Domain at the end of the game. This is something that I would more than welcome instead if it were on the table.

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