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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The latest game of the long-running Zelda franchise is definitely divisive among fans, but is that simply because it's a drastic change-up of almost every gameplay element of the series, or because it reaches for a star but falls well short of grabbing it?

With every new Zelda game comes controversy and unfavorable comparisons to earlier titles in the series, and the latest entry in the series is no exception to that rule.  Things are a bit different in Breath of the Wild's case, however - rather than complaining about the series being a step back in terms of design or simply following a previous game's format too closely, the problem people have with this particular title is that it changes up almost every familiar element of the franchise, to the point where it only barely resembles a Zelda game.

The first and most prominent of these changes is that the game design as a whole is almost entirely nonlinear and free-form; the player is simply given a vague objective to complete, and then they are set loose to make their way to it and complete it however and whenever they choose.  Between each objective, the player is essentially given free reign to explore the environment, discover hidden secrets or simply complete side-areas in order to earn points for health/stamina upgrades.  There are also numerous ways to overcome most obstacles - for instance, to reach a temple in a cold area (which quickly drains the player's health), they can either do a sidequest to get some warmer clothing to mitigate the effects of the weather, or they can cook a meal that will temporarily bolster their cold resistance, allowing them to quickly cross through without taking damage.

Similarly, combat in the game is given much more thought and polish than in previous Zelda titles.  Instead of the relatively simple, puzzle-based encounters of previous Zeldas, Breath of the Wild's combat is much more tactical and deliberate, requiring the player to carefully control their movements, adapt to their enemies' attacks and carefully time their blocks, parries and dodges in order to not take hits (which can easily deplete numerous hearts apiece).  Perfectly timed blocks, dodges and parries create openings for "Flurry strikes", allowing the player to land several quick attacks and maximize their damage while presenting minimal danger to themselves, which proves to be an integral strategy to defeating stronger foes.  Enemies are also much more intelligent than in previous Zeldas, generally trying to gang up on the player when they can and retreating to get backup when they find themselves in a bad spot.  This ensures that if the player approaches encounters with even mundane enemies without some consideration for strategy, they can quickly become overwhelmed; they often are better off using a nearby environmental object to their advantage (such as lighting a nearby explosive barrel or pushing a boulder down a hill at an enemy camp), taking a stealthy approach to pick off foes one at a time, or even avoiding combat entirely by seeking a new route to their destination.

Only further adding to this is the game's equipment system, which is also a drastic changeup from earlier Zelda games.  Nearly all weapons found in Breath of the Wild are finite, breaking after a set number of uses, and the player only has a limited number of inventory slots in which to carry them (though they can buy more with Korok Seeds).  Thus, managing what weapons the player has on hand and knowing when to use them also form an important part of the game's strategy - simply rushing in and beating on a foe with your strongest weapon is usually not the best plan when the same task can be done with a ranged attack or even avoided entirely.  Even when the player must fight, they're generally much better off learning the timing of enemies attacks in order to create an opening for a parry or flurry strike in order to make the most efficient use of their equipment.

As alluded to earlier, Breath of the Wild's armor system is also drastically changed up - in previous Zeldas, the various outfits available were straightforward defense boosts or simply a means to navigate through previously inaccessible areas or complete puzzles.  The same is true to a degree here, but they also have the potential to radically change up the way the game is played - one can equip a Sheikah suit to reduce the amount of noise they make while moving, allowing them to more easily sneak up on enemies (or past htem), or they can simply bolster their defenses in order to give themselves a greater advantage in all-out combat, for example.  Others are more situational, such as the aforementioned warmer clothing that offsets the effects of colder environments, or a heatproof suit that lets them move around in the volcano area.

Another dynamic of the game comes in its crafting system - specifically, the player's ability to cook and brew potions that have a number of effects.  Cooking food items has an obvious effect - healing the player more efficiently than raw materials - though certain ingredients can also add temporary beneficial effects, such as temporary elemental resistance or maximum health boosts.  Potions are similar, though they generally grant a lengthened benefit at the cost of restoring little (or no) health.  Either way, these provide the player with an edge in dealing with difficult encounters or reaching an area they wouldn't normally be able to with their current abilities.

Perhaps the most drastic change of all, though, is in the game's underlying mechanics.  Breath of the Wild, unlike nearly every Nintendo game before it, features a heavily polished physics engine that plays into the combat and puzzles, with enemies, objects and even Link realistically interacting with one other (such as bombs/boulders rolling down hills, characters being flung over ledges by hard impacts and powder kegs detonating one another in sequence).  This gives way to a few other nice nods to realism, such as metal weapons drawing lightning to the player in a thunderstorm and fire realistically spreading from one object to the next, allowing one well-placed fire arrow to slowly consume an entire cluster of trees or thorns.  The game's numerous nods to realism mean that the most logical approach to a problem is usually one that works, but it's also smart enough not to let that realistic edge hamper the overall experience of the game.  To that end, Link also has some very "video gamey" abilities that allow him tremendous freedom of movement; nearly any surface in the game can be climbed up (to the limits of one's stamina bar, of course), and the hang glider Link acquires early in his adventure can also be used in a less-than-realistic fashion, either to break long falls at the last moment or simply climb up a tall mountain and glide to a distant destination.  The numerous abilities Link acquires further add to the fun the engine provides, allowing Link to weaponize objects in his environment (such as picking up a metal chest and dropping it on an enemy with Magnesis, or using Stasis to lock a boulder in place, hitting it a few times and launching it toward an enemy camp with tremendous force).  A large part of the game's fun comes from finding new and creative ways to use the tools the player is given to accomplish their goals, and it's more than a bit shocking to see such nods to innovation and realism come from Nintendo, a company that has stubbornly stuck to familiar territory with almost every major franchise they've put out in recent years.

Nintendo did experience some trouble cutting their teeth on this new realm of gaming, though. The free-roaming design of the game means that players can easily run across enemies with far more health than they can easily deplete, and who can take them out in only one or two hits themselves.  This persists even well into the game - even after equipping strong armor, bolstering one's defense with a cooked meal and collecting numerous heart containers, some enemies can still easily slay the player in very few hits, which can be very frustrating and leave them wonder why they're bothering to collect all these powerups at all.  Probably the most prominent example of this is the Guardian enemies, which can easily snipe the player from a great distance (far greater than most bows) and deplete all of their health in a single hit until they have enough health and upgraded armor to stand a chance.

The developers' attempts to add a more action-driven bent to combat can also be a bit frustrating, with some stronger foes (Lynels in particular) unleashing relentless flurries of attacks that can quickly tear through the player's supply of shields, or effectively render blocking useless as they simply swat their shield aside, then immediately follow up with a second attack for half the player's health.  The only real recourse they have at times is to master the "perfect dodge" mechanic in order to land several hits on the boss unchecked while avoiding damage themselves.  Even the game itself seems to acknowledge this by requiring this mechanic to be used in one phase of the final fight; the boss is only vulnerable for a very brief moment after a big attack, and the only way to effectively take advantage of this is via the time-slowing effect that occurs after a perfect dodge.  The framerate can also get very choppy at times during particularly large-scale battles, which can make it much more difficult to keep track of opponents and timing for maneuvers; this is much more prominent on the Wii U version, but did crop up on a few occasions when I played on Switch as well.

The open world format of the game also intrinsically links the experience to a lot of grinding at times, with several armor upgrades and anti-Guardian weapons requiring a substantial amount of item farming to acquire.  Rupees are also uncharacteristically scarce in the field, which means the player must rely on item farming, crafting and selling much more than in any prior Zelda.  Many of the quests in the game also provide rather minimal rewards (such as a single meal or a costly house with very few apparent benefits), which can quickly result in the player being reluctant to carry them out at all.  Even gaining one heart container or stamina upgrade is much more of a time investment, as they require tracking down at least four separate temples and completing the puzzles within them, which is a stark departure for something that was relatively commonplace (and usually much less involved) in earlier Zeldas.

In short, Breath of the Wild, while recognizable as a Zelda game for its story tropes and familiar elements, is also something very unlike any prior title in the series.  Instead of being given a set of tools with specific purposes and the challenge being in figuring out how and when to use them, the player is instead given tools with a wide variety of applications and limitations and left to their own devices - how they approach the game's many challenges and obstacles is left entirely up to them.  It is a well-polished and very fun game in most respects, though it may take some time to fully appreciate its intricacies and adapt to its unique take on the Zelda formula, especially for long-time series fans.  But I think that less one knows going into Breath of the Wild (and the less they let their perception of previous Zelda titles color their expectations for this one), the more likely they are to enjoy what it has to offer.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii U, Switch
Released: 2017
Recommended version: The Wii U version runs at a lower resolution (720p vs 900p) and can drop to a very low framerate in some of the more crowded areas of the game.  The Switch version also generally features more polished visual effects and higher-quality sound, though it suffers from a slightly lower framerate in general (which is somewhat mitigated when the game is played in the system's portable mode, which also lowers the resolution to 720p).  Still, both versions are very similar in every respect, so if you don't feel like shelling out for a Switch just yet, the Wii U version will suit you just fine.