Tuesday, March 14, 2017

REVIEW - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch/Wii U)

Announced exclusively for the Wii U,  Breath of the Wild is out now four years and one additional platform later.

Nintendo has never made a bad Zelda game.

OK. I can maybe give you The Adventure of Link.

By and large they've consistently made exciting and accessible adventures that anyone can play and enjoy. And yet, by the time of the release of 2011's Skyward Sword, even diehard fans of the series had to admit the formula was getting a bit stale.

With the release of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo hit it big by, well, simultaneously inventing and perfecting an entire genre. The problem with creating the perfect 3D Zelda game right away, is there's nowhere to go but sideways. And for almost twenty years, they've been sticking very close to that recipe. With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has almost completely rewritten the rulebook.

The story is the most familiar thing about it. Ganon is up to some evil business. Hero of legend. Princess in peril. Something about time. It starts off like Just Another Zelda Game. But the most dramatic thing is what happens after that. It just, like, throws you out there man. You're on your own. By comparison, Skyward Sword spent something like 39 out of 40 hours making sure you knew how to open a door before letting you explore. BotW will tell you some things. But more often than not you'll learn about things from experience. The game won't explicitly say that wearing a metal shield during a lightning storm is a bad idea until you're already an extra crispy pile of ash on the floor. It's an unforgiving game when you first start out. Refreshingly so. It's weird and exciting to see a Nintendo game not afraid to kick your ass over and over when they spent the last ten years selling games to your grandma.

This game is steeped in mechanics. There's a stamina bar that is depleted rather quickly when running, swimming and climbing. Link will freeze or overheat in extreme temperatures. You will have to cook your own potions and elixirs from mushrooms, animals, and monster parts. You will have to monitor how much sound you're making if you want to sneak up on enemies. Different clothes will affect your abilities in different ways. Things will happen at different times of day. Rain will prevent you from climbing. Lightning will kill you. Fires will spread. Weapons you find will break after use. There's a boggling number of things to keep track of, and after a couple dozen hours I'm still finding things out. All of these systems play out in ways that make a logical kind of sense that you don't see in many other games. The metal-in-a-lightning-storm thing from earlier for example. Like, of course lightning would be attracted to metal. But what other game would even bother with making it kill you? And because you can throw weapons, you can toss a metal sword at an enemy, and the lightning will kill them instead! The game doesn't tell you that. You just mess around with things and go "Hey cool that worked."

About the weapons breaking, that's a huge part of the game, and will probably be one of the most divisive things about it. Lots of games feature equipment that gets less effective over time. And in most cases it's a matter of repairing it with a whetstone or a repair kit or a trip to the local blacksmith. In BotW, your shit just breaks. And not after hours of grueling battles. We're talkin' about going through 2-3 swords in a single fight sometimes. And when you start the game, you'll only be able to carry a handful of the things. So you'll be picking up swords and bows and shields constantly, not afforded the luxury of getting too attached to anything.

Nintendo has created a massive, detailed and beautiful world to run around breaking swords in. Unlike previous Zelda games, where your progress in the world is gated off by the linear progress you make through its dungeons, you're free to wander off in whatever direction you want right from the beginning. You may find certain areas harder to get through, but you can do it. In fact, from the very beginning of the game you're essentially given the quest "Beat the Game", and you can go to Ganon, kick his ass and call it a day. Or, since that would be incredibly hard with your starting gear and health meter, you can traverse your way around Hyrule in search of treasure and adventure for 100 hours first.

"If you see it, you can go there."

That's the promise of all these open world games. And in many cases it's true....kind of. There's nothing really stopping you from spasming your way up the side of a mountain in Skyrim. Though it's not really fun or elegant, and to what end is anybody's guess. BotW handles climbing differently than something like Assassin's Creed. You can attach yourself to almost any vertical surface. Whether you can make it to the top of a mountain or a tower is determined by how much stamina you have. Climbing a mountain then becomes a little puzzle, trying to find little footholds that will allow you to recover enough stamina to keep going. And so climbing a huge mountain feels like an accomplishment. It feels earned. And a lot of the time, at the top of the mountain you'll find something interesting. The game knew you would try to go up there, or behind there, or under there, and it rewards you for your exploratory curiosity.

You'll see these little dudes everywhere. If you bother to look.

This is the first HD Zelda game. Or the first one designed that way at least. And it's a really good looking game. You're not going to confuse it for a PS4 game, but Nintendo has done a good job of building a stylized world with swaying trees and pretty sunsets. The characters are expressive and detailed in a way they've never been before.

Though it comes at a price. I'm not one to usually notice framerate in a game. But it drops pretty hard in this game sometimes. Towns in particular slow right down. It's never deal-breakingly bad, but I do wonder why the game has such a hard time keeping up when other, similar games run a lot smoother.

Pretty though.

There's also a lot more voice acting than the series has ever had. Nintendo has been pretty reluctant, with its major franchises, to give them a voice. While Link is still silent, and most of the dialogue is still text, you'll hear other characters talk from time to time.

And I guess I can see why they'd shy away from voice acting. It's kinda garbage in this game.

Like, I've heard far worse. But you know in games and cartoons when you hear an old lady and it's clearly just some chick making her voice more shaky like "I'm an ooollldddd laaddyyy" and you're like "Yeah ok."

Everyone sounds like that.

The game is also very musically sparse. It's odd, for a series so well known for its catchy themes and jingles, to hear nothing but crickets and birds for so much of the time. The music does kick in at appropriate times, but it's still just you and mother nature for hours and hours.

Speaking of nature, there's a photo database system that encourages you to find and catalog every animal and monster in the game. It's wildly addictive.

I feel like I could keep writing about this game for weeks. There's so much to say, so much to find, so much to learn. I can't fit everything there is to this game in ten articles. And I wouldn't want to. So much of the fun of this game is in discovery and experimentation.

It's not hard to see how Nintendo got to this game. In a strangely Un-Nintendo like fashion, they looked outside of their bubble to see how gaming has changed. Breath of the Wild is the result of studying why Skyrim, Dark Souls, and Minecraft are all popular. But Breath of the Wild isn't a Frankengame of stolen mechanics. It's its own thing. Made in a way that only Nintendo, a company that's been at this for longer than just about anyone, could pull off.

I'm going to stop writing now. There's still lots of things to see in Hyrule.

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