Tired game tropes that Zelda: Breath of the Wild made me love again
A quick note first: I feel very differently about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild than the site's official review by Willie Clark, which I nevertheless enjoyed reading. Dissenting voices are important, and a broad range of critical responses benefits everyone.
I'm firmly in the other camp on this one, though.
If Breath of the Wild handed me a cup of ominously bubbling Kool-Aid, I would drink it without question. I'm completely willing to declare it one of the best games I've ever played. There are even things I love about the game that I have either gotten pretty sick of or hated in other games, such as…
This is an Ubisoft speciality – those towers scattered around the map that the protagonist needs to scale to fill out the map screen. When it first came out that Zelda was going to feature this particular trope, people were worried that it would suffer from the same bloat that many of Ubisoft's games suffered from, but Zelda is very different. The towers aren't represented on your map in any way until you spot them and create markers yourself, and the journey to them is very different from what you'd need to do in, say, Watch Dogs. It's not a case of just running or riding your horse in that direction – it's all about discovering the land between you and the tower. Every tower climb I have completed in Breath of the Wild has felt like an adventure. I've encountered new characters along the way, solved environmental puzzles, battled new enemies, and snuck past encampments. Each tower feels like a reward at the end of a journey. I've only got two left to climb, and to be honest part of me is sad at the prospect of having the entire map filled, with no more towers left to scale.
Lots and lots of climbing
I was midway through Rise of the Tomb Raider before I realised that I was sick of videogame climbing. For a long time, pushing up on the stick and occasionally jumping or swinging had been thrilling, but after about a thousand games of it, the novelty was worn thin. Part of the reason why Uncharted 4 was so great was that it found different things to do with its climbing mechanics, making the gameplay more about positioning yourself well, hurling a grappling hook around, using the environment during combat and stealth scenarios, and puzzling out a route rather than simply moving along the clear prescribed ledges.
Breath of the Wild does something entirely different by making almost every damn surface in the game climbable, giving Link a Spider-Man-like ability. Physically, it doesn't make much sense, but from a gameplay perspective it's incredibly liberating. As you upgrade and augment your stamina, which dictates how long/far you can perform certain actions, the question is never 'is getting there possible' – the answer is always yes. Instead you need to ask 'will I make that climb', or 'can I stand on that ridge and regain my strength', or, best of all, 'I wonder what's up there'. In Breath of the Wild, climbing isn't about finding the path the level designers have laid out for you – it's about forging your own.
Three items into this list, I'm realizing that a lot of these issues I have with other games stem from how much I hate Assassin's Creed 3. What a terrible game that was.
Anyway, hunting in games has never really done it for me. Not just the whole 'slowly stalk an animal and then shoot it' thing, but also the 'collect the parts it drops and then use them to craft leather satchels to store the bullets you need to make from the iron you find, or whatever' thing most games with a hunting element have.
In Breath of the Wild, hunting still feels weird. It doesn't seem totally in character for Link to kill a deer, although the game puts a heavy enough emphasis on foraging that it makes sense. Hunting in Breath of the Wild is very simple, but the risk/reward pay-off, and the physics behind the systems that allow you to hunt enemies, are super satisfying. If you want to take down an animal and collect the raw meat it drops as a reward, your best hope is to use your bow and arrow or to hurl a spear (all melee weapons can also be thrown). Arrows are a surprisingly rare commodity, so it's only really advisable if you're flush with them at the time (tip: the Lizalfos leading up to Zora's Domain have heaps).
Lining up your shot, taking distance into account and aiming well, crouched in the bushes as you worry about sudden movements or alerting your prey, is fun. Not only is it fun, but it's entirely optional – the game never explicitly tells you to hunt outside some side quests, so like many things in Breath of the Wild it's entirely up to you if you want to take a shot at that boar in the distance. It's a simple system, but it works.
Shortly after The Witcher 3 released, I remember a colleague tweeting out a question: has anyone ever enjoyed weapon degradation? Has any game ever seriously been better because your sword starts doing less damage unless you run it back to the bloody blacksmith and ask him to sharpen up the edge every hour? I agreed with him. A lot of people did. When they announced that the weapons in Breath of the Wild would break, I got nervous.
But hell, weapon degradation not only works here, it's absolutely necessary. Your weapons in Breath of the Wild break pretty fast (some faster than others), and the final hit of any weapon is going to be a critical (which prompts a lovely effect as your weapon shatters, knocking your enemy back), so working out which weapons to use in any given situation is imperative. Do you throw away your weakest weapon for a first assault on a deadly foe? Do you risk losing your best lance and shield? Weapon management is a huge part of the game, which means that you're constantly needing to change your strategy in battle. A weapon shattering is heartbreaking and exciting all at once, and whenever you get a great new weapon, the knowledge that it's only temporary makes it all the more precious. Your constantly shifting loadout means that each battle needs to be thought through and considered, and that an enemy who is giving you no grief at one point may be far harder to face off against later in the game if you're carrying lowly equipment. It's an exciting system.
A hugely hostile open world
I remember the moment Skyrim lost me. I was wandering through a snowy area, looking for respite, when I saw a woman standing over a fire. "Oh good, a friend", I naively thought. I wandered over, and the woman – revealing herself to be some sort of fire mage, I suppose – attacked and slaughtered me. 'Huh', I thought, as my charred corpse lay dead in the snow. 'Seems like this game world just actively doesn't want me in it.'
I don't typically like it when a game world is so hostile that it starts to feel like everyone is out to get you. Breath of the Wild is extremely hostile – there are areas of the map that I cannot really venture into without putting myself at serious risk. But it works, in part because of the simple narrative overlay – you're in a world wrecked by Calamity Ganon, and the humans, as well as the Gerudo, the Gorons, the Rito and the Zora are all just trying to live as best they can under the enormous shadow of his influence. This is a world of where, despite the monsters roaming everywhere, despite the imminent dangers they all face, everyone is set on surviving. There are pockets of safe spaces scattered around the map, and the guy you encounter walking along the trail between villages probably isn't going to go for your neck (there are exceptions to this, but I don't want to spoil anything).
There are also long stretches of the game where it's just you and the environment, where nobody attacks you, and you can enjoy the wind rustling the grass as the sun rises. The sheer beauty of this game is heartening and uplifting. There's enough good in Hyrule to make it a land worth saving, and to make your enemies worth fighting back against.