Tuesday, May 9, 2017

New Review: The greatest finale the Wii U could have asked for; Breath of the Wild transcends and redefines open world gaming for a new era

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that reminds me of why I fell in love with video games in the first place. It’s a game that transported me to a world so seamless and so fully explorable that I hadn’t thought it was possible. It not only re-defines my idea of an “open world” but my view of what video games can be. It’s a game where, by its end, the idea of leaving its gorgeous and vibrant world behind was nearly heartbreaking for me, and that’s something I haven’t felt from a video game in a long time.

It isn’t often that a game like this one comes along. This is a world that, nearly from the start, you’re fully capable of exploring, or attempting to explore. It’s a game that allows you to climb any wall or cliffside you see, reaching the top and jumping off, soaring perhaps for miles, with the ability to land anywhere you want, including seamlessly into bustling villages or into the depths of a dangerous forest. Not only does Breath of the Wild’s brilliant game design truly allow you to explore and interact with anything the eye can see, but it encourages it at every turn.

Watch towers dot the horizon; climbing them and activating the terminals at the top will fill in that portion of your map; from up there, you can take a look in every direction; those other towers in the distance? You can mark those on your map. Spot the red glow of a yet-to-be-discovered shrine below? You can mark it for later or even glide right down to it. As you approach the landscape below you’ll see no shortage of varied environments to explore and get to know. From the start the main quest location is always illuminated on your radar; but what makes Breath of the Wild such an incredible experience is the world in between, and how the game beckons you and then makes it so easy to explore it at every single turn.

The adventure begins with Link waking up in some sort of chamber. Futuristic tech dots his surroundings, as it does throughout Breath of the Wild. The first image you see upon exiting the chamber however is an untamed wilderness; a Hyrule completely taken over by nature and its often dangerous inhabitants, both the mechanical and the living.  

It took me some time to come to grips with such a melancholy setting. The bustling towns and villages where humans and familiar Hyrule creatures gather are warm and filled with life, making the descent back into the wilderness upon leaving them seem incredibly lonely. The music is beautiful but sparse, leaving instead the ambient sounds of the wild to take center stage. The charming and funny Zelda dialogue is present throughout, including for the first time voice acted sequences, some of them incredibly well-presented. But this is among the loneliest of Link’s adventures, and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of such a bleak setting. But as I progressed through Breath of the Wild, something else started to happen; I began to make this world my own.

Your impact on Hyrule is visible to you at all times; shrines that you complete (little puzzle rooms which give you the shrine orbs necessary to increase either Link’s heart or his stamina gauge) change their glow from Red to Blue, as do the towers you’ve activated. With each activated tower, more of your map fills in. As you explore on the ground, locations you discover are immediately labeled on your map as well. Once you free each of the four Divine Beasts, they point their weapons of light visibly at Hyrule Castle; the final dungeon and one accessible from almost the beginning of the game. You can see all of this, both explored and unexplored, off in the distance at all times. It’s theoretically possible to turn off your radar and the HUD entirely and simply play through the game without them, using clues from NPCs and the glowing lights on the horizon as your guide.

At first, the huge amount of freedom given, including the ability to enter some incredibly tough areas, can be a little overwhelming. Before you can purchase the adequate clothing, certain regions of Hyrule (such as the peaks of the coldest mountains or the depths of the hottest deserts) damage Link second-by-second. Various campfires scattered throughout the landscape can be used to prepare food; a source of nutrients such as health recovery and cold and heat resistance, for example, to help you on your journey. For the first time in this series, your weapons and shields are expendable; though almost every enemy drops a new one, it’s at first a challenge to get used to the idea that your weapons and shields will last for only a few enemy encounters before breaking.

Breath of the Wild is incredibly refreshing not only for the way it trusts you to get the hang of surviving its world and the freedom it gives you to form your own strategy, but also in the way that it doesn’t bog you down in tutorials or go easy on you in the slightest; something unusual for most Nintendo games and a huge break from the increasing linearity and hand-holding of some of the more recent Zelda installments. The auto-save feature is just frequent enough that it will usually help you out of a jam, but not forgiving enough where saving often from the start menu doesn’t come completely recommended as well.

The game’s main 4 dungeons can be tackled in any order. The shrines, of course, can be completed in any possible order as well; you’re given all of Link’s powers in the first hour of the game, afterall. Shrines serve as a source of many of the game’s puzzles. Once they’re visited, they’re added to your map and serve as warp points even if not successfully completed, further adding to your feeling of “discovering” the world. These shrines are generally short enough that they don’t feel like interruptions when you step off the path (so to speak) to take them on; the game audibly alerts you to their presence, and while there isn’t an infinite number of them, (apparently around 120) there never seems to be any shortage of them. With each completed shrine, you obtain a shrine orb, four of which can be redeemed at various goddess statues throughout Hyrule for an additional heart or an increase in your stamina; both are essential in different ways, and it’s ultimately up to the gamer how they power Link up, further adding to the sense that how you play through Breath of the Wild is entirely up to you.

Traditional Zelda dungeons exist, to an extent, in the form of the Divine Beasts which progress you through the main story; it’s here and almost only here where Breath of the Wild slightly stumbles. Boarding the Beasts, done with a partner character whom you meet over the course of the story, is almost always a thrilling and intense experience. The dungeons themselves, however, lack the sense of clockwork progression that Zelda dungeons typically are all about. Their respective bosses, despite slight differences, all follow the same basic blueprint, which feels like a missed opportunity given how well known this series has been for both its varied dungeons and boss encounters.

Similarly, the lack of handholding and the game’s freedom hurts Breath of the Wild in only one way; it’s far too easy to miss talking to a certain Korok character early on in the game, which means it’s far too easy to miss out on the chance to expand your character’s weapon, bow, and shield inventory as the game progresses. I found out about this much later in Breath of the Wild than I was intended to, and as a result, I had to manage my inventory more aggressively than I actually needed to as I played through much of the game. This Korok quest also helps point you in the direction of the famous Master Sword, something I would have also missed out on had I not taken time before the final boss to go back and seek it out once it became clear that the story wouldn’t bring me there on its own.

There are other little quirks here and there; though still a gorgeous game, the 720p native resolution of the Wii U version (Switch version outputs at a better 900p) and the at times incredibly erratic 30 FPS framerate are a step down from the 1080p presentation and smoother framerates we’ve become used to with the Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD Remasters, though Breath of the Wild's technical achievements otherwise dwarf those games in every aspect. Similarly, the more minimalist approach to the storytelling means that Zelda herself, though memorable, remains a mystery in many ways should you not choose to seek out the optional Memory sequences, which go a long way in helping flesh the character out. Though many of these Memories are fairly inconsequential, it’d have been nice to have seen a couple of the more important ones within the main story itself. In typical Legend of Zelda fashion, the game’s ending also disappoints slightly, never quite managing to feel as epic or complete as the adventure that lead up to it.

But those are just nitpicks; it may be true that no game can be perfect, but Breath of the Wild comes incredibly close. There are so many ways that Nintendo could have faltered; shrines could have taken too long or been too hard to find. It could have been far too difficult to escape a tough situation, which would have discouraged going after the game’s toughest monsters (You can warp from an area at any time, even in the middle of battle). You could have had to complete the shrine to gain access to it as a warp point (thankfully not the case.) It’s in this sense that while Breath of the Wild is often a challenging game, it knows to be forgiving in all the right places, and it’s an incredibly rare experience where almost all the pieces fall perfectly into one, where nearly every decision made in its development feels like the best decision. I didn’t think that Nintendo had it in them to produce a game of this magnitude and of this quality, one which puts even many seasoned “open world” developers to shame.

But a quick anecdote on Breath of the Wild’s world, as I near the review’s end. At one point I exited a shrine, its now-blue glow illuminating the walls of the nearby cliffisde. I’d stepped into a rainstorm, lightning threatening to strike my equipment and deal me heavy damage. Though I could have simply chosen to warp to a different location, I was aching to instead explore my nearby surroundings. There was a way; I could have chosen to replace my metal sword and shield before setting out into the storm, but instead I chose to stay under the shrine’s protective covering, watching as the fierce downpour eventually abated, the setting sun emerging and drenching the vast landscape. Up on a nearby hill, I could see smoke billowing from distant huts as night set in, the light wind gusting as the sound of the crickets began to take shape.

It’s been years since I remember playing a game like this one, a game whose world seems so incredibly filled with life, where the possibilities for exploring and evolving your character feel so simple and almost endless.

Breath of the Wild rightfully deserves to be called one of the greatest games ever made, and one of the greatest achievements ever in open world gameplay and storytelling. Much like Ocarina of Time back on the N64, I have little doubt that developers will be learning from Breath of the Wild for years to come. Whether playing this as the finale to the Wii U or as a first experience on the Nintendo Switch, it’s a beautiful, incredible game and one that arguably redefines open world gaming for a new era.


Note; this review is based on the Wii U version

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