Sunday, December 31, 2017

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

A couple years ago I posted a review of  All the Legend of Zelda Console Games.  The following review of the newest LoZ installment: Breath of the Wild should be read in the context of this series-spanning review.  In fact, when I wrote said review, I used this place holder and image for what was then, a forthcoming title:

The Legend of Zelda(2016)
Year Completed (2016?)

Who’s got a Wii U??

After much anticipation...

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
Year completed (2017)
Rating: 9/10

As with the previous title Skyward Sword I was able to find a friend with a Wii-U who was down to let me borrow the system in order to get the game for free when I was finished (Thanks Kevin).  All went to plan:  I got the system, got the game shipped on release day,  took a week off work and played it for about 70 hours that first week. It might have ended there, but as it turns out that was just the beginning.  My Wii-U connection wasn't in a hurry to get it back so I had it for nearly a month.  It took me roughly a week to complete the main quest, and another week or so to tackle every last shrine(Breath of the Wild's puzzles broken up over the entirety of the landscape) When I finally put the controller down, Arya (my girlfriend's then 3 yr old daughter) picked it up... 

But first let me talk about that first week. Or, wait, lets rewind and talk about the first hour.  The first hour or so is pretty representative of my mixed feelings about the game in its entirety.  Let me first say that YES it is as amazing as you've probably heard.  It is vast open spaces, sweeping breathtaking vistas, and thrilling discovery right out of the gate.  But there is an essential problem for me that is a break with previous games, namely: Voice acting.

Let me just get this off my chest.  Not only is the existence of voice acting an intrusive break with the series, the actual voice acting is often bad, and the most important voice in the game, that of the princess Zelda, is the worst of all.  The essential narrative for the character Zelda, one that seems essentially feminist, is shot through by a voice that brings out all the worst qualities of what a princess may in fact be: whiny, entitled, helpless, and coldly regal.  Voice acting was a tragic misstep, the actual voices (in the English language version) did the exact opposite of what a human voice could be good for, that is, to illicit a sympathetic response.  In the first hour you meet the blustery exiled king of Hyrule, who has a mysterious post-apocalyptic aire until he starts in with the huffy king talk.  Just about every voiced character is the same: well designed, poorly voiced.  Just don't.  The written word and the spoken word are two entirely different experiences.  Nintendo proved they knew that with previous titles.  They forgot it with this one.  

But, that first hour is also representative of (and really an excellently subtle tutorial for) the most thrilling aspect of the game: The search for shrines and towers.  The outset of the game sets you near a precipice where you can see many of these towers  and shrines peppered throughout Hyrule (They also serve as points to transport around the map once you've activated them). Spying one in the distance and slowly making your way to it past treasure, enemies, non-player-characters, hidden shrines, and simple puzzles is where the game's real sense of  wonder lies.

From the outset, the richness of the landscape is abundantly clear.  Not only is it littered with interesting challenges, but the sheer look of the game is a sight to behold, the painterly views from mountain peaks across grass, sand, ice, lava, etc,  are literally breath-taking, not only because of the map's vastness, but because the game's colors, textures, and shapes have been honed to a perfect balance between cartoon simplicity, lush naturalism, and life-like utility.  No other LOZ tops the look BotW, and as you move through it the urge to see the next landscape just over the hill draws you forward like a spell.  

How do you get up the tower once you're there? You climb it!  How do you get up that wall? Climb it!  What about that tree? Climb it!  You. Can. Climb. Fucking. Everything.  Were you limited to the freedom of floating from towers down into new places with the sailcloth(the same one from Wind Waker) that would have been plenty free.  The fact that you can literally climb everything is a fucking REVELATION (especially to someone like me who hasn't played more recent open world games), and it makes the experience much more immersive.  There are as many ways to navigate the world as their are players playing it.  You might choose to find a horse, tame it, saddle it, and ride the roads of Hyrule. You might also choose to climb right over the mountain.  In most cases, I chose the mountain.


This is where the survival and inventory management aspects of the game are at their height.  Its cold on the mountain, you will die without the proper clothes.  To get over one mountain, I found myself building fires to stave off freezing, and eating wolf meat to stay alive.  By the way, I built the fire with wood I collected by chopping down a tree with an axe, flint I collected from busting stone with a sledge hammer, and the metal of my sword.  Everything is an item.  Every item has a use.  Throw that wolf meat on the fire.  Bam.  Charred wolf meat.  That's good for a couple more hearts than raw wolf meat, and it might make the difference of whether you make it off the mountain alive.  In fact, cooking items you forage and selling things you find is a pivotal part of the game. No more finding hearts. No more finding rupees. 

Just about every weapon breaks after extended use.  I'll admit that this was a challenge I wasn't enthusiastic about at first, and a clear break with previous games. Over time, however, I learned to appreciate the way it draws you into situations where you're forced to improvise. On top of that, the properties of all items and weapons are meaningful.  You may have picked up that wooden mop ironically. But, it just might save your ass if you end up needing a makeshift torch or a weapon that wont attract lightening in a storm.  The simplicity of previous games forced them to suffer from a hammer/nail model (If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail).  Items in BotW have meaningful physical properties.  This means there are more possible solutions to every problem.  Try it.  It just might work.

The richness of the story, however, pales in comparison to the richness of the world.  Partly to blame is the voice acting I mentioned above, also to blame is the game's radical openness. By creating checkpoints, games can control the narrative to create a satisfying arc. BotW forsakes simple narrative  in favor of players creating their own journey.  For new players this might seem a fair trade off.  For me it felt like an emptiness at the core of the game.

Much of the world building however, is top tier.   Holding it all together is the "ancient tech" that is the key to most of BotW's deep-time apocalyptic narrative (And fearsome enemies like "Guardians" who are Hyrule defenders turned evil by Ganon).  Gaining control of this ancient tech through the game's many puzzles and quests is the key to defeating "The Calamity Ganon", a clever historicizing for the events surrounding the downfall of Hyrule .  (Though much has been said about how its radical open world set up makes it possible to walk barefoot directly to Ganon in your undershorts and fight him with a tree branch if you so choose). Framing the "magical" aspects of the game as powerful technology fallen into the wrong hands is not only a cool turn of sci-fi mythology, but holds an unintentional poignancy in a year where the very machinery of American democracy has turned against its citizens so sharply.

While peppering the game with puzzles does make for some great fun, the lack of huge, multilevel dungeons (my favorite aspect of the series)leaves me feeling a bit unsatisfied.  The "Divine Beast" mech-animal-dungeons provide some good puzzles and some not-so-memorable boss battles, but they don't live up to the complexity I've come to expect.  I played through the game in the best sequencing I could divine, hoping to have it add up to more than the sum of its parts.  It does not. And, it perhaps cannot.  It is a game that is defined by the sheer complexity of its moving parts and the intuitive and original ways in which all these moving parts can lead each player on an entirely different but equally wonder-filled journey that is its real triumph. Now that the creators have perfected the look, feel, and mythology with BotW, my hope is that they pull a Majora's Mask and build a better and more satisfying story on top of that very world in the not so distant future.

Most memorable parts:  Eventide Island- a survival challenge and perhaps my favorite part of the game, takes everything you've collected away and makes you scavenge an island to defeat its monsters.  Its a great little surprise that puts all you've learned thus far to the test.   

Dark Ruins - Another island is entirely pitch black and you have to face its monsters with only your torch and the glow of eyes to guide you. 

Tarrytown - After I'd finished the main quest I went back to Hateno Village where a man had offered to sell me an old house.  If you get a chance to play the game, I very much recommend picking up on the thread of this quest and playing it though until its end.   Its the actual satisfying ending to the game as far as I'm concerned. 

Most frustrating:

The Lost Woods.  It took me forever to figure it out how to get through, but the creepy sound design made it memorable and the reward is what you've been looking for the whole time.

Switching Gears

Having played it those couple weeks I might have stopped there, but Arya picked it up and started playing it when I wasn't, and she took to it pretty quickly.  When I had to give back the Wii-U, I promised that I would get her going on another LoZ game.  My thought was that WindWaker would be a good start, but after trying to get her playing, I realized it was too complex, and my old Gamecube controllers were far from new and made learning things difficult.  I figured part of what made BotW so great for her was its openness and simplicity.  Next, we gave Link to the Past a try but soon realized that was also far too complex.  Eventually, it was clear if I wanted to help cultivate her enthusiasm for LoZ, we would have to get back on the BotW train, so I did something I've never done and purchased a new Nintendo console. We got the Switch.

Arya is four now, and we've since played through the game again together including the downloadable content that came out later in the year (Recommended).   She still plays pretty much any time she can, and she's always handing me the controller to get me playing so she can watch and cheer.  Other times,  I'll pick it up from the spot where she turned it off and vice-versa.  One night recently, I caught myself cooking meals from the food items I'd collected before I turned the game off for the night, knowing she'd probably be picking it up the next day and squaring off against some bad guys.

Its dangerous to go alone. Take this.