Initial Impressions - Breath of the Wild
Where to start?
Well now, have you heard of a franchise called the Legend of Zelda? It's a rambunctious little IP from newcomer to the scene, Nintendo. Normally, a rule that I try to follow while writing is not to assume that the reader has a certain level of knowledge on the subject of the piece. That rule is going directly out the window today. If you are reading this, I am assuming that you are familiar with the Legend of Zelda and its history. I want you to have that knowledge if you are reading this because it matters. It matters because if you do not have this knowledge going in, you will not be able to fully appreciate what Breath of the Wild is doing. Before we get into the meat of this entry, I need to come clean. I am a Zelda FANATIC. I have a Triforce and Master Sword tattooed on my left arm. I have cleared Ocarina of Time an absurd amount of times, several times in a single sitting. I am the definition of someone who would not be able to view this game objectively. I am someone who is so in love with the Zelda formula that I would be typically resistant to changes. That being said, what follows is me at my most objective. I have tried to take the fanboy out of every thought process related to this game and write with scalding honesty. So, what follows is my best attempt and I believe it reflects my non-jaded, bare bones observations about this game. In short, this game is very good.
A Link to the Future
Let's start with a statement that not many have made about this game: this game is not for everyone. If you are someone who has fallen in love with the formula of the Zelda games and you are looking for that type of experience, you are not going to get that from this game. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild takes the franchise in several new directions and has arguably started down a path that there might not be a return from. A 3D Legend of Zelda in the vein of Ocarina of Time may never exist ever again. Can you be ok with this? If so, read on, because we are about to head out into some new territory.
I want to talk little bit about my time with this game. I have put about 40 hours into the new Zelda. Historically, this should enough time to complete a Zelda title and, if you have been paying attention to the news regarding this game, it should not surprise you to hear that I have only scratched the surface of what is in this game. This game is huge. I'm not sure if the game map actually compares in size to Skyrim, Far Cry 4, or GTA V, but the fact that I am including these games in the discussion should give you some idea of the scale that I am referring to. Normally, when I am faced with worlds of this size in my open world games, I am usually overwhelmed. Where should I go first? Am I going to get killed if I stray too far of the path? Why are there so many goddamned icons on this map? The sheer scope of the maps in the aforementioned games is normally something that intimidates me to a point of having legitimate anxiety about what to do next. BotW has never given me this sense of anxiety. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. It liberates me to the point of feeling like I can truly go anywhere and accomplish anything. How does it do this? By giving me almost nothing at all.
Less is More....Much, Much, More
I will not be including anything resembling a spoiler in this post, so try not to worry too much when I'm discussing details. The game starts off with Link waking in a cave and needing to escape. After you exit the cave, the narrative voice urges Link on, pointing him in a couple of specific directions. Once I had received the first couple of quest indicators, a feeling started to set in that was unique and unfamiliar. I didn't know what to do next. I was told to go to some shrines to unlock some abilities so that I could escape the plateau I was on, but there wasn't anyone there to hold my hand. One shrine I needed to go to was in the cold atmosphere of a mountain top and, when I tried to ascend, I found that Link was getting too cold and would lose health if he was unprotected from the elements. I changed my plan and decided to head to a shrine that was in a maze of concrete walls. This shrine was defended by partially disabled guardians that shot hot red laser beams at me. I was one-shotted by one of those bastards so I decided to go to another shrine location. I got to this location and found not a shrine, but a puzzle that I needed to complete in order to unearth the shrine. Throughout this ordeal, not once was I prompted about what to do. There was no fairy screaming "Hey, Look, Listen..." The game was trusting me to sort it all out. Eventually, I did sort it all out. I sussed out a solution for evading the guardians. I earned a piece of warm gear and learned how to craft recipes to brave the cold. I realized the solution to unearthing the shrine was right before my eyes. I wasn't taught this by anything other than exploring the world itself. This process was incredibly rewarding and it rekindled a love of videogames in me that, while having not gone dormant, had certainly started to die down.
Breath of the Wild is a game about true exploration. The way that I found solutions to the problems above was by exploring points of interest in the game. So, what are points of interest? At the beginning of the game, a character advises the player to scale a tower to activate part of the game map. My heart instantly plummeted into my shoes when I read this. I have spent the last 5 years scaling tower after tower, climbing building after building, flipping switch after switch to unlock sections of videogame maps. I am sick of it. As I directed Link up this tower, I was sick with woeful anticipation of what was to come. Some music would play, my map area would unlock, and I would be given 4000 icons of places to go, things to see, and crap to collect. What a breath of fresh air (HAH!) it was to find that when I had finally ascended the tower, the only thing that unlocked was the map itself. No icons. No quest locations. Just that map. The same character that prompted me to scale the tower in the first place reappeared and asked me to use my scope to look at the landscape. He then told me that I should mark locations of things that look interesting to me, such as shrines or places I wanted to see. After I had marked these locations, they appeared on my map as glowing, colored icons for me to visit. There is a fundamental difference in this system when it compares to other modern open-world games. Other games tell you where to go. BotW encourages you to get out there and see the things that you find interesting. See a building that looks weird? Go check it out. Want to hunt down all shrines? Go ahead. Why are those crows circling that mountain top? Mark it on your map and check it out sometime. You make your own map in this game, and it feels wonderful. There is no pressure put on the player to move in any certain direction. In fact, after the first plot points play out, the game gives you four story related quests to do and they are located in all four corners of the map. There is no order assigned to these quests, which I find to be very important. Since no order is assigned to these quests, I believe the game is literally telling you to get out there and see what there is to find. Fortunately for the player, there is no shortage of wilds to explore.
Stamina and Style
So go out and see the world, kid. Nothing can stop you, right? Well, as you might expect, there are some roadblocks involved with exploring the world, but not in the way that you may be used to. Traditionally, Zelda games have come with a series of item based roadblocks. I can't go in this cave until I find the bombs to blow up the wall. I know I can raise this gate once I have the bow to shoot the switch, etc. BotW has none of these road blocks. Seriously, none of them. In the first couple of hours, Link gets all of the abilities that he will use throughout the game. After that initial hurdle, all bets are off. You can go anywhere and do anything. The roadblocks set up by BotW are in the form of combat and stamina.
If you haven't heard or haven't played it yourself, Link can climb anything in this game. Aside from the inside of shrines, I haven't found a location where Link can't climb to. What stops him from getting everywhere is stamina. Link uses stamina for everything in this game. Climbing, swimming, running, paragliding, and more use stamina. So, at the beginning, there may be a cliff too high for Link to climb based on the amount of stamina you have. This can be solved by using Spirit Orbs to upgrade your stamina, but in almost all cases, this isn't necessary. There is almost always an alternative to a situation that can be used as a workaround by the player in order to accomplish a goal. If you don't have enough stamina to ascend a cliff, there is almost always some ledge you can pause at to regain your stamina. If there isn't, why not start some of the grass on fire to create an updraft that you can ride using your paraglider? If that doesn't work, maybe there is some higher ground you could use to glide to your destination. If any of these solutions don't work, why don't you try one of the other 1000 options this game gives you? What this game has consistently taught me is that there is ALWAYS a way to accomplish your goal. It might not be easy, but it will be doable.
The same goes for combat in BotW. The combat style is similar to the Z Targeting days of Ocarina of Time. Dodge, backflip, jump attack for double damage. These tactics will all seem familiar to Zelda veterans. What is decidedly unfamiliar is the new implementation of weapons that break over time. The amount of weapons in this game is astounding, however, they will be breaking on you all the time. If I have complaints about this game, they would probably be centered around inventory management and weapon durability. Instead of charging into battle with your trusty Master Sword, you might be going in with three clubs and a broadsword that is on the verge of breaking. While this can certainly be annoying, it makes you approach combat in a completely different way. This is how combat works as a roadblock. For example, using my personal experience, I decided at about 10 hours into the game that I was going to scale a mountain in the eastern part of the map. I saw from a tower that the top of this mountain had trees and was relatively flat. I assumed, correctly, that there would be something of interest up there. When I used my limited stamina to climb and grind my way up the mountain, I found that there was a Lynel at the top of the mountain. If you don't know what that is, do you remember from the original Legend of Zelda those weird centaur looking bastards that shot swords at you? This is the new version of them. I had 5 hearts, no food, and only two working weapons. Yet, there I stood, facing off against this enemy. He immediately one shotted me and I was treated to the game over screen. I loaded and found myself near him again. This time, I used stealth to sneak up on him and attack. Success!!! I took off 1/4 of his health and he killed me immediately. Upon my 4th try I notice that there are glimmering arrows sticking out of all the trees surrounding the beast. They are Shock Arrows, I am told when picking one up. I sneak through the trees and collect 29 more. I find a spot of high ground and rain lightning on this asshole from above until he perishes. I go down to collect the spoils of my victory and receive weapons that are at least five times as powerful as anything I've found in the game so far. I was clearly underleveled for this fight, but I was able to find a way to succeed by using the systems of the game to my advantage. Even though I was in an area I was underprepared for, I never felt like I shouldn't have been there. The combat in this game serves as a roadblock, but never as an impassable obstacle. The game will provide a solution. It is up to you to find it.
As discussed, this game is big. One of my concerns going into this game was that the game was going to be so big that it would seem empty. My concerns couldn't have been further from the truth. This game is bursting at the seams with things to do, and they aren't all just collectibles. Don't get me wrong, this game has plenty of collectibles. Shrines, Korok Seeds, cooking ingredients, and pictures are just a few of the things the player is encouraged to visit and collect. BotW also has a significant amount of sidequests. These sidequests are typically given to you by NPC's and for a game that is built upon the player's lonely quest, this game has more NPC interactions than any other Zelda to date. I can't stop running into people in this game. Whether at major towns, at horse stables, or on the roads in between, this gigantic world feels positively lived in. And for the times that you are not running into people in the world, you are constantly seeing signs of their existence. Ruins of structures, smoldering fires that were once occupied, and horses tied up with their owner missing are just a few examples of what I am referring to. This world, for as massive as it is, is fully occupied. Also, combat opportunities are regularly interspersed into the journey. You will come to enemy encampments fairly frequently across the map, several of which having chests to unlock and gear to earn. But, like most everything else in this game, you can always find creative ways to get around these engagements if you are underpowered or just don't feel like fighting anything at that time.
Where does he keep all that stuff?
Gear, gear, and more gear. BotW is very gear heavy. I can't yet decide if I am excited about this or if it is something that annoys me. Let's discuss it for a minute. I discussed weapons before but we didn't talk about bows and shields. The same durability system applies to both of these items but I find that I find them regularly enough that I am never in danger of running out. On the contrary, I often don't have open slots available to pick up more bows and shields if I find them while running around. Outside of weapon items, clothing adds another level to BotW that we have not seen in a Zelda title before. Link can outfit himself in different caps, shirts, and bottoms, all of which have different defense ratings and specific skills. Personally, I have found/bought 6 different outfit sets, all of which having different perks. I've got clothes that keep me warm, help me climb faster, help me swim better, give me resistance to shock, etc. This is another wrinkle the BotW implements effectively. I find myself really thinking about what set of clothing gives me the best advantage for any situation. I switch outfits very regularly in this game and my only complaint is there is no way to do this without having to enter the menu to do so. If there was a shortcut key to these items, like there is to weapons and bows, it would be a near perfect gear system. There is also a way to upgrade your gear that I will not divulge for fear of spoiling things.
Speaking of items, I would not be able to end this entry without talking about cooking. Succinctly put, Link can cook items into meals and potions to both restore hearts and create status effects. To discuss this at full length would take a full entry of its own because this system is deep. Really deep. Almost annoyingly deep. Link can pick up a TON of things in the world to cook with. Almost anything can be used as an ingredient. The effects of these items can vary from plain heart restoration to increasing resistance to cold to temporarily increasing the maximum heart containers to restoring stamina, etc. There is no shortage of items one can use and find to cook with. This system is incredibly detailed and remarkably useful for being successful in combat. If I knew about this system when I fought the Lynel, I would have cooked a dish that increased my maximum hearts for a period of time and brewed a potion that increased my strength. Like the other systems in the game, it is up to the player to experiment with what works and what doesn't. The problems with this mechanic are two fold, in my opinion. One problem is that once you cook something, you can only see the recipe for that dish if you still have that item in your inventory. So, if you make a meal that increases cold resistance for 5 minutes and then you eat that meal, you can no longer see the recipe for it. I love this game, but I'm not writing down my recipes in my own notebook. There needs to be a recipe book to both look up and auto-cook recipes that you have already discovered. Hopefully this team takes a page out of the Witcher 3's book and adds several things, such as a recipe book, to future updates. The second problem is that you cannot cook on the go in any fashion. Link cannot carry a pot with him so you have to go to a place that you already know has a cooking fire and a pot to cook in. This eliminates any type of strategy on the go. If you need a dish that increases your defense during a fight with some Moblins, you better hope you already have that dish made and on you or else you will be out of luck.
Summary...sort of...I think?
So, what about the story? What about dungeons? How does this add up to other titles? I honestly can't answer any of these questions right now. As I said before, I am 40 hours into this game but I am nowhere near completion. I have only done one proper dungeon. I still have over 60% of the map to unlock. I still have not met a Goron. I am taking my journey in this game very slowly because it is so enjoyable. If you have read this far, I feel that I have earned my right to talk in some hyperbole. This game is one of the best games I have ever played. I struggle to remember a time where I have enjoyed a videogame this much. This game is not without its issues. I get frustrated with weapon durability. Some of the motion control puzzles are downright dreadful. Sometimes this game can be frustratingly hard. However, I truly feel like I am stretching to find things that displease me in this world. I have never felt this liberated by a videogame experience. I wholeheartedly encourage you to lose yourself in this world. Don't be afraid that the game won't show you the way down the path. Finding your own path in this world is an incredible feeling that stokes a sense of wonder I have not felt in some time. My only regret in writing this entry is that this time could have been used to play even more BotW.