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4/08/2017

Five Good Things and Five Bad Things about Breath of the Wild

Contrary to what its critics have often said, Zelda has tried many times to reinvent itself over the years, with the results varying pretty heavily in quality.  Breath of the Wild is no different in that regard, and while it has a lot to like, it also hits a lot of rough spots due to this being Nintendo's first real foray into open-world gaming.  So, bastion of controversy that I am among the 1.5 people a month who read my website, it's time for me to discuss some things I liked about the game, and a few parts where I found it left something to be desired.

First, the good:

1. An open world that's actually - *GASP* open!

Yes, unlike most prior Zelda games (and Nintendo games, for that matter), you have virtually no limitations on where you can go or what you can do at any given time; you're pretty much just given the tools you need to make your way around as your first quest, then set loose upon the world.  Almost any area in the game is open for you to explore at your leisure (with a few exceptions), including the final dungeon, which you can go straight to and complete right after the introductory mission if you so choose.  More amazingly, there are almost no visible "loading zones" between areas, making the game experience feel fluid and nearly seamless.

2. Traveling around the landscape is immensely fun

Following up on the prior point, Link is restricted in much fewer ways than in any prior Zelda game.  You can swim (even up waterfalls once you receive the right piece of equipment), glide, sneak and even hop on top of your shield and sled down hills with it.  Hell, you can even chop down trees and use them as makeshift bridges, or hop onto a raft and push yourself toward a distant island with a Gust Leaf.  Basically, if you can see it, you can get there in some way or another.  But no matter how you do it, the journey there is always a thrill.

3. Probably the best physics engine I've seen in a game.

Again, this ties into the previous two points, but it really does add a lot to the game's immersion factor.  The player can interact with almost anything they see, and objects will all behave with one another in a surprisingly realistic reaction - grass fires will grow, heavy objects actually behave like heavy objects and not styrofoam when moved around (and can easily crush you if you're not careful), enemies and objects will roll down hills, and both Link and enemies ragdoll after taking heavy hits, which send them into painful-looking tumbles off cliffs, into walls and over railings.  And yet despite all of this, I don't recall any major glitching or clipping issues at all.  The framerate does get a bit choppy in some areas (particularly the more crowded towns), but I saw none of the Elder Scrolls/Fallout wall clips or weird character distorting of almost any other open world title out there.

4. The "DIY" feel of the overall design, especially the puzzles.

Unlike most puzzle-driven games, Breath of the Wild's are almost entirely open ended - you're simply presented with a series of obstacles and set loose to complete them however you will.  Those who master the finer points of the physics can even save themselves a lot of time in some trials by using clever tricks.  More than that, though, the game also encourages clever alternatives by letting the player brew potions and food items that give them temporary leeway to pass areas of high temperature or extra hearts/defense/attack power to fight strong enemies.  In short, there's always a solution to a given problem if you're willing to experiment a bit, and the game as a whole was built with this in mind from the ground up -  it's realistic enough to be intuitive, but also "video gamey" enough that you never feel especially constricted by that realism.

5. Amazing setpieces

It's a series trademark to have colossal bosses and huge, impeccably-designed dungeons, and while Breath of the Wild doesn't have as many of them as some titles in the series, the ones it does have are excellent.  This time, they all take the form of colossal automatons that visibly roam around Hyrule locations as you traverse them - you can look down or over the side and see them roaming the area in which they reside, which only adds to the seamless feel of the game.  Their central gimmick also works surprisingly well, having the player partially manipulate the machine in order to affect puzzle elements - tilting the flying bird dungeon left or right to move objects and grant access to new areas and adjusting the spray of an elephant's trunk to rotate water wheels to name two.  Honestly, even with how mediocre most Nintendo franchises have become these days, Zelda remains at the top of the pack for dungeon designs; I have yet to even see another franchise come close to them in terms of imagination and execution.

And now the bad!

1. Uneven difficulty on the whole

With the open world format comes the very real possibility of stumbling into hazards you can't yet handle, and while most games take steps to balance enemy encounters to their current strength level or at least discourage the player from venturing there (or at the very least have a quicksave/load feature so the player can quickly undo their mistake), Nintendo doesn't seem to have made much of an effort to even caution the player of a potential danger beyond their league.  Hopping over one innocuous hill or bridge can easily put you in the sights of enemies who can one-shot you at your current level, and there is no indication of this beforehand - not even a visual cue that they're far stronger than similar looking enemies you've already fought.  This can be quite frustrating at times, especially since those similar looking enemies often have hundreds of HP apiece, and when paired with the breakable weapons in the game (more on that below), you can very easily burn through your entire stock of weapons trying to defeat just one of them and leave yourself defenseless against any later obstacles that may pop up.  Retreat often isn't an option either, as the AI in the game is such that foes will immediately gang up on you, attacking from all sides at once, and your extremely limited stamina bar doesn't give you many options in the way of retreat if you're not at a cliff's edge or near a steep hill you can slide down to get away.

2. Breakable equipment

Degrading equipment is a common theme in open world RPGs, having been prominently featured before in the likes of Fallout and Elder Scrolls, where it fit in with the more realistic settings.  In Breath of the Wild, however, I found it was much more of a constant nuisance than a well-integrated feature.  Each weapon you acquire can only sustain a small handful of swings/shots before breaking, and the only clue that they've begun to degrade is a warning message when they have 2-3 hits left in them.  Your shields can also break (and trust me, they will.  a lot), though oddly your armor never degrades in such a fashion.  And when you burn through your stocks, you often end up having to scavenge inferior ones in the field, or break away from your current mission to stock back up in order to be well-equipped from the trials ahead.  A durability indicator, as well as maybe, possibly, being able to withstand more than a handful of strikes apiece, would have made this feature much less annoying.  Having an option to repair broken weapons would have been welcome too, as I found myself using a lot of the same few weapon types I liked once I found them.

3. Some very annoying stealth missions

Stealth missions are a thing I find to be very rarely well-done in games; they just lend themselves to lots of tedious pattern-memorizing and getting swarmed to death by cheap enemies for the slightest mistake.  Breath of the Wild, unfortunately, is no exception.  Two prominent examples come to mind - the Yiga Tribe hideout in Gerudo Desert (where being spotted means being constantly assaulted by ninjas and giant spearmen who can kill you in one hit, even at 15+ hearts) and escorting Yunobo up Death Mountain, trying to lead him past sentry spotlights that call down a hail of cannonfire each time either of you is spotted (not aided by his extremely sluggish movements).  In both cases, I found it far less annoying to just fight my way through all resistance than make any attempt at being stealthy, even if it did cost me a significant portion of my weapons and arrows.

4. Much slower character progression as a whole

With the open world format comes the compulsion to fill the game world with trials, puzzles, side-objectives and enemy hideouts, and Breath of the Wild is certainly no different there.  The downside to this, of course, is that with no RPG-style level/skill system in place and the general expendability of your equipment, your character's progression takes a much greater period of time to show significant gains.  This is especially prominent in the Temples, which prove to be your main source of upgrades - for every four you complete, you can trade in the items you earn for one heart container or a small extension of your stamina bar.  And because there are a total of 100 shrines in the game, it can take many hours before you see a significant enough increase to your health bar for you to fight stronger enemies on less-harrowing terms.  Armor is no different, requiring a significant amount of money just to purchase it, then requiring the player to track down the Great Fairies and several items apiece to upgrade them, with each set of armor having up to three pieces to upgrade.  Even your weapon/bow/shield inventory is extremely limited, requiring you to track down numerous Korok Seeds by completing minigames in order to expand one category by a single slot.  Things that used to be at most an hour's work in earlier Zeldas can now take many times that long in Breath of the Wild, which quickly led me to a lot of frustration.  And for that matter:

5. Volume/length over quality as a rule

Slow heart/stamina/armor upgrades are far from the only example of this in Breath of the Wild.  There's also ingredient hunting, foraging for various types of arrows and monster parts, and in one of the game's more notorious sidequests, tracking down Link's lost memories in order to fill in the main story and earn the true ending (with your only clues to their locations being photographs of a general area somewhere in the game).  At every turn, BotW feels like it was intended to be long and laden with busywork rather than a concisely-designed and fun game, which quickly drove the experience past the point of diminishing returns for me.  As I've said many times before, I'd rather have a relatively short title with a lot of care and attention behind its design than a 100+ hour game just for the sake of having a 100+ hour game.  BotW is a perfect example of why that is the case; while I enjoyed much of what it had to offer at first, the sheer magnitude of it wore on me over time and I found myself getting burned out when I ended up having to do what was essentially the same few tasks over and over again.  And getting me burned out on a game is a very good way to ensure that I won't be revisiting it anytime soon, if ever.