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Breath Of The Wild Is Fundamentally Broken

Breath of the Wild is a great game. Much has already been said about it, praising the open world. Congratulating its accomplishments in level design, and much, much more. I'm not disputing that, and I don't want to dispute that.

Despite this, it is a flawed game. Even the most diehard fans can admit that. Yes, the durability system could use some work. Yes, the dungeons are bad by Zelda standards. Yes, there are issues.
At the end of the day, most fans would argue that it's nitpicking. The game is still amazing despite the minor faults.

The game is amazing, I won't deny that. But when one calls it the greatest Zelda game? Heck, the greatest game, period?

That is where I must draw the line.

Finding The Future In The Past

Skyward Sword was released to universal acclaim—if you were only looking at the professional game journalism scores. Fans told a very different story.

'Too linear!' Many cried.
'Handholding!'
'Pacing!'
And so on, and so on.

While the criticisms may or may not have been valid, the underlying sentiment was clear. Zelda fans were tiring of the same old generic formula. (Nevermind A Link Between Worlds. It's handheld, so it doesn't count.)

The original Legend Of Zelda promised a sandbox of infinite wonders. More than any one person could ever hope to find. This was in direct contrast to Mario. A strict level-by-level platformer. As the Zelda formula advanced and evolved, more and more of this original vision vanished to time. It's become more and more clear that crafting a cohesive experience is much easier when made on rails.

Twilight Princess the best example of this. The freedom of the player suffers. In exchange, you receive an epic story and an excellent experience.
Is this exchange worth it? That is a subjective question, and up to the audience. 

Wii U Stagnation

The Wii U was a flop. An unfortunate flop, but still a flop. Much has already been dedicated to analyzing the reasons for its failure, so I'm not going into detail. Instead, let's look over at the 3DS, where a little game called A Link Between Worlds was released. This is where Nintendo begins to experiment with non-linear gameplay for the first time in a while. I argue that the rental system was a precursor to runes. The Wii U was not justified to receive a serious mainstream entry. No, Hyrule Warriors does not count.

As the Switch ticked closer to release, so too did a fundamental change for the Zelda series.

Rebirth

Breath of the Wild marked a rebirth for the series, in much the same way the Switch marked a rebirth for Nintendo's flailing console market. This is seen in every aspect of its design. According to Aonuma, the development team wanted to "rethink the conventions of Zelda,".
The world is completely open. You are free to do whatever you want whenever you want, as long as you have the imagination. The design philosophy centered around the idea of a sandbox, hearkening back to the days of Zelda 1.

Breath of the Wild and Game Design

Let's talk about the game itself. Breath of the Wild is brilliant. No argument there. Everything from its combat to the world itself has been carefully linked together to create an experience like no other.

Interlocking Mechanics

I would argue the most genius part of Breath of the Wild is the way it links together. Take, for example, combat. Most Zelda games revolve around a heavy timing-based system. Wait, analyze, then strike. Breath of the Wild does not adhere to this. This is immediately seen in one of the combat features, the 'Flurry Rush'. There is timing involved, but it's not to the extent of previous games. You wait, then spam A.

So how exactly is this genius?
Because that is not your only option.

There are hundreds of ways to go approach a situation. This is due in no small part to the physics engine. The game rewards imagination and thoughtful combat. If you take a second, you can spot the weak points on a tower. You can spot an outlying enemy and decide to take them out first.
Charging in guns blazing will rarely work in the early game. You have to think about a solution, yet there are many solutions.

Midway Fatigue

This genius is somewhat nullified about midway through. There are relatively few amounts of enemy types. On top of that, all of this is pointless when you can just launch a couple bomb arrows and flurry rush the rest.

The magic stagnates rather fast after a certain point and things that you might've enjoyed are simply annoying. After your twenty-seventh bokoblin camp, you have it down to a science. That amazing durability system isn't so fun when you want to hurry up and finish an encounter so you can get somewhere more interesting. Unfortunately, you can't use a decent weapon cause it'll be destroyed in about sixty hits.

Zelda Vs. Zelda

While the combat system is already very 'anti-Zelda', the dungeons are when it becomes unrecognizable.

Shrines

The shrines tend to be very hit or miss. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. This is due largely to the non-linearity. One of the advantages of linear gameplay is the fact that the developers can expose the player to new challenges at a steady and even rate. Unfortunately, Breath of the Wild is completely open-world. While this is one of its greatest strengths, it's also one of its greatest weaknesses. Open-world is unfortunately not an end. Shocker, I know. 
90% of gameplay

Many, many shrines are boring, serving as a slightly more difficult Korok Seed puzzle. Almost all are completely immemorable, especially from an aesthetic perspective. Korok Seed puzzles aren't bad, by the way. But when they're the meat of the game you have a serious issue.

Dungeons

The dungeons are when things fall apart. These are when it's most obvious that it's signaling an... Interesting direction for the series. The dungeons and bosses follow a similar pattern to the shrines. Boring, short and unmemorable. The bosses being a huge bummer. Why is this? For starters, the way they're designed is antithetical to Breath of the Wild's design philosophy. All of that freedom is tossed out the window in favor of the awkward map mechanics and puzzle-solving. It's rarely challenging either. Instead, it was frustrating and annoying.

This is where you can see the central conflict of the game. It attempts to disregard the dungeon standards created by previous games. Tossing out the item progression in favor of the map mechanics. The problem with this is that they still try to structure it like a traditional Zelda dungeon.

It hurts most in the final dungeon especially. By its very nature, there can't be a real, material sense of growth for your character. If there was, you wouldn't be able to march right up to Ganon and beat him in the first hour of gameplay. Did your journey really matter? After all, you could've gotten in done within two hours if you really worked at it. 

As a counter-example, I present The Temple Of The Ocean King.

Linear Design

Much, much criticism has been leveled at Phantom Hourglass. Foremost among this is The Temple Of The Ocean King. The individual puzzles and overall aesthetics could use some work. But in both concept and execution, I believe it succeeded on a level none of Breath of the Wild's dungeons managed to get to. Part of this is due to repetition and linear design, two things Breath of the Wild avoided like the plague.

For those who haven't played Phantom Hourglass, a large part of the game centers around a single dungeon. This dungeon is the aforementioned Temple. The dungeon is divided up into twelve, long, winding floors. On certain floors important MacGuffins are given as a reward for making it that far. 

See, throughout the game, you'll encounter roadblocks that won't go away unless you have the MacGuffins. This is where one of the main gimmicks come in. Repetition.

Time after time you'll find yourself repeating the same floors, getting further and further each time. You find yourself studying the area. You map switches, solutions to puzzles, and any other relevant information.

Some found it boring. I, for one, found it exhilarating.

Part of this is due to the second gimmick, the timer.

The entire dungeon has a timer that starts as soon as you enter. This forces you to map out your movements carefully, to not waste any time. Invincible enemies, 'Phantoms', stalk the corridors, adding more pressure to your every movement. As you progress through the game, you obtain various items and knowledge that allow you to bulldoze your way through the temple.

On paper, it looks ridiculous. Why on earth would you force your player to visit the same area over and over for any reason? 

Yet, it works wonderfully. Initially, you go in hesitant. You stumble around, trying to figure out what you're supposed to do. But as time goes on, you mark down routes. You memorize the functions of various switches. You discover shortcuts, cutting your time down.

By the time you reach the end of the game, you're an experienced adventurer, easily able to smash your way through the temple in record time.

It is honestly a genuine masterwork in level design. Not because it has hundreds of solutions or infinite freedom. It's a masterwork because it limits what the player can do. A near opposite of Breath of the Wild in general.

Open World Advancements

Let's move onto something a bit more cheery, shall we? The combat system is almost completely free, as befits the general design philosophy. Something that I found very interesting was the sense of exploration you get playing through the game. 

One of the issues I had with the Great Sea in Wind Waker was the lack of actual content to do. Slight spoilers guys, but sailing for five minutes and then finding out something is blocked off is very frustrating. This is everything I wished the Great Sea was. Virtually nothing is blocked off. If you so choose, you could ignore Kakariko Village entirely and go south for greener pastures, so to speak. Finish off one Divine Beast then go fight Ganon.
Camping is way more fun than fighting Ganon. I think I'll just do that instead.

There is no experience that's completely the same. Alice and Bob could play through the whole game twenty times, but I guarantee that they'll have had a different experience. Alice might choose to go to Kakariko Village immediately. Bob might decide to go fight Ganon right of the bat. Even if they both go to Kakariko village, one might spot the Korok puzzle off to the side and end up with a different route, scaling a mountain when the other simply went around.

There is a very real sense of exploration, as there is no way to know ahead of time what you'll find. The journey in and of itself is a huge reward. You'll never have a dull moment.

Of course, now that we've spent enough time giving it praise, we need to tackle the bulk of the post.

The (Non-Existant) Story

Note: I'm using 'story' as defined by Larry Brooks. This means 'story' is a composite of character, narrative, setting, and a couple other things.

This is where the bulk of my resentment towards Breath of the Wild lies, and why I would never rate it more than an 8/10.

The Post-Fun Era

Games, in general, have started moving forward towards an era and mentality I've dubbed 'Post-Fun'. Not too long ago, a video game was an easily defined item. Challenges, rules, and fun. Pong. Pacman. But as time has gone on, that definition has become more and more useless. How do you define something like Papers, Please? Sure, there are challenges and rules, but at the same time, it's far more than that. Heck, it's not even particularly fun. It's the human experience. It's a tragedy. It's pain.

'Fun' has become less and less important in the composition of a video game, and I for one see that as a good thing. For me to rate something as a masterpiece, it has to make me feel more than just 'Fun'.

Take Majora's Mask. It's not very fun. If anything, it's stressful. You work under the gun of a timer as an oppressive atmosphere bears down on you from every angle. The changes you do for the good of the land are relatively impermanent, washed away by the three-day timer. The only thing that changes is your experience. Your experience, and your perspective of the characters as you slowly learn more about each of the people in this doomed land.

Breath of the Wild is nothing but fun, and that's why it fails for me. Zelda is no stranger to tragedy. Look at Midna. Look at Ocarina of Time and think about the tragedy of the time travel aspect in general. Look at the bittersweet ending of Link's Awakening.

Yet Breath of the Wild completely flopped despite the huge open world. Despite the budget. Despite nearly thirty years to work off of.

Character

Phantom Hourglass is not a stellar game. But even it managed to make me feel something. Even if it was just a bittersweet feeling over the end of the game.

I felt no such connection with any of the characters in Breath of the Wild. The characters are forgettable, transient, barely even there. Once you've finished an area, you're done with anybody there.

This is touted as a strength. No more backtracking, no more boredom. In reality, it weakens your connection with the world. This is disappointing, for the world is fascinating. To be clear, I'm not advocating repeated backtracking with no purpose. Such a methodology will only lead to another Skyward Sword. But there's no denying that while the world within is interesting, the characters within are forgettable.

There is no time to bond with any of the characters. The closest we come to seeing any kind of memorable character growth is with Zelda. The problem with her is that her entire story is told disconnected from the current narrative. Sure, you might find her charming and sweet, but there's very little room for substantive, deep characters when you have a hundred-hour, non-linear adventure with no story.

Even Fi, as annoying as she was, was far more recognizable and interesting than anyone from Breath of the Wild. She was there for most of your adventure. Your adventure, not the adventure of some random person one hundred years ago. The player ends up with a far more personal connection as a result. In Breath of the Wild, you're completely alone. Disconnected from the world with no personal stakes.

The only exception to this is Sidon

Narrative

This is among the weakest parts of the game. The actual plot. I remember anxiously wondering how they were going to create a good story. The game itself is about as disconnected as me during a power outage.

How did they do it, you may ask?

Simple, they didn't! Rather than make an actual plot, we have the astoundingly creative 'Ganon revives! Link dies! Now Link messes around with cooking while Zelda frantically tries to hold off the end of days.'

I don't blame them, of course. Creating a cohesive narrative would be impossible, given the fact that you have complete freedom from the outset. Still, they could have a more character-based side quest, like Anju and Kafei! Right?

Haha! Nope! You really think such pesky things as 'plot' are important to the geniuses at Nintendo?

Theme

"Without strong thematic intentions...what you have is a sitcom. Literary junk food." - Larry Brooks

This is where it gets especially disappointing. Pretty much any modern Zelda game managed to make me think for a while. It made me contemplate something, anything. I felt something more than the dopamine rush you get from finishing a level in Candy Crush.

Link's Awakening. Released in 1991. It succeeded in making me contemplate the meaning of existence. Majora's Mask made me think about death and the transitory nature of life.

This is why I think Breath of the Wild just doesn't live up to its predecessors. There is no big message. There is no underlying story. It simply does not care. Breath of the Wild makes no commentary, it asks no questions.

Epilogue

I could go on, but the point is that Breath of the Wild flopped when it came to this.

In this 'Post-Fun' era of gaming, It's more important than ever that we praise the right games. This medium, this art-form, deserves more than for us to call something like Candy Crush the greatest. A game that fails to make us feel, to make us contemplate, should not be praised. We need more thought, more intelligence in our gaming, and I'm concerned that when we praise Breath of the Wild, we're perpetuating a mindset that should've died long ago.

When I first saw the trailers for Breath of the Wild, I wasn't actually expecting too much. Maybe someday, there'll be a Zelda game that balances the two extremes. Freedom at its finest, yet still a cohesive narrative that makes me think.

Yeah, I wouldn't hold my breath. 

Comments

  1. Great post. I really hated how much people praised this game cause it really didn't seem that impressive to me. So im gald someone summarized all of the issues

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