Nintendo is one of the leading developers to establish most of the fundamentals of old-school game design. The first Zelda on the NES was arguably the first open-world exploration game. You were dropped in a world with almost no instructions on how to complete the game. Somewhere along the line of Zelda games, they became more streamlined and lost that true sense of exploration. The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild returns to form by capturing what made the first Zelda a great game, while exceeding today’s standards of game design.
The Hero, The Damsel and The Villain
Exploration is the main focus of Zelda’s design. Even the narrative is connected to the exploration. You unveil the story by meeting characters, or finding areas that will give you bits and pieces of the overall narrative.
The game begins with Link waking up after a hundred year coma. With his memory lost, he starts searching for purpose and perspective. That idea would work under the theme or focus of the game (exploration) but most players already know how every Zelda starts and ends basically: You are the hero Knight, she is the damsel in distress princess, and you venture to save the world from the evil Ganon. But what makes each story in the series intriguing is the journey not the destination. And what sets BOTW apart from other Zelda games in terms of narrative is how it’s presented.
There is a sense of gloom and despair to some of the characters and NPCs, but still it didn’t lose its colorful world, weird whimsical characters and grand-epic set pieces. Connecting the story to the exploration has its pros and cons. You have to find threads of the story in different parts of the world to get the whole story. So if you’re the exploitative kind, you’ll get the whole story. If you’re the kind of player who wants the whole story to be presented to you straight forward you won’t like the presentation here. But I’ll say this, finding out the story through exploration doesn’t just put you in Link’s boots perfectly, it also gives much more weight to the story.
A Painting in Motion
In terms of technicality, BOTW isn’t the most impressive looking game out there. It runs on a resolution below 1080p and the frames drop here and there. Where the game shines is through the art direction. BOTW is two steps away from Wind Waker, and two steps closer to a Ghibli Studio film (Creators of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away). Every part of the world is varied in how it looks and acts. And every part of the world screams “Grand adventure await.” You will travel through desert fields, green hills, volcanic mountains and many more that I won’t spoil. Traversing through these areas is always an adventure for both your eyes and your inner explorer. The game’s dynamic weather adds to the variety as it shifts from day to night, clear-blue skies to dark-cloudy thunder storms, etc.
Whether it’s the sun rising over a hill, or reaching a mountain peak, or diving into a pond or setting sail in raft, the game keeps producing images worthy to be painted on a canvas and hung on a gallery wall.
What completes a character drawn with great style and writing? Great performance. And what is by far the worst aspect of BOTW? The voice acting.
This is Nintendo’s first attempt at voice acting in a Zelda game, but it doesn’t explain how terrible it is. Zelda sounds like an exchange student coming back from England. All her lines are delivered with what I call a whisper shout; it’s like when you get mad at someone and want to shout, but can’t because there is a sleeping baby in the next room. Another terrible performance is the Deku Tree. I was literally laughing out loud when it first spoke. The voice didn’t fit the character, and the performance reminds me of those old childrens stories recorded on cassettes and sold with a picture book.
The Legend of Zelda series is filled with great, iconic music. Each part of the series introduced new tracks, and remixes some of the older ones. BOTW approach to music is different. Most of the tracks are moody and slow. It fits the massive world that you’ll spend tremendous amount of hours exploring. Still, I felt the sound track lacked epic, memorable tracks for bosses and dungeons, unlike older games in the series.
Gameplay was always the main focus in Nintendo’s games, as it should be. Every aspect of BOTW revolves around and is connected to the gameplay. And the gameplay’s main direction in BOTW is: exploration, exploration and exploration. From the moment the game starts to the end, BOTW respects the player’s intellect by presenting you with a challenge and believing you can solve it. It also boldly relies on its design to teach the player about the game rather than talking directly at you like an idiot, and running you through monotonous tutorials.
The bold design also shows through the world map. In all open-world games these days the map is filled with pointers, indicators and countless number of icons to guide you to a certain activity. It doesn’t just kill exploration, it shows cowardice in design. The developers are afraid the player would get lost, or go to a direction where he won’t find anything and get bored. BOTW does the opposite; they believe enough in the world they built that if you go towards any direction you will find something that grabs your interest. I can’t count the times I had a goal to do and was diverted from that goal because I saw something that caught my interest.
In previous Zelda games, you receive an item in the start of a dungeon; use it throughout the dungeon to solve puzzles, defeat enemies and bosses. Most of the time, after that dungeon you would rarely use said item, as each dungeon is built around a certain item. In BOTW, from the get-go you will receive all the items and tools required to traverse the world and solve its puzzles. Giving you all the items from the start makes the exploration and puzzles more diverse as you will keep using your whole arsenal throughout the game. Having all the items from the start also gave the developers the chance to build dungeons and puzzles that require more than one item.
The puzzles game’s engine and mechanics are all built heavily on logic; if it makes sense, it probably works. This aspect makes the game’s focus in exploration ever greater, and made “I didn’t know that could work!” the most said comment about the game. It also gives the player initiative to solve some of the puzzles in more than one way. The logic in design also plays in how you interact with the world and the dynamic weather. If you light a fire to grass it will burn, water will transmit electricity, rain will make it hard to climb, etc.
All that I’ve mentioned previously about the mechanics and systems can be used in battle, so running around a band of Moblins with a torch and burning the grass around them will put them in a ring of fire. Hitting a pool of water with electricity will electrocute all the enemies within it.
Moreover, you have your arsenal of weapons and armors. Under weapon classes you have swords, spears, hammers, bow and arrow, and many others that I won’t spoil. Each has its uses and efficiency against certain enemies. BOTW adapts the loot system found in many games, so you will find a diverse number of weapons and armors with their own unique stats and abilities.
One of the issues many players had with the weapon system is the deterioration mechanic. Each weapon has a number of uses till it breaks. The mechanic works perfectly under the focus of exploration as it encourages you to use different weapons, and there is enough mechanics under the hood to make sure you never end up without weapons.
Lack of difficulty and challenge make games feel dull. And ever since Zelda WW, the series started taking the route of making the games less and less challenging. Enemy’s damage was lowered, and puzzles felt more streamlined. From your first clash in BOTW you will feel the difference by getting your ass handed to you. Some enemy hits are so devastating they can take more than 10 hearts in a single hit. But the challenge doesn’t stop there; the AI doesn’t feel cheap but rather cleaver. It kept surprising me; enemies will use the environment to their advantage, stay clear of hazards or even using each other to take you down.
Dungeons, shrines and bosses
One of the most disappointing parts in BOTW is the dungeons. I’m not saying the dungeons are bad in any way, shape or form, but when compared with previous games they fall short. Still, the dungeon design, themes and puzzles are great.
There are four major dungeons in the game. Each dungeon is giant, moving level filled with puzzles, enemies and a boss. What sets it apart from previous games is A: You start the dungeon and finish it with the same arsenal of items you have. B: The dungeon itself being a moving part of the world, and that you have the ability to manipulate parts of it and change the level. The aspect of manipulating the level plays heavily in solving the dungeon puzzles. Moving a part will give you access to new areas, or chests as you make your way through it.
At first glance, four dungeons seem really low, but with the huge number of Shrines, the game will satisfy your puzzle-solving needs. There is around 120 Shrines in the game. Most of them are bite-size dungeons. Think of them as a short two, or even, one step puzzle similar to the game Portal. The variety in design of the shrines is spectacular. You will use each and every item and skill you learn in the game to solve them. What makes the shrines even more varied is that some of them are designed totally different from any other. Meaning, you don’t have a pattern to follow so it keeps the exploration aspect alive throughout the game.
In most if not all Zelda games, boss-fights were almost a game within a game. From introduction to mechanics, boss-fights were major events in the game, and played like one. In BOTW, sadly they lack all both character and design. The art design is generic, and mechanically nothing was out of the usual, and difficulty as usual was almost non-existent.
Defining the experience
The open world of BOTW goes above and beyond in its design. I really can’t complain about the low number of major dungeons because the whole world of BOTW is designed like a giant dungeon. Reaching an area is a puzzle in itself. To reach the snow fields you must find a way to warm yourself, to reach Death Mountain you do the opposite. Finding certain areas or characters is a puzzle solved within the environment of the world. And there are many, many other examples that I won’t spoil here.
Verdict and Score
In closing, Zelda BOTW took the open world games to a whole new level. I started to hate open world games recently due to most of them being nothing but a marketing campaign, waste of time and effort. Others look great like The Witcher 3, but lose their appeal in no time because they lack depth. Still I think the game was a step too short to reach perfection. Boss-fight design was always a hallmark of excellence in Zelda games, and in BOTW they felt generic, in both character and mechanics.
9.5/10 – A justification for the Wii U and a reason for the Switch.