Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Has Been Unveiled and it is Glorious

This trailer made me cry.

Ok, I wasn’t sobbing, but I was pretty watery by the end. Going into this E3, all I really wanted was a proper trailer for the new Zelda in the spirit of the excellent trailers we got for Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, complete with the title reveal at the end. I got my wish and then some. That opening dialogue, those vistas, that music, that pace…that simple and beautiful logo. This trailer alone is probably one of the most beautiful things Nintendo has ever created.

But what of the day’s worth of footage Nintendo Treehouse Live showed after a very frustrating Pokemon interruption? While I’m a bit bummed that Nintendo spoiled the opening of Breath of the Wild, I can see why they started there as they wanted to establish how much freedom the game gives the player right from the get-go. While watching that initial trailer and this early footage, I was in awe. There’s nothing quite like the first in-depth look at a new Zelda game. I’ve been telling people that Breath of the Wild looks like the Zelda game of my dreams and I mean that quite literally. Ever since I got huge into this series back around 2003, I’ve longed for a 3D Zelda game with a vast, open, colorful landscape to discover, something akin to the 2D Zelda games more faithfully translated to 3D than Ocarina of Time’s hub and surrounding, boxed areas. Over the years I have only seen such an experience in my dreams, but during this past week I’ve seen such a game in my waking life. As much as I love OoT and many of the Zelda games that are based on its model, finally 3D Zelda has broken free from its shackles.

Breath of the Wild looks incredible and I mean both visuals-wise and otherwise. I love the art direction, which is directly influenced by Japanese animation (more than ever before anyway). It immediately brings to mind the sort of colorful, old-school anime look that the early Zelda games’ concept art had, which is what I have always wanted a 3D Zelda game to look like. It’s hard to describe just how exciting this really is, but suffice to they are finally delivering a Zelda game that actually captures this:

And maybe this:

I love how alive the world seems. What a joy it is to have an organic, natural world in a Zelda game again after Skyward Sword’s static sandboxes, and more organic than ever before this time. A lengthy day and night cycle complete with time of day, wind swirling through the flowered grass and the trees, insects scattering when one cuts the grass, a frog leaping away from beneath an overturned rock, a boar grazing in a grove of trees, shifting weather, and so on. I love the worn, rustic look of ruins that seem naturally weathered into the fabric of the world, vines and moss wrapping around them. I love the freedom right from the start of the game and even though it’s a bit on the nose, I couldn’t help but smile at the old man right at the start as well. I also love that there’s no chatty partner for the first time in a 3D Zelda game. I never thought we’d get another 3D Zelda game like this; I never thought we’d get another Nintendo game like this. This kind of tutorial-less, free adventure that focuses on discovery and the joy of play. When Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma said that this game was being heavily-influenced by the original Legend of Zelda, I didn’t think he meant it this literally, and that the game would even go beyond the original’s level of freedom perhaps. Apparently you can go straight to the final boss right at the beginning of the game if you choose to (you will likely get slaughtered though, I assume). I didn’t think it was possible for the Nintendo of today to create this game; it’s surreal.

The amazing thing about Breath of the Wild is that it seems to be delivering the experience that I feared to hope too much for, in numerous ways. Apparently this adventure is not going to feature an overt narrative that is force-fed to the player, but rather more minimalist storytelling that is unveiled at one’s own pace as they discover more and more of the world around them and try to discover the significance of moss-covered mechanoids and ominous purple clouds swirling around a distant castle. Clearly the Zelda team has been reading my diary.

Then during the Treehouse Live footage, Ganon gets name-dropped by a Sheikah monk like nothing, without even a word of acknowledgement from the staff playing the game. Again, it seems something else I feared to hope for is happening. Ganon isn’t a big secret this time around and it would seem there’s not going to be some pawn out there serving him or trying to resurrect him. Ganon is just a part of the world; a distant, ominous threat that you know you’ll have to face one day. But while Ganon may not be a secret, he does seem to be a mystery. Or maybe I should say it seems to be a mystery. I didn’t watch all of the Treehouse Live footage to avoid seeing too much and I know this information is out there, but I’ve unwittingly stumbled upon some narrative details involving Ganon’s role this time and it all sounds incredibly interesting and I’m just loving everything I’m hearing in this regard. The game seems to be doing something new and interesting with Ganon which I think is a very smart idea if they’re going to insist on continuing to use the character.

While it certainly seems that Breath of the Wild is catering to my wildest Zelda dreams for the most part and even going beyond them, I’m actually not enamored with everything I’ve learned of the game. I became a bit worried when I got my first look at the game’s “Shrines of Trials”, which there are reportedly over one-hundred of in the game. While I love the idea of tons of mini-dungeons to discover and explore hidden throughout the world, I’m not sure these “Trial Shrines” are really the form I want such a concept to take. Just the name makes me nervous: that word, “Trial.” One of my biggest issues with the last 3D console Zelda game, Skyward Sword, (spoilers if you’ve yet to play it) was that the entire game was basically an elaborate series of tests or “trials” designed by the Goddess Hylia and other spiritual figures in order for the hero to “prove” that he was worthy. In other words, it felt like a thinly veiled video game, instead of an organic adventure. I always prefer Zelda when it’s chiefly just a kid going out on an adventure to save the world rather than “the great hero chosen by the gods destiny blah blah blah” rhetoric constantly being shoved in my face; I don’t mind a little talk of destiny, but Skyward Sword took that stuff to a nauseating level. While almost everything I’ve seen about Breath of the Wild seems to be following the former model, the Shrines seem to speak to the latter. I’m going to be extremely disappointed if the narrative in Breath of the Wild ends up revolving around another contrived errand of the Goddess Hylia, in a literal sense at least, who is also mentioned by name within these Shrines.

So the narrative context of these places worries me, but what’s more is each Shrine seems to be a Portal-esque “test chamber” of sorts devoted to a single mechanic. The three Shrines I’ve seen also all looked the same aesthetically. Before I go further I want to say that I am completely in love with the mix of nature and high-technology in Breath of the Wild and the whole “high-tech” motif is something the series has been steadily heading towards since The Wind Waker’s Tower of the Gods (which was also designed as a trial for the hero, notably). Appropriately, the original Zelda was also originally planned to have sci-fi themes. The atmosphere in the Shrines seems interesting and the few mechanics I saw within them look nothing short of genius, but the way that they seem to be obvious “levels” rather than more natural spaces, their very samey aesthetics, and their contrived nature worry me. Ideally, what I’d like from an open world Zelda is caverns and more organic ruins and dungeons to explore out in the world. I want this to feel like a true adventure, not a series of “Trials by the Goddess”. I’m worried that these shrines will become too routine and static a concept. I think of The Wind Waker and how every island held a different secret, about the wide variety of caves and little mini-dungeons to explore and how I never quite knew what I was going to find. Ideally, I’d want this game to be something akin to that. To be clear though, I only saw three Shrines out of over one-hundred, so the concept could surprise me and end up being something I dig. Also, the Nintendo staff did confirm that there will be more traditional dungeons in addition to the Shrines. I’m guessing these dungeons won’t be as easy to access as the Shrines, but I’m hoping the player can still come across them naturally in the world (I’d love if it was just like the original Zelda though and you could just come across a dungeon and enter it, but I’m guessing that is largely what the Shrines are here for).

The only other thing I want to say about the exploration in the game is that the best reward for exploration for me is not always just finding more stuff. It’s great that it seems these physical rewards are possibly going to be better than they’ve ever been in a Zelda game in Breath of the Wild, but I’m hoping for even richer rewards such as interesting piece of architecture, a beautiful sight, a bit of lore, and so on. From what I’ve seen, it seems these kinds of rewards will largely be present, but I’ll probably be a bit disappointed if the game’s world is going to be Skyward Sword-ish in the way that there are only simply little pockets and nooks hidden around filled with treasure and the only larger “caves” and mini-dungeons to find are the Shrines.

I’m also hoping that the enemy variety is better than in Skyward Sword and the presence of “Stal-Bokoblins” instead of proper Stalfos (so far) worries me. I also have mixed feelings about the stamina meter being back (I at least wish it was off to the side of the screen instead of constantly hovering next to Link; it worked just fine this way in Shadow of the Colossus, Nintendo) and I also have conflicted feelings about the increased presence of RPG elements like enemy health bars and hit points and different stats for weapons. It should be noted that SS Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi is returning to direct Breath of the Wild (he also directed the fantastic Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages and The Minish Cap, among other things) and Eiji Aonuma has said that they wanted to “make a better Skyward Sword” with Breath of the Wild and that the game is “like an evolved or expanded version”. This could be worrisome or exciting, depending on how one looks at it (and also depending on one’s feelings on SS, which I don’t hate, by the way). Ultimately, I think taking some of the good bits of SS and melding them with a design philosophy inspired by the original Legend of Zelda could produce a truly spectacular game, so I’m going to be optimistic. At the very least, the fact that the Treehouse team made a point to reiterate that item description flavor text doesn’t repeat ad nauseam in Breath of the Wild gives me hope and shows that perhaps the Zelda team are paying attention to all the little annoyances that occasionally bog down the Zelda games.

Ok, so those are my fears and my worries, but let’s get back to what looks great, and a lot of what has me excited about this game is in the details. The animation looks more fluid than any 3D Zelda before. I love the cooking mechanic. I love that hearts are no longer found in grass, pots, rocks, skulls, your shoe, and everything else in Hyrule, and that the only way to restore health is by eating. I love that you can make campfires. I love how you need to dress for the weather and how they are making an effort to have more realistic biomes. Having to dress for the environment is one of those subtly brilliant things that I’ve never seen a fantasy adventure game do before. While on the note of clothing, I love that you can change it, and that there are such a wide variety of weapons and items to find. I love all the “realism” and survival elements mixed with more fantastical “video gamey” elements (the cooking is a great example of this). This is actually something that Zelda has always done well, but Breath of the Wild looks to be taking this idea further than ever before. I love how there’s a crouch button and how instead of just the obligatory one-and-done Zelda stealth mission we’re so familiar with at this point, stealth is now an option throughout the game. On that note, I love the variety in how you can approach enemy encounters. The combat looks slick, ditching hit and miss motion controls and building on the combat of pre-Skyward Sword titles while adding a ton of new mechanics (I’m a bit mixed on the weird slow-mo super attacks though, but whatever). The combat looks like it has that patented Zelda feel as well; that satisfaction and that mechanical polish. I also love how unforgiving the game seems and how the world actually seems dangerous. There are bosses out in the overworld! You can climb any sheer cliff! Koroks are back (and they fit in this world so well)! I love how they’re approaching sound design and music in the game as well, and the ambient music and environmental noise sounds engrossing from what I’ve heard. In terms of the more traditional compositions, well I already mentioned how the music in the trailer made me cry, didn’t I? And there’s voice acting, a little bit at least, and it ain’t half bad either. You can cut down trees. You can hunt or not hunt. You can do an all vegetarian run. You can do a naked run.

You can jump. MANUALLY. In a 3D Zelda game.


I’m sure Breath of the Wild is going to be polarizing to at least some degree just like any other Zelda game. I’m already seeing the inevitable comments of “the world is so empty!” and “tons of other games have already done this!” Of course, the open world, non-linear design also won’t be for everyone, especially those that have become Zelda fans with many of the more recent games in the series. And just a million other things. To briefly address the two common gripes I listed above: from what I’ve seen so far, no, the world does not look “empty” and in terms of there being people and towns, they were not shown in the E3 footage to keep the game’s mystery intact, which I appreciate. I’m also someone who appreciates “down time” in games, time to take in the world, the scope, the atmosphere. I’d rather not have every single square inch stuffed with treasure chests and monsters constantly hounding me. What’s more important to me than filling everything with stuff is how organic and alive the world feels, and Breath of the Wild looks to be doing a pretty good job so far. Riding Epona across a vast, “empty” field, grass blowing in the wind and the sun setting in the distance, may be a moment that seems empty to some, but it is very “full” to me. For some more context, many call The Wind Waker’s world “empty” but I think it balanced down time with tons of secrets and places to explore wonderfully, if not perfectly. In terms of the whole “tons of other games have already done this” thing, forgive me if this comes across as fanboyish, but the difference is that we haven’t seen Zelda do this, and seeing as how the original Zelda game was one of the central progenitors of the whole open world design, it’s about damn time. Zelda is unique; there are plenty of action-adventure games but there’s nothing else out there quite like Zelda. Sure, I get it, there is a deluge of 3D open world video games right now, and there are also plenty of games with similar mechanics to some of the ones that this new game is introducing, but Breath of the Wild is marrying this kind of design and these kinds of mechanics with the essence of Zelda. This is another reason why I love the game’s art direction; there aren’t any other games out there, especially open world ones, that look quite like it or have its kind of vibe.

Ultimately, I have a few misgivings about Breath of the Wild, but I keep reminding myself that I’ve only seen a tiny of portion of the game and there is still so much unknown, which makes me very, very excited. That is perhaps my favorite aspect to the game of all: the mystery. I love the sense of mystery and discovery that seems to be present in the world, which reminds me of why I was so first entranced by this series so long ago. People are theorizing and speculating and there’s much intrigue surrounding the game. I love this and I really hope Nintendo’s marketing department can stay true to keeping this mystery intact leading up to the game’s release. I’m going to try my best to avoid everything anyway, but it’d be nice if that were easier to do. The game’s official website spurs us to “Travel across fields, through forests and to mountain peaks as you discover what has become of the ruined kingdom of Hyrule…” and that that’s all I really need to hear to get pumped. Sign me up. I’m in. I shouldn’t expect Breath of the Wild to do everything I personally want and I’m not sure I’d even want it to. Ultimately, it seems to doing so much right in my book while also going beyond and surprising me and doing its own thing. It looks like it’s going back to the series’ roots while also being something new and different, and that sounds like a fantastic combination. It’s simply a stunning-looking game and it’s just so much fun thinking about, discussing, and anticipating a new console 3D Zelda in full force again.

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