So I’ve Finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Wow, what a game. It’s a game that had me talking with friends about video games again. You know, in that cagey way where you hint at something you aren’t sure they’ve seen yet until they nod and then you head into spoiler territory?

It’s a game that gives you every tool you need in the tutorial. Swords, shields, bows, bombs… and then you’re off. It doesn’t care what you do from then on, or how you do it. You simply go.

It’s a game that decides to not measure progress. Sure, it’ll count shrines and things… but it doesn’t care. Nothing changes, nothing matters except defeating Ganon. And yet, it is happy to let you take the long way around to get there, both in mechanics and in story. Who needs experience points, or levels, or priority missions, anyway?

It’s not perfect. The framerate drops in the Great Hyrule Forest. It leans a little hard on motion controls that ask you to point with the bottom of the controller instead of the point. Inside the Divine Beasts voices lead you around by the nose as though they didn’t get the “trust the player” memo the rest of the game hinges upon.

And the entire Gerudo segment comes across as tone deaf. Treating an ancient culture’s mores as a puzzle to “solve” because you know “better” is a little colonial for the 21st Century.

But then you hold these stumbles up to moments like when the Deku tree says “Next time I’ll let you kill yourself on that sword” and you believe it. The game has been honest with you so far, trusting you and being trusted almost to a fault. I believed that tree about that sword.

Speaking of that sword, pulling it was billed as a test of strength. “Strength?” There are no character sheets in Breath of the Wild, what is strength? Strength is the number of hearts you have. You are stronger when you have more heart. WHAT.

I’m especially pleased with this game coming straight off of Mass Effect: Andromeda. The cartoon characters you meet in Hyrule are different and recognizably so from their design. Even the hapless travellers you rescue time and time again are expressive in text and in facial expression.

ME:A also never wanted to let the player fail. Zelda is only too happy to have you fail. Too close to your own bomb when it goes off? Congratulations, you ragdolled down a cliff and into the river. Find a guardian? They’ll roflstomp you for hours. And you keep running across them! Even the main quest has you tromping up a hill in Zora’s Domain and finding something you cannot win against. Not because the game has decided it, but because you’re just not ready. And you can brickwall against it, like I did. Maybe if you jump over here, maybe if you use lightning arrows… Nope. You aren’t supposed to win this fight. You are the mouse, not the lion (or in this case, the Lynel). Scurry, little mouse, and try not to be seen.

Oh. No. You’ve been seen. Better run, little mouse. Run!

I’m sure there’s a wave of people who’ve seen this first in games like Dark Souls, but for me Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the first game in recent memory that made me afraid.

And how I love it for doing so.

Attacking Hyrule Castle, pushing deeper within. Everything the world taught you being put to the test, but upside down. On the overworld height helps you find your way, lets you see danger coming. In the Castle, height will get you killed. Better run, little mouse.

Wait. No. You’re not a mouse any more. You’ve fought, you’ve learned, you’ve grown.

But… you still remember being a mouse. So the tension ratchets up more than it ought to, creatures down the hall loom a little larger than they actually are, and victory… oh, victory tastes so much sweeter when you remember how impossible it used to be.

And then you reach Ganon. They really didn’t mind being a little disgusting with the creature design of the calamity bosses, and Ganon got a double dose. I feel a little cheap not having learned the perfect parry before fighting him, having to rely on my powers to defeat him… but that’s fitting. It works with the story. The champions were there for the assist.

Or so I tell myself.

The ending… was fine. The writing was a little weak, but everything else was lovely. I’m a little disappointed I don’t get to play in the world my adventure helped create, instead being dumped outside the castle gates, moments before the final confrontation, but it was an end.

And so I decided to put Zelda: Breath of the Wild down. I feel I could spend a lot more time in there. I feel I may have played it “wrong” by rushing too much to expand the map without exploring it enough (and my final map percentage of 40.03% certainly seems to reflect that). I can think of, right now, another couple of corners of the map I maybe should’ve gotten to.

But some things should end. Some things should leave you with that bittersweet hangover of a world your mind isn’t finished living within.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that from a video game. I missed it.

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So I’ve Finished The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Yes, it’s ten years old. Honestly, though, you can play just about any Zelda game between Ocarina of Time and Skyward Sword in any order and not tell the difference, given the stagnation in Zelda game design during that period.

(Yeah, it’s not gonna be a happy review)

Phantom Hourglass is a Nintendo DS release and, as such, felt it needed to use every terrible gimmick the Nintendo DS had rather than provide interesting gameplay.

From controlling everything with the woefully inaccurate and cumbersome stylus to yelling, blowing, or snapping my fingers into the microphone… a lot of this game was a tech demo for the hardware first, and a satisfying experience second.

I cannot believe that they managed to get this control scheme past an ergonomics review. My hand hurt from balancing the entire device in one hand while the other was clenched around the minuscule stylus. Smaller (younger) hands might have helped with the stylus, but then the weight would’ve been felt worse.

I felt no surprise that they ditched stylus controls after only two DS Zelda games.

On the plus side, there was some cleverness on display. One design element that stood out as being fun was having to stamp an upside-down map displayed on the top screen onto its right-side-up counterpart on the bottom screen. To do this you had to close and reopen the DS, which I thought was a cute bit of 4th-wall breaking.

Another smart mechanic was the use of the stylus to annotate maps with puzzle solution, trap locations, and other stuff. There were only a few different types of information the game tried to convey (order, shape, counts, and intersecting lines), but the freedom afforded by the mechanic was lovely, and something everyone should steal (like the “dream sequence as a music video” bit from FFXV).

So many open world games with so many maps and no way to scribble “Here be dragons”? What rot.

Zelda combat has never been particularly innovative or fun, but with gesture recognition needed before Link would swing his sword it felt worse than usual. It was clumsy, awkward, and not something I felt I could count on.

There was a fairy avatar to tell the player what the ever-silent protagonist was thinking (rather defeating the purpose), and to irritate you with constant interruption. All the criticisms of Navi still apply.

The dungeons were straightforward, concerned more with having me go through the motions than presenting me with meaningful choices, challenges, or character/story moments. I’ll refer you to Mark Brown if you’d like a more analytical deep dive on the subject.

Exploration was rarely rewarded with anything of value. (You got 100 rupees! I’ll add them to the 800 others I can’t find anything to spend on).

At least the director of the cut scenes understood how to have fun. Playing with the characters, having fun with visual jokes in the background, subverting Zelda tropes by cutting short or modulating the “I’ve found a thing!” music… possibly the best aspect of this game, purely from whimsy.

And that’s really as far as I feel I need to write into this game. I could go on for ages about how awful the controls were every time they were used in variation. I could complain that time limits didn’t tonally fit the world or dungeon and seem like cheap tension. I could whine about how long everything by ship took, and how fiddly the salvage controls were.

But, honestly, I’ve given this game more words than it probably deserves. It’s a post-Link to the Past pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda game. I probably could’ve just stopped there.

:/