'Breath of the Wild:' A Tale of Two Games
Just because the world is open, doesn't mean the story can feel closed off.
Similar to my article on Twilight Princess, allow me to start out by saying that Breath of the Wild is NOT A BAD GAME! I’m simply pointing out some things I think could be perfected in the next Zelda title, while building upon what already worked, to make it an even better game, in my opinion.
My first exposure to playing Breath of the Wild was a demo I played at a Boston Gamestop, I was very excited for what else the game had in store when my playtime concluded. With Link being awoken from a 100 year sleep, no recollection of past events, with only a mysterious woman’s voice guiding him, and Ganon turning into a beast that has taken over Hyrule Castle, the stakes have seemingly never been higher, and the outlook never grimmer. From the vast world waiting to be explored, the beautiful graphics that mix the watercolor-like visuals of Skyward Sword with the cel shaded graphics of Wind Waker, the easy to learn but hard to master combat, and the rather laidback nature of it all, I quite frankly thought the game was Heaven.
This is also a rather unconventional intro for the series. With most Zelda titles, especially the more recent 3D ones, beginning with Link as a child or young adult in a small community, before an inciting incident starts him in his journey to become the hero he’s destined to be.
After this introduction, you learn the game’s mechanics, the Sheikah Slate and its runes, which are like a real world tablet and it’s apps respectively. As well as Shrines, Sheikah Towers, combat, and praying to statues of Hylia to receive more hearts or stamina. You are then given detail about what happened 100 years ago from a man who you initially think to be an elderly nomad, but is actually the spirit of King Rhoam, the deceased king of Hyrule, and the father of Princess Zelda.
He tells you of the events that unfolded before Link’s awakening (pun intended), of how the prophecy of Calamity Ganon lead the people of Hyrule to excavate the Divine Beasts, four gigantic machines that take the form of an elephant named Vah Ruta, a bird named Vah Medoh, a camel named Vah Naboris and a salamander named Vah Rudania, respectively. They also discovered The Guardians, large octopus like machines with the ability to blast a deadly laser-like beam from any angle. Link learns he was Princess Zelda’s appointed knight, chosen by the sword that seals the darkness, also known by Zelda fans as “The Master Sword” and “The Blade of Evil’s Bane.” We then learn of The Four Champions, skilled individuals who were selected to pilot the Divine Beasts. Mipha of the aquatic Zora, pilots the elephant Vah Ruta. Rivali of the ornithological Rito, pilots the bird Vah Medoh. Urbosa of the tall, dark, female Gerudo, pilots the camel Vah Naboris. And finally, Daruk the large, round, rock-like Gorons from the volcanic Death Mountain, pilots the salamander Vah Rudania.
Just when they, Link and Zelda, seemed to be on the verge of sealing Ganon, he appeared below Hyrule castle and turned the Guardians and the Divine Beasts against them. This laid waste to Hyrule and killed the Champions, sealing their spirits in the Divine Beasts, and Link was gravely wounded, sent to the Shrine of Resurrection where he woke up at the start of the game. Zelda however, survived, and to this day, resides in Hyrule Castle, struggling to keep the seal on Calamity Ganon. We then learn it is Zelda who’s voice is the one that has been guiding you since the beginning.
This leads to a much discussed topic in Breath of the Wild that is widely debated within the fanbase, the game’s inclusion of fully voiced characters, who don’t just speak in mumbles or jumbled speech like in previous Zelda games. This might be an unpopular opinion, but Patricia Summersett, the actor who voices Zelda, does not sound how I envisioned Zelda’s voice to sound. I imagined Zelda’s voice to be higher, less breathy, and not with an English accent. In fairness though, Summersett does very well with her dialogue and line delivery, and I wouldn’t ask her to do anything differently, she simply does not have the type of voice I imagined Zelda to have. Summersett is in a bit of a unique situation though, as not only is she the first person to give Zelda a voice, outside of those horrendous Philips CD-i games, this is the first Zelda we have seen that has appeared insecure, filled with self-doubt, and frustrated, as shown to us through Link’s memories. While prior depictions of the princess have shown her to have have had a soft, bright, warm demeanor, this Zelda is forced to push that to the side as she fights to harness the sealing power she needs that will seal Calamity Ganon away and protect Hyrule, which looks more and more like a pointless exercise with each effort. This causes that soft, bright, warm demeanor to be replaced by one of stubbornness, struggle, and increasing despair. This interpretation of Zelda is a fine one for sure, and a good way to keep a three decade old character fresh, new, and interesting. Most Zeldas up to this point have mostly been secure with themselves, and usually find a way to help if Link is faced with a challenge or lacked a certain ability she needed to provide.
Going back to the subject of voice acting in Breath of the Wild, perhaps it is because this is a first in a Zelda game, but I found it to be both satisfying and yet awkward. Satisfying because I am one who quickly grows impatient with reading, especially in fiction, and much prefer to experience a story by both listening and watching. That being said however, I find it to be awkward because, and I am unsure if the Zelda fanbase shares this sentiment, the best thing about Zelda stories purely being conveyed through text boxes allowed you to more impress yourself upon the story and imagine what any given character might sound like. Giving definite voices to series regulars like Zelda and Impa is an adjustment to say the least. Credit where credit is due, however, the creative team responsible for writing the story and directing the voice acting managed to successfully pull off having so many characters speak, while not making it awkward that Link didn’t say a word in any of the cutscenes or memories, but somehow still managed to have a definite personality, like always.
When it comes to the Champions, I have to give a shout out to Elizabeth Maxwell as Urbosa, the Gerudo Champion, and Sean Chiplock as Revali, the Rito Champion. Maxwell perfectly captures Urbosa’s tough, yet nurturing demeanor, and Chiplock makes Revali sound just the right amount of arrogant, without making him annoying and unlikable. Of course, I have to mention the other Champions as well, Mipha and Daruk, voiced by Amelia Gotham and Joe Hernandez respectively. Daruk sounds just as I would expect a Goron to sound, except maybe a bit more gruff than I imagined, I actually imagined Gorons sounding more like Big the Cat from Sonic Adventure, but that might just be because they have such similar builds. Mipha is likable enough, and undoubtedly the Champion with the most useful skill, Mipha’s Grace, which can revive you instantly if you die in battle, but takes a long time to reload once its been used, understandable as players might otherwise exploit it to avoid death. I personally have a hard time believing that a Zora that both looks and sounds like a shy 12-year-old girl, however, is really the one to lead the Zora and pilot the Divine Beast. With her high, thin voice, she reminds me of another Sonic character, Cream the Rabbit, except much more useful.
One thing that is universal across the voice actors however, is the material. While it does help flesh out Link’s relationship with Zelda and The Champions, as well as the world’s backstory, it never adds anything to the progression. It feels like the writers tried so hard to make the story accessible from any point, beginning, middle or end, that they didn’t even bother with elements like story progression, and how it relates to the player. No matter which of the nearly twenty memories you recall, you can continue playing the game and act like nothing happened after you’ve watched it. For my taste, I think the memories could have been better incorporated if they somehow gave you guidance or incentive to continue exploring the world and help prepare yourself to face Calamity Ganon. Give you new places you’d want to visit to learn more about the history and such, but ironically, you come across these memories purely by accident unless you actively search for them, and I actually needed an online guide to find some of them.
With the story out of the way, let us move on to the gameplay, the thing that most people discuss when talking about the game. Not much in the main story missions is necessary for progression. Conquering the Divine Beasts, obtaining the Champion’s Tunic, recalling all the memories, activating all the towers, conquering all of the shrines, if it does help.
When it feels like the final boss can’t be built up to, but is merely something you can approach when you’ve decided you’re done playing the game, doesn’t really make it feel like there is any stake to it, especially when Zelda conveniently loses hold of Calamity Ganon right when you approach him, allowing you to face him. It doesn’t feel like there are any stakes until he enters his final form, Dark Beast Ganon, and even then, the killing blow isn’t that different from how one could deal with a disposable bokoblin, though the atmosphere, scale, and soundtrack are more epic. Ganon battles in previous Zelda games have always had a more epic build up and scale, except maybe the one in Twilight Princess, as I said in a previous article. Overall though, the ones in Wind Waker, Skyward Sword,and Ocarina of Time felt much more like a test of skill; even if Calamity Ganon is much more grotesque and versatile than Ganon’s previous incarnations, I can’t help think that the creative team is running out of ways to make Ganon seem threatening and more intimidating after 30 years, and could only think to artificially create a threat by adding ‘Calamity’ to his name, making him more grotesque and less corporeal, as previously stated.
Moving on, let’s discuss the Shrines, which act like mini-dungeons. For my taste, there was actually too many of them, there are 120 total, and that’s not including the ones found in the DLC. I’d discovered online that you can get the ‘Of the Wild’ armor if you beat all the shrines. This armor dresses Link in much more traditional attire, and I even wore it to the fight with Calamity Ganon on my second play-through. I was able to find about seventy of them on my own, without exerting myself, but it eventually began to feel like a chore as I went through the online guides desperately trying to see which ones I had missed. This seems like a lot of trouble for an outfit that, while aesthetically pleasing, isn’t even the strongest armor you can get. Even getting the maximum amount of hearts and stamina couldn’t stop me from being killed by Calamity Ganon; so again, I have a hard time finding where the reward is, especially since on my third play-through on the Switch, I was actually able to beat Ganon without dying once, even without beating all the shrines like in my second play-through on the Wii U. I will say this about the shrines though, as someone with a short attention span, the short playtime required to conquer even the lengthiest of them, is a welcome change of pace from the labyrinthine dungeons of old, even if the shires do sometimes look and play a bit too similar at times.
This leads me to another point that has been made in other reviews and essays, but is worth repeating, is that many of the shrines and Divine Beasts have a similar aesthetic, lacking variety. The shrines can really be broken down into three types, the ones that provide a “Test of Strength,” (Minor, Moderate, or Major, depending) where you face a guardian and have to defeat it using the weapons, armor, dishes and elixirs you have available when entering. Then there’s the ones that offer you a reward (either a weapon, piece of armor, rupees, etc.) for simply finding them, as it was a trial to simply find the shrine, through either solving a puzzle, deciphering a riddle or any number of things. Finally, the shrines, usually the easiest ones to locate, offer some sort of challenge revolving around a puzzle that uses physics, the elements, certain runes, or any number of things. The same goes for the Divine Beasts. Unlock the 5 terminals, fight the Blight Ganon, receive a gift from the champion, who then prepares the Divine Beast to strike Ganon when you face him. One of my favorite shrines, personally, was the Shora Hah Shrine in Death Mountain, as it not only was one of the most distinct looking shrines with a pit of lava below, but the unique mechanic of needing to light torches with a blue flame in order to progress. In my mind, this was the sweet spot, a happy medium between a traditional Zelda dungeon, and Breath of the Wild’s Shrines, in terms of length, difficulty and design.
On a much more positive note, some of my best memories playing the game are those small moments, like when Link first exits the Shrine of Resurrection and you see sweeping land from the edge of the cliff, or whenever I would leave a stable in the morning on board my horse.
You can even buy a house and create a small village in this game, but even at the end when fighting Calamity Ganon, you don’t feel the impact of it.
I know not all gamers play for the story, but I’m an exception to this. I like to feel as though there’s a goal for me to accomplish, and when the ultimate goal is to save Hyrule from Calamity Ganon, that is going to be what I’m most drawn to. I like to feel as though there is real weight to my actions and that if I don’t act, it’ll be bad. So, with Zelda saying, “When the beast regains its true power, this world will face its end. Now then...you must hurry, Link. Before it’s too late.” If I hear that, you can bet that I’m gonna hurry.
Since next to none of the things I can do between then and heading to the castle will make the fight a cake walk, why not just head on over to the castle, deal with Calamity Ganon, and restore peace to Hyrule? Well, then I’d miss out on the amazing world the game has to offer.
This brings us the main point of the article, and why it is titled as such. The game seem split on trying to keep with Zelda conventions, and trying a whole new thing. The result is two worlds that don’t seem to mix well with each other. You have the laid back, relaxing experience of visiting a town and interacting with its inhabitants, but also the classic Zelda story that Link has to save Zelda and Hyrule from Ganon. It’s jarring and they don’t seem to go well together. Even staples like The Master Sword feel like they take a backseat to this open world approach.
While I do also realize part of the fun is the side missions and events you experience as you try to find all of the memories and conquer the Divine Beasts, it all seems rather minuscule when you consider all of the other things you can do, no matter how big the Divine Beasts or Calamity Ganon might be in scale.
I think it might’ve been better if they had done away with the threat of Calamity Ganon altogether and made the game like a Zelda version of Animal Crossing or The Sims, because that is what they game can feel like at times when you’re not dealing with memories or Divine Beasts.
My advice to the developers moving forward, is to make sure there is a more fleshed out story, there’s more variety in the dungeons and/or shrines if they decide to bring those back, like in games before.
So we’ve got these two games. The open world style, sandbox game that much of this game’s experience revolves around, and this other one revolves around that more traditional Zelda formula of exploring dungeons, acquiring new items and abilities related to the story. Breath of the Wild is undoubtedly a change of pace for the Zelda formula, but like any time something new is tried, it is near impossible the first time.