A few years ago, I posted about my opinions on Skyward Sword. It’s a bit long-winded and full of grammatical mistakes, but I still agree with what I said. With a new major Zelda game on the horizon, I feel it’s a good time to outline what I hope for this game and what can go wrong.
Due to the irreparable damage Skyward Sword caused to the franchise and the worrying direction of Nintendo’s entire business model in general, there’s a lot that needs to go right with Breath of the Wild for it to capture the old Zelda magic while providing the new gameplay experience Nintendo is promising.
The first thing that comes to mind when looking at this game is that it looks like an Elder Scrolls game. I wrote about how Skyward Sword was closer to the original Legend of Zelda than any of the other 3D Zelda games due to its monster-and-puzzle-filled overworld taking the place of open fields and lively towns. I understand the importance of exploration and the gameplay opportunities that this style of overworld brings, but a Zelda game is more than that. It has to be a balance of exploration and relaxation, the serene and the dangerous, bustling towns and total isolation. The villages and islands in Zelda created anchor points for the player, safe havens for Link to go back to. Wandering through dangerous terrain is the adventure but no adventure is complete without a home. Not only the threatening obstacles and hard times, but also the people and the cultures along the way. The main reason Majora’s Mask is revered as one of the greatest games of all time is not because of its advances over OoT, but because of how it incorporated personality and character into every situation. Saving the Deku Princess in the Woodfall Temple may not be the most original motivation, but it tied narrative and character to gameplay. Sometimes it was more subtle than that. Sometimes the narrative came from Link’s isolation in the creepy Stone Tower, constantly staring at twisted copies of himself as the sky lay ominously below his feet. Link is allowed to be alone here because he wasn’t before, because the narrative established that he had previously acted for other people. Now that it’s apparent that he has the agency to act, he can act for himself. He can feel and be unlike the Link from SS who merely goes through dungeons because he has to. There is no story to the dungeons in SS. They are all isolated in far off areas with nothing but enemies around. There is no motivation to the player’s actions. All story comes in cutscenes and not from the gameplay. Link feels more like a tool in someone else’s story than a character. Cutscenes tend to be between Impa and Ghirahim with Link simply being forced to do the dirty work in between.
Breath of the Wild has shown itself to be primarily concerned with gameplay and not story as shown by its focus on a large, expansive, and freeform world that allows players to act as they choose. My comparison to Elder Scrolls is not in the lack of narrative but the overabundance of freedom, which may work for one series but does not work for another. Freedom is the enemy of narrative. It may create interesting situations but it rarely creates a cohesive, unified experience. Although I welcome the new gameplay changes they have made, I fear the game may end up too formless, random, and solely up to the player. I could talk endlessly about my problems on sandbox games but suffice to say that it does not fit the Zelda formula. If Nintendo wants to make an open world exploration franchise, they should go ahead and do that, but much like the recent Paper Mario games, I do not want a drastic departure from what brought me to the franchise in the first place. I understand the first Zelda game was very much in this style but it has become more narrative-focused ever since and I feel the majority of the games in the franchise have hit a sweet midpoint between narrative and freedom that the series should follow.
Somewhat alleviating my fears, Nintendo has announced towns, a mild reassurance that they will indeed not go the route of Skyward Sword. I think they did learn their lessons. Skyward Sword may have been well-received upon release but it became widely disliked over time, following almost the opposite trajectory of most Zelda games. Breath of the Wild definitely seems to be taking steps to avoid the same pitfalls as SS, and Aonuma has even stated that Breath of the Wild was created with the criticism of the previous game in mind, but the current focus on the size of the world and freedom of the gameplay worries me that that is the core of the game design and that the towns, dungeons, and narrative will take a backseat to all the neat new things Link can do. Zelda is one of the few true adventure games without RPG elements left that still allows for exploration. It sits on a fine line between the freedom of western RPGs and the linear storytelling of their Japanese counterparts.
Another concern that is more worrying is the strange new idea of incorporating more generic items in greater quantities. In previous Zelda games, the overall sword count generally ranged from two to four, a weak sword, the Master Sword or a similar powerful one-handed sword, and maybe an upgrade to either one of them, often with a large two-handed sword. In Breath of the Wild, at least sixteen weapons are known to exist with four of them already being swords, swords that are clearly disposable. This is an almost RPG-esque feature of giving the player multiple weapons that they constantly switch out for better ones, a design choice that makes the player feel like they’re doing something when they really aren’t. This just leads to unnecessary inventory management and an overabundance of useless clutter in the game. It cheapens the effect of getting a new item as a reward for the player in exchange for immediate gratification. Undoubtedly, there will be superior weapons in the game, which makes me even wonder why they would bother with a mechanic like this. The more that is added to a game, the less each individual component has an impact. New items, events, characters, and mechanics should be added when they will make a significant contribution, not because the creator can. Cluttered games with constant rewards and numbers flashing at the player create a viscerally addictive but unmemorable experience. These are often mechanics used in free-to-play games to get people to play when there is very little game there in the first place. This is not something I’d like to see in Zelda. Similar to the potential town situation, key items such as the Master Sword items may salvage this issue, but the fact that this concern exists at all is a sign that this game has different goals than previous Zelda games, which can be both good or bad. I’m open for whatever new ideas they want to throw at us. My main concerns lie in the series losing what makes it unique in the first place.
These changes point to a more fun but disposable experience that favors gameplay and immediate gratification over aesthetics, themes, and a unified experience. Gameplay is the most important element of a game but, when they are lacking, it’s very difficult to replace all of these other components with gameplay alone, especially for a Zelda game. I am certainly a fan of switching up the formula to a degree; Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker were wonderful games that each evolved from Ocarina of Time in completely separate directions, but Twilight Princess was a bit stale because it adheres too closely to it. Skyward Sword felt like a barebones variation that imitated some of the staples of the series while adding hollow additions that added little to the game. Other than the motion controls, it felt like a very run-of-the-mill Zelda game with many flaws. This new game looks like it’s headed in the complete opposite direction and attempting to invent a whole new style for Zelda, retaining the basic rules but changing nearly everything else from the gameplay mechanics to the way items work to Link’s tunic and overall appearance to Hyrule itself being much more feral. These are interesting changes but straying too far from the formula risks making the game too similar to others and possibly even indistinct.
That said, there are positives present here. These changes are worrisome but not inherently bad choices. My favorite thing about Skyward Sword was the streamlined dungeon design and the puzzle-filled overworlds. It made sure the player was always an active participant compared to the relatively sparse Hyrule Fields and Great Seas of the previous games. However, this also led to a more linear game. The world of Breath of the Wild doesn’t appear to be nearly as straightforward but seems to include several interesting new gameplay additions such as small optional dungeons and weather effects. This can potentially solve one of the most prevalent issues with 3D Zelda games. Incorporating elements from the 2D Zelda games could be a smart move here, allowing for more constant activity and in a large, seamless, and busy world. The new gameplay changes allow a lot more opportunities to create play and hopefully Nintendo takes advantage of this. I say create because I don’t want to just be plopped into an open world and told to get to point B however I can. I want a flowing, constant experience, designed from the ground up. I think we have enough open world games. Zelda does not need to be one.
The new physics engine looks great and makes things possible that have never been possible before in a Zelda game. There are many non-specific elements of the gameplay that can be used for very interesting puzzle creation with many non-specific solutions. This can lead to puzzles with multiple solutions or puzzles more complex than pushing a block to a specific location. It’s an interesting change for the Zelda franchise which traditionally has more simplistic and straightforward puzzles. Another point of interest is how the weather affects Link and the need to deal with it. This shows that they’re putting care into how the world affects the player. This is something I’ve praised prior Zelda games for doing in a subtle manner, and the very conscious effort to do so in this game points to a good direction for the series.
Overall, this looks like an amazing tech demo, but we need actual story, events, aesthetic, and design to bring it all together. If what we’ve seen is the first 2 hours of a 40 hours game, then that’s fine, but I really hope the rest of the game is nothing like this. What we have lays amazing groundwork but there needs to be actual written and designed content, stories, quests, and lore that are interesting, constant, and tied to gameplay rather than cutscenes. I hope this game allows Nintendo to go back to their style before Skyward Sword, unfettered by the constraints of the timeline and fan suggestions, and be able to create unique and moving games like they once did.