Breath of the Wild (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Breath of the Wild (2017)

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The last time I felt a sense of personal exploration, that I was going to places forgotten or unseen, was when I lived in South Carolina.  I could pick a path in our barely constructed neighborhood to find a shack in the middle of nowhere with a couple of decorations hanging up and nary a sign it had been used in years.  On a more distressing scale, and indicative of the racism of South Carolina, I might visit a friend then walk a couple of miles to find one of the predominantly black churches burned with the skeletal frame remaining.  The landscape of South Carolina told a story with both the good and evil being erased as the neighborhoods sprawled out to take over places that once held some hope for human life.

I felt that melancholy, the longing to preserve a past that will soon be erased, exploring the largely deserted ruins of Hyrule and its surrounding lands in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Breath of the Wild from this point on.)  All these shrines that held the promise of peace were overgrown with bramble and infested with enemies.  Sometimes my best path forward was to try and find a way to avoid disturbing the natural accumulation of danger around these places of power.  Maybe I'd glide overhead, or find some path away from the prying eyes of the moblins who insisted on breaking my tour of the landscape with an indelicately aimed club to my head.The sound design entering my first shrine kept my exploration curious.  A low moan droned onto the soundtrack as words appeared from the shrine's keeper explaining the task at hand - like the echoes of a forgotten history stirring memories for the first time in, well, a century.  Even the usual Zelda theme of a nearby pillar granting Link power over ice was well-integrated, tuning along with the gathering of energy before dripping into my handy slate.  Now equipped with the power to freeze, I created a block to let me progress and then-


Breath of the Wild broke all my curious immersion with one loud audio cue to remind me I was playing a Zelda game.  There were a few more I had to listen to before completing the shrine and when I went back into the world I was less curious.  All that cautious preparation, the overgrowth of foliage against discarded remnants of a war Link fought and lost, and the much more silent cues of powering the slate were all broken for a self-conscious throwback to indicate I was making progress.The signals that I was making progress were already there and frustrating dips into explaining or highlighting those discoveries kept me from fully embracing Breath of the Wild.  Sadly, nothing would be as fulfilling as that first hour or so, just running around and experimenting with the environment to see what Link was capable of.  Other moments came close.  The most potent was when I decided to hold off on recapturing the Divine Beasts to see how long I could last in the snowy mountains.  A figure was outlined far in the distance, through the snow I could eventually see it was a lynel (think centaur but lion instead of horse), and was circling its territory patiently.  I approached then got wrecked as the contemplative lynel did not like having its peaceful trot interrupted.

Part of what makes that moment work so well against the confidence-reinforcing jingles of the shrines is the sparse sounds.  It's just Link, the sounds of nature, and the aggravated grumblings of the disturbed lynel as we tussled in a mostly one-sided bout.  I thought more about how I missed the mostly environmental sounds of my adventure when I finally did go to the Divine Beasts and got a cutscene explaining Link's relationship to heroes of the past.  The glimpse is nice, but the voiced post-dungeon Divine Beast reminder that I'm here to save Princess Zelda and beat Ganon reminded me again I was not trusted as a player to understand my own adventure.This is frustrating, because if Breath of the Wild had the same confidence in its dialogue and sound cues as it did its environmental design it would be a strong contender for the best Zelda ever.  As it stands, I adore Breath of the Wild, but spent my time in the various shrines and dungeons longing for the return to silence amid the sounds of nature to watch the story unfold over the geography of Hyrule.  It makes those clashes with the various monsters and technological giants that much more satisfying when the soundtrack focuses in on the duel - not providing loud jingles into the past.

Fighting those beasts is as complex as the player wants it to be - and I like that.  I never quite got the rhythm of block and parry systems so I was always scanning around my environment for ways to ambush my enemies or create funnels to deal with them one at a time.  This is where the weapon degradation system Breath of the Wild employs creates some fantastically tense combat.  My early hours were spent scrounging for equipment and, when I grew overconfident, had to rush to find improvised weapons when I neglected my stockpile.But the weapon degradation systems ends up asking questions of Link's tools that Breath of the Wild isn't prepared to answer.  Getting the Master Sword is one of the greatest thrills in Breath of the Wild, asking a personal sacrifice of Link instead of the usual trinket collection.  Then I wield it, admire the way it glows in the face of Ganon's most tightly held fortresses, and just when it feels like I've got a reliable tool to get me through the game - the Master Sword decides it needs to take a break and recharge.  Recharge on what?  Well, that goes back to the questions Breath of the Wild raises and isn't prepared to answer.  The Master Sword, the Blade of Evil's Bane, which I had had access to but could not claim for a good chunk of the game - was reduced to one of those $10 flashlights you shake to charge then have to shake all over again once the light fades.

Anticlimactic is putting it mildly, a more charitable (and potentially funny) reading is that in-between fights Link is jostling his pack a bit more so the Master Sword will eventually "wake up" again.  But the weapon degradation system also raises questions about the armor Link wears, which does not suffer the same fate of deteriorating into nothingness.  Breath of the Wild constructs a scenario where blades and axes forged from the best technology will break from overuse, but the cloth I found sitting in a chest in some long-forgotten shrine will withstand a direct blast from the ultimate evil plaguing the land.Bear in mind - the sometimes obnoxious sound cues and weapon degradation systems are minor problems, but still kept me out of the world and reminded me I'm just another player with a controller.  Not every game has to be transcendent, though I can't ignore the nagging frustration that all the ingredients are present in that first hour to achieve that.  Breath of the Wild is excellent, and will probably be one of my favorite games of 2017, I just wish it had more confidence in itself to make that make that final plunge into silent exploration.

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Posted by Andrew

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