I went to the woods because it was hot out. I wished to escape my game room; to drink coffee in the gazebo while my wife read her book. The birds chirped around us. It was around this time last year that I first played Zelda: Breath Of The Wild - in fact it was the sole game that I bought with my Switch, back when finding the console itself meant calling multiple stores every day for over a week. At first I was in awe of the game, but after twenty-five hours I called it quits with a more sour outlook. Although I enjoyed the visuals, the controls, the tone... I was starting to get frustrated with how difficult it was to actually progress. I found myself in a hurry. I just wanted to see the end-credits roll. I became obsessed with the destination so much that I wasn't able to enjoy the journey. I actually let all of this cloud my vision - proclaiming that against the opinions of all the critics out there, Breath Of The Wild was not actually the best game of 2017.
Looking back it was this kind of rush that is the antithesis of not only Breath Of The Wild, but of the escapism that games are supposed to offer us in the first place. So I went back into the woods because I was ready to get back to basics. Replaying the game this year I've learned just how wrong I had been. The game was never the problem - it was my own expectations with it. It was never meant to be a game with linear beats. I fire it up and I have no preconceptions about how much I should be accomplishing or even what I should be doing. Much like how my greatest moments of enjoyment in Grand Theft Auto V and Skyrim came from 'doing nothing,' I'm now learning that letting the current take you where it wants within Hyrule is the only way to play Breath Of The Wild. In forcing myself back to a simpler time pre-internet where I can't just look up solutions to shrine puzzles or even try to figure out where I should go next means that I'm just as lost as Link. And I'm in just as much amazement by each new minor discovery.
How does one survive Hyrule? First I must take care of the four necessities: food, shelter, clothing and fuel. Food is simple. It's everywhere. There's apples and bananas growing on trees. There's meat dropped by fallen foes. Of course I choose to make combat barely a priority. I hate stealth in games but in this game it simply means finding an alternate path. I try to put my Spirit Orbs into making my stamina wheel bigger which means that the world becomes far more vertical. I'm gonna climb some mountains to choose not to fight. Don't get me wrong - I will fight, but only when I have to. Part of that is because weapons break and I fucking hate that big time. It's my biggest pet peeve about the game. But the other more embarrassing reason is because I find the combat in this game truly difficult. In no other Zelda game are grunt foes so intimidating. Many can one hit kill you without a thought. You will die a lot in Breath Of The Wild. I hate to use the Dark Souls simile but man... that red GAME OVER font might as well say YOU DIED. Oh the other thing is that you have to learn to cook food - like recipes. I find that sort of a pain, but then again it's certainly helpful when I'm up against a difficult situation and find I have a meal that can keep me warm or prolong my stamina or refill my hearts fully. In a way this reminds me of Monster Hunter. It's no secret that BOTW borrows from a lot of games, and that's fine. Because it borrows really well.
Shelter is a different story. In that sense Breath Of The Wild truly does feel like a SURVIVAL game, y'know? The elements are really out to get you here. Rain makes it hard to climb stuff because the surfaces are wet. Lightning is attracted to your metal weapons so you need to unequip them and swap in wooden stuff. It's possible for environments to get too hot or too cold, depleting your life. You can use buffs to help you through this but damn. I never had to think about this stuff in Link To The Past or Wind Waker - my other two favorite Zelda games, so what the heck? It feels so harsh. And yet... I kind of need it.
As far as clothing goes, you can obviously buy some in towns. But like in any RPG (yes, I'm calling Zelda an RPG for the sake of this writing exercise - just go with it) I'm very careful with my rupees. So mostly I just stick to what I NEED and mostly what I need is whatever I happen to find. To me that makes the game feel unique in the sense that I'm not just buying the best shit. So my gear is what I happened to come across. In a weird way that makes it feel closer to a Rogue-like or something. Kind of. One of my favorite moments of this replay was being in the right place at the right time to witness a falling star that led to a Xenoblade 2 helmet. I mean that's pretty cool right?
I don't know what to say about fuel. Wouldn't that be food? I'd think so. Unless it's the Spirit Orbs which mean either extra hearts or extra stamina. And I already addressed that. I'm focusing on stamina for now. I'll swap in one heart every eight orbs. But I fear that makes me timid. Then again, I am trying to live off the land here. I'm at the mercy of mother nature. There's no reason for me to be overpowered.
Okay and when all that is said and done - I kind of have to talk about rupees within the economy right? Well here's the deal: they're not as abundant as in EVERY other Zelda game. Instead it's all about selling shit that you forage. Which is fine because I mostly hate crafting in games. For the most part I pick up EVERYTHING and just sell the majority of the stuff I don't think I need. I hang on to all the ancient parts for now because I know they come in handy later. Though I actually forget how or why.
The first couple of hours or so (or more, depending how you approach the game) are spent on The Plateau. Despite what you may have heard, there is far more here than a bucket, mop and illustrated book about birds. In fact, depending on how much exploring you want to do right off the bat, there's probably HOURS of material to dig into here even though this is kind of sort of the tutorial in disguise. Mere minutes after beginning your game you will find yourself atop a hill looking out over the kingdom. And this first section is really the only time that you will be completely kept at bay from the rest of the game. Once you make it off The Plateau, the entirety of the world is yours. But for now we start small. It's just that small in this case is rather big.
As a tutorial, the game is subtle about its nudges. For instance some smoke in the distance will probably pique your curiosity, which will lead you to learning about cooking food - which is of course rather important. You'll learn to climb - because you have to. You'll discover a recipe to keep you warm in the cold and you'll chop down a tree to create a bridge. But nothing forcefully pushes you into any of this. It's all so gentle that you'll forget you were playing a game because games more often than not treat us like we're idiots.
Because the prerequisite for getting off The Plateau is completing the four shrines on it, you'll soon learn how to track them, be rewarded your various skills (bombs, freezing time, magnets, ice...) in order to tackle each of the Plateau's shrines. The fact that each one of these four puzzles are solved using one of your new skills is the most straight-forward and traditionally "Zelda" part of the entire game, really. So don't get used to that, because again all of this is just to show you what's possible; how things work. But after that it's all up to you to use how those things work to your favor.
I'll be honest, I've never really needed much story from a Zelda game. A little lore peppered in here and there? Sure. But as far as the story goes, really all I need to know is that Link should probably kill Ganon. Y'know? Although that's not being totally truthful because actually Majora's Mask has an incredible story - enough so to make it way more compelling than Ocarina in my opinion. But whatever.
The beauty of the story of Breath Of The Wild is that it's here to the extent you want it to be. Since the game is (basically) non-linear the storytelling isn't going to be traditional compared to a classic Zelda title. And outside of some major plot points, the story isn't even forced upon you. Really it's up to you to CARE enough to want to talk to NPC's to get more background. So it's up to you. I'm kind of half-and-half, where sometimes I'm interested in learning more but other times I kind of like knowing less. It leaves some level of mystery. Like I'm just out here in this harsh world trying to survive and trying to rescue Zelda from Ganon and what else do I really need to know? The motives are pure and primal.
I say it's "basically" non-linear because obviously main story quest B isn't going to trigger until you've completed main story quest A. But then again, even many of the main story quests are ones you can tackle in any order that you choose. Like, there are the four ancient beasts or whatever they're called and all four quests are put on your map at once. So I guess it's the one you get to first that you'll be working on first most likely.
The sound design of Breath Of The Wild is well done, tasteful. The music is sparse, oftentimes leaving you with just the sounds of the world. Which I mean - look at the game, that's exactly what it should be like. When I'm swimming I want to hear the water, not a score. When it's raining I want to hear each droplet hit the ground. I don't need a bombastic orchestra to punctuate lightning strikes; lightning strikes do that on their own! The wind in Breath Of The Wild is just as much a part of the score as anything that was specifically composed for it.
The music that is present is fitting for sure. Mostly it'll kick in when you're caught up in a battle and this actually does add some excitement. And of course there are those jingles when you find a shrine or solve a puzzle which are mostly there for nostalgia. But it works.
Perhaps the best thing about Breath Of The Wild is everything that happens in between: the moments between action or discovering new shrines or advancing the story. It's those meditative moments where nothing much is happening and you can just listen to yourself breathe. There have been countless Holy Shit moments I've had with this game that had nothing to do with anything that would actually be considered progress. The first one happens mere minutes after starting, when you first leave Resurrection Shrine and look down from that high hill. Later moments include sitting on a cliff and watching a green dragon twist his worm-like body as the game's night cycle ticks by slowly. I've waited out thunderstorms in a little nook on the side of a mountain because I knew it'd be too slippery to climb. It took all in-game night, but required me to sit there listening to only the heavy rain for ten or so real time minutes.
Getting around Hyrule is a treat and more often than not I do so not knowing where I'm even heading. It doesn't matter. Putting Spirit Orbs towards the stamina wheel helps as I love looking at mountains in the distance and saying "hey, I can go climb that," or knowing I can hang-glide to some further off place, or at least swim without drowning!
Breath Of The Wild is a lonely game but it's a certain solemn loneliness. It's like one big zen-garden. You could make a complaint that the enemy placement is too sparse, yet that never bothers me. If it weren't for loot-drops there'd be even less reason for them to exist anyway. And like I said, I prefer sticking to the shadows anyway. I'm happy to be alone in this game; happy to not see anyone else. Sometimes I mark towns and stables on my map from afar but don't feel like actually going down and connecting with any NPC's.
I'm not alone in Hyrule, though. As much as I enjoy staying to myself, and while there are long stretches of seeing nobody, I'm not alone. First there are the NPC's, and while many of them stick to towns there are sometimes travelers that I come across on various paths. Of course these can be good or bad meetings. I've met a gentleman selling items, an odd woodland creature who would make my inventory larger if I gave him seeds, some kind of weird demon disguised as a hiker who attempted to kill me for not joining her gang, and everyone in between.
And then there are the Guardians - easily the scariest creatures in any Zelda game. The Guardians are these automatons with metallic tentacles that move like slow spiders. They are terrifying and their attack beams are devastating. There is a way to deflect them with a shield, though I'm not confident that I can pull it off consistently so I just try to stay clear for now. I hate these things but I also think they're awesome. The Guardian is my number one most wanted Amiibo right now.
Enemies in the game are much more formidable foes than you'd expect from a Zelda game. They hit friggin' hard, and they fight well. Actually the AI in general is impressive in this game. Things like seeing a lookout catch a glimpse and begin blowing in a horn to alert the others. Actually the other night I saw something the blew my mind... I was swimming as stealthily as I could into a little fishing camp that was loaded with those lizard creatures. Right as I got to the shore one of them noticed me and started freaking out. He charged at me but in his haste he clipped a lit lantern.... And caught on fire. He charged at me ON FIRE and dropped to a pile of ash before he could hit me. It was amazing.
...Some of the shrines aren't puzzles at all, but rather tests of strength. I'm not a big fan of these shrines. Basically these are just single rooms where you must survive a battle against a pretty vicious automaton that wants to kill you. They are fast and they have huge blades and stuff. It's tough. So mostly I just mark these as spots for fast travel and then get out and figure I'll come back to all these later. Of course those swords they drop are cool. Oh well.
Similarly I came across an island recently that I'll have to come back to for similar reasons. It was kind of a survival game I guess. When you get to this one island all of your gear is taken away and you're tasked with stealing three orbs from three colossi who can one-hit kill you without much thought. I'll pass for now.
Sometimes I head into town, but it's rare. Obviously I'll do so for a quest, but when I'm just out exploring I tend to stay away. I mean what do they have there that I can't handle on my own? I'm trying to master the art of self-reliance within Breath Of The Wild. Though at times I fear I may be going insane like that dude from The Beach. Just kidding.
But really what do I need from a town? They've got food but I can hunt and gather my own. I can cook it in a fire that I've built. And I don't need an inn as I could just sleep by any fire. They've got weapons and tools, but so far I've done fine with what I've scavenged on my own. Enemies drop weapons and shields; the stray treasure chest contains them now and again. I guess armor's the one thing that I could see the benefit of buying, although in the dozen or more hours of my current replay I've not bought a single piece of armor or article of clothing. I've got over a thousand rupees and they're not burning a hole in my pocket. Finding that Xenoblade 2 gear was actually a lot more rewarding than just going and buying something anyway.
There's also stables, though I've not utilized those either. I suppose I should try to catch and train a horse now that I think about it. Although the slow nature of travel throughout the land is part of what makes the game feel so relaxing to me to begin with.
The first time I found a raft sitting on a shore it seemed like a worthless construct. I stood on it and nothing. I tried to push it into the water and nothing. I waited for the wind and finally gave up. But sometime later I used my little glider to get to a small island and found a big leaf and it turns out you can use those to create a gust to power the sail of a raft. Off to the seas I went. And actually I'd like to take a brief moment to talk about how lovely the water looks in this game. The way it moves, the way it reflect and morphs your submerged body. It's impressive stuff - especially when I remind myself that I'm playing on a handheld device!
As far as I can tell that leaf will not get damaged since I'm not using it as a weapon so it makes sense to keep it forever. Just the ability to go out and ride around through the waves is relaxing. And taking a raft out to the middle of the ocean nowhere to just sit and drift is really something.
Part of what makes Breath Of The Wild so successful to me is the persistence of its systems. I can draw parallels to Spelunky - a game that I've spent so many hours playing, reading about and discussing over the past five years. What makes Spelunky work so well is that the game basically just tells you: Look, there are lots of rules, but they are strict. Learn the rules and you learn the game. So for instance physics are global. If you understand the physics of yourself in the game, the you understand the physics of your enemies and can start to exploit this.
Breath Of The Wild is very much the same. The more you play the more you understand the physics of the world, and the way the AI reacts to everything. If you're patient you can use bombs to take out clusters of enemies while you remain safely up on top of a hill. You just need to know how long it takes for them to give up looking for you before you let them regroup and detonate the next one.
One of my absolute favorite moments in Breath Of The Wild was due to learning one of these global rules. I was in a particular shrine that involved electricity. The goal was basically to create a very long circuit throughout the dungeon to get electricity from one end to the other. You were given these metal objects that you were tasked with moving around strategically to complete the circuit. Seems pretty basic, right? Well at one point I ran out of these metal objects and was SO CLOSE. IF ONLY I had just one more metal piece to finish this puzzle. And that's when it hit me... actually that's when the GAME hit me... I had a bunch of metal objects in the shape of swords and shields and so on. I opened my inventory, highlighted a cheapo sword and hit 'drop.' The sword fell and became the missing link in the chain. Because you see it's not just the metallic items in the shrine that conduct electricity; it's EVERY metallic item in Breath Of The Wild. If you know how one metal object works in this game, then you know how they all do. And that's what makes a sandbox interesting enough to spend so much time within.
I've never played any of the Far Cry games. I admit that Blood Dragon looks like something that would appeal to me, but as for the main series I've always been turned off by the emphasis on killing animals. Maybe that's not so much what those games are about, but it's what I assume and it doesn't interest me. I remember a single mission where I had to hunt some deer in the Tomb Raider reboot. I wasn't crazy about it, but it did feel inline with the tone of the game. There was no glorification or anything. It was just there to show part of the difficulty of survivalism.
Likewise, I've stumbled upon a hunting side-mission in Grand Theft Auto V and just walked the F away. And those Cabella games? Forget it.
Look, I'm not a vegetarian or anything but I just don't want to see an animal harmed. It's just not something that appeals to me. There's a line, and I think it falls somewhere between the Tomb Raider reboot and what I presume Far Cry games are like. As for Breath Of The Wild, well animals are everywhere which assures you an endless menu. That said, my Link has been running on a hearty diet of apples and bananas for the most part. He's no vegan, though. He's bought some meals and even found some meat that was already dead. But I've personally not found a reason to waste an arrow by aiming it at any of the wildlife. Now if a bore attacks me then I'm going to defend myself and dine well that night. But I'm not going to start any shit.
I bring this up because of the dragon that flies in the sky at night. Technically I guess there are three but I have only ever seen the green one. As much as I try to avoid spoilers in this game, I did manage to read something about the dragons... apparently you're supposed to try to shoot them with arrows and they drop special loot. Well I would have never known that because the thought of shooting this dragon never crossed my mind. Like in my example with the bore above - if something isn't fucking with me, why would I fuck with it? Honestly, I think that dragons are one of the prettier things in the game. He just appears in the sky sometimes and flies around gracefully twisting himself into a pretzel. Sometimes he dips down into the water and reminds me of Nessy. When he appears I've never thought about attacking him. I have spent lots of time trying to grab cool screenshots of him. And one time I attempted to ride on his back (bad idea).
I should note that my time with Breath Of The Wild is not totally just me being a hermit and avoiding progress. It's actually the contrary: I totally WANT to make progress, I'm just not forcing it. Everytime I boot the game up it is my intention to find some new shrines to conquer or towers to open up the map some more. It's just that I'm doing so leisurely, and enjoying everything that goes on in between those points.
But the shrines are plenty fun for the most part. And there are definitely puzzles that make me mumble to myself, "you are the smartest man alive." I mean let's be real here, this is the age of the internet. Nevermind those pricey strategy guides you could get, but I'm certain that within a day of the game's release there were already Youtube videos that showed you how to solve each shrine. But that's not for me. The fun of those shrines is figuring them out on your own. Some I've cracked in just a couple of minutes, while others I've walked away from and come back because I just couldn't wrap my head around what I had to do. But that's cool. The shrines (and there are A LOT of them) are like a book of brain-teasers that you might flip through and pick and choose which to attempt and when.
I'll say this: I prefer the ones that don't kill me. The shrines that involve trying to manipulate boulders as they come crashing down an incline at me? Those I don't love. But the ones that are classic brain teasers are great.
My copy of Shining Resonance Refrain just showed up (on a Sunday - three days early, no less!) so my attention will now shift to that game for a while. But I'm not done with Breath Of The Wild. Not by a long shot. And replaying however many hours that I have this year have made me realize a couple of things about the game. First and foremost, I was lying to myself when I said it wasn't my favorite game of 2017. I mean really, I played a lot of great games last year but I don't think any of them made such a lasting impression. I don't think I'd be as quick to replay any of them from the beginning. And it all comes down to expectations; I was simply playing the game wrong last year. I was expecting one experience and getting another, which made it hard for me to grasp just how much better the experience I was getting really was.
Also there's this: Breath Of The Wild is like Skyrim for me. Or Grand Theft Auto V. It is not just a game, but rather a world that I enjoy exploring and experiencing stories within. I played GTA V on and off for over two years before I finally got around to actually beating the actual story mode. And as for Skyrim I'm not even sure how many hours I've played - first the original PC release, then the remastered one, and yet I've never beaten the story. And that's fine. I'm in no rush. It's all about going back to that world for me. Truth be told, when I get the itch to play Skyrim again, I'll no doubt pick up the Switch copy because the allure of playing it in handheld mode far outweighs my desire to see the end credits anytime soon. So with that said, I'll pick up this writing exercise again sometime in the future. But no rush. And I mean that in a good way.