Roller Coaster Ride with BoTW; Dissecting Greatness

The sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild (BoTW) is now in development, and my hype levels are soaring. But this wouldn’t be the case a couple of months ago. My experience with BoTW has been fairly bumpy to say the least. But looking back, this game has been cemented in my mind as one of the greatest of all-time.

“Wake Up Link”

     My initial ride with The Legend of Zelda: BoTW simply won’t be replicated in the foreseeable future. The game commenced with Link awakening from a lengthy slumber, with no recollection of the past. He soon finds his first tool, and glimpse into the past by obtaining the Sheikah Slate. I simply found it amusing how much the slate resembled the Wii U tablet and was ignorant of how valuable it would prove on my adventure.

     The experience I’ve had during the first several hours after Link’s awakening was surreal. Rushing out to The Great Plateau for the first time with no expectations and being awed by the sheer size, beauty, and famous landmarks of Hyrule, it is a sight second to none. 

The Great Plateau

     It doesn’t end there either. Running around The Great Plateau, learning about this massive sandbox, the rules of the world, how your abilities work and what you can accomplish with them, learning the combat system, and there is so much more to discover in the first handful of hours. The immense amount of exploration and feeling of discovery the game rewards you with, and not just of the world, but of the mechanics as well is where BoTW shines. For example, your magnesis ability which allows you to see and move metal objects, if you use this near some unexpected places, such as by a pond, you might find a treasure chest at the bottom with some useful weapons and armor. 

    When you start to progress through the early game, you quickly learn how it operates, explore new environments, and discover lots of secrets and shrines (puzzle-styled dungeons). You will also be introduced to many brand-new game mechanics. The most useful being the paraglider, this allows you to jump from any height and glide around. You are able to see beautiful environments from the sky and quickly traverse the world. To unlock new parts of the map you must travel to towers which are usually surrounded by enemies or unique obstacles. This forces you to go out and explore the world of Hyrule. 

The para-glider, used to quickly traverse the world

     The main storyline takes Link to Kakariko Village, where an old lady sends you on a quest to free several divine beasts that will help defeat Ganon. This journey is a memorable moment for me in the game, taking a road trip that felt forever on horseback to Zora’s domain, where one of the divine beasts was located. I can still distinctly remember following a road towards Zora’s domain on which I was fighting creatures that I hadn’t seen before, just getting absorbed in the odyssey, when the prince of Zora’s domain snapped me out of it. From across the river, he called out asking for help and explained how I could make it to his home as fast as possible. Unlike other games, it wasn’t just another waypoint on your map, this was deeper and more organic. Akin to following directions given by a stranger in a new city you’ve never been to before. 

     Once I arrived I was taken aback by the city’s magical “feeling”, it was a beautiful place located above a lake and flanked by waterfalls. You could speak to anyone to learn more about the Zora, a whole other race, as well as uncover some of the events which transpired while Link was in his deep slumber. Once you complete some required quests to unlock the ability to take on the divine beasts, you will have one of the most iconic experiences in a video game, ever. 

     The divine beasts usually have some type of defense you will need to overcome before you are able to enter. These are exclusive gameplay moments that you won’t experience anywhere else in the game, making them all the more special. Once you are inside, you will need to solve more puzzles and fight new creatures. I don’t want to say too much here, well, because spoilers.

One of the several divine beasts you may encounter

 

The Mid-game Crisis

 

     Although the “high” from the early game lasts quite a long time, you are soon pushed to complete more shrines and side quests. A feeling of fatigue slowly creeps its way in, as the main story seems to come to a halt. Now I must make a disclaimer before I go on, this feeling of exhaustion may not happen to everyone, it honestly most likely won’t to you. But this is something I experienced with The Legend of Zelda: BoTW, and it made me put down the game for a few months before I came back and finished it.

     Let’s start with some context, I am personally more familiar with traditional open world games with a more direct approach to the narrative, and having a map filled with icons demanding completion; RDR 2/GTA V. This conflicts with what BoTW stands for, and is the reason I had some friction by this point of my playthrough. The game’s design philosophy involves giving you as much freedom as possible, they’re just leaving you alone in their playground to fool around in, with minimal intervention. 

Red Dead Redemption 2 map

      You quickly get to a point where you are given a quest, to simply defeat Ganon. You can attempt to destroy him at any time and are not obligated to even finish most of the main story quests beforehand. This hands-off approach of storytelling brushed me the wrong way and was a bit off-putting.

     In other open-world games, everything you need to or can accomplish can be organized into a neat to-do list for you to checkoff, with all the obvious icons shining brightly on your mini-map. This isn’t what BoTW does, and is at the heart of the issue. It wasn’t necessarily bad per se, it just wasn’t what I was used to. It had me feeling lost on what exactly I should be focusing my time on. How long should I train before I take on Ganon? Should I complete all the main quests? How many side quests? What equipment is “good enough” to take on Ganon? These are some of the questions that were running through my mind as I played. It denigrated the experience of the game a fair bit. 

     I had developed this impression that the game would have no real narrative and the developers just decided to leave a basic story behind, leaving it to the player to fill in the gaps. The seeming lack of narrative and direction by this point, was starting to leave me feeling lost. On the flip side, I can see what they were going for, giving players an immense amount of freedom to play and complete the game in anyway they found appropriate. This philosophy worked for many people, including me, just not at this point. 

     A prominent issue of the game for me was getting to the midpoint of BoTW and feeling no true motivation to explore the world and see what was out there. 

     This all started when I found the master sword lodged in a rock. To remove the sword from the rock, it required a certain amount of hearts. To obtain additional hearts I needed to find and complete more shrines. This commenced the tedious quest of searching for more shrines. Every day I would get home, boot up BoTW, and walk around the world looking for more shrines. I did find many shrines, but this just ended up leaving me unengaged. I was forced to explore the world just to find shrines, I didn’t feel as if the game itself was rewarding me for exploring very often. Occasionally I would stumble upon a cool shrine location, or better yet a shrine quest (often riddles to uncover the shrine) which were fun to solve. Looking back at this I was just an idiot, an unlucky idiot. 

The master sword jammed into a stone for Link to dislodge

     The time I did spend exploring, I didn’t run into very many secrets or cool locations, and I had no idea what Korok seeds were for, that was because I didn’t run into Hetsu (allows you to claim korok seeds) yet. There was a lot of stuff that I had missed simply because I explored the wrong regions. It felt as if had been playing the game “wrong”. 

     I hate the idea that there is a “right” way to play a video game. You should have the freedom to play a game designed like this however you desire. This is exactly what the game goes for, with one caveat though. It expects you to play the game and not sit around waiting for instructions, and this is what many games have taught me to do. 

     The game didn’t force me into learning all the different game mechanics, or how to use them best. It didn’t force me to even encounter Hetsu (although they did make it likely). Learning all these things and discovering intriguing locations, people, and encounters, which only come from experience and exploration. There are hundreds of distinct things you can do in BoTW if you have the confidence to trifle.

     A friend once told me: “If you can think of a way to do something in this game, try it, it’ll probably work!”.

      There are many good examples of this, such as throwing some food on the water as bait for fishing, rather than swimming around chasing them. To discover these cool things, you need to just fool around with the game and see what works. A good start is to have mastered the different mechanics and then using that knowledge to extrude out in some unexpected ways. This game doesn’t tell you the best way of achieving something, you just figure it out on your own.

     This is not something I have been “taught” to do by other open world games. Time and time again, open world games (looking at GTA, RDR, Watch Dogs, …) are actively keeping you occupied. Do this main quest, do this side quest, talk to this person, drive this person to this destination. This is how traditional open world games are structured and they rarely reward simply exploring the world and the game’s mechanics. 

Using fire to create an updraft you can ride with your para-glider

     Need to get high in the sky, and fast? Just light some grass of fire for a quick updraft which you can ride with your glider. Want to fool around with the physics? Make a catapult and launch yourself as high as possible.  I am sure some of you are familiar with what happens when you attack chickens in Zelda games. Well why not try throwing a chicken at your savage sword swinging enemies and watch the chickens swarm your foes. This game gives you the freedom to do whatever you want, the way you vision it.

     The requirement of “screwing around” is what got me stumped. It wasn’t until I overcame this, that I truly enjoyed BoTW for what it is, an amazing sandbox that gives you the freedom to do almost anything imaginable, and it turns out that makes it a damn near perfect video game.

A Beautiful Ending

     Fortunately for me, I came across several folks on Twitter who praised BoTW for its amazing flexibility and freedom. They shared magnificent stories of places and secrets I hadn’t uncovered yet. I was eventually convinced to give the game another fair shot after I put it down for quite some time. 

     This time it was different, everything clicked. It made sense to me why I wasn’t enjoying this game as much before. I was playing the game differently this time around, I wasn’t forcing myself into the “check the box” mentality of other open world games. I just did whatever I felt like. If I came across a side quest which I found interesting I’d just complete it, if I stumbled into a cool looking cave I’d explore it, if I saw a cool island in the distance I’d take a raft there. Most importantly, I wouldn’t worry about what else I “needed” to do. What I felt like doing took priority above all-else.

     With this new way of playing, everything changed. Every time I’d boot up BoTW I would be rewarded in some way, but not just with XP or money like in other games. But with the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment. Another friend of mine told me that “No matter where you are, there is some secret hidden on your screen, a korok seed, a chest, a shrine, or something else. You just need to know enough to discover it.”

     At this point, more than any point, I found that to be true. I just needed to wander aimlessly to uncover more of what the game truly had to offer. For me, this game redefined what it means to be an open world game, it retaught me how to play them. It is your game, and your choice in how you want to play it. That is the lesson this game teaches, and it is a great tutor.

     I am proud to say that when I came back I uncovered all the memories and defeated Ganon, however I am still not looking to put it down anytime soon. It feels like I just scratched the surface. This game has to be one of the greatest and the most subtly in-depth I’ve ever played. As soon as you go digging in the world, there is nothing you will find but gold. This game completely breaks down all structure and gives you the hammer, you are the architect of your own journey.

Written by: Yousuf Shad, Edited by: Assud Shad

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