I’ve had The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sitting on my backlog for a long time now, and I’ve been trying to work out the best way to cover it, because I knew that I definitely wanted to cover it in one form or another.
Was a Cover Game feature right for it? Perhaps, but with one or two exceptions, I tend to prefer to reserve the Cover Game slot for games that don’t get much attention from the mainstream press. And Breath of the Wild has certainly had plenty of mainstream attention.
The other consideration was that Breath of the Wild is a massive game, so doing something a bit more… “long term” was perhaps in order. With that in mind, then, I welcome you to the first installment of The Zelda Diaries, chronicling my journey through this ruined Hyrule, and the thoughts that occurred to me along the way.
A little context before we begin. I’ve previously played a bit of Breath of the Wild, and I really do mean just a tiny bit — for those who know the game, previously I made it up to the Hateno lab and then got a bit lost when the wanderlust took me a little too strongly. I didn’t uncover any of Link’s lost memories and I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I thought it safest to begin afresh for this brand new journey.
Breath of the Wild’s opening is unassuming, but spectacular; in a similar fashion to how The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion began with you emerging from a dark, dingy locale into an amazing-looking open-world, so too does Breath of the Wild present you with its setting in an awe-inspiring manner. The difference here is that the entire process takes less than five minutes rather than requiring you to spend 45 minutes following Captain Picard’s instructions in the dark.
Breath of the Wild’s storytelling is subtle without being obtuse. This, for me, strikes a good balance. I enjoy both games where the plot is front and centre (such as in Compile Heart RPGs) and ones that make you work a bit harder for your narrative. Breath of the Wild, for me, does a good job of drip-feeding you information about its setting, background and characters without requiring you to resort to reference manuals, wikis or three-hour lore videos on YouTube to have any idea what is going on beyond “shiny armour man kill monsters”.
The game rewards discovery with narrative, in other words, and that, for me, is often a far greater reward than any sort of “treasure” the game might offer up. Give me a shiny new sword for uncovering a secret area? Cool, but whatever. (Particularly with how “disposable” equipment is in Breath of the Wild, but that’s a topic for another entry!) Let me flirt with the cute Sheikah girl after discovering who stole the tribal heirloom? Let me at it.
This is further extended by the fact that there’s a ton of environmental storytelling going on. Several characters keep diaries, for example, and they often react to whether or not you’ve read them. Reading a character’s diary can often provide interesting insights into their character — as well as some clues for possible quests and secrets — but at the same time you need to live with the fact that you violated someone’s privacy.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s return to those Elder Scrolls comparisons, because prior to Breath of the Wild’s release — and even for some time after it — I saw quite a few people describing it as “Zelda meets Skyrim“.
I have to confess, this is one of the main reasons I put off trying out Breath of the Wild for so long. I’m not a particular fan of Skyrim (or indeed The Elder Scrolls in general), you see; I find those games technically impressive and magnificent in scope, but the lack of characterisation for the people you meet in those virtual worlds just kills them for me. I don’t care about the people in those worlds, so I feel no incentive to go on world-saving adventures.
Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, introduces you to interesting characters right from the get-go — beginning with the mysterious old man who acts as a guide for your early hours adventuring atop the Great Plateau. The old man serves a purpose from both narrative and mechanical perspectives; technically he’s a “tutorial” of sorts, guiding you to completing your first shrines and obtaining some important abilities, but at the same time he’s intriguing and enjoyable to hang around. He makes you want to know more.
Breath of the Wild’s NPCs are consistently interesting, though, even when they don’t directly serve a “purpose” from a gameplay perspective. Take a long journey on foot between two places and chances are you’ll run into someone, whether they’re making a journey of their own or being set upon by monsters. The context in which you encounter these characters determines how your initial interactions will go; it all feels very real and natural, and not a single one of them feels cookie-cutter.
This aspect of the game is brought into even sharper focus when you reach one of the game’s more populated areas. Once again, there are no “generic” NPCs; even the shopkeepers are characters in their own right, often with their own little narratives that you can pick into as you see fit. The owner of the archery store in Kakariko Village, for example, has recently split up from her husband, and through a bit of investigation, conversation and questing in the area you can learn a bit more about how this situation arose.
Sometimes other seemingly unrelated quests shed new light on a character’s background and motivations, too, helping every single one of the people you see around Breath of the Wild’s world feel like a living, breathing person rather than just someone who is there to spout off Tavern Tale #24 or sell you a potion.
This is how you do an open-world game, folks. Make me care about the world I’m expected to spend time in — and more importantly, the people in it — and you’ll keep me there for a good long while!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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