Is Zelda Going With the Flow of Action-RPGs in 2017?
As we’ve followed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild demonstrations and trailers, it has been more than a little out of the ordinary. The art seems as robust and charming as usual and the enemy and non-playable character designs that have appeared are a delightful tease at the inhabitants we can expect to fill this game's world, but gameplay and other elements have exposed something else. We've seen Link utilize various weapon and equipment with limited durability, crafting systems to create new items, and survival aspects required to continue the journey. As reveal after reveal exposed new wrinkles of the game, it’s made one thing very noticeable: Breath of the Wild looks less like a familiar Zelda game and more like an amalgam of other popular modern open-world action-RPGs.
It’s not a bad thing. The latest Zelda has been showing itself to be a fresh leap from what we’ve come to expect of the series. Eiji Aonuma himself has gone on record to say that Breath of the Wild sets out to break various conventions of the “standard” Zelda experience, but the more you look at it, the more you might notice how much it borrows from other places to accomplish that task. It’s not just amusing little additions like a jump button that doesn’t require items or some voice acting in a world traditionally narrated by text and various grunts and yells. It’s mechanics built into the core structure of the game.
Eiji Aonuma called Breath of the Wild “a survival game” during a livestream play during Nintendo’s E3 coverage in 2016. In the time since, we’ve come to see that as you explore this Hyrule, Link doesn’t have his standard sword and shield and items like hearts and rupees don’t just pop out of grass with a sword swing. Instead, you fill your inventory with various natural items found through exploration. Think of your standard short journey into the wild in a game like Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. When you venture outside of safe havens with Geralt, you’re bound to come across various herbs that can be gathered for potions, monsters and animals that bear weak consumables or crafting components and human bandit camps where the enemies are armed with various flimsy and makeshift weaponry. If you’re lucky you might find a treasure trove with items and equipment that offer more substantial use and are worth carrying for a while, but almost nothing lasts forever.
A short journey into the titular “wild” of Breath of the Wild features similar progression. For instance, you might find items like apples, wood and insects that just exist in nature for the taking, but coming across a moblin camp and slaying them will reward players with the treasures of the camp: most likely a small collection of makeshift gear clearly meant for short skirmishes. As with games like Witcher 3, it means there will be some sifting through less useful or common components to find the one or two rare pieces that stand out for something bigger. Like Witcher 3, it’s most often treasure chests located throughout the world that might contain the good stuff, and sometimes not even then. Sometimes you have to take what you find and craft it to make the challenge worthwhile.
Crafting is a strange mechanic to see in a Zelda game where regular and permanent items played such a heavy role, but Breath of the Wild will reward the players willing to put time to collect components and make them into something better. There are various stations throughout the game where you can mix and match items into new and useful tools of adventure. For instance, take a piece of meat to a campfire, drop it in and it will cook into an item that will restore more health. Alternatively, if you find a cooking pot and drop that same meat in, it will become a different and more beneficial item. Meanwhile, if you take some of your components and drop them into the cooking pot together, like a moblin horn and a butterfly, you might get an elixir that restores the stamina meter you use to climb and swim. Experimentation is key to discovery and you never quite know what’s going to come out until you try.
This crafting component elicits thoughts of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim with its own stations, particularly of the alchemy variety. Herbs and alchemical components in Skyrim played a similar role where these items did various things on their own, but mixing them together with other components yielded unique potions, poisons and gear for use on your adventure. Gathering of components in battle and in the wild and the experimentation of putting them together to see what they do seems like an extremely similar line between Skyrim and Breath of the Wild.
As much as Breath of the Wild features open-ended gameplay where you can explore and do as you please, the game employs a common concept used by numerous other games to offer a sort of boundary and simply put, it’s strength of your character versus the strength of certain enemies. Traditionally, Zelda employed barriers of different tools found in dungeons that solve various puzzles in them and throughout the world. Those barriers exist here too, but we’re talking about the concept of the “overpowered” foe. There are no “levels” in Breath of the Wild, but it is full of big, powerful baddies that can be found by sheer chance. Take on an extraordinary foe with a pile of garbage moblin weapons and your flimsy cotton clothes and you’ll do little more than scuff it before it punches you straight into a game over screen.
Compare this to games like Fallout 4 and Borderlands where particularly dangerous enemies have skulls next to their life bars. The thing about the overpowered foe is that it’s possible to take these things down by patience, careful reflexes, strategy and perhaps a little luck, but progressing through the game and acquiring better gear is the only way to ease the fight. You can kill them, but it’s much easier for them to kill you. In this way, these games impose a barrier meant to keep you out of various spots until you have strong enough weapons, armor and tools to deal with it.
There are only a few hand-picked and demonstrable examples we’ve seen on display since Breath of the Wild was announced. There are numerous other comparisons to be made with the conventions of modern action-RPGs, whether you’re looking at the waypoint system of the map or the various primary weapons in Breath of the Wild, compared to the blind exploration, standard sword and limited, mostly permanent tools in previous Zelda games. This is not a criticism of what we’ve seen so far as much as an observation. The original Legend of Zelda was practically the original action-RPG. The series has often been a trendsetter and inspiration to other games that came after it. It’s interesting to see that in attempting to break conventions of the typical Zelda game, Breath of the Wild seems to take many paths now tread by those other action-RPGs to reinvent itself as something fresh to the series.