The Legend of Zelda:
Breath of the Wild.
I became a fan of the series pretty recently: Twilight Princess, a game that belonged to someone I was living with at uni, was the first game in the franchise I ever saw (although obviously I was familiar with it beforehand, it's a cultural juggernaut), and looking back on it, while Wind Waker, Majora's Mask, or Skyward Sword would likely have gotten me just as interested in the franchise, Twilight Princess was a brilliant place to start with it.
Breath of the Wild was an exciting prospect for me, as any games in franchises I like are exciting, so I bought it on release day to play it on the Wii U, because why would I bother getting a Switch just for one game when I already have a Wii U.
Set many thousands of years in the future of Hyrule, Breath of the Wild sees Link awaken in the Shrine of Resurrection, having fallen in battle a hundred years ago after Calamity Ganon, a force of darkness and malice, took control of Hyrule's army of automated soldiers and its four Divine Beasts, massive mechs that were meant to stop Ganon. Missing his memories and in a world mostly overtaken by the wild apart from a few villages scattered around, Link must restore the Divine Beasts to the side of good and defeat Calamity Ganon. As he travels, he regains his memories of a hundred years ago, and learns about how Princess Zelda struggled to awaken her powers, and how her inability to do so was a key part in Hyrule's fall.
Okay, we'll run down the bugbears with this game first. The biggest one is weapon durability. All of Link's weapons -- including, eventually, the Master Sword, although it repairs itself over time -- break, and oddly quickly too. Bows seem to be much sturdier than melee weapons, to encourage players to use archery as their go-to combat style, but in this instance, that just means 'bows are slightly less sturdy than they are in real life' and 'melee weapons are all made out of candyfloss and straw.'
|I really like the blue tunics.|
Weapons later in the game are considerably sturdier, but honestly, there shouldn't be a weapon durability system at all. Instead, make different weapons integral to gameplay: Have some monsters who are resistant to certain kinds of weapons, like slashing or bludgeoning, and play up elemental affinities by having some monsters be resistant to certain elements. Make different weapons attractive to a player by introducing a need for variety, not by having your weapons break after three uses.
That's not an exaggeration, either. Early weapons will snap very quickly, and there's no way to repair them, as far as I found.
The game has a handful of other technical problems, too: Moblins (specifically moblins) make the game lag for some reason, don't ask me why, and weather effects will sometimes cause battles to slow to a crawl. The weather effects are fun in theory, but often just spoil gameplay as they force you to wait inside: Lightning will hit you if you go out in a thunderstorm, and if it's raining you can't climb things, meaning that if there's a storm going on, you'll most likely just duck into a stable, put your controller down, and wait it out.
(This especially becomes a problem in the late game, where -- to demonstrate Ganon's growing power -- rain and thunderstorms become increasingly common.)
Apart from that, though, I really, really enjoyed this game.
|This game has Rito in it, but also Zora?|
In many ways, it feels like a response to Skyward Sword. Where Skyward Sword was heavily modular, this game is open world. Where Skyward Sword was set in the far past and had a focus on technology that seems like magic, Breath of the Wild is set in the far future with a focus on magic that seems like technology (and sometimes magic that just seems like magic). Where Skyward Sword took its cues from Wind Waker, Breath of the Wild takes its cues from Twilight Princess. Where Skyward Sword retconned Ganondorf into just a proxy for a bigger villain, Breath of the Wild turns him into a vast, calamitous force that far outstrips anything Demise ever was.
The game isn't as epic as Twilight Princess was, although it really does try, presenting us with a vast world, a destructive evil force so ancient nobody remembers its origins (Urboza, the best character in the game, remarks at one point that legends say that Ganon once adopted the form of a Gerudo, in a nicely done nod at the idea of 'history being distorted over time'), and a journey with high stakes and a lot of impressive set pieces. It's definitely an epic game, it just doesn't reach the rarified heights of Twilight Princess.
(In many ways, the final boss battle hammers in how it doesn't reach the same levels of epicness. Twilight Princess' final boss battle was an expansive and endlessly interesting four stage battle, pitting you first against Zelda in a game of energy tennis, then against a charging Pig Ganon that let you either approach it like a sumo wrestler or an archer, then a horseback section with light arrows, and then, finally a sword duel. It tests everything you've learned in the game up to that point, and it does so while never feeling tired or frustrating.
|Link, and sparkles.|
Breath of the Wild tries to do something similar with its final boss. You first face off against Ganon in a kind of spider-man monstrosity form that uses the abilities and attacks of the four bosses you've faced prior to this, and then you face off against him in his Dark Beast form in a battle that is essentially the same as the archery battles against the Divine Beasts. It too tries to test everything you've learned, but it's shorter and less dramatic.
If I was designing this game, I'd have done it slightly differently. I'd have the battle against Spider Ganon go basically as it does before, and then the first battle against the Dark Beast -- and then I'd have Link go inside the Dark Beast, landing in its interior and encountering a semi-miasmic Ganon that's closer to his Gerudo form. First, they play energy ball tennis. Then he duels Ganon in a sword-and-archery fight (hell, you could even go for Extra Reference by having Ganon wield the Sword of the Six Sages), Mipha, Revali, Daruk, and Urbosa would all appear one by one to assist, before all five deal the final blow, causing the miasma to dissolve and revealing Zelda.
Then Link and Zelda leave the interior and fight the Dark Beast again for the final stage, complete with the Divine Beasts throwing their own attacks in.)
|The Divine Beasts function as both boss battles and mobile dungeons, each one|
with a gimmick for altering their layout -- tilting from one side to the other, moving the water-spouting trunk,
rotating a series of segments, etc.
The game's story is good, but its narrative really shines in how it silently plays out Ganon's story for players. Since nobody in-game knows Ganon's origins, there's no exposition on how he ended up this way: Instead, the game plays with visuals, implication, and brief snatches of lore to paint a picture. We are introduced to the idea of Ganon as a mindless, animalistic force similar to the divine beasts, and as the story goes on, and if you search out extra clues around the world, two things become clear: Firstly, that it is very, very likely that ten thousand years ago, the Yiga Clan gave Ganon his own Divine Beast of their own creation, and that his present form is the result of some kind of ungodly merging process that transmuted the Beast's metal and stone into flesh and miasma; and secondly, that he is desperately trying to rebuild a body for himself, but is so eldritch and disconnected from the world by now that he has no idea how to do so.
It's a clever, engaging piece of backstory, given to the audience in a way that respects their intelligence, and I always love those.
The game is graphically gorgeous, with an excellent soundtrack (and a good idea of when not to use it -- the Great Plateau, and Link's lonely awakening, is hammered in by a near total lack of music), well-refined (for the most part) gameplay and some actually really interesting innovations. It's not the tour de force that Twilight Princess was, nor is it the sharply innovative Wind Waker, or the masterpiece of tone and oppressive storytelling that Majora's Mask was, but it is a very, very solid game.