What Nintendo has created is an all-encompassing mind-body possession in which you find yourself inside something unusually, hauntingly engrossing. The otherworldly, vertiginous awe I felt after climbing a mountain and looking down into an area full of aquatic human-fish creatures was, of course, fictional. But as far as astonishment goes, spotting this Atlantis-meets-Avatar hamlet was uncannily similar to standing high above the Cape of Good Hope while on assignment for a travel story, looking below to see a pride of ostriches running across the beach through a weft of fog. It’s not simply wonder. It’s the feeling of being gobsmacked. And, in “Breath of the Wild,” it happens quite a few times.
It does take some time to ramp up, however. At the beginning, I awoke as Link, a silent Rip Van Winkle-type warrior who’s been asleep for 100 years — except Link’s younger and blonder. We bonded like old friends, yet I have to confess a persistent feeling of annoyance after this meeting concluded. I felt swindled by a chuckling, hooded Old Man in a black cloak who promised me a paraglider to get around the vast world of Hyrule if I found a spirit orb for him. Once I brought it to him, like a conniving politician, he asked for three more orbs which would be found in shrines hidden in the far-flung corners of the Great Plateau.
Also deflating is the dialog, which is translated from Japanese. Mostly presented as readable text, it’s rarely very good, with one-dimensional characters and one-trick voice actors seldom providing nuance. The best lines are quirky, cute or humorous like the words espoused by the lovable oddballs in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series. But that’s somehow not enough here, in a world that’s so painstakingly made and decidedly gigantic. You need to be moved. And you aren’t moved enough. You want characters’ monologues to shine as brightly as the full moon you discover in the forest. They almost never do. For instance, the Zoran Lady Mipha might ignite sparks of sympathy during her selfless speeches. But it’s never empathy because the voice actor’s tone evokes martyrdom as much as it does heroism. Narrative in games has gotten so much better in the past decade, but “Breath of the Wild” does not move it forward.
The plot? To save the kingdom of Hyrule, Link must quash the horrible Calamity Ganon, who’s the main antagonist in this series. Shown first as a fanged, boar-faced monster made of ember-stippled black smoke, he’s larger than the kingdom’s biggest castle. You don’t as much see him in the distance as behold his massive malevolence. He’s a megalomaniac bent destroying Hyrule and he holds Princess Zelda hostage.
Thankfully, the varied gameplay and animated splendor of this world makes up for the story’s weaknesses (and familiarity if you’ve played other games in this series that’s been around since 1986). It’s so astounding at times that you feel are part of a dramatic sword and sorcery safari where enchantment holds you tightly in its clutches. In one particularly difficult scenario, you stand atop Vah Ruta, a colossal stone elephant who is captive in the middle of a reservoir. Outside and inside, it’s more like a majestic Angkor Wat temple than the usual sprawling dungeons seen in previous games. Eventually you try to search, without falling off, for a hidden terminal switch at the very tip of its trunk. Flicking enough of these switches frees the elephant.
Balancing like a Wallenda brother clad in a medieval suit, I was temporarily dizzied by the sheer height and the potential of falling to my doom. But, after getting my bearings, I started up the terminal and mused upon the beauty of Hyrule below before using the paraglider to find the next switch on Vah Ruta.
Although it’s the most compelling game Nintendo has made in its 37-year history, playing is never an effortless endeavor. You cannot change the difficulty settings to weaken its monsters. Early on, swords, spears and bows break after minimal usage. So, just as I did in the mature-rated “Demons Souls” game, I died over a hundred times in the 30 hours I played, rolling my eyes and spewing “C’mon, man!” along the way. And just as I did in “Skyrim,” the seemingly endless epic from Bethesda Softworks, I crafted elixirs and cooked herbs, meat and root vegetables to keep up my stamina.
I was defeated again and again by a version of the leering antagonist called Waterblight Ganon who wielded blocks of ice, a yards-long frozen sword and a deadly red laser. Even as the difficulty frustrated me, I kept coming back for more. And, when I finally finished him off, I was reminded of a line from Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being A Wallflower”: “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” There would be hurdles ahead, but Link and I, together had many more roads to travel.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair, Boys’ Life and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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