Thursday 30 November 2023

The Long 2017 with Zelda (TotK reviewed)

2017 was a big year for games and next month I'll give you my GotY rundown on another year that included a huge open-world Zelda game and the next entry in the Forza Motorsport series (games: they can take a while to bake nowadays). But, given it took quite a space to dig into why Zelda: Breath of the Wild wasn't going to come close to making my list of top games, despite being at the very top of so many best-of lists in 2017, I thought I'd break out the Tears of the Kingdom talk into another post entirely.

You can play as a girl?

And here we start with the great calamity: while BotW was disappointing in how it becomes the solo story of Link the Twink, we come back six years later to find that the intro does a great job of setting up the new big bad and a pair of plucky adventurers. But that's it, sorry. Zelda is now a pre-rendered cut-scene character (excluding some illusions/misdirection) for the rest of the game. And the real killer to my enthusiasm was the narrative payload of 18 pre-rendered videos pointed towards a much better story than is in any of these open world Zelda games. I want to play that game! I want those scenes to be part of my deep RPG progression. Half of the cast of characters you "meet" in this game are in a totally different game you get to see in a handful of video files from that other game about Zelda fighting the original big bad in his origin story or in ghostly form, to explain the plot to you.

I was repeatedly reminded of The Witcher 3 (which I replayed recently) where you do get to play as Ciri, because this is her story even if anchored to the conclusion of Geralt's trilogy. That we see so little engaging story in TotK, despite some clear effort to make areas of the world evolve as the story progresses (as the sequel reforms the world anew), is disappointing. And not just a single moment of crushing realisation. I went through the tutorial and expected to find Zelda at some point, which then becomes the entire central thrust of the mainline quests. "Surely it's more than just some unlockable video files? Surely this isn't a 100 hour RPG constantly saying the princess is in another castle?" Then, by about the midpoint of the main quest, you realise the full extent of the plot design and realise that Zelda is gone and will just be some videos from long ago. Barring the obvious very last scene, where the narrative weight of decisions in that other game (you only see in videos or text entries) is undone by the magic of storytelling for children.

A game written for children

Because this game is written for children, old enough to read (as very little of it is voiced dialogue, feeling like a throwback to earlier times, especially given how well BotW sold and so the unlimited budget they should have had to make this game) but certainly not written for a teen audience. Nothing makes it into the script that will be too much for a twelve year old. Nintendo knows who they're making these games for, even if many critics who obsess over these titles are in their 30s to 40s and love to reference classic games much older than most of the primary audience when making comparisons.

Every time I read over another line, I couldn't help but notice the word choice, the repetition, and the focus on guidance. For a game all about the freedom to explore anything, it sure is worried you're not going to understand any concept that a dozen other titles have taught anyone who has been playing games for a while. That you need the most plain, simple language and cartoon comedy to keep you clapping. I'm quite old at this point, but I can at least enjoy some good all-ages (especially queer-friendly, which we didn't get much of when I was that age) content into the teen angst (who doesn't like to look back on a misspent youth?) of "young-adult" fiction. But I get almost nothing from this - I'm chasing after ghosts (of a better story with better writing).

The performances are all fine, when there is dialogue (I played with Japanese audio, which is how I play most narrative games from Japan except for some very Americanised releases like a Kojima joint or some Capcom output). But there's nothing behind it (and that becomes all the more obvious when you only get a few audio hoots while reading the text-only conversations). I'm not sure how to engage with a critical consensus that seems to claim that Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (especially in the final patched version with all that freeLC and two expansions) is not as well written as Tears of the Kingdom (or BotW before it). That anyone could put forward that the quest writing and narrated journey through those worlds is better in TotK boggles my mind - it seems openly contrarian in the way someone might push back against a Hollywood period epic (which can be a bit "cringe" in spots) by pointing at a basic children's movie and calling it the more substantial script.

A scattershot expansive open world, doubled

That the back-story (the better RPG we didn't even get) is told in a randomised order doesn't manage to actually drive my investigative desire. I don't know why it was designed like this rather than each time you find an ancient tablet or a dragon's tear it unlocks the next sequential bit of the back-story. Outer Wilds is one of the games of the decade for me and nothing here implies a familiarity with how deftly that game managed so much back-story that could be unlocked in an order depending on how the player wishes to investigate. I crave for a huge RPG that learns those lessons for this sort of thing.

If I randomised the shrines, you would not know. Outside of the initial tutorial shrines on the first island, they are not really intentionally placed. Lots of tutorial shrines are ones you might encounter in this go-anywhere game in hour 40 of your play. Oh, and of the over 100 shrines I completed, there were a couple dozen types with less than most actually interesting. Lots of very rote combat puzzles or straight up mechanics tutorials which you already had been doing for hours. Many teaching you (combat) controls could have been an on-screen prompt in the open world combat.

The shrines have the double burden of acting as fast-travel points and so being forced to exist in the density and distribution to help feed that system but also be content in their own right. I often found myself asking why this shrine existed, if it wasn't just because they needed a fast-travel point around here. And then we still have Korok seeds and so on. Just a random location with some thing dumped in it with no real connections to the surroundings. "I guess we need a pebble here, as there are no other pebbles around so this denotes a Korok hiding spot." "Look for this tree stump in the woods, because we could have just omitted it but then how would we restrict your carry capacity?" At least most good collectibles are to show you that you found a path less travelled and here is the consolation prize to tell you you have now completed down this dead end, but given how open the terrain is (even in the down below; the sky rarely had multiple paths worthy of calling something a side-path) then that doesn't really apply in TotK.

I played through most of the content I found, both above and below; rather enjoying the dark depths, until I realised how little there was to actually do there outside finding copy-pasted combat (tied into a very long quest chain) or mines. I sometimes got frustrated that it wasn't actually nearly as open as everyone said, with several systems or quest chains locked and no signposts to even note that this would be unlocked later or how to advance towards that.

Some quest lines that seemingly don't have to be finished before rushing to the end boss are locking vital upgrades and features. Some soft signposting that does exist is actually eventually required to be engaged with so how optional are they to the main quests? But also there's not a huge amount of content there (you can very quickly jump from the five cities to the temples without really exploring those areas and sometimes it even feels like the game is uncertain if some stuff is to return to later for collectathons or actual content you should do while there). I know I did the mazes relatively early on but my mind blanks on if they ever tied back into the wider plotlines because so much of the game feels like some stuff designed to chew through that's not even important inside its own internal lore (contrast to the weight of every bit of a Dark Souls game).

Coming apart at the seams

As I ended up doing a lot of collectathons and exploration, I got to the second tier of batteries, the blue ones. And promptly found out that most of the really cool vehicles, if they don't disappear via leaving them temporarily (once you step over an invisible area boundary) or a level load screen resetting the world (outside chests that are permanently removed and monsters that respawn on the blood moon timer), will blink out of existence before you even get to the chance to fully use them. No gliders going long distance, no balloons actually letting you get to the sky unless you pay for a lot of them so go much faster - it's not that this stuff prevents you sequence breaking, just makes you farm for mats to build larger machines that can go much faster. It removes the fun of Link being a little guy making fun little vehicles to cruise around in (that don't cost many resources). This may well be a technical limitation of an engine creaking at the seams.

Early in my playthrough, although you may encounter this at any time, I was rebuilding a village and after dragging over a dozen tree logs over the hills (using the magic physics gun to stick all the trunks I'd chopped down into a single blob, as there seems to be no limit on what the physics hand can hold, then just sprint over the land because building a vehicle would have been no faster and used up resources for a vanishing vehicle) I had to help rebuild five houses. What fun physics puzzles would the creators of 150+ different shrines [spoilers: the shrines aren't that diverse] have thought up to show me helping rebuild this town?

Every single one of them had two rings and the puzzle was for me to cut down another tree (this time a longer one) and drop it into the rings vertically as a central pillar. Only it was high up enough you always had to climb up to the top to get the height to use the physics hand to drop it in cleanly. In an area where it rained far too often so you couldn't climb up without falling back down (because I'd not yet done the 12 side-quest chain to unlock the "sticky" suit to remove this annoyance) and even when I got half way up, the platforming control on thin geometry show this game is not nearly as polished as you'd want for doing that sort of precision movement. Link fall down (or goes off to get more materials to build ramps).

Again, fine to do once or twice but every single building required the same exact thing to be done. This took 6 years, while starting from an engine that seems to very much be similar to the BotW renderer with much of the interactions preserved, that reuses the basic underlying world shape from the last game (expanded here). Thousands of people worked on this. Because it'll sell tens of millions to make it one of the highest grossing games of the year (maybe the highest without online/microtransactions?) but we get this copy-paste everywhere, next to no VO, etc etc. It's just frustrating what this could have been. Sticking vehicles together isn't enough.

Wrapping it up

The game is systemic but in that systems are simulated rather than that they build puzzles actually expecting multiple paths (if you sequence break or find another path, that's due to systems complexity not consideration of the puzzle design). Immersive sims build several paths depending on your character and you get to pick a path or use the way systems interact to "break" the game and use none of the paths. Here you can break many puzzles but they are clearly designed for precisely one "correct" answer. Also some of the systemic stuff is very light: you don't have to use these metal blocks put next to the puzzle to connect the electricity source to the detector to open the gate, you can grab any random metal object or even the metal weapons you carry with you but if you use an electric arrow then absolutely not, you can't trivialise puzzles by thinking around the requirements (no cheating like that).

And talking of arrows, this is not the great hope for Far Cry crafting but even more varied and interesting with being able to craft a batch of enemy-seeking flaming arrows which can teleport to mirror jumping enemies. There are 500 items you can combine with your arrows and you will use precisely four of those items 1000 times (via a secondary menu, no crafting batches here or being prepared for combat) while every other item you will use once then ignore. It's not actually interesting or deep, there's just a lot more busywork and possibly even farming depending how committed you are to fully utilising the additional tools open to you (or giving up on a system because I'm not going to farm mats for that). Which is a lot of this game.

At least we can all agree that the fifth ally quest chain feels like it drags on (I'd even pre-completed a few parts of it many hours earlier, those which you are allowed to). That's not to give the game praise for being non-linear, because there are several hours of my life I'm never getting back, which I alluded to earlier in this piece, finding various things in the underworld that you cannot actually progress because they aren't activated until this very late game questline. And then you do a final dungeon run that I also didn't find at all interesting (even compared to the main temples, which are a solid three out of five if ever there was) and get to a damp finale anyone over the age of six sees coming, with meh writing throughout.

It has been a bit over a month since I completed TotK myself, a game I played through May, June, September, and finally October. I possibly liked it significantly more than BotW, especially those first dozen or so hours. And yet I still find it a far more frustrating game, full of half-baked ideas and pointless divergence from slowly established genre conventions (that also ends up replicating mistakes from a lot of earlier games in the open world genre) despite what many say about those issues actually being secret strengths (but to go over this would be to repeat my BotW comments). With an injection of a lot more reactivity (like Baldur's Gate 3 offers) or production values (like most AAA games do, especially after the last game sold well over 30 million copies; which Nintendo rarely discounts as deeply as other publishers) or building more narrative framework that embraces a slightly older audience, this could have wedded systems and story into something special. I can see the embers of what others love, but it's all turned to ash in my mouth!