Riding the Backlog - Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Part 1)

By Chris Pranger

Session 1: Intro to The Great Plateau

It’s a new year, making it the perfect chance to try something new. If you’re new to Riding the Backlog, it is a series where I ride my exercise bike while playing a video game and then write about my observations. This forces me to get physical activity while doing something that would normally be not so physically demanding, as well as convinces me to write for myself rather than just as work. After finishing Banjo-Kazooie I ran a poll asking which game I should do next and the winner was Final Fantasy VI. You’ll notice that I’m indeed doing that playthrough, but I’m trying something new and playing a second game at the same time to break up sessions. Today we start an exercise bike playthrough of Breath of the Wild.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game I wanted to love and also may be categorically incapable of loving. The gaming community at large has decided that it is arguably the Best Zelda Game Ever, a claim I can both hotly dispute and casually agree with. It is a game of polar opposites, being both stunning in presentation and disappointingly shallow in reality. Think of it like a matte painting for a classic slapstick comedy movie. In motion when filmed it looks like Chaplin is about to roller skate over the edge of a tall building, but bump the camera even slightly and you see that it’s all an illusion and no real danger is present, no stakes exist.

What I mean to deliver is a compliment. Breath of the Wild has built the largest world of any Zelda game to date and filled it with the most things to do. When standing back and looking at it through the specific perspective that the game wants you to, the effect is jaw dropping. Attempt to look just slightly to the left or the right and things become apparent. It’s all about perspective, and that doesn’t make it inherently bad.

My biggest hurdle with the game is my rough backstory with Nintendo in general. Without going into things, Breath of the Wild is a game that, in some alternate timeline of events (perhaps the Era of the Hero of Time), I personally and passionately participated in its development. Instead we exist in the Era of Twilight where mistakes were made, I did not have any involvement with it whatsoever, and we’re left with so many questions of What If? As a result, there is always a slight pain in the pit of my stomach when even hearing the title of the game.

This does NOT means the game doesn’t deserve the praise it’s received and doesn’t diminish the amazing work that went into it from everyone involved. I’m just trying to explain why I’ll probably make some harsh statements about the overall design of the game and how you should absolutely call me on it if I’m going too far or looking at things from the wrong perspective. If I’m actively TRYING to view the scene from the incorrect angle to break the illusion, keep me in check and guide me back to the right spot.

All personal history aside, I can say that I was crying when I first saw the reveal trailer so many years ago at E3 where we were introduced to this new iteration of Link, garbed in his blue tunic and being chased by a Guardian. I couldn’t wait to see where things would go and was just praying that we wouldn’t get a repeat of Skyward Sword where a good game concept was bungled due to trying to appeal to both the casual and the hardcore fanbases at the same time.

I was also a diehard defender of the Wii U, so when I saw how the console would receive the killer app we’d expected since Day One, I couldn’t have higher hopes. As soon as I learned it’d be going to Switch as well instantly drained my enthusiasm, more so when it became apparent that features were removed since they wanted parity between the two consoles. I ultimately had the game gifted to me on the Wii U around launch, which is where I first played through from beginning to end, doing as much of the content as I could.

After now two years, I’m ready to give the game a second chance, this time on the Switch itself. It only feels right considering it’s the system it’s technically most built for, and gives me the option to play in handheld mode should I get the urge, though the bulk of this playthrough must still be done on the exercise bike.

With the setting laid out, it is time to open my eyes.

A mysterious voice wakes me from a slumber of unknown origin, or rather, Link is awakened. Breaking harshly with every previous Zelda title, Link cannot be renamed and is 100% Link. For the first time ever, oddly in a game that wants to be the most open version of itself in the series, it forces a name and identity onto the main character and says, “This is Link. This is not you, the player, but rather a character named Link that you will be playing.” I am not a fan of this since Link is still kept silent throughout Breath of the Wild, though he’s the only one.

New here is voice acting, which will become a subject more in later playthrough sessions. The mysterious voice telling Link to open his eyes and wake up is, not super surprisingly, Zelda. I’m not entirely sure the game tells you this when you start, but it’s clear to anyone who’s ever played the series before and does connect this opening to A Link to the Past in a special way as both games involve Link being awoken by Zelda speaking directly into his mind.

In one of the first startling things I’ll say about Breath of the Wild, I have no problem with Zelda’s voice acting in the game. A lot of people tend to give the actress guff for waffling between a hard English accent and a more casual one, but I wasn’t bothered by it at all. I thought her voice was perfectly cast, conveying the uncertainty that the character must evoke from time to time. I have some issues with the dialogue itself and the context being somewhat flat compared to contemporaries, but for a series’ first entrance into voice acting, none of the voices stood out as bad while many stood out as excellent. Make one tick mark in the “Breath of the Wild is amazing” column.

As Link follows orders and opens his eyes, he emerges from a sort of bluish liquid, draped only in some stylish Hyrulian boxer briefs. If I so choose, I can go through the entire game in Link’s skivvies, but I’m into dress-up, so soon I find a simple shirt and trousers for him to cover his hot Hylian body.

This little opening cave gives a rundown of the basics of movement. I have a dedicated jump button, which isn’t a first for a Zelda game but is a first since Zelda II on the NES (a game I adore, by the way). Having jump as X feels weird though. I want it to be A or B, but B is for sprinting and A is for grabbing things. Y will let me swing my weapons around, meaning X is jump. Link’s jump isn’t too extreme, but since verticality and climbing is central to the game’s mechanics, Link’s simple jumping ability is of little consequence.

Both sprinting and climbing prompt the stamina meter to appear, showing that, similar to Skyward Sword, Link has a limited amount of stamina for certain actions. Want to run around? That burns up stamina. Want to climb a wall? That uses stamina. Going swimming? Stamina. Charging a big sword swing? Stamina. Going into a slow-mo bullet-time animation while aiming mid-air? Stamina. Stamina management is almost as important as health management, especially when climbing, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves since I don’t even have a weapon yet.

Perhaps the most unique addition to the game is the macguffin, the Sheikah Slate. Kudos for Nintendo for not naming Breath of the Wild “The Legend of Zelda: The Sheikah Slate” as it did with Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, Skyward Sword, and Link’s Crossbow Training.

The Sheikah Slate is the game’s map, the means to open doors, a camera, all of your items, and pretty much anything else the game needs it to be. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it looks pretty much like a Nintendo Switch, but it works with the game’s overall aesthetic of medieval futuretech. It doesn’t do too much for me yet until I exit the starting cave and view the jaw-dropping overworld for the first time.

Perhaps one of the most expertly handled introductions to a game’s main purpose, Breath of the Wild brings you out of the dark, foggy cave and reveals to you an enormous world brimming with possibilities. This will not be Skyward Sword’s disconnected overworld. This will be an all-consuming land to explore. Whether it fills said land with things worth exploring is yet to be seen, but the soft promise of such potential still has me catching my breath at the sheer scope of things.

To my right is an old man sitting by a small fire, but what’s a nice change of pace for the Zelda franchise, I can do more or less whatever I want from here on out, with some small caveats of course. I still have to do the tutorial shrines to open the rest of the world, but beyond that, I’m allowed to do as I please. I could turn left instead of right and try climbing down the short cliff, or I could ignore the old man entirely as I run on by. I’m a traditionalist, so I go and steal the old man’s baked apple since it was sitting right there for me to take.

There’s a nice little goof on the player’s account when you do this as the old man scolds you before laughing it off as a joke. I really like the old man, who will be a recurring character in this opening area. He’s got a good design, and he’s written to be both a little enigmatic and warm at the same time. He’ll deliver a lot of the game’s tutorial-style messaging, but he does it in a pretty relaxed, natural way that I don’t feel like the game’s holding my hand at all the way Fi did in Skyward Sword.

The old man tells me a little about the opening area, known as the Great Plateau. It breaks my mind just how large this opening section is considering it’s ONLY the opening section. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the entirety of the game’s world, but it’s only a fraction of the overall scale you’re going to be hit with in just a few short hours.

He also points out a temple in the distance that’s been in shambles since something happened 100 years ago. I’m going out on a limb and saying this is the Temple of Time since that’s the most important temple in Hyrule that I know of. It’s a weird sort of feeling to see it rundown and being reclaimed by nature, playing heavily on my nostalgia for games past. Give the Pro column another checkmark.

As I’m wandering around, I get to forage my first ingredient, a Hylian Shroom. In a way very similar to Skyrim, Breath of the Wild allows you to pick up a ton of things while you’re exploring. Eatable things grow everywhere, existing for the purpose of restoring health. Ingredients are abundant, and thankfully there’s hardly a limit on how many items I can carry. I’m not actually sure there is a carry limit to the things I pick up, though weapons and shields do have a pretty harsh limit to begin with.

Speaking of which, I’ve picked up my first weapon: a stick. Good ol’ sticks, always good for a few whacks! It’s sort of appropriate that the first weapon you can find is the same sort of weapon you’d pick up as a kid and swing around aimlessly. How many of you had a little branch that you’d whip back and forth, mowing tall grass and the like?

The old man has a few more items nearby, including a torch and an axe. Though the game’s overall weapon variety isn’t all that impressive to me, this early section is letting me know the most functional ones right away. A torch can be used as a sword in an emergency, but its real purpose is to be lit and provide either light in a dark area or light other things. Meanwhile, the axe is a hefty weapon type that works well for cutting down trees and chopping the fallen logs into bundles of wood.

A little further down the path, Zelda checks in with me, giving me a first objective. Said first objective is to follow my map to a specific destination not too far from where I’m standing. The classic waypoint feature for overworld games works as intended here, letting me easily navigate an otherwise confusing world, though since every area of the map has a specific name, it’s a shame that we don’t have the option to turn off the compass entirely and get more vague directions. Still, we judge games on what we’re given, not what we wish was here, and the wayfinding in Breath of the Wild is a welcome blessing compared to the strict hand-holding that was dowsing in Skyward Sword.

I can see a little pond as I’m making my way to the destination, and in the pond are a circle of rocks that just beg to be jumped into, emphasized even more so by the short cliff right above it with an almost diving-board-like outcrop. Leaping into the rock circle makes a weird gnarled tree spirit appear, commenting that I’m not someone else named Hetsu. This creature is a Korok, first seen in The Wind Waker. In Breath of the Wild these creatures reward you Korok Seeds every time you find one, telling me to give them to Hetsu when I eventually see him. Spoilers for anyone unaware but there are 900 Korok Seeds to find throughout the game, which is a number that should make you swallow your gum when you hear it. My last playthrough I’d found about 300, which seems like a fairly high amount compared to what other people typically find. There’s a small satisfaction in finding Koroks but nothing that feels overly demanding to find them all, especially considering how insulting the big reward is for all 900 (a literal pile of golden poop).

In the middle of the small pond is a little rock jutting out with a rusty sword stuck in the top, very perfect for a fantasy setting. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was the Master Sword or something equally important, but it’s just a basic sword. A “crapper sword” as Kyle would call it. Still nice to have a sword rather than a stick.

This works well as I encounter my first enemy, the base enemy in the game called a Bokoblin (also first seen in Skyward Sword). These little red bumblers aren’t anything to fear since they’re stupid and weak, but this first one gives me a chance to brush up on combat. I’m able to swing my weapon, charge it up for a stronger strike, jump and attack, or throw my weapon. I decide not to waste my rusty sword on this little goober and opt for a stick, swatting its face a few times before the stick breaks in a spectacular fashion.

It was inevitable that we’d be talking about weapon durability in Breath of the Wild, but for me, it’s solidly in the NEGATIVES column, circled and underlined for emphasis. Every weapon in this game can break. Attack a few enemies? Weapon breaks. Use it to chop down some trees? Breaks. Miss and slap it against some rocks? Ooh, you know that’s breaking. On one hand, I don’t mind having weapons that can break. On the other, much larger hand, I absolutely mind. It’s meant to encourage weapon experimentation and provides combat encounters a dramatic flair, but in execution it just feels like I’m circling through my weak weapons to find something I can chop away at enemies with before swapping to the next weakest thing. Finding cool weapons is not exciting, but a bummer, like getting a huge check from your grandparents and then being informed that it’s not for spending but for opening a savings account. With the risk of weapon breakage always present, you’ll find yourself playing overly conservative, which means you’ll be using the lame weapons throughout most of the game.

Defeating enemies still feels good though since they burst into a small pile of useful items. Bokoblins for instance sometimes drop teeth or horns or guts. All of these random pieces of enemies don’t seem like they have much use yet, but before long I’ll find a reason to gather them.

Not far from my Bokoblin encounter is a Chuchu, another classic Zelda enemy, this one first introduced in Majora’s Mask. These little globular clusters bounce around and act as a most minor of nuisance, dissolving into a glob of Chu jelly after a single hit.

The world so far is amazing. Every few steps feels like a new thing to explore, with the ruins of stone buildings appearing near the temple. Rusted, inactive robotic things sit dead all around. These Guardians, as we’ll later learn they’re called, set the stage for something very foreboding. The amount of work the game puts in to build out a believable, lived-in world is great...in spots. I’ll talk about it more as we encounter moments where I can no longer sustain my disbelief, but here in the Great Plateau I’m in a spot where I want to know more about this world and can start to fill in my own backstory and lore as I see fit.

More Bokoblins appear, this time holding some Boko clubs, letting me see the difference between a bladed weapon and a bludgeoning weapon. Namely, there’s not really any difference other than that bladed weapons can cut grass and trees and create sparks to light fires, and clubs can knock thrown rocks back at enemies.

Speaking of rocks, a learning moment is presented where a pair of boulders sit above a pair of Bokoblins. The landscape begs you to push the boulders over the edge of the cliff and get them rolling down the path to bowl through the enemies, teaching the player that the environment can be used to your advantage, another aspect that’s pretty cool to see. I’m able to survey the land and see how best to approach combat, with rolling rocks, chopping down trees, hitting explosive barrels, or even electrifying pools of water to shock enemies. We’ll swing back to these “unique combat options” later though.

Killing more Bokoblins rewards me with a traveler’s sword and a Boko shield, finally giving Link a competent set of equipment to work with. I’m still missing the final piece of equipment, but for now I’m in a good spot to continue on without fear.

I make it to my objective, a little spot to use my Sheikah Slate to activate something. That something turns out to be a Sheikah Tower, this game’s overworld vantage points for extending map information, just like every open world game has. I don’t mind Sheikah Towers at all though since only this first one is simple to get to the top as the tower is still buried with only the top poking out. Every other tower will be a small puzzle to figure out how to get to the top.

One detail I really like in Breath of the Wild is the way the technology of this world works. All data for your Sheikah Slate is distilled into a drop of liquid that splashes onto the slate. I like the way this looks as it’s both very high tech and also very fantasy. It’s a cool touch and gives a unique flavor to the lore.

As the tower rises up, I’m given a view of some of the other towers around the world, showing the landscapes I’ll surely be visiting sooner than later. Zelda also pops into my head again to show me Hyrule Castle off in the distance beset by Calamity Ganon, a threat unlike any other. She mentions that Link has been asleep for 100 years and that he needs to remember everything if he’s going to defeat Ganon yet again, pleading with Link to hurry “before it’s too late.” My counter to that is, “Too late for what?” Zelda is adding an element of urgency to the whole affair, but as far as I can tell, Calamity Ganon has been contained for 100 years and shows no signs of ruining anything now. Knowing how long it’ll actually take me to get around to fighting Ganon, and how little chaos there actually is in the world, things feel less like future Hyrule in Ocarina of Time and more like...well no other Zelda game. The world seems to be getting on just fine with the status quo.

When I make it to the foot of the Sheikah Tower, the old man glides down to me using a paraglider. He clarifies some of my mission, mentioning that I can’t get down from the Great Plateau without a paraglider, then offers to give me his after I retrieve some treasure for him, pointing out a small orange glowing structure a short jog from the tower.

On my way there I finally get that last essential element of basic combat, the bow. A small camp of Bokoblins sits between me and my new destination, giving me the chance to sneak up on a small guard platform and kill the bow-wielding Bokoblin (Bowkoblin) and swipe his weapon. Firing arrows feels good, especially since the motion controls are subtle and work very well. Shooting arrows in the right spot of an enemy--generally the head--also pop critical hits, doing larger damage and indicating a critical hit has connected by way of a nice audio queue. Defeating the small Bokoblin camp shows a little skull-shaped chest on a platform suddenly unlocking itself, indicating that these little challenge chests will be a regular occurance and act as a reward for clearing enemies.

With a bow I’m able to start fishing, which seems like a weird thing to say. Catching live fish is hard, but shooting them and then diving in to collect them is a lot easier. It actually took me a while the first time I played to learn I could catch fish this way as I was used to every other Zelda game requiring the use of a fishing pole or bottle to grab them. It truly is a new world we live in when Link goes bow hunting for fish.

Link is also apparently a chef and can cook pretty much anything granted I find a cooking dish over a fire. Cooking ingredients changes their properties, usually adding additional health when eating them, but some also give added bonuses, like more stamina, extra temporary hearts, more defense, resistance to fire, etc. Cooking will absolutely break the game and is slow and boring, plus there’s nothing that keeps track of the dishes I can make, so doing a lot of cooking doesn’t feel super fun. Cooking is still necessary, so here we are, cooking some mushrooms and apples for some simple healing dishes.

When I reach my destination, I’m able to use my Sheikah Stone once again to activate the orange glowing thing, which turns it into a blue glowing thing. This is something called a shrine, Oman Au Shrine to be exact, where the vast majority of puzzle-solving will take place. Shrines, not specifically Oman Au shrine. Each shrine has a name and this one is named Oman Au. Confused? I’ve confused you, perfect.

This first shrine adds a new power to my Sheikah Slate in the form of the magnesis rune. Runes take the place of most items, so instead of a dungeon giving me an item, this first shrine has given me a rune, in this case a rune that gives me the power to grab and move metallic objects.

Metal is fun to play with because this power works so simply. Just pull up the rune and aim at anything that glows pink. Connecting with said item then lets you raise or lower the item, carry it around, push or pull it toward you, and generally do a lot of funky things. You can grab a big metal door and use it as a bridge. You can pick up metal blocks and drop them on enemies. You can pull distant metal treasure chests directly to you, then drop the empty chest on enemies. It’s simple but it works very well.

All shrines have a gimmick to work through, call it a theme for the puzzles if you will. Usually this involves solving a basic form of the puzzle, then an advanced form. For the four shrines on the Great Plateau, the goal is basic mastery of the runes that you’ll utilize throughout the game. In Oman Au, it’s all about learning how to grab and move metal objects in ways similar to how I previously described, including smashing a little Guardian-like enemy using a metal block. The finale of every shrine is a meeting with a Sheikah monk, who look like nearly mummified corpses meditating. They’re creepy as sin but they congratulate Link for completing the shrine and grant him a Spirit Orb. What these do the game has yet to fully explain, but I now have one, so cool.

Completing the shrine’s challenge teleports me back to its overworld entrance where the old man appears and says he’s happy I found the Spirit Orb, then asks me to gather a total of four before he’ll trade me for the paraglider. The dialogue choices for Link are pretty limiting and a bit rough, with one of them always being sort of angry, like saying “That wasn’t the deal!” I just wish there was a dialogue option that said, “Cool, you got it!” Let’s keep things positive, guys!

Metallic objects litter the area around Oman Au shrine, letting me play around with the magnesis rune even more, such as picking up damaged metal boxes and dropping them from a great height to smash them open and get some items inside. There are also a handful of treasure chests in the water around the shrine, establishing that you should always check water for goodies.

Nearby is a pool of black, tar-like liquid that Link can’t swim through. Jumping into it results in a gurgling drowning animation before being returned to the bank with some damage to your hearts. A pair of treasure chests tempt you out on a little platform just a bit too far to jump, with the solution being to go back to the water near the shrine, find a submerged metal plank, and create a makeshift bridge to the treasure chests. It’s simple and I like it, even if that sort of problem solving doesn’t really come into play once we leave the Great Plateau for reasons I’ll explain then.

Off to one side of the bog is a stump with a metal boulder attached via a chain. Using the magnesis rune on the boulder to place it in the stump makes another Korok appear, showing me yet another possible way Koroks will appear. Some pop out when I jump into a thing. Some pop out when I place a thing in a thing. We’re learning slowly but surely.

As the day progresses, Breath of the Wild demonstrates the passage of time, transitioning from day to night, a classic Zelda staple pioneered in Ocarina of Time. New enemies emerge at night, including skeletal versions of Bokoblins. They’re simple to defeat where one good smack breaks them apart and another to their bouncing skulls lays them to rest. Defeating them lets me pick up their skeletal arms and use them as a makeshift sword, which is both weird and also metal AF. One of these also has a Boko spear, giving me a new type of weapon to play with besides the sword/club short-range combat.

Wandering through a small forest has me sneaking around, nabbing fireflies and fighting off the random Keese for some wings and eyes (Keese are the Zelda equivalent of bats because calling them Bats would be stupid). My wandering also brings me to a gathering of a few boars, presenting an opportunity for some light hunting. Tagging a boar with an arrow in the face dings a critical hit, instantly downing it and rewarding me with a steak. Does it feel weird to anyone else how obsessed video games are with hunting? The industry feels like it leans very Left as a whole but then you have multiple AAA titles appear one right after another that include hunting as something essential, including Tomb Raider, Breath of the Wild, God of War, and now Red Dead Redemption II. This isn’t a condemnation, just an observation.

Aiming my bow with the motion controls is excellent and feels very precise, even while using a pro controller. This is where riding an exercise bike becomes a hindrance though. It’s very hard to keep things still when I’m actively moving, causing my aiming to bounce in rhythm with my pedaling. There are worse problems to have, and it’s not the game’s fault. I’d rather have the motion controls than turn them off and stick with manual aiming, thank you very much.

At last I stumble into a little clearing with some rocks and discover that the rocks aren’t rocks but are actually...well they’re still rocks, but sentient rocks that form into a hulking thing called a Stone Talus. This is one of the types of mini bosses that appear throughout the overworld and prompt some “this is getting serious” music. It’s a big rock monster with one weird growth on its back that’s just asking for some damage.

Getting on top of the Stone Talus is a bit of a challenge though. It’s a little too tall to just jump on up, and though I can climb it, it’s moving too much for me to get a good grip. If I put some distance between Link and the mini boss it begins throwing its arms at me, forcing it to fall into the ground to pull out a new rock arm. This is generally my chance to rush up its back and start attacking the weak spot. Sadly, I’m killed with one close combat rock punch, reminding me that Breath of the Wild is just not a very fair and balanced game.

No matter, we can do better! Thankfully the game has been autosaving, so my last save point is right as I enter this clearing. On my second attempt I feel like a do a little better, getting some solid hits in before taking another rock haymaker to the side of the head.

That’s OK, we can do better! Definitely! Probably!

My third attempt has me playing a lot more cautiously. The lock-on mechanic here with the ability to dodge and backflip just plain sucks compared to previous Zelda games, and it takes a lot of weird getting used to early on, so this mini boss really is a huge challenge. Still, I manage to get onto its back a few times and chip it down to about a third of its health before taking yet another stray punch to the face and dying.

At this point my autosave has caught up and decided that, hey, I might as well be saved after I already busted half of my weapons and used up some of my food and arrows in failing to kill the Stone Talus, so if I want to try again I’ll have to go gather more resources. Defeated, I retreat deeper into the trees.

And that’s where we leave for today. Come back next time when Link continues exploring the Great Plateau on his quest to get to the rest of the game. We’ll see you then!
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