June 23, 2018
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how the Zelda series could learn from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, an incredible JRPG from Monolith Soft which released on Nintendo Switch at the tail end of last year. Commenters on Twitter and Reddit alike seemed to be more of the opinion that perhaps Xenoblade had more to learn from Zelda than the other way around, and though I thought the game had enough different that something could be gleaned, I tend to agree. I just beat the game last week, and dwelling upon it a little, there is definitely a lot that Zelda brings to the table that would make any game better, and this is no exception, so let’s look at the key points that could add the most.
In-game Navigation System
Before I dove deep into Xenoblade, I was distracted for a few weeks by the release of The Champions’ Ballad DLC for Breath of the Wild, so the freshest thing in my head was of course this game. Transitioning from one to the other was like trying to go four-wheelin’ after trading in your Wrangler for a Prius. The gameplay in Xenoblade is incredible, and that drove me to keep playing anyway, but one of the biggest gripes I had the whole game through was that the map was devoid of detail and dimension. I had to take a look at the map menu often, and it took me out of the experience regularly. The maps were all drawn in 2D, and just had a lot of things overlapping so you were never able to tell if it was marking a wall or a bridge above you.
In Breath of the Wild, the map is heavily detailed. You can zoom in to see individual trees, rock formations, buildings, and more. Translating this map seamlessly to what you see in game makes a ton of difference. It gives enough info to navigate while still leaving enough surprises to make exploration feel exciting. In addition, the topographical presentation is very easy to understand. Shading changes from lighter to darker to denote elevation, so you can easily tell where there’s mountains, valleys, and other features. This lets you plot your path in the easiest way (or however else you want) and it feels so much more accessible.
In addition to the map, Xenoblade gave you a waypoint letting you know which direction to go, so that should help, right? Not so much. In this case, the waypoint leads you in a beeline for the next checkpoint in the story or sidequest. This gets confusing and frustrating in some of the more open areas where you have to cross a chasm or navigate a series of tunnels to get there.
In Breath of the Wild, waypoints were easier to find, and a large part of that was that you were given a singular map instead of being separated by region as in Xenoblade. The waypoints also appear on your minimap in Breath of the Wild, and being able to rotate the map to get your bearings makes it easier to understand. In Xenoblade Chronicles 2 they float on a bar above your head which tells you which direction to turn kind of like in Skyrim, and I didn’t like that element of the navigation system there either.
Overall, the exploration in both games was among my favorite parts, but Zelda has always been about exploration, and thirty years of practice has made them the best in the industry. Some simple changes to the navigation system would go miles toward making Xenoblade Chronicles 2 a little more approachable.
For the most part, Xenoblade’s tutorials were spot on, however toward the end of the game there were many mechanics to keep track of. Seeing so many tutorials throughout felt a little overwhelming sometimes. I understand that the combat system is a lot more complex than the average Zelda game, but that shouldn’t mean that it’s ill-explained.
For the most part, the game was okay, but by the end of the game I found there were a few mechanics that I had not quite figured out, and on the second to last boss I had to relearn the game to continue. Basically there is a tier system of special moves you can use after charging a meter by using basic techniques. It explained that pretty well, but somehow glazed over the big draw of these attacks; by using a tier one, then a tier two, then a tier three attack, you can get supercombo-like attacks based on the element of the last attack in the chain.
This is how to deal big damage numbers, and now that I know about it it actually is not very hard to pull off, and it feels remarkably rewarding to see new combos. Unfortunately, I had no idea so I literally had my characters set up to spam my tier one attack, which dealt good area-of-effect damage. This got me through ninety percent of the game and then I hit a wall that was simply unbeatable the way I was playing. Looking to the internet for guidance, it turns out that this is a common problem with players. They just don’t get the system until halfway through or later when they look it up online.
I have never once heard a complaint about the Zelda series being difficult to figure out. Admittedly, you have had your sword on a set button for thirty years, so it’s possible this is largely from its simplicity, but even in the more complex areas it seems like the series is easier to figure out.
Let’s take a relatively complex mechanic for the series; the double-clawshots in Twilight princess. The only tutorial it gave you was “Hold them with Y or X, aim with the control stick, and release the button to fire. Use it while hanging on to another spot to fire again!” Suddenly after two sentences you understand how to Spider-Man your way across dangerous gaps or up walls and fight a dragon while doing so.
While this might seem like it’s a little bit rinse and repeat, Xenoblade’s Blade-Combo system is not much more complex. Both of these could be described using three simple steps: use a tier one attack, then tier two, then three or; grapple one point, then another, then another. It’s no more complex when you trim the fat. Xenoblade gave tutorial after tutorial trying to explain their system when really if they’d just said outright “do X and Y can happen,” it would have been much easier to follow and been more natural to learn the game. Definitely a point in Zelda’s favor.
Here’s the big one. From start to finish, there is a correct way to navigate through the world of Alrest, and exploration is very seldom rewarded with anything meaningful. Since day one, Hyrule has been known for containing secrets which make or break the game hidden in every nook and cranny conceivable. In the original Legend of Zelda, items were hidden deep in dungeons that could make the fights easier, heart containers and magical rings were scattered about the land to bolster your defenses, and there were free rupees and items hidden behind waterfalls, under gravestones, in hard-to-reach caves, past invisible pathways, and plenty more. Exploration was not only rewarded heavily; it was essential to complete the game. The bow was found in level one in this game, but it was hidden in a corner of the dungeon that if you were just heading towards the Triforce would be unnatural to even get to. What’s more, if you do not get the bow, no problem, you can defeat Aquamentus with your sword alone. But wait, several levels later you might find Gohma and be unable to proceed.
This emphasis on exploration has continued and been perfected over the last three decades, and will continue on as long as the series does. While Xenoblade Chronicles 2 had quite a large world with many side quests and optional places to search, the most you would usually find was a treasure chest full of mediocre, if not disposable, junk. Occasionally you find a scenic outlook to gaze upon the Titan you are riding, but honestly after playing Breath of the Wild I really just want to jump off and paraglide places, but there’s so much background in the area that I felt limited in my freedom even more.
In addition to this, the main story is always more rewarding than whatever knick knack you can find in the woods. No matter what I did, be it side quest or just wander off the beaten path, it was not long before I felt like the game wanted me to just get on with the story. I did not complete a single side quest after the first two Titans, and I’m just fine with that. The quests usually had some interesting view into the lore, which I love, but it was quite frankly boring to complete them, and whatever minor story was there was overshadowed by the overarching tale.
The best thing Zelda has ever done for exploration is to take away the directions. By letting you loose in a dungeon or world with no indication of where to go because every way can be correct. This was true in the original game, and many follow-ups. The example that comes to mind for me is Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. The dungeons in these two titles felt almost more creative to me because of how they wrapped around upon themselves. You would have to revisit every room at least a few times in some dungeons, and depending on how long it took you to figure out how to use whatever mechanic was getting you around, you might spend hours trying new and different paths just to see if you could find some new secret or your way forward. I think these games were the absolute best in the series for dungeon design, but having the freedom of going whatever way you want has been a theme in every game since day one, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s approach to this aspect left something to be desired.
As Freddie Mercury once said, “Another one bites the dust.” That song was written by bassist John Deacon, but you probably remember Freddie better anyway. The point of the story is that I have officially completed my first Flip Side discussion piece turning the tables on one of my own originals! What do you think, was Xenoblade Chronicles 2 just fine with all the linear gameplay? Could the Zelda series use more boobs? Let me know why either of my arguments is incorrect in the comments or on Twitter and keep the conversation bounding!