May 18, 2018
Since I purchased my Switch on release day last year, I have played only two games for over one hundred hours. Though it can’t quite touch the two hundred fifty hours I have in Breath of the Wild, I can say I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Coming up at the climax of the game, it got me thinking if this game did anything I’d like to see in a Zelda title. Continuing my new series from a few weeks ago, let’s take a look at how Zelda could learn from Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
I love Breath of the Wild. It may be my favorite game of all time, I’m not sure. I keep flip-flopping between that and Ocarina of Time. One leg-up I believe Breath of the Wild has on every other Zelda, and for that matter every other open-world game, is its story presentation. In every other game I have ever played, the story is presented in a linear fashion. You go from point A to B to C and so on until you’ve completed every primary objective. Even in open world games, you can go anywhere you want, but you probably don’t have much reason to unless you decide a side-quest sounds interesting.
In Breath of the Wild, you are presented with a checklist of objectives to complete before you do the final battle to make it easier, or you can literally jump off the Great Plateau and beeline straight to Ganon. This free method of storytelling opens up so many opportunities for character development, world interaction, and exploration. The game capitalized on the latter two, but the character development took a little bit of a back seat.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is among the most guilty titles for linear story progression, but it presents itself in a way that emphasizes the character development like few others. It’s really simple what they do, actually; they have a crapload of cutscenes. The characters interact with each other so much that it forces the writing team to think “Who is this character?” and “How do they react in this situation?” The most important effect that comes from this is that these characters have seen more things happen by the end of the game, and these things come into play. Most of the characters in the game are fairly dynamic, whereas the only non-static character in Breath of the Wild is Princess Zelda.
This is where the non-linear progression comes into play. If you combine the sheer amount of screen time with the lack of order to it, this will mean you see the same character with different amounts of knowledge reacting to situations. This is a hard thing to explain, but imagine seeing a cutscene of Princess Zelda towards the start of the story. Just starting out even. Then the next cutscene you see is her at the end of the game, reacting in a more dark and harsh way than you would have expected. Why did she do that? She must have changed in the middle somewhere. I love the fact that Breath of the Wild’s cutscenes raise more questions than they answer; it makes you yearn to see the rest of the story so you can gain a more full understanding of it.
I’ve heard people complain that Xenoblade has too many cutscenes, and I think that’s just silly. I love the kind of game that feels like a hundred hour movie, and that would be even better if it was combined with Zelda’s signature exploration aspect.
Lore-Based World Building
I think overall Zelda usually has a better world than Xenoblade 2, but the latter has such a radically different idea of world building that if the two combined, I believe something special could be created. Breath of the Wild is a great example for the differences between the two. In it, you have a huge, explorable world filled with thousands of things to find like ruins, puzzles for Korok seeds, towns, shrines, and any number of other little oddities. In Xenoblade, you have far less explorability (but some) and a world that is so richly detailed that you can’t help but fall in love with it.
As much as I like exploring in Breath of the Wild, and for that matter, every Zelda game, I usually stumble upon stuff that seems like it should have a story behind it. In some cases it does, but most of the time it’s just left up to your imagination. This is fine, I love pondering such points, but if every village had as much character and lore behind it as the Titans in Xenoblade, it would increase the drive to explore exponentially.
One of my favorite places to explore in Breath of the Wild was the path leading up to Zora’s Domain. Betwixt millions of Lizalfos were interspersed several giant stone tablets. They had worn away with time, but by reading over them a few times you could usually get the gist of what they were saying. They divulge much of the history of the Zora leading up to this point, and in fact directly reference Princess Ruto from Ocarina of Time as the namesake of Divine Beast Vah Ruta. Plus one of them mentions a Lynel, and that got me pumped to see a classic foe upgraded for the times before I even beheld their majesty.
This all sounds great, right? History, lore, timeline theory possibilities; all great food for thought, eh? Well in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, that’s every town and many of the random locations within the story. Again the sheer amount of content packed into this game is incredible, and in my opinion the game’s strongest point is how much there is to soak in about the world.
The gist of it is that it’s a bunch of humans and Blades (who are living weapons that take humanoid or bestial forms) living on the backs of Titans, which are beasts so huge that they can actually grow and develop ecosystems on and in their bodies. Once you dive a little deeper, though, you will see that there are more detailed stories of the people working with the titans for the good of all, you’ll get origin stories for Blades and Titans, a creation story, and so much more.
The only Zelda game that most closely rivals this game in world believability is Majora’s Mask. Between all the side quests and interesting stories of the indigenous races of Termina, it is very easy to get sucked into the world. Most Zelda games have a little of this, but if we could see this aspect grow to the level of Majora’s Mask or Xenoblade Chronicles 2 with the openness, naturalness, and verticality of Breath of the Wild, we might just have the perfect game.
These are two fantastic games, and it always feels a little odd to say my favorite series could learn from another, but there is always room for improvement, and I think this game might have a thing or two that the Zelda team could pay attention to. But what about you? Do you prefer the mystery of thinking what these unexplained areas might be yourself? Am I just babbling on about a game I’m fascinated with because of Pyra’s cup size? As always, let me know in the comments or on Twitter, and if you have an idea for a game Zelda could learn from, shoot a suggestion my way and I just might use that idea for an upcoming article! Let’s keep this conversation steaming!