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Months Late Game Review, Part 2. ... Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Some Bad Things.
Because even mild criticism makes people angry and drives viral engagement!
In my last post about Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Z:TotK for short), a very popular game, I suggested that people would be interested in thoughtful criticism of slightly older games, once the dust has settled and people had the chance to calmly reflect about them.
It was my least-read post in a while, so yeah, I was wrong about that.
The reason is obvious. Most people don't actually care about deep dives into game design. And, if you're like that? GOOD! Wise choice. Stick with it. Stay the course.
But I DO Write Games For a Living
I try out lots and lots of video games. I rarely play any one title for very long, but each year I try MANY titles for at least an hour or two. It keeps my knowledge of the industry current and is generally a worthwhile exercise.
I've been doing this for a long time, and to keep my design skills fresh I love to find problems in games and figure out how I would try to fix them.
I'm almost always wrong, I'm sure. After all the people who wrote the game understand their game way better than I do. Figuring out what I would try is still a useful design exercise.
Z:TotK Has Plenty of Flaws
Last week, I wrote a whole bunch about what I loved about this game. However, this is such a big, sprawling, shaggy title, that it has plenty of flaws. Any sufficiently large and open-ended game is going to aggravate people. Often, these aggravations are justified.
So here are a few problems players have had. If you agree with me that something is a problem, then, for fun, figure out what you would do to mitigate it. Then I'll give my answer.
Z:TotK is a really good game, so these flaws are on the minor, nitpicky side. Still, I've seen people online get super-mad about each of these issues, so someone cares.
(This post is pretty spoiler-free, for what it's worth.)
Problem #1: Excessive Encounter Reuse
The world of Z:TotK is immense, which is good. Being able to build a plane and cruise over the enormous landscape is a hoot. The problem is that, in any game of this sort, you're going to reuse a lot of OPTIONAL bosses and encounter layouts. (Elden Ring had a lot of this. I hear that Starfield does as well.) It's inevitable. Developers run out of time and budget eventually.
The main solution to this is on the player end: If you don't want to do something, don't do it. Just walk on by and only do the things you enjoy doing. As long as the main storyline is all fresh material, repeats shouldn't be a problem.
However, this always ends up a problem. Some people are compulsive gamers. They feel unhappy if they let stuff by. Other people need to farm to do what they want, and the farming duplicate areas are boring.
Plus, seeing the same enemy fort fifty times in a row is distracting and breaks immersion. So yeah, copy-pasted enemy forts and bosses is not something people like.
What I Would Do To Fix It
You can't fix it. If you want to have an enormous open world, some copy-pasting will be necessary, even for games with huge budgets. Sometimes, everyone has to come together and accept that the medium has limits. In Elden Ring, I fought one particular boss in four different places. Wasn't optimal. Still loved the game.
Also, making all-new versions of everything in a huge game, is simply a waste. It means a huge chunk of bespoke content won't be played much.
But. In the case of Zelda, there is a way to mitigate copy-pasted enemy forts. You need to look for ways to stretch the content inexpensively.
For example, you can make the same goblin (well, moblin) fort play entirely differently by placing it in ways that interact with the terrain around it. Place a goblin fort on top of a tiny plateau so you can only hit it with air assault. Place the identical fort on a lava island. Place two forts right next to each other (one rotated slightly so it's not super obvious). Place one that is empty and another that has twice as many monsters. Place one in a pit so you have to jump down on it and another in a narrow valley so you can only assault it along one road. Tweak the AI for one so the moment the goblins see you they all leap out of it and rush you. Fill another with only archers and force the player to attack it under a rain of arrows.
Is there a way to add variety with minimal developer and test time? Find it.
To be fair. Z:TotK does do a lot of this. I would stretch it even farther. Playing with terrain is a relatively inexpensive way to stretch content, since you have to make terrain anyway. The goal is to get enough weird variety that players poke at the copy-pasted forts just to see what the heck the designers came up with.
Problem #2: Learning Key Plot Elements Too Early
This problem fascinates me, because it's obvious, incredibly distracting, and easy to encounter.
Z:TotK gives the player lots of freedom. Total freedom combined with a linear storyline can lead to weird results.
So the story of the game is that your BFF Princess Zelda vanishes and you need to find the story of what happened to her. You do this by locating a whole bunch of "Geoglyphs" which are scattered around the world. You can easily find them all right away. Thus, it is very easy to finish this quest early on, like before you do pretty much any of the rest of the storyline.
Each time you find a “Geoglyph," you watch a cutscene which shows a sliver of what happened to Zelda. You find these in sort of a random order, so you get Zelda's story all mixed up. I think that part is really cool. You get to feel like a detective as you piece the story together.
The problem is that, when you get all of the "Geoglyphs," you find out what actually happened to Zelda, and it's REALLY IMPORTANT. The problem is that, when you do the regular storyline, nobody knows this thing, and their ignorance causes all sorts of problems. BUT I KNOW IT. So I have to shout at the screen, "I know what the problem is! Why am I not telling you?"
This is a game that put enormous effort into predicting the player's actions and came up with cool responses to them. That's why I find this problem such a surprise. It seems like a common issue, too. I encountered it. So did both of my kids. Saw several complaints about it online. I'm not saying it's a giant thing, but it's definitely there.
What I Would Do To Fix It
The makers of the game decided it wasn't a big issue. That's their right. And, I mean, I had a ton of fun, and people don't care about stories in video games that much. I care about story a lot, so I would tweak this, but honestly? You're allowed to just let this one go.
If it was me, I'd fix it, and it doesn't take a huge tweak. At a certain point in the story, everyone finds out the BIG SECRET. You could lock the final "Geoglyph" where it couldn't be reached until after you learn the SECRET. Then you could find it and watch the SECRET happen.
(Slightly spoilery suggestion: Put the Geoglyph right next to the Master Sword. Or in the quest for the 5th companion.)
Yes, this breaks the total open-endedness, but only slightly, and it ends all confusion. It's a trade-off, and game design is about nothing but infinite trade-offs.
Problem #3: Key Character Cutscenes Are Too Similar
The story of Z:TotK is a mixed bag for me. I really liked Zelda's part of the story. I think Link's part is kind of blah and his companions are kind of cartoonish and annoying. The Zelda part was touching. But that's just like my opinion, man.
There is one part of the story, however, that people seem pretty universally bugged by.
So you get four companions, each of which is the avatar of a warrior in this ancient war. When the companion joins you, there is a long cutscene where your companion kind of links with their ancient counterpart.
The problem is that each of these four cutscenes is pretty much identical, in a way that's really distracting and easy to make fun of.
I know exactly why they did it this way. The game is open-ended. You can get these companions in any order, so they wanted to make sure you get the key bits of the story as quickly as possible.
You just shouldn't be repeating yourself like this.
What I Would Do To Fix It
Happily, the game already solved this problem itself. The Geoglyphs tell a story, but each one gives you a chunk of it. You get them in a random order and then, over time, the whole story becomes clear.
Why not do this with the stories of the four companions? All you need is a story to tell, where each of the four ancient avatars play a part.
When my games have problems (which is always), I always try to solve a problem in a way that solves another problem. For example, if spells are too weak and I need to put more treasures in the game, these two problems can solve each other. I can add altars (or whatever ) to buff spells.
Happily, there is already a gap in the story of Z:TotK that needs to be filled. There is a huge war way in the past, but you see almost none of it. Just the beginning and the very end. I would make four cutscenes showing key points in this war. Each prominently figures a different ancient hero. After the battle or whatever, the ancient hero senses your companion, and the connection takes place.
You get these in random order, but that already happens with Zelda's story, so it's fine.
If there are a handful of key plot points that need to be made, just make them in one cutscene. Two if it's REALLY important. You can assume most people will get all four companions. If they can finish the game without getting the companions, the story point they miss wasn't so important, was it?
I'm really surprised they made four almost identical cutscenes. It's a weird decision, especially considering how detailed the rest of the game is. Then again, it's a story thing, and nobody cares about video game stories, so whatever.
Problem #4: TOO. MUCH. STUFF.
This game is a LOT. So many items. So many recipes. So many locations. This is really cool, and people love it. However, when you're stepping on the gas like this, it's easy to get into a mindset where EVERYTHING is necessary and NOTHING can be removed. This can become a problem.
Z:TotK has so, so many items, and so many of them are redundant. There's a set of plants that can be made into potions that upgrade your stats. Yay! There's a set of mushrooms that upgrade the same stats. And a set of fish that upgrade the same stats. And a set of lizards (!) that upgrade the same stats. Bat eyes and wings are really useful, but there's five types of bat, each of which drops its own sort of eye or wing. Plus dozens of monster body parts, and gems, and pinecones, and on and on, until your pack has hundreds of items.
There is no way to store crafting items. Your inventory gets completely loaded up and awkward and messy. Sorting through it slows the game down in an unfun way.
And the UI issues make it worse. One really fun thing is how you can stick any item to your arrows and give the arrows cool and often really useful effects. However, when you try to do this, you have to find the item you want from a huge list while holding controller buttons down in an awkward way.
It's confusing, slows the game down, and provides too much freedom. There is no reason to stick a lizard to your arrow, so stop offering me the option!
Worse yet, you don’t feel free to just sell the excess junk, because some of it might be needed to upgrade your items and the game gives no hint of what.
To be clear, not everyone thinks this is a problem. Some people like being overwhelmed with stuff. Me, I'm sick of sorting through hoarder piles in games. I don't want to play Starfield until there is a mod that hides all junk.
But I think it's undeniable that piling up too much junk slows the game down. There is always a point of too much. The question is: have we reached it?
What I Would Do To Fix It
This game would be SO much more playable if you got, like, an "Ingredients Box" that could store non-breakable items (gems, lizards, etc.). Maybe in DLC?
Anyhoo, I think if several sets of items have the same functionality you should strongly consider dropping one of them. The most annoying one. In this case, lizards and fish are redundant with two other items sets, and they are annoying to catch. People like going after fish, and the fish help make the water interesting. So lose lizards.
(Personally, I'd lose fish too. But I won't be greedy.)
When inspecting inventory, if an item is necessary for crafting, the game should let you know very clearly. If I can freely sell an item for cash, tell me that too. This is just a kindness.
Finally, this is a case where it's worth trading off freedom for playability. If sticking an item to a weapon or arrow is useless, it shouldn't be an option. Players might do the useless thing once or twice to be lolrandom, but it's not worth slowing down the game for everyone.
Yes, I Know All These Complaints Are Minor
I think Z:TotK is a terrific game. I loved playing it. I think it's a legit classic. So, yes, all my complaints are a bit nitpicky.
I'm not bringing them up because Z:TotK wants my advice. I bring them up because they touch on game design principles in general. These problems (if they are problems) don't sink Z:TotK. However, they are the sort of thing that can really harm a game that doesn't have as great strengths as Z:TotK does. It's good to understand them.
Figuring out how to solve problems is fun. As long as you're humble about it. Never forget:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” - Neil Gaiman
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