The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild

March 12, 2017 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

Breath of the Wild is the latest entry in Nintendo’s long-running and highly revered The Legend of Zelda series, and it’s already proving itself to be the most-discussed and celebrated game of the year, this early into it. In terms of critical reception, it’s received more perfect scores than any other video game in the history of video games – at least according to MetaCritic, the review aggregator site and barometer of quality for both the industry itself and a disappointing majority of people willing to uphold its’ status quo.

Buzz about the game has become completely unavoidable for one wishing to talk about games online, and social media has become some sort of nightmare for those uninitiated into the game’s cult. I’ve seen incredibly little criticism issued toward the game, and instead been witness to a flurry of wild praise hailing it as something of a miracle. Though each new Zelda title has historically brought with it a nauseating amount of worship and hyper-defensive fans who use the games as substitutes for their own identities, I’ve not seen a game receive adoration so quickly, unwaveringly, and unanimously in my entire life.

Having been lucky enough to have a dear friend wait out in the cold for hours for a Switch on launch night for me (something medically risky for me to do, myself), I was given the opportunity to play this at launch and in the better of its two versions. The whole fiasco of getting it made for a hilarious story that’s too much trouble to go into, but I’ve since spent a week with it, playing it relentlessly and deliberately prolonging finishing it (you can approach the end boss at almost any time and he is not at all difficult). This has allowed me to absorb most of the optional content and ruminate over its strengths and weaknesses while I do so.

Although the game began with its first hour or two spent in a roughly contained but surprisingly large tutorial area, it quickly unraveled as all its many systems began to be opened up. You’re let loose pretty quickly on, and the sheer amount of stuff at work is near-immediately something that becomes staggeringly overwhelming. In ways, this is both very much like and unlike the series’ beginnings way back on the NES (or, well, technically, the Famicom Disk System). Before I get into how, let’s do a quick recap of the series’ history.

The original Legend of Zelda was a game that prided itself on its open world and non-linearity, something that titles in the series quickly began to forsake more and more until fairly recently. You were set free to go anywhere in the world, and very little determined the order of what needed to be done before the final confrontation. Although often hailed as a progenitor of its type of action-adventure, open world design, it’s much more accurate to say that it refined it (and popularized it to western audiences). The first Zelda strongly seemed to take a lot of influence from titles like Falcom’s Dragon Slayer and Namco’s Tower of Druaga – but, at least in my opinion, thoroughly trounced them in quality.

Despite this beginning so positively recognized as groundbreaking and paradigm-shifting, the series very quickly went far out of its way to ruin the keen design sensibilities put into motion with its progenitor. A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time – both still frequently hailed as two of the greatest games of all time – set in stone a tradition that you must play through each dungeon in a purely linear order, and that each dungeon would contain a single key tool as its central focus to be built around. While the series still managed to consistently recieve tremendous accolades and remain a fan and critic favorite over the years, a staleness became obvious and even acknowledged by the series’ long-time producer and director, Eiji Aonuma.

In the series’ next most recent entry to Breath of the Wild that bothers qualifying as significant, A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo began to acknowledge its heritage by throwing that tradition out the window and getting back to basics. Although it starts in a relatively linear fashion, the game opens itself up and allows players to collect and use all of its tools early on and then use them freely in upcoming dungeons and environments. This allowed for an increased level of complexity and freedom in the game’s design, and was perhaps the first game in the series since its initial installment (a whopping 27 years had transpired since the original before ALBW) to capitalize on such an unrestricted player let loose in its world.

Breath of the Wild was set into motion with further capitalizing on this type of design in mind, and even prototyped itself as a top-down adventure game with pixel art similar to the first game. To be frank with you for a moment, the only two Zelda games I genuinely consider to be truly good are the first and ALBW, so I was obviously shifted toward an interest in this title. Symbolically donning a new, blue tunic and lacking his signature cap, even the series’ protagonist, Link, was pointing to new life and direction.

Now that I’ve brought you up to speed, although Breath of the Wild succeeds in bringing the series back to being less condescendingly guided and introduces the most open world it has ever seen, it creates many new problems while fixing its decades of stagnation. Beyond that, it also takes a startling amount of influence from modern open world games like The Elder Scrolls series and Ubisoft’s numerous stock of all-too-similar series. In doing so, the gift of freedom comes with the heavy price of being cursed with a thousand pressing distractions, many of which are sadly engineered to consume as much time as possible with as little care or craft as they can get away with.

Gone are the series’ famous dungeons, now replaced by numerous (I discovered 104 in my playthrough and know there to be more) shrines littering the world’s enormous map. These shrines have entrances poking out of the ground (though some must be unearthed) that act as fast travel points for Link, and are underground mini-dungeons that more frequently contain (or are preceded by) a puzzle and less frequently contain a semi-challenging fight. The first four mandatory shrines in the tutorial area of the game quickly give the player all the tools they’ll need to get through nearly any portion of the game, and they set a tone that you’ll be seeing puzzle complexity like never before.

Unfortunately, this initial promise is never really capitalized on. Though most shrines do contain puzzles, they’re largely simple physics puzzles that involve manipulating weighted objects or pedestals. We’ve been seeing these more commonly in games for more than a decade at this point thanks to the poorly aged and deeply banal (but critically well-loved) Half-Life 2 and its gravity gun, and they’re executed with about as much grace as anywhere else. Solutions are generally quickly obvious, but execution is a battle of wrangling with getting the physics to do what the designers intended more than it is any test of skill or measure of thought in the player’s ability. Although the tools can potentially also add to combat situations, as they have in previous games, they’re mostly too weak or ineffectual to really ever both with.

While more clever puzzles do exist and some of the physics puzzles do prove themselves to be genuinely thoughtful and interesting, the vast majority of these shrines end up feeling like tedious busywork that could have been culled from the game. Their visuals are also very sadly lacking, and they share assets among each other with embarrassing frequency. The combination of puzzle simplicity and visually repetitive elements give the impression that these were banged out in a simple level editor, and they end up usually feeling about as good as shorter user-made levels in something like Disney Infinity.

The game also features four different “Divine Beasts” – massive super-weapon structures that resemble stone animals – that act as its primary dungeons. They’re nearly devoid of enemies aside from their respective bosses, however, and their layouts are all severely restricted by the shape of the beast. They contain about 5 or so significant physics puzzles equivalent to the smaller shrines, and have the unique function of being able to manipulate portions of their bodies to alter Link’s effective environment. While they’re an interesting novelty, the puzzles are not particularly good or well-paced, and they feel like a massive, gimmicky distraction.

The reward for each shrine is a Hero Token, which may be redeemed in groups of four for either a health or stamina extension. The reward for each Divine Beast is a health extension and a new ability (these abilities mostly just assist combat, and none are necessary for anything else in the game), as well as a few new sidequests and story advancement. You’ve generally got to do a few quests to even access them, and must disable them with the help of specific NPC’s in combat before being able to get in. Although it’s not strictly necessary to do even a single shrine outside of the initial four or any of the divine beasts, it’s strongly encouraged that you spend a lot of time powering up for confrontation with the game’s antagonist.

The combat – another strong focus of the game – is also pretty weak. Link obtains a variety of weapons on his travels, but they’re boiled down to a few basic types. For close combat, there are shields and melee weapons. Melee weapons include single-handed striking weapons (broad swords, clubs, boomerangs, etc.), single-handed thrusting weapons (spears, halberds), and two-handed striking weapons (greatswords, large clubs, axes). Despite the variety within the three types of those weapons, they all perform nearly identically. Every single-handed striking weapon has the same animation, hitbox and charge attack, so on and so forth.

Each weapon also only features a basic combo and its charge attack, and can be thrown (and retrieved) as a last resort. A few boomerang type weapons have a unique throw where the weapon will come back to you and a few wands allow you to cast a projectile (as well as a leaf that creates a gust of wind to blow enemies around), but that’s pretty much it. Link can flip backwards or to the side and perform a parry with his shield, but this is provided he’s locking on (which automatically raises the shield). Time one of those activities just right and you can slow time to perform a quick combo on the enemy you just dodged (and only that enemy). This would suggest an emphasis on one-on-one combat, but the vast majority of encounters are with small hordes of enemies that surround you.

Locking on in those situations becomes less viable, and dealing with enemies from a range with the bow or doing hit-and-run strikes while moving around and creating space become key. Due to the rarity of arrows, you generally want to conserve them, so when forced into combat, you typically find a routine and repeat it forever (strike a few times, back off so you’re not surrounded, wait just a second for another opportunity). You can do a few creative things like light a wooden weapon or your arrows on fire for a bit of a damage boost or take advantage of a very poorly implemented stealth system, but these are generally tedious and combat is so frequent that it’s significantly more efficient to just run around and play whack-a-mole.

What’s more efficient (and you’ll see me this word, efficient, frequently! not challenging, not engaging, but efficient) than engaging in combat at all is mostly just avoiding it, however. Enemies are absolutely everywhere, deeply repetitive to fight, and feature small variety aside from varying HP (represented by skin color) and weapons that will hurt you more or less. There are basically just three entirely consistent enemies in the game – goblins, big ol’ goblins, and lizard folk. There are other enemies, but they’re mostly small distractions or nuisances, barring a few exceptions. Those basic three are all pretty stupid and rush at you to whack you or stand in place and fire arrows – you’ll occasionally see one get resourceful and toss something at you or pick up a dropped weapon, and the lizards are annoyingly mobile and have a latent projectile attack, but they’re quite single-minded.

On top of this, all of your weapons feature a bizarrely limited durability, and this makes getting new weapons from exploration or picking up new weapons from enemies an absolute constant. Weapons for your first few hours of the game will literally break on or two enemies, and enemy strongholds are all over the map. Those strongholds usually just reward you in a weapon or small amount of rupees, and tend to exclusively waste time. You simply trade what you came in with for roughly the same as what you come out with due to weapons breaking and potential consumables used for the encounter… Which brings me to my next big complaint about the game, resource management. This is perhaps where the game shows its Elder Scrolls influence most blatantly.

There are items to collect everywhere in this game, and I do quite sincerely mean everywhere. Aside from the obvious weapons, there are flowers, mushrooms, herbs, insects, animals, mineral deposits, etc. You can hardly walk a few steps or climb for more than a few seconds without being distracted by something nearby to pick up. Why pick all these things up? Well, you can use the cooking system to create various foods to recover your health or to sell to the market. Rupees (the game’s currency) are hardly found anywhere, and are almost entirely acquired through selling resources you’ve attained.

Cooking items frequently increases their value in selling. For example, 5 raw prime meats are worth 75 rupees when sold uncooked, but when cooked together onto a meat skewer, they become worth 210 (a very healthy amount for how easy they are to obtain). I’m going to spare you a tirade about how purely sociopathic this kind of commodifying of virtual wildlife is, as every goddamn open world game does this. If it’s not the monetary value that increases, it’s the usefulness – certain effects from cooked products are necessary to even traverse particular environments until you’re able to find clothes to mitigate that for you. Want to go somewhere cold? Hope you picked up a few peppers to cook into your next meal to give you a temporary ward against minor cold levels. Run out of those meals and you’re in the middle of a cold area? Time to evacuate and forage, then begin again.

Cooking items requires selecting up to five from your inventory to hold, and then finding a pot somewhere in the game (you may not place them and they are quite spread out) to dump them into. No, the game does not give you the option to do batches, you have to cook everything one at a time. You then sit through an animation (which may be skipped, but will eat several seconds no matter what) and wait for the finished product to be revealed. Getting what you want thankfully doesn’t require memorizing recipes as it’s often as simple as slapping together a fruit and a pile of meat for a meal or an enemy part and an insect for an elixir, but the gathering and crafting does consume ample amounts of time. Combat consumes more time and frequently reaps fewer rewards, and weapons breaking and health draining means taking you back into cooking and gathering.

Combat, gathering, and cooking form three large, overlapping circles in the form of looping activities that offer little variety or satisfaction and place you into a gerbil wheel for significant time consumption. While you can spend a lot of time gathering various foods and items and cooking them to take down that enemy stronghold for its treasure, the fact is that it’s probably most efficient in terms of gain to completely avoid it and just farm the priciest items or just pick up what you can while exploring and continuing to avoid most combat altogether. This way you can buy better armor (which does not break). Once you’ve bought better armor, you can farm specific items to then increase that armor’s power.

The game doesn’t feature any hard progress gates, but very loosely attempts featuring many soft ones in placing tougher enemies that can kill you in one hit and have such HP that you’ll break all your weapons on them all over the place. They’re avoidable, but often annoyingly persistent. To not get killed in one hit or be able to kill them without disposing your entire inventory, you slowly climb the ladder of completing multiple shrines to increase your health/stamina and collecting many items to buy better armors. What the game chooses to consider progress is measured by some invisible metric (that I assume has to do with story progress and/or shrines completed), but the more time you spend with the game, the better weapons and armor will be found in chests and to be scavenged, thus making yourself efficient at combat enough for it to not so frequently be better to avoid.

It’s extremely, extremely rare that combat ever requires any significant skill or learning curve (the only interesting enemy on the entire overworld is the Lynel and maybe a couple of sub-bosses that you can also farm for their drops, and those are rare), and it is almost exclusively determined to be an efficient activity or not by your current equipment. This means that numbers determine success in combat more than skill, and this puts a huge onus of time consumption onto the player to make something as frequent as common enemy harassment less obnoxious. Is your inventory too small or only full of weak weapons – a problem all too common for many of your first hours? Congratulations, super tough enemies are unkillable and tougher mobs of enemies will wear you down to nothing to fight them with no matter how good you are.

The shrine bonuses also ask you to focus on whether you want exploring or combat to be more efficient by forcing you to choose between health or stamina extensions. Stamina has no effect on your primary attacks (actively mashing the attack button doesn’t even impede its recharging), so it has little value in combat aside from running frequently, which is never particularly necessary, or using charge attacks, which are pretty much only useful on the two-handed weapons. Going for hearts may be the obvious way to make combat easier, but the truth is that being more efficient at exploring early on will get you better items, and then ultimately get you hearts quicker, later. Your starting weapon inventory space is also incredibly limited, and exploring, which is aided by stamina in being able to climb higher and run/glide further, finds items to help increase that, as well. To sum up: combat gets you almost nothing and nowhere in the game, despite many of the game’s systems presumably revolving around it.

In both the first Legend of Zelda and in ALBW, most combat situations are considered approachable by a combination of your current level of hearts and how well you’re able to play, and many areas are blocked off by forcing more challenging combat. While not purely skill-based due to frequently being able to mitigate challenge by exploring, adapting to combat by improving your skill is a core component, and later areas can be tackled pretty early on if you’re willing to tough it out. Hearts are your primary currency, and you spend them as you go further in a dungeon, based on an exchange rate determined by your skill. When you spend too many, you’re forced to retreat, heal, and rethink how or if you want to tackle the situation again right now. Admittedly, this perhaps doesn’t become interesting in ALBW until its hero mode, which quadruples enemy damage and offers a surprisingly balanced challenge for such a general change.

In almost all of the Zelda games between the first and ALBW, combat situations are much more focused on what you could have at that point in the game due to their linearity, and made patronizingly easy by overcompensating for the idea the player has missed things. They lack both any taste of challenge and any consequence of poor decision making. They fear the player getting stuck or intimidated by a tough encounter, and ruin themselves in trying too hard to accommodate for everyone.

In Breath of the Wild, combat situations are generally considered approachable based on efficiency and equipment. Will it cost me more items and ultimately time spent recouping those items to fight this guy or to ignore him? In most instances, especially early on, the answer is ignoring and avoiding. You’re almost never trapped in an enclosed area with an enemy, particularly the tougher ones which typically reside in open fields, as the environment is pretty consistently open. The risk of being unable to engage properly because of your performance is gone, as numbers now matter more. The risk of expending too much energy on them to complete the rest of a dungeon safely is gone because you can go around or fast travel at any point. This makes the game defeated as both an RPG and an action game, turning it into some type of management game.

Needless to say, at this point, you stop engaging directly with the game and start engaging with its superficial, micromanaging meta-game. If the consequence of death is to be sent back to sometimes just seconds before it with a small health restore, why consider it a detriment or consequence at all? This total lack of punishment for death defeats it both as an action game and an RPG – you’re punished more for being wasteful with your items, so if you do engage in combat and discover you’d be wasting more items than gaining by being part of it, suicide and reloading seems like a smarter and more time-saving option.

As one final aside before moving onto other elements of the game which I won’t be so negative on, Breath of the Wild also has you frequently hit objects with weapons or use arrows as part of the puzzle solving, but it will rarely (if ever) give you arrows or weapons for these puzzles. Given the ridiculously low durability of weapons and bizarre scarcity of arrows (the degree to which the game constantly expects you to have a healthy supply is comedic given how little shops stock, how much time it takes to make money to buy them, and how few enemies drop them), this is a serious problem. You’re also frequently expected to have been carrying around a torch or fire-making supplies for these puzzles, when the game could just give you enough to solve them. Why on earth is the player asked to not only stock up for combat, but for activities as basic as shrine puzzles? The answer is because it stretches the length out and confuses many players into thinking they’re getting more out of the experience by being repeatedly forced back into time-consuming and repetitive routines.

With the bulk of the negativity out of the way, let’s finally move onto what Breath of the Wild does right: its beautiful world. And when I say beautiful, I want you to know that I mean more than just it having high resolution textures or some sort of ground-breaking adherence to realism, as has become the standard of beauty in the AAA game… I’m talking about art direction, attention to detail, and incredible depth with superbly high standards. I’m talking about more than just visual beauty, but beauty in its characters and bouts of non-traditional storytelling. It is a game world that engages the player not just with sights, but with the life injected into them and meaningful ways to interact with them. We’re looking at something that completely shatters expectations for its genre and sets a higher bar for the levels of thought and love that should be put into a game that stretches its world size to such vastness.

If my praise is becoming flowery, I apologize, but underneath all the cynicism the game has in its blatantly time-wasting combat and crafting mechanics, there is some genuine love and effort put into seriously making its world come alive. It does it in simple ways that you take for granted not existing in other games, too! Grass blades actually look like grass blades, and not some two-dimensional strip of texture cross-hatched all over to give the illusion of ordinary grass. When light hits them, they glisten. When the wind blows, they sway. When you step upon them, they displace around you. When you strike them with a blade, they cut apart. When you put fire to them, they burn, and after burning, they become singed. When you burn enough grass, it creates an updraft, blowing nearby grass and becoming a gliding point for the player.

Light is cast dynamically and nearly everything casts a dynamic shadow – even overhead clouds cast a traveling shadow, down below. Weather changes and the morning light will transition to the dark of the night, giving areas you repeatedly visit more depth in their personalities. Temperature is affected by being out in the open daylight or in a body of water or under shade – you shiver when it’s cold and become exhausted and drenched when sweat with it’s warm. Pebbles fall from your feet as you climb rock surfaces. Water drips from your body as it rains, and continues to do so for a time shortly after it finishes. Strong gusts can move items around, and even affect how a body might be thrown when attacked.

Each town features deeply unique architecture and each character has their own name, unique appearance, daily routine, and dialogue depending on the time of day and possibly even the weather. The buildings that occupy certain towns and the environments those towns occupy speak deeply of their peoples’ culture and identity. People’s body types suggest their personalities, and their distinguishing features round them out as characters without ever making them a primary focus. Gerudo Town, for example, is out in the middle of a vast desert, and its race of strong women have a delightfully varied assortment of body shapes, sizes, and skin tones.

Extraordinary care is put into landmarks and nearly every small area in the game has some kind of distinguishing feature and a unique name. Maybe there’s a small temple tucked away, a unique shape to is geography, or a flora/fauna that defines it or is exclusive to its location. Perhaps it’s a memorial of the past conflict that ravaged the world or a monument to its more modern heroes and idols. Rito Village – the village of the people who resemble birds – is built from a very large, vertical rock spire (or hoodoo). It features small structures around this spire attached to outcroppings or scaffolding, and those structures resemble bird nests. When viewed from a distance and a very particular angle, a portion of the spire that protrudes high enough to pierce the sky is revealed to have a hole in it shaped like a heart. This “heart” is the subject of a song of their people you can only learn by prodding a couple NPC’s, and it plays brilliantly into a small sidequest I’ll neglect spoiling for those who haven’t finished it.

Though most sidequests in the game are busywork with useless rewards and throwaway writing, some of them, like the one just mentioned, tend to play into things like the culture of its local people and the respective area’s unique geography. This type of storytelling and depth in world-building is marvelous, and although only occasionally showcased by the game, really ends up making you fall in love with the bits of it that take full advantage. Breath of the Wild also strongly forsakes pure realism in its visual work, and instead opts for a much more colorful and stylized world that plays its limitations on weaker hardware to its advantage. The result is a game with a natural beauty so great that you’re prompted to explore it to its borders simply on the call of its visual mastery, alone. A typical open-world game will quickly make its vastness feel deeply repetitive and cause its world to feel as though it’s shrinking as you explore it further, but Breath of the Wild manages to rigidly maintain a true sense of scale even at an absurd one hundred hours into it.

Although the poorly thought-out distractions are numerous and the pulls to get sucked into unrewarding combat are constant, the game finds itself at a serious strength when it’s merely letting you peacefully explore the world and create personal narratives through the joy of discovery in its environments. The tired-ass story it tells through painfully trite cutscenes about princesses and chosen ones falls flat (I am genuinely baffled at anyone calling this a new/interesting direction for bleeding anything), but the smaller tales and environmental storytelling resonate powerfully. Forget all these boring characters the story forces me to get to know through flashbacks, I want to be best friends with this accordion-playing bird hunk that sings me songs about long-forgotten riddles.

Despite often chasing wild goose hunts without direction (I’ll admit I do actually find the frequent lack of quest markers to be surprisingly freeing), I cannot count how many times I found myself exploring for something I found dull only to find delight in the new environment it took me to or landmark I went out of my way to visit on the way there. Each portion of the world features a tower that will fill in its designated section of the map when climbed, but, unlike the Ubisoft games this feature was likely inspired by, everything to discover doesn’t suddenly get marked with a waypoint. The tower will act as a fast travel point or starting point for gliding far distances (I’ve neglected to fully mention this, but gliding is a surprisingly enjoyable and integral part of the game), but its most useful feature is often as a vantage point for you to mark in your own waypoints on the map.

Much is still left hidden to be simply stumbled upon that cannot be seen by just climbing the towers and looking around, and despite using combat and resource rewards as a motivation for much of the exploration, simple wandering of the environment is often rewarding all on its own. Though there could have been significantly more elegant implementation, your tablet being able to target items you’ve taken pictures of (it’s tedious but humbling to create your own compendium) with a beeping proximity radar feels like just about the right amount of optional direction in having you find a few more scarce items or that shrine entrance that’s just out of sight. Despite the previously mentioned, staggering quantity of simple, poor, and/or rushed puzzles, there are enough good and memorable ones to make the search and frustrations worth it, at least for me. Not all of them are traditional or physics-based puzzles, and many of the best play into a bit of logic or higher levels of deduction.

The majority of the game forces you to plunge deep into its many lows, but the briefer moments where you’re embracing the game’s highs tend to leave a stronger impact and surprising warmth. When playing and finishing Fallout 3 or Farcry 3 – often hailed as their respective developers’ bests and both belonging to roughly the same genre of game as Breath of the Wild – I felt cold and dead inside, like I’d done nothing but complete a series of checklists until running out of them. When finishing Breath of the Wild, even though it concluded on a poor (but well-presented) boss fight I could have very easily finished just a dozen or so hours into the game rather than after the hundred plus I had input, I felt oddly humbled by the world I’d been inhabiting.

The difference between Zelda and the other modern games it’s taking obvious influence from is that it injects so much more into its world than just droves of things to collect and numbers to increase. Though it lacks the confidence to present itself without relying on those distractions to a disappointingly high degree, it still stands as something interesting and far above the quality of its peers. I desperately wish that Nintendo had the confidence to make a game like this with the fat trimmed – to greater focus on the strength of its world and puzzles, and to remove the detritus that is crafting, rampant collecting, and poor combat mechanics. Breath of the Wild feels like a game that would be outright better without combat or conflict, but the wish that a game with this kind of budget would have that degree of boldness and confidence feels all too hopeful.

As it stands, the end product is a mixed bag. It’s full of miserable tedium, but it also contains pockets of incredible joy. Even through its faults, it’s an uncontested victory for a painfully stale and all too cynically produced genre, and manages to show glimmers of hope for the AAA machine to finally start moving forward, even if it’s just a little bit. Ultimately, the future for this series and for open world games, in general, all depends on how we reflect upon what was done wrong and right, here. This new type of Zelda still has a long ways to go, and I worry with the blind praise that it’s receiving that it will rest upon its laurels and become another prophecy for years of stagnancy.

Angels With Scaly Wings – Visual Novel Review

February 10, 2017 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

(skip to the aside at the bottom if you’re just interested in how the game appeals to those with alternative lifestyles, identities, or sexualities)

Someone bought a friend of mine this game as a gift to troll him, and after watching the trailer, we thought it was corny and might get a laugh out of him playing it on the big screen. Having played several visual novels, already (mostly on console or handheld, I’m not big on PC), I somewhat knew what to expect and was curious about how this game would handle its premise. I mostly expected it to be laughable, semi-pornographic bait, and was ready for it to be either amusingly bad or over-the-top in obviousness of how badly the creator would have been attracted to their own characters.

Instead, I was treated to a much more thoughtful and wordy experience than I could have expected. Within an hour of him starting his game, I was already asking him to stop so that I could go and play a copy I’d just bought, privately. For the next few days, I was hooked, spending huge portions of my day playing it and finding myself deeply involved in both its story and characters. I kind of ended up falling in love with the game, and it’s arguably my favorite visual novel, at this point (provided you don’t consider Shu Takumi games visual novels, just adjacent to them).

Angels with Scaly Wings is a visual novel that is a tad more verbose, grounded, and dry than many of its peers, but I feel this ultimately works in the game’s favor, in some ways. I know it may sound ridiculous to call a game with a muscular Dragon wearing a police badge around his neck who you can engage in relations with “grounded,” but I genuinely believe its characters to be far more founded in realistic, down-to-earth personalities than that of comparable games who typically lean toward ridiculous exaggerations of their personality types. While most other VN’s with dating sims element reduce their characters to their appropriate “type” (i.e. tsundere, genki, nerdy), I feel like this one had a lot more depth and facets to its characters, should you be willing to sit through a lot of relatively ordinary conversation with them.

For many, I’m sure this means they’ll complain about the characters being either too boring or too uninteresting (I’m sure some will call the characters by their stereotypes – alcoholic cop, clumsy introvert, etc.), but I feel this is because the game is more focused on fleshing out the characters through dialogue and companionship than it is defining them through larger-than-life events you’ll experience, together. Despite an overarching plot that contains a lot of intense drama, most of your time spent with the characters defines them through mundane experiences. You’re never offered particularly dramatic moments to prove yourself to them, and your relationships are strengthened almost exclusively through emotionally compatible dialogue.

For me, this is a wonderful change of pace and allows me to feel closer to the characters – it’s almost as if they were people I knew. For most people who play games to feel constantly empowered, I feel like this might leave them cold and having less empathy towards the characters because of the lack of forced drama allowing them easy opportunities to feel more superficial connection. For example, another visual novel might allow you an opportunity to stand up to a bully to protect an introvert and use that as a point of bonding with them – in Angels with Scaly Wings, however, simple opportunities to quickly build character like that are largely absent and replaced with lots of talking about yourselves.

For everything you see in the world that doesn’t initially make sense, you’ll tend to get a (generally lengthy) explanation for it. Dragons using human-looking furniture and buildings was rather ridiculous to me, at first, and something I was having trouble dismissing, even though it was likely just an excuse for environmental art to be easier. It does end up having a surprisingly reasonable explanation, however, and so do most other indescrepencies and loose ends. It tends to do so in casual dialogue with characters more than it does in huge exposition dumps, leading much of it to feel naturally explained to the player and avoiding the usual browbeating of information. Of course, it is still a visual novel, and it doesn’t escape its length without a couple of exposition dumps, itself.

Like many visual novels, this one tends to work on a mechanic that revolves around restarting your experience with minor knowledge of previous events, and it uses this narrative device much the same way that other games that use this do. If this is something that tires you, by now, I can’t say that you’re really going to be turned around on the concept. I understand why they used it and even feel like it does ultimately end up adding to the story, but personal feelings aside, it’s just nearly impossible to use this device perfectly elegantly. Subsequent playthroughs become more about dating, and lose a significant amount of the grip that the drama had their first time around, because you’re skipping through what you’ve already seen. The game is, at least, very good about its skip features.

I found the art done for the game to be perfectly adequate, and didn’t find problems with the quality differences being jarring, as some others seem to have. The dragons are cute, the detailed transitions in more serious moments are nice despite the obvious change in artists, and, overall, I felt it to be a largely pleasing game from a visual standpoint. Full disclosure, here – I’m a furry, and though not really a particularly big fan of dragons, I do like them. Whether or not you think this indicates a bias is up to you, but I’ve played through several visual novels I’ve enjoyed despite not liking the character designs (I nearly loathe the modern anime aesthetic, especially how it depicts women), and feel like I would have still greatly enjoyed this with worse art or human characters.

The music is also surprisingly good, and there’s a shocking variety in the amount of tunes to keep things from ever getting stale. Some compositions feel like they were banged in an hour or two while a few others feel as if they had more work put into them, but the sheer number tends to ensure that if you don’t like a few songs, you’re going to be rarely hearing them, anyway. Many lower budget visual novels often suffer for trying to find someone to score their game and end up losing a lot in terms of mood, but there’s a definitive victory scored here in terms of both quantity and quality.

Ultimately, I feel like you should pick the game up or give it a chance if gripping, somewhat slow-moving drama with surprisingly rounded characters is your type of thing. Or, y’know, if dragons are your thing. Cuz this game’s sure as hell got dragons. I honestly found myself growing significantly more fond of the concept of dragons over the course of playing the game, and felt like the overall tone of Angels with Scaly Wings was one of compassion and empathy. More importantly, it’s about such sensitive things without constantly beating it over your head, and it develops them slowly, subtly, and for me, ultimately more meaningfully. Despite moments where player avatar compassion feels forced and the game feels as if it’s more than just nudging toward doing good, Angels with Scaly Wings’ positive attitude feels powerfully genuine and with a depth that is simply lacking in its peers.

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And, a few interesting notes for all my fellow queers, out there. I feel like Angels with Scaly Wings is super accommodating to alternate identities, lifestyles, and sexualities, but I didn’t know this and didn’t really have resource to find this before going in. Here’s a little resource for people who may or may not be like me, out there, who are curious (very mild spoilers ahead):

– Your player character’s gender is never defined, and the game accommodates this surprisingly well. As far as the game is concerned, you could have any gender identity, including non-binary ones.

– Likewise, your character’s sexuality is never assumed. Queer relationships are never judged by other characters, either, leading to the assumption that they’re perfectly normal in this kind of world.

– Sex scenes and physical romance are not required to get all the endings. You can simply grow to be close friends with each character. I understand some aces out there grow uncomfortable with games like this because of forced physical relations, but still wish to play for the platonic closeness. Angels with Scaly Wings keeps you in the clear. Likewise, if you’re strictly into a single gender, you won’t be forced into anything that should make you uncomfortable just to advance the story.

– Sexual dimorphism among the dragons is minimal and gender roles are flexible, creating a world that feels inviting to those not rigidly identifying with their birth designation.

– A certain character confesses relatable (offscreen, in their past) bullying to you over some sexual characteristics they were born with, which I feel points the game explicitly toward empathy for non-binary people.

Famicom Mini-Review Showcase: Takeru/Sur-De-Wave Pt. 2

February 2, 2017 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Takeru was a small developer that only ever put two games out for the Famicom under the Sur-De-Wave label. It was founded by a small group of industry veterans who largely felt stifled by their previous employers. They went bankrupt not terribly long after formation, mostly due to their overly ambitious adventure game, Nostalgia 1907, not meeting expectations.

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Seirei Densetsu Lickle (Little Samson)
(JP – June, 1992; US – November, 1992)

Given the relatively minimal space between release dates, it can be assumed that shortly after finishing off Cocoron, Takeru began work on their next big Famicom game, Seirei Densetsu Lickle – or, as it is more commonly known, simply “Lickle.” While not commonly considered such, perhaps due to Cocoron’s relative obscurity and Lickle mostly being known for the desirability of its very rare US release (known as “Little Samson” over here), it can be looked at as a spiritual successor to Cocoron when considering its mechanics and multi-character theme.

Cocoron felt much like a branching evolution in the growth of director Akira Kitamura’s design sensibilities that began with Mega Man, and Lickle, despite the baffling absence of Kitamura from the credited staff, feels like it continues in that same vein of design. Back again are the simple jump-and-shoot mechanics from Mega Man, but gone is Cocoron’s defining feature – its character creation. Instead, the game allows you to choose from a cast of four different, premade characters, all with different strengths and weaknesses that tend to complement each other.

As discussed in the previous article, despite Cocoron’s most central feature being its character creator, it prevented you from swapping between the multiple characters you’d created during a level and shoehorned you into sticking to one the entire game because of the upgrade system. To help curb a repeat situation with character favoritism in Lickle, you can now switch between your available characters on the fly. Character upgrades are now also reduced to a life extension rather than an attack bonus, which is relatively common and caps out at either two or three pick-ups per character (versus Cocoron’s need to pick up well over a dozen to max out just a single character).

Lickle initially has you complete a brief introduction stage with each of the four characters before you’re able to switch, but minus a completely optional and easy-to-miss secret stage, otherwise lets you switch freely for the remainder of the game. Each introduction stage helps accustom you to the characters’ unique qualities. Lickle, the eponymous human boy, is fairly well-rounded and can climb on walls, but lacks any obvious specialty. Gammu, the golem, is the slowest character in both his movement and attack, but has incredible health, and can walk over harmful terrain without penalty. Kikira, the dragon, is capable of flight and has the highest jump, but has a slight health handicap. And last but not least, Ko, the mouse, can both climb on walls and move at incredible speed, but their powerful attack is difficult to land and they’re the most fragile member of your party.

Having 4 characters with different attacks and mobility options accents the game’s variety in level design without ever feeling like it’s forcing you to play one way or another. While Cocoron would occasionally have a section that would be a little easier with a character who had flight, or a ledge you could only reach with a character who could jump higher, it could never commit to making the levels more interesting, because it had to accommodate for the slowest, weakest conceivable character to always be able to make it through.

While every level in the game after the introduction is technically able to be completed by just Lickle, there are brief paths in the level that can be approached with greater control over the situation by playing someone else. For example: while Lickle could climb the ceiling over the spiked floor and Gammu could simply trod over it, Kikira’s flight and unique arc to her attack might allow her the best avenue of approach given which enemies and what platforms might be available between the ceiling and spikes. It might even be that Ko’s small frame and quick movement could get them through easier, provided you can flex a little finesse.

The choices on who to use during the level are made even more complex when taking into consideration each character’s independent health bar and the boss that waits at the end of most stages. Health for characters only refills on the occasional pick-up or at the end of a stage, so your decision on who to use during that stage is further tempered by who you think will ultimately be best to use against the upcoming boss. Overuse a convenient favorite during the level, and the damage you take with them might prevent you from safely using them against that end hurdle. Kikira’s flight might trivialize a difficult platforming segment, but those hits you take during it could ultimately render her unavailable for a boss against whom flight would have been a paramount advantage.

Lickle’s balancing could easily be thrown out of gear by engineering situations where one character is forced to be used, but by instead gently urging situations where one half of your team might be better than the other, player agency becomes positively accentuated. Character death will wipe them from the party until the end of the level (with the exception of Lickle, who cannot be disabled) or until you use a rare potion to revive them, so the consequence of failure is always looming over your shoulder and the possibility of temporarily backing yourself into a nearly unwinnable corner is always a threat (you can always continue, which will revive the party, but you’ll lose their health increasers and need to find more).

While rewarding player skill and ability is a key feature in most action-platformers, it’s rare that one manages to carefully weave in some higher-level decision making like this to such an effective level. Lickle does not skimp on its difficulty, so both elements feel equally important and perhaps even symbiotic to the game’s overall identity. There is fluidity in your choices, as well – personal skill is never perfectly consistent, so you’re often asked to roll with the punches when a character you’d planned on using becomes too weak to risk leaving exposed. It’s in moments like those, which naturally and frequently crop up, that Lickle manages to shine its brightest.

The game’s stage design tends to be fairly great in terms of its geography and hazards forcing the player into thinking more smartly, but the common enemy design does unfortunately leave something to be desired. Variety falls somewhat flat, and there are a few too many moments where the designers rely on a corridor filled with infinitely spawning simple enemies to substitute cleverer placement and deliberate design. It doesn’t fully detract from the mostly enjoyable levels, but does end up being a fault that is a little bit too common.

Unlike Cocoron, which is non-linear and in relatively innovative ways, Lickle opts to be an almost purely linear experience. Though the player can play the four introduction stages in any order and potentially find a hidden, optional stage (that sidetracks the narrative, just briefly), everything else is otherwise played in a completely straightforward manner. This allows the game to have a relatively generous curve in its difficulty, with a few earlier stages featuring easier bosses or being mere intermissions completely lacking in a final hurdle to allow you to more safely experiment with the multiple characters.

Despite the relative smoothness of the curve, however, bosses later in the game have attacks that kill even Gammu in one or two hits, and the wildly ranging damage values from them are often surprising to the point that it can result in a trial-and-error death or two. This unfortunately seems like a natural end point to maintaining a high difficulty in a game where you’ve got four independent health bars, but comes at the cost of initial fairness and can make the game unnecessarily tough to those not intimately familiar with it.

The last level – only accessible by playing the game its highest difficulty, normal, since easy mode is pretty much just a training wheels version of the game – also introduces some incredibly unfairly paced bits to it. Losing a single character at any portion of the stage’s 3 tiers (and among its six boss fights) will result in them being disabled until a game over, or you’ll be given a chance at a revive if you managed to have a potion on them before hitting your last checkpoint. Given that two of the bosses have instant kill attacks, it’s a pretty high likelihood on your first run to lose somebody, and that can be a severe disability in being able to take care of the final boss. Once you’ve gotten a game over to get them back, you’re more or less forced into the tedious job of farming enemies for health increasing pick-ups to get them back to top shape, which the last level is definitely balanced around.

One of the reasons that Lickle is most commonly celebrated is for its high visual quality, and it is frequently cited by those familiar with it to be one of the best-looking games available for the console. It features some of what is arguably some Utata Kiyoshi’s (of Strider fame) finest work on a game, and the pixel art done for it is highly detailed in both animated characters and deely complex environmental work.

However, I still struggle to necessarily consider it among the very best on the console, despite that all it has going for it. Why? It struggles to come to terms with the Famicom’s limitations as a game console, primarily in terms of palette limitations and consistency in detail. Most of the game’s basic enemies and your characters are vibrantly animated, but their features are simple and cartoonish. In contrast, the game features numerous, massive bosses with incredibly high detail and comparatively basic animation and incredibly simple color schemes.

The sheer inconsistency in visual direction, here, can be staggering. Lickle, himself, is a simple 3 colors (the size of a Famicom palette – you get 4 available palettes, which can be cycled, and a sprite may contain one palette and the background color. Games like Mega Man work more than 4 colors into their player character by using multiple sprites – his face is actually an extra sprite!) with many frames of animation, but exercises color contrast in his simple design. A flesh tone contrasts vividly with the green of his outfit, and a brown is used to detail both his basic features and general outline. Despite being so simple, all 3 of his colors are used in smart ways.

Many of the game’s larger bosses, on the other hand (the serpent, the dragon, the grim reaper), are fought against a black background, and use 3 different shades of brown or beige and then black for relatively extreme detailing. The reason the background is vacantly black is because the boss is technically the game’s background, just being moved around to imitate a large sprite. This is a common trick used for larger bosses in Famicom games, but the comparative Mega Man 5, released in the same year, managed to have giant bosses that were more animated, colorful, and nearly just as detailed.

Lickle ends up with bosses that are bizarrely detailed, but largely static and monochrome… And you’re fighting them with color-contrasted simple characters, who are constantly animating themselves. The more animated bosses still refuse to use contrast or incorporate a second palette into their visual design, opting to instead use their 3 available colors for different shades for increased detail – making them look almost like unpainted toys from colored molds of plastic. Environmental work can be similarly confused, and lock up variety in the palettes for shading and detailing, thus sometimes forsaking the appeal of variety and contrast. Slavish attention to admittedly incredible detail can often make the level go without any animated background elements, as well, which are common features in many of my most visually admired Famicom games.

Ultimately, this prevents Lickle from ever being as colorful, animated, and excellent in composition as some of what is ultimately at the top. Individual elements are frequently at the very highest level of competency you’ll see, but they are disparate and often refuse to co-operate with everything else. Lickle feels, at times, that it would have been nearly straight improved on something like the PC Engine or Super Famicom. It’s why I struggle to consider it a visual masterpiece along the lines of something like Gimmick! or Kirby’s Adventure, which both feel perfectly at home on the device and ultimately better for embracing their limitations.

Sound-wise, Lickle’s composer pulls out much of the same degree of high quality work that he did for Cocoron. Unfortunatately, though, the game makes a rather asinine decision in how it chooses to play that music. Rather than giving each level a unique track, each character has their own personal theme that plays when they’re selected, instead. A few later levels have unique themes and there are a couple of boss themes, but this makes it so that almost the entire game is a basic four tracks. To make matters worse, the themes each start from the top when you switch characters, and you tend to switch characters very frequently.

This strips away a huge amount of identity that many of the game’s levels could have potentially had with their own music, and makes you sick to death of your crew’s highly upbeat tunes – particularly their opening few seconds – very quickly. I can somewhat understand why they chose to do this, but it was ultimately a very poor design decision and ends up being one of LIckle’s greatest flaws. I feel like the four primary tunes would have been pleasantly memorable if used more wisely – it’s not as if they’re not good, it’s just grating to not only hear them constantly, but hear them restarting constantly, as well.

In terms of narrative, Lickle tends to come in strong among its peers. Its story is told through brief bits of character pantomime and natural play of the game, and it ends up feeling like a much more memorably told tale because of it. It’s not just expressed cleverly, but succinctly, and manages to get the full breadth of its narrative across without forcing you to read a manual, watch an overtly extended opening or ending, or sit through mid-game cutscenes. The game simply cuts back to a world map in-between levels to give you a sense of placement in the world (which highlights your characters going far off the beaten path for a while), and then throws you right back into the action. This, combined with the game’s quality learning curve, provides an excellent sense of overall pacing, at least when not counting for a few bumps in the road due to potential struggling with the difficulty.

Overall, I feel like Lickle, as a game, never quite manages to fully peak out into the territory of excellence. It manages to get very close, but is held back by a few shortcomings and inconsistencies into being just short of the cream of the crop. It’s almost entirely an improvement over Cocoron, however, and showed incredible promise for future platformers from Takeru. Unfortunately, the losses from their other games (particularly Nostalgia 1907) were too high, and Lickle was ultimately just a minor success in Japan, at best, and a near-total failure over here in the states as Little Samson. They disbanded not long after, as a result.

Lickle, of course, didn’t fail to sell due to being short of excellence. It was near-entirely a result of a lack of advertising and consumers being largely distracted by the bigger, more powerful hardware starting to really take the stage. A little-known, new property like this never really stood a chance, and even genuine masterpieces released this late in the console’s lifespan were sometimes doomed to commercial failure and obscurity. I feel like Takeru could have gone far, under the right circumstances, but were just cut tragically short. Some of the staff disappeared entirely into the wind, and games like Lickle stand as monuments of their last big effort. It’s sad, when you think about it, that games like this never really got to be widely appreciated, and are largely discussed today simply for their value among those who just want to brag that they’ve got a copy on their shelves.