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Breath of the Wild’s Tragic Princess Zelda

Bo

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She is the most powerful princess in an apocalyptic world. She has a long-unfulfilled magical destiny. To make up for this inexcusable failure – because of course it is, and totally her fault – she develops an intense scientific interest. She remains a teenager for a very long time. Her magical destiny is meant to defeat is a timeless, reincarnated evil. This magical destiny exists because she herself is the reincarnation of an ancient power meant to fight this evil. Her dedication to her science and her duty to her kingdom leads to a cold, distant personality at times. She has a blonde teenage swordsman sworn to protect her.

Isn’t Princess Bubblegum great?

Where are my new Adventure Time episodes, damn it?!

No, despite all these matching traits, I’m not talking about Princess Bubblegum. I’m talking about the latest rendition of a more iconic princess who has experienced a variety of personalities over the years.

Zelda has been many things throughout the course The Legend of Zelda’s long, storied history. Often she plays the role of damsel in distress for Link to rescue in the end Mario-style. Sometimes she takes action within this role, such as her brief appearances to help both Link and Midna in Twilight Princess. Wind Waker gave us a Zelda entirely unaware of her secret royal heritage. Most times, she either fights alongside Link against Ganon or grants him the power to win.

Of all these many versions of Princess Zelda, probably the most famous is the version which appears in Ocarina of Time. There are several reasons for this; mainly that Ocarina was the first 3d Zelda game. As such, it was one of the most influential games of all time, ushering in the world of 3d gaming and defining it for years to come, much like Super Mario 64. The game, of course, remains fantastic to this day. It’s the kind of near-timeless masterpiece even the young, graphically spoiled generations will go back and love.

Another large reason was the cinematic turn which breathed a previously unseen life into classic Zelda characters. One of, if not the largest beneficiaries of this newfound cinematic flair was Zelda herself. No longer a passive prisoner for Link to rescue, our princess played an active role in the story. She sends Link to find the Spiritual Stones opening the Door of Time and sneaks him the Ocarina of Time while escaping Hyrule Castle.

After the disaster occurring because of Link’s premature claim of the Master Sword, she spends seven years training as a Sheikah in order to win back her kingdom and eventually assist Link in freeing the Sages necessary to defeat Ganondorf. Now, this doesn’t seem like that big a deal on the surface. Where it gets juicy is the further examination of why exactly Zelda does what she does.

After all, she sends Link to retrieve the Stones opening the Door of Time, allowing Ganondorf to seize control of Hyrule. It’s heavily implied to the point of obviousness that she feels crushing guilt over this. It is her guilt, combined with the duty she feels to her ruined kingdom, which causes her to train as what amounts to a ninja and fight Ganondorf’s evil. At the end she sends Link back to his childhood while she remains behind with the ruins of her kingdom to rebuild.

You can talk for hours about the mental and emotional state she must have been in throughout this game. Pretty obvious why this Zelda stands so memorably above her counterparts throughout the series. Well, move over lady because Breath of the Wild gave us a Zelda with strong claim to the title, one I’m not sure Ocarina’s Zelda can beat back.

Guilt and Destiny

In a lot of ways, what Breath of the Wild does with Zelda’s character resembles Ocarina. Both see their kingdom laid to waste by Ganon. Both try desperately to prevent this and fail. Obviously the same crushing guilt afflicts both young women afterwards, and causes them to sacrifice a great deal to try and hold Ganon back. However, where Ocarina gives a relatively bare-bones series of events for the player to fill in the blanks, Breath of the Wild delves deep into who exactly Zelda is and why her failure was a devastating personal blow, while also increasing the magnitude of her failure considerably.

Alright, so quick background; Breath of the Wild takes place 100 years after Calamity Ganon emerges from beneath Hyrule Castle, destroying Hyrule in the process. Zelda and Link both descend from the ancient heroes that initially imprisoned Ganon 10,000 years earlier with the help of 4 Champions from the 4 other kingdoms of Hyrule. These Champions pilot giant machines called Divine Beasts created long ago by the Sheikah for this purpose. They also built all the futuristic ruins and enemies Link explores and fights.

What does all this mean for our girl Zelda? As the descendant of the Zelda who initially sealed Calamity Ganon away, she was named for that descendant and expected to wield her power, just like every female descendant of that bloodline. Ganon would eventually return and it was her job to stop that should Ganon return in her lifetime. A series of optional flashbacks shows the immense burden her father placed on her. The guy does not hold back at all. Really, Zelda’s father is a complete prick about the whole ordeal.

Zelda’s mother was meant to train her, but dies when Zelda is six-years old. King Rhoam’s journal within Hyrule Castle talks about Zelda’s struggle to learn without a teacher.

“She lost her mother, her teacher, before she could learn from her. Ten pointless years of self-training, without so much as a book or note to help her find her way…”

As such, Zelda spends her life stuck between the need to realize her magical powers and her duty to help her kingdom however she can. Because of her frustration awakening her powers, she instead turns to the ancient Sheikah artifacts and ruins. Most of the flashbacks revolve around her traveling with Link and the Champions to research the Divine Beasts and activate the other Sheikah artifacts and weapons unearthed throughout Hyrule.

Ouch, right?

Zelda’s feelings of inadequacy and failure plague her long before Calamity Ganon busts loose and lays waste to Hyrule. They start at a very young age due to her father’s expectations and only grow worse when Link claims the Master Sword. As her sworn shield and the hero wielding the sword meant to defeat Ganon, he succeeded where she cannot. He represents and intensifies her failures. So do the Champions. Each of their successes in controlling their Divine Beasts leaves Zelda as the only thing separating victory from defeat should Ganon return.

It didn’t help that everyone else represented the very best of their race, and they were each meant to serve her. Even Link was a “better” Hylian than Zelda, the princess. That just left Zelda the “failure” surrounded by the kind of people she was supposed to lead. As you’d expect, this creates considerable guilt over her inability to fulfill her role and also considerable loneliness among those who already have.

Duty and Loneliness

As if you don’t feel bad enough for Zelda already, we also see how lonely and distant she was while helping the Champions figure out their Beasts. She treats Link outright hostilely. Her interactions with Daruk, Mipha, and Revali are practically nonexistent. Urbosa clearly tries to play a motherly role (just end me now) but she’s a single, isolated example.

Still, things improve for the poor girl. She overcomes her dislike for Link after he thwarts an assassination attempt. She dives happily into the science behind the Sheikah ruins and grows closer with her crew. For a brief period she gets to be happy.

This, of course, is an awful sign.

Soon thereafter, Zelda’s father confronts her to demand an end to her scientific pursuits. This leads to the scene above where he attacks her insecurities in brutal fashion. He accepts nothing but her total commitment to her powers and Sheikah artifacts distract from that commitment. Because clearly she’s running from her duty, not struggling with her failures and her responsibility to help her kingdom however necessary, and he demands she stop.

So she does. She leaves behind her friends, her interests, and her only escape from her crushing guilt and loneliness to concentrate solely on failing her magical destiny. Link still accompanies her, but we’ve already covered what Link represents to her. Their newfound friendship won’t entirely change the friction between them or what he represents to her.

Why accept his demand? Well, because she’s the princess of Hyrule, of course. It is her duty. And she totally loves her father, and he loves her, and their conflict is born of the fact neither took two seconds in the ten years following the death of Zelda’s mother to discuss their grief or their fear of Ganon’s impending return. Whoa, Bo, we haven’t reached this point yet.

We find out again through King Rhoam’s journals (the journals do such a great job adding context to all this) that when her mother died, it was Zelda that held him together. Despite being only six-years old (yeah) he describes her as completely steadfast and strong.

“Zelda never cried, never faltered. Not even during the royal funeral or later when she and I were alone with our grief. I must assume her strength is a result of us repeatedly informing her of her duty to be a valiant and steady princess. For a child of merely six years of age, her conduct was truly that of a born leader. Her strength gives me hope.”

Rhoam’s journal continues to paint a picture of a truly lonely girl with nothing but her duty and the burden of her destiny. Keep in mind Zelda spends these years after her mother’s death single-handedly trying to figure out her powers. Rhoam describes his disappointment in her lack of powers a year after her mother’s death. She is seven-years old and her father already treats her like something is wrong with her. She still has ten years of failure ahead of her.

From the age of six Zelda is left alone to grieve and live up to an immense magical prophecy with no help whatsoever. Her father certainly does not help her. He grieves too strongly to help with the loss of her mother and has absolutely no idea how to help with awakening her powers. Zelda seems to isolate herself from any other help anyone might offer. She bears her duty alone and with little emotional connection to anyone, because as Rhoam himself says, she was raised to do so and no one else knows how to help.

Silence and Similarities

Like you see time and time again with these characters, this leads to severe communication issues only increasing her loneliness and insecurities until they reach breaking points.

Her hostility towards Link only exists because of a literal lack of communication of any kind, as Breath of the Wild took silent protagonist Link and gave him a reason for his silence. Zelda was not the only one dealing with immense expectations. As the chosen wielder of the Master Sword and the princess’s sworn knight, Link has his own expected role in defeating Ganon and must also deal with the burden of it.

“When I finally got around to asking why he’s so quiet all the time, I could tell it was difficult for him to say. But he did. With so much at stake, and so many eyes upon him, he feels it necessary to stay strong and to silently bear any burden. A feeling I know all too well…”

Why did she need to “finally” get around to asking? Because she was raised to bury her feelings by a father who did the same. Rather than ask Link about his silence, she lets her questions stew until she believes Link resents her.

“I never know what he’s thinking! It makes my imagination run wild, guessing at what he is thinking but will not say. What does the boy chosen by the sword that seals the darkness think of me? Will I ever truly know? Then, I suppose it’s simple. A daughter of Hyrule’s royal family yet unable to use sealing magic… He must despise me.”

And to her mind, why wouldn’t he despise her? Zelda’s journal entries take place shortly before Ganon’s emergence, when she has tried and failed on her own to awaken her powers for ten years. Link has the Master Sword and stands ready to defeat Ganon. The Champions have control of their Divine Beasts and stand ready to help. The only missing piece is Zelda, who must seal Ganon away after Link and the Champions win. No matter what she tries, though, she can’t awaken those powers.

Zelda’s self-loathing nears its peak at this point, as she travels alone with her guilt and the constant reminder of her failure ten years after her mother’s death, all the while refusing to talk about it. Why? Why swallow her feelings to the point of self-hatred she projects onto her most faithful servant? As you’d expect, it’s a character flaw shared with her father.

Let me be frank: King Rhoam Bosphoramus Hyrule acts like a complete prick. From the very moment he reveals himself as the mysterious old guy making you shrine-hunt for a glider, Breath of the Wild inspires a dislike for the man. His scene demanding Zelda quit her scientific interests only increases player hatred.

It’s not unless you discover Rhoam’s journal that you receive sorely needed information about him and Zelda. It provides a lot of the quotes I’ve used. The journal also does one unsurprising thing; it reveals the shared traits of father and daughter, including those flaws responsible for their fraught relationship.

Like his daughter, Rhoam has a deep interest in the Sheikah artifacts. He orders the excavations revealing them. At some point after their discovery, he describes Zelda’s reaction to them:

“Zelda’s eyes lit up like a wildfire when I told her about the relics… I must admit, she has a knack for research.”

By the way, Zelda’s five-years old here. Talk about an early start.

The journal also reveals Rhoam’s obsession with the prophecy predicting Ganon’s impending return. After his wife’s death, preparation for Ganon dominates his thoughts. He can’t show weakness or even take time to comfort his daughter. There is no time for comfort. They must each prepare for Ganon in their own way, and nothing else matters. Not even their grief.

“It has been a year and three months since her mother passed. Perhaps she is held back by heartache too deep to heal. If the Ganon prophecy wasn’t looming over our heads, I would tell her to take her time… To wait until she is ready. But our situation is dire and leaves no room for weakness—even on behalf of my beloved daughter. My heart breaks for Zelda, but I must act as a king, not a father.”

What becomes clear is how Rhoam, much like Zelda, uses Ganon as a distraction to avoid his feelings. Only by diving deep into his own duty could he avoid Zelda, his wife, and his own sorrow. Feelings are hard, after all. Much easier to drive them all away using a very legitimate aim for your attention. He fully understands what he is doing, too. He knows he is sacrificing his relationship with his daughter in the name of defeating Ganon. His feelings come second to the safety of Hyrule.

Huh, sounds like Zelda, doesn’t it? In fact…

“The return of Ganon looms—a dark force taunting us from afar. I must learn all I can about the relics so we can stop him. If the fortune-teller’s prophecy is to be believed, there isn’t much time left… Ah, but turning over these thoughts in my head puts me ill at ease.”

Much like her father, she would rather let her feelings torture her than face them. She wanted to make amends, but too late.

“When Link arrives, we will set out for Mount Lanayru. The other Champions will accompany us there. I have not seen my father since he last scolded me. Things are too strained now… I will meet with him when I return. …”

As for King Rhoam’s opinion on the matter:

“I have been told my Zelda went to the Spring of Wisdom… This will likely be her last chance. If she is unable to awaken her power at Lanayru, all hope is truly lost. If she comes back without success, then I shall speak kindly with her. Scolding is pointless now.”

Don’t mind that sound. It was just my heart breaking over here.

Two characters receive all of Zelda’s scorn throughout the memories of Breath of the Wild; Link and King Rhoam. Fittingly, they each share immense similarities with her. Link and Zelda are both children of destiny, descendants of ancient heroes tasked to defeat Ganon. Both struggle mightily with this destiny and internalize their burden to the point of creating conflict with each other. Zelda and her father both place their duty to their kingdom above all else, even their happiness.

They also share the same fear of Ganon’s return, a fear driving a wedge between them, and grief over the loss of Zelda’s mother. Neither ever takes the step necessary to face their shared feelings, choosing instead to run from them and bury themselves in preparation for Hyrule’s defense.

In the end, Zelda never entirely opened up with either of them, or truly repaired the damage done to either relationship. Ganon attacks during that trip to Mount Lanayru, killing her father, her citizens, and her Champions. Link suffers mortal wounds defending her and ends up in the Shrine of Resurrection for 100 years. Zelda’s powers awaken too late, and she is left alone to bind Ganon at Hyrule Castle until Link reawakens.

Pictured: More than a decade of internalized guilt erupting when all of Zelda’s worst fears come to pass.

Tragedy and Flaws

This catches us up with the beginning of Breath of the Wild. Link reawakens. King Rhoam’s spirit makes him run around doing stuff rather than just hand over a glider. He is tasked with defeating Ganon, who Zelda still struggles to restrain after 100 years.

Breath of the Wild does a fantastic job using all this history to define its world and characters. For obvious reasons a great deal of anger, loss, and guilt exists in this ruined version of Hyrule. Link faces open hostility for his failures. Every society grieves the loss of their Champion. The ruined remains of familiar locations (why did they do this to Lon Lon Ranch) hit hard at longtime fans. The game drives home the tragedy of Calamity Ganon and the failure of Zelda and her Champions at every turn.

It all makes for a powerful storytelling beyond anything I’ve ever seen from the Zelda series before. Breath of the Wild does a remarkable job telling Zelda’s story through skilled use of conventional cutscenes and a more subtle, Dark Souls-style use of visual clues and optional information. Absolutely none of Zelda’s story is necessary to complete the game. You can beat the game without learning any of it.

I suppose this might be the biggest negative of all this. By leaving so much of this information optional, she plays little role within the game itself. She does end up spending the game inside Hyrule Castle, taking no action besides holding Ganon back. She speaks telepathically to Link from time to time, but takes no other role in Link’s journey to Ganon. As much as I love the execution, the entirely optional of Zelda’s story makes me sad, as many gamers will never discover the full extent of it.

I suppose there might also exist dissatisfaction about how her powers manifest. The game makes it pretty blatantly clear that Zelda came to love Link before Ganon’s attack, and implies her powers awoken due to that love, as she first uses them to protect him. I would have preferred if the overwhelming emotions of her failure awoke her powers, and the moment is vague enough about the cause. One could easily read the manifestation as her refusing to lose the last person in her life, regardless of whether she loves Link or not.

Really it’s beside the point. Breath of the Wild tells a wonderful tale adding yet another Dutiful Princess to the ever-growing list. This is a version of Zelda more tragic and compelling than any preceding her. It is a surprisingly strong story about a princess’s destiny, the guilt and burden born of said destiny, and her failure to live up to it. This is a story of a princess and her guardian struggling to make up for those failures, and a story of a father and daughter whose grief and duty tore them apart.

Damn if Nintendo didn’t knock this game out of the park. Breath of the Wild just might have lived up to the hype as the best Zelda game yet, and Zelda herself stands tall among the reasons why.


Images Courtesy of Nintendo

Bo

Bo relaxes after long days of staring at computers by staring at computers some more, and continues drifting wearily through the slog of summer TV.

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Kylie
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I can’t describe how badly I needed this article.

“Pictured: More than a decade of internalized guilt erupting when all of Zelda’s worst fears come to pass.” I already couldn’t deal with it in the trailer without context, so thanks for this.

eternalsummer
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eternalsummer

/So/ glad you wrote this article! Ever since I read the journals and realized the royal family of Hyrule had gone full Martell, I’ve been looking forward to it. Even considered writing the article myself. I loved the exploration of Zelda’s character in Breath of the Wild. I adore that she’s a nerd. A precious, self – conscious nerd. I want more, and hopefully the story DLC will explore her more, since the focus seems to be on the champions and they’re essentially her entourage. One thing I’ve been thinking about since I finished the game was how the roles… Read more »

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[…] straight by poking fun at his raging masculinity (zing) and revealing herself to be one of the many, many, many, many reincarnations of Princess Zelda. You know, the latest in a long lineage of birthright protectors of a sacred artifact of ultimate […]

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Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can

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Over the long decades of Spider-Man games that have come and gone, the quality has varied wildly. Some have been really good games for their time. Some had a great idea carrying poor gameplay. More often they were plain bad. No matter the quality, though, one thing they all struggled with was the fundamental issue of capturing the feeling of Spider-Man.

The first Spider-Man on the Playstation was an excellent game. It was also limited in how much it could put Spidey’s real power in the hands of gamers. Maximum Carnage has many nostalgic fans, but it was just a side-scrolling beat-em up. The Spider-Man 2 movie game had terrific web-swinging, but was average or bad at everything else. Often the problems were technological. Other times they were an issue with developer skill or budget. Whatever the case no game really made you feel like the guy you read in comics.

And even more than the actual mechanics of being Spider-Man, games struggled to craft stories of the type that made Peter Parker and his crime-fighting alter-ego so iconic. Ultimately it is the relationships between Peter and his friends and foes that make him so popular. You feel an earnest connection to the conflicts driving his stories. Again, some of the failure here for his gaming adventures involves technology. Spider-Man gaming fell off significantly early in the Playstation 2 lifecycle, and gaming storytelling made significant leaps in that time. More often, though, those games just didn’t try particularly hard.

So how fares Insomniac’s attempt to finally give games a true Spider-Man game? How did they approach these problems? Were they ultimately successful? As an Insomniac Games fan since Spyro the Dragon some 20 years ago, I’m happy to say they made the best attempt yet.

Does Whatever a Spider Can

I’ll start with a pretty definitive statement here; no game has ever, ever had Spidey gameplay coming close to what Insomniac managed with this game. Not only that (and I admit this is purely opinion), Spider-Man has taken the Batman: Arkham formula and completely outdone it.

I won’t pretend the game doesn’t blatantly take the Batman formula. The combat certainly does. It’s the same directional, combo-focused, dodge-and-counter style I enjoyed across four Batman games. Thing is, it also addresses many of the problems in those games. Spider-Man’s enemies do not patiently wait as he beats down their friends. They jump in to stop you. They don’t point their guns forever like they forgot how to fire them. Those suckers get unloaded constantly. Spidey doesn’t gravitate from enemy to enemy like his fists have Bat-magnets pulled towards baddie faces. If you’re caught out of position, you’ll flail stupidly and someone will probably smack you for it.

While certainly inspired by Arkham, Spider-Man has a much more aggressive feel that perfectly suits the more agile, frantic, and plain capable nature of its superhero. Spider-Man isn’t a normal human being with crazy ninja training like Batman. He’s a true superhuman. You dodge bullets and rockets flying all over the place. You web people up, throw stuff at them, or even throw them if they’re properly restrained. Spidey flies around combat zones taking advantage of huge amounts of gadgets and suit abilities. His enemies have armor, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, whips, swords, shock gloves, and sometimes even support vehicles.

It makes for a very fast game with more challenge than I expected. The random baddies you find on patrol are perfectly capable of stomping Spidey into the ground. While nothing close to unforgiving, the game does demand the player get a handle on the combat and understand it. Even when you have your trusty standby style and gadgets, optional challenges encourage you to try the many options in ground and aerial combat. You’ll need to in order to acquire the combat tokens used to upgrade the suits and gadgets you like.

Thankfully, this challenge has nothing to do with poor controls. Spider-Man plays like a dream. The controls are smooth, responsive, intuitive, and quickly become second-nature. This allows the player to effortlessly transition between all the tactics needed for late-game encounters. It’s no problem at all to unleash a combo, dodge someone, counter, duck through a shielded opponent’s legs, web up to an aerial enemy, and unleash a special suit move restraining them all with your web.

In fact, the random baddies can be so surprisingly tough that the boss fights feel almost disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; they play well and usually have properly sizable scope. After hours of beating on upwards of like 50 thugs at a time, though, focusing on only one or two supervillains feels almost tame. Especially when few of them try anything particularly innovative in the combat system.

(The highlights are definitely the 2 fights involving Spidey going solo against 2 supervillains. One keeps the Spidey in the air at all times, while the other involves extensive use of the environment.)

But what about the method of traveling between all these fights? How exactly did Spider-Man manage the always important web-swinging mechanic? We all remember Spider-Man 2 and want something matching it, I know. And I won’t say the physics behind Insomniac’s Spider-Man matches its PS2 predecessor.

You know what? I don’t care. Rather than go for something “realistic,” Insomniac went for fun. Give me this any day.

The most important part of the web-swinging, in my humble opinion, is to make you feel like Spider-Man as he zips around New York City. This game manages that and then some. Besides the obvious swinging from building to building, Spidey can zip to ledges and points, vault off them, dive-bomb to pick up speed, and shoot quick webs to propel him forward and maintain speed around corners. He can run up and along buildings with ease. Transitioning from one move to another really lets players keep the speed up with ease.

Insomniac definitely went for accessibility over depth. The right-trigger button puts the player in something of an automatic parkour mode, and you can basically hold it down as you go and pull off what looks like complicated web-swinging and city traversal. However, this won’t make the most of the web-swinging. There’s a learning curve before you find the groove making the most of the speed and flow the web-swinging is capable of.

While the physics may not match what Spider-Man 2 did, don’t listen to anyone who says physics play no role. You can’t swing if there’s nothing your webs can attach to. Where your webs do attach determines the speed and momentum of your swing. Combined with the zip-lines and quick webs and wall running skills, you’ll need to make the most of all these mechanics and physics to become a truly gifted web-swinger. Especially if you want to complete the various challenges and missions.

Within the story missions, Insomniac blends these gameplay elements with well-placed quick time event button presses to create impressive spectacles. Spidey swings from helicopters and stops falling cranes and smashes through glass ceilings while beating on villains. The scale of these events makes for highly memorable moments after the various side content available between them.

Spider-Man’s open world certainly tries nothing new. You stop random crimes, pick up collectibles, activate towers that fill in the map, and take photos of various landmarks. Nothing about it breaks the mold formed by dozens of open-world games before. Where Spider-Man tends to avoid monotony, though, comes from the speed of these tasks. In the time it takes to scale to a viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man lets you stop a crime, collect a backpack, activate a tower, and be on your way to the next objective. None of these typically mundane tasks feel mundane because of how quickly you complete them. None of these tasks feel lazy or boring when it’s so easy to check multiple items off the list in like 3 minutes. Thus, Spider-Man’s web-swinging adds a fresh new dynamic to the familiar open-world formula.

Like with the combat, it is this speed that defines the game. If you have an aversion to this kind of open-world repetitiveness, I can’t promise this game will overcome it. If one can, though, this may be it. Besides the brisk nature of these tasks, the game also does a good job pacing them. Right when you might be sick of picking up collectibles, enemy strongholds are revealed. You get sick of that and the challenge missions show up. You get sick of random thugs and the research stations unlock.

Overall, Spider-Man takes advantage of its namesake’s abilities, along with some excellent design, to avoid a lot of the flaws in open-world gaming design. It’s a fresh, updated fusion of Batman and Assassin’s Creed. Almost everything about it plays fantastically. If you have any interest in Spider-Man or open-world games, I can’t imagine feeling dissatisfied. Even if you don’t, I think you’d enjoy this game.

Now It’s Personal

But what about the underlying story and characters driving all this gameplay? After all, who cares about gameplay if I feel no motivation around anything? If you’re a Spider-Man fan, I think you’ll be more than satisfied. Insomniac has a GREAT grasp on what makes Spidey and Peter Parker so appealing.

The game takes place 8 years after Peter acquired his powers, bypassing a lot of the “learning to use your powers” stuff we’ve seen and played a thousand times. This allowed Insomniac to build a rich history of what Spider-Man has already done, what kind of relationships he has with those in his life, and how exactly he lives his life. Insomniac uses this basis to build a story and world operating as a love letter to Spidey comics new and old.

From the beginning, we see a familiar picture: Peter Parker struggling between his personal life and his superhero responsibilities. He has a tense post-relationship dynamic with Mary Jane Watson. He helps Aunt May at a homeless shelter. His professional life takes place in a lab with Otto Octavius, who feuds with Mayor Norman Osborn. Peter isn’t the unsure kid facing these difficulties for the first time. That doesn’t mean he fails to struggle. Early in the game, he even loses his apartment after failing to pay rent on time. Said apartment is cluttered with late notices and makeshift gadgets.

To be honest, I think this is the best version of Peter Parker anyone has ever managed, even in comics. He’s a perfect blend of the struggling, responsible dork and super-capable superhero veteran. He blends effortlessly between cracking jokes and dramatic moments. One moment he’s stopping masked thugs, the next he’s freaking out over a text message MJ took the wrong way. Spider-Man never shies from leaning into these moments and letting the emotion and drama of a moment speak for itself.

Peter’s personal relationships lay at the center of the story. Both of the major villains are mentor figures to Peter. Aunt May and Mary Jane feature prominently, including in gameplay. Miles Morales is introduced during one of the game’s big twists and becomes a prominent character afterwards. A pre-Wraith Yuri Watanabe plays a Commissioner Gordon role, and the banter between her and Pete make for some of the game’s funniest moments. Even the lesser supervillains have a history with Spidey that come into play when he confronts them.

Everything is so steeped in personal history and Insomniac does a terrific job relaying that history.

One considerably controversial piece of storytelling occurs through the occasional stealth sections putting Mary Jane Watson and eventually Miles Morales in the player’s hands. Some dislike these sections for interrupting the Spider-Man gameplay with comparably weak content. I actually like them. They’re easy, forgiving, and typically do a great job giving MJ and Miles a key role in the story. They also serve as a perfect example of something I mentioned earlier: the excellent pacing keeping the open-world Spidey gameplay from becoming monotonous.

These gameplay segments are also used to great effect in some key story moments, making you really feel the tension or tragedy of the moment. Plus they do great things for player investment in those characters. Investigative journalist MJ is easily my favorite MJ ever.

The same can be said of the lab puzzles you perform for Octavius. All of the puzzles are pretty easy, quick, and give useful rewards. They help immerse the player in the shoes of Peter Parker, not just Spider-Man. Not everyone likes them, and I get it. Insomniac does, too. They let the player skip them completely while also receiving the rewards for them. It’s the storytelling purpose of these segments that matter and are why they exist.

Overall the story doesn’t hit any particularly groundbreaking beats. Does it matter when they hit the familiar beats so well? Seeing the degradation of some relationships alongside the rehabilitation of others makes for some fantastically well-told moments. Insomniac succeeds with storytelling no Spider-Man game would attempt 10-20 years ago. Some of the more dramatic plot points rank among some of my favorite video game moments in recent years.

And when it all finally comes to an end, the game pulls no punches. The final boss has all the emotion you’d expect after hours of build-up, and afterwards, Peter is forced to make one last decision perfectly representing the idea of “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In fact, the ending can be seen as a direct rebuke of an infamous Spider-Man story from the 2000s.

Overall, like with the gameplay, no Spider-Man game has ever captured his life this well. Insomniac chose to create a Spidey game for a reason, and I think their love for the character shines in every second of this experience. I wish I could delve into a more spoiler-y summary of it to make this opinion more clear.

Perhaps myself or someone else will eventually, because I think Spider-Man deserves it.

Final Thoughts

I won’t say this is the best game of the year. Not with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey currently receiving hype as the best game the series has put out in years, and definitely not with Red Dead Redemption II releasing this month. You also have to consider God of War, Monster Hunter, Dragon Ball Fighterz, etc….it’s a hard slog to proclaim Spider-Man the best of that bunch.

As a Spidey fan, though, I can’t imagine anything besides Red Dead possibly competing for the title of my favorite game this year. This is the best Spidey game yet.

There’s certainly room to improve. The game kind of bogs down in the final act, with an excessive amount of armed thugs lying around. The open world stuff could be more imaginative. Improvements can be made to the web-swinging. I’d also love to see inspired boss fights taking full advantage of the combat’s depth. Also, no symbiote suit? Really?

Considering the obvious sequel setup this game ends on, I’m sure we will get these improvements and then some. Insomniac knows how to do sequels. Just look at the sequels to Spyro the Dragon or Ratchet and Clank.

For now, though, I prefer to bask in the many, many things Spider-Man does right. I was skeptical this game would be anything more than solid, and feared the worst. Years of Spidey-related disappointments trained to temper my expectations. Instead I got something very, very good, but just short of great. But it was great enough for this Spidey fan.

You can bet that for once, I’ll be ready to pre-order a sequel immediately.


Images Courtesy of Sony Entertainment

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Facade’s ‘Tortuga 1667’ Packs A Lot of Piracy Into A Small Package

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Piracy comes to your table with Tortuga 1667 from Façade Games. Tortuga is a social bluffing game for 2-9 players, each game lasting between 20 and 40 minutes. Players belong to one of two (or three) sides: The British or the French. In games with an odd number of players, there is a solo Dutch pirate. Players do not know who else is on their team, and they are likely not part of the same crew.

Set up is fairly simple, thanks to Façade’s design: lay out the map, pass out starting vote cards, and set up the event deck. Most importantly, players starting locations, and therefore roles, are chosen randomly by choosing meeples out of a bag. This randomization mechanic is becoming more popular, and I love the way it streamlines set up. Also given out randomly? Your loyalty cards.

Crew members receive their role based on their position on deck. If you are at the front of the line, congratulations, you are now the captain of that ship. The person behind you, assuming there is one, is your first mate. Ideally, you trust them. The person at the back of the line is the cabin boy. This might sound like you’re low on the totem pole, but you are the only one who can move treasure once it’s been placed. It is possible to be the captain or first mate and the cabin boy, if your crew is small enough. The captain of The Flying Dutchmen goes first.

There are five locations players can go to during the game. Two ships (The Flying Dutchmen and The Jolly Roger) two row boats, and Tortuga. The titular Tortuga is where players will find themselves marooned if they are kicked off their ship. The rowboats allow access back on board either ship, but can only carry one player at a time. Similar to the ships, Tortuga also has a track with meeples filling in from top to bottom. Are you the first player on the island? Welcome, Mayor! Everyone behind the mayor has the same role: a voting member on the island.

The victory condition for Tortuga is to get the most treasure for your country by the end of the game. If you are a solo Dutch pirate, your goal is to make sure both the French and the British have the same amount of treasure at the end. The game ends when the Spanish Armada card is revealed to all players. This mechanic allows game time to fluctuate: less cards in the deck means a shorter game. It also means no one knows quite when the end will come, providing tension as the deck grows smaller.

What does play actually look like? For us it was a lot of cooperation at first. We all wanted to get treasure, regardless of which side we were on. The only way to get treasure is to work together—a captain with no crew cannot win a battle. We exchanged vague plans and preferences, hoping to come to an understanding without revealing confidential information. Eventually, people started to decide who to trust. People were kicked off boats. The mayor of Tortuga ruled over quite a few brawls. My captain betrayed me. It was a wild journey, full of cannons and mutiny.

Tortuga is a quick, dynamic, and beautifully historic game with high replayabiltiy. The packaging is stunning, as is a hallmark of Façade Games. If you have always wanted to deal with scurvy, mutineers, and stolen goods, this game is for you. If the idea of lying to your friends, marooning them on an island, and leaving them for broke makes you seasick, seek different waters.

I give Tortuga 1667 5 out of 5 Dubloons.

 

 


Images Courtesy of Facade Games

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