There’s something of a plague of open world games out there on the market today. Some of them are very good. The Witcher 3, Horizon Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, and Nier: Automata to name a few that I’ve actually played. And then there’s the ones that aren’t. Xenoblade Chronicles X and Breath of the Wild among them. Both of those games were made by the same company, Monolith Soft. And they both suffer from a lot of the same problems.
What makes a good open world game as opposed to a bad one? For me, it’s the way the story is handled. Looking at the examples of the open world games that I enjoyed, mentioned above, the story is the central aspect of the game. It just happens to take place in a large open world that you can explore and do all sorts of things in, but the story is always foremost. You always know exactly where to go to continue the story, and you can plow straight through it without doing any exploration or side activities if you so desire. The open world serves the story. You have a large, lived in world for it to take place in. You know where to go and what to do. Exploration, crafting, hunting, leveling up, side-questing, etc is all secondary to the story.
When you look at games like Xenoblade Chronicles X, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or something like Dragon Age: Inquisition, the open world is the point of the game. It’s all about the exploration, hunting, crafting, leveling up, side-questing etc. The story is secondary to all of that. And usually the story ain’t all that great either, because the focus of the developers was not to tell a story within an open world, but to make an open world period. It gives the feeling of there being a huge world with nothing to do in it. Nothing driving you forward to do anything.
Looking closer at Breath of the Wild, there is a story, but it’s very weak and it feels like it was added in as an afterthought. After the initial beginning area, you are basically told, hey, there’s story out there somewhere in this huge world. Go find it. You’re given small clues as to where you might find bits of the story in the form of pictures, but holy hell, have you tried locating them without an online guide? It is nigh impossible. It is as if the developers didn’t WANT you to find and play through the story. Where Horizon Zero Dawn, for example, always has a marker on your map for where to go next in the story, and the entire game is centered around the character and her struggles to find her place in the world, you’re left completely to your own devices in Breath of the Wild with a character that has no personality or will of his own.
When you do, eventually, find the story of Breath of the Wild--IF YOU EVEN CAN!!!--It’s very weak. It’s barely even a story at all. It feels more like the back story you’d read on the first page of the instruction manual if those were still a thing. The character you play doesn’t feel like he’s a part of it. He doesn’t have much of a personality, and exists solely as a projection of the player. Which, ironically, makes you feel as though you have LESS of a stake in the story. The story is not very character driven, and even if it was, the characters are so flippin’ bland that they might as well just be cardboard cutouts. So all you’re left with is a bunch of exploration and puzzle solving for the sake of exploration and puzzle solving. And, while that obviously seems to be enough for a lot of the people who played the game, it’s not enough for me. I want story. I want deep and sympathetic characters. I want drama. I want action. I want something--ANYTHING--to happen. I don’t want to have to search with a freaking magnifying glass just to find the bare bones of an extremely lazy story that feels like an afterthought by the developers. I want a story that takes place in an open world, not just an open world in itself.
Also, I don’t really care for the gameplay of Breath of the Wild on top of the story being kind of insultingly bad. The combat is kind of meh. The stamina system is pretty simple to overclock early on in the game, which removes, basically, all of the challenge in exploration. And good god the weapons. Whoever decided that every weapon you pick up will break after you whack something 4 times with it needs a good kick in the ass. It’s absolutely ridiculous! Also, the limited space you have to carry weapons in adds more artificial difficulty to the game. Not only does every weapon shatter after using it only a few times, you also can’t carry enough weapons to make up for it. I also disliked the lack of music in the game. For me, the music is part of the experience. When there’s no music at all outside of towns or combat, it feels like a huge part of the game is missing to me. Also, and this is something that has been annoying the crap out of me for decades now. Where is the Legend of Zelda theme music? The last game that it really featured in was Link’s Awakening (Yes, I know a remake just came out. Shut it!) that music is so iconic for the series, and it hasn’t been used in 25 freaking years. What the actual hell, Nintendo?
So, I guess the point is that an open world within a game just isn’t enough. It needs more. It needs a story to guide you through it. Without that, the open world just feels like an empty waste of time. And before anyone asks me what I thought about Skyrim, I played about 2 hours of it and gave up because I absolutely hated the controls. Open world games are really only worth playing so long as there is something meaningful to work toward in them. And for me, that meaningful thing is story. When the developers are so focused on open world that they forget to tell a story, or do a poor job of telling it, the whole game is just a big, empty wasteland of nothing interesting for me.