Ever since the series’ inception, one of the biggest draws of The Legend of Zelda series has been its wide, expansive overworlds. And as we can see from the dangerous, colossal-for-its-time world of the original Hyrule fantasy, the first-ever appearance of a real Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time, and The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess‘s larger-scale worlds, there’s something of a sense that bigger is better. There’s been a sort of gripe with the series since the GameCube era, however, that sheer size isn’t enough – the size has to be matched by depth and density of content.
With Skyward Sword, we’re seeing that the solution Nintendo seems to think is best is to simply scale down the world and make it more dense instead. As a result, it’s unlikely that we’ll see anything of a Wind Waker or Twilight Princess scope in the upcoming Wii game. But is density really the best way to go? I look at another major Wii RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles, and try to answer the question of whether a massive world and a content-driven experience are compatible after all.
I have to say, I’m massively stoked for Xenoblade Chronicles upcoming Western release this year. Honestly if Skyward Sword wasn’t a Zelda title and if I didn’t adore the idea of a handheld, remastered version of Ocarina of Time (okay, and if I didn’t work for a site that eats, breathes, and dreams Zelda), Xenoblade might actually be my most anticipated game of the year.
Up to this point my absolute favorite JRPG is Final Fantasy XII for the PlayStation 2, not because of the usual praise – “the graphics, story, and battle system are amazing” – but because the game positively nailed what a game world should feel like. Tons of large areas, not purely wide open fields but lush, beautiful environments full of Life, Landmarks, and Things-that-try-to-kill-you. They were often maze-like, with winding pathways, plentiful detours, and a web of interconnecting passages between areas. On more than several occasions you’d find something new waiting for you if you tried backtracking – a new sidequest, a hidden area with higher-level monsters and better treasures, a shortcut you didn’t know existed before. And the epic world was accompanied by an excellent soundtrack which, while it wasn’t necessarily of quite the same caliber as the the emotionally moving scores of the previous games in the franchise, really captured the game’s open exploratory feel.
Xenoblade Chronicles looks to be a game that very much follows that tradition – except it takes it to the nth extreme, with a game world that by all accounts seems to be several times bigger, several times fuller, and more detailed to boot (and with a similarly more excellent soundtrack). Whereas Final Fantasy XII featured only limited mobility, in Xenoblade, if your character can jump high enough and it looks like you can get there, you probably can – even if it means falling an extremely long way or climbing to unfathomable heights. Check out this video, which shows off just how large and varied the environments are. (Bear in mind that this video doesn’t try to sample the core gameplay – the questing and combat – it just seeks to capture the scale and scope.)
Forget what you’ve heard about the Wii being an underpowered machine that can only handle so much – this is one of the biggest game worlds in any console title, period. Sure, the graphics themselves aren’t the best, and there are definitely games that are bigger, especially in the PC MMO market, but Xenoblade proves that the Wii’s hardware is really no excuse to justify a game being small in size. And from what I’ve been reading regarding the game, the massive scale doesn’t come at the cost of a piss-poor experience.
This brings to light a somewhat disconcerting question regarding the Zelda franchise: is the idea that density of content means a more compact world really the answer for the series, or is is just a case of sheer developer laziness? I really hate to be skeptical about Skyward Sword when it’s a game I feel gets a lot of unfair criticism slung at it, but when the franchise was previously known for pushing the envelope of what games are capable of and is now being perceived more and more as old hat, these are questions that we seriously have to ask ourselves and Nintendo.
Now, of course, being an action-centric game and not a “battle system” RPG, creating a world is a lot more complicated in Zelda than in Xenoblade. I’m certainly not saying that the next Zelda‘s world needs to be the same size as Xenoblade‘s – that’s simply not feasible. Nor am I saying that going for content density over size isn’t a good outlook. But I am saying that Xenoblade stands as a testament to the fact that a massive world that still managed to be packed with content is not beyond the grasp of the Wii hardware or a first-party development team and budget. And if that’s really the case, it seems to me like the solution to “we made a big world but not enough content” would be to make more content, not to make less world.
But that’s just me: I want to hear from all of you. Do you think that Zelda should rededicate itself to its epic world roots, or are you confident that the “less is more” approach they’re taking with Skyward Sword is a good future for the series? Give us a shoutout in the comments section and let us know what you think!