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Open World Malaise: Elden Ring and Tears of the Kingdom

On the left, a player character in Elden Ring looks out upon the erdtree. On the right, Link looks out over Hyrule. The images are aligned to where the central figure is half the Elden Ring player character and the other half is Link.

FromSoftware's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Nintendo's Breath of the Wild are both in my top five favorite video games of all time. So why did FromSoftware's latest game, Elden Ring, and Nintendo's new Zelda game, Tears of the Kingdom, leave me cold? I think both suffer from a "more is more" open world malaise.

In open world games like Elden Ring and Tears of the Kingdom, you can travel around the game map freely to take on different quests as you feel like it, usually with the exception of a mandatory tutorial area. In more closed world games like Sekiro, there may be only two or three paths you can take at any given time with bosses you must defeat to progress the game.

Open world games shine when they have rich landscapes with meaningful stories, which Elden Ring and Tears of the Kingdom both have to significant degrees. So what exactly has gone wrong (or at least not quite right)?

Elden Ring

Elden Ring is a massive open world game with unique dungeons, bosses, catacombs, and open combat spaces. The storytelling is rich and unfolds slowly as you progress during the game, discovering the loyalties of your fellow tarnished and uncovering history and lore with each major boss fight. Like other FromSoftware games, the combat is difficult and varied, and the player has a vast arsenal of weapons and spells to choose from.

When the game works, it's absolutely beautiful. The Malenia boss fight near the end of the game is one of the most challenging and memorable, and the structured area leading up to it has some of the most fun, multi-leveled exploration and combat against a wide range of enemies.

Elphael, Brace of the Haligtree. Gothic flying buttresses surround a gigantic tree to make a circular castle and keep, covered in old vines and yellowed leaves.

Other, especially early game, areas allow you to perform cowardly combat to level up without really having to learn the game's mechanics. I don't know how many times I rode past enemies on my horse with my pitiful early game weapons trying to slash them at just the right time and then run away.

For many of the optional mini-bosses scattered around the world, you can also wait until you're leveled up to go back and destroy them with ease. This leads to an uneven game experience that makes cheesing enemies and bosses the most viable strategy at several points in the game.

Sekiro faces off against a samurai in one-to-one sword combat.

Compare this to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which has some of the tightest combat I've ever played in a video game. Step by step you are forced to read an enemy's moves to parry, jump, sidestep, or counter, from the smallest enemies to the most difficult bosses. There are a few uneven points in the game, but almost all main bosses and enemies require you to actually get good.

When you do, you feel like a swordsman engaged in a cunning, back and forth battle where you read your enemy's every move and take them down with skill. When you get good in Sekiro, you feel like a gaming god. I never had that experience in Elden Ring (it may not have helped that I went with a ranged magic build that mostly involved spamming 2-3 effective spells).

Ludwig the Holy Blade, a twisted, horse-shaped man with multiple arms and legs, prepares to attack the player with the Holy Moonlight Greatsword.

Other FromSoftware games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls III also have very tight combat and puzzles for you to solve: watch for hidden enemies, attack the ranged fighters first, use your shield, be aggressive. Some of those puzzles are preserved in Elden Ring, with small keeps to invade, dungeons to explore, and large cities and fortifications to work through. These moments are where Elden Ring truly shine.

At the same time, the world is so vast and there is so much to explore that it becomes exhausting towards the end of the game, especially if you're working to achieve all of the trophies. When games get this large, there's almost too much to remember and keep track of.

Tears of the Kingdom

Turn now to Tears of the Kingdom.

First, let's get the design issues that others have noted out of the way:

  • The champions generally suck and their abilities are less useful than the previous ones.

  • The champions crowd around the player, and the same button is used for picking up items, starting dialogue with NPCs, and activating the champion's abilities. This makes it far too easy to activate an ability when you don't mean to.

  • It's hard to find a particular champion to activate their ability in battle, especially Riju, who is the smallest champion with the best combat ability.

  • The fuse arrow menu is far too big and sprawling even when you change how it's sorted.

  • Fusing arrows takes valuable time when shooting in the air.

  • The underworld area is vast and mostly empty.

  • The sky has great points of interest but you have to spend a lot of time flying between things in emptiness.

At the end of the day, there's just too much of the wrong sort of thing in the game. Too many Bubbulfrogs to find, too many similar-looking outfits to find and enhance, too many Zoanite gems to farm to upgrade your battery to full power, and that's not even to mention the Koroks (who I mostly avoid in this game).

Link fights a Stalnox with the other champions in the background, who are difficult to make out in the scene.

Breath of the Wild had staying power not because of its sheer size but because of its replayability and the kind of creativity the players could have in using the main abilities. While Tears of the Kingdom offers similar creativity with the ability to build machines, I barely feel like I have the energy to explore that aspect when I'm desperately trying to complete the game's million other objectives before fighting Ganondorf.

On a much smaller scale, the game is excellent. The storylines around the Hateno village election are meaningful, and the Lucky Gazette journalism assignments also help to fill out minor characters in the world. When storytelling is involved, the extra quests and items to find are a lot of fun. But much of the underworld and extra objectives in this game are there simply to add more to the world, and that leaves them feeling flat. I would have much preferred a smaller world with more story.

Is the problem completionism? Or the games themselves?

I am a selective completionist. I don't always complete games, but I enjoy rising to the challenges of a good set of game trophies. Sometimes those challenges are simply not worth it, and I will let them go (due to unfair game play or some other reason). However, I do take at least some pride in completing all the trophies for notoriously difficult, skillful games and getting my money's worth out of the games I've spent my meager graduate student stipend on.

The thing is, completing all the trophies is not the same as playing the game well or even enjoying the game. The artificial goals set forth by in-game objectives and trophies generally encourage playing the game well and enjoying the story beats, but sometimes they're just extra things for the player to do to entertain them (or at least attempt to) until the end of time.

A limited map of only the central portion of the Hyrule map, with too many locations of interest to even see all the markers.

The main problem I see with Tears of the Kingdom and Elden Ring is that they add more at the cost of overall design cohesion and player experience. Elden Ring makes this mistake less pronouncedly than Tears of the Kingdom does. At its worst points, Tears of the Kingdom feels like a DLC with all the material that didn't make the cut for the first game (maybe there was a reason for that!). I would rather have had smaller versions of both games that engaged me more at the level of gameplay and story and less at the level of the number of objectives and collectibles.

How would I fix them?

For Elden Ring, I would make the map smaller by about a quarter (while preserving the different areas) and cut out the random repeat boss fights across the map found in the Evergaols. These were by far the easiest bosses to go back and cheese, and having one fewer set of objectives to complete plus less redundancy would have made the game less overwhelming to explore.

For Tears of the Kingdom, I would scrap the vast underworld with little to do and easy-to-heal-from gloom effects and instead create a series of tight dungeons that do not allow any healing from the gloom during their completion. I would also allow the champions to activate their own abilities to aid in the battle. This would make the dungeons more memorable and replayable and provide a true challenge to the player. I think this small change would make world exploration feel more manageable.

Even massive open world video games need good editing. More is not always better.

Have you played these games? How would you change them?

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