Cooking in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
How cooking works in Breath of the Wild.
A QUICK OVERVIEW
Breath of the Wild prides itself on changing around the traditional Zelda formula, and the health regeneration system is certainly no exception. When I first heard that you would be able to gather ingredients in the world and cook them instead of simply buying a Red Potion, I was truly excited. Going through the Great Plateau, learning to hunt boar, catch fish, and use chili peppers to get me through the snowy mountains only reinforced this sense of wonder for me. However, by the time I'd reached Hateno village, and began to get a sense for the game's combat, the limitations and flaws with the system, and the way that it negatively affected the larger design of the game, was disappointing.
SIMMERED FRUIT GALORE
I am the type of player who, when playing open world games, gets immense enjoyment out of collecting everything that I see. See that flower sparkling in that grass, those eggs in the nest on that tree, or the mushroom on the side of a cliff? I will go out of my way to get it, and at first, the prospect that all of these ingredients would be useful to me eventually kept me engaged in collecting. Despite having hundreds of them in my inventory, I never once used a single Rushroom, Blue Nightshade, or Rock Salt. In fact, I rarely cared for food that had added effects. If I desired an effect, I would simply make an elixir to use up my enormous amount of monster parts. If an NPC gave me a meal that was "Sneaky" or "Hasty," I found myself tossing it out to free up food slots for more efficient food, which brings me to my next point.
In game design terms, there is a dominant strategy to cooking. This means that there is an obvious, most efficient route to maximizing your healing power, making every other option become obsolete. When I arrived in Hateno village, and saw the plentiful apples that grew around the village, that became the only food that I consumed. Throughout the entire early-to-mid game, there was not a single food in my inventory other than Simmered Fruit. Every time I would reach a cooking pot, I would replenish them by cooking more apples to fill all my food slots. Then, I discovered "Hearty" food. In particular, when I ventured into the jungle region in the bottom right of Hyrule, and found dozens of Durian trees. From then on, I never had to cook another meal in my life. A single Durian would restore my entire health bar, plus give me 4 extra hearts. Honestly, this took all the fun out of the system. Why would I go to the effort of buying fancy goat butter, sugar, eggs, and hunting rare meat when a single Durian that were there in abundance would restore twice as many hearts as any dish made with those? When I first saw recipes on the walls of houses, or found the cookbooks in the Hyrule Castle Library, I was genuinely excited to try them out. Those recipes never ended up being worth the hassle, however, and I never used them outside of making them once for a side quest. The game should have rewarded the player for going through effort to create food. Let's say that you see an exciting recipe for a crepe inside a stable. To create the crepe, you are required to pay rupees at a store or do a side quest for milk and sugar, find a tree with an egg inside of it, cut down some grass until you find wheat, and knock down a beehive and kill the bees to obtain honey. After all of those have been collected, you will be rewarded with… a whopping 9 hearts. Depending on your amount of hearts, a single Durian simply picked off a tree can restore 30 hearts. Aside from the initial novelty, there is no incentive to ever cook anything complex.
About what my inventory looked like, just with more Hearty Simmered Fruit.
TIME TO EAT
Aside from the fact that cooking alone is a new mechanic to Breath of the Wild, it also fundamentally changed how food is consumed, which ultimately changes the entire combat system. For the first time in Zelda, when you are hurt, you will essentially pause the game by bring up the inventory, be rid of all tension and immersion from the battle as you watch Link scarf down an unlimited amount of food until he is at full health, and then be thrown back in to the action as if nothing had ever happened. You can even do this while the enemy is mid attack, so that if you know you can't dodge in time but want to avoid death, you can quickly restore your health before the attack lands. This means that as long as you are fighting an enemy that does not one-hit-kill you, and you have enough food on you, Link is invincible.
Contrast this to a system like in Dark Souls, where healing must be carefully planned out, because drinking an Estus Flask will trigger an animation that leaves you vulnerable. The player is required to make split second decisions between staying and getting a few more hits in, or running away to heal. The way that this system works is a huge part in why Dark Souls is considered so difficult, punishing, but fair. In previous Zelda games, there were similar mechanics of having to enter an animation to drink a Red Potion, or running away to desperately search the boss arena for stray hearts. Both the Red Potion and extra hearts, like Dark Souls' Estus Flask, are limited consumables that requires the player be careful not get hit too often. It demands of the player to be skillful enough to avoid damage rather than tanking it, because health regeneration is preciously scarce.
The lack of this limit or necessary skill in Breath of the Wild makes the combat in the game suffer. It is either ridiculously easy, or frustratingly hard if the enemy can one-shot you, with no inbetween. At first, I thought that maybe the high amount of overpowered enemies was due to me being underpowered, but with the game beaten, I believe it was intentionally designed so that there will always be enemies that can kill you, even with virtually infinite health. Nintendo needed to find a way to balance the advantage that instant food can give you, so the enemies need to deal more damage. Unlike Dark Souls, the game is not truly skill based, but rather a game based more on gathering better loot. The importance of gear is also applicable to the weapon system, but that's a topic for another day. In theory, the focus on looting is fine for an exploration game, (the same health system is also present in other open world games such as Fallout 4) but the combat does suffer for it, and combat has always been an equally vital part of the Zelda franchise.
I'm not saying that the implementation of cooking makes Breath of the Wild a worse Zelda game, but there simple solutions to improve it overall. For example, there could be a quick slot with a button attached to it that allows you to eat without opening the inventory. Alternatively, even playing the eating animation after exiting the inventory would add a much needed risk/reward element to restoring health. I'm slightly more conflicted about having a lower limit to the amount of meals the player can carry, since it would make combat more strategic due to increased value of health, but I ultimately think encouraging creative cooking is more important.
The first Zelda game since A Link to the Past to not feature Red Potion.
Cooking in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild can be a fun, engaging mechanic. It allows the player to be creative, discover new recipes by observing their surroundings, and collecting ingredients as they travel. Experimentation with cooking should be encouraged by removing the dominant strategy. Altering the system of instant, infinite health regeneration would serve as an improvement to the flow of combat. Despite my complaining, Breath of the Wild has been one of my favourite games lately, and have many more posts planned to write about it.
Until next time, Tabea