The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Analysis Part II
This is the second of a multi-part series analyzing the design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
If you’d like, you can view part one here: Skills and Key Items
The last post was very long (too long, even) and talked about a wide range of skills and items. Let’s reel back and talk about one of the most controversial design decisions in Breath of the Wild: weapon durability. Few things have been more polarizing in reviews for Breath of the Wild than the implementation of fragile weapons that break after a number of uses. In some cases, this inclusion is the sole factor that dropped the game’s score. So, let’s talk about the durability mechanic from a design perspective.
It’s important to note, that this analysis will contain spoilers to nearly every aspect of the game, including story elements, regions, unlockable and hidden items, important side quests, and weapons. If you intend to play Breath of the Wild in the future and don’t want to be spoiled, you should stop reading now.
When making an open world game, giving the player incentive to explore the world around them is among the most difficult tasks for a designer think about. The vast majority of open world games struggle with this concept, and many outright fail. If you’ve ever played a game where the world around you is huge, but there’s no good reason to explore it, that game lacks incentives.
Weapons, in this case, act as an incentive for the player to explore. In games like Skyrim where there’s no weapon durability, once you get a steel sword, that’s the only steel sword you’ll ever need. The hundreds of treasure chests you find steel swords in later will be completely useless. Of course, Skyrim has many other collectibles to take up the player’s time. Breath of the Wild, however, is a simpler game, with fewer collectibles aside from monster drops. From a design perspective, making weapons break makes complete sense. If all weapons remained functional forever, there would be no reason to find others after the player has the royal weapons and the Master Sword.
So, on paper, it makes sense. Let’s take a look at how weapon durability works in practice.
For clarification, I consider “early game” to be all moments from the plateau to the completion of the first Divine Beast. For many players, the beginning of Breath of the Wild is the most exciting. It’s when the player can explore the world, discover the game’s mechanics, and experiment. The first part of the game is a complete mystery to most. However, the early segments are also where most complaints regarding weapon durability take place.
Let’s take a look at some of the common weapons early on in Breath of the WIld:
- Boko club
- Spiked boko club
- Boko bat
- Rusty sword / spear / claymore
- Traveler’s sword
- Moblin club
A huge amount of the early weapons are made of wood. This is actually a choice in teaching the player and encouraging them to be creative. Link can light wooden weapons on fire, giving him an advantage when there are many enemies in a grass-filled area. This is a good way to make sure the player always has access to the tools they need to experiment with these newfound game mechanics.
Wood weapons are also crucial in giving the player a sense of progression. Many games give the player a wood weapon at the beginning, which quickly becomes obsolete in favor of metal and other materials. As a result, players are more likely to perceive wood as less valuable. This allows the developers to give Link a steady stream of progressively more attractive weapons, such as Zora spears, golden swords, and guardian axes. From a progression perspective, giving the player wood at the beginning of the game makes sense.
Here is where the issue lies: Wood is the second least durable weapon type in the game, aside from rusty weapons. Even later on, dragonbone weapons will break faster than guardian weapons. Giving the player weapons that are so brittle that they break after only a few swings is one of the two roots of frustration with weapon durability early on.
The designers could have made two tweaks to make this bearable:
- Make wood weapons slightly more durable
- Make steel weapons more common early on
The other key issue that plagues players early on in Breath of the Wild is the small size of the inventory. The decision to make the inventory only a handful of slots long is another incentive — make the player look for Korok seeds. However, the small inventory makes hoarding weapons impossible. If you’re stuck with two tree branches and a few clubs, you’ll find yourself without a weapon pretty quickly.
One could argue that this forces the player to be more creative. This is a valid point, as the early game is all about discovering ways to approach situations. Forcing the player to think tactically about how to use their other skills is great for the learning process. Using bombs creatively while running away, or grabbing a steel box and moving it in the way of an enemy are what the developers are trying to encourage here. Unfortunately, many players won’t see it this way. The light show accompanying a weapon breaking is more likely to cause panic in new players than creativity. When a player panics and dies because their weapon broke, it could drive players away. While there are many players who enjoy this type of rush (which games like Dark Souls specialize in), there are many other players that do not.
So let’s talk about the other issue with inventory size: the upgrade system. Link cannot upgrade weapons until he runs into Hetsu on the road between the Dueling Peaks stables and Kakariko Village. This sticks the player with the default inventory size for the first few hours. Furthermore, Hetsu disappears from all stables in the mid game, you cannot find him again until you reach the Lost Woods.
Let’s skip the mid game for a bit and talk about the late game. The late game refers to the gameplay after the Master Sword has been drawn and the divine beasts have been conquered. This also refers to the post game, as gameplay continues unchanged after Link defeats Ganon. Interestingly, the late game in Breath of the Wild suffers the same issue as the early game.
Where’d the variety go?
Once Link has raided Hyrule Castle once or twice, he’ll find himself with some great loot. The two highlights of this raid would be the Hylian shield and the royal weapons. The Hylian shield, aside from nostalgic purposes, is far and away the best shield in the game. The royal weapons have higher damage output and durability than the Master Sword. Link needs no more gear after these are obtained. This acts counter-intuitively to the premise of weapon durability. There is no reason to use another shield after the Hylian shield is obtained, aside from the auto-parrying Guardian Shield.
If the game had a hard stop at the showdown with Ganon, this wouldn’t be an issue. However, Breath of the Wild encourages players to continue after the credits roll. While no new content is added, the 120 shrines beckon. Completionists love going after Korok seeds as well.
This would have been less of an issue if weapon durability hadn’t gotten so high. Keeping durability a bit lower would still provide the incentive to look for more weapons to use.
Ah, finally, the sweet spot. The mid game refers to the time between the first and last divine beasts. During this segment, the weapon durability system is at it’s best. Let’s look at why
As I mentioned earlier, a sense of progression is important for a game. The designer needs to make the player feel as though they’re constantly improving. During the middle of the game, the player is finding new weapons and shrines everywhere. They are receiving the champion-specific weapons, they are killing higher-level guardians, and they are completing side quests for unique items. The weapons break at a moderate rate, which is fine because there’s new loot to find constantly.
It seems like the developers were going for this exact balance. At this point in the game, the player has incentive to go the extra mile to get that chest hiding just out of reach in that shrine. Defeating a tough enemy would almost certainly give you a weapon far more powerful than the one you’re using, and that power allows you to find even better weapons just before the one you’re using breaks.
If the developer struck this type of balance at the beginning of the game, not as many people would have been opposed to the system.
Here’s the key points from this article:
- Weapon durability exists to provide incentive to explore and play
- It works in the mid game, but not in the early or late game
- Some tweaks in durability, inventory, and variety would have improved this system immensely
- The game would have been far more boring if the developers left durability out
What do you think about weapon durability? Leave me a comment, and be sure to subscribe to the blog down below to stay up-to-date with GDJunkie’s content!
Stay tuned for part III.