The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild came out couple months ago, but I’m only now getting around to playing it (I had other stuff going on in March). The latest installment in the long-running series received nearly universal praise from consumers and critics (including us), and is already one of the front-runners in Game of the Year discussions. That’s great for Nintendo and Zelda fans, but from my time with the game, I’m left wondering if everyone is somehow playing a different version of the game than I am. Because while I agree it is very good in many ways, it has one very bad idea that poisons my enjoyment at almost every turn: breaking weapons.
I’m sure plenty of people have written “that game you love is actually bad” articles in response to the widespread adulation for Breath of the Wild. This isn’t one of those, because I don’t think the game is bad as a whole. However, I think it has a baffling design flaw that makes it difficult to appreciate all of the other clever and ambitious things in Nintendo’s latest vision of Hyrule.
In case you haven’t played Breath of the Wild, here’s how the weapon system works: Every weapon (with one exception) has limited durability, so they eventually break as you use them. Once broken, they are removed from your inventory and cannot be repaired, and this applies to everything from wooden clubs found in Bokoblin camps to elemental greatswords received as rewards for finishing shrines.
Conceptually, that might not seem so bad. The game has a lot of different weapons, and it throws a steady stream of them at you, so you’re not going to be left defenseless in the middle of a major battle. Plus, the system forces players to cycle through a variety of different options, preventing them from leaning too heavily on any one sword, spear, bow, or axe. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but the consequences of this approach in other areas drastically outweigh the minor benefits.
My problem isn’t about a single weapon I like breaking – though I think that happens way too quickly. It’s about how limited durability affects weapons as a category, and then cascades into other areas like combat and exploration. For instance, because players have a constantly shifting inventory, no encounter can be designed with a particular weapon in mind. Players need to be able able to finish any battle with any weapon – or at least a collection of decently powerful (but non-specific) weapons.
That kind of flexibility has worked in similar open-world games, but those other titles usually let you develop a unique play style, and Breath of the Wild doesn’t. You can’t experiment and settle on an approach to fighting that you enjoy (like focusing on swords-and-shields, magic, etc.) because you’re just at the mercy of whatever is handy. Don’t like clunky claymores or weak boomerangs? Too bad, because that’s what you have right now. And since the limited inventory space discourages hoarding, your chances of having a particularly advantageous weapon for any given fight is ridiculously small.
The end result is this: Combat feels bland, designed to ensure that all roads lead to victory, regardless of players’ gear or skills. Even the battles against the incarnations of Ganon feel disappointingly similar. My power in combat is completely dependent on what random assortment of tools I’m carrying, not on any skills I’m improving as a player. And despite a broad array of different weapons, they all feel equally disposable.
My arsenal feels largely meaningless, and this issue bleeds into Breath of the Wild’s core activities. Link’s progression is tied to completing short, puzzle-oriented sequences called shrines. After you finish four of them, you can choose to increase your max life or stamina. Though that bump is the ultimate payoff for shrines, they also have treasure chests that contain armor, items, and weapons. At first, I was excited to figure out how to reach these chests (they often involve additional challenges) and get the goodies within. After spending about 40 hours with the game now, I rarely bother anymore.
Think back to previous Zelda games – remember the anticipation when you opened a chest in a dungeon, waiting to see what cool new item was waiting inside? That sensation is completely absent in Breath of the Wild, because the game trains you to stop caring about what you find in shrine chests. Most of the time, it’s just another weapon that isn’t much different from the weapons you already have. Plus, you probably don’t have the inventory space to carry it, and if you make the space, it’ll just break soon anyway.
Even worse, that feeling extends to the rewards you get for even greater accomplishments. I’ve finished two of the four Divine Beasts, and at the end of each questline, I’ve been told to open a treasure chest to claim some great reward – weapons wielded by legendary champions that served them well in many battles. Of course, these once-sturdy weapons degrade and break in Link’s hands, so my options are either to A. use them and lose them, or B. save them and get no benefit at all (and, in rare cases, C. go through an expensive and complicated process that is more hassle than it’s worth to forge replacements). Rewards that feel temporary or useless are bad rewards, so these treasures meant to mark your greatest accomplishments in Breath of the Wild are huge disappointments – a problem that would be fixed completely if they didn’t break.
I love the shrine puzzles in Breath of the Wild. The process of exploring Hyrule’s peaks and valleys can be exhilarating. Divine Beasts are well-designed and fun to figure out. Plus, Nintendo deserves a lot of credit for taking risks and switching up the Zelda formula with this installment. But not everything that’s different is better, and Nintendo shouldn’t get a pass for “trying something new” when that new thing is not fun.
Whether you’re tackling Divine Beasts, solving shrines, or fighting monsters, the concept of breakable weapons causes mild pain and annoyance, like a thorn sticking out of every major system. At best, the most common responses I hear to the idea are expressions of lukewarm tolerance, like “I guess it didn’t bother me that much,” or “I didn’t like it at first, but I learned to work around it.” Few people seem to actively like the breaking weapons, regardless of their affection for the experience as a whole. And to be clear, that affection is understandable; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a good game, but it could have been so much better by rethinking this mechanic, and I hope the game’s success doesn’t blind Nintendo to that fact moving forward.