When pressed, I will usually say that I almost loved Breath of the Wild, even as I hold it up as an exemplar of its genre. The game so deftly avoids the tropes that make other sandboxes lifeless and stale, so I find myself frustrated by what is, in my view, it’s one fatal flaw: the weapons. Tears of the Kingdom is right around the corner, so now seems like a good time to finally formalize my complex relationship to it’s predecessor’s most controversial feature.
First, a bit about the new game: Nintendo released a gameplay demonstration showing off the new features. Fusion in particular has me excited: open ended creative problem solving, to my mind, was the best part of Breath of the Wild. Tears of the Kingdom looks like it will have a somewhat different weapon system than its predecessor.
The power of this feature is more than a novelty. Open world games thrive on sense of curiosity and anticipation. At their best they evoke wonder at the world which most of us experience only in childhood. Breath of the Wild succeeded where other games come up short because it made its setting interactive, not merely aesthetic. Lesser games are content with showing you an attractive landscape, which you will proceed to walk through mindlessly on your way to linear story missions. The climbing and intersecting physic systems of the game meant that every feature of the environment could be tangibly useful to you. Even a boulder or a tree could be put to use by a creative player.
But any discussion of Breath of the Wild must contend with its most divisive feature. You already know what I’m about to bring up: weapon durability.
The Weapon System Debate
The debate around breaking weapons usually goes something like this:
Points in Favor of Durability
If you like the feature, you’ll probably point out that it solves a fair amount of balance and pacing problems. The lack of a consistent arsenal forces players to adapt to their circumstances; it puts them on the back foot and demands creativity.
It also allows the game world to balance itself to an extent. Since weapons in Breath of the Wild are the primary determinant of damage output, and they break, the longer you spend in an area the more your arsenal will hew to the standard of that area. If you fight weak mobs with rusty weapons, you will eventually find yourself using rusty weapons.
Points Against Durability
If you don’t like the feature, you’ll likely point out that this makes getting weapons a lot less exciting. This is the side of the debate I agree with. I feel that Breath of the Wild solves a moderate problem with bigger problem. Remember, open world games are about discovery. Your anticipation about what the world might have in store is arguably more important than what’s actually there. That sense of discovery is undercut by the fact that Link almost never finds anything with a lasting impact on gameplay. After a while you stop being excited to loot chests or find new weapons. The game cannot meaningfully reward your for exploring.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
It’s true that this feature does, in a sense, make the game harder. But frankly, Breath of the Wild isn’t much of a challenge anyway. Choosing to approach combat creatively is largely a matter of preference; you can get through a lot by abusing the overpowered flurry rush feature. The game balance bought by the sacrifice of wonder is not worth the trade.
The other symptom of breaking weapons is that there are some avenues of creative expression it prevents. Consider shield surfing; a fun feature I never use because it damages the shield as you ride it. Shields are too useful to throw away without reason, and there are very few situations wherein shield surfing is pragmatic. Consider also all the fun interactions weapons have with each other that you seldom get to play with. Freezing enemies and then knocking them off a ledge with a leaf is great, on the rare occasions you have both a leaf and a freezing weapon.
The other side of the open world coin, the mirror image of the sense discovery, is a sense of place and personal investment. Emergent gameplay has the power to show the player tangible results of their choices. This can be external or internal: a change to the world of the game, or a change to your avatar. Finding and using new weapon combinations had the potential to give players the opportunity to develop a personal combat style. The irony of forcing constant adaptation is that it becomes monotonous. You will play Breath of the Wild the same at hour 1 as hour 21: using whatever weapon you can find.
But you can’t just remove weapon durability. For all I rag on it, the gameplay loop revolves around it. So the game needed a better way to balance itself and encourage creativity. Let’s consider how Tears of the Kingdom might (or might not) solve the problem.
Fusion Isn’t the Answer
The weapon system of Tears of the Kingdom does look different, but perhaps not different enough. The prospect of fusion is tantalizing in many ways. In theory, it exponentially increases the options available to a player. Moreover, it does so by rewarding experimentation. Because these aren’t items you stumble across, you put them together by paying attention to your surroundings.
But my concern with this feature is that, by radically changing the function of a weapon once fused, it doesn’t appear to address my issues with player reward and investment. I could of course be proven wrong, but if you’re still always forced to use only what’s around you, you still lack the ability to tailor your playstyle. And since fusing weapons seems to alter them so completely, you are still in effect throwing away your old weapon.
I don’t want to imply that I don’t see the potential in this feature; I only mean that it doesn’t address this specific concern. Trying out all the item combinations sounds like great fun. So what would I do instead?
An Unlikely Solution
Obviously making every weapon unbreakable would be unfeasible. Link would become far too powerful far too quickly. One of the other issues I’m hoping Tears of the Kingdom addresses is a lack of difficulty. I’ve heard it said that Breath of the Wild lacks combat depth, which I think is reductive. The game does lack for complex combat strategies – we talked about the tree and boulder mischief earlier.
What it does lack is a compelling reason to use all those options; it doesn’t push the player. Simply adding indestructible weapons to that equation would just invert the problem, not solve it. So the solution I’m about to propose needs to be supported by stronger, smarter enemies.
The answer lies in the Master Sword. Unlike most of the game’s weapons, the Master Sword is never permanently out of Link’s reach. But you can lose access to it temporarily, when it runs out of charge.
Imagine a system wherein instead of broken weapons disappearing from your inventory, they instead get snapped in two, entering a ‘broken’ state. They could still be used, but would deal very minimal damage (or block minimal damage in the case of shields.) Link could then use weapons of the same type to repair these weapons, perhaps by using the new fusion feature. A visual could play wherein the two merge in a flash of light.
This would only work outside of combat, so you could still find yourself in tense situations that force you to scramble for nearby weapons. The difference is that now you can go back to using your favorites if you choose to. It would be best to allow the weapons to be repaired before they actually break, so the player isn’t incentivized to carry around a huge inventory of rusty weapons.
However, a feature like this seems unlikely to actually materialize. Weapons seem to break just as they did before in the gameplay demonstration, and subsequent previews confirm this. I do have one glimmer of hope though.
A More Likely Solution
The Lightscale Trident, like the Master Sword, can be repaired once broken. But you need to remake it manually. Link needs to bring material back to a specific NPC.
But what if Link could remake weapons in the field by fusing commonplace materials, cutting out the proverbial middle man? So far all the fused weapons we’ve seen have been two objects stuck together: not terribly aesthetic. But that could change: maybe the elemental weapons from the previous game will reappear as fused versions of base weapons. Breath of the Wild already had a system of recipes for cooking, so doing the same for fusion doesn’t seem far fetched.
If you could forge unique weapons like the Trident, and perhaps even buy the materials to do so in towns, you as a player might have a lot more control over how you approach combat. You could sort of ‘gear up’ before venturing into the wilderness.
Link could still run out of resources during the trek, forcing you to adapt, but if you could perhaps find schematics for new weapons in your journey, you could look forward to having a new weapon you could enjoy in perpetuity, instead of one which you know will break if you have too much fun with it.
Grasping at Greatness
Breath of the Wild was rejuvenating in a sea of derivative and empty open worlds. But at times it also felt like a transient, unchallenging experience. A game with great breadth but limited depth. What frustrated me was how close I felt it came to perfecting the genre; it was only a few tweaks away.
Tears of the Kingdom’s new weapon system has at least a chance to ameliorate that issue. Each Nintendo game is, in a sense, the beta for the next one. Which is probably why they have a reputation for polish. Tears of the Kingdom is therefore well positioned: Breath of the Wild was just a bit of polish away from perfection, if you ask me. Greatness is a whisker away.