Last week, why the newest incarnation of Hyrule is not a traditional open world at all. This week, the changing face of weapons in the Zelda series.
One thing and only one thing remains consistent across the various armouries of the Zelda series: Link is armed with a sword, a shield, and a bow. There may be other weapons – a boomerang, for instance, or a slingshot – but the certainty that Link’s standard compliment of weapons is a sword and a bow remains unchanged until Breath of the Wild. Similarly, it is not until the latest Zelda that the game features a dynamic inventory capable of holding a variety of items: up until this point, every Zelda game has a static set of items and the only question is whether the player has acquired a specific item or not. This is an element of the Zelda practices that few other games have copied, and the change in the latest game is one of the few cases of Zelda apparently moving towards a more conventional videogame practice and giving up its own unique ways of doing things.
In all the Zelda games prior to Breath of the Wild, there has been a core sequence of blades – typically some kind of starting sword (just called ‘Sword’ in The Legend of Zelda, later Fighter’s Sword, Kokiri Sword, Hero’s Sword, Wooden Sword, or Practice Sword) that later progresses in one or more steps to the Master Sword, which made its first appearance in A Link to the Past. Wind Waker allowed Link the capacity to pick up weapons wielded by enemies for the first time, but it did not permit him to keep them, while Skyward Sword, which is set at the earliest point in the Zelda timeline, is effectively the story of the forging of the Master Sword and thus has a sequence of swords that represent the steps along this path (Goddess Sword, Goddess Longsword, Goddess White Sword, Master Sword, and finally True Master Sword).
In some respects, as already noted, Breath of the Wild moves towards conventional CRPG practices with its grid inventory that holds weapons, shields, and bows for the player to choose between. Yet at the same time, something very unusual happens in the new Zelda in terms of the weapons breaking and disappearing. Weapon durability is hardly a new element in videogames, and even within the franchise it appeared in Ocarina of Time in the form of the Giant’s Knife that breaks after a handful of hits or in Majora’s Mask with the Razor Sword, which returns to the Master Sword after one hundred swings. But the usual way weapon durability is dealt with in videogames involves weapons breaking when durability expires, and then the player taking steps to fix them e.g. weapon repair kits and blacksmiths in The Witcher 3. Controversially, given some players’ highly negative reaction to weapon durability, Breath of the Wild has weapons that break and are gone for good – subverting conventional player practices to such a degree that it creates a play experience almost no player is prepared for.
How powerfully an individual player is affected by this depends on their prior experiences and expectations, but for many of us who would ordinarily avoid a game that would not let us keep our beloved toys, the impact of the weapon system is akin to the five stages of grief. First, anger: they couldn’t possibly have thought this was a good idea, could they? (They did.) Then, denial: these are just the starting weapons, the later weapons won’t break (they do), and surely the Master sword won’t break? (it does, well, it takes long naps at least.) Then, fear: how am I going to keep supplied with weapons, they’re breaking faster than I can find them! (Until you start finding reliable places to get good weapons, which both last a long time and require fewer hits to do the same job.) Then, exhaustion: just how much of my time is going to go into keeping me supplied with weapons? (As much as it takes to get you through thinking of weapons as a fixed resource). Finally, impatience: why aren’t my weapons breaking fast enough to make room for more cool weapons?
Provided you adapt to the player practices the inventory system implies, and don’t fall permanently into one of these disgruntled intermediate states, the result is an experience quite unlike anything else that is out there. Like the best of the previous Zelda combat systems, namely Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the new battle design is simple but still allows the player tremendous mastery when they get to grips with it – and once you do, the experience of fighting in Breath of the Wild transcends anything else in the space of games that are seeking to offer an accessible combat balance (rather than, say, risk-reward challenges e.g. Dark Souls, Monster Hunter). With the core skills under your belt, the weapons cease to matter because you can kill a Keese with a tree branch, overcome a Lizalfos camp starting with a single bow and one Shock arrow, or take down a Lynel with just a couple of half-decent weapons in your inventory. I am not a player with a particular taste for victory in battle, I’m much more of an explorer than a conqueror – but even I became obsessed with mastering each of the foes, and can happily retake a Major Test of Strength over and over again, just to enjoy my own martial prowess. And I doubt, frankly, that I’m really that good at the combat in the game.
It is important to appreciate what the weapon-grind brings to the game that would be impossible without it. If the weapons were all permanent, the player would rapidly exhaust interest in the vast majority of the available blades since the best weapons acquired are the only ones you need. This is a problem I struggle with again and again in the design of my own CRPGs because you want the player to get new weapons, but new weapons invalidate the old ones, which become just things to sell. Not in Breath of the Wild: there’s a role for almost all weapons, as some monsters fall easily to certain types… even the weakest spear is a perfect choice to defend against Keese, a single hit from an Iron Sledgehammer shatters any Pebblit, and a fire weapon instantly slays an ice enemy. You want to keep a balanced armoury so you have the right tool for the right job, but in a pinch a skilled player can make just about any weapon work long enough to get more weapons. You do not hoard weapons like a collector in this game, the weapons flow through Link and you enjoy their passage the moment you get over your certainty that it would be better if they didn’t break.
Instead, all the weapons are interesting, even the terrible weapons up to a point (my son is forever asking me what I can take out with a tree branch), and unlike any CRPG that could be named, the player can rise – and fall – in power as rapidly as they can locate and pick up a powerful blade and then break it. What’s more, this reinforces the open structure which, as discussed last week, is far more open than the conventional open world formula. Thus, the very real possibility of completing the Great Plateau and then immediately making a bee-line for the Calamity Ganon (yes, it’s a silly name – Zelda has always been chock full of silly boss names). The weapons inside Hyrule Castle, where the final boss can be found, are stronger than anywhere else in the game so if you possess the skills to survive there without Hearts to protect you (or, equally possible, you have quickly acquired meals that supply you with a lot of bonus yellow Hearts), it becomes possible to grow in power near-instantaneously and be ready to win the game in just a few hours. Provided, of course, you already spent many times that much time learning where everything in Hyrule is, and mastering anything Link needs to be able to do.
As mentioned, however, the system can be extremely tiring once you have learned reliable places to get good weapons, but lack the confidence that you will be able to make do with the kit that you have brought with you plus whatever you happen to find along the way. The result – as with the collection of cooking ingredients that initially motivates but later risks rendering parts of the exploration rather passé – is an exhaustion with the process of keeping the weapons stocked up. This is rooted less in the design, however, than in the player’s desire to control the inventory as if the weapons do not break. Once the disposability of the weaponry becomes as natural as jumping in a platform game, there is no way to be exhausted by the inventory management because it doesn’t matter. Half decent weapons are everywhere, excellent weapons are not hard to find, and brilliant weapons are not worth obsessing over because hey, they’re going to break too.
If there is a tangible flaw with this arrangement it could be that new players, especially younger players with less videogame experience to draw against, face almost insurmountable problems learning to fight because all of the early weapons do very little damage and break with absurd ease the moment Link touches them. (I guess Link must be holding them wrong, because they never break in the enemy’s hands!) Against this, the only hope of redemption is owning any of the many Hyrule-themed Amiibo, since the daily chest drops from these supply weapons that, while mediocre to an experienced player, are a godsend to starting players, raising them far above the bar required to get the ball rolling. (I found several Zelda Amiibo in a $5 bargain bin in Knoxville, TN, the month Breath of the Wild released, some of which were selling on eBay for close to a hundred dollars at the time – much to my smug satisfaction.)
As this discussion highlights, this audacious piece of design is not for everyone. Players who cannot make their peace with the idea of weapons breaking will be in a perpetual hell of emotional insecurity punctuated with the endless cursing that happens when yet another of your weapons breaks. But remember, you are not some suburban nerd collecting weapons as if they were trading cards: you are Link. Your tenacity is his courage, and your knowledge of Hyrule is the weapon that can never be taken away from you. If you wish for permanence, claim the Master Sword that is your birth right and make sure you carry something in reserve for when it gets tuckered out and needs a nap. The Link of Breath of the Wild is a master of any and all weapons. Accept their impermanence, and you shall be too.
Next week: Horses