Breath of the Wild’s durability is good, actually
I know, I know. Odds are you’re one of those who think the durability system is a stain upon Breath of the Wild’s perfection—you couldn’t be further from the truth, but I can certainly see why some people would think that. Durability is, in most games, a meaningless resource-sink or time-waster: weapons break because that’s what they do, but worry not! Remember every now and then to click a button at the smithy, and presto! Your equipment is as new as ever. Pointless, right? Not in Breath of the Wild. That shiny Ancient Sword you just picked up? It’ll be gone before the next dawn, and there’s nothing you can do about it. This caused quite the hubbub on release and since then, with people asking that it be removed or for there to be a repair system, and so on; a handful of solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist, because not only is the durability in Breath of the Wild great, it’s central to the game’s mechanics and theme.
First, let’s examine what makes Breath of the Wild, well… Breath of the Wild. There are many open world games out there, but none are quite like this one because, at its core, BotW is a playground. The game gives you a handful of tools within the first couple of hours, and it’s up to you to use them to navigate the world and bend its rules to your favor. Your enemies, though they all have their own particularities, must also obey the rules you do. This gives the gameplay a very systems-driven aspect: every encounter can be as unique as you want it to be. You can set fire to a patch of grass, creating an updraft that allows you to drop down on a pack of enemies, or circumvent them entirely; you can make yourself immune to lightning (with food or the Thunder Helm) and, during a thunderstorm, waltz into a group of foes while wearing metal, becoming a sort of walking chain-lightning; and really, just sort the Breath of the Wild subreddit by Top posts of All time to see just how many interesting ways there are to play around with the game’s systems.
I could gush endlessly about this game, but we’re here to discuss the durability system, so let’s go back to that. How exactly does weapons breaking synergize with BotW’s other systems? By going hand-in-hand with its emergent gameplay. As the examples before showed, Breath of the Wild is a game where not only are different challenges dealt with in different ways, but the same challenge has dozens of different manners you can tackle it. Each playthrough is unique, if only because people will take different routes, fight using different tools, and go to different locations (using different means to get there!). I would know: I’ve played it thrice and each time I found new things and interacted in novel ways with its systems. Breakable weapons play perfectly into this sort of emergent gameplay, adding a whole new layer to one of the game’s most important parts, combat.
When I arrived at an enemy camp, there were a handful of questions and scenarios that ran through my head: from where do I take them on, is it worth fighting them, what weapons should I use for this encounter, and what weapons can I get from this encounter, etc. With enough experience, most encounters do become somewhat trivial, but before that—in the first dozen or so very special hours you spend in Hyrule—weapons, and the fact they break, dictate much of what you do. You might feel confident tackling a Moblin with the spear’s long reach, but maybe not so with the slow, ponderous movements of a great sword. Or maybe you don’t want to spend that shiny Royal Broadsword on a regular enemy camp, as the rewards won’t be worth losing a favorite weapon. In other situations, you have to clear your inventory of a handful of weak weapons, so you fight enemies in a completely frantic way, slapping at them to your heart’s content and throwing weapons like you’re Bullseye with his knives. Sometimes, you’ll completely avoid any fights as your arsenal’s gone small (maybe because of the last example?), choosing to climb mountains and navigate the rivers instead of taking the dangerous and beaten path.
The durability system works because of this. It adds a handful of different conditions that you need to consider as you play the game, fundamentally changing how you interact with its enemies and world. It makes you take more, or fewer, risks. It makes you take paths you wouldn’t otherwise, fight (or avoid!) battles that you’d generally do the opposite, and think of combat tactics that won’t degrade your weapons. You’ll push enemies off cliffs, set them on fire, lure them into traps or push boulders over them, among many others. By the end of the game, when Link has more weapons than a small battalion, the bittersweet trade-off becomes evident: when weapons aren’t an issue anymore because they’re too easy to find or you have too many of them, creatively engaging in combat stops being as much of a requirement. You’re less Link, a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world, and more Link, the Hero of Time. A survivor needs to get by, needs to innovate and be creative; a Hero sticks things with the pointy end of his sword.