WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD.
I usually detest weapon degredation in games. I understand and appreciate the general conceit around it: ideally, it discourages hoarding and anxieties around permanence and ownership, it encourages experimenting with different weapons rather than sticking to ones the player knows, it can create interesting and tense situations that force players to improvise and use everything available to them.
Ideally. In execution, it’s usually at best a distraction or an exercise in frustration.
Breath of the Wild is the first game I’ve played in which I not only didn’t outright hate weapon degradation, but loved it! It felt intuitive and seamless within the rules of the game’s world. It felt like it genuinely and spectacularly achieved those previously mentioned aims.
It’s due to several factors. First: BOTW’s world physics are clearly communicated and consistent across all objects. Everything is equivalent, there is generally not an illogical hieararchy of interactivity and systems. If I can set this piece of wood on fire, why not this other piece? Therefore, you can apply these rules to weapons. A Bokoblin club is not just a club, it is wooden, thus you can set it on fire and it becomes a flame-based blunt weapon. That’s cool!!!
It’s a gentle, enthusiastic, and positive encouragment of experimentation. What can I do with these weapons, how do they interact with the rest of the world? It makes -sense- that weapons degrade or can be adapted into other kinds of objects because they inhabit the world as much as anything else.
It also keeps ‘weaker’ weapons useful in certain contexts. At the beginning of BOTW, you’ve got a tree branch. By the end, I at least had 20-25 slots filled with all sorts of crazy spears, swords, clubs, boomerangs, axes, etc. made of a variety of materials such as steel, wood, and bone. In a thunderstorm, a wooden or bone weapon is essential for your safety. If you need wood for kindling, a basic axe is the most efficient in terms of time, effort, and weapon longevity. A club on fire can be used to light dry grass to create an updraft, and so on. Nothing completely loses its value, both as weapon and as a tool within a living world. BOTW encourages you to revisit things you may have thought you ‘moved on’ from. It still has value, only what that means has changed.
BOTW is downright the most cinematic game I’ve ever played. The only ones that come close are Proteus and 30 Flights of Loving. What these three games have in common is not cutscenes, wrestling control from the player, or big, scripted setpieces, but a masterful understanding of lighting, framing, and how to use music to create moments that are emotionally meaningful and personal. Proteus dredges up the vaguely foreboding mystery and wonder of 70s sci-fi, 30 Flights throws you into the best chase scenes from spy films, and BOTW feels like the best sort of Ghibli flight of fancy.
BOTW has damn good music and flowing, beautiful environments that all lend their strength towards combat that feels like living through a recitation of Greek myth. Fights in BOTW aren’t just a numbers game: they demand your attention, keeping you focused on so many elements at once in a way that’s not overwhelming, but rather thrilling. One, of course, is weapon degredation. A weapon breaking isn’t just loss, it presents an opportunity. When you strike an enemy or toss a weapon at them that’s about to break, the damage inflicted doubles and may also stun them. When to break a weapon then becomes a tactical decision and can turn the tide on a battle. It keeps every encounter exciting and tense and active.
Also: there’s just so many dang weapons lying around! I was never left wanting for a way to beat up a monster. Weapon degradation sucks when you’re just trying to have a weapon at all, but I always had some way to replace broken weapons. Maybe not always what I was hoping for, but again, everything’s useful and lends towards emergent moments that could be inventive, thrilling, or even funny in what ends up happening. Everything is an opportunity, and that’s what Breath of the Wild ends up evoking even through breaking your pointy sticks. Opportunity.