My thoughts on the weapon durability game mechanic…

Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a lot of people raving about how good it is, and watching people play on live streams, it certainly does look fun. And yet, there’s a problem that even people who like it have called out, and that’s the introduction of weapon durability. The problem isn’t that it’s a part of the game, though. No, the real problem is the exaggerated fragility of the weapons.

I’ll have to wait quite some time before I can play BotW, but I have played a number of games recently where durability is a mechanic in them, and I think it’s a good idea if it’s done right. For instance, it’s mostly okay in Dark Souls III and the original game (I still haven’t played the second installment so I can’t say how it is, but it’s on my “want to play” list.) while it’s decidedly more frustrating in Bloodborne, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Let it Die.

In particular, Let it Die has constantly annoyed me with how fragile the weapons are, especially in the higher levels. I can carry a supply of four or five swords for one level and still not reach the next floor before I’ve used up my supply. This is a problem for many reasons. One is the high cost of the upgraded weapons, requiring a half a day of grinding for cash just to afford a decent supply. But even with cash on hand, the game blocks additional purchases of the same weapon type with a timer, so gathering my arsenal requires upwards of two hours sitting around and doing nothing. So imagine the “fun” of wasting a whole day to buy a weapon cache, only to have said cache be wiped out in twenty minutes.

We’re not talking about first level weapons, either, or low-grade trash I picked up from slain enemies and out of item boxes. These are weapons that I had to spend whole weeks upgrading to their fourth levels, and while the damage improved with each upgrade, the durability only shows marginal improvements. To even get to the next level requires finding materials on a much higher floor, and as I said, I can’t even cross one floor without ending up with an empty inventory and a drained bank account. (Keep in mind, you need money to act as an insurance policy if you die or else you lose all the stuff you collected. Where I’m at, the highest floors require having around 100,00 to 120,000 to recover a downed fighter.) Where’s the reward for investing my time? It’s hard to find in weapons that seem to be made from tin foil.

I haven’t even touched on guns, which have a finite supply of ammo. You can’t pick up another gun of the same type and take the ammo to reload. With the assault rifle, there’s enough ammo to last for several floors, but the other guns can end up being emptied with just one floor. It’s prohibitively expensive to buy a high level gun, and once you have it, you’re afraid to use it because it only has around 20 shots before it’s a fancy club. (One that does lousy melee damage.) Let it Die also has a “rage move” which will shred any weapon’s durability, so it’s possible to have that twenty thousand credit gun blow up with over half of the ammo unused. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to cover it. If you want to encourage me to use a rage move, don’t punish me with such a huge hit to the durability of my weapon. If I know I’ll be wasting precious money on one attack, I’m never going to use it no matter how powerful it is.

Let it Die compounds the issue by giving armors a similarly weak durability, so instead of buying the best armor, I’m always grabbing cheap stuff because I know it’s going to get wrecked either way. (And okay, I might not be such a cheapskate if the game didn’t also add mugging by other players to make earning coins even more of a painful slog.) Between needing to carry armor and extra weapons, my inventory is already so full that I barely have any room left over to collect crating supplies. It’s busy work and inventory management, and it sucks all the joy out of the game like a starving vampire biting into their first meal in a year.

With Let it Die, I feel like the durability is an intentional hobbling mechanic, forcing me to play slow. If I could use the same weapon for a more reasonable time limit, the game would be over pretty quickly. (Well, maybe not, given the slowness of the grind for crafting items. Then again, really skilled players might be able to whack higher level bosses with low level weapons if they didn’t break so easily. Then it would just be morons like me who had to play the long way to get better weapons.) The rate of breakdown is so ridiculously fast that I get frustrated with the grinding needed to keep from fighting with my bare fists. That means that I’ve gone from playing in longer sessions down to shorter and shorter bursts because I can’t handle the boredom of the grind combined with the constant need to buy new gear to keep going. I do like the game’s combat, and I think a lot of the weapons are wickedly fun to use. But the looping cycle created by weak equipment durability is killing my interest in pushing through to see the end of the game.

Durability can take me out of a game if it’s done poorly because instead of being “in” the game and planning my fight with the next boss, I’m stuck doing menial inventory management and trying to guess how many weapons I need just to make it across one floor. This isn’t fun, and it’s frustrating to have a game where the core combat mechanic is solid and interesting, only to cripple itself with weapons that break way too easily.

The Witcher 3 had a similar inventory accounting problem. I think it was shortly after hooking up with Tess that I had a lengthy mission I had to abandon and go back to side questing because my swords both broke and I had no way to repair them and no replacements on hand. From then on out, I had to cram my inventory with extra weapons of both steel and silver varieties, and so every single loot drop prompted the same lengthy examination and debate. What will I drop to have space left over? Do I keep this weapon with lower damage but slightly better durability? Or do I take this more fragile but higher damaging model? I should be focused on hunting monsters, but every single new loot drop pulls me out of the action and into menus to do middle management. Which probably explains why it took me almost four months to play. (It’s only one factor, though as the game was, being nice, tediously repetitive and dreadfully grim.)

Then there’s the case of Bloodborne, where the durability wouldn’t be so much of a problem if I could repair weapons at the lamps like I can with the Souls series of games. But to repair anything requires a trip back to the hunter’s dream, and that’s a long loading screen for no other reason than to keep using my chosen weapon. (Using others would require many, MANY hours of grinding for the scabs I need to make their damage viable, and I’m already doing a lot of that just to upgrade my pistols and primary weapon.) Even this wouldn’t be a hang up for me if the durability was better, but just a short circuit around the opening area can build up enough damage to make the weapon less effective. So it always has to be on my mind, “Do I need to stop playing to repair my shit?” instead of, you know, actually playing the game.

Bloodborne also has what I feel is a stupid mistake in durability, in that the melee weapons always need repairs while the guns never do. Oh sure, the fire forged steel axe made for whacking stuff will fall apart after a bit of use, but that complex machine with a dozen moving parts that uses dirty black powder is always in perfect working order. Sure, I totally believe that. If anything, the guns should degrade at the rate the melee weapons do, and the melee weapons should last longer UNLESS I use the trick transformation often. (I rarely do.) The way the game handles durability as it does is just…it’s totally bonkers.

It’s not that I think the games would be better off without durability. (Although that would be one less thing to distract me from the good parts.) I just feel like the way some games implement the concept pulls me out of the game rather than immersing me into their worlds.

To conclude, I don’t think item durability is something that needs to be abolished, and I think done right it can add a little touch of realism to a good fantasy or sci-fi setting. But done badly, durability can wreck a game and make it much harder to enjoy. Clearly it’s not quite that bad in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But if the mechanic is noticeable enough that reviewers and streamers feel the need to bring it up, it suggests that perhaps Nintendo went a little too far in weakening the available arsenal. That’s a shame because the last thing I want to think about while hacking and slashing monsters is inventory management.