Friday, April 21, 2017

Breath of the Wild Hard Mode

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Breath of the Wild. Only mild story spoilers, but a bunch on mechanics.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a phenomenal game, but it features a fair few new features for the series. One such feature is paid DLC, set to deliver extra content at a later date. Among the bullet point promises shot out of a pre-release press image is hard mode, set to release this August. A number of previous Zelda games have had this, down to the very first, but with varying levels of alteration. Most just raise a bunch of damage numbers, but others feature more drastic changes and sometimes even brand-new content.

We have no idea know what hard mode for BotW involves yet. It probably won’t be anything special. But given that the game occupies the majority of my free time and waking thoughts, I thought I’d engage in some baseless speculation/suggestion. Here are some things that could make Breath of the Wild more difficult in a way that’s engaging and worthwhile. But! There’s a catch: I’m going to try and get as much possible out of the least amount of effort. I’m sure there’s not an avalanche of resources going into hard mode. Obviously it would be preferable if they added new content, and redid all the enemies, and changed all the puzzles, and altered all the mechanics, and basically just built an entirely new game. But no one does that*, and it’s also more interesting to write under constraints rather than just say “Make Everything Better”.

*That I know of. If you’ve got a game in mind, I’d be interested to hear about it.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Make the Numbers More Bigger

RPG elements are more important than ever in Unruly Respiration. There’s a huge variety of weapons to wield, upgrades to unveil, clothing to collect, and handfuls of durians to throw in a pot. I mean, uh, consumables to cook. With such a focus on stats, even just bumpin up numbers could give challenge a jump. This is basically the only thing in hard mode that’s assured, but even then I can think of couple ways to get the most out of it.

And it's not just giving every Bokoblin a Savage Lynel Crusher.

I hear similar stories all across the internet: Breath of the Wild gets easier as time goes on. By the time they’ve left the intro everyone has died twelve times to enemies, nine times to fall damage, four times to forest fires and twice to stiff breezes. But a brief transition period later and they’re coasting through the game sippin elixers on mountains of Moblin skulls, the deadliest foes doing little more than mildly denting their stockpile of food and weapons. To this end, I offer two pieces of advice.

The first piece of advice is to increase damage by a multiplier rather than a flat amount. This is pretty self-explanatory. If you made everything deal two hearts more damage the early foes would all be one-shot wonders, but the end game wouldn’t change at all. If you instead doubled (or 1.5x or whatever) their existing damage, everyone gets a proportional increase.

The second is to increase damage more than health. The bulky late game enemies take a decent amount of time to put down, even with good weaponry. But by the time you reach them your armor, health and healing outpace their damage pretty drastically. Plenty of later foes take a while to kill, but few feel like an actual threat. That being said, the one type of enemy I wouldn’t mind getting a large health boost is bosses. After enough time passes, every world boss you meet gets torn to anticlimactic shreds. If nothing else, buff the bulk of the poor Hinoxes. I’ve killed so many before they could even stand and start their theme music that I’m beginning to feel guilty.

I mean, not guilty enough to STOP murdering them. Let's not get crazy here.

One final, less obvious number that could use tinkering: Knockback resistance. Stronger enemies are able to ignore more blows without staggering or falling flat on their face, and I’d be fine with this getting a universal upgrade. As it is now, it’s relatively easy to stunlock any enemy of medium size. Larger foes like Moblins, Lynels and Guardians fare better, but even they all go limp with an arrow to the face. I don’t want headshots (or eye-shots) to become useless, but I’d be okay with these enemies recovering quicker.

Add Higher Environmental Resistance

Most of these points focus on the combat in Rustic Inhalations. It’s the obvious route to take. Puzzles are another big part of the challenge, but those would be prohibitively expensive to retool across a world this big. But what about the game’s use of environmental hazards? Could there possibly be some way to make those challenging?? Some way to enhance their difficulty, perhaps even doing so with minimal effort??? Maybe even some way that’s listed in bold text at the beginning of this segment???? COULD THERE?????

Is the answer no? I’m gonna guess it’s no.

Many of us remember the excitement of the initial Breath of the Wild demos. In them, they toured through a snowy area near the start of the game, our first introduction to environmental hazards. The player had to prepare special spicy food before crossing the snow, lest they die of the cold. They also noted you could stay warm by carrying a torch or staying near fires, making a mad dash to heat sources and chugging food to stay alive.

Then we all booted up our Nintendonysoft Switch U’s and…it went exactly as they said. For the first time. Then within that first snowy area you can easily find a shirt that grants cold resistance. Similar events happen for the heat of the desert or flames of the volcano. It’s genuinely engaging to have to plan ahead for going through harsh terrain, but the permanent upgrades soon render that planning useless. There are multiple items that grant each of these resistances, so before long you never have to worry about using your environment or cooking special meals again. Is there no way to fix this problem?

Well…no. Not entirely. But we can at least extend its lifespan a little. Just increase the number of times the resistance buffs stack, then make certain areas of the map one or two tiers of resistance higher. This would allow the most hostile locales to maintain some of the intimidating presence they had early on. A lot of people like having to prepare for travel or fight to survive, just look at the mods for Skyrim or 75% of Steam early access games. Some boosts to the chill will keep that thrill, ensuring it’s never useless to pack a lunch. Speaking of lunch…

Reduce Meal Inventory

Though a neat concept, the Asthmatic Animals cooking system has more issues than Time magazine. There’s a bit of depth here and there, but a lot of the subtleties are made useless by dominant strategies. By far the easiest way to get high level buffs is to simply cram a pot full of the same ingredient, like dumping five ironshrooms to get a max level defense boost, or five mighty bananas for attack. Healing, meanwhile, is a delicate and complex formula with nuance and finesse…until hearty ingredients come along. Hearty ingredients grant a recipe temporary bonus hearts, but that also means they fully restore your hearts. So a single hearty ingredient, which are fairly easy to find, immediately negates the vast variety of regular healing items.

Picture unrelated.

These are just some of the many flaws with cooking, and I don’t expect them to completely overhaul the system with mere DLC. But there are smaller measures that would help. Having items heal slowly in real time would make things much more challenging, though that change might take notable effort. Forcing the player to wait a bit between eating meals would be an easier-to-implement version. I’d be willing to settle for just giving hearty items a quick fix. For example, changing them to grant empty temporary hearts, which are only used once you actually heal up to that point with other items. But even that isn’t the simplest tweak to be made. No, the simplest tweak is so amazingly simple it really should be included in hard mode: Reduced inventory space.

By default, Breath of the Wild allows you to carry three pages of meals. In other words, you can have up to seventy-five full healing + temporary hearts items at the same time. This is ridiculous, full stop. Getting these items is incredibly easy. But even if the cooking system wasn’t completely broken by hearty foods, 75 healing items is not a number that could ever make a satisfying challenge. Sure you could boost damage numbers and hard-to-avoid attacks to the point where it’d be necessary, but never particularly enjoyable.

The first 74 of these seemed like a totally balanced amount of healing, but then it just got RIDICULOUS.

In a game that leans heavily on the action side of action RPG, pausing combat to heal is already sub-optimal. Doing it several dozen times a fight would completely kill the tension, and makes the decision of what foods to take with you less interesting. Reducing the meal inventory from three pages to one* means a little more thought will be involved. It keeps you from having three of every type of food and a page full of hearty full heals. This means more actual planning on what to bring with you for individual areas. Plus, this is as simple as changing inventory slots. The game already does it with weapons, shields and bows. I’d be shocked if it took much effort.

*I wouldn’t mind less than one page, but it’s a nice round number.

Nerf the Champion Powers

This is it. Here I make my final stand. A sea of sinister silver surrounds me on all sides. Rictus grins of hideous beasts face me at every turn. Each wields terrifying weapons of pure malice, crafted in the darkest abyss of the earth from the essence of evil itself. My fingers dance atop the gamepad like flags in a hurricane, twisting and turning as the inevitable tides of foes crash against me. I jump, I block, I parry, I dodge, I strike, I run, I shoot, I survive! But slowly, surely, they chip away. On my last legs, I look at the vast field of gnashing teeth and clanking steel, and brace myself for a final charge. I look the head monster dead in the eye, target him, run forward and-


Oh right. Daruk’s Protection. So long as I’m holding the target button, even without a shield equipped, any attack bounces off and causes nearby enemies to be knocked off guard for a moment. Pretty useful. Not to mention-


-that you can trigger the ability as many as-


-three times before it has to recharge. So that spoiled the mood somewhat. But hey, now it’s really down to the wire. I have to take advantage of this chance while it lasts! In a desperate last bid for survival, I charge up a spin attack and-


Oh right. Urbosa’s Fury. If I take a second to charge my spin attack it strikes every enemy in a fifty mile radius with incredibly powerful lightning that makes survivors drop their weapons and wait until the next console Zelda release before they recover. I leisurely stroll through the crowd and exterminate the stragglers. It’s not like I need to hurry. If any of them wake up I can just use the power again. Twice.

So the battle was won, but it wasn’t exactly as harrowing as I expected. Bit of an anticlimax. But if nothing else, now the abilities are on cooldown. So if I get in another fight before too long then I can finally have the lethally challenging conflict that I SUDDENLY A SHINING SILVER GUARDIAN SKYWATCHER DELUXE & KNUCKLES APPEARS OUT OF NOWHERE AND FLIES AT ME IN A SUICIDE BOMBING AND IT LANDS RIGHT ON TOP OF ME AND EXPLODES IN A FIREBALL SO MASSIVE THE MUSHROOM CLOUD CAN BE SEEN FROM TERMINA AND-


Look, it’s great that the beasts in Rural Lung Capacity offer you unique rewards beyond heart containers and help with the end-boss. It’s also great that they’re fairly unique abilities that can turn the tide of battle when used correctly. But they’re all incredibly overpowered and can be used way too often. They completely trivialize combat. Now I’m sure some will respond to this by saying that you can turn off these abilities in the menu. I have three rebuttals to that statement:

1. Turning off powers is a self-imposed challenge. The entire point of hard mode, and this article, is for the game to create more challenge without the player having to limit themselves. This generally feels better to play, because you’re still allowed to get the full enjoyment of managing resources and optimizing a character.

It'd be quite hard to beat Super Mario Bros collecting every coin, or without stomping enemies, or using half an A press. But that's not the same as the game itself presenting new challenges.

2. The powers can be fun to use. They have strategic use in combat and their inclusion means there’s some additional planning in deciding which of them you want to grab first in a given playthrough.

3. The game is really bad at informing you these can be disabled. It doesn’t tell you anywhere, and they’re stuck in the key items tab where nothing else is usable. I’ve played quite a bit and never knew you could turn them off until researching this article.

Assuming we all agree that these cool powers should be weakened, but usable, how do we go about it? There are a bunch of ways to do so, and none of them would be too difficult to implement. Here are some of my ideas:

1. Increase the cooldown of powers by a significant amount. We’re talking like triple the time. Since the game often goes long gaps without combat, it’s rare you ever fight for long without them active.

2. Let them recharge when partially used. It’s always awkward when you’re sitting with one of three charges, and it’s silly that wasting them to trigger the cooldown period is a legitimate strategy.

3. Make them all usable abilities. This is by far the hardest change to implement, but I’d really prefer it. Since Daruk’s Protection and Mipha’s Grace are passive by nature, it’s hard to ration them for key moments. Even Urbosa’s Fury prevents you from using your high tier spin attacks. My suggestion would be to have the powers mapped to down on the control pad along with the rarely used whistle. Holding down the button would switch powers, tapping would activate them. Mipha’s Grace would be changed to a heal instead of a revive, and Daruk’s would be a shield with a several second duration.

4. According to this helpful forum post, Urbosa’s Fury does 500 damage to bosses instead of the usual 150. Why would you do this?! If you have all three charges, this would destroy most bosses without you even having to get in range. The whole point of bosses is to be challenging, and we’ve already discussed how fragile they are late game. I’m wise to your schemes, Nintendo! I’m standing up for Hinox rights!

Add Variable Enemy Attacks

Bar building a new game entirely, the best thing that could be done for challenge in Coarse Yoga Exercise would be adding new enemies. It’s been oft-noted that the selection of foes is pretty small. This game is much bigger, longer, and more combat-focused than previous titles. But despite this, when you take away all the elemental, skeletal, and palette swapped variants, it has about as many enemies as any other Zelda. In some cases, even less. You can see how this might happen. A no doubt enormous amount of time went into the building the world and systems to support it. The existing enemies, though limited in number, are well animated and have fairly adaptable AI. But whatever the reason, we really could use some fresh blood on the foe front.

We’re not likely to get it.

Are you mad about that? You seem mad about that. Just a vibe I'm getting.

I suspect we’ll get some for the second DLC, the one with an entirely new area and story content. But hard mode has classically been a very quick and dirty addition, and new enemies are expensive. Since the mode is DLC this time around, it’s not completely out of the question. But as much as I would love some new bad guys to knock around*, I’m not expecting them. So for those of you who care what I think on the matter**, how would I alter existing foes? Well apart from stat changes, I have a solution that’s cheap and easy compared to building baddies brand-new: Variable enemy attacks.

*Imagine Darknuts and Iron Knuckles as Lynel-tier enemies, or Dodongos and Ghomas as world bosses! I am SO excited to see what the DLC brings.
**You don’t, but I’ll keep going regardless

Instead of creating new enemies or attacks, which would be costly in AI or animation work, we modify and combine existing ones. The first way of doing this would be varying speed. Attacks could be given fast and slow variants. Sometimes an enemy would have a chance to go through an attack faster for less damage, or slower for more damage. These differences could be telegraphed by a different colored wind stream/particle effect on the attack. Faster variants could let some currently toothless attacks actually pose a threat*. Meanwhile slower attacks could throw you off guard when timing dodges, parrying or sneaking in a few hits. Variable speeds would take little work to implement, help to keep every fight from feeling the same and make you pay attention to the different telegraphs and timings.

*Looking at you, Ice Lizalfos breath.

When Electric Lizalfos charge up, I have to be wary. When Fire Lizalfos charge, I at least have to raise my shield. When Ice Lizalfos charge, I think “awesome, free kill!”

A slightly more complicated approach would be interrupted attacks. By stitching together existing actions we could keep things from being too predictable. For example, say a Lynel dashes at you, but halfway there transitions into a jumping attack instead of following through with the dash like normal. A Guardian Scout peppers in laser blasts in the middle of melee combos. A Fire Lizalfos jumps away from you while simultaneously belching flame. There’s a lot you can do with this concept, and much like the timing changes it would all serve to keep you from getting complacent. It’s another layer of possibilities to plan for or adapt to on-the-fly.

Now granted, this one would take more work than the timing changes. It can draw from the existing animations and AI patterns, but blending them together could be awkward. Certain animations wouldn’t work when combined with others, and even those that do would require effort to properly blend so it feels natural. But it’s the largest change I can think of to keep fights interesting without creating new enemies or attacks.

Give Us a Tent

Okay fine, this has nothing to with increasing difficulty. But c'mon guys. For all its advantages, rain is annoying and extremely frequent. Just give us a consumable item to put a campfire under. Let us buy em at the stable and bam, you don't have to change anything else.

Or we could craft them from some incredibly easy to acquire material. Like say, Hinox guts.

So now you’ve sat through a few thousand words of me rambling armchair game design at a company who knows better. For some reason. But what do you think? There’s a lot of ways, even cheap ones, that Breath of the Wild could be made more difficult. I’d be happy to hear some of your ideas in the comments. That is to say, the comments of the inevitable Reddit thread. Here on the blog strangers comment about one and a half times a year. I’m very lonely.

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