The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Hands-on Preview – A new sky awaits

Posted on April 26, 2023

It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Nintendo launched its Switch console, alongside one of the gaming giant’s most successful titles ever made. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is the hotly anticipated sequel to 2017’s Breath of the Wild. We were recently invited to play a preview build of the game ahead of its May 12th release, taking us through some of the major changes that have happened since Link’s last adventure.

When this series releases sequential entries, the world of the first game is typically shaken up in new and unexpected ways to form an entirely new gameplay experience: Majora’s Mask added time pressure and a focus on side quests to Ocarina of Time’s expansive world, while Spirit Tracks brought train traversal and unique touchscreen-enhanced items to the previously oceanic Phantom Hourglass. From our brief time with Tears of the Kingdom, its looks as though Nintendo is continuing in this tradition of remixing, reframing, and revolutionising. This is very much its own beast, using the bones of Breath of the Wild to make something brand new.

I’m just here for a Zonai-ce time

This preview focused on gameplay, with the new abilities available to Link in Tears of the Kingdom forming a major focus of the session. Most of my questions about its story were answered with polite shrugs, so this article will be spoiler-free to anyone who has kept up to date with trailers (and I apologise for the lack of sexy bear-Ganon content). That being said, it’s worth noting the significant role the mysterious Zonai appear to play in this sequel. Since Breath of the Wild’s launch, scores of YouTube video essayists have over-analysed this ancient tribe and its ruins dotted around Hyrule. Now we see their technology firsthand, with Zonai Constructs (both friendly and antagonistic) populating the many sky islands, a little reminiscent of the Ancient Robots from Skyward Sword’s Lanayru Mining Facility.

These Constructs are powered by something called Zonai Charge, which is also used to power the many Zonai Devices that appear within the world of Tears of the Kingdom. These are effectively machine parts that perform a function when struck by Link. Fans blow air, Rockets launch into the sky, and Flame Emitters… emit flames. Most actions consume Zonai Charge from Link’s battery meter, which is shown alongside his existing hearts and stamina levels and can be augmented by placing Battery devices nearby.

You’ll find some Zonai Devices scattered across the skies of Hyrule, but you can also generate them from the aptly named Zonai Device Dispensers that look like giant gumball machines. Inputting up to five ingredients will cause random amounts of little capsules containing an assortment of single-use Zonai Devices to tumble out, which you can store in Link’s inventory for later. It’s literally a gachapon machine, which for Zelda fans may evoke traumatic memories of The Minish Cap’s Mysterious Shells side quest, but the system appears to be pretty generous and thankfully doesn’t use real-world currency.

More complex Zonai Devices such as the Steering Stick and Wings can be taken advantage of using the most exciting of Link’s new abilities, Ultrahand. These abilities can be activated anywhere like Breath of the Wild’s rune powers, though they are instead mapped to the L button – holding it shows an ability-selection wheel, while a quick tap activates the selected power. The Ultrahand ability allows you to grab nearby objects (in a similar fashion to the Magnesis rune) and fuse them together with a sort of magic glue to make all sorts of contraptions.

The physics of each composite object determines how your final creation will behave: wood floats, metal sinks, and Zonai Devices cause chaos. If you’ve clumsily slapped together a vehicle without considering how its weight is balanced, you’re in for a delightfully wonky ride. Sticking Fans or Rockets to a makeshift raft will let you fly through the air, with a Steering Stick giving you some control over your glide – there are even special launch ramps in the sky that let you do this without draining Zonai Charge. There’s also a way to streamline the building process which you unlock later in the game, but I didn’t get much time with it during the preview.

While the controls for rotating and manipulating objects takes a bit of getting used to, it is so, so satisfying to create utter monstrosities with this ability. It profoundly reshapes how you approach navigating the world of Hyrule. Each puzzle that would previously require one of Link’s Sheikah Slate runes to solve now has you taking inventory of all of the resources in the environment, assessing how you can use them to build something new. It truly feels like Nintendo looked at all of the incredibly creative things that speedrunners built using exploits in Breath of the Wild and said “alright, game on.” 

In this spirit, Link’s second chaotic power comes in the form of the Fuse ability. Like Ultrahand, this is focused on sticking things together. However, Fuse allows items to be attached directly to Link’s weapons, shields, and arrows rather than to objects in the environment. Standing near a fusible item while the ability is activated shows a button prompt to affix the item to Link’s equipped weapon or shield. This enhances the offensive or defensive power of the equipment, increases its durability (yes, weapons still break), and can have additional effects depending on what you’ve fused. Fusing items with physical or elemental properties adds that property to your equipment, and there are some items (usually dropped by bosses) that increase your attack power greatly when fused.

You’ll also see the fused item strapped to Link’s model. I spent most of my time with a massive wooden plank attached to my shield, which was wonderfully ridiculous. In addition to fusing weapons and shields, you can also attach items to arrowheads by pressing up on the D-Pad while aiming with a bow, though these come from your inventory. This replaces the elemental arrows from the previous title – you’ll instead be hoarding Red ChuChu Jelly, Bomb Flowers, and electricity-infused Topazes to launch at foes. I found myself fascinated with the different arrow effects, constantly whipping out my bow to see what each item could do. It would be nice to be able to fuse weapons/shields directly from Link’s inventory like you can with bows, since this felt intuitive and very satisfying. I did get to fuse my sword with part of a boss’ own body and beat them to smithereens with it though, which felt like Quan Chi’s infamous “Leg Beatdown” Fatality in Mortal Kombat.

The other abilities Link has access to in Tears of the Kingdom include Recall and Ascend. While I used these less than the Ultrahand and Fuse abilities in my time with the game, they provide vital quality-of-life utility as well as unique enhancements to puzzles and combat. Recall allows Link to rewind time for a selected object, making it repeat its last movements in reverse. A timer will appear onscreen showing the duration of the rewind, which you can stop at any time. During the preview, I used this to send a spiky ball back at a horde of Bokoblins, but not for much else. I can see the kinds of puzzles this will potentially be used for in the full game, and I’m looking forward to experimenting with it further.

On the other hand, I experienced directly the massive impact the Ascend ability can have on exploration. No longer is Link bound to rue rainy weather during his lengthy mountain climbs, since Ascend allows him to warp through flat surfaces directly above him. I had initially assumed this meant platforms and cave ceilings, and viewed it as a bit of a glorified fast travel. This is until I used it to melt through an entire sky island, scout the surroundings above, and emerge ready to fight the nearby Zonai Constructs I had spotted. Losing altitude is no longer a sacrifice, which completely changes how you view Hyrule: its valleys will now be just as desirable to explore as its peaks. Ascend also has combat utility, allowing you to escape from sticky situations for a breather or even warp through (!!) certain bosses and attack their weak points. Of Link’s new abilities, I entered the preview least interested in Ascend, and left a total convert.

A taste of the skies

My experience playing through this preview build of Tears of the Kingdom was short but sweet. After a brief introduction to Link’s controls and abilities, I was immediately able to explore a short section of the early-game. This gameplay segment took place on the Great Sky Island, floating in the clouds above Hyrule. At this stage of the demo most of Link’s abilities were unlocked, and I was encouraged to play around with them and solve a few short puzzles. One quest involved helping a stranded Korok reach his pal on a nearby island – this little guy’s backpack was too full for him to move, so I had to come up with a creative way to get him across. Much like in Breath of the Wild’s shrine puzzles there are likely many solutions, but the most satisfying one I found was to construct a makeshift trolley using a minecart and a few Zonai fans, plop the struggling Korok into it using Ultrahand, and yeet him across to his buddy. An absolutely *chef’s kiss* slice of gameplay.

The second part of the demo was a little more free-form. Part of it took place on the ground in Hyrule Field, where I was tasked with infiltrating the Bokoblin-infested Skyview Tower. Much like in Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom’s combat requires creative use of resources in order to excel. I died a lot here messing around with new mechanics, testing out each ability to see how effective it could be. Link controls almost identically in this game, though his expanded arsenal makes each battle feel a little more like a puzzle.

I tried a few different ways to storm Skyview Tower. One idea involved combining a Flame Emitter with a Balloon and some discarded wood to create a hot air balloon and sniping enemies from mid-air, while another more reckless approach was in fusing an explosive barrel to Link’s shield and parrying (which killed everything, including me). Enemies themselves carry fused weapons and drop items that provide greater attack power when fused with, such as sharp horns or spiked maces. While this area featured Bokoblins and Moblins exclusively, some of them wore armour that protected them from physical attacks or were extremely large “boss” types, which provided some variety (and required careful fusing to construct weapons that would actually do damage).

After successfully reaching Skyview Tower I began the next part of the demo, which took place in an archipelago of sky islands. Another series of traversal puzzles took me island-hopping and tested my knowledge of the mechanics. One memorable puzzle required Link to empty two ponds via lifting sluice gates. These gates can be raised using Ultrahand, but are heavy and will automatically close if not propped open. My solution was to scour the surrounding island for wooden logs, fashion them into a misshapen A-frame, and fuse them to the gates while raised to hold them in place – this was apparently one of many potential solutions, with each different approach described sounding like some of the more creative ways people solved Breath of the Wild’s shrine puzzles. It does feel as though Tears of the Kingdom is taking a leaf out of Skyward Sword’s book in that traversing its world often is the puzzle, though with a sense of freedom that the 2011 title could never have hoped to achieve.

My time with Tears of the Kingdom ended on a puzzle that featured a similar device to the dreaded “apparatus” from Breath of the Wild, though thankfully there were no forced motion controls in sight. You could use the device to access a nearby island with a gem on it, which you needed to transport safely to a different island. While I played it safe and slowly moved the gem across, I watched a player spend a good five minutes constructing a wonderfully creative Ultrahand contraption starring Rockets. This turned out to be a decent showcase for the Recall ability that the player used liberally on their makeshift device whenever their aim was a little off.

Despite the allure of Tears of the Kingdom’s new powers there were some conveniences I was apprehensive about losing from Breath of Wild. I thought I’d miss little things like the yellow Stasis glow highlighting key objects, always having bombs as a backup weapon, or Revali’s Gale providing an instant bit of height. However, it looks as though Link’s new abilities fill these roles in novel and creative ways. Most items in the environment can be interacted with in some way using Ultrahand, Fuse, or Recall, and glow similarly to Stasis. Bomb Flowers make their return from previous Zelda titles, and other ingredients have also been granted explosive properties. Fusing Zonai Devices with your shield can also provide extra utility – a Rocket shield launches you into the air a la Revali’s Gale, while attaching a Flame Emitter can let you make your own updraft in a pinch. It feels as though many of the solutions I previously relied upon will still be there, but remixed, revamped, and reframed.

This seemed to be the running theme throughout my brief time with Tears of the Kingdom. Nintendo have taken the core elements that made Breath of the Wild so special and reframed them in novel ways to surprise and delight returning players. From its refreshed traversal mechanics that require an entirely new approach to puzzle-solving to its absolutely chaotic Fuse system that turns combat on its head, this sequel is looking like another truly unique Zelda experience.

Stay tuned for our full coverage and review when The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom launches on May 12th.