May 12, 2023
Much has been said about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and its absolutely incredible scope that has kept it in the cultural zeitgeist over six years since its initial release. A monumental jump in a loved franchise, it placed our hero Link in a bold and impressive open world, with mysteries to solve and secrets galore. That formula made for an entirely memorable gaming experience that many have dubbed the best adventure game of all time, and boldly, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom attempts to follow up that super strong lineage with a sequel that remixes and rewrites the series into an experience that is somehow even more special than it was before. While the core DNA of Breath of the Wild remains, this is a fresh point of view on Hyrule that will force you to rewire your brain to think differently, in the best way possible.
Following on directly from the ending of BOTW, Tears of the Kingdom picks up with Link and Zelda looking to uncover the mysteries of the earth, before a rude interruption separates the two of them. Indeed, Zelda is sidelined, leaving Link wounded and on some mysterious sky islands, where he must learn new abilities, find Zelda, and save Hyrule, naturally.
This is not necessarily boiled down to a simple “save the princess, save the world” setup, as mysteries impacting the kingdom are present from the jump that create tantalising threads begging to be unraveled. Why are there all of these islands in the sky, and what are the strange robotic Constructs guarding them? What is the strange dark Gloom that is all over the place? What lurks in the dark and spooky depths of Hyrule, underground? And where exactly did Zelda go, anyway?
The lore presented in Tears of the Kingdom made me think about Zelda herself, the history of Hyrule, and its various evils in a very different way to what I was expecting. While she isn’t present for your adventuring, the main questline gives you the opportunity to unlock memories, uncovering more about Zelda and her connection to Hyrule. Without spoiling anything, I feel like this is the richest storytelling that The Legend of Zelda has ever featured. I found the revelations to be compelling, and the history adds some profound depth that provides more context to this version of the Hyrule universe.
While you’re tackling the whereabouts of Zelda herself, you’ll also find yourself pulled in various other directions. The different tribes of Hyrule are in need of your aide, as strange environmental anomalies are causing problems, and the kingdom is under threat from strange beasts that fill the world with darkness and violence whenever the sun sets. This holistic style of narrative, that combines a broad, game-changing threat with various other smaller-but-still-important dangling story threads, works wonders in building a living, breathing world with its fate resting firmly on your shoulders. High stakes, for certain.
You can’t take the sky from me
The strange islands in the sky set the scene of what to expect for the rest of Tears of the Kingdom’s runtime. A series of well-tutorialised areas promptly but cautiously teach you each of the skills that you’ll be using for the rest of your journey, with simple puzzles showing you the ropes before things escalate. This opening (which easily takes a few hours or more depending on your pace) not only introduces you to those necessary skills, but also the Zonai devices that, when charged up, allows you to engineer self-powered vehicles and other contraptions, using fans, wheels, rockets, flame-spewing statues and more. They use a new resource called Zonai Charge energy, so they only really work as temporary measures to traverse the environment in creative ways, but they instantly change how you think about the world in terms of what is accessible.
“…full-on flying machines, speedboats, or vehicles that would make Epona feel somewhat insignificant by comparison.”
Link’s most interesting ability – and the one that is likely to generate the most creative solutions in the gaming community – has to be Ultrahand. This ability allows you to magically grab nearby objects and paste them together to invent your own means of traversal. This starts simple enough, as you cobble together wooden planks to make a large ramp, but advances rapidly when you factor in gravity to build full-on flying machines, speedboats, or vehicles that would make Epona feel somewhat insignificant by comparison.
BOTW prided itself on the idea that you can climb anything you see, and the combination of climbing and gliding took up a lot of that adventure’s playtime. In Tears of the Kingdom, that still remains true, but instead of just climbing you could also strap a rocket to a hot air balloon to fly up into the clouds, or attach some fans to some wings and propel yourself across the map in an airship.
This different way of thinking about your environment creates some intriguing methods to explore Hyrule once you eventually do land down on the surface. Zonai devices are basically everywhere, sometimes just laying around the place, and otherwise available from giant gumball-machine like dispensers so that you can pocket them and have them on hand for particularly tricky situations. Later, an Autobuild ability even lets you shortcut and build previously-created items with ease, which is another nice touch.
I’ve never been very clever when it comes to creative building and have steered clear of Minecraft and other construction-heavy titles for that reason, so I was worried that this “creative” style of gameplay would put me off, but Tears of the Kingdom managed to suck me in anyway. More often than not, the building mechanics are used as part of an in-the-moment puzzle solution, which is where I primarily used them, but the combat and exploration possibilities seem endless, which is exciting. You’ll make mistakes, too, as gravity plays a serious role in whether your creations are successful or not, which makes achieving your goals all the more sweeter when you eventually slap together something that actually works. I can’t wait to see what players create as they explore the vast map and create their own “Eureka!” moments, likely with lots of funny sharable failures along the way.
This ain’t a scene, it’s an arms race
While Ultrahand is the star of the show, its supporting players aren’t to be scoffed at. Fuse gives combat the same creative facelift, putting a unique spin on how you battle enemies. This ability allows you to combine nearby objects with the weapon and shield in your possession, increasing their base attributes and also adding elemental spins. A simple example is a rock that can be added to a sword to make a rock-sword, or a fan that can be strapped on to your shield so that you can quite literally blow enemies away.
The new weapon creations make for some fun possibilities in the heat of battle; enemies have their own strengths and weaknesses, so you might need to strap a horn off of a defeated foe onto a spear to give it some extra piercing strength, or simply chuck a bomb on the end of a hammer for an explosive fight that will probably end poorly for everybody involved. Rock enemies won’t take damage from a metal sword, and armour also needs to be knocked off of Bokoblins before you can smack them down. Arrows also can have almost anything stuck to them in the moment, creating elemental arrows that can freeze foes, electrocute them, or burn them to a crisp. Again, the freedom here feels liberating, and rewards ingenuity as much as skill, which gives combat an innovative perspective overall.
One of the more controversial inclusions in BOTW was the durability of weapons, specifically the fact that they can break after a few uses, and not be repaired, forcing you to find new ones or build up a small collection of useful weapons so that you have Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D to switch to during intense fights. Bad news for detractors is that weapon durability is still present here, but the good news is that it can be mitigated somewhat by using Fuse. When a weapon is close to breaking, a clear warning appears on the screen, and if you then fuse the weapon to another object (or even a second weapon), it repairs it and makes it stronger. You can drop existing resources (like horns or other monster parts) anytime and fuse them then and there, so it’s incredibly useful in a pinch. It doesn’t entirely take the sting out of the durability problem, but I found it far less frustrating overall.
That unmistakable “Legend of Zelda magic”
Where Tears of the Kingdom truly thrives is in its puzzle design, which is what keeps me coming back for more every single time. Hyrule is once again littered with Shrines, each an individual mini-dungeon that presents a brainteaser (or in some cases, a combat scenario) that needs to be solved, often incorporating your new abilities. Rewind (where you can rewind the path of an object) and Ascend (which allows you to dive upward through a roof, popping up on the other side) come into play here. These are two new concepts that force you to think differently about the tricky scenarios presented.
These Shrines allow you to upgrade your health and stamina, so they feel vital to your progress, and I was continually impressed with the variety in the solutions required, and the way they start off showing you the ropes before laddering up to some which are devilishly difficult. As you advance, you’re continually drip-fed new ideas that not only assist you in solving those specific scenarios, but that then go on to help you in your navigation of the overworld. The more I played, the more my understanding of Tears of the Kingdom was remixed and iterated upon in creative ways that made me smile and always gave me that satisfying endorphin rush of completion.
“…even when I felt stuck, the solution never seemed to be that far away.”
This culminates in each of the major Temples that you’ll come across, that prove to be a true test of all of the skills you’ve learned, with an additional key ability added for good measure. Each of the four key tribes make their reappearance, the Zora, Rito, Gerudo, and Goron, with their accompanying ability adding yet another opportunity to solve and explore in creative ways. The Temples themselves will prove to be quite a test of your wits, each finishing off with an epic boss battle that, once again, cleverly incorporates the skills you’ve recently learned. From shooting boulder projectiles off of mine carts to creating a gust of wind to give you an extra boost when flying between sky islands, it’s continually impressive how the game subtly teaches you skills that you need to be successful; even when I felt stuck, the solution never seemed to be that far away.
Touch the sky
Landing in Hyrule for the first time is absolutely intimidating, with a truly gigantic world in front of you to explore. But what makes Tears of the Kingdom feel even more bold and gigantic is the fact that the map has three layers, including the sky islands and the depths below. The sky islands in particular offer up a lot of opportunities for surprises, with the first question always something to the effect of “how the hell do I get up there?”. Cleverly, the puzzle is often in the journey itself, not the destination. Occasionally, a piece of debris will fall from the sky that you can use Rewind on to ride back up to the clouds. Sometimes this leads to some loot, but other times it creates the chance to land on another hard-to-reach area after the shift in perspective.
The depths are a different beast entirely; they feel more dangerous, with tough enemies and darkness that must be lit using light seeds that you collect. They’re full of Gloom, too, which saps your health and your hearts, forcing you to be careful about where you step, although checkpoints in the form of giant lit blooming flowers provide healing and reveal part of the map so you’re not completely left in the dark. Certain parts of the depths are only accessible from particular entry points dotted around the map, too; much like taking a random trip up into the sky, taking the plunge underground can have similar enticing rewards.
Skyview Towers allow you to uncover more of the map (across each of the layers), and in glorious fashion, shoot you up into the sky so you can survey the scene, but they don’t highlight objectives or quests. I kept stumbling across Hylian’s that needed my help, like a small army storming a monster camp or a village that had been taken over by pirates. Information on quests is alluded to, with clues and hints, so you’ll mostly need to pay attention and figure things out for yourself, with minimal handholding. And much like in BOTW, there are also hidden Koroks all over the world just waiting to be found. Your own sense of discovery is a huge part of what makes the world so fun to investigate, and you’re constantly rewarded for your curiosity in a way that feels special and exciting at every turn.
With your head in the clouds…
Tears of the Kingdom is a gorgeous game that pushes the aging Switch hardware to its absolute limits, but they’ve done a fantastic job of optimising things so that it runs well. The art direction does wonders to ensure Hyrule still looks lovely, with each of the key regions having their own style and personality. Zora’s Domain is breathtaking with winding paths of shimmering water, well contrasted with the dense, lava-filled mining aesthetic of Goron City, or the dangerous sandstorm-filled Gerudo Desert. Each key location has incredible detail, and the world itself is marked with the remnants of Gloom and debris, always reminding you of the task at hand.
Even with its beauty, at times I couldn’t help but wonder how stunning it would potentially look if it was running at a higher resolution. It’s a little blurry when looking off in the distance, and there is some pop-in here and there that I imagine was unavoidable to get it running smoothly. Thankfully, key locations (like Shrines and Skyview Towers) are well lit and readable across the map, regardless. When there are several visual effects on screen at once, the framerate drops a bit, too. These blemishes didn’t impact my experience too negatively, but they’re worth noting nonetheless; if this was running on an elusive Switch 4K or whatever comes next from Nintendo’s consoles, it would look even more impressive, but the visuals do certainly pop on the OLED Switch when running in handheld (with performance holding up there or in docked mode just fine).
Even after putting more than 40 hours into Link’s latest romp, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is waiting for me. There are huge sections of the map that remain uncovered, likely full of interesting mysteries and hidden gems. I can see many Shrines off in the distance that I’m yet to travel to, knowing there will be a fun brainteaser inside begging to be solved. Many sky islands remain unexplored and there are sections of the depths that remain dark and mysterious. Link’s new abilities have opened up a world of possibilities, and for those who want a game to invest a lot of time and space in, Tears of the Kingdom has enough content that it could feasibly last most players for literal years, which is equal parts ridiculously daunting and endlessly enticing.
- New abilities open a world of possiblities and creativity
- Gigantic layered world to explore with plenty of secrets
- Compelling narrative with interesting lore
- Enticing formula of exploration, puzzles, and combat
- More of that brilliant "Legend of Zelda magic"
- The Switch hardware holds back the visuals and performance
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom finds a way to improve upon its predecessor in almost every way, remixing the format and forcing you to rewire your brain in genius ways to solve devilish puzzles, take on challenging bosses, and explore a dense, captivating open world absolutely chock-full of distractions and secrets. Like Breath of the Wild before it, Tears of the Kingdom is an incredible accomplishment in video games that is set to stay in our collective conscience for the next several years and beyond, and it’s completely deserving of that honour.