In my 60-hour journey through The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, I experienced a true sense of exploration. With over 100 shrines conquered and the sky islands thoroughly explored, I was on the hunt for Ganondorf. However, I hit a roadblock when a mysterious clue led me to a hidden main story quest. Instead of relying on the sights of Hyrule, I found myself searching for a secret I had missed, unsure of how to proceed.
It was only when I retraced my steps to a previously visited town that I triggered a significant story quest. This quest unveiled a chain of secret sky islands that held the path forward. As I progressed through these islands, I realized that I had unknowingly stumbled upon one of the game’s most important chambers days earlier. It turned out that I wasn’t lost at all; I was actually three steps ahead without even realizing it.
This moment perfectly encapsulates the essence of Tears of the Kingdom, the highly anticipated sequel to 2017’s Breath of the Wild. In this game, I am not just a tourist exploring a beautiful open world; I am an archaeologist uncovering centuries of buried history beneath the kingdom of Hyrule. What sets this experience apart is the freedom to make groundbreaking discoveries long before being led to them. This design philosophy makes for a spectacular sequel, though it does demand a lot from players who want to unravel all its mysteries.
Return to Hyrule
Set after the events of Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom follows Link and Zelda as they stumble upon the imprisoned Ganondorf. The Demon King springs to life, destroying the Master Sword and draining Link’s powers with a mysterious substance called gloom. Link awakens on a mysterious island with a mechanical arm and embarks on a quest to stop Ganondorf and find the missing Zelda. This narrative setup, intertwined with the forgotten history of Hyrule, provides the perfect foundation for a gameplay experience centered around the joy of discovery.
Familiar Grounds with New Twists
Rather than completely reinventing the Zelda formula, Tears of the Kingdom builds upon the successful exploration mechanics of Breath of the Wild. Players are once again immersed in the vast world of Hyrule, where they can climb any surface, uncover hidden towers to expand the map, and explore puzzle-filled shrines that reward them with resources to upgrade their health and stamina. All the elements that made Breath of the Wild a hit are present, even if the freshness factor is slightly diminished.
Putting the “Legend” in Legend of Zelda
While Tears of the Kingdom doesn’t bring back traditional Zelda dungeons, it introduces puzzle temples that closely resemble the classic formula more than Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts. Another notable addition is the companion system, which grants Link permanent powers such as summoning lightning to strike enemies. But the most welcome change is the return of classic Zelda boss design, featuring whimsical monsters with unique gimmicks.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
This design choice aligns perfectly with the game’s narrative, allowing Link and Zelda to delve into the roots of Hyrule and discover its origins. It only makes sense that Tears of the Kingdom resurfaces elements from the series’ rich history. While it may not be a complete return to form, the bones of past Zelda games are there to be unearthed.
Soaring to New Heights
One of the most significant differences in Tears of the Kingdom is that Link is no longer a stranger to Hyrule. Having already explored this land extensively in his previous adventure, Link’s familiarity with the kingdom is reflected in the game. The developers cleverly rework the old map, sandwiching it between two new explorable spaces that provide fresh perspectives.
Returning to Hyrule feels like revisiting your childhood hometown after a decade. Even though you know the streets like the back of your hand, it’s not exactly the same. This feeling is amplified by the addition of the Sky Islands. By ascending towers, Link can glide between scattered land masses above Hyrule, each harboring unique traversal challenges and mesmerizing sights. These islands, bathed in golden hues, invoke memories of Wind Waker, with its uncharted ocean full of small discoveries.
More than just stunning locations, these islands color my perception of Hyrule. They represent the ruins of the Zonai, an ancient people who left behind their technology and robotic Constructs. Exploring these islands and their decaying structures unveils a deeper, previously unknown layer of the setting in Breath of the Wild. As I return to familiar places, such as the Great Plateau’s Temple of Time, I approach them with the curiosity of a researcher seeking remnants of the Zonai civilization.
Unveiling the Dark Underbelly
Tears of the Kingdom introduces another radical idea—an extensive underground world that spans the entire length of Hyrule. This underground realm is a sinister reminder of the kingdom’s history, a stark contrast to the beauty of the Sky Islands. In this pitch-black expanse, I must illuminate my path by throwing glowing seeds and activating roots that provide patches of light. This underground world serves as Tears of the Kingdom’s version of A Link to the Past’s Dark World, masterfully mirroring every aspect of Hyrule in a gloom-infested nightmare. It instills a sense of fear and apprehension, disturbingly juxtaposed with the grandeur of the surface world.
While Tears of the Kingdom reuses Hyrule’s map, it does so with purpose. Every element serves the narrative, weaving a tale of a people coming to terms with their history—both its triumphs and its darkest secrets. This world begs to be explored, offering a truly immersive experience.
Empowering the Hero
Link’s interaction with Hyrule has also undergone significant changes. He now possesses a completely new set of abilities, replacing tools like Magnesis and Stasis. Some of these abilities are basic yet deceptively useful, such as Ascend, which allows Link to teleport through ceilings, facilitating quick escapes from deep caves or climbs back to great heights. Another ability, Rewind, allows objects to be sent back in time, opening up new puzzle-solving possibilities. These abilities elevate certain shrines to the level of Portal’s test chambers, delivering satisfying and thought-provoking challenges.
However, the game-changer is the Ultrahand ability. With Ultrahand, Link gains the power to pick up, move, and rotate nearly any interactable object. He can even stick objects together with a blue-green goop when they come into close proximity. Despite some occasional challenges with object rotation using the Joy-Con D-pad, the intuitive nature of this system allows for quick and easy invention creation. This seemingly simple ability becomes an incredibly powerful tool, turning Tears of the Kingdom into the ultimate immersive sim.
An Unparalleled Sense of Freedom
The term “immersive sim” is often used to describe games like Hitman, which prioritize emergent gameplay and offer multiple ways to overcome challenges. Tears of the Kingdom takes this concept to new heights, providing endless surprises and expanding the boundaries of adventure. In one shrine, I struggled to comprehend the intended puzzle solution involving a metal ball and a strong water current. Instead of persevering, I devised my own solution by connecting pieces of wood in the shrine into a makeshift staff. Then, I connected the ball to one end, enabling me to bypass the water obstacle entirely. In another instance, I carefully placed a ball on a high ledge and used Ascend to ascend through it, effectively skipping an entire room.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Games like Portal often leave players feeling like geniuses when they solve a puzzle. Tears of the Kingdom takes it a step further by empowering players to design their own solutions, outsmarting even the game’s designers. This concept extends to how Link traverses the world. Throughout the adventure, he discovers various battery-powered Zonai technologies that can be used to craft vehicles and other machines. While some builds are more obvious, the game encourages and rewards smart experimentation. When faced with the challenge of crossing the sea with a sailboat and unfavorable winds, I transformed it into a double-decker boat by constructing an additional wooden floor. I attached a fan to the floor, countering the wind’s direction. These moments are reminiscent of engineering dares and consistently deliver rewarding results. Tears of the Kingdom invites players to experiment with object interactions and explore the fascinating possibilities that arise.
An Adventure that Demands Commitment
Link’s Fuse ability adds another layer of creativity to Tears of the Kingdom. It allows him to attach any interactable object to his weapon or shield. Like Ultrahand, Fuse provides a sense of satisfaction and never becomes stale. Every time I found a new weapon, I eagerly experimented with different attachments—be it a monster part, a steak, or even a rocket—to witness the surprising outcomes. Even when the results were not practical, I felt like I was gaining a deeper understanding of each object’s properties.
However, the control scheme presents a challenge. Breath of the Wild already had some complexity in its controls, and Tears of the Kingdom compounds this issue with additional crafting systems. Crafting requires navigating menus, selecting items, dropping them, and assigning them to shields or weapons—a process that can be convoluted and prone to mistakes. This complexity extends to other actions, such as throwing items, which involve multiple button combinations and can lead to unintended consequences. While these control challenges do exist, they do not detract significantly from the overall experience, and players will eventually adapt with time and practice.
Tears of the Kingdom is not only demanding in terms of controls but also creatively challenging. It places a great deal of responsibility on the player, requiring outside-the-box thinking to overcome intricate puzzles and solve quests hidden behind enigmatic riddles. While the game offers an Autobuild feature that provides basic vehicle recipes on the fly, a puzzle-solving mindset is essential in this sequel.
Trusting the Players
This aspect of Tears of the Kingdom sets it apart from Breath of the Wild and may divide opinions. The game maintains a high level of trust in the player’s ability to think independently. For instance, I reflect on the major questline I completely missed until 60 hours into the game. Why did it take me so long to find it? The designers believed that I would eventually stumble upon a town and be curious enough to investigate a peculiar object, rather than dismissing it as mere set dressing. Tears of the Kingdom trusts players to uncover fundamental game systems organically, leading to rewarding moments and a powerful sense of agency. Most games shy away from such a level of freedom, but it’s a key aspect that makes this game truly special.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom offers an engrossing sequel brimming with mysteries to solve and experiments to conduct. It is a digital laboratory where players can continue making unbelievable discoveries even years after its release. With its boundless creativity, engaging narrative, and the freedom to explore, Tears of the Kingdom stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the Zelda series.
(The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was tested on a Nintendo Switch OLED in handheld mode and on a TCL 6-Series R635 when docked.)