The release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a watershed moment in gaming. 2017’s game of the year not only demolished the infamous linearity that had been inherent in most of the Zelda series to that point, but revolutionised the open-world genre as a whole.
Never before had a world been this open. Where previous open-world titles would say ‘Sorry, you can’t go here’, Breath of the Wild asks ‘Why not?’. If you can see it, you can go there. If you can imagine it, you can probably do it. Between climbing almost anything, and being provided with a set of unique and useful abilities from the tutorial onwards, Breath of the Wild dumps you into a sandbox with such deep mechanics that it still offers fresh experiences even after a hundred hours.
Tears of the Kingdom takes this freedom and supercharges it.
One of only a few direct sequels in the Zelda series, Tears of the Kingdom takes place several years after the events of Breath of the Wild. While investigating the ruins beneath Hyrule Castle, Link and Zelda inadvertently awaken the Demon King, Ganondorf. The ensuing event known as the Upheaval separates Link and Zelda, and causes widespread damage across Hyrule.
On a floating island in the sky, Link awakens with his arm replaced and all-new abilities, and must set out to find Zelda and rescue Hyrule from Ganondorf, with the help of a key character from each of the game’s major races. This is a largely familiar tale for those of us well acquainted with the series as a whole, but by no means an unwelcome one.
While certainly nothing mind-blowing, Tears of the Kingdom’s story is an improvement upon Breath of the Wild in every way. Rather than catching fleeting glimpses of lore through optional memories, the importance of Tears of the Kingdom’s story is made clear, and it does a much better job of making the player feel involved. You aren’t learning about events of a bygone era, you are living the events of the Upheaval, and witnessing its consequences first-hand. The story lends itself a much greater sense of urgency, pulling you in, in a way that Breath of the Wild’s story often failed to.
The ‘tutorial’, so-to-speak, takes a similar shape to Breath of the Wild, with Link exploring a set area to acquire a series of core abilities. By tinkering with, and in some cases completely replacing Breath of the Wild’s abilities, Tears of the Kingdom has leaned totally into the idea of player freedom.
Magnesis – which allowed players to lift metal objects – is replaced with Ultrahand, which allows you to lift up almost any object, and attach them together to make almost anything you like. It’s even been described as Nintendo’s Garry’s Mod, as players have pushed the limits of creativity with inventions from hot air balloons to gundam mechs. The limits of this ability are essentially your own imagination, and how much time you’re willing to put in.
Fuse also makes huge strides in solving the durability issues of Breath of the Wild. Being able to combine any number of weapons and items inspires creativity in a way that simply having a wide variety of weapons simply couldn’t. If my skeleton arm with another skeleton arm attached to it breaks, I can escape with a rocket I’ve stuck on my shield. Dying because I threw a boomerang with explosives fused to it that flew back to me and blew me up isn’t frustrating, it’s fun. Tears of the Kingdom’s abilities don’t limit you for fear of you becoming too powerful, it encourages you to play with its mechanics however you see fit. Whether you want to explore on foot or by building a ridiculously intricate flying machine that bursts into flames after five seconds, you can do it – you make your own fun.
As a direct sequel, Tears of the Kingdom takes place in the same Hyrule as the previous game, reusing assets, monsters, NPCs, and more. Tears of the Kingdom did begin life as an expansion, but quickly became worthy of a fully fledged sequel. Partially thanks to the new abilities and story, but also because there are two enormous new areas to explore.
Floating islands litter the sky, beckoning you to the rarefied air above Hyrule. While stunningly designed, one quickly realises that these islands often play host to little more than the odd shrine or chest. Flying through the air on purpose-built gliders never gets old, but after exploring dozens of islands, they quickly turn from mysterious and beautiful to simply somewhere to jump off to make travelling more convenient. For that initial period however, their awe and wonder is palpable.
Where the sky fails to capture the imagination in the long-term, the Depths cling to it incessantly. Underneath Hyrule’s surface lies a mirrored world bathed in almost total darkness. Accessible through chasms poking up to the surface, the Depths offer a world antithetical to that above it. Dotted throughout the pitch darkness shine the eerie glows of abandoned mines, offering rare items for those willing to traverse the poisonous gloom that plagues the ground around you.
Having to light your own way using scattered waypoints called Lightroots, as well as seeds found in surface caves, creates an almost permanently oppressive atmosphere. While exploring on the surface overwhelms the senses with what’s possible, the Depths dull them, tempting you with faint promises of reward, and luring you further into a vast, empty void. It is a truly unique experience, repeatedly drawing you back with a tangible mix of excitement and unease.
When it comes to exploring the game’s surface, while changes have been made, the formula has very much stayed the same. A few new settlements have been added to those of Breath of the Wild, all of which boast a wealth of new collection of side-content to grapple with, and the addition of a huge number of caves provides even more opportunity for exploration.
Breath of the Wild’s 120 shrines have been replaced with 152 new shrines, distributed across the surface and sky islands. The Sheikah Towers, too, have disappeared, with new Skyview Towers taking their place. Further to simply revealing the maps for their respective areas, they also function almost as cannons, firing Link into the sky to explore any nearby sky islands, or to simply glide to nearby locations. The puzzle element of figuring out how to climb the towers has gone, but for some, you must unlock the entrance or activate the tower in some way if it’s out of order.
The shrine challenges also follow the same vein as those of Breath of the Wild. Enter a shrine, solve a series of miniature puzzles testing one or two of your abilities, and receive a reward that can be used to upgrade your health and stamina. Where the shrines in Tears of the Kingdom differ, however, is in the scope of the solutions to them.
The radical freedom afforded Link by his new abilities means many shrines can be solved by using an unintended workaround. You could cross a large gap by using a nearby fan to fly upwards and glide across with your paraglider. Or alternatively, you could just build a really, really long bridge. Which of these is the correct solution? The answer is both.
One of the first things you begin to understand about Tears of the Kingdom is that there’s no correct way to play the game. As a veteran Zelda fan, I love the satisfaction of figuring out a tricky puzzle, so I go into most shrines with a more ‘traditional’ approach. A friend of mine, on the other hand, takes pride in finding ridiculous workarounds to skip these painstakingly crafted puzzles. Tears of the Kingdom is the gaming equivalent of putting a child in a room full of toys, and just letting them do whatever they want – there’s no right or wrong way to play.
On the puzzling front, we also see the return of a series staple in dungeons. Criticism was often levelled at Breath of the Wild’s answer to dungeons, the four Divine Beasts, for their simplicity and aesthetic parallels. Despite their unique mechanics, they all bore too much similarity to one another to really set them apart, making each Divine Beast successively less interesting.
Tears of the Kingdom makes significant strides to redeem this. More traditional dungeons make a return, featuring wholly distinct designs based on their locations and themes, giving them a much needed individuality. For example, the Fire Temple is set to the spectacular backdrop of a volcanic crater, while the Lightning Temple sees you navigate underground tombs reminiscent of an Egyptian pyramid. No two dungeons are even remotely similar and this makes each one a joy to delve into.
Each dungeon also now has its own unique boss, rather than the four reskins of the Blight Ganons in Breath of the Wild. Each one offers an interesting challenge, requiring you to use the mechanics of the temple to best them. They’re no pushovers, either, with each one providing a strong enough test to deliver an air of satisfaction once beaten.
As for the puzzles themselves, if you were hoping for a return to the days of Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple, you’re out of luck. The puzzles are not much more difficult than those found in the Divine Beasts. They’re satisfying enough, and there have certainly been one or two puzzles in each temple to have me scratching my head, but never for very long. Again, the sheer volume of solutions available thanks to Link’s arsenal of abilities makes many puzzles somewhat trivial, and while this does play into the game’s hands in shrines, it can make dungeons seem somewhat less imposing.
One of the best changes in Tears of the Kingdom, though, is the approach to each dungeon. Traditionally, Link would meet someone from the local race, do a quick task for them to open the dungeon, then head on in. Tears of the Kingdom does this too, but instead of a simple task, it turns the build up to the dungeon into its own undertaking. Effectively, the dungeon starts before you even get anywhere near the entrance. Solving a riddle in a sandstorm, trampolining across floating ships in a sort of aerial parkour, fighting a miniboss while flying a plane, this approach to dungeons really shakes up the formula, and sets the scene for some memorable dungeons.
Tears of the Kingdom is, of course, not without its flaws. The Switch is now six years old and is showing its age. A beautiful art direction acts as a saving grace in this respect, but the shackles of the Switch peek through in the form of drops in the frame rate, or the odd low-quality textures. If you found yourself unable to grapple with weapon durability in Breath of the Wild, you’ll most likely find yourself similarly annoyed in Tears of the Kingdom. But these are miniscule scratches, in an otherwise stellar game, and I rarely found myself with time to notice these flaws behind the wealth of positives that Tears of the Kingdom offers.
Breath of the Wild was a masterpiece on all fronts, crafting a vast open-world with seemingly limitless freedom. It is nothing short of a triumph that with Tears of the Kingdom, Nintendo has managed to improve upon it in every regard. The freedom offered by the game’s mechanics is unparalleled and when combined with a deep story and an enormous map with a variety of distinct areas, it serves to create one of the most fun and unforgettable experiences I have ever had in gaming. Breath of the Wild asked us ‘What could the future of Zelda look like?’, and Tears of the Kingdom gave us the answer, and I don’t see how we could ever go back.