Wow. Just… wow
It’s unusual to open a review with such a basic yet very direct sentiment as the one uttered above, but The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
is the sort of game that just does it to you; wows
you. It’s not all quite an action game or an adventure game or an RPG, and it’s none of those in combination, specifically. It’s not an action-adventure or an action-RPG, for example. And it’s almost more survival game than some of those anyway, but then it’s also a creative platform; a game with game-design tools embedded in it, like a closed-source game-engine, or an expansive set of mod tools. But it’s also a story and a world with cohesion and a sense of progression and oh-so-much character. Right down to the finer details. And that last sentence is an interesting one, because well above and below that idea of nuance is a game that champions space and geometry.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is, for lack of any better way to put it, fucking huge
There was a moment into my review time with the game where I saw a dragon. Not one of those engagable flying enemy-types that can breathe fire (there are hydra-like three-headed ones here that can do that), rather it was the primordial god-like Naydra and it was descending upon Kakariko Village, or at least near there.
So far, so familiar.
But when I went to the location of its descent I realised Naydra was entering a Chasm -- new parts of Hyrule proper that have come about due to the Upheaval
-- a moment you experience in the game’s opening salvo -- and these are entry points to an underworld full of mystery and wonder. And this is in addition
to an already re-shaped and now freely-evolving Hyrule as well as the sky islands you’ve likely gotten all excited about from all the game’s lead-up media (I like to refer to them as the “skypelago”). That’s three distinct locations set within the one open-world. All functioning seamlessly alongside one another in a single geometric space. Oh, and within this Chasm and then its greater void, Naydra -- an impossibly large creature -- had room to spare.
"Interiors selling a calamitous event; buildings and strongholds torn asunder. New openings in the earth by way of caves and other non-Chasm-related subterrains. And new monsters...”
The scale of this game cannot be understated. But within that scale there also exists the aforementioned nuance… the finer
details. Interiors selling a calamitous event; buildings and strongholds torn asunder. New openings in the earth by way of caves and other non-Chasm-related subterrains. And new monsters. Something bad has happened here, and even more ancient things than we experienced in Breath of the Wild
have awoken, and we need to face them, head on.
Upon your sky island arrival, your baggage claim looks a lot different to previous travel. Tears of the Kingdom does what all Nintendo games do best, and that’s let you find your way with a healthy and helpful tutorial. You’ll see things that look familiar but aren’t. The skypelago is home to the Zonai and its army of drones that are there to either help or hinder you. This was a technically-advanced precursor race who allegedly founded Hyrule, but I won’t go any further than that, just know that you’ve got new little concrete and metal buddies -- and enemies -- that glow, and lots of new gear to lift from them. And this new gear, well… you can exploit and build from it. Any way you see fit.
"There's an even bigger emphasis on just giving players the tools and letting them get to work...”
It’s a free-for-all once you start to realise the breadth of opportunity, and the mind boggles at what the community is going to build in the game. In my time with it I’ve built horse carriages, 4WD trucks, planes, bikes, boats and rudimentary trebuchets, among other failed experiments. I’ve moved items to reach other items, I’ve leveraged height and strength of a device to help scale massive crevices and giant heights. And Nintendo helps you realise what you can do with all of this new tech. Shrines return and are as engaging as they were in BotW, if not more so. But there's an even bigger emphasis on just giving players the tools and letting them get to work. As long as you get over said crevice or manage to scale said height, the game Pavlovian dings you for a job well done, regardless of how you got there.
In one shrine, you learn how to use Zonai fire hydrants, just like the ones from every great New York-based hip hop video clip you’ve ever watched, especially those from the 90s. In these shrines, you use the hydrants on lava; leave them spraying endless water long enough and the magma cools to make an igneous rock shelf. So you first make a bridge of igneous to cross the initial part of the shrine’s challenge, which is to get over a large bed of liquid hot magma. But then the one pesky chest… that one that’s in every
shrine, it eyes you off from up on high, teasing like. In shrines you can’t climb *most* surfaces. The chests -- which usually only feature Zonai Evereadys, Arrows, rare minerals or other such consumables -- tend to represent an additional layer to a shrine’s challenge; each of which is used as *somewhat* of an abilities tutorial.
"There's an even bigger emphasis on just giving players the tools and letting them get to work...”
In this instance, in order to get up to the seemingly unreachable chest, I had to manufacture multiple igneous rock shelfs, pile them up using Ultrahand, make an adhoc set of steps, and claim my reward. And the game is full of this level of player-driven manipulation of its myriad systems; layered beyond the sort of depth anyone can possibly know at this point in time, if Breath of the Wild’s longevity is anything to go by.
But this creative freedom to approach elements of the world in any way you see fit isn’t even half the story. Tears of the Kingdom comes much better armed with narrative; blitzing the original story by quite some margin, and it does this thanks to a far richer game-world filled
with life. I lamented the first game’s sometimes lacking sense of population and character and marked it as an overall negative, and I can’t have been the only one, because everywhere you look in Tears of the Kingdom there’s someone, somewhere that needs another link in the help chain. (Sorry, not sorry.)
"Archaeological in one beat, counting the number of wells in the world the next. But it’s all seamless and embedded into the space. In so many other open-world games there’s a checklist mentality, and the world feels stagnant and stuck in time. In Tears of the Kingdom this isn’t the case...”
Stables return, as do Skyview Towers. But there are more villages and pop-up camps. The Zonai skypelago has brought researchers and enthusiasts out of the woodwork and you’ll find yourself on myriad quests and missions for them. Archaeological in one beat, counting the number of wells in the world the next. But it’s all seamless and embedded into the space. In so many other open-world games there’s a checklist mentality, and the world feels stagnant and stuck in time. In Tears of the Kingdom this isn’t the case. The game-world keeps up with you; grows with you. There’s even a budding newspaper named The Lucky Clover Gazette that gives you new and interesting info on the world (and a bit of feedback). Wanna write for it? Well, that’s an aspiration you can make a reality too.
Like in Red Dead Redemption 2
, the other best open-world game ever created before this arrived, there’s a sense of belonging and impact in Tears of the Kingdom. And you need that. This is a more challenging outing than Breath of the Wild. That Upheaval mentioned earlier, it released a kind of miasma on the world that has aged all the game’s weapons, so nothing has a long shelf life. This promotes the use of Fuse -- one of your abilities that lets you put, say, a car tyre on the end of a piece of bone to then wield as a weapon. This means you need to dig deep to get the best stuff. Treasure hunts and gear sets are big here -- likely lifted from other open-world concepts, but wholly Nintendo in this instance, while aspects of the game-world such as weather and climate severely limit your expansion into them, lest you prepare yourself.
"The game features a loyalty system for its stables, as if they’re not the only game in town (they are), but this is true carrot on a string game-design because netting certain numbers of points gives you rewards...”
And I haven’t even talked about Pony Points! The game features a loyalty system for its stables, as if they’re not the only game in town (they are), but this is true carrot on a string game-design because netting certain numbers of points gives you rewards, and so you better believe that’s how I’ve spent much of my review time. In fact, there came a moment when I had to shift aside the interesting visual points of interest, or the obsessive Shrine-hunting, in favour of just progressing things…
Make no mistake, this is a 100+ hour experience for those willing to milk every aspect of it.
And in the interest of remaining spoiler-free we’ve avoided a lot here. Combat is even more improved thanks to Fuse and being able to utilise other parts of the world in creative ways, but enemies also feel
smarter and more robust. Puzzles in Shrines and in the greater world are fantastic and all of the new beasties are great. To the point you need to scale your expectation of engagement, because you will get smashed in the early parts of the game.
It’s also a tech marvel. Draw distance and lighting are very, very important aspects to this new experience, and they shine through here as pillars of a game-engine that has been wrung dry of every capable ounce of awesome. Of course it’s not on the same visual plane as many other games on other platforms, but it doesn’t matter here because Nintendo made work what needed
to work and the end result is simply stunning and incredible.
There’s so much more I could share, and there’s so much more I’ll learn once the die hard community has claimed the game, rightly, as its own. (And has exploited it to degrees even Ninty wasn’t expecting.) But know this, at the very least: I get the sense that this is it. This is now the The Legend of Zelda blueprint, and from here on out, we live in this
version of Hyrule, and I couldn’t be happier about that. This is both a true sequel and a hoisted flagpole on what this series is and where it’s going into the future.
And I love it.