The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Review – Review

one upping a masterpiece.

Throughout the lead-up to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, I marveled at its long development time of six years. Given its apparent re-use of many assets from its predecessor much like Majora’s Mask or the Oracle duology, many expected a quick turnaround. But as I watched the credits roll by after spending about 80 hours with Tears of the Kingdom, I had a realization. Six years was far too conservative an estimate. Tears of the Kingdom is the direct result of twelve years of continuous development. More so than any other Zelda game or honestly any other sequel, Tears of the Kingdom picks up the torch left by Breath of the Wild and just keeps running. The result is a sequel to one of the most celebrated games of all time that makes that much lauded predecessor look like an early beta by comparison.

Tears of the Kingdom picks up a few years after the conclusion of Breath of the Wild. Back in 2017 I felt that Breath of the Wild’s ending, even with its unlockable post credits scene, was extremely abrupt. Rejoining Link and Zelda as Hyrule begins to rebuild not only serves as an excellent cold open for Tears of the Kingdom, but provided some long delayed satisfaction for what Link accomplished in Breath of the Wild. We find that the people of Hyrule have begun to grow sick, due to a strange gloom rising from the depths beneath the castle. As Link and Zelda go to investigate, they uncover ruins beneath the castle, pointing back to the long-dead race, the Zonai. The Zonai themselves were set up in Breath of the Wild, as a powerful ancient civilization from Hyrule’s distant past. Proceeding forward Link and Zelda eventually stumble upon a tomb, containing the body of one of The Legend of Zelda’s most iconic villains, Ganondorf, though perhaps not quite as we’ve seen him before. All of this happens within the opening 10 minutes of Tears of the Kingdom. That’s where I’ll leave the story specifics to avoid any actual spoilers.

Tears of the Kingdom’s most obvious gameplay shift in relation to Breath of the Wild, is in Link’s new abilities. Gone is the Sheikah Slate and in its place are four new skills offered by the new arm that has been grafted onto Link. Some of these feel inspired by abilities in Breath of the Wild, while others are entirely new. Ultrahand and Recall bring to mind Magnesis and Stasis respectively, but their applications are wildly different. Ultrahand can pick up any non-living, dynamic object in the environment and freely manipulate it in 3D space. Objects can be rotated in 45 degree increments along static X and Y axes. These can then be connected to any other dynamic object to create everything from bridges, to vehicles. Add in the powered Zonai objects such as wheels, fans, rockets, and more, and the sheer volume of options Tears of the Kingdom offers you, feel like they’re daring you to break the game. In fact that seems as if it was the mantra behind all of these abilities. Recal, allows you to rewind the motion of any non-living dynamic object such as falling rocks or a log floating down a river. Fuse allows you to combine any weapon or shield in your inventory with, you guessed it, any non-living dynamic object. Want to put a spear on the end of your spear to make a ridiculously long spear, do it! Want to attach a bomb flower to your shield? That seems like a bad idea but nobody is going to stop you. Finally ascend allows Link to shoot straight up through any object that provides a flat surface. Can you use this to break the rules in dungeons and wind up in a boss room too early? Of course it does and I did!

Unlike Breath of the Wild, which provided you with a large sandbox but restricted the unique mechanics of the game when engaging with Divine Beasts, Tears of the Kingdom never says “no you can’t do that here”. There’s a spot in one dungeon that I’m still not sure how I was supposed to reach, but I’m guessing it wasn’t by climbing up a wall to a small ledge, ascending through another small ledge, then sneaking may way around the wall until I found an opening to the room. Did the game care that I did that? Not a bit. Tears of the Kingdom is a game that always offers you a “correct” solution but is perfectly happy to see you come up with new ideas. What’s incredible is that nothing I ever did seemed to catch the game off guard. I never had a moment of realizing “oh the game doesn’t want me to be here” or had an event fail to activate because I had skipped some trigger. I firmly believe this is only possible in a game where the world and mechanics have had 12 years to mature. Tears of the Kingdom can’t exist without Breath of the Wild because Breath of the Wild is just Tears of the Kingdom six years ago. It feels ridiculous to expound on what seems like nothing more than the definition of a sequel but this is a sequel designed in a way that I’ve never seen before. It’s going to sound absolutely ridiculous until after you play both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom but when you do I think you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

But beyond these core mechanics, Tears of the Kingdom also improves on virtually everything else. As already alluded to, dungeons, while by no means the strongest in the series, feel more in line with what you’d expect out of a Zelda dungeon. Regional theming, unique hooks, and boss fights that are full of fun spectacle. Most importantly they don’t restrict your ability to climb or use your abilities. This does have the side effect of dungeons being inherently nonlinear which I felt prevented them from having any sort of arch. Some of the best dungeons in the series such as the Ancient Cistern from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, almost tell a story as you work your way through them. Dungeons in Tears of the Kingdom are more like a series of several challenges that can be approached in any order which inevitably unlocks a large door behind which you’ll fight a boss.

But perhaps the most unique element of these dungeons is that Link does not take them on alone. In each one Link will team up with another character. These characters each have their own unique ability which will be leveraged heavily in their dungeon. Upon completion of a dungeon these characters can then join Link as he continues on his adventure. As you progress through the story you’ll quickly find yourself with what essentially amounts to a full party of characters, lending you their unique abilities and participating in combat. It changes the feel of combat significantly as they can help with crowd control, or even draw the attention of large boss characters away from you as you move into a more advantageous position. My one issue with the majority of the dungeons and key story beats, is that they closely mirror what was present in Breath of the Wild. As you pick up your first four objective markers at the start of the game you’ll immediately recognize them as being the same as Breath of the Wild. This alleviates somewhat in the back half of the game, but I couldn’t help but feel that Tears of the Kingdom’s story was extremely subservient to what had been done before. Rather than making use of unique, underutilized locations such as Akkala Citadel or the colosseum, Link will instead revisit the Rito, Gerudo, Zora, and Goron just like last time.

The world itself is far more expanded than pre-launch marketing would lead you to believe. While the bones of Hyrule are re-used from Breath of the Wild, the landscape feels very different thanks to events that occur early on in the story. But beyond that, the explorable area of Hyrule has more than doubled in size. The sky islands make up a small chunk of this, offering some small puzzles and challenges, but the real meat of the new content is found deep beneath Hyrule, in the new area called The Depths. This is a pitch black region that spans the entire overworld map. The Depths are endlessly fun to explore and often deeply unsettling. Here, you’ll seek out Light Roots which serve as fast travel points and light sources. As you explore you’ll find ancient and haunting Zonai ruins lurking in the darkness, along with a few other surprises. Unique monsters and the aforementioned gloom are everywhere and when damaged by either, Link will not only lose a heart’s worth of health, but that heart will not be able to be refilled until Link returns to sunlight or consumes specific foods.

One of my few complaints about Breath of the Wild was in its music. While it absolutely had moments of brilliance, this was largely relegated to towns. While I know some, including our own Neal Ronaghan who reviewed Breath of the Wild, quite enjoyed it, I found it underwhelming, and full of dissonant and short musical loops that grew repetitive without an interesting hook to make them endearing. Tears of the Kingdom is a noticeable improvement in this regard though not a complete success. The overworld still largely uses the exact same music as Breath of the Wild, but new locations such as the dungeons are excellent. These employ the same strategy as Hyrule Castle did in Breath of the Wild in that their composition naturally evolves as you progress through them, building to a grand face off. Some returning songs, such as the basic field combat music do get some nice re-arrangements as well.

Technical performance is impressive if far from perfect. This is a massive, open world, physics driven, immersive sim that is running on a handheld game system from 2017 built on a chipset from 2014. Tears of the Kingdom is an absolute feat of engineering that manages to deliver solid image quality and generally solid performance about 90% of the time. As covered in our pre-launch technical analysis, docked mode targets, and largely maintains 900p, upsampled reasonably well to 1080p. Handheld meanwhile aims for 720p and similarly manages to maintain it the vast majority of the time. It targets 30 frames per second and during general exploration this is maintained without real issue. Naturally however, due to the incredibly fluid nature of Tears of the Kingdom’s gameplay, dips will occur as things get more complex. Lots of enemies or physics calculations on screen will drop the frame rate straight down to 20 frames per second. It is a very noticeable hitch that, while not abundantly common, is extremely obvious when it does occur. That being said, while I can’t act like that sort of drop isn’t impactful, we also have to keep in mind exactly what Tears of the Kingdom is doing. It isn’t ideal but it’s also extremely understandable.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is, in most ways, a pure improvement over Breath of the Wild. Beyond what I’ve mentioned here are countless small quality of life improvements and features that could easily turn this review into a multi-hour long analysis. All that being said, while it is on almost every level a success, there are a few areas in which Tears of the Kingdom feels terrified to deviate too far from the runaway success that was Breath of the Wild. The story is largely predictable. Yes there are a few interesting twists, but it by no means hits the highs of the stories in Skyward Sword or Majora’s Mask. The dungeons are themselves a massive improvement over the previous title but would still rank lowly compared to the rest of the series. But here’s the thing, that’s fine. For any minor faults, Tears of the Kingdom is still a game that manages to dwarf what many would consider one of the best games ever made. In that sense the only criticism of Tears of the Kingdom I can really offer is that in a few nitpicky areas it is still only as good as one of history’s most celebrated games. And beyond those few things, is a game that invites the player to engage with it to a degree I’ve never seen before. This is a game that revels in you outsmarting it. This is a game that shows the value of a game being given time to cook and of a studio that has supported a consistent group of developers working on the same series for decades. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is not a game anyone else could make. This is why you bought your Switch, even if you didn’t know it at the time.

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