The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom – Reaching New Heights
Open your eyes…
Wake up, Link.
From the moment we first heard these words at the beginning of Breath of the Wild in 2017, the scope of what we thought was possible from a Zelda game was forever changed. Gone were the days of linear temples and limitations, and here were the days of an open world and endless possibilities. Some welcomed the change, others despaired, but there’s no denying that it threw the formula out the window and created something new. Six years later, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is standing on the shoulders of a giant, and it uses that solid foundation to soar to new heights.
Beginning “some time” after the events of Breath of the Wild, this latest story begins with Link and Zelda investigating a series of ruins beneath Hyrule Castle. A mysterious essence called the “gloom” has been appearing across Hyrule, and despite being told not to enter the ruins, Zelda feels like doing so might hold the answers to the gloom’s origins. What she and Link find instead is a collection of murals depicting ‘the Imprisoning War’, an event long in Hyrule’s past that depicts a war between a demon and his forces, and Hyrule’s other races, along with members of an ancient race called the Zonai.
In investigating deeper into the ruins, they come across the body of what may be the demon from legend, and from there things quickly begin to spiral in a downwards (and also upwards) direction. As the ground shakes and the castle begins to rise, the demon is freed, Zelda is plunged into the darkness and Link seems set to follow, but is saved by a ghostly arm reaching out to take hold and save him. When he awakes, guided by a figure he soon learns to be one of the Zonai, he finds that his arm has been replaced by the same one that saved him – and that it is the key to accessing a whole new set of abilities.
What follows is an epic journey across, over, and below Hyrule, with a story that feels like more of a return to a classic Zelda form. Link soon learns that he and Zelda were missing for some time following an event that those in Hyrule are calling ‘The Upheaval’, and that he must play a large part in finding out what caused the event, and also in finding the lost princess. Many familiar faces from Breath of the Wild (and, if you’re a fan of the series, perhaps earlier games) reappear – albeit a few years older – and after helping you save the world the first time, they’re ready to do it again. People cannot catch a break in Hyrule.
Much of the game does feel like a direct successor to the previous entry in the series, but it also seems that Nintendo have listened to some criticisms of their departures from the formula. The open world that blew everyone’s minds in Breath of the Wild is still very much a feature of the new game, and has been expanded to include both the skies, and – in a move Nintendo have kept a little more under wraps – the depths below. By yeeting himself up into the sky through various means, Link can access ‘Sky Islands’, which hold remnants of Zonai civilisation and many unique resources for combatting the evil below. Exploring the skies feels like a completely different experience, and the new focus on upward mobility does give the series a lift.
The depths, conversely, are a gloomy place (in more ways than one), with secrets about the past hidden in every dark corner. Traversing the depths is done by leaping into huge chasms that have opened up in Hyrule, and risking coming into contact with the gloom – an ominous, life-sucking ooze that can eat away your hearts and render you unable to heal yourself until you return to the surface. Enemies in the depths feel basically like more dangerous versions of their surface-dwelling counterparts, but exploring the dark below forms a key part of putting a stop to the evil in Hyrule, so it’s a risk you’ll have to take.
The surface of Hyrule itself does have areas covered in gloom, as well as atmospheric effects that require special equipment to mitigate, just like in Breath of the Wild. There is, however, a notable difference – the absence of Guardians – that makes running around the world feel a little bit safer. You’re free to catch horses, climb mountains, and explore the plains without worrying about suddenly being lasered to death. There are new threats, of course, but I spent far less time being concerned that something was going to spring to life and jumpscare me before it killed me in one hit.
Where the game really sets itself apart is the way in which Link uses his new abilities to interact with the world around him. It’s no secret that crafting plays a huge role in how he navigates the world, but it isn’t always the only way to solve a problem. When he’s presented with his new arm, Link is given an ability called ‘Ultrahand’ that allows him to pick up objects in his environment and fuse them together, meaning he can create things like rafts to carry items across lakes, or structures to climb to higher places. Not all objects can be fused, and many surfaces in the world can’t act as bases for these new structures, so it usually requires some creative thinking to craft exactly the right object for the job.
But Link isn’t only working with stationary objects. As he investigates Zonai ruins and discovers Zonai technology, he comes across Zonai devices in the world that can be used in fusions to various effect. A fan, for example, can be attached to the back of a raft to turn it into a motorboat, or it can be used to create an upward draft for Link to float on with his paraglider. A wheel might be used to create a vehicle to ride on, or it may be used to transport something across a gap. The range of Zonai devices available to you will grow as you discover new areas, with each region having its own collection of relevant tools. Some of them can be found laying around in the world and will often give a clue as to how a puzzle might be solved, but they can also be obtained from a machine in a portable form. The machine is essentially a gacha, and it feels a little weird that there’s a gacha machine in a Zelda game, but these machines will give you a random assortment of devices depending on where they’re located, and you can build up quite the stockpile of handy tools to have at your disposal in a pinch.
How you play the game will largely determine how you use these tools. In most cases, situations that require you to use a certain object will have that object placed nearby, acting as a hint that you’re likely to need it. It often feels like they’re the discarded materials of people that have solved this problem before you, which makes the world feel lived-in. Though solving a puzzle wasn’t always easy, I never felt like the game was putting me into a situation without the tools to solve it – and that encouraged me to persist when I might have otherwise given up.
The shrines, which now have a different aesthetic but keep the same functions, feel like they’ve had a similar rework. They feel as if they have a better flow to them, with each one often guiding you through a series of mini-puzzles that teach you how you’re going to solve the bigger one. This direction, along with some clever naming, makes the shrine designs feel much tighter. Remembering that a shrine has the word ‘upwards’ in the name might remind you to use another of Link’s powers, ‘Ascend’, which lets him travel upwards through solid structures, for example. It’s almost like solving a cryptic crossword, in the most satisfying way.
Though the weapon degradation system remains (much to the chagrin of many), weapons can now be made a little more durable using Link’s ‘Fuse’ ability. It functions similarly to the Ultrahand, but lets him fuse those objects to his weapons (creating double-weapons) or his shield, giving them different properties. While you can fuse them together with useful objects like monster parts to give them homing or elemental properties, or mushrooms to make them bounce or blow enemies away, the most joyful thing about this ability is that it combines the names of the two objects together and makes them look very silly. I have never felt glee like the glee I felt looking at the ‘Long-Thick-Stick-Stick’ I had just created and wiggling it around in the air. Nintendo don’t seem to have thought through the fact that this means weapons will often just be clipping through the ground, which is a small lack of polish that surprised me, but really, who cares? My Long-Thick-Stick-Stick can’t be tamed, and I won’t be giving it up for any graphical reasons.
Along with Link’s own abilities (some of which I’ll leave you to discover on your own), he can also call upon the power of his allies to help him on his journey. In Breath of the Wild, this was more abstract – he gained abilities bestowed upon him by his companions. In Tears of the Kingdom, he simply takes those allies along with him. ‘Avatar’ versions of several characters will follow him around, assisting in fights and using abilities unique to their races to help unlock new pathways and provide you with general support. It makes battles far more manageable (your companions can really deal some big damage), offers new strategies for approaching fights, and it also just makes Link’s journey feel far less lonely. It’s one thing to know you have someone on your side, supporting you from a distance, and another to have them right there by your side. It can become a little chaotic once this follower number grows, and it’s easy to accidentally select the wrong ability, but if this is a problem for you, the companions can be toggled on and off. For me, having my buddies running around beside me, ready to be called upon with a button prompt that said “Let’s go!” was worth any slight inconvenience it might have also caused.
It would be easy to write several thousand more words about this game and still not scratch the surface of what it has to offer. Though I completed most of the main quests before writing this review, I still have many hours left of exploration left to do, running around Hyrule and helping people with problems big and small – but it isn’t something I wanted to rush. This game, like its predecessor, shouldn’t be rushed, it should be savoured. Gallivanting about the big, open world, getting distracted and wandering off on your own adventures is half the fun. But it was also one of the ways in which Breath of the Wild fell short for many. It was lacking that linear progression, that drip feed of skills, and that clear ‘hero’s journey’ path for many. Tears of the Kingdom does a much better job of opening the world up and filling it with endless possibilities, while also gently nudging you in the direction it wants to go. It will suggest a path while allowing you to stray from it, and while you can choose to forge your own, it isn’t a necessity. The pacing of the story and abilities feels better that it did in Breath of the Wild, and the story feels more rooted in classic Zelda lore. Dungeons are themed to their locations again, and the environments and puzzle-solving both feel better this time around too. Tonally, it feels like Skyward Sword, with nods to Ocarina of Time, and everything before and between. It’s hard to explain, but playing this felt more like playing a Zelda game than playing Breath of the Wild did.
It just feels like Zelda again.
Tears of the Kingdom was voted the most anticipated game of the year, and was the sequel to a game that many use as a benchmark for quality years after its release – it obviously had huge expectations to live up to. For me, it surpassed them. I had reservations about the new systems and how they’d fit into a series I’ve loved for most of my life without straying further from the heart of what made that series great, but I needn’t have been concerned. Everything that’s been added here only made Tears of the Kingdom feel more like a Zelda game brought into the modern gaming landscape in the right way. It’s truly a masterpiece on an epic scale that deserves to be applauded for years to come.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code kindly provided by Nintendo Australia.