Yes, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom takes place in the same Hyrule, the graphics look almost identical, and the story features the same characters. But that’s because… it’s a sequel! Everything in TotK is presented in an entirely different context than BotW. The gameplay mechanics have been advanced and perfected into Link’s new skillset. The storyline is more immediate, and both new and old characters are just as endearing as in the previous title. And on top of all that, they added two entirely new world maps to explore. Tears of the Kingdom is a sequel to one of the greatest games of all time, and a damn fine sequel at that. Though it lacks some of the novelty and sense of wonder of BotW, it more than makes up for that with extraordinary gameplay, terrific characters, and some of the most jaw-dropping moments I’ve ever experienced in gaming.
Set several years after the events of Breath of the Wild, the Kingdom of Hyrule has finally begun to recover from the aftermath of Calamity Ganon. Guardians and their terrifying piano accompaniment no longer roam the wilds, allowing new settlements to grow and thrive. During an expedition into the ruins beneath Hyrule Castle, Link and Zelda accidentally release the Demon King, a powerful sorcerer trapped under the castle for thousands upon thousands of years. After nearly destroying the Master Sword and mortally injuring Link, the Demon King sends the castle flying up into the sky while Link falls into the depths below, and Zelda vanishes in a cloud of magic. Suddenly waking up an indeterminate amount of time later, Link finds himself on a massive island in the sky, significantly weakened and wielding a new magical arm. To once again save Hyrule from the ultimate evil, Link must learn to master his new abilities, restore the Master Sword, and rescue Zelda!
Though I very much enjoyed the story of BotW, it did suffer from the sense that it was the afterparty of everything that happened 100 years earlier. Link was essentially picking up the pieces of the calamity, trying to save what remained of Hyrule. The story is much more active in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Hyrule’s recovery means much more is at stake. Seeking out memories of the past still plays a significant role in the game, but now these memories provide helpful context to your current quest rather than answers to a mystery from over a century earlier. Though the past events inform current ones, there is no doubt that the danger exists here and now, pushing Link forward to solve the problem in the present.
Well, I say “pushing,” but the reality is that Link is still the most distractible man in Hyrule, fully abandoning his world-saving quest at the mere possibility of a Korok puzzle or random shrine. Keeping to the critical path in this game is, arguably, the wrong way to play it. Instead, you should check out every point of interest you spot on your quest. And thanks to the addition of dozens of sky islands, caves, wells, and an entirely new map the same size as the overworld, you’ll never be short of things to investigate.
The prominent new feature in the marketing of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is the sky islands. These sky-based archipelagos are only a fraction of the size of Hyrule, but are packed with an enormous amount of content. Two of the four dungeons are in the sky, along with various labyrinths, skydiving challenges, tons of shrines, and much more. Learning how to get to these islands and navigating between them using your Ultrahand and your ever-dependable paraglider is a joy!
And then we head into the Depths! Nintendo kept quiet about this underworld map before Tears of the Kingdom released, making it a massive surprise when I discovered an entirely new world under Hyrule. The Depths are cloaked in darkness, with a poisonous substance called Gloom blanketing most of the land and monsters. The Depths is not somewhere you should spend a ton of time in the early game, as the monsters are monstrously more difficult, and you require tons of resources such as arrows and brightbloom seeds to illuminate in the dark. But if you’re anything like me, you will explore it anyway because the gameplay loop of seeking out Lightroots to bring light to the darkness is irresistible. My only complaint is that there isn’t much story content in the Depths outside of occasional fights with the Yiga Clan, a cult of Demon Lord-worshipping nutcases dead-set on eliminating Link and Zelda. That said, there is so much depth to the Depths that Nintendo could have set the entire game down there, and I still would have been satisfied with stumbling around in the darkness for 100 hours!
We all became attached to Link’s powers in BotW, but let’s be honest: aside from Bombs and Magnesis, the others were only useful in specific circumstances. Link’s new abilities, on the other ultrahand, are always useful, providing multiple ways to change the world around you. The true brilliance of Tears of the Kingdom is that Nintendo intentionally gives you four distinct abilities capable of breaking the game, then makes them essential parts of the gameplay loop. All logic says that making what are essentially developer tools into key abilities shouldn’t work, but my God, it works beautifully.
At first, Recall might seem like a gimmick until you start experimenting with it. Reversing the trajectory of any item makes for some ingenious puzzle solutions while also reducing frustration when a solving attempt doesn’t work. Rather than losing one of your creations down a hole or as it flies off in the distance, you can simply Recall it back to you and try again.
Ascend feels more like a quality-of-life improvement than an ability, allowing you to fly up through any surface above you. In theory, this should have cut down on the amount of climbing I needed to do, but in reality, I kept forgetting I had the damn ability. The number of times I backtracked through a cave or climbed a mountain, not remembering that I could have just ascended my way up, drove me crazy. That said, once Ascend finally clicks with you, it’s an invaluable navigation tool, becoming the ultimate shortcut!
There is, of course, another method to getting to the top of that mountain, and that’s the Ultrahand ability (I still wish they had the guts to call it the Power Glove). With it, you can attach any two objects together, then attach that to a third object, and so on, until you’ve built the Hyrulian equivalent of a supersonic jet. By adding Zonai devices (high-tech tools left behind by TotK’s ancient civilization) to your creations, you can build flying machines, rocket launchers, and various other tools of death and destruction. If you ever want your imagination humbled, go to YouTube or elsewhere to see the incredible contraptions players have created.
Finally, we have Fuse, which allows you to attach any item to your weapon, shield, or arrows. On the surface, this sounds pretty straightforward. Your sword sucks? Attach a rock. BAM, you have a hammer. But it’s only when you start to experiment that you figure out the incredible potential of this ability. Attach a bomb to your shield, start to shield surf, and a controlled explosion will send you flying into the air. Attach elemental items to your arrows to create elemental arrows. Monster parts suddenly become remarkably useful as you can attach a horn to a spear, and suddenly, you may be able to deal enough damage to take down a three-headed Gleeok. Yeah, there are a few duds out there. For example, no one needs a meat-sword. But playing around with Fuse is one of the true joys of the game.
TotK has the same problem as many direct sequels: How do you create a challenge throughout the game when the last one ended with the hero more powerful than the Goddess Hylia? Nintendo fell back on the standard play of Alucard-ing (or Samus-ing, if you want to stay first-party) Link back to three hearts and a stick after giving you a quick taste of having 30 hearts and the Master Sword. However, since they also gave him brand-new core abilities, I don’t mind reverting him to ground zero. This “loss of power” gimmick can be found at the beginning of almost every sequel for a reason: it works as a gameplay function, even if it is a tired trope.
Of course, there are times when you could really use those 30 hearts because the overall balance of the combat can be a tad awkward, an unfortunate and common affliction in most open-world games. At times, trying to eliminate a small group of Bokoblins can be way more challenging than fighting a Lynel, so long as one of them is a Silver Bokoblin. Generally, I found myself dying to random enemies in Tears of the Kingdom way more often than in Breath of the Wild. Though this encourages you to use various potions and food to get damage or defense buffs, the routine nature of these relatively easy but lengthy fights can become a little frustrating.
In BotW, Nintendo departed from many traditional Zelda conventions, including having unique items in dungeons required to complete that dungeon. Arguably, this was necessary, as moving to an open-world setting made this linear approach impossible without hurting the flow of the game. Instead, BotW used shrines as mini-dungeons that featured many of the same trappings as previous Zelda games: puzzles and combat encounters. But since you could complete every shrine with the four core abilities right after the opening, many folks felt that BotW was missing that classic Zelda-style feeling of progression.
In The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, the developers addressed this problem in an ingenious way. Yes, shrines are back, and you can still complete all of them with your four core abilities, but more traditional Zelda-style dungeons are back as well! Rather than acquiring a unique item in each one, however, you gain a companion with a unique ability. Their Sage ability is necessary to complete each respective dungeon, then stays with you after you abscond away from the dungeon with your heart container in tow.
The one complaint I have about these abilities is that an avatar of their owner follows you around while their power is “activated.” At first, this is fine. Hey, a little company on your quest can be nice! But by the time you’ve acquired all of the sages’ powers, things start to feel a little crowded on camera (especially one companion whose camera-obscuring size led me to permanently shut them off).
On the surface, Tears of the Kingdom looks darn near identical to BotW. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, though. Given that it’s a direct sequel, a change in graphical style would have been jarring. Aside from some enhanced particle effects, you aren’t going to feel like you’re playing a next-gen Zelda game because you aren’t. You’re playing a direct sequel to a game with one of the most unique and breathtaking art styles in the entire series. Turn off the part of your brain looking for 4K textures, and you’ll be fine.
Frankly, Nintendo must have made a wish with the Triforce to get TotK to run so smoothly on the aging Switch hardware. Though there is some pop-in with environments and characters, it’s barely noticeable and seldom distracting when it happens. Given the limited graphical power of the system, it’s always astonishing to be launched hundreds of feet into the air and see the stunning entirety of Hyrule below you. And even more stunning to dive from the heavens, fly through a crack in the surface of Hyrule, and find yourself in the Depths, all without a single loading screen or catastrophic drop in framerate.
Musically, Tears of the Kingdom also pulls inspiration from its predecessor. Though many prefer their Zelda entries with massive orchestral scores, I prefer Nintendo’s current approach. Music is used sparingly and appropriately. I never found myself ever getting tired of a specific song or theme. Instead, each one became familiar, putting me into the right mindset the second I heard it.
Many tunes, such as the stable theme, are precisely as you remember them, though occasionally with embellishments. For example, one side quest has you assembling a traveling band, and they “join in” with the stable theme, adding additional orchestration to the cozy tune. The overworld music is still sparse, punctuated by heart-pulsing themes that kick in when you run into enemies such as Lynels and Hinoxes.
There is also a ton of additional music here that complements the sky and Depths environments in the same way as the overworld themes. When you’re in the sky, horns lend the music a soaring feel while dark and foreboding themes perfectly accent the gloomy depths of the underworld. Personally, I’m thrilled with how music is used in this game, and I can’t wait until the official soundtrack is released.
If Breath of the Wild is one of the greatest games of all time, and Tears of the Kingdom improves on it in every way, does that also make TotK one of the greatest games of all time? That’s a question to ask in a few years when we have more perspective. But right now, I can confidently say The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom will be one of the best games released in 2023, and will stay with me as one of my favorite video game experiences ever.