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The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom hands-on: A sequel with endless creative potential

I can't stop thinking about all the wacky fusions and vehicles I want to make.

Photo by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Making a follow-up to Breath of the Wild (BoTW) is an almost impossible task. Not only was the first Zelda game on the Nintendo Switch an instant classic, it’s also one of the best games in an incredibly storied franchise. To make things even more difficult, Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom features the same basic graphics, map layout and general mechanics as its predecessor, which can sometimes make follow-ups feel more like an expansion pack instead of a true sequel. But after getting a chance to play a hands-on preview build of Tears of the Kingdom, I think Nintendo might have just pulled it off by making a game that expands upon the original and then blasting it into the sky (literally) with a new world of creation.

Now before we get into the preview itself, I should mention that this build didn’t touch on any of Tears of the Kingdom’s (ToTK) story. The demo strictly focused on showing off Link’s new abilities in a small area that had me battling through a Bokoblin camp before exploring some of the game's new sky islands. Now this may sound a bit contrived, but it makes a ton of sense because where ToTK shines is when you start combining Link’s new skills – Ascend, Recall, Fuse and Ultrahand – with his returning arsenal of items and weapons.

One neat thing about the Ascend ability is that once you get to the top, you have the option of jumping out or going back down to where you came from.
One neat thing about the Ascend ability is that once you get to the top, you have the option of jumping out or going back down in case you emerge next to a bunch of enemies. (Nintendo)

I’m going to start with Ascend and Recall because they are the most straightforward of the four. Ascend is a simple movement ability that lets you move through rock and other materials. The caveat is that, like its name implies, you can only go up and to make the ability work, you need to have some sort of ceiling relatively close above your head. It’s a great way to get to the top of a mountain or tower when you’re exploring a cavern or room below, and from there you can use your glider to soar to other locations. I should also mention that while the general topography is largely the same, Nintendo has altered a lot of previous locations for TotK while adding a bunch of new content with those sky islands.

Meanwhile, Recall is a lot like the Stasis ability from BotW, but in reverse. By targeting an object, you can then rewind time and return it to where it came from. This allows you to use falling rocks as elevators (which is super convenient for getting to sky islands), though you can also use it offensively as well. For example, in that aforementioned camp the baddies tried rolling a boulder at me, only for it to backfire when I used Recall to send the rock straight back at them as if Link was bowling for Bokoblins. Trust me, it’s even more satisfying than it sounds, and it only gets better when you can combo Recall with other attacks like bombs and arrows, which brings us to Fuse.

In a lot of ways, Fuse makes me feel sorry for other developers because it's an ability that’s wildly fun but seems like a nightmare to program due to all the possible combos. In short, it lets you combine pretty much any one item – from plants to stuff like bombs – with any one of your weapons to often surprising outcomes. In Nintendo’s gameplay demo, you can see series producer Eijii Aonuma demonstrating a few combos, but when you finally start messing around with things on your own, the results can be astounding. You can fuse various crystals to arrows to unleash powerful elemental attacks. Alternatively, I fused a frond to a stick to create a hilarious mid-range air attack that feels like you're beating someone up with the fan from Smash Bros. And because you can fuse items lying on the ground with one of your weapons in the middle of a fight, it encourages you to be resourceful during battle.

There are also a lot of handy utility combos like fusing a light-emitting plant to an arrow to illuminate caves and such. Not only does this give spelunking a moody almost Dark Souls-like vibe at times, it’s also an expansion to gameplay as lighting has a direct effect on how you experience new areas. And if that wasn’t enough, combining items also increases the durability and strength of the base items, so you’re incentivized to try out a wide variety of fusions.

The new Recall ability lets you reverse the course of an object, sending it back where it came from sometimes to devastating results.

But the ability with the biggest impact is Ultrahand, which sounds silly especially when you consider that it comes from what looks like an ancient version of the iconic Power Glove. Ultrahand allows you to build machines using nearby materials and from what I’ve played the possibilities are endless. It reminds of the old Skyrim meme that goes “See that mountain? You can climb it,” except that in TotK’s case, it’s more like “Imagine a vehicle? You can build it.”

Contraptions can be as simple as a raft or as complicated as a plane, and by using special Zonai devices which can take the form of fans, rockets and more along with some sort of built-in batteries (the demo didn’t explain where or how to upgrade power sources), you can use these devices to traverse the world like Aladdin on a magic carpet ride. But it’s better because the carpet is of your design.

I wonder what would happen if you fused a rocket to a shield?
I wonder what would happen if you fused a rocket to a shield? (Nintendo)

On some level, I have to imagine that Ultrahand was partly inspired by all the crazy contraptions created by players in BotW, and now Nintendo is doubling down on that creativity. Even without doing anything related to the story, I can already see myself getting totally lost in a world of my own creation. For example, in the demo area there was a conveniently placed pile of wooden boards and wheels. So naturally I took 10 minutes to arrange them into a crude war wagon. Then I attached a steering wheel, fans in back for propulsion and flamethrowers up front for extra damage, only to have the whole thing burn up as soon as I drove into some tall grass. It was such an anti-climatic (but hilarious) end to my newly constructed vehicle and I couldn’t wait to do it again. But next time with some metal parts.

The one downside to Ultrahand (if there is one) is that it definitely takes some time to get used to the controls. It’s almost like Nintendo dropped a streamlined version of Besiege into Tears of the Kingdom, which is great because you get a lot of freedom on how to put things together. However, moving and rotating each piece so that it attaches properly to your vehicle requires some patience. Thankfully, for those less interested in building their own vehicles, I can confirm that there is a streamlined way of making new contraptions with a couple simple button taps. (I can’t say much more right now.)

In Tears of the Kingdom, you can use the Ultrahand ability to create all sorts of both ground and air-based vehicles.
In Tears of the Kingdom, you can use the Ultrahand ability to create all sorts of both ground and air-based vehicles. (Nintendo)

After my 75-minute demo session, all I could think about were the endless number combos and possibilities I wanted to try. It feels like Nintendo has really leaned into the sandbox nature of the previous Zelda game, and even without touching the story I can already tell how easy it will be to get sidetracked by Tears of the Kingdom’s creative opportunities. But my biggest takeaway is that coming from Breath of the Wild – which was a game so good it made me rethink how I score video games – Tears of the Kingdom is already giving off similar vibes of magic and wonder. In a lot ways, Tears of the Kingdom could be what Majora’s Mask is to The Ocarina of Time. You have the same engine, the same map, and the same basic mechanics, but with building and fusing instead of playful masks and that divisive three-day cycle. Some of Tears of the Kindgom’s new abilities might not be your cup of tea, but even so, it’s already feeling like a must-play.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom goes on sale on May 12th for the Nintendo Switch.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom - Nintendo Switch (US Version)