Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild don’t come along often. The 2017 title came 31 years into the franchise’s history and somehow felt familiar while simultaneously remixing or entirely removing core tenets of the series. To put it mildly, the changes worked. Breath of the Wild is the biggest-selling Zelda game of all time and was an unqualified success with critics and players alike.
What in the world do you do for an encore?
Internally, Nintendo decided to get right on that, announcing a direct sequel was in development only two years after Breath of the Wild arrived. The result is The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, a game that is not a complete reinvention. Instead, after successfully blowing up the Zelda format, Nintendo is giving players even more – more of Hyrule to explore, and more freedom to dream up how to tackle the many, many challenges the game throws at them.
Perhaps even more than its predecessor, though, Tears of the Kingdom demands patience. There’s an overwhelming amount of things to do, locations to see, puzzles to solve and enemies to defeat here. And as I tried to play through it as quickly as possible, to see as much of the world as I could for this review, I ended up more frustrated than satisfied. Fortunately, I then decided to slow down and indulge my curiosity, a decision that made the game far more rewarding and made me eager to explore at my own pace, without worrying about getting to the end.
Tears of the Kingdom kicks things off in a fashion that’ll be familiar to anyone who played Breath of the Wild. A quick prologue reveals the dark wizard Ganondorf and a calamity known as the Upheaval – events that leave Link grievously injured and Zelda missing (stop me if you’ve heard this one). The twist comes when Link awakes in a sky kingdom populated by ancient and powerful technology, courtesy of the Zonai clan. Lest you think, like me, that Nintendo just invented a new mysterious culture with a new set of powers to replace the Guardians from Breath of the Wild, the Zonai were actually briefly mentioned in the previous game.
The first few hours of the game take place entirely in the sky, a fascinating setting with a host of new challenges and enemies. But here the game retreads the prior entry here as you need to journey to a handful of shrines to get a new set of abilities, just like you did on the Hyrule plateau in Breath of the Wild. Once that’s done, you’re able to descend to Hyrule proper and get exploring.
Tears of the Kingdom gently guides you towards a few locations to get you started – but you can go anywhere you want, if you’re intrepid enough to try. The game definitely doesn’t hold your hand, and it took me a surprisingly long time to get my bearings and feel confident against the many monsters you’ll come across. At the start, Link is woefully underpowered, which makes finding the dozens of shrines dotting Hyrule crucial, as this is the quickest way to get more hearts, stamina and learn new fighting techniques.
I was also eager to find the numerous towers that dot the land, as those are how you reveal more of the Hyrule map. Six years later, Hyrule still feels positively massive, and navigating it without filling in the map is an exercise in frustration. In retrospect, though, I probably was too aggressive about journeying beyond the first few areas the game reveals to you, as I ran into numerous enemies I was simply not powerful enough to take on. My advice: stick to the game’s script and focus on the first few quests it gives you before going into full explorer mode.
In addition to the many shrines, the game will quickly implore you to search out four regions of Hyrule to investigate disturbances affecting the areas. (If you played Breath of the Wild, you can surely guess where those areas are.) This is where you’ll find the game’s four areas that harken back to the dungeons in Zelda games of yore. Just like before, you’ll need to help the citizens of each region before you can advance – but to keep things fresh, all the big dungeons are in the sky.
As much as I enjoyed revisiting the vast Hyrule overworld, the different gameplay elements and scenery of the sky areas made this feel novel. These main dungeons feel more similar to the Divine Beasts from Breath of the Wild than the levels found in Zelda games of old, but this time out they’re more visually distinct and connected to the region of Hyrule you’re visiting. The bosses of each are also a lot more creative and interesting than the variations of Calamity Ganon from last time out, too.
Another thing that will be familiar to Breath of the Wild players is the game’s presentation. As a direct sequel, there’s no noticeable change to how Hyrule and its inhabitants are rendered this time. Obviously, the sky islands and underground caverns were not present in BotW, so those areas gave the designers a chance to come up with impressive new visuals. The sky areas were particularly striking to me, though the underworld has a creepy, alien atmosphere that adds a whole new vibe to the game.
Nintendo’s art direction is impeccable, as usual, but six years on from Breath of the Wild it’s fair to say I sometimes wanted a bit more. I’ve been playing the Horizon Forbidden West expansion Burning Shores – that series has a similarly vast open world to these recent Zelda games, and having that in the back of my mind made me imagine what Hyrule could look like on more powerful hardware. I’m not saying I want a fully photorealistic Zelda game; the semi-cartoonish style has always been part of the charm. But it’s hard not to imagine just how spectacular this game could look on more powerful hardware. Of course, that’s not Nintendo’s strategy and it hasn’t been for years – but one can dream.
That said, the Switch hardware does show its age in one significant area. Frame rate drops are a bit more common in Tears of the Kingdom than I’d like. To be clear, this isn’t a major issue that renders the game unplayable by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, things run solidly at 30 fps, but the more advanced physics at play here occasionally causes some stutters. You’ll also get some dropped frames if too much is happening on screen, like big battles with multiple enemies in the rain. I never felt like these problems were enough to keep me from playing, but they are noticeable and show that Nintendo is pushing the Switch as hard as it can here.
You may be wondering what makes Tears of the Kingdom more than just a Breath of the Wild remix. There are two major components that make it stand out. First are the two new areas above and below Hyrule proper. Both the sky islands and underworld add completely new challenges and gameplay elements. For example, one set of sky islands has less gravity than everywhere else in the game, so jumps carry you further. It may sound like a little thing, but it actually changes the way you go about fighting enemies – for example, a jumping slash attack can deliver multiple blows as you slowly float back to the ground. But it also leaves you more vulnerable, since you can’t pull out your shield in the middle of this move. If you time it wrong, you can take serious damage in a counter-attack.
The underworld areas are perhaps the most treacherous you can visit in Hyrule. That’s thanks to the persistent gloom enveloping those regions, something that makes the monsters below even more powerful. If you get hit, not only do you lose hearts from your health bar, but those hearts actually “break” – they can’t be refilled unless you use a special elixir or visit particular waypoints scattered throughout the map. Naturally, since it’s pitch-black underground, navigating is a challenge as well. You’ll want to come well-stocked with brightbloom seeds, which can be found in caves throughout Hyrule. Dropping those illuminates the area, and you can also take special potions that make you glow on your own.
The underworld quest line provides a second set of tasks beyond the ones found in the Hyrule overworld. There aren’t any dungeons underground as there are up in the sky, but there are still significant quests and enemies to find below the surface. And from what I’ve played so far, these aren’t just side quests – they intersect with the main goal of finding Zelda. It’s easy to forget about the underworld while journeying through Hyrule proper, looking for shrines and helping residents in all corners of the map, but you’ll gain valuable skills and progress the story in major ways by diving underground as well. If you’re getting stuck or running out of steam, delving into the deeps is a good way to change things up.
But easily the most significant change is in the abilities Link has, thanks to his “Purah Pad” (a new name for the Sheikah Slate from BofW). Two of the abilities, Ascend and Recall, are useful but don’t fundamentally change the way the game is played. Ascend lets you dive straight upwards through roofs or rocks to reach new areas quickly, while Recall rewinds time on specific objects to move them backwards. They can be handy for sure, but you’ll need to master the other two powers to get anywhere in Tears of the Kingdom. One is called “Fuse,” which lets you stick objects you find around the world onto your weapons or arrows to enhance them. This is a requirement, because most of the weapons you find in the world have been decayed by Ganondorf’s emergence.
The good news is that you can stick all the monster parts you find around the world onto these weapons to greatly increase their power. For example, you can stick bokoblin horns on to your swords to make them stronger, but you can also fuse the tail of an ice lizard to a weapon and get its freezing power. However, these weapons still break far too often, so you’ll constantly want to be stocking up your inventory and investigating what combos of weapons and additional items work best. This goes for arrows, too: instead of being able to find or buy fire arrows, for example, you’ll need to attach a fire fruit to your arrow to set things aflame.
And then there’s Ultrahand. This takes the Magensis power from BotW, which let you move metallic objects around, and supercharges it. Now, you can pick up almost anything you see – and you can stick objects together to build basically anything you want. What really makes your creations useful are the Zonai tools you’ll find around the world, things like fans, wheels, flame-emitting objects and much more. If you have a board and a fan, you can fashion a makeshift hovercraft, for example. Or if you need to reach a far-off location, try building a bridge.
As the game goes on, it does a great job of nudging you towards building more complex and useful tools. The possibilities are near-limitless, and I’m really looking forward to seeing videos of all the ridiculous things that people try to build. (For example, the hilariously flammable war cart that my colleague Sam Rutherford built.) I was initially worried that I wouldn’t be quite creative enough to fully take advantage of the potential that Ultrahand provides, but totally wild creations are rarely required. Usually, it’s a matter of sticking two or three things together to achieve a goal, and the game makes it pretty clear what you need to do. The quick shrines, most of which you can get through in five or 10 minutes, also are good at showing you what kinds of things are useful to combine.
You can also use Fuse to combine Zonai objects together with your weapons and shields. One of my favorite combos is sticking a springboard to a shield – so when enemies hit it, they go flying, giving you a chance to counter-attack or run away. Attaching a fire device to your weapon, meanwhile, lets it spew flames as you swing it. Again, the possibilities are vast, and it’s going to be a lot of fun seeing what kinds of weapons and other contraptions people come up with to suit their own play styles.
This all adds up to a game that, despite significant shared DNA with Breath of the Wild, feels new and vital. I have fond memories of my time traversing Hyrule in BotW, and I was eager to jump back into the world again. The overworld map may be the same, but plenty of the locations have changed significantly, which provided a distinct feeling of time passing between the games as well as offering new puzzles and challenges. The frequent dips into the sky or underworld, meanwhile, provide plenty of fresh, all-new areas to explore and challenges to overcome.
All this said, I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention the difficult, sometimes unforgiving challenge this game can occasionally present. Since there’s minimal guidance as to where you can and should go, it’s easy to find yourself in enemy encounters where you’re totally overmatched. And while most of the shrines are well done, there are some that are absurdly difficult for no apparent reason.
My “favorite" so far is one where you lose all your items and armor and have to figure out how to defeat enemies with just the tools provided to you. In this case, there were about eight high-powered machines, and while there were some little war machines to create, there’s also no shield in the shrine. Even with 10 hearts, making two mistakes was enough that I would die and lose my progress. It was incredibly frustrating, and there was no reason for it to be so hard.
And the impact of Fuse and Ultrahand cannot be overstated. These new tools make experimentation a hallmark of Tears of the Kingdom in a way it hasn’t been before. Now, in addition to exploring every corner of Hyrule, you’ll also need to try lots of different combinations of tools, weapons, found objects and Zonai devices to find the solution a puzzle demands. Or you can fritter away hours making contraptions from whatever you find laying around. In a lot of ways, Breath of the Wild was already a creative sandbox that let gamers tackle the various adventures it offered in any order and any fashion they chose. In Tears of the Kingdom, that’s even more true.
If you want to spend all your time spelunking in the underworld, feel free. If you’d rather hunt down shrines at the expense of all else to maximize your stamina and hearts, that works too. If you only want to engage in building objects with Ultrahand when the game requires it, that’s fine – it makes it clear when you need to build various contraptions to advance. There’s enough guidance to set you on your path when you get started, but you can also ignore that and just roam the wilds. Do so at your own risk, though – it’s rough out there.
Tears of the Kingdom isn’t the series reinvention that we got in 2017, but that’s OK. There’s more than enough here to justify revisiting the Hyrule that we first saw with Breath of the Wild — I've "only" put in about 35 hours at this point, and there's no end in sight to my journey. If you’re one of the millions who delighted in that game’s freedom, chances are you’ll love Tears of the Kingdom too.