This review is part of My 2023 in Gaming retrospective, with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom being my second favourite game of last year.
Few games raise unreasonably high expectations upon release as a new Zelda. It isn’t by chance. More than 35 years of nothing but incredible games guaranteed such a reputation for the iconic Nintendo series. Most of those games’ style and lore work in isolation, being only connected by a loose timeline, but after the staggering success of Breath of the Wild, it wasn’t a huge surprise when the company announced back in 2019, during one of its presentations, a direct sequel to it. Well, it was a surprise nonetheless, but it made total sense. The game had a long development cycle, and its fresh new gameplay formula still had a lot to give. The hope, for us fans, was that a direct sequel would take less time to develop, since they already had many core elements in place. Oh boy, how we were wrong. Four long years separated that reveal trailer from the actual release date. Was the wait worth it? In my view, it was, but not without a few minor hiccups.
That déjà vu feeling
The action of Tears of the Kingdom occurs at the exact same version of Hyrule (the kingdom present in some form in most Zelda games) as Breath of the Wild, which grants an unavoidable sense of familiarity to those who played that game. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the experience back then was to discover gradually all the interconnected regions of the kingdom, just to be surprised by their completely distinct biomes. Obviously, most of that is gone now that we are presented with the same challenge again. Although, many things changed in the land of Hyrule between both games. The lives of the Hylians we meet before had moved on, and many of them have new stories and challenges to unfold. Some even relocated to entirely new places. Not only that, but many regions now face particular climatic issues, changing dramatically the feeling and exploration of them. But the most evident change is without a doubt the mysterious appearance of countless islands in the sky. This is thrown to our face right from the beginning, since it’s on one of those islands where the game properly begins.
The sky is the limit, literally
We start our journey on a floating island that conveniently introduces us to all the new (and old) game mechanics. Think of the Great Plateau, but in the sky. We have our shrines, and they work in the exact same way as before. We are gradually introduced to our new array of abilities and forced in some way to put them in use. After that, we are left to our own devices and invited to dive off the island into a pond on the distant surface. When arriving there, we are presented with several weird holes in the ground, some of them bigger than the pond where we just dived. By jumping into any of them, a whole new dark and unwelcoming underworld is revealed to us. That’s right! This Hyrule has two extra layers beside the already gigantic surface level, significantly increasing its scope. The game even plays with this verticality with some puzzles interconnecting all three layers, by starting in the highest point in the sky and ending in the darkest depths. And if you’re wondering, yes, it’s possible to skydive from an island straight down to the underworld, seamlessly.
The renovated world is only part of the reason why this game is impressive, though. What takes Tears of the Kingdom to the next level is what we can do in it. As I mentioned before, we are given four main abilities that change dramatically the way we interact with the environment: Ascend lets us merge into most surfaces above us and rise on top of them. It’s very useful to escape caves or wells, but it can be used in more cases than that. Recall allows us to revert the flow of time of any object. Fuse, as the name suggests, lets us fuse a weapon or shield to another object, allowing us to improve their properties or even give them powerful, and sometimes funny, new perks. The star of the show, though, is Ultrahand. With it, it’s possible to remotely manipulate and glue together as many objects as we want. By itself, it’s impressive, but when combined with the many ancient technological artifacts left around the world, such as rockets, wheels, fans, laser beams, and many more, they invite the player to engineer the most useful, or absurd, creations. Such a powerful tool comes with the price of being a bit cumbersome to use because everything is done in real time. There is no separated creation mode. But after a few dozen hours, it’s possible to get the gist of it.
Demon King? Secret stone?
It’s time now to address what is, in my opinion, the elephant in the room in Tears of the Kingdom: its story. In short, it doesn’t work really well. Two things that were promised during the months before its release were that the game would feature the return of dungeons in a more “classic” style and would tell a more complex narrative. While the first promise was somewhat delivered (even considering a very underwhelming water dungeon), the second failed because of the game’s structure. You see, Breath of the Wild had a very simple plot, but it was brilliantly executed. You learned the full story by collecting small pieces of information without any specific order, but none of those pieces required much context to be understood.
With Tears of the Kingdom, they decided to use the exact same plot structure but with a more interconnected plotline. During most of the game, I was completely clueless about what was actually happening story-wise and how I would complete my main objective, which was to find Zelda. Oh yeah, I totally forgot to explain that part. So, long story short: Link and Zelda were exploring some underground ruins and suddenly they find a recurring villain of the series, Ganondorf, also known as the “Demon King,” in a decayed state, held by a mysterious glowing arm. Ganondorf awakes, throws Zelda into a dark pit, and almost kills Link. Then, Link awakens on the sky island I mentioned before, with that very same glowing arm in place of his own injured one. Confused? Me too. In the lack of a better expression, this plot is completely bonkers. The worst part, in my opinion, is what happens next. Link is told that some strange phenomena are happening at the same four main locations that were home to the four divine beasts from Breath of the Wild and that, for some reason, could be related to Zelda’s disappearance. After we clear each one of the region’s subplots, we are presented with a very similar cutscene each time, only differing in the people involved. Each and every time, the character in question says the exact same thing. By the fourth time I heard “Demon King? Secret Stone?” my faith in this plot was practically gone.
It’s so obvious that this story was built around the gameplay that it hurts. But you know what? I’m glad it was like that and not the other way around. Obviously, a balanced approach was the ideal scenario, but I understand it was an almost impossible task to build a concise story without sacrificing some of the freedom. Fun was clearly the priority with Tears of the Kingdom, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- New abilites turned Hyrule into the best playground ever
- The scope and verticality of the game world is unprecedented
- Ultrahand ability usage is a bit convoluted
- The narrative is weakened by its non-linear presentation
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a very difficult game to objectively analise. It does have clear issues, but only because it tries to reach highs that others don’t even dream to. Even so, I say without any reservations that it is one of the most engineous open-world sandbox experience ever made.
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