Princess Zelda has constructed a series of solemn memorials across Hyrule after the defeat of Calamity Ganon. These stone slabs hold only a single sentence and a solitary flower atop the cobblestone. While insignificant, stumbling across these monuments on your journey is a reminder of all that’s been lost, and what Link and company are still fighting for.
Tears of the Kingdom centres on a world in the throes of recovery while never forgetting the scars of our past, and how they propel us towards destinies simultaneously unknowing and hopeful. Somehow, Nintendo has crafted a game that equals the majesty of its forebear. You’re bombarded by curiosity at every turn, wondering how far the limits can be pushed before Zelda’s open arms spread forward to smother them. I had little faith in lightning striking twice, and I couldn’t be more delighted to be proven wrong.
Tears of the Kingdom is the most narrative heavy Zelda game I can recall. As a direct sequel, it doesn’t reimagine familiar characters and landmarks, but expands on people and places we already know. We naturally come into this with higher expectations, alongside fear that things we loved the first time around will be absent entirely. While I immediately recognised the bubbling summit of Death Mountain and scorching sands of the Gerudo, an effort has been made to reshape each environment into a subversive opposite of what it used to be.
Rito Village is now covered in thick blankets of snow which has grounded its inhabitants, while Zora’s Domain is dealing with a repugnant sludge filling the gills of fish folk and dirtying a water supply once considered sacred. These are all new problems that do a stunning job of reintroducing beloved characters and paving the way for new ones. Most of us will have trouble guessing how certain people have grown in Link’s absence, both through new relationships formed and priorities shifted in the presence of an emergent calamity.
Much like Breath of the Wild, the opening hours are spent in a contained selection of islands and shrines all designed to dish out your new powers. These are the bread and butter you’ll indulge in for the next 70+ hours, such as Ultrahand, which can bind together almost any object in the environment with another, or Recall, which can turn back time and reverse the momentum of objects while Link remains present. Fuse combines your weapons and shields with all manner of items, and the potential here is virtually limitless. Finally, you have Ascend, which allows Link to pass through any environment with a ceiling and emerge right at the top. Initially I feared this would eliminate the need for traditional traversal, but in reality it is far more nuanced, and blends seamlessly with puzzles and moment-to-moment exploration enamoured with verticality.
None of your previous powers are here, but none of them need to be, with Tears of the Kingdom iterating upon them in ways I now consider irreplaceable. It will be hard, and almost constraining, to go back after this.
The moment you’re granted freedom to hurtle towards the surface, it becomes clear how big this game really is, and even then further discoveries await beneath the surface. My first steps onto Hyrule’s fervent ground were hesitant, but it soon felt like I was sat alongside an old friend swapping stories after years apart, noticing countless elements that had changed for the better or in ways one should expect after years away.
Landscapes are dotted with piles of construction materials previously intended to rebuild before yet another looming apocalypse reared its head. Now you can use it to build, or help citizens restore their carts or perform an odd job. Stables are more frequent and lively too, filled with optional quests and conversations all built to make Hyrule feel more substantial. Red Dead Redemption 2 was referenced by Nintendo as a core inspiration for Tears, and this shines through in every little interaction you have. Breath of the Wild felt married to its own loneliness, while its sequel is eager to show that Link isn’t alone anymore, and has allies to call upon. There are still several instances of worthwhile solitude to bask in, but now friends and strangers are there to help.
Shrines are back, except now they’re easier to track down and far more varied in puzzles and combat encounters you’ll stumble across. Most are themed around the environments they are found in, while some contain rewards for reaching them in the first place. Those which used to be filled with enemies who offered no challenge beyond a ludicrous health bar are replaced by smartly assembled battles where Link’s clothes, weapons, and items get taken away, forcing him to do battle with only his powers and whatever sits in the arena. I had trouble emerging victorious in these situations, and only because I had to conjure up a creative way to avoid taking damage and batter down my foes with maximum effectiveness.
Puzzles across the sky islands can range from skydiving challenges and epic boss battles, to feats of building prowess where Link must transport a shining crystal to a beam of light at the source. There is no set solution in most of these scenarios, Nintendo trusts you to use your imagination and work out how the environment can be bent into an unorthodox means of progression. Early on, I felt like the smartest person on the planet by ignoring the clear instructions I was given to build a fancy boat, and instead I constructed the longest log bridge in the world and waltzed across it. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the intention, but I was still rewarded for thinking outside the box. You always are, and that puts Tears of the Kingdom a step above every other open world out there. Zelda used to be so ingrained to tradition that it was afraid to change, while now it is handing us the tools and giving us the freedom to experiment to our heart’s content.
Tears of the Kingdom is weakest when it abides by traditions many of us begged for in the face of its predecessor’s unrestrained freedom. Temples return and replace the polarising Divine Beasts from Breath of the Wild. While the latter felt like airborne puzzle labyrinths which lived and breathed, temples this time around are defined by stellar mythology and character work, but are otherwise underpinned by formulaic design.
You’ll solve four puzzles across a sprawling location to open a door, fight the boss, and progress the story before collecting a Heart Container for your trouble. It is classic Zelda, and guides us around in ways that don’t always gel with the game’s freestyle identity. Exploring these places was still a joy, although I much preferred titans that lived in the world. If anything, the pilgrimages towards the temples are far superior, since you’ll be teaming up with new allies, each with powers Link can use to fly higher distances, shield himself, or rain lightning down on his foes. It blends with the open world seamlessly, and feels suitably epic in scale and circumstance. You’ll reach for the skies, burrow underground, and linger on the surface - seamlessly moving between them in a manner that pushes the Switch farther than it has any business going.
Tears of the Kingdom is huge, gorgeous, and terrifyingly massive. After 80 hours, there are still entire towns and quest lines I haven’t started, with more than 50 shrines still hidden out there waiting to be uncovered. Everything feels more alive and considered, a confident and self-assured improvement over an open world experience that already changed the game, and now it arguably does this all over again. Revisiting past locations and meeting old friends is only part of the package, and it often feels like you’re discovering this world for the first time all over again. The game’s foundational mechanics invite our childlike desire to mess around and find out. There’s so much I haven’t mentioned, and even more I’m yet to find for myself. Years from now, we’ll still be figuring out what makes this game tick, unearthing delights only creativity can enable.
We’ve watched Link and Zelda live out the roles of Princess and Knight again and again for decades, and this story gives them a chance to reclaim what it means to serve that destiny and take power into their own hands to change things. Zelda isn’t playable here, and I wish she was, but given all the discoverable memories scattered across the open world focus on her arc, she is still given room to shine and comes across as inquisitively capable in recruiting new allies and setting the stage for Link to vanquish evil once and for all. Link’s silent demeanour speaks volumes, expressing equal parts grief and hope in the search for his charge. When it comes to this series, none have ever gone this hard on storytelling, and it works beautifully.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a masterpiece that not only equals what came before, it does everything in its power to surpass it. Even as it presents endless possibilities for me to indulge in and push my creative potential, it all comes back to the intimate gravestones or superfluous conversations that bring its world to life. Fading memorials and lone flowers cement the loss this vision of Hyrule has felt, and my unpredictable path is determined to piece it all back together.