It's utterly incredible to relive the feeling of BREATH OF THE WILD once more, this sequel builds on and exceeds its predecessor
The best adventures start with a sense of discovery. What could be over that hill? What about behind that waterfall? How about that floating island in the distance, or that mysterious cave by the seashore.
Breath of the Wild introduced us to this feeling and TEARS OF THE KINGDOM extends that by celebrating the joy of following your curiousity to solve problems any way you can imagine.
It's an experience that I thought couldn't be replicated but this game still delights and surprises every hour I put in.
In 2017, Nintendo shifted two big conversations - how an open world game could function and be built and what people should expect in a modern ZELDA title.
Gone was the long-tutorialising and hand-holding of Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess and in their place was a tantalising, massive open world sandbox experience - with a simple promise.
If you want to try something out, you can probably make it work.
Feel like skipping the entire game’s story and strutting straight over to the last boss of the game - you can do that.
Struggling on a puzzle you can’t quite figure out, there might be a way to play with the game’s physics systems and link’s new sheikh slate powers to break it.
Not sure where to go? Don’t worry, there’s an endless world of adventures awaiting you.
That same sense of breathless discovery is back, but this time is honed sharp into an effortless flow-state.
From the moment you boot the game up and step back into the shoes of Link, you’re set off on a seemingly infinite quest of things to do and sights to see. The dopamine hit is real. This is an addictive adventure that whips by like the speed of light.
What a relief it was then to discover that Tears of the Kingdom, for all its endless distractions, contraption building, mythological storytelling and sense of wanderlust still contains my favourite part of its predecessor - space to breathe.
Breath of the Wild, for all its epic scope, was filled with massive empty fields, long stretches of quiet, lonely mountain tops and a minimalist piano score. Some of my fondest memories exploring its iteration of Hyrule were finding good mountain tops filled with fresh mushrooms and trees bulging with durians, bananas and other rare and useful cooking resources.
Deep in lockdown, I found myself returning to BOTW’s Hyrule, to walk down its familiar roads, picking herbs and carefully stalking butterflies and sunset fireflies before they flew off.
Such care was put into ensuring that BOTW evoked a feeling of nature; a wilderness hike turned into an epic quest to save a kingdom. An exceptional sound mix ensured Link’s shield, weapon and armour bounced, clicked and jingled away with each footfall. Wind would rustle through the leaves of trees in the forest. You could stop and listen to the ambient sound of creatures and animals stuttering about, minding their own business.
That TOTK is able to keep this feeling intact, while offering a world that is bursting at the seams with adventure and distraction is a true achievement.
PROBLEMS TO SOLVE
The core of TOTK is Ultrahand, a brand new power that Link unlocks early on in his opening hours adventuring through the game’s tutorial zone. Ultrahand allows Link to pick up objects in the world and glue them together with a phosphorescent green goop. It sounds unimpressive on paper but in practice, Ultrahand feels like a paradigm shift in videogames - a change so fundamental to how people play and interact with game environments.
Need to get to the other side of a lake? You can build a little raft with Ultrahand - no worries. Wait? Don’t want a raft. That’s okay you can string together 10-15 logs and create a bridge to the other side.
The amount you can accomplish with Link’s new powers and some creative thinking feels limitless: log bridge shortcuts; meat elevators; skateboards; creating time-travelling traps out of the environment to squish baddies; crosses to crucify Koroks; the list goes on.
When TOTK starts to slowly expand its building vocabulary by drip feeding an assortment of new and niche Zonai devices (rocket launchers, stabilisers, wheels, flamethrowers and Roomba-like shuffle-bots that stalk after enemies) you begin to really appreciate the toolkit that the game has offered up.
What makes this endless complexity of Link’s new toolkit feel so frictionless for players is how it is able to meet people on their level of engagement. I’m not a creative builder, I won’t be stitching together a robot battleship anytime soon - yet I’m having a blast breaking apart puzzles and using a mix of ultra-hand, recall and ascend to circumvent entire shrines.
Gone is the feeling of frustration that crept into many of the puzzle shrines in BOTW; with a limitless toolbox and lots of options at your disposal, the dopamine hit of ‘I did this!’ or ‘my big brain idea actually worked’ feels just as valid as working through a possible intended solution to a problem.
Speaking of shrines, they’re back from BOTW. These tiny mini-dungeons of bite-sized puzzle gameplay showcase a variety of different gameplay styles and feel more varied and thought out than ever. One shrine stripped me of my gear and items, tasking me to stealth around a battlefield and use a mix of fuse and ultrahand to create a fleet of homing battle-droids to fight enemies for me.
Another was a giant jenga tower, balancing precariously on a trap door - the goal - to safely transport an orb off the top of the tower and into a waiting cradle switch. Yet another shrine had me navigating a pitch black maze filled with spikes, moving walls and traps - relying on torchlight and light seeds to make my way through.
Other shrines are deceptively hidden away in the massive overworld of TOTK, requiring complex puzzles to sniff them out and retrieve their rewards.
HIGHS & LOWS
TOTK is huge in scope, like massively huge. Back again is the entire world map from Breath of the Wild, this time reworked with new things to discover and large changes to entire areas thanks to the world-shattering ‘upheaval’ that has hit the lands of Hyrule.
Any fears that Zelda would be re-treading familiar territory due to the re-use of BOTW’s overworld can be put to bed very quickly.
Entire areas have been carefully re-worked, filled with new things to discover and have had their geography dramatically shifted to accommodate new puzzles, ideas and treasures to find.
Floating in the sky are Tears of the Kingdom’s most immediate addition to the landscape, a fully realised sky-world complete with its own world-map layer.
These islands dot the sky at various heights - reaching them is a puzzle onto itself. Low-flying islands can be reached through the many towers dotting the landscape or by jumping onto crumbling rocks that have fallen from the isles and recalling them back into the sky.
You’ll need to engage with the building mechanics and construct flying machines and other traversal tricks to reach some of the more hard to reach islands - but the rewards offered on the isles are well worth the trouble.
Back down on Hyrule are dozens of caves cutting into mountain sides, cliff faces and even hiding within wells located in towns and stables.
These short mini-dungeons are filled with rare treasures and resources to explore and spelunk your way through. These side-areas can range from tiny 1 room caverns, to massive, sprawling underground networks that take time to truly dig through.
They’re a hint of TOTK’s biggest surprise - the massive underground Depths.
The Depths are immediately imposing. Your first encounter with them will most likely be when encouraged to jump down one of the many huge gloom-rimmed rifts and cracks in the world to see what’s waiting for you at the bottom.
After a very long fall, you’ll be greeted with an expansive underworld; a mirror of the surface kingdom in pitch darkness.
The Depths are dark and dank and you’ll need to properly prepare yourself for any adventures that’ll take you there. The Sky Islands and Hyrule’s many caves hold key materials that make depths traversal an easier experience - special crafting materials to help resist the effects of the seething, creeping gloom that has spread throughout the cavernous underworld plus the all important brightbloom seeds which are required to help light up the darkness and find your way.
In return, careful exploration of the depths gives Link resources to aid him in improving the battery life of his zonai devices, upgraded building abilities, access to stronger weapon bases to fuse with monster parts and a host of cool outfits and gear to collect.
This all creates a carefully constructed adventure loop. Hop into the sky to get gear to tackle the depths, which will give you the weapons and battery charge you’ll need to do further sky & ground exploration in Hyrule proper.
It all comes back to discovery. What mysterious monster is waiting in the dark, deep down in the earth of Hyrule’s underworld? What sorts of interesting new vehicles can I create to navigate through hostile environments. How can I reach that mysterious floating sphere in the sky?
This time, discovery is not just limited to all the cool things to explore on the horizon, but but all the ways you can piece together solutions on your journey.
A copy of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: TEARS OF THE KINGDOM on Switch was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.