It’s the hope that kills you. A trite epithet all too familiar to sports fans (RIP Arsenal title challenge 22/23, we hardly knew ye), and strangely appropriate to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
Because it’s the hope for another industry-shaking, genre-defying, franchise-transforming masterpiece that may kill the sequel to Breath of the Wild, which commits the egregious sin of merely being a very good game.
It all comes down to your expectations. With most companies, and most franchises, you’d know what’s coming from a sequel. But not so with Zelda.
While the series’ main entries fall into familiar rhythms, the few direct sequels tend to follow their own beat – whether that’s Zelda II’s side-scrolling, the uneasy time loop of Majora’s Mask, or the recurring central dungeon that dominates Phantom Hourglass.
The same can’t be said for Tears of the Kingdom, which is quite simply more of the same.
On one level, that’s fantastic news. Breath of the Wild has yet to be bested by any Switch title in the six years since it launched, and an excuse to do it all over again is not to be sniffed at.
But Breath of the Wild was more than just another Zelda game. It saw Nintendo tear its second-favourite franchise up and rebuild the bits, inventing a new sort of open-world that’s only since been matched for its breadth, depth, and sheer playfulness by Elden Ring.
Much of the appeal hinged on the feeling that everything was new, that the rules no longer applied, and anything could happen. Every striking landmark or strange rock was an excuse to explore, knowing that even odds had the game ready to surprise you.
That feeling is still there in Tears of the Kingdom, but lessened. You’re back in the same Hyrule, once again beset by monsters and filled with shrines, Korok seeds, and innocent bystanders with errands for you to run.
The map has been remixed a little by the Upheaval, an inciting event which sees Hyrule Castle ripped up into the sky and a toxic darkness known only as Gloom spill forth from the earth below it.
Much has been made in the game’s trailers of a major expansion to the map: a series of islands floating in the sky far above Hyrule. Less has been shown of their inverse: a sprawling underground world below the main map, giving you three Hyrules for the price of one.
The new worlds aren’t quite as enormous as they first seem. For one, the sky islands are surprisingly sparse, with only a few archipelagoes worth exploring in each map region. The Depths are larger – they really do cover the entire Hyrule map – but less interesting. It’s a big, dark, mostly flat map that you can explore only by spreading light sources, which tend to reveal more big, flat stretches of land with the occasional Bokoblin to fight.
The best bits of Tears of the Kingdom, once again, are the Shrines that dot the maps. These isolated challenges are the perfect bite-sized pleasure, ten-minute brain teasers that always leave you wanting more.
They make the most of the four key new powers in the game: Ultrahand, which lets you grab and combine objects in the environment; Fuse, which lets you merge almost anything with your weapons and shield; Ascend, which sees you rise vertically through surfaces and ceilings; and Recall, which reverses the movement of specific objects.
All three have their part to play in the game’s myriad physics puzzles, but the awkwardly named Ultrahand is the game’s star. It can be used for much more than sticking planks together to make a bridge: find the right pieces of ancient technology and you can combine them to create cars, planes, jetpacks, hot air balloons, and anything else you can come up with.
A clear response to Breath of the Wild’s overwhelming popularity with YouTube creators and streamers, Ultrahand captures the sandbox sensibility perfectly, bringing the Minecraft creator impulse into its open-world adventure. It’s only used sparingly in the game’s main story, but at times to great effect, whether that’s navigating a labyrinth of rail tracks on fan-powered mine carts, or taking to the skies in a plane to best one of the game’s bosses.
Fuse, meanwhile, is Nintendo sticking its finger up at everyone who ever complained about weapon durability. Weapons still break as fast as ever, but now you can modify them for a bit of variety. Strap a flamethrower to your shield, add an ice effect to arrows, or just go hell for leather and stick a sword on the end of a spear to see what it’ll do. None of it lasts, but none of it needs to.
It’s a halting acknowledgement from the studio that the first game’s durability system never quite had its intended effect, but the team decided to stick rather than twist, tweaking what they had instead of starting from scratch.
You can see the same spirit in the game’s Temple dungeons. No, these aren’t the full, traditional Zelda dungeon experience – there’s no map, compass, or boss key to collect – but they are a half-step back in that direction. The two dungeons I’ve completed so far are both bigger than Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts, more interestingly designed, and feature proper Zelda bosses at the end – none of that knock-off Ganon Blight nonsense.
These are welcome refinements, but that’s all they are. The game as a whole feels exceedingly familiar, a comfortable slide into old habits. Jog there, climb this, clear a shrine, go take a look at that funny tree over there just in case.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a contradiction: a brilliant game, comfortably among the Nintendo Switch’s best, while simultaneously a slight disappointment.
I played over a hundred hours of Breath of the Wild, and I suspect I’ll play a hundred more of this. But I think I know which hundred will linger in the memory longer.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom launches 12 May 2023 for Nintendo Switch.
Tears of the Kingdom plays it safe, which is a shame for the follow-up to the least safe Zelda in decades. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about getting more of one of the all-time greats, and there are enough tweaks to make it feel worth playing all over again.
- Comically large open world
- Improved dungeons and proper bosses are back
- It’s Breath of the Wild, again
- It’s Breath of the Wild, again