The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is so much more than a sequel to Breath of the Wild. While this newest entry in the Zelda franchise is most recognizably similar to that 2017 game, it builds upon the foundation so thoroughly and transformationally that it feels like a revelation. This is The Legend of Zelda at its finest, borrowing the best pieces and qualities from across the franchise’s history and creating something new that is emotionally resonant, captivating, and endlessly rewarding.
Breath of the Wild upended the Zelda formula by presenting a vast and lush open world to explore–a reenvisioning of the unguided experience of the original Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Tears of the Kingdom follows in its predecessor’s footsteps with a similarly naturalistic setting, but the world has changed in subtle ways. Not everything is exactly the same or where you’d expect it to be, and the map is marked with myriad opportunities for exploration and curiosity. Once again, you’ll hardly ever round a corner or crest a hill without finding something else to do or engage with. Hyrule feels serene even as it bustles with life and activity. The score is as majestic as it is unintrusive, accentuating a dire battle or narrow escape with an exciting up-tempo rendition of the theme and then easing off with softer tones to let you breathe in the atmosphere.
Much of the reason that the world feels so different this time is that your tools for engaging with it are so much more flexible. Like the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild, you don’t even enter the open world until you’ve found four key abilities in a tutorial area. Together, these abilities are the engine that drives Tears of the Kingdom–in the same way Breath of the Wild was centered on exploring wilderness using your slate of abilities, these new tools center Tears of the Kingdom around building and experimenting to overcome obstacles in inventive ways. It’s a beautifully implemented evolution of what made Breath of the Wild so special. While it’s more ambitious than Breath of the Wild in how much you can express your own creativity, it also manages to do this without buckling under its own weight.
The two most important abilities are Ultrahand and Fuse, since they serve as the cornerstones of exploration and combat, respectively. Ultrahand lets you piece together just about anything you find, including a vast array of new building materials and ancient Zonai machine parts. Fuse lets you modify your melee weapons, arrows, and shields by attaching things to them in a way that’s thematically similar to Ultrahand. The two act as halves of the same whole, encouraging you to constantly try new versions of a mind-boggling array of combinations, simply to see what happens. Attaching Zonai fan parts to a raft can help it cross a river or make it airborne, depending on how you arrange them. A bomb on an arrow makes for an explosive shot, of course, while one on a shield will be a messy surprise when an enemy tries to hit you, or give you the ability to launch far into the air with a shield-surf.
What struck me is how Fuse recontextualizes weapon degradation, which proved divisive in Breath of the Wild. While Fusing items does grant them extra durability to slightly assuage concerns, there’s a deeper, more philosophical layer at play with how these new systems interact. Durability in Breath of the Wild was about scarcity and resource management. In Tears of the Kingdom, it feels more about pushing you to try new combinations. When every tree branch or rusty sword you find is a potential test tube for some new experiment, you’re not as precious about each and every object you find. Everything is a toy, and Tears of the Kingdom wants you to play with your toys, smash them together, throw them around, and find joy in the unexpected results.
The other two abilities granted in the tutorial area, Recall and Ascend, are more limited in scope but still quite important. Recall–which rewinds objects back to a previous state–has both combat and exploration applications, letting you easily toss a bomb back at some hapless Moblin or cleverly create yourself a moving platform to cross a chasm. Ascend lets you swim upwards through solid rock, easily finding your way into hidden rooms and quickly reaching spaces that would have taken longer (or been impossible) to manually climb.
One more key ability is optional–and entirely missable–but grows more important as you build an array of machine parts and take on tougher obstacles. Autobuild, an extension of the Ultrahand ability, simply stitches together the requisite parts for a design you either have saved in your recent history, or one that you’ve marked as a favorite to save permanently. Rather than reconstructing a hot air balloon or small airplane every time you need one, you can simply construct it using parts that are laying around, and fill in any gaps using the cache of Zonai parts sitting in your inventory.
All of these building tools and the Ascend ability effectively deemphasize your stamina meter for climbing, but the construction tools make the game so vertically oriented that it makes traversal flow naturally. That’s also due to the Skyview Towers, which serve not just as waypoints for filling out the map, but as cannons to launch you far into the sky. As you ascend, you’ll reach another layer of the map, where the Sky Islands reside, with their own secrets to uncover. The sequence in which Link launches into the air is seamless. Rocketing into the sky and then falling back to earth feels thrilling every time, and you can use the vantage point as you descend to float towards a goal or look around for undiscovered landmarks.
To my shock, ascending to the sky and then falling back to earth ran smoothly. There has been plenty of concern about the aging Switch hardware being adequate to run Tears of the Kingdom well, and for my part, I barely ever saw a hitch while playing mostly in handheld mode. In fact, the rare instance in which I did notice a slight frame rate dip in both handheld and docked modes wasn’t during the big grandiose moments like launching Link into the sky, but rather, a smaller moment like exploring the bustling Kakariko Village during a rainstorm. Even then, the performance dips were minor and temporary. In docked mode, it’s easier to spot a loss of some detail on faraway objects when flying high, but the painterly style obscures it well. Leave it to Nintendo to squeeze more technical prowess out of its own systems than seemed possible, this late into its lifespan. (Monolith Soft, which assisted in development, has similarly accomplished incredible feats with Switch hardware, most recently with Xenoblade Chronicles 3.)
The map is again littered with landmarks, especially Shrines, which serve double duty as fast-travel points alongside the Skyview Towers. The Shrines are key to upgrading your health and stamina, and as before, these are quick, snack-sized puzzle and combat rooms. I tended to activate them as fast-travel points and then go back to do a string of them in a row. A new, separate consumable can also be used to upgrade your portable battery pack so that your Zonai machines can run that much longer. And in the massive underground area, you can light your own way with Brightbloom seeds and activate special bioluminescent plants that act as their own fast-travel points. This separation between three layers of the open world, each with its own vastly different ambiance, makes exploration truly feel like adventuring in a vast, uncharted world.
These tools, and the sprawling world they inhabit, give Tears of the Kingdom a particular flow that feels unique to the Zelda franchise. You aren’t simply solving puzzles or fighting battles–you’re engineering solutions. You might encounter a gap you can’t cross, a fight you can’t win, or a puzzle you can’t solve. But you know you have the tools, and you know where you can find the materials, and all that’s left is to think it through, gather what you need, and put your plan into action. If that plan fails–and sometimes it will–you tweak your design or your plan and you try again. Despite the incredible freedom, it’s not overwhelming. While creative solutions are encouraged and might make some challenges much easier, you can certainly make it through the story using simpler designs. It rewards you for flexing your creative muscles, but it meets you where you are.
The four major quadrants of the map correspond to the four major dungeons, which this time are more traditional than Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts. For one thing, in a knowing nod, these ones are actually called Temples, each named after an element like Wind or Fire. They are structurally similar–each revolving around a series of locks in one way or another–but they are wildly different in style and tone. The Thunder Temple segues from an Indiana Jones homage to an extremely traditional Zelda dungeon complete with mirror puzzles, for example. The Wind Temple, meanwhile, takes place in a floating airship with a dense overlapping structure. There are moments in each Temple that feel audacious, like nothing you’ve seen in a Zelda game before, all intermingled with style and presentation that will please those who, like me, missed the classic-feeling Zelda dungeons in Breath of the Wild.
You don’t receive a special item in each dungeon that corresponds to its puzzle structure, however. There are no Iron Boots or Boomerangs to be found. Instead, each dungeon features a companion specific to one of the diverse races in Zelda lore, like the Goron or Zora. Your companion effectively grants you their own power on demand for puzzle-solving and combat, making it feel like you’ve found a special item while also imbuing it with character. Each of the four major characters is lovable in their own way, with fantastic character design that makes them stand out from their brethren. Combat is mostly deemphasized in the Temples, letting you focus squarely on exploration and puzzle-solving for most of their duration.
That isn’t the case for the bosses, though, which are some of the toughest I’ve seen in any Zelda game. These ferocious beasts are there to put your skills and companion abilities to the test, and more than once I had to leave a dungeon entirely to better prepare. I was glad to see that Tears of the Kingdom allows for that, and even counts on it, letting you fast-travel out of a dungeon to spend time elsewhere and then easily pick a battle back up when you fast-travel back to the closest waypoint. Your companions don’t come with you when you leave, but once you’ve conquered a dungeon, you’ll have their ability to call on from then on.
The one drawback of this open structure is that your special abilities can’t be counted on to stack on each other. Older Zelda games would eventually ramp up the puzzle difficulty with the wide array of tools at your disposal, because the linear order meant that by the time you reached the sixth dungeon, the game could count on you to have the items from the fourth and fifth dungeons. Since Tears of the Kingdom lets you play dungeons in any order, the puzzles can only be structured around one key ability at a time. This is the trade-off for the open structure, and it’s a fine-enough compromise since the game gets plenty of mileage out of its dungeon puzzles regardless.
Exploring these dungeons and gathering these allies is all tied back to the central story. Tears of the Kingdom’s story is my favorite aspect of the game, and it is absolutely my favorite Zelda story in years. It begins as Link and Zelda investigate a blight, named the Gloom, that seems to be emanating from underneath Hyrule Castle. In an uncharacteristically creepy touch, the two find a desiccated corpse–immediately recognizable to Zelda fans as Ganondorf–being held down by a glowing, disembodied arm. Ganondorf snaps back to life, wounds Link, and breaks the Master Sword. In the ensuing chaos, Zelda falls into inky blackness, and when Link awakens, she’s nowhere to be found. In place of his right arm is the one that was found holding Ganondorf.
The story goes on to explain that, ages ago, the first King of Hyrule united the Sages–representatives of each race of Hyrule–against the army of the Demon King, Ganondorf. Now, with your new arm, you have the power to reunite the Sages and tap their powers, leading to your cross-country trek to find those with their bloodlines who can fulfill the pacts their ancestors made a millenia ago. Each of these new Sages grapples with the responsibility in their own way, which makes each temple its own small character story with their own individual payoffs. The world of Tears of the Kingdom is one in which diversity is a strength, built on the backs of individuals brave enough to work for a collective good. There’s a palpable sense of weight as each of them accept their mantle, some more hesitantly than others. Some are confident leaders who feel beholden by attachments, while others feel guilt-ridden by mistakes or tired of being underestimated. They’re some of the strongest tertiary characters in Zelda history–imminently lovable and humane people who each drive home the themes of collective responsibility and the weight of heroism in different ways.
But more than the Sages or even Link, this story truly belongs to Zelda. Your main quest, both in terms of the story and literally in your quest log, is to find Zelda. There’s a throughline of mystery to the whole affair, with scattered reports of Zelda sightings across the kingdom. Discovering where she’s gone is told in a non-sequential manner, with the mystery slowly unraveling toward an incredible, stirring revelation. There is a specific moment in this story that will go down as one of the most memorable in all of Zelda canon.
When I think of the Legend of Zelda series, I’ve always thought about transcendent, mythic moments: pulling the Master Sword from the pedestal in A Link to the Past, waking the Wind Fish in Link’s Awakening, the three major characters representing aspects of the Triforce in Ocarina of Time. Tears of the Kingdom has a moment that matches each of those, and I felt the scope and power of it so strongly that I shed my own tears. As much as I loved each of those pieces in Zelda’s past, I’m not sure if it’s ever evoked that level of emotion from me before.
And then, of course, there is the story you write yourself through gameplay–when you built a clever machine to cross a chasm, explored a dark cavern with only your wits and a handful of arrows, raced through a thunderstorm on horseback to find shelter. Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a canvas for your own creativity, a book to write your own stories, a world to create your own legends. It gives you back as much as you put into it, and beckons you to soar, burrow, engineer, solve, adventure, and explore.