I played the Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom for more than 145 hours before putting it down. And I want more. I am legitimately sad I have finished all the things I wanted to! As an adult nearing 40 who has two kids and is completing a graduate program for a new career, spending this much time on a game is simply unheard of. What happened? Well in short, Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a masterpiece that exceeds Breath of the Wild in every possible way.
If you know me or have perused The Chozo Project, you know I love Zelda (check out my updated rankings of every game!). It has been my most beloved game series since I was a kid. Breath of the Wild was, until very recently, my all time favorite game. But the last year or two were concerning for me as development time on Tears dragged on. Again and again I asked myself (and any gamer friend who would listen!): what is taking so long? Why aren’t we being shown more gameplay or story elements? I should have had faith in Nintendo and the Zelda team. Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom blew past all of my expectations, is one of the best games ever made, and is now my personal favorite game of all time.
I will be discussing my entire experience with the game. This means full reveals of gameplay elements, locations, hidden armor/equipment (some of which are in screenshots), abilities, and boss fights. I won’t delve deep into story beats until the sections with marked spoilers, but there’s a lot here. The target audience for this post is folks who have finished a good chunk of the game. Or for those who simply do not care about spoilers (you will enjoy the experience either way; I guarantee it!).
Alright, let’s get going on why Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a masterpiece that everyone should play.
The power of revisiting the same world
As I stated, the longer the development of Tears of the Kingdom went on, the more worried I became. It was using the same map and physics engine, so I was anxious about what the devs could really do that was revolutionary. But reusing the same world ended up being a huge strength! I cannot remember a video game sequel where you are able to revisit the exact map from the previous game (with access to all previous areas). Most everyone who played Breath of the Wild explored it to a ludicrous extent, playing well past 100 hours. We all got to know, and love, this desolate but beautiful land of Hyrule, its inhabitants, and its gorgeous environments.
And now we get to return to it and see how everything has changed! While BotW was all about coping with tragedy and finding hope in a broken world, TotK takes the next natural step and is all about rebuilding and moving forward. This is both literal, in terms of structures and buildings, and more metaphorical, in creating new community and trust.
These themes were so resonant for two big reasons. The first is that I had grown so attached to Breath of the Wild’s version of Hyrule. That game is immensely special to me and I am very attached to the world and, especially, the different races and cities that embody it. Getting to see how everything had changed in the last five or so “in game” years was powerful and emotionally moving in a way I truly did not expect.
I got irrationally excited to see some “old friends” again, and even finding a few random NPCs who have “moved up” in the world were insanely fun Easter eggs. This is perhaps best embodied in the new town of Lookout Landing. Built right in the middle of Hyrule Field (which was a horrifying wasteland packed full of guardians in BotW) it represents the resilience, hope, forward-thinking community that is Hyrule.
The second is that it gives me hope when in our actual world (I’m writing from the USA) there is so much breaking and tearing down that happens rather than building new and wonderful things together. It’s the inspiration I need right now. I loved finding the Animal Sanctuary in Huron and new school in Hateno, both built by Zelda, who takes guiding her people so seriously. And the fact that each companion you meet in the main quest accompanies you personally, then allows their spirit to be with you anytime, is wonderful!
If you saw any of the trailers or promotional material, you knew the sky would be a new traversable area in Tears. And it’s a delight. The sky islands are a sort of massive playground of fun mini-puzzles and opportunities to experiment with Zonai devices! (which are strewn about liberally).
You can find shrines, unique challenges, treasure maps for awesome loot (usually hidden far below Hyrule…) and most importantly for me, beautiful vantage points to survey the map. The temptation to “island hop” from landmass to the next until you’re out of options is irresistible. And the rewards are always worth it! (find the “diving ceremonies” if you haven’t already)
I feel like this would be a good time to discuss how insanely impressive the draw distance is in Tears. When Link jumps off of a sky island or launches from a tower, you can see so much of the world around you. Not only is it breathtakingly gorgeous, but you will always see something of interest you want to explore. The Sky is a great jumping off point for any quest, and it is simultaneously so calming and pensive in its atmosphere. Then there is the antithesis…
How Nintendo managed to keep the Depths secret from all of us I will never know. The first time I fell down one of those mysterious chasms (where you just keep going until landing in pitch darkness with a disconcerting horn sound to herald your arrival) I thought to myself “oh, what a neat little underground area”. Slowly it began to dawn on me that the Depths were as big as the overworld of Hyrule. That blew my mind. Couple that with how the topography is the inverse of what it is above, and how many damn cool secrets there are to be found (like Hero of Time armor set from Ocarina!), and you’ve got a recipe for sustained intrigue.
Exploring the Depths completely changes the gameplay. You must exercise much more caution, carefully lighting your area with “brightbloom seeds” and maintaining resources instead of charging forward recklessly. Damage from gloom enemies results in (temporarily) breaking a heart that you cannot regain. Boss enemies roam around everywhere. “Light roots” can be sought out to permanently light up small areas of the map, and they are addicting to find once you start (you can always see the next one just ahead in the distance). The revelation that light roots each matched shrines above was also huge! It made finding additional shrines and roots I missed so much easier than it was in Breath of the Wild.
The density of FUN in the world
Many complaints I heard about Breath of the Wild focused on the “emptiness” of the world. Though I personally disagree, I can totally understand that viewpoint. But this is not the case in Tears of the Kingdom. There is a ridiculous amount of enjoyable, meaningful things to do and collect EVERYWHERE you turn in the game. The tagline I heard of BotW being “The Legend of Zelda: Hey What’s That Over There??” is a hundred times more true here!
On my way to the first dungeon (which took me more than 30 hours to reach because I kept getting distracted!), I got engaged in the following: activating Skyview Towers, finding glyphs with memories, finding caves (and the Bubblefrog in each), helping “sign guy”, doing numerous sidequests at Stables, doing recurring sidequests (Lucky Clover reporting!), exploring Sky Islands from launching from the towers (can I glide all the way there??), exploring the Depths in all its terror, and finishing shrines.
And that’s in addition to simply admiring the beautiful scenery, finding Korok seeds, collecting resources, and wiping out enemy camps. What’s important here is the map has been reworked in such as way that there is always something close, fun, and rewarding to do in Tears of the Kingdom! And there doesn’t need to be a thousand markers littering your map; the gameplay loop still encourages organic exploration in pursuit of all these things.
The new abilities
I mean, obviously. Link’s special new arm gives four core abilities. “Rewind” is an intriguingly useful ability where you can stop an object and cause it to move backward in its trajectory. While largely utilized in shrine puzzles, it can also be used to reverse fallen pieces of sky islands upwards or shoot projectiles back at enemies (which is delightful). “Fuse” is all about enhancing weapons and arrows. You can fuse almost anything to your weapon which greatly increases its durability and its power as well. This can add cool elemental abilities depending on what you fuse, too! I had even more fun fusing things to arrows to give them crazy properties (pro tip: fuse bombs to arrows for a sweet AoE affect against the dreaded Gloom Hands).
“Ascend” is my favorite new ability, allowing you to fly straight up through ceilings and out the other side. I will never comprehend how the developers got Ascend working, glitch free, at launch. It was such a joy to use. There are ingenious puzzles to solve with the ability, and traversing cliffs and dungeons with it is infinitely easier and faster. So satisfying! Then there is “Ultra Hand”, which cranks the customization of the game to an 11. Being able to attach so many crazy objects together on a whim is ludicrously fun. Not only can you make neat immovable objects, but actual working vehicles using “Zonai devices”. These take so many forms, giving you infinite possibilities to make machines to explore the land and sky. I’m not nearly as creative as the Internet but I still loved building some cool contraptions!
Shortly before release, the Tears developers proudly proclaimed that “classic dungeons are back!”. I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but the dungeons here are a vast improvement over the Divine Beast from BotW. They are truly part of the environment in each area, have their own unique structures and geography, and quite simply, are more fun.
What I perhaps most appreciated about dungeons was how amazing the approach getting to each was. Take the Rito dungeon, which is a floating Ark far above the Hebra mountains. The climb up the sky islands around them was insanely epic, going higher and higher and HIGHER just when you thought it was over. It ended using sails from smaller airships as literal trampolines to launch inside a vortex of terror to the dungeon itself. Amazing! This is to say nothing of the spectacular boss fight at the end, which you battle in mid-freaking-air using Link’s own sky-diving body as a weapon while an epic theme with notes of Dragon Roost Island from Wind Waker plays:
The build to and culmination of the other major story beats were amazing, too. The trip up Death Mountain via mine cart with Yunobo and through warped-gravity-floating-water-ruins with Sidon will live forever in my memory! Another huge highlight was protecting Gerudo Town from undead Gibdos alongside Riju and the Gerudo army-epic!
The glory of shrines
And let’s not forget the shrines! I was a huge fan of these in Breath of the Wild-I loved the “bite size” approach to puzzles. There are 152 in Tears (the Sky helps hide a few extra!) and I’m even more impressed here. The new abilities really allow for more creative design and more ingenious solutions. I can’t tell you how many shrines ended with me saying “did I do that right?” before I realized that it doesn’t even matter, and that’s the fun of it.
There were also far fewer “combat” shrines and more puzzle-based quests to even activate the entry to shrines, which was great. An additional awesome thing is that the abilities were so fluid that my young daughters could recommend solutions that seriously often worked. It was so much fun solving puzzles with them! Perhaps the best praise I can give to the shrines is was genuinely sad when I found the last one-I wasn’t tired of them at all. (bring on the DLC, Nintendo!)
The story (SPOILER ALERT)
A major criticism of Breath of the Wild was that its story seemed like an afterthought. I completely understand-nearly the entire plot was locked behind “memories” you had to discover. There was little in the actual world you were exploring in terms of story development until you fought Calamity Ganon. While Tears still employs the “finding memories of the past” mechanic in the form of the titular Tears, the narrative is so much more involved here.
This starts masterfully with the prologue. With Zelda, you explore the sealed off tunnels beneath Hyrule Castle where mysterious “gloom” is originating from. Not only is there great banter between the characters and a lot of interesting lore, but the plot is set up to be extremely high stakes early (Ganondorf is revived and immediately destroys the Master Sword like it was a toy, Zelda vanishes mysteriously into golden light, Link loses and arm and wakes up in the sky, confused, with a new one). The central mystery that follows of “what happened to Zelda” and who the mysterious figure that looks like Zelda causing mischief around the map is consistently intriguing and motivating.
Exploration of the past and the founding of Hyrule follows, which always left me in awe. I adored Raura, Sonia, and Mineru and hope to still learn more about them! Story beats of the major races (Rito, Goron, Zora, and Gerudo) are no less exciting and engaging. I found myself fully invested in helping each group with their problems and felt genuine triumph in their cities returning to “normal”. With each main quest finished, you feel all of Hyrule coming together to face the imminent threat of Ganondorf. Which brings us to…
The ending (SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY)
Ganondorf did not have what I would characterize as extraordinary character development in Tears. But sweet mother was he terrifying from start to finish! The final battle was legitimately difficult, and that’s after slaying numerous optional monsters in Hyrule that were considered the “strongest” (White Gloom Lynels, King Gleeoks, etc.). I was surprised at how adept my swordplay had to be to beat Ganon in this game!
And the final phase, where you and Zelda (in Light Dragon form) take on Dragon Ganon? Absolutely masterful and epic beyond words. The final controllable bit where Link dives after Zelda as the main theme of the game swells brought tears to my eyes (and my wife’s-our whole family was there for the finale!). The ending did not disappoint as I admired and loved these characters so much.
And I haven’t even mentioned the atmospheric music of the game, but the ending in particular used it perfectly. The main theme really encapsulates the entire experience beautifully:
So Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a masterpiece…
I honestly cannot believe I played a game for 145 hours and want more. There are so many details I haven’t even mentioned (like Link humming themes from old games while cooking, or the fact that you can throw any item from your inventory which is a game changer!) that show such care, attention, and love.
Tears of the Kingdom is a true testament to Nintendo’s masterful game design. I don’t know where the dev team goes from here, but as always, I know they will surprise me in the future. For the time being, I am going to continue to enjoy my new favorite game of all time and sing its praises. I’ll say it one last time: Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a masterpiece that everyone needs to play!
Have you played Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom yet? (and if not, what are you doing with your life?). What are your thoughts and reflections after playing? Let me know in the comments below!