So, Tears of the Kingdom has been a game that is both extremely easy for me to write about, but really hard for me to focus into a piece of writing I feel good about. Because it's a game that I think is truly special, and because of the breadth of things I have to say about it, the current plan is to do a three part “series” of blogs on it. This is Part 1, which focuses on if I think it manages to recapture the sense of exploration from Breath of the Wild, despite reusing so much of the same world. My intention is that Part 2 will be a deep dive on the game's new abilities and other game design stuff, and Part 3 will go into story, lore, and world stuff? And some final thoughts on how the whole thing comes together as an experience.
No guarantees, if I get struck by lightning before finishing them I'm not editing this in the hospital.
I've been writing about games on this blog for quite a few years now, which really does come in handy every once in a while. Sometimes, when I'm trying to remember how I felt about a game in the moment after finishing it, I'll go look up what I wrote, and skim through it, or even give it a thorough reading. As can probably be easily guessed, after finishing Tears of the Kingdom, I wanted to go back and see how I felt about the previous Zelda game, Breath of the Wild. Here's a couple snippets, from the end of my blog at the time (and a linkto the full thing, though please ignore the few typos I saw upon re-reading that I must have missed in 2017.)
“That story quest stuff, and the dungeons are really my two biggest gripes with the game. But, let me put it another way: Were it not for those, this would be, for me, one of the greatest games ever made. If the dungeons were on par with the best in the series, and it didn't have awful stealth sequences, it'd be practically perfect.”
“Overall, I really, truly love this game. At its best, it's a phenomenal game, and so much of it is so good, that it makes it very easy to overlook the times when the game missteps, even if those missteps are pretty bad.”
The interesting aspect of this to me, is that at some point between 2017 and 2023, something in my brain clicked and I realized that Breath of Wild wasn't just a great game, wasn't just my favorite Zelda game, it was my favorite game. Out of all the games I'd ever played in my years on this Earth, Breath of the Wild was the one. The one filled with seemingly endless wonder, the one I thought about so much after finishing, the one that still filled my imagination for years after playing. It was flawed, and some flaws I only got more critical of after the fact. In retrospect, I'm kind of surprised I opted not to actually write about the whole Link dressing as a woman to get into Gerudo Town thing. Particularly because I have more thoughts about it and gender-y things for Tears of the Kingdom, and this time I will write about them (in a future Part of this series).
Flaws or not though, there was something in my time with BotW that impacted me in a way no other game fully did, before or after. Plenty of games have delighted me in the years since, but none quite the same way. I still think about various combos in Devil May Cry 5 on a regular basis (though I did play the Special Edition recently, so that helped). I still think about the emotional impacts games like the recent God of War games, Life is Strange True Colors, and somehow even the Guardians of the Galaxy game had on me. I'd be lying if I said part of me wasn't still mildly obsessed with Persona 5 Royal. Elden Ring had been the closest game to really approach the feelings Breath of the Wild gave me regarding its world, but that's also a fundamentally different game at its core. I love Souls-style games, but they're not playful in the way that Zelda is, and that aspect of playfulness was part of why Breath of the Wild felt magical, especially as it further nestled into nostalgia in my brain, rather than being something I remembered with perfect clarity.
All of that is to say, as the years passed, and new info for Tears of the Kingdom came out, tiny bit by tiny bit until actual, meaningful information about it was known, I was really doing my best to keep my expectations in check. Even if something is my favorite of something, I don't think it's healthy or smart to go into the sequel expecting it to be better. Obviously I always hope for improvements, that the right lessons were learned, and that leads to a better experience. But I also know that it's tough to beat an initial experience with something. Breath of the Wild wasn't my first Zelda game, but it was the first one of this new style of Zelda game, and being new and different made it feel unique in ways that I assumed Tears of the Kingdom wouldn't, and couldn't.
I also went back and re-read what I wrote about BotW in that year's Moosies, which included this bit at the end:
“And part of me fears it'll be a long time before we get another game like this. I don't mean literally like this, as I wouldn't be surprised if Nintendo was literally making 'Breath of the Wild 2.' I mean a game that unlocks this sense of wonder that I haven't felt in so long. I don't think a straight sequel doing more of the same could do that again. But who knows! I've certainly been wrong before.”
When I wrote out the words “Breath of the Wild 2,” I don't think I was literally expecting Tears to be set in the same incarnation of Hyrule. I think the closest a Zelda game had ever come to re-using the same world was in A Link Between Worlds, which I did not play due to not having a 3DS. Or, perhaps more importantly, I don't love A Link to the Past, so a blatant nostalgia play didn't appeal to me regardless.
Anyway, the point being that after it was known that Tears was originally DLC for BotW that got big enough to become its own game, my expectations shifted. Pre-BotW Zelda may not have been a series that iterated on itself mechanically that much, but it was a series that liked to reinvent itself aesthetically from title to title. Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and BotW are all pretty different from each other in terms of visual style, and overall vibe. Conversely Majora's Mask was built off the foundation of Ocarina of Time, but it was at least set in an entirely new part of the world, and certainly goes for its own vibe.
When so much of what made BotW so special was how exploration focused it was, could returning to that same Hyrule still have that sense of wonder? The answer isn't really a simple yes or no. For me, I haven't touched BotW since 2017, and even though I've watched speedruns and other videos in the years since, it's not the same as spending a hundred plus hours immersed in the game myself. That puts me in this funny spot where there are some areas that I do remember clearly, but others that are kind of a blur. So, had Tears gone the RGG Studio route and this Hyrule was as similar as Kamurocho tends to be from one of their games to the next, it's entirely possible that the fuzziness of human memory could have it feel fresher and newer than it was.
Thankfully, Hyrule isn't exactly the same, and the game does a pretty good job of pointing out what changed during the Upheaval, at least broadly. Strange objects that fell from the mysterious new skylands up above, caves that have opened up all across Hyrule, and some pretty drastic environmental changes in some areas. At least around Death Mountain, now all the lava that used to make the surface so dangerous is content to remain magma below, and only trouble spelunkers.
The most visually striking change to Hyrule is apparent by simply looking up in most places. The new skylands are both really cool, but kind of disappointing in a few respects. There's not as many of them as I wish there were, and I wish there was more variety to their designs. Far too many of them are that same plus shaped one with the launcher than can be spun around, connected to a Shrine that requires the green glowing rock to open, and a Zonai Device dispenser. The larger, more intricate skylands are some of my favorite areas of the game, but there aren't many of them, and some of the smaller skylands almost feel like they wouldn't be worth the time to explore if the view wasn't so breathtaking. Even within the Switch's technical limitations, seeing Hyrule stretch out so far from so high above was just awesome in the most literal sense of the word.
Or, crucially, if the act of exploring wasn't still fun in and of itself. Early on, when resources are still pretty limited, getting from one skyland to another is a puzzle that I couldn't help myself from trying to solve. Often skylands will be grouped together into archipelagos, and usually those can be jumped between (with or without the paraglider), or there will be something in the environment that can be affected to traverse them. Like those launchers, or some more inventive mechanics that I think the game under-utilizes. Like these small objects that when rotated, move another skyland in sync with it, which is so much cooler to see in action than I can accurately describe in words.
Of course, that's all just using Link's existing skill set from BotW, without taking into consideration his handy new abilities. I will go into greater detail on those in Part 2, but suffice to say I really love them, particularly the star of the show, Ultra Hand, and its ability to build objects, contraptions, and maybe most fun of all: vehicles. Now, Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines a “vehicle” as...haha, just kidding. Of course I'm being extremely loose with how I define what a vehicle is, but one of the many beautiful things about Tears is that any ramshackle piece of mickey-moused together junk can be useful in the right context, and pulling off something that shouldn't work with something that I couldn't believe functioned as well as it did felt magical. Even if they tended to involve a lot of careening, bailing off things, and flailing wildly.
Fairly early in my time with Tears, I had a fun journey amongst some skylands, but obviously didn't begin up there. It began on the ground, as I was approaching one of the Skyview Towers that fills in the map for both the Hyrule mainland, and the skylands above. This one in particular was inside a heavily fortified Bokoblin base, and getting in to that Tower was quite puzzling in itself. The base was built up on a big hill, with nothing higher around to glide in on, and there was only one (guarded) entrance that I could see. Obviously a frontal assault would be the “simplest” solution, but this early in the game I didn't have confidence in my ability to win that fight. Not with the flimsy weapons at my disposal, my weak armor, and my not yet being fully reacquainted with the timing for the Flurry Rush dodge or shield parry.
So I kept looking around, and eventually found a pile of old, decaying boards of wood. Naturally, my first thought was to use Ultra Hand to the fullest, and build a really long ramp up so I could simply stroll over the spiked wall barricades, and get to the Tower. That pile of wood just outside this base wasn't quite long enough, but after noticing one of the many “rebuild Hyrule” building supplies at the bottom of the hill, I quickly returned with what I needed to finish the ramp, and I was over the wall, and into the base. The Bokoblins were none the wiser, and soon I was barreling up into the sky, and I had another chunk of the map filled in.
The fact that the Towers literally shoot Link up so high that he bursts through the clouds is one of the coolest things in a game brimming with cool things. Especially when it's raining, but Link flies up beyond that and to a bright sunny sky above, it's just beautiful.
So, having outsmarted a wall by gluing wood together, I was now up in the sky, and took the opportunity to explore amongst some skylands. They were way too far apart from each other to simply glide between, and in fact they only seemed to get higher from where I started. But, strewn about amongst them were these floating platforms. Not floating in the same way the stationary skylands are, I mean floating in that they can be moved around, and other objects can be attached to them with Ultra Hand.
Other objects including (single use) rockets. Now, keep in mind, this early in the game, I didn't have any means of accurately controlling vehicles. And I was more or less dependent on what I could find in the immediate area, rather than having a bag full of fans and gliders to draw upon. So, I looked at those platforms, and the rockets, and figured the intent must be to combine them to keep traversing these skylands. So, with some rockets attached to the platform, I zoomed right over to the next skyland, where I found some more rockets, and repeated this, going further and further along.
Until my final target was a larger, more substantial skyland that seemed like the logical end point of this area. This one was a bit higher than the others, so it was going to require more than just rockets facing in the same direction. One facing forward, and one upward should do the trick, right? Well, at this point, I was getting cocky, and might not have properly thought out my rocket placements. To make a long story short, some mishaps mishappened, and I ended up plummeting downward, the ground mocking me as I fell. Of course I used my paraglider to float gently down, but as I did, I looked around below me... To that little forest, to that stone building, to the path along that little outcropping, and I realized something.
This was the Great Plateau.
The tutorial area from BotW, where it all began. I had through sheer chance, nothing more than luck and (mis)happenstance, ended up back here for the first time since 2017, and it hit me hard. I welled up with so much more emotion than I thought returning to a location from that game could bring up in me. BotW grew to mean so much to me, and returning here, it felt like coming home after being away. Even if it wasn't exactly as I remembered, I couldn't help myself, and just bounded around the plateau, wanting to take it all in. See the spots I remembered, and discover what was new, and different.
Something I hadn't considered before its release, when thinking about if Tears could have that same sense of wonder and exploration, was how it would feel to return. What would returning to locations I had emotional connections to mean? It turns out, they meant a lot, because the Great Plateau wasn't the only place like this. I felt something swelling up in me when I first reached Rito Village, and heard those familiar notes in the music. Even if both the village and the music were overcome with the blizzard burying the region, it hit me (and harder still later when the classic music from BotW came back).
Same thing with Hateno Village out east, I just couldn't wait to see what was the same, and what had changed (also I found it fun that Link somehow got wrapped up in a mayoral campaign out there). I was really saddened that Lurelin Village was overcome with pirates, but the quest to rout the pirates, and rebuild the village was nice. Both because Lurelin didn't really have any purpose (other than to be pleasant) in BotW, but also because it feels good to help people in this game.
That journey that began with a hodgepodge ramp and made it to the Great Plateau wasn't over yet, though. Tears isn't exactly an easy game, especially early on, and unlike when it was a tutorial, this time the Great Plateau was not meant for newcomers. One thing I had noticed around the plateau were numerous chasms, leading deep underground, so after exploring for a while, I decided to take the plunge, and wound up in...
This wasn't the first time I had ventured to The Depths, but it was one of my first major, and really noteworthy treks down there. The surface of Hyrule may have changed, and the skylands above may have been the flashiest thing to show off in the trailers, but The Depths are truly the biggest addition to the world. Quite literally, in terms of sheer physical size. They are a place that somehow manages to feel infinitely and unknowably massive, but also crushingly, terrifyingly claustrophobic. But exactly how large they are is obfuscated by one of my favorite aspects of Tears, namely...
Nigh impenetrable darkness that permeates every corner of The Depths. Darkness so complete and absolute that any attempt at navigating it without a means of illumination is not going to end well for Link. Particularly when stumbling around will often lead to encroaching on groups of enemies way tougher than those that initially appear on the surface, or large patches of Gloom that literally break Link's hearts (his health). One of the smartest changes to Tears over BotW was this addition to the evil gunk that permeates the most corrupted corners of the world. In BotW they simply did damage over time, but here they sap Link's max health away, one heart at a time. And the Gloom also serves as a smart explanation for why the weapons around are so fragile, with differing levels of decay equating to shorter or greater durability.
Between the absolute darkness requiring the usage of some sort of resource to see (throwing brightbloom seeds, torches, Zonai lights, etc), and the accumulation of Gloom slowly degrading Link's max health, early on The Depths aren't really a place that can be explored for too long at a time. I did eventually find an armor set covered in light bulbs that would illuminate a few feet around Link, but even that meant I had to choose between light, and higher defense or other perks of other sets. Of course, The Depths are littered with giant Lightroots that act as a checkpoint of sorts. Each permanently lights up a large area, and will also heal Link's broken hearts, without requiring eating heart repairing foods, or returning to the surface. Plus, they're fast travel points, which is why they're good checkpoints for the overall exploration of the dark underworld.
Now, this particular dive into The Depths wasn't the longest, or most difficult I had, but it was one of the most interesting. If I have any complaint about The Depths it's that too much of it is too samey, but landing at the start of a series of mine carts rails was exhilarating. Having nothing but the small lights around to see, navigating across the rails, from stop to stop, traveling for what certainly felt like a long distance in the moment, but it was so dark there wasn't really any way to know for sure. Eventually the rails did lead somewhere, to a much larger structure, one so huge that I felt giddy with excitement. I had no idea what to expect down there, but this was already blowing me away with its scope, and the possibility of what I'd find next in the darkness. I only wish more of The Depths felt like this. Felt like a more focused experience, rather than being so large, and at times kind of aimless.
Anyway, I won't spoil what I encountered at the end of this journey, other than to say it was a memorable encounter with a character from BotW, and the acquisition of something that I found to be quite useful. This whole journey though, starting with a ramp I built to get over a wall, that led me up into the skylands, back down to an area I had so much nostalgia for, and eventually into the deep dark Depths...
This is what I wanted out of Tears of the Kingdom. That sense of wonder, that magical feeling that anything is possible. I was so curious if Tears could reproduce it, especially when it was reusing so much from BotW, and it's safe to say that not only did it capture that same magical feeling, in many ways it enhanced it. Whether it's new mechanics to allow for new forms of exploration that weren't possible, or new types of locations that didn't exist in BotW, those made it feel fresh again.
The skylands are breathtaking to behold, and often take a lot of ingenuity to get from one to another. And the consequences for messing up can easily lead to Link falling into an entirely different adventure along the way, back on the ground. On the other end of the spectrum, The Depths take that same feeling of wondrous exploration, then twist and invert it. I want to keep exploring, keep delving deeper and further, but they also gave me a sort of foreboding and unease that the overworld never did. It's spooky down there, and early on, really difficult to deal with.
Plus, there's no denying the power of evoking feelings by returning to old haunts, which I hadn't considered, but give Tears a little extra something BotW couldn't really do. BotW reusing names from older games, like Kakariko Village was neat, but not as neat as returning to this Kakariko Village and seeing what was new. And also enjoying that now it runs at a stable framerate! Maybe it was more stable in the Switch version of BotW, but on my dear old Wii U, I don't know that I ever saw Kakariko at a full thirty, except maybe inside a building or something.
Now, back to the point, do I think they could do a hat trick with the same Hyrule a third time? Not so much. I have no idea what the next Zelda game will be, but this time I really don't think they can reuse this exact Hyrule yet again and have it keep working so well. Maybe if it was set hundreds of years later, and there were massive changes to the settlements across the land, but at that point I'd be more inclined to just have it be an all new incarnation. Especially when the existing settlements are so clearly designed around the areas they're in, and it's hard to picture them expanding or growing in any meaningful way.
Though if I had to say what I really want the next Zelda to be, I might be inclined to say a third entry in this series...just one that leaves Hyrule. For as massive as it is, Hyrule isn't the extent of the world as a whole. What lies beyond those cliffs to the north? The ocean to the east, and the desert of the southwest? A world beyond Hyrule is out there, and I would absolutely love to see it explored. To meet new civilizations, and see these incarnations of Link and friends somewhere different.
Do I expect them to do this? Probably not. Nintendo is both extremely predictable, and also entirely unpredictable. Both willing to do wild new things, but also extremely conservative and protective. I wouldn't doubt it if there's a mandate somewhere that Zelda games have to take place in Hyrule, and they have to fit to a whole bunch of arbitrary restrictions that didn't used to be the case. Like how now in Mario, Toads can't have anything resembling individuality anymore, just compare and contrast the Toads across the Paper Mario series. Aside, of course, from the two popular ones that got grandfathered in (Toadette and Captain Toad). Yet in terms of game mechanics, they'll let Mario possess a piece of meat that grows a mustache, or turn into an anthropomorphic elephant.
That's just speculation, of course.
Back to Zelda, I think regardless of what a future game that won't exist for six or seven years is, Tears of the Kingdom is absolutely a worthy followup to Breath of the Wild, and obviously the series as a whole. They not only managed to keep the exploration as fun and wonderful as it was, but added some new stuff to create an even deeper experience than before. So much so that I still have a lot more to say, and as noted at the beginning of this, hopefully that will be up in the not too distant future.
Until then, thank you for reading!