The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Review

Ask yourself this: what do you want from a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? More enemy variety? Better dungeons? Totally unexpected new ideas? Or is simply more Hyrule to explore enough for you? Thankfully, you don’t have to pick just one, because Nintendo’s response to all of those answers is a casual but confident, “Sure thing.” The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom doesn’t necessarily revolutionize what already made Breath of the Wild one of the greatest games of all time, but it’s not a sequel that’s simply more of the same, either. This sandbox is bigger, richer, and somehow even more ambitious, with creative new systems like vehicle building, ridiculous weapon crafting, and a revamped map with a dizzying amount of depth further fleshing out the intoxicating exploration that made the original so captivating. Breath of the Wild felt far from unfinished but, inconceivably, Tears of the Kingdom has somehow made it feel like a first draft.

Before we dive too deep into Hyrule, a quick note about spoilers. I won’t spoil the (actually pretty great) story Tears tells, but these games are about so much more than the plot. That magic the first time you see one of BotW’s dragons soaring overhead is around every corner here too, and the last thing I’d want to do is steal the many moments that made my jaw literally drop from you. That said, there are some huge parts of Tears that are introduced fairly early on that I will be talking about because of how fundamental they are to why this game is so impressive. I am going to preserve as much of the magic as I can but, if (like millions of others) you’ve already decided you are going to play Tears, you should probably just go play it and then come back to share in the wonder with me later.

On top of that, you’ll likely want to have played BotW to fully understand much of what I’ll be discussing here – not to mention because it’s an incredible game and you’re depriving yourself by skipping it. Tears looks even smarter and more expansive when you know what came before it, but many of the recognizable basics shine just as brightly. Things that are as simple as being able to climb nearly any wall or glide as far as your expandible stamina will take you, or the concept of shrines acting as self-contained puzzle chambers you can solve to boost your abilities are things I don’t have time to get into here simply because there’s so much new to cover.

I can safely say people who enjoyed BotW will almost certainly like Tears, partly because of just how similar these two games are. The initial structure is a very familiar one: you start in a masterfully crafted introductory area where you learn the ropes and get a new set of powerful abilities, then dive into the open world with a main quest marker that quickly splits into four. From there you are free to do whatever the heck you want. You can even march right to the finale of the campaign if you know where to look, though that’s not quite as straightforward to attempt this time around (which is probably for the best, as I do not recommend it for anybody but the inevitable speedrunners, whom I proudly salute).

The story stands out from your typical Zelda plots.

The bulk of the cutscenes and big story moments are also once again collected at specific spots around the map, shedding light on the history of Hyrule and the source of the “Upheaval” – a bombastic event at the start of Tears that opens up menacing chasms, causes the ruins of an ancient civilization called the Zonai to appear floating in the sky, and peppers the surface with new structures and strange anomalies. This still might not be the best storytelling structure over the course of such a large game, as it leaves you without much direct interaction with its central characters for most of your time playing, but that’s very easy to forgive when the story itself is so dang cool.

Sure, it’s about stopping some evil jerk (welcome back, Ganondorf) and saving Princess Zelda as usual, but the direction that familiar shell is taken is buck wild at times in the best possible way. I’m still a bit amazed Nintendo decided to go the way it did, and the freshness that surprise provides helps Tears stand out amongst your typical Zelda plots. It’s not storytelling on the level of a game like God of War or anything, but it can be a legitimate high point instead of simply the entertaining background flavor it was mostly relegated to in BotW.

Exploration is the lifeblood of the recent Zeldas, though, and doing so is still an absolute delight in Tears – especially when the new building system empowers you to slap together custom cars, boats, and flying machines that truly let you navigate its world however you want. BotW has influenced countless other games since its release in 2017, but one of the most important lessons that very few of them seemed to learn is that a blank map can be more powerful than a full one. There is an enormous amount of stuff to do and see, and if you were handed a checklist of waypoints to methodically clear off right away it could easily feel overwhelming rather than exciting. Instead, you are given the bare minimum you need to complete the main quest, a pile of pins, and a blank map just begging you to fill it in yourself.

Marking down points of interest as you dive in from the sky, hearing rumors as you talk to townsfolk, or simply getting lost and stumbling by something interesting is so much more rewarding than following an arrow to your next destination. It comes from experience, but Nintendo has incredible confidence that we will seek out the map’s secrets without being led directly to them – and if we don’t see absolutely everything, that’s okay. It makes the whole adventure feel so natural, so much less “video gamey” than you might expect, which is particularly important when Tears basically doubles the size of this world.

This may be the same map, but it in no way feels repetitive.

While this is the same fundamental map of Hyrule, it in no way feels repetitive to explore – even as someone who’s scoured BotW for secrets. The story doesn’t give you a hard number, but it’s been a few years since the defeat of Calamity Ganon, and the people are rebuilding. The main town is a brand-new outpost that has sprung up in Hyrule Field just outside of the castle, giving you a hub that evolves in entertaining ways as you progress. It’s a ton of fun to recognize characters or locations and see how they’ve grown or changed, but even beyond those explicit differences, Tears simply sends you along unexpected paths and to unfamiliar locations. That made me constantly see parts of Hyrule I knew and loved from a different perspective, breathing plenty of life into a map that clearly still had more than enough to give.

And if that’s not enough for you, there are also more substantial changes. I’ll leave many of the fine details for you to find on your own, but I will say that whole areas have been drastically altered by the Upheaval, causing unexpected weather anomalies or creating brand-new terrain for chests and shrines alike to hide in. The main quest has you marching toward many of those areas head-on, but there are also plenty of examples off the beaten path that I’ve discovered across the more than 100 hours of playing (and I’m sure there are many more I’ve missed). For example, the beach town of Lurelin in the southeast didn’t play a huge role in BotW, but almost immediately Tears tells you it’s been attacked by pirates, putting both its rescue and its rebuilding in your hands.

And if that’s not enough for you, there are also dozens and dozens of caves, wells, and sky islands to explore. These are all largely self-contained little encounters to complete, ranging from hidden fairy fountains to expansive obstacle courses that put your cleverness and combat prowess to the test. I loved stumbling upon a new cave and fighting my way through winding halls full of monsters to find some hidden piece of armor at the end – or sometimes even a larger boss monster guarding a shrine. Meanwhile, looking up instead of down, using one of the new Skyview Towers to launch myself into the air let me easily find shrines on the surface before gliding to a nearby floating archipelago filled with its own challenges to take on.

And if that’s still not enough for you, then boy oh boy did I save the biggest for last – and let this also serve as a final warning that if you want to know nothing beyond what’s been shown in trailers and previews, turn back now (granted, this part is revealed to you very shortly after the introductory area). Even with all of what I’ve talked about so far, I can understand if someone might think Nintendo took a safe route by reusing the same (if altered) map, but it was when I dove down one of the angry, red chasms that dot the surface and into the Depths below that all my doubts melted into pure, joyous amazement. Rest assured that the generally small sky islands do not represent the entirety of the new area to explore, because waiting beneath is a dangerous, pitch-black map that is literally the size of Hyrule itself. It is massive. I have played over 100 hours of Tears and I have revealed maybe half of this wondrous new area.

Any doubt melted into pure, joyous amazement when I dove down my first chasm.

While roughly the same size as the surface, the Depths doesn’t have as much in the way of side quests or story moments but is full of treasure chests to seek out and plenty of surprises worth discovering for yourself, many of which are brilliantly hidden in plain (if very dark) sight. It acts as Zelda’s version of a “poison swamp”-style nightmarescape, too, thanks to a red substance called Gloom that coats both its terrain and enemies. When you take damage from Gloom, your max health is decreased until you either return to the light or eat a Gloom-removing meal, adding an enjoyable mounting pressure to every fight.

What do I mean by “return to the light?” That’s a whole different can of worms. The Depths is completely dark (like, Advanced Darkness dark), meaning you have to throw out collectable Brightbloom Seeds as you walk to see where you are going, which gives exploration a totally different and much tenser feel. There are no shrines in the Depths; instead, there are dozens of structures called Lightroots that heal your Gloom damage and illuminate a part of the map around them when activated, giving you another completionist goal that’s equal parts compelling and extensive.

Taken all together, the Depths and the sky islands act as brilliant complements to the more traditional surface activities, stretching a structure I was already intimately familiar with into beautiful settings and wild situations I very much wasn’t. Whether it’s lighting up the darkness below, flying a custom glider between floating rocks hundreds of meters up, or just seeing what’s down at the bottom of some random well, there is so much to do in Tears that it’s easy to spend hours upon hours completing tasks without ever once looking at your quest log. You might be heading to a point of interest only to get sidetracked by some cave worth exploring nearby or a citizen with a quest for you, and suddenly you’re off getting hopelessly distracted by a delightfully spontaneous activity that’s just as exciting.

That was part of the magic of BotW too – as well as plenty of other great open-world games – but now there are uncountable opportunities to end up wildly far away from where you thought (almost always incorrectly) you were going. One time I was making my way toward a tower hoping to chart a new section of the map when I stumbled upon a friendly drummer in need of some honey, so I promptly switched priorities and headed toward a nearby forest in search of bees… and of course, it wasn’t very long after that I was in the literal underworld being murdered by a giant robot as a result. I just wanted some honey. Nintendo had different plans for me, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

It’s hard to overstate how big this game feels, even in the context of Breath of the Wild.

In 2017, I had played just over 80 hours of BotW when I finally decided to beat the final boss, feeling content that I had done all of the side quests, shrine hunting, and other odds and ends that I wanted to do. Not quite all that existed, mind you, but definitely a significant majority and certainly all of what really tempted me. Similarly, I beat Tears’ main questline around the 82-hour mark, but this time I feel like I have barely done half of all the things I still want to. Even more than 20 hours after that, I still have dozens of Lightroots to find, plenty of shrines left to complete, two maps marked up with loads of unexplored points of interest, a laundry list of side quests waiting for me, and so much more.

I took my time playing through the main quest stuff, too, letting myself wander and get distracted as I so love to do. It’s hard to overstate how big this game feels, even in the context of a predecessor that made me say that exact same thing. The in-game tracker tells me I’ve barely passed 50%. Send help.

So much of Tears feels like a direct response to BotW and what people have said about it since its release, a fact that can be seen clearly across its bolstered enemies and weapons, but perhaps most obviously in its dungeon design. The Divine Beasts got a lot of flack for bucking usual Zelda dungeon trends, and while their equivalent in Tears doesn’t scratch that itch of collecting a compass, map, and key item like in older Zelda games either, they are at least a lot more thematically interesting and varied this time around. The tasks themselves aren’t actually very different from the Divine Beasts, but their flavorful new context and the epic paths that generally lead up to them are a thrill, making them all far more entertaining than the rather restrictive insides of those ancient machines.