Review | The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Dungeons are back and like the Avengers, Link builds an infinity gauntlet.
Need I say more?
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a joy to play; delicately balancing creative freedom with the temples, boss fights and story beats that made the series famous.
Yes, this world feels familiar. It reuses the same basic map as its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, but it would be underselling it to say that Hyrule has changed dramatically.
Trailers asked fans to look to the sky without ever revealing the darkness of The Depths; an entirely new underground realm which more than doubles the size of the world players have to explore.
You can leap from an island in the atmosphere, dive through a hole in the surface and land in this underground world without any loading screens; which is an astounding achievement on the ageing Nintendo Switch.
Occasionally, the game's frame rate will stutter or slow when explosions and enemies fill the screen, but never to the point of affecting my enjoyment of the game or its story.
If you could only buy one game in 2023, Tears of the Kingdom would be my pick.
After waiting six years to return to this version of Hyrule, Nintendo does not disappoint.
Tears of the Kingdom starts in much the same way as its predecessor, Breath of the Wild.
After Ganon is resurrected and a falling Zelda disappears, the music swells and Link leaps in spectacular fashion through the air, diving into a pond on the Great Sky Island.
Think the Great Plateau, but suspended in the sky.
A ghostly king instructs you to complete four shrines and acquire four abilities before you can access the rest of the world.
At this point, I was worried Tears of the Kingdom was a little too familiar.
That feeling struck again when crossing paths with the character Purah, who suggests Link investigate strange phenomena affecting the people of the Rito, Goron, Gerudo and Zora tribes.
Thankfully, what happened next blew those concerns out of the water.
I tip-toed around an ominous, gaping hole in Hyrule field and hesitated, frightened of what it was and where it could lead. Beside me was a man peering into the darkness below, who told me off for startling him so close to the edge. I nervously took a leap of faith and watched Link plunge head first into the void. It felt like he was falling hundreds of metres before I spotted a flicker of light, opened his sail cloth and landed safely at the centre of The Depths.
Engulfed in darkness, I pushed Link toward a faint orange glow in the distance. That glow, turned out to be called a 'light root' which – once activated – illuminated a small pocket of a new world tainted by gloom; a dark red goop that sucks away Link's vitality and lowers his maximum health.
Immediately, a bad cliche sprung to mind: "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore".
TIME TO BREATHE
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, like its predecessor, begs players to explore.
And there is undeniably more to uncover when revisiting this Hyrule.
Where you go and what you do is, again, entirely up to you.
Yes, there are quests to chase but what's impressive is how the world subtly pulls players between the surface, sky and the depths without ever demanding it.
New items – like the bomb flower – can only be found in the depths.
Link can (generally) only collect Zonai devices on islands in the sky.
All are useful on the surface – and vice versa – and there are more meaningful examples I won't spoil here.
It feels so natural in the context of the game world that players may never even notice, but it's impressively balanced to ensure players never get stuck in one place and the surprises keep coming.
TOYING WITH TIME
Looking back on Breath of the Wild, fans have criticised how it chose to tell its story.
Memories you find in that world fill you in on a great war that happened 100 years ago.
That hasn't changed dramatically in Tears of the Kingdom.
I won't spoil anything here, but the story goes to some weird and wonderful places.
Frustratingly, those memories don't play in order. If, like me, you find them wildly out of order, important moments don't land quite the same way.
What's better, is the balance the game's director Hidemaro Fijibayashi has struck between old school Zelda staples and 'breaking the conventions' of a franchise that's 37 years young.
Dungeons are back and they are executed brilliantly.
After more than an hour launching higher into the sky with the help of the Rito warrior Tulin, I thought, 'oh cool, this must be a dungeon integrated into the world. I must be close to the final boss'. Then I dove into a floating hurricane, landed on a flying ship and the words 'Wind Temple' appeared on screen.
Ecstatic does not do my five-second fist pump justice.
Lleyton Hewitt wishes he could have yelled 'C'MON' like I did at that moment.
And the bosses – wow.
Not all are created equal, but the best rival some of the series' all time greats.
I loved Breath of the Wild and – while they suited the story – four Divine Beasts that all looked similar and featured four versions of the same boss left a little to be desired.
Tears of the Kingdom does not have the same problem.
However, somewhat bizarrely, at the end of its first four dungeons, a variation of the exact same cutscene plays. It wears pretty thin over time and is an odd decision in a game that throws original idea after idea at players.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Link's ability to build and pilot vehicles has been central to selling Tears of the Kingdom.
But the fact that it's getting a mention this late in my review says something.
TikTok and YouTube will run wild with videos of players' craziest creations for months but, outside of hopping between sky islands and navigating gloom infested sections of the depths, they're rarely necessary.
'Ultrahand' – one of Link's four new abilities – comes into its own within Shrines.
The puzzles hidden within also make great use of the 'Recall' ability (which rewinds an object's momentum) and 'Ascend', which Link uses to swim to the top of surfaces above him.
All are at their best when challenges demand they're used in unison; not to mention critical in exploring Hyrule.
My runaway favourite ability is 'Fuse'.
It starts simply enough. Combine a rock and a stick to create a club that can break a boulder.
You can have fun fusing two spears into a wildly impractical weapon twice the size of Link or to a shield to an explosive barrel that will devastate the enemy that hits it but keep Link safe.
But by the end of the game, if you're not combining the right weapons and item, you won't pack enough of a punch to best the toughest enemies.
Yes, the Master Sword still 'breaks'. Weapon durability is back.
I actually liked being forced to gather and try new weapons in Breath of the Wild when older ones broke, and it remains a licence to experiment in Tears of the Kingdom.
SHOULD YOU BUY IT?
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is something special.
It is better than Breath of the Wild with a bigger world, more to do and a grander story.
The freedom to create weapons, vehicles and solutions to puzzles is unlike anything I've ever experienced and the physics which underpin it all remain sensationally sound.
I would have paid $500 for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. More, in fact.
Hyrule feels real and it's a world I don't want to leave.
After dozens of hours completing the game's story, I can't wait to spend dozens more completing every side quest, collecting every item and finding (almost) every Korok.