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My 100 Hours in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Released in May 2023 for the Nintendo Switch

Developed by Nintendo EPD

This year brought us the latest entry in the enduring Legend of Zelda series. Following 2017's groundbreaking entry Breath of the Wild which transcended its comparatively underpowered console to evolve both its franchise and open-world videogames across the industry. Playing that title was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had with a videogame, even though it wasn't perfect. While I was too young to be there for the groundbreaking release of the last prior true innovative Zelda title: Ocarina of Time, playing Breath of the Wild did feel monumental even if it wasn't perfect.

Developed primarily for the undersold Wii U console, delays eventually led it to being released as a swan song for that console as well as a launch title for the far more successful Nintendo Switch. Drawing comparisons to a previous Zelda title, Twilight Princess which simultaneously launched on GameCube and Wii. Breath of the Wild achieved universal acclaim and has in the years following has attracted copycats like Genshin Impact and Immortals Fenyx Rising, while even Nintendo themselves internally took inspiration with their own more open take on Pokémon and even Sonic jumped in on the open-world exploration formula.

Breath of the Wild was hugely innovative and took all the steps forward you'd hope for a franchise that previously had still structurally formed its new entries in the image of Ocarina of Time, released way back in 1998. Tears of the Kingdom was announced as an unnamed 'sequel to Breath of the Wild' back in 2019 and seemed brimming with promise. While usually the next main Zelda title was intended to go in a different direction than the last and reimagine things, here we seemed to be approaching one of the most direct sequels in the franchise's history, and Breath of the Wild was ripe for another game to be made using it as a template.

So for the past couple months I have been spending downtime with Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. My playtime almost eclipsed 100 hours according to my Nintendo Switch's gametime tracker. Comparatively I spent somewhere around 75 hours on Breath of the Wild which is interesting, since I'd still sing the praises of that game a lot more than this one, but also this is undoubtedly an unmissable experience for most people who are into video games.

Tears of the Kingdom is going to largely make an impression on you based on your experience with Breath of the Wild, since this title shares so much with its predecessor. I think I specifically went into this game with an ideal mindset of having finished Breath of the Wild in 2019 and not having touched it since. Because of that, the experience felt like a revisit of that game but with more mechanically complex gameplay ideas and a expanded, busier take on the same Hyrule overworld.

Tears of the Kingdom reuses the overworld from Breath of the Wild with limited changes. Its biggest and completely new change is an enjoyable verticality added to the map in the form of the sky and the depths. Its core Hyrule overworld remains largely the same, but there are now floating islands covering most of the sky and an entire 'dark world' inspired underworld accessed by diving into large chasms. This increased verticality and the ease of accessing the sky makes for the map becoming far easier to navigate this time around which means you will spend less time retracing your Breath of the Wild steps.

What I primarily enjoyed Breath of the Wild for was its hugely detailed overworld and unrestrained access to explore as you wish. In a sequel, a lot of that initial exploratory impulse is lost. There are new caves and wells added to flesh out the map a bit, as well as a few new towns and various changes meant to reflect the ~6 year time skip between titles. Similarly, the core feel and look of the game is identical. Majority of the enemies are the same, as are their placements on the map.

I imagine if Breath of the WIld is more fresh in your mind, then a lot of the stuff that's copy pasted here is a lot less forgivable. To be honest even for me, certain aspects like another map-wide hide and seek game in order to upgrade how many weapons and shields you can hold rings repetitive. The maps feels more concentrated around certain hubs rather than a sprawling odyssey of exploration, as there is less reward to discovering the same places another time.

But before I harp on the things this game doesn't excel at it's worth singing its praises, and there's lots of praise. Any game I can pack in this many hours into without getting bored deserves that!

Firstly, the change of the overworld from a ghostly bastion of exploration into a more living and breathing haven of NPC's is quite well pulled off. If they were going to reuse the same map then I do like a lot of decisions made in progressing that map a little bit. Largely the work put into this game seems to be with new gameplay mechanics, but the towns are more alive this time and the amount of side quests is considerably upped. There's a different sort of character to Hyrule that's appreciated.

Scaling the map to include the sky islands and depths also adds a good way of expanding the map and allowing for an entirely fresh way of exploring. If you're feeling like the overworld is redundant you can go grind the depths, working through the darkness and encountering more of a survival challenge due to the tougher enemies. Alternatively the sky offers some of that Breath of the Wild style mystery and navigating it cohesively requires more out of the box thinking. The fact it's all seamless is also impressive.

Things can start to fall apart when you realise a few things. The sky and the depths are both lacking slightly. Both are designed in a way that encourages constructing vehicles to traverse, but without a hardcore grind it's unlikely you'll have enough battery power, which is upgraded throughout the game, to properly feel like you have the right amount of freedom until later on.

The sky blows its load early, as the tutorial islands that you begin the game on are by far the most elaborately constructed and dense set of islands. You'll soon realise that nothing else comes close to the level design shown for the tutorial, nor is there really much exciting up there compared to the overworld. Some fun skydiving minigames and different sort of puzzles.

Breath of the Wild made a lot of strives to become the new ideal mould for Zelda, but one area it did walk back on was dungeons. Focus was not on them and the "Divine Beasts" that took their place were impressive in how they dynamically inhabited the overworld, but far more open and simple than the labyrinths of the previous titles. The next evolution of the dungeons was something I was hoping to see now that less time was being put into the overworld.

But while a little more impressive this time around, the set of four new dungeons are still not even scratching the level design of classic Zelda. Some barely feel like improvements over The Divine Beasts, feeling like physics based puzzle boxed, a larger version of the many shrines that litter the game. While they are each enjoyable and showcase the game's more interesting mechanics, they aren't quite the next evolution of Zelda dungeons I would've wanted.

Also the bosses, while far better than the set in the previous game, also cannot touch some the the older Zelda titles offerings. Some are repetitive or still reliant on insanely obvious 'hit the gigantic weak spot' offerings. A highlight is the final battle which is far more challenging than the others and actually ends up making the game feel far more assured as it ends. There's a customary final-final boss which reverts back to a 'hit the massive weak spot' design, but this part of the game is more about a final catharsis than offering another challenge.

As a whole I had a lot of fun with Tears of the Kingdom, but despite playing it for longer than Breath of the Wild, it comes in a clear second to its predecessor. It's largely inessential in the Zelda canon, but Breath of the Wild remains so good that a another go around in that game's overworld is good fun, especially given the time away I personally had from the game. Mechanically, it's probably the Zelda most dense with features and is clearly rewarding to those who dig deep into it.

It does point towards to future of Zelda being exciting, though it'll probably be a bit of a wait to get there. As a stop gap though, this does go above and beyond in a lot of aspects.


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