The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Review – Masterpice from Nintendo

Six years on from the debut of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – a genre-defining title launched on the first proper handheld console hybrid – comes the long-awaited release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Just as its predecessor came to ring in the new era, this years-in-the-making sequel is currently looking like Nintendo’s fond farewell to the system that pulled it out of the stinking pit of the Wii U era. But how do you follow up on what many believe to be one of the greatest games of all time?

That depends on your view of what came before, and Aonuma’s team has done it time and time again with Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. Skyward Sword rocked the boat before Breath of the Wild righted the ship – for some. Yet if you’re one of those brave enough to admit that the open-world adventure leaned more on the problematic Wii Zelda era than the GameCube and N64 golden days, there’s a high chance this long-anticipated sequel will be less of a dream walk into the Sacred Realm and more of a swift descent into the Dark World.

Around 30 to 40 hours in, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom looks to be a victim of Nintendo’s obtuse marketing strategy. From hearing next to nothing about the game to getting almost too much information in the weeks leading to release, the suddenly fast-moving cloud of information was mixed too quickly into a pot already simmering with speculation, reaching a boiling point that had people making concrete claims from vague assumptions.

Right out of the gate, I’ll say that Hyrule is largely the same as you left it. After Link and Zelda get a little bit too Indiana Jones for their own good, some characters have moved around, and some of your favourite NPC hotspots may now be teeming with monsters.

For the most part, it’s the exact same bio-diverse world you explored all those years ago, only with more natural caves, a sprawling underground chasm, and frankly too many rock formations in the sky to really care about. New tales are spun throughout it, yet each one has a disappointing air of familiarity. Breath of the Wild’s fiddly controls are pushed further to the breaking point, all in an effort to stack more systems on top of those that split the fanbase almost as much as Toon Link.

The great dungeon debate

The biggest issue with the pre-release marketing push is the classic dungeon debate. For long-time Zelda fans, the condensing of the traditional dungeon format for Breath of the Wild is ultimately what dampened the experience. And Tears of the Kingdom does too little to address those concerns. In fact, mere days before release, a poorly-worded (or translated) tweet referencing an interview-style discussion with the developers convinced hundreds of thousands that dungeons were larger than that of the last game. They’re not. In raw surface area maybe, but in terms of length and complexity? No. And that’s heartbreaking.

Dungeons in Tears of the Kingdom fall much closer to the condensed approach of Breath of the Wild’s Divine Beasts. They may be titled like traditional dungeons, but walk through their doors and you’ll be met with the “find X number of doohickeys” objective that can easily be completed in under an hour without much thought. The Zonai power of Ascend is a great little party trick in some cases, but Fuse, Ultrahand, and consumables create far too many ways to solve puzzles that, in my view, detract from the brain-teasing that made Zelda games so delightful in the first place.

The bosses at the end of the swift sprint are easily more engaging than the endless elemental clones of the primary antagonist we got last time, but they’re still not quite at the level of the Stallord from Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword’s Koloktos. One of them – a returning favourite – is genuinely great. But I do think all the second-guessing and menu shuffling you need to do to fight effectively hampers the flow of some of the more cinematic scuffs. The allies you gain over time to fight by your side can spice things up a bit when they’re not actively getting in the way or running away when you try to call on their boons.

In the developer’s defense, each dungeon has more of a lead-in with their respective quests, which do invoke minor flashbacks to, say, the trip to Ice Temple in Twilight Princess. But rather than instilling that feeling of deserved triumph that the conclusion to any pre-Breath of the Wild dungeon manages, Tears of the Kingdom’s slightly tweaked approach still never reaches that high.

The bosses at the end of the swift sprint are easily more engaging than the endless elemental clones of the primary antagonist we got last time, but they’re still not quite at the level of the Stallord from Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword’s Koloktos. One of them – a returning favourite – is genuinely great. But I do think all the second-guessing and menu shuffling you need to do to fight effectively hampers the flow of some of the more cinematic scuffs. The allies you gain over time to fight by your side can spice things up a bit when they’re not actively getting in the way or running away when you try to call on their boons.

In the developer’s defense, each dungeon has more of a lead-in with their respective quests, which do invoke minor flashbacks to, say, the trip to Ice Temple in Twilight Princess. But rather than instilling that feeling of deserved triumph that the conclusion to any pre-Breath of the Wild dungeon manages, Tears of the Kingdom’s slightly tweaked approach still never reaches that high.

Hooking a cart onto a rail to cross a chasm feels fantastic at first, and using conveniently-placed trash to build a car is good fun. But the sandbox design that allows you to stockpile materials from a literal gacha machine very often makes clearing a puzzle a little easy, while the genuinely convenient ones like portable cooking pots are rarely available when you actually need them. Fundamental game design principles are in full force with this one. You’ll always find a solution to your problem sneakily hidden around it. But there comes a time when the systems in play start to clash, reducing the potential wow factor of each in the process.

There’s frankly too much going on, with no real prizes for bothering to seek out the opportunities. The world doesn’t feel barren, per se, but the rewards for exploring it are virtually non-existent or largely inconsequential. Some of my fondest memories of the Zelda franchise stem from exploring not only to satisfy my own curiosity, but to find game-changing gear, heart containers, new powers and combat techniques, rupees, or even just a bottle for storing potions and bugs. A surprise fight with a dragon is always appreciated, but when the reward is just another Shrine, my enthusiasm to explore takes a nosedive.

Koroks and their bag upgrades remain virtually meaningless due to the returning throw-away combat mechanics, heart containers and stamina upgrades are still limited to shrines that are rarely hard to find, most chests simply contain weapons you probably don’t need, and beyond the returning Zora Armor with its waterfall-climbing gimmick, there’s always a crafty way to avoid needing to find a new type of armour to avoid dying to the environment, also avoiding the need to upgrade multiple sets for necessary defence points in new areas.

On paper, having a million different ways to solve an in-game dilemma sounds great. In practice, it makes swathes of content redundant, leaving little left but a story that takes far too long to advance. A good puzzle is always fun to solve, but when the world is littered with the things, a pat on the back isn’t enough of a reason to seek them out.

The franchise had a great thing going with quest chains that led to mandatory solutions to complicated problems and heart containers behind waterfalls. I miss discovering a new toy in a dungeon. I miss chancing upon a mask that let me explode like a bomb. I miss the Zora Scale that let me dive, the Iron Boots for sinking down or sticking to magnetic surfaces, and I miss the Magic Armour.

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