How Far I Got: 75 hours in and feeling fine; I have no plans to stop playing anytime soon. I just defeated the Demon King and rolled credits, so it seemed like a good a time as any to write up my thoughts. I’ve only done a small fraction of the shrines, side quests, and optional bosses, and barely even upgraded my armor before taking on Ganondorf, which made for quite a challenging fight.
What I Liked:
- OK, not everything, but even more so than in Breath of the Wild, just about each element of this game feels like a birthday present. I’m in awe of how well Nintendo built on the foundation they laid with BOTW and crafted a game that supercedes its predecessor in nearly every aspect. Not every change is an improvement—we’ll get to that—but my (very high) expectations were well and truly surpassed.
- The game world is stunning. I still think BOTW has one of the best open worlds in video games, and I would’ve been happy with just a new version of that—perhaps something along the lines of Termina from Majora’s Mask, a non-Hyrule location that echoes the preceding game while offering a fresh environment to explore. But now that Nintendo has effectively tripled the size of the world (at least in terms of traversible space) with the sky islands and the Depths, and allows you to travel the massive distances between them totally seamlessly through really fun new mechanics, I can’t imagine going back to just climbing mountains and riding a horse. I didn’t mind that it reused so much of the previous map. Travelling around to see what had changed was a huge part of the fun and gave me a wonderful sense of connection to Hyrule.
- On that note, let’s talk about the Depths. It’s no wonder that I loved the sky islands, because one look at my art will show you how fixated I am on magically floating scenery. But the Depths are the truly inspired choice in TOTK’s design. When you first visit them, they are genuinely scary in a way that Zelda games rarely attempt (the closest I can think of is the bottom of the well from Ocarina of Time. Come to think of it, was Dead Hand a precursor to the Gloom Hands?). After you get used to the creepy music and start to explore in earnest, you’ll realize that they’re mostly empty, and I found exploring them curiously soothing after a while. But you never lose the sense that you might stumble onto anything down there, and that possibility space they maintain through the simple mechanic of darkness is fantastic.
- The Gloom effect that makes the Depths so threatening is another great design choice. It’s a simple but highly effective way to distinguish a normal combat or environmental challenge from one that’s significantly more perilous. It also expands the cooking and armor mechanics, since protecting yourself from Gloom, or recovering from its damage, is now of high priority.
- The new abilities are so, so good. I can’t believe how well they work. The Ultrahand ability alone would be enough of a core mechanic for most games, and I was amazed at how—after my shaky first attempts with it—it became completely intuitive, even as it allows wild leaps of creativty and ingenuity that will fill YouTube compilations for years to come. Nintendo developers are absolutely brilliant at creating limitations for their mechanics, so you feel a sense of complete freedom, even as they cleverly keep you focused on doing stuff that’s actually fun and useful. I also love that they kept the weapon-breaking mechanic (I am the only person I know who will defend that aspect of BOTW) but figured out how to make it into something much richer through Fuse, largely satisfying players’ complaints without having to remove it at all. Incredible flex there.
- The story was the biggest and most pleasant surprise for me. I have not been this engaged in the actual narrative of a Zelda game since…ever? I wrote a post on how the game represents a new vein of storytelling for the series, and now that I’ve played through the ending, I can say categorically that this is a storytelling triumph beyond anything we’ve seen in a Zelda game before. I love the emphasis on the characters, on relationships, on community. I love the recurring visual motif of hands reaching for each other and the perfect way it comes together in the final moments—which the game also, brilliantly, makes a playable sequence instead of just a cutscene. Most of all, I love that the game made me feel incredible urgency to reuinite with Zelda without ever taking away her agency as a character. Our princess has come a long way since her days as a generic damsel in distress. This is yet another reason why I think the series is finally growing up, and I’m here for it.
- The epic theme music, which has been stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this. BA-DA BA-DA-DUMMMMMMMM…BA-DA BA-DA-DUMMMMMMMM, DA-DA-DUMMMMMMMM…
What I Disliked:
- A FEW THINGS.
- Just a few; this game shoots even higher than BOTW did, so it’s inevitable that there would be a few misses here and there. The biggest one, I think, is…
- Story pacing. There’s so much more focus on the story here than in BOTW, and more characters to actively keep track of, that unfortunately this puts the gameplay—with its total freedom for the player—at odds with the narrative. Scattering critical story beats and showing them to the player in random order, as the game does with Zelda’s memories in the Tears of the Dragon quest, is never going to improve their emotional impact. Likewise, the lack of clarity on how to find Zelda starts out highly compelling, but becomes frustrating over time; characters don’t consistently remember what they’ve learned about her disappearance, and in a few cases seem to lose interest in helping out entirely (I’m looking at you, Impa). I think the ideal player will basically follow the main storyline right from the start, using the open nature of a lot of the quests to do some side exploration at the same time without wandering too far off track. I am not the ideal player. I spent so much time roaming around that by the time I got serious about finishing the main quest there were still many hours of storyline ahead of me, and I started to speed through them impatiently rather than taking time to enjoy them. I don’t know that there’s a solution to this, and I wouldn’t want the game to railroad players onto a more linear path just to cater to flighty gamers like me. But I think there are ways the narrative could flex a bit more to keep a smoother pace even as players chose their own course, and I think Nintendo, if anyone, could figure out how to make it work.
- The other big story problem is Ganondorf. When I watched the trailers, I was really psyched to see Ganondorf return to the series. I figured an antagonist with some actual personality would provide a nice contrast to the inscrutable, force-of-nature characterization of Calamity Ganon. Unfortunately, Ganondorf is a snooze. His visual design is great and he’s a genuinely challenging final boss, but there’s just nothing to him beyond generic villainy. He doesn’t have charisma, he’s not particularly frightening, he’s not goofy or lovable, and he doesn’t bring any pathos or sympathetic qualities to the table. We don’t know why he wants to take over the world, and he doesn’t seem to either. He’s just here to growl about how powerful he is until we smack him in the face with a sword enough times that he stops. A real missed opportunity here; even a simple closing speech that makes us feel a little bad for him, like in the end of Wind Waker, could have enriched him a ton.
- This game completely nerfed my BOTW strategy, which was to farm a ton of hearty durians and inflate my health with them during any hard fight, rather than actually upgrading my hearts. Now the Gloom effect instantly cancels out the extra hearts, and the durians have been removed from Hyrule completely. Yes, this was probably a good design decision because I was totally exploiting what they had before. But I’m still going to grumble about it.
So is it better than Breath of the Wild? I have no idea how to answer this question–and let’s be honest, the answer doesn’t really matter—but I keep coming back to it. Breath of the Wild is one of my favorite games of all time and one of the most celebrated games in recent memory, and while it remains eminently playable, the release of Tears of the Kingdom changes one thing: it’s no longer unique. TOTK takes nearly every aspect of it and polishes it to a mirror shine, while still taking wild new chances. Does that mean BOTW has been dethroned? I wouldn’t say so; TOTK is standing on the shoulders of a giant. Everything that makes this game great builds directly off of BOTW.
It just doesn’t seem possible to regard the two separately. I think I would’ve loved TOTK even if I hadn’t played BOTW, but I doubt it would have carried the same emotional heft. Likewise, I can’t regard BOTW the same way I used to, now that I’ve seen how much would grow from the seeds of its ideas. Should we think of these games as parts one and two of Zelda: The Hang-Gliding Link Saga? I have no idea who that benefits, but I’m going to do it anyway.
Where does Zelda go from here? I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to answer that question. This is going to be a very tough act to follow. But then again, so was Breath of the Wild. I think Nintendo has earned our confidence by now. And I have many, many ridiculous contraptions to build while I wait for the next entry in the series.