The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom has the unenviable task of following what many consider to be one of the greatest games in recent memory. When it launched in 2017, Breath of the Wild revolutionized the longstanding franchise formula in innumerable ways, giving players the biggest world the series has ever featured and mechanics that allowed them to experiment with the game's physics. After spending more than an hour playing some early moments of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, the answer to how this game plans on following such a tough act is a bit clearer.
One of the first pieces of concrete information players had on Tears of the Kingdom was the existence of the Sky Islands. These floating landmasses serve as new areas to explore, housing new secrets to uncover and fresh enemies to encounter. These, along with various new caves, give more content to arguably the best part of Breath of the Wild: the exploration. However, after my time with Tears of the Kingdom, that's no longer the most exciting part of this anticipated sequel for me.
Make no mistake – I'm still exuberant about the prospects of more enticing exploration in an expanded post-Calamity Hyrule, but after going hands-on with the title, it's Link's new abilities that have me champing at the bit for more time with this game. My time, which was mostly spent exploring the various Sky Islands, let me barely scratch the surface of what mechanics like Fuse, Ascend, Recall, and Ultrahand will allow players to do as they adventure through the world in Tears of the Kingdom.
Before I get a controller in my hands, I watch a brief gameplay demo from a member of the Nintendo Treehouse team. I immediately recognize the area from the gameplay demo by series producer Eiji Aonuma a few weeks ago. Once again, the demonstrator is tasked with building a boat out of three logs to cross a river. Using Link's new Ultrahand ability, he does just that. However, he initially attaches one of the logs incorrectly. It's no problem; by shaking the right stick back and forth, you can undo the last Ultrahand attachment you made.
Once he has the logs arranged the way he wants, he places them in the lake, and I get ready for a familiar sight. To my surprise, this demoer doesn't use the nearby fans. Instead, he goes into a menu, which is quick-accessed using the d-pad, and selects from a list of Zonai Devices. In this menu, I spot the fans we saw before, as well as a portable pot, a single-use item that can be deployed whenever you want to cook a meal. The demoer finally lands on the Zonai Device he was looking for: a rocket. Using the L-button, he brings up a radial menu, which houses all of Link's abilities, and selects Ultrahand. He attaches the rockets to the boat and whacks one with Link's weapon. This activates all the Zonai Devices attached to the vehicle – in this case, two rockets. The rockets pack a lot more punch (and are a bit less even) than the fans we saw in Aonuma's demo, and the force sends the boat soaring over the river.
As the rockets run their course, an energy bar appears near the bottom of the screen. This is a new resource – a secondary stamina bar focused specifically on Zonai Devices. For devices like rockets, which burn out after a short burst, you don't have to worry about remembering to deactivate them. However, for Zonai Devices like the fans, which have a much longer lifespan, you could easily use up all your energy if you don't hit them again to turn them off once you're done.
The player wants to make sure the boat is there for him the next time he comes through this particular Sky Island, so he uses the new Recall ability. Activating Recall slows time to a halt and lets you target any moving inanimate object within a fairly large radius. In this instance, he targets the boat and rewinds time on it to send it back to the other shore of the river.
The hands-off portion of the demo continues with the demoer showing how Fuse can work. He pulls out a stick and whacks a cracked wall to no avail. By selecting the Fuse ability, Link can attach a nearby stone to the stick. Each weapon and shield has a slot you can fill with Fuse. Fusions can add to a weapon's durability or attack power, and some can even grant new properties that you won't know about until you experiment. In this instance, Fusing the stone on the edge of the stick gave the weapon the ability to batter through cracked walls, which the demoer does. He then targets a ceiling and uses the final ability we can talk about today, Ascend, to fly upward through it. Time freezes when he emerges through the other side as he assesses his surroundings. If he deems it safe, he can emerge. If he doesn't think it's a good idea, Link can go back down as if the Ascension never happened. In this instance, Link emerges.
Then, Link stumbles upon an overturned minecart and a rail that leads into a cave. Using Ultrahand, he places a nearby fan on the back of the cart, puts the cart on the tracks, and hops in. Activating the fan pushes the cart along the rails and carries Link up into The Great Sky Island. The cart arrives in a cave that is too dark to see, so Link grabs a Brightbloom seed, which he can throw like a grenade to light up wherever it lands, or he can use Fuse to attach the seed to an arrow for a similar effect.
After leaving the cave, we get a quick look at a large mechanism that looks like a gacha capsule machine. This is a Zonai Device Dispenser. Here, you can trade Zonai Charges you find in your journeys for randomized Zonai Devices to add to your inventory. The mechanic feels very inspired by the capsule machines you can find everywhere in Japan, and it definitely feels like it will come in handy with the Ultrahand ability feeling like such a central mechanic to Tears of the Kingdom. With that look at the Zonai Device Dispenser, my hands-on demo starts where the hands-off demo comes to a close: in the clouds atop the Sky Islands.
The first part of my demo is all about familiarizing myself with the new mechanics on The Great Sky Island. I mess around with the Fuse ability to see how weird of a combination I can make. In one Fusion, I add a box to my shield, while in another, I attach a hook to my sword. And, of course, there's the Fusion showcased in the trailer, where you attach the Keese eyeball to your arrow to create a homing arrow. However, my favorite Fusion I come up with is taking the Zonai Device fan and attaching it to my shield. By doing this, I can push enemies back (and potentially off the edge of the island) by simply drawing my shield. It's a fun mechanic to toy around with, but the fan, unfortunately, quickly degrades the durability of the shield, and it breaks, leaving me with no shield or fan.
This initial demo provides simple encounters and puzzles to let me get my bearings. One such puzzle includes another minecart and a suspended track. However, one side of the track has a big gap, and slowly pushing the cart along them will result in it falling off the rails and down to the valley below. While one solution could be to use Ultrahand to attach a nearby hook to the intact side of the track, I decide to brute-force it. I use Ultrahand to attach a rocket to the cart and blast off from the starting point, hoping my momentum will carry me to the other side. It barely works – the cart jumped off the rails and went tumbling over to the other platform. Had it not worked, I could have used Recall to put it back on the track and try again. Another Ultrahand puzzle involves helping a Korok get to the other side of a gap to see his friend. This one is simple enough; Ultrahand doesn't let you pick up people or creatures, but I can grab his giant backpack and put him into the minecart, then use a fan to send him over to the other side.
In the waning moments of this first portion of my demo, I explore a nearby cave. After looking around, I decide to try the Ascend ability. I target the ceiling and swim upwards through the roof of the cave. I emerge in a snowy peak. Unfortunately, Link isn't dressed for this, so I start losing health thanks to the cold. I then remembered the portable pot Zonai Device that was in my inventory. I take it out and cook a spicy steak dish to give Link some cold resistance while I finish up my exploration in this first part of my demo. After some exploration, I find a Korok Seed – yes, they are back. I look around a bit more, then dive back down into a lake to escape the cold and get back to the main part of the island. And with that, the first part of my demo wraps up.
The second and final part of my demo is an extended traversal challenge laid out by Nintendo. The goal is to start on the surface of Hyrule, reach the Sky Islands, and then arrive at a particular island to complete a goal. It's in this demo that I really get to toy around with the Ultrahand mechanics, but first, I need to reach the Sky Islands. In the trailers, we've seen Link use Recall on a fallen rock and ride up to the sky, as well as Ascend to reach an island that floats above him. In this instance, I battle through a Bokoblin camp en route to the Sky Islands. While my swordplay is a little rusty – it's been a couple of years since my last Breath of the Wild playthrough – I can hold my own. However, things get a little easier when I start remembering to use Link's new abilities.
That is perhaps my biggest takeaway from my time with Tears of the Kingdom: This game is going to require me to rewire my brain when it comes to every facet of this title, whether it be exploration, puzzle-solving, or combat. Initially, I reverted to my strategies used in Breath of the Wild, and while they sometimes worked out okay, it's clear there's an easier way when you embrace the new abilities. My time with Tears of the Kingdom was filled with "Oh wait, I know what to do!" moments as the new mechanics began feeling like second nature.
In this Bokoblin Camp, a Moblin spots me and hurls an explosive barrel my way. Before I can even react, a giant spiked ball rolls me over, knocking out my remaining hearts and triggering a Game Over. After some somber reflection on the loading screen, I think about what I could have done differently. Sure, I could have used stealth or dodged the explosive barrel, but what about using some of Link's new abilities? I decide to be stealthy to a point, then launch an all-out offensive, using the new tools at my disposal. This time, I get within throwing distance of the Moblin and then wait for him to spot me. He once again tosses the barrel my way, but I freeze time with Recall, select it, and then pull the ol' return-to-sender. The barrel flies back towards him and explodes, not only hitting him but also the surrounding explosive barrels, which also blow up, throwing the Moblin off the ledge.
I have little time to celebrate, however, as the spiked ball is on its way to me. I again use Recall to send it back up the hill and through some of the Bokoblins that had started running down the hill after it. Thinking the situation is under control, I storm the gates of the camp, only to realize there are a ton of Bokoblins waiting for me. Not only that, but a massive Bokoblin with a horn is riling them up. I relocate some of the explosive barrels using Ultrahand and Fuse a flame property onto my arrows to try and thin the herd, but it's not enough, and I decide to live to fight another day. I use a new way to get to the Sky Islands, which was housed within the Bokoblin camp, and before I know it, I'm paragliding to the starting point of the challenge Nintendo issued.
I notice a natural progression I could take to get to the designated island, so I start island hopping. The first island features a box that is suspended in midair. The Zonai designs seem to explain why it doesn't obey standard gravity rules, but I decide to use the floating box to my advantage. Using Ultrahand, I attach two of the rockets from my inventory and blast as close as I can get to the next island. To get the rockets aimed in the right direction, I need to rotate them, which is done using the d-pad. Doing so feels slightly finicky, but I rarely had too difficult a time getting things just right.
Soon, I arrive on an island with two large concrete slabs separating two pools of water. I lift the slab with Ultrahand, draining the water, but it falls back down once I release it. Using a nearby log, I hastily try to connect the two with Ultrahand, but it breaks the attachment; I think the weight of the slab is too much. However, by using Recall, I can lift the slab back up for long enough that I can position the log in such a way that the weight is evenly distributed and the Ultrahand connection holds. This drains the pool and allows me to access a treasure chest at the bottom of the reservoir.
To get to the next island, I'll need to build something, but my time is starting to get a little short. Thankfully, Tears of the Kingdom includes a streamlined way to build with Ultrahand, but unfortunately, that's all I can say about it in this preview. I build a glider with fans attached, but my placement was just a little off, and the glider spins out of control almost immediately, sending Link falling off the island. Thankfully, I opened his paraglider just in time to reach the wall of that Sky Island. I climbed back to the top of the island and tried again. This mishap made me realize the joys of experimentation – and even failure – that will take place in Tears of the Kingdom; I am going to accidentally kill Link in so many spectacular ways, and I cannot wait to see the videos of everyone else's creations, successes, and failures.
In fact, that was one of my favorite parts of my time with Tears of the Kingdom: the comparing of notes. There was a handful of other media members on hand for my demo session, and while the Switch loads were swapped out between sessions, we all compared notes of how we approached different puzzles. While some of us took similar approaches, others succeeded using completely different methods and strategies. If a demo this closed off spawns this much discussion and room for experimentation, what's going to happen when millions upon millions of players are let loose into the open world of Hyrule? Those water-cooler moments may very well come to define Tears of the Kingdom.
As I make my approach to the destination Nintendo gave me, I am greeted by one final puzzle, which involves using Ultrahand to manipulate a smaller mechanism to rotate a large platform. You can do this using gyro controls, but I opted to use the d-pad the same way you would when positioning a Zonai Device to attach to a vehicle. Using a combination of Ultrahand movements and the Recall ability, I get the platform to rotate in such a way that it brings me to the final island, which gives me a key item needed to unlock a new area. I can't go into any more detail, but suffice it to say there's a lot about Tears of the Kingdom that we still don't know.
Leaving my hands-on demo, I'm equal parts excited and intimidated by what The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom brings to the table. On one hand, I cannot wait to see just how clever and nearly game-breaking we can get using these various mechanics; it's truly amazing to see Nintendo react to the community's creativity in Breath of the Wild with a sequel that leans into how players used the mechanics in ways they probably never thought of. In giving players even more tools (and just as many new problems to solve), Nintendo is showing it's not afraid of letting players loose in a massive open world with perhaps the most open-ended mechanics it has ever implemented.
Still, there's a part of me that has a familiar sense of worry that my brain won't keep up; it's a similar feeling to what I had when I first fired up Portal 2 (another one of my favorite games of all time). Tears of the Kingdom brings a similar sense of brain-breaking innovation, even in the early hours I experienced. I can't tell you how many times I looked at something with bewilderment, only to think of a new way to use the Recall, Ascend, Fuse, or Ultrahand to create new interactions; there may somehow be even more "Eureka!" moments in Tears of the Kingdom than there were in Breath of the Wild, and that's remarkable to even think about. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom feels like a true evolution of one of the most beloved games of the century, and this demo didn't even touch on the story and featured only minimal combat. I'm excited to learn more about how all these elements work in concert. May 12 can't get here soon enough.
For more on The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, check out All Things Nintendo, Brian's weekly Nintendo-focused podcast. You can see the full feed here or find the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts.