The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is battling impossible expectations. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild represented a radical and successful reinvention of The Legend of Zelda – a series considered by many to be the apex of game design. Despite its numerous changes to Zelda’s formula, Breath of the Wild was a massive success and its legacy only grows stronger with time.
To give Breath of the Wild a direct sequel (a rarity in Zelda canon) is a dangerous prospect. The resulting game lacks the admittedly difficult-to-recreate, undeniable impact and newness of the prior game. Instead, it gives players a chance to revisit the world through a completely new lens with new abilities for a brilliant adventure providing players a staggering amount of agency in how they approach nearly every gameplay instance.
Tears of the Kingdom mostly takes place on the ground in Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, but it doesn't feel like a retread. New traversal options that change how you explore the world combine with the passage of time to make this Hyrule different, like visiting the town you grew up in after being away for many years. You have a good idea of where things are, but they are different and exciting to explore when you get there. That balance of novel and familiar on the ground is well-executed, and the islands in the sky create wholly new, substantial areas to explore. Figuring out how to leap from island to island in the sky is consistently thrilling, and exploring Hyrule’s caves is dark and intimidating, creating potent exploration options to suit your mood.
Link's new abilities are the main draw of Tears of the Kingdom. Fuse, which lets you combine weapons, shields, items, and more, rewards experimentation and impressively makes every single item in the game – every rock lying on the ground, every plant you pick up, every Zonai technology-infused shield – have some value. It makes the act of collecting even more fun because you can ask yourself stupid questions like, “What if I attached an acorn to a bladed staff?” and arrive at answers.
Item degradation makes a return, which is a system I appreciate for making everything I pick up become something I actually use. Quality-of-life improvements also make managing your various tools much easier, and Fuse means you can collect and combine more weapons if you just hate the idea of leaving things behind.
Ascend, allowing Link to move through any ceiling within a certain distance, is impressive in its implementation and practicality. It’s one of the abilities that radically changes how you move through the sometimes familiar world. Recall, which makes objects in the world move backward in time, frequently had me questioning if something would work, only to discover that, yes, it absolutely works in joyful ways.
The king of the abilities, and frankly the king of Tears of the Kingdom, is Ultrahand. The simplified pitch is it allows Link to connect objects. I was intimidated by the new mechanic when it was introduced, and the controls do take some getting used to, but it did not take long for me to become Hyrule’s number one combination contractor and engineer, and I relished the title.
Combining objects to solve simple puzzles to creating complicated flying contraptions with a series of fans, rockets, and batteries is a delight without ever making you spend too much time on any one project. Tears of the Kingdom recognizes what you are trying to make in nearly every instance, which means simple acts like attaching a steering wheel to a platform with four tires works with little fuss. But it also accounts for much more complicated builds, and I was frequently surprised at what I could quickly create and implement into puzzle solving.
Ultrahand is the rare mechanic that sneaks into your brain and makes you contemplate it while outside of the game. The highest compliment I can give is that I dreamed about Ultrahand, rotating pillars and attaching them to boxes in my sleeping brain the same way I saw orange and blue circles in my dreams when I first played Portal. It is Tears of the Kingdom’s most significant achievement.
The adventure is full of other highlights, as well. The story begins with an engaging conceit and only builds to an excellent conclusion. It also doesn't repeat a big narrative issue of the first game: Where was Zelda the whole time? Thankfully, the story knows it's a sequel and acknowledges what came before. You can check in on characters and locations of the past to see how they have changed. The story does not step too far out of the bounds of what we have come to expect from a Zelda plot, but I liked the turns it took, and I was eager to see where it was going.
Structurally, Tears of the Kingdom is familiar with combat working functionally the same. New Shrines that are fun to solve and reward fast-travel locations litter the map, and there are a few traditional Zelda dungeons. The new dungeons are simplified but don't sacrifice puzzle design while being easier to understand. The new dungeons also have great bosses. I appreciated that they are more varied and allow you to lean on recently learned, specific abilities to claim victory.
Video game sequels are often iterative on what came before them. It looks a little better, plays a little smoother, retains important mechanics while introducing new ones, and continues the story. Tears of the Kingdom checks most of these boxes, but getting rid of the Runes from the first game and giving players new ones to use in exploring a familiar but undeniably new world is ingenious. Nearly every encounter, whether puzzle, traversal, or combat, must be reconsidered. It makes you think in new ways. I didn’t get the same goosebumps exploring Hyrule as I did in the past, but I did experience new emotions both on a granular level from solving individual puzzles and on a larger scale by going back to one of my favorite video game locations. They say you can never go home again, but I adored returning to Hyrule with all new tools.