I climb up onto a giant lilypad floating in the middle of a lake and it sinks under my weight, leaving me submerged up to my shins.
Piloting a raft upriver, I accidentally get too close to a little cluster of ducks, spooking them and making them take flight.
From a mountaintop, I watch a magnificent dragon soar through the sky. I’m too minuscule, too insignificant to warrant its attention.
In a million little ways, Tears of the Kingdom’s world is alive and responsive to my presence. It’s also, at times, wonderfully indifferent to me. I may be a hero of legend with a great weight of destiny on my shoulders, but I’m also just another person going about my life. Dogs frolic, horses run free in the fields, merchants take goods from one place to another—the song of life carries on without my involvement. The weather, heedless of my struggles, is apt to make my life more difficult, making surfaces I wish to climb slick with rain or blasting me with bolts of lightning. I am not the center of the universe, but as I traverse the mountains and the rivers, Hyrule responds to me nonetheless, over and over reminding me of my place in the family of things.
With 2017’s Breath of the Wild, Nintendo boldly reinvigorated its beloved fantasy series, The Legend of Zelda. For decades, Zelda’s design had stagnated, becoming a rigid, lifeless sequence of locks and keys. The tales the games told were full of magic, but the gameplay had little magic or wonder to offer. Breath of the Wild changed all that, giving us a vast Hyrule full of natural beauty and magical mystery. The revelation that Breath of the Wild’s follow-up would be a direct sequel, set in the same Hyrule and continuing the story of the same Link and the same Zelda, left me concerned that we might be back on the path to sameness, that Nintendo might play it safe with sequels that just replicated that game’s design principles rather than finding new ways to build on the series’ potential. Instead, though, what we’ve gotten is another game of incredible inventiveness, one that encourages play in the truest sense, that reminds us, if we’ve forgotten, that the world is full of magic, after all.
Though Breath of the Wild’s narrative saw an amnesia-ridden Link rediscovering memories of his own past that illuminated his connection with Princess Zelda, the real relationship at the game’s core was the one between Link and Hyrule itself. You’re constantly climbing rocks, and it always starts thunderstorming at the worst time. Breath of the Wild really brings its own terrain to the forefront, making you aware of the natural world around you in a way few games do.
The result was a game where just being in the world was its own reward. I’d climb mountains not because I expected to find some valuable item at the top, but just because I wanted to see the view from up there. While so many games incentivize us to explore with the hope of finding some item that will make us better or faster or stronger (I’m currently scouring every nook and cranny of Diablo IV for Altars of Lilith and the incremental bonuses they bestow), this was real exploration, of the sort where I just wanted to see what’s around the next curve in the road for its own sake.
Now Tears of the Kingdom returns us to the same Hyrule. How can exploring the same Hyrule, one so many of us became so familiar with in Breath of the Wild, remain compelling a second time around? Because the passage of time leaves its mark on all things, and this Hyrule is deeply marked by time. Specifically, an event called the Upheaval has left Hyrule greatly changed, bringing floating islands into view in the skies above, opening chasms to vast depths below, and generally leaving the landscape significantly altered.
In many ways The Legend of Zelda has long been concerned with the passage of time—think of earlier subtitles like A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, or the way that Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule had faded echoes of places many of us have visited in earlier games in the series. But here in Tears of the Kingdom, the way that its world is simultaneously so similar to and yet so different from that in the previous game means we see and feel the direct impact of what the Upheaval has wrought more keenly than we’ve felt the forces of change in Hyrule before.
There’s Kakariko Village, still in some ways the peaceful little hamlet you remember but it’s got fallen ruins in the hills above it now. There’s the old Rito Stable, a place you might have once stopped to pick up your horse when heading into the cold northwestern region of Hebra, but it’s now home to a newspaper. For Breath of the Wild players at least, there’s a delicious tension between the familiar and the new at work here, not unlike returning to your childhood hometown after years away and being thrown off by all the ways it’s changed in your absence.
Breath of the Wild’s exciting feeling that discovery awaits you everywhere is not just renewed in Tears of the Kingdom, but enhanced. The world now stretches far beyond the familiar surface, with places to discover both high in the sky and far underground, and a thrilling assortment of new ways to do so. Gone are Link’s powers from BotW—his ability to summon a bomb out of thin air, or manifest a pillar of ice. In their stead is a fresh array of powers.
Ascend is a remarkable and intuitive new ability that lets Link launch himself straight up through solid terrain and emerge above. Not only is it a useful and fun way to elevate yourself to otherwise hard-to-reach places, but it also underscores the feeling the game creates that this is one cohesive, connected world. Once, upon using Ascend while deep in Hyrule’s subterranean Depths, I emerged to find myself atop a mountain, the blue sky above me. Of course I know the game had done plenty of loading while Link swam straight up through all those layers of rock, but the effect was nonetheless one of making me feel like this was a real place, with the Depths actually resting hundreds of feet below the surface.
There’s also Recall, an ability which lets you rewind time for a given object. Players much cleverer than me have found all kinds of uses for this one, and I can’t wait to see how speedrunners use this and Link’s other new powers to finish the game in no time flat. Fuse, meanwhile, lets you magically combine objects with your melee weapons, arrows, and shields, enabling you to create all manner of useful tools and plenty of goofy oddities, too. There’s a childlike delight in thinking the way this game encourages you to think, and then following through on those ideas. “What if I slap this fire fruit on my arrow and then shoot at the red barrels in that bokoblin camp?” Well, things blow up real good, that’s what, but the real fun of it all is that there are so many different ways to approach any such situation.
And crucial to that freedom is perhaps the game’s most impactful new ability, Ultrahand, and the bevy of new Zonai devices—the creations of an ancient, once-lost culture reappearing in Hyrule after the Upheaval—that you can acquire. Ultrahand lets you take just about anything and grab it, manipulate it, and, most importantly, effectively glue it to other things. It’s very simple, and yet opens up a staggering number of possibilities when you consider that among the devices you can acquire are gliders, fans, energy beams, balloons, wheels, cannons, springs, and more. There’s a tactile pleasure to the assembly process, too, a hands-on, arts-and-crafts feel to manipulating the objects in three-dimensional space and affixing them together.
Many inventive players have fashioned all kinds of useful vehicles and powerful war machines capable of defeating even the most powerful beasts you might encounter in Hyrule. Me, I’m more basic. I feel pretty good about myself if I just manage to glue a few logs together and position my makeshift creation just right so that I can climb to an area I wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. But this, too, is a strength of the game. It rewards those who harness the full potential of those Zonai devices in their own remarkable creations, but it also allows you to approach any challenge in any number of ways. Games routinely tout the idea of “player freedom” but they often effectively mean, “You can kill these people by sneaking up on them or you can kill them by fighting them in the open.” In Tears of the Kingdom, however, you truly feel free to solve the challenges it puts before you in countless ways.
Heroes often pay a price. Luke loses a hand. Frodo a finger. Early in Tears of the Kingdom, Link and Zelda have an encounter that costs Link an arm, and Zelda—well, I’m not telling, but she pays a price too. Link is promptly furnished with a new arm, but still, the loss feels potent, a promising start to a legend that may go on to actually grapple with the things legends grapple with. Life and death. Sacrifice. Grief. Those kinds of things.
And for a while, it seems that melancholy undercurrent may lend the story being told here some emotional or thematic weight. Scattered across this post-Upheaval Hyrule are massive geoglyphs, images that each hold in them a memory which sheds some light on where Zelda has gone. They’re a stunning new feature of the landscape, one you can glimpse even from a great distance, and it’s wonderfully rewarding to spot one far away, make your way there, and then inspect it closely for where the memory is actually located. Piecing together the mystery of Zelda’s disappearance is exciting, too, as it deepens the feeling of Hyrule as an ancient place, one with real history, where the past remains alive in the present.
However, like Breath of the Wild in which, narratively, Zelda single-handedly keeps Calamity Ganon at bay for 100 years while Link recovers his power, this tale largely sidelines the princess even while giving her something crucial to do. These stories seem written to fend off criticism about Zelda being “damseled,” giving defenders the ammunition to declare that, in them, she does incredibly heroic things, while still effectively damseling her by setting up a dynamic in which you, as Link, must find her, save her, undo the circumstance that has cost her so much. Perhaps one day we’ll get a Zelda game that actually acknowledges Zelda’s heroism in its structure and gameplay as well as its narrative rather than one that wants to have its cake and eat it too, making her “heroic” but marginalizing her at the same time.
Ganon, too, is a disappointment here. Link’s old archnemesis, the recurring embodiment of evil that Hyrule can’t seem to escape, has at times in the past been quite compelling. (Never more so than in The Wind Waker, in which he gives a brief monologue that complicates his villainy and makes you wonder about the cost at which Hyrule’s relative prosperity has come.) In Tears of the Kingdom, unfortunately, he is a one-note villain, his evil simple, without any real character or moral texture. And when you finally vanquish him, the ending largely squanders the potential of the beginning, forgoing any reckoning with loss in favor of a resolution that’s too tidy and light.
But it’s the journey in Tears of the Kingdom that matters most, not the destination, and as a journey, the main quest is often outstanding. It takes you to the far corners of the land, and like its predecessor’s main quest, it sees you connect with representatives of all of Hyrule’s peoples. Unlike its predecessor’s main quest, though, which saw you navigating your way through a number of fairly drab puzzle dungeons and fighting a similar boss at the end of each, here you get a series of much more memorable temples in which combat skills and clever thinking are equally emphasized and which each conclude with a unique and dramatic boss confrontation.
The quest also sees you navigating a storm-shrouded cluster of sky islands, venturing deep into the Depths below Hyrule, and riding on the back of a massive dragon. In terms of the imagery of it all, the scope and scale of it, it all feels as grand and mythic as you could hope for.
And yet that main quest, as great as it is, isn’t what makes Hyrule feel so alive, so rich and vast and lived-in. It’s in your more freeform wanderings—exploring that cave you stumbled upon, or checking out the schoolhouse in town, or chatting with a researcher who’s translating ancient texts the Upheaval has surfaced—that Hyrule comes to feel like a living, breathing world. That phrase is woefully overused when talking about games, but this is a rare instance where it actually applies.
Everywhere you go there are people who need help, maybe with vanquishing a monster or running a group of pirates out of town but just as likely with being reminded of a favorite meal, or figuring out where some missing goats have run off to, or transporting musicians to a particular place for a little impromptu concert. In many games, combat and saving people are just about your only way of directly interacting with and impacting the world around you. Not here. And just as being in the world is its own reward, you’ll typically receive a little something for doing these quests but the real motivation is often just to experience them, to use the tools at your disposal to tackle the problem in whatever way you see fit.
But even when you’re not doing one of the game’s 200+ side quests (some categorized as “side adventures”), Hyrule’s beauty, mystery, and danger make it a thrill to explore. I’m particularly fond of building airplanes out of gliders, fans, and control sticks, and soaring to new areas in the sky islands, which really do look and feel like products of another culture, with their floating spheres and strange technology. Even having spent over 100 hours in its world, cooking up hundreds of meals, working as a newspaper reporter, vanquishing huge three-headed dragons, building a racecar, facilitating a mayoral election, and much more, I still find new sights that take my breath away, and new quests with challenges I’m eager to overcome.
In Hyrule’s snowy regions, like the Hebra Mountains and Mount Lanayru, you might find Ice Keese, bat-like enemies that can freeze you solid if they touch you. I gather their eyeballs and then travel to the hot Gerudo Desert to face off against a Flame Gleeok, one of those three-headed dragons I mentioned. They’re a real pain, but by fusing the eyes of Ice Keese to my arrows, my shots get both homing and ice damage, giving me an edge in the fight. Everything feels connected.
The late, great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh often talked about what he called interbeing, the ways in which we are all always connected to everything around us. In Tears of the Kingdom I wander alone, accompanied by what are effectively ghosts of people I know who, by being mere echoes of real people, only emphasize Link’s solitude and my own. And yet Tears of the Kingdom always makes me feel deeply connected to Hyrule, and thus to all things. I hunt, I forage, I use the bounty of one region to aid me in another, I build, I create, I destroy, I witness, I take photos and catalog Hyrule’s wildlife. I soar and I spelunk. I help a guy put up signs. Some games are so player-focused that you feel like it’s all about you, like the world revolves around you. In Tears of the Kingdom, you feel that there is a vast tapestry of life going on around you, and you are just one part of it, as much a part of it as anyone else. I prefer this feeling.
Link, as he has always been, remains a cipher here, someone any player can seamlessly project themselves onto. Through him, we are there. I might play as Kratos in God of War but I’m always aware that I’m very much not Kratos, and that’s fine. Many games benefit from characters with defined, detailed personalities. But the way Link invites any of us in serves these games very well. Link is all of us, and by inhabiting him, we can fully inhabit the world this game offers us, with its stunning sunsets, its misty mornings.
We often think of games as entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with a game that just entertains us, but I want art that affects me more deeply too, sometimes. Not too long ago, I read this novel called The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a tale of people and environmental crisis but it’s also very much a tale of the natural world, of trees in particular, and after I read it, I couldn’t help but be more aware of the trees I saw everywhere as living things unto themselves. And that, of course, changed how I saw the world, how I saw our fate and the fate of trees as bound up together. Tears of the Kingdom doesn’t explicitly try to drive home any such point, and I ultimately found its narrative underwhelming, but games have ways of making meaning that go beyond just the story they tell. There’s meaning in Tears of the Kingdom giving us a world that’s so full of life, where everyone’s and everything’s fate is interlinked, where you’re encouraged to play in the childlike sense, to use your imagination, to create and experiment and just see what happens.
Like a great novel might, this game made me feel more connected to the world around me, and it put me in touch with feelings of wonder that I haven’t felt in a long time. I’ve often felt that too much is made of the anecdote that Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to create The Legend of Zelda by his childhood explorations of Japanese countryside. For so long, the series had lacked, in my view, any recognizable shred of real exploration, real play. But then, along comes a game like Tears of the Kingdom, which gives you both a wonderful world to explore and thrilling, imaginative new ways to explore it, and I get it. Playing this, I feel like a kid again, alive to the wondrous nature of the world, imagining myself on all kinds of incredible adventures.