The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom review - These tears are salty

link and zelda with a torch in Tears of the Kingdom

link and zelda with a torch in Tears of the Kingdom

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.

Sliding along a rail in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
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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.

Gliding through a dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
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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.

Too much work, too little reward

Beyond the omission of the largely linear story progression previous games centred around, the first true open-world title instead encouraged exploration, discovery, and a sandbox approach to finding your own fun in the world. But while it’s true that some dedicated social media enjoyers got a lot of mileage from physics-based shenanigans, plenty of us were left thinking the traditional Zelda experience was being sunsetted in favour of the “do it yourself” gameplay approach.

There are slivers of something great with the Zonai constructs you can piece together with the Ultrahand ability, but when most of it can be ignored, likely by design, I just have to wonder if the stacked approach was really the best way forward.

Physics puzzles return in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
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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.

Shrines and their tokens return in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
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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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Music played such a big part of the earlier games to a point where even when they don't predominately feature Link using an instrument, the soundtrack was always at the back your mind after a session. The subtle cues of open Hyrule are back for this one and, like last time, I still can’t recall any that I’ll be whistling any tunes from the adventure that I'll be whistling out of the blue in years to come.

Once more, with awkward feeling

Despite the immediately strong start to the story that serves as a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild’s relatively tame narrative, Tears of the Kingdom still doesn’t make a big enough deal about what’s going on. There’s no rush to tackle the problems which, like the myriad puzzle-solving mechanics, dampen the overall experience. Just like last time, the world has adapted. And that’s because it barely changed beyond Hyrule technically gaining free real estate.

Seeking out your first dungeon reveals enough story to have you whipping out the Hyrule Historia, but the next three barely move the needle, leaving you wondering if the next act is even worth the effort. The stakes feel a tad cartoonish with everyone managing to make do with the “regional phenomenon” you’re tasked with solving, and the voice work still isn’t a decision I can agree with when there are so many NPCs out there still rocking the amusing efforts from the franchise’s traditionally near-silent cast.

Using Ultrahand to build a hot-air balloon in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
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Odd-ball characters like Beedle and the Great Fairies are still kicking about, but I miss the pep of the Running Man, Malo, Zill, Agitha, and the Happy Mask Salesman - all of whom somehow gave memorable performances through grunts, giggles, and grins while barely saying a spoken word.

Voicing the main cast without giving Link the same treatment still creates an awkward dynamic between the bunch you’re meant to be rooting for. And rather than voice Link as well, I truly believe leaving characterisation to our own individual imaginations was the right decision in the earlier games. The character writing worked wonders, sending shivers down my spine in the early days. But I don’t think that happened once in my playthrough of Tears of the Kingdom. And I fully believe that to be down to a story that takes too long to get going, and a posh princess who’s tried damsel in distress script just doesn’t work for me.

I’m sure a lot of effort went into crafting the cave networks now running through Hyrule’s surface-level terrain, but it’s just too rare to find anything of real value in them. That’s not necessarily a fault of this particular game, but the whole open-world genre as a whole.

A cave in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
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It’s hard to incentivise discovering every nook and cranny. I get that. The excitement was there for the first few, but I quickly began avoiding going off the beaten track through fear of disappointment that would be solved by scrapping the Shrine system and hiding the life and stamina upgrades behind smaller puzzles in the otherwise alluring tunnels, the Zonai sky world above, and the dark Depths the story takes too long to make any use real of.

I’m used to waiting 5+ years for new 3D Zelda games. And although they’re always shrouded in secrecy, intrigue, and worry after the Wind Waker (and especially after Skyward Sword), they’ve all been inventive enough to stand on their own. Tears of the Kingdom, however, could almost erase any reason to play Breath of the Wild. No matter where it sits on your tier list, nobody should want that. But the only thing you’d really miss is a sliver of the wider story that could be summarized in a single paragraph.

An adventure that’s hard to love

I’m sad to say that The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom just isn’t worth the wait for me personally. It takes too much from the one title in the series it took me years to finish and does too little to reinvigorate the classic Zelda magic back into its reused world.

It builds upon the divisive foundations of Breath of the Wild to a point where those who loved the open-world adventure will genuinely find a lot to like. But it really is just more of the same to the point where I suspect even the loyalists will be a little downtrodden as they slowly tread the same path around Hyrule. If the original open-world adventure left you feeling a little deflated, Tears of the Kingdom is unlikely to convince you that it’s the best way forward for the franchise.

Whether you go above or below, there’s little worth up there beyond what the main quest requires you to see. In part, that’s a blessing for anyone looking to avoid the distracting open world and ride out the story. But as I’ve said time and again now, Tears of the Kingdom dangles the smallest scraps of the narrative carrot in front of you for far too long. And after the disappointing narrative of the previous game, I’m not convinced the grind is worth the time investment. It’s a fantastic playground and an even more bewildering testament to the latest power of the Nintendo Switch hardware. But I can’t help but feel that the wait wasn’t worth it this time around.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
If you’ve yet to step foot into the open world of Hyrule, Tears of the Kingdom is the best way to experience it, with just enough new ground to keep things interesting. But if you didn’t gel with the 2017 release, the story alone might not be worth the second attempt.
Nintendo Switch
6 out of 10

If you're planning on playing Tears of the Kingdom, check out our guide on the game's release times across the globe, breakdown of how big the map is, and our guide on what the game's pre order bonuses are.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was reviewed with code provided by the publisher.

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