The Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom characters standing on a hillside
Courtesy of Nintendo

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Isn’t a Revolution—It’s an Evolution

Nintendo's latest was never going to beat Breath of the Wild at its own game, but that's not the point. What it brings to the table is more than enough.

Five years ago, Nintendo took a huge risk and released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Forgoing the series' well-trodden linear formula, the game transformed Hyrule into an open world, transfiguring a style of play made popular by studios like Bethesda, Rockstar, and Mojang. Breath of the Wild sold 29 million copies, more than every other 3D Zelda game combined. It received perfect scores from just about every reputable critic. Streamers are still finding new ways to play.

Anyone with even a cursory interest in Zelda could recite these facts in their sleep, but stating them plainly hammers home a simple truth: There was not a snowball’s chance on Death Mountain that Nintendo would reinvent the series a second time. Duly, Breath’s followup, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, out tomorrow, is very much a sequel. It is not that the game takes no risks—there are mechanics here that could have proven disastrous handled by a lesser developer. There’s also no truth in the slander that Nintendo has been complacent since Breath’s release in 2017. But the TL;DR is that Nintendo has switched from revolution to evolution. Tears of the Kingdom takes the company's new-era Zelda formula and runs rampant, fulfilling many of the promises that Breath of the Wild made and broke.

It is impossible with a piece of art of this size and potentiality to say anything completely definitive, but after nearly 50 hours of gameplay, I can say this: Tears of the Kingdom is not as viscerally astonishing as Breath of the Wild, but it refines the first game’s systems to the point that they now feel antiquated.

Tears’ story begins several years after Zelda and Link obliterated the blue pig-god Ganon. The duo are exploring a rocky network of tunnels deep beneath Hyrule Castle. There, they use torchlight to peruse hieroglyphs depicting a great alliance between Hylians and Zonai—the ancient civilization cryptically referenced in Breath—against a monstrous man known only as the demon king. (Guess who?!)

Sinking deeper into the cave and into legend, they disturb a skeleton with long red hair, one much livelier than typical skeletons. After a cataclysm, Hyrule Castle explodes skyward, and Link, inevitably, loses Zelda and all but three of his 20 hearts. He wakes to find that someone has performed some ramshackle surgery, replacing his hand with a black claw, and that he is high high up, among stone islands speckling the sky.

Whereas Breath offers players the surface of the world to play in, Tears adds the sky. At the end of the training island, the clouds clear and Link leaps and soars: You can truly skydive (and fall) anywhere. Like previous Zelda games, the influence of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki runs deep, this time his love of flight. In the previous game, players climbed the map towers. Now they bungee to the heavens, Link scanning the area for landmarks with his ancient Nintendo Switch (we mean Sheikah Slate, obviously).

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Link’s descent does not stop with the ground. Across Hyrule, pits have belched out of the earth, oozing pink and black sludge, known as Gloom. They look bottomless, but they are instead gateways to TOTK’s wildest addition, “the depths,” an inhospitable abyss, a pitch black Link to the Past-esque dark world. The deep shadow initially worried me (visual obscurity often indicates a barren space—snow levels, I'm looking at you), but Link must drive out the darkness with Brightbloom Seeds, which burst into light-giving flowers when planted, and Lightroots, checkpoints that permanently illuminate the surrounding area. They reveal a land—steeped in eerie navies and heather-purple—of mines, mountains and monsters, almost the same size as Hyrule.

Like Minecraft, players must brave these depths for precious materials, and, like Minecraft, they must contend with vicious enemies. Down here are poisoned versions of Hynoxes and Lynels, and other nasty new things not to be spoiled. This place feels built for combat, a proving ground governed by a limited heart pool. If an enemy hits Link or he stands on the Gloom, his heart is permanently erased until he returns to a checkpoint. He is not able to simply eat 4,000 apples and go on.

Without a doubt, the depths will prove the most divisive aspect of Tears. Some will love scaling its vast dark cliffs for new fights. Some will stay above the surface—away from the sterile darkness.

To traverse these new lands, Nintendo has mimicked the tricks of their most loyal fans. BOTW players on YouTube have become infamous for their homebrew flying, driving, and sailing machines. Nintendo supercharges that dream here with Ultrahand, a power that allows players to glue rockets, fire hydrants, wheels, fans, control sticks, mirrors, time bombs, and a litany of other objects together to create whatever their minds can conjure.

Long term, this will be where Tears will look most different to Breath. The truly creative will make things as yet undreamed of; the mildly creative will make soaring hovercrafts and balloons and rockets, rumbling jeeps and old-timey horse-drawn carts. And the creatively bankrupt, like me, will glue 10 logs together over and over again for a magnificent log centipede suitable for each and every obstacle.

Occasionally fiddly controls are alleviated by an auto-build feature, which lets you save schematics to instantly conjure old creations. The ridiculous depth of the sandbox here feels like a call to creators in the streaming era—people are still making BOTW content years later; this game is designed to mushroom that participation.

If the primary emotion Breath instilled was the awe of exploring a new land, here it is the nostalgia of revising an old one. It feels like returning after many years of travel to find that a relative has renovated your beloved home (and added two extra wings to your house). You can quite literally navigate using the old map of BOTW, but time and the cataclysm have reshaped Hyrule. Kakariko village has been bombarded by ruins; a corporate mining company has taken over Death Mountain. Mazes have lifted up into the sky; a network of new caves pockmark the land.

But Breath’s same basic structure remains. You must return to Rito Village, Zora's Domain, Gerudo Town, and Death Mountain, now beset by natural disasters. The Gorons have become addicted to a mind-altering rock; the Gerudo forced underground by monster-bearing sandstorms. The Zora’s shiny palace is glooped by sludge; Rito is beset by typhoons and snow. In each case, these disasters are presaged by the appearance of Zelda. The story here is more substantial—though still told with some flashbacks.

The maligned Divine Beasts, and their copy-paste bosses, are gone, in favor of more traditional Zelda-style temples—Wind, Fire, etc.—and unique fights. These temples are an interesting mix of new and old, and aesthetically far more interesting—whether they be minecart fire mazes or windborne longboats—but a similar design as the Divine Beasts. Fans of ”traditional” Zelda temples will be happier but not sated. (This could be said about a lot of the game.) Open plan dungeons are the faustian pact of the open world: You can still tackle these temples in largely the order you choose, inevitable for a character who can explode through ceilings. Traditional Zelda dungeon rooms live on in shrines.

As a relentless collectathon, this Zelda reminded me of old Rareware games, but it importantly adds new motivation to anchor combat and harvesting. Fruits can now be attached to arrows to create elemental damage. A Bokoblin boss will drop a horn that will improve your weapon's damage by a huge amount; a simple broadsword can be encrusted with Hinox bones. Swords last far longer now, once fused, though they do still break. Legendary weapons, like the Biggoron sword, can be repurchased for the high price of poes, tiny blue flames dotted across the dark world.

Just like the world, many systems return in Tears, but with improvements. Sidequests are deeper and more numerous with richer characters infused with that Zelda zany charm. Shrines still give hearts and stamina, but the wilder trio of fuse, rewind, and ascend leads to more intuitive puzzles. The same applies with Korok seeds, scattered across the world for you to stumble into and discover. Nearly every recipe, enemy, and armor returns, along with a wide variety of new ones (and, thank god, a suit that lets you climb in the rain).

If Breath of the Wild is the modern era’s Ocarina of Time—in it's far-reaching influence; in it’s breathtaking metamorphosis—those familiar with the series’ history will remember that after Ocarina of Time came Marjora's Mask, the weirdest of the Zelda masterpieces, supposedly influenced by the 1998 North Korean missile crisis, Link looping in an apocalyptic three-day dream, stuck between the grin of the Happy Mask Salesman and the grin of the pockmarked Moon. Tears of the Kingdom does not provide something that strange and divisive.

To better understand TOTK, a comparison can be drawn to Elden Ring (there will be a lot of these; I swear this one is fruitful). For that game, From Software took a huge risk. The studio forgoed the series' well-trodden linear (Legend of Zelda-like) formula, and created an open world, transfiguring a style of play refined by games like Breath of the WildElden Ring has sold more than 20 million copies, close to the entirety of the Dark Souls series combined. It received perfect scores from just about every reputable critic. Streamers are still finding new ways to play. Nintendo, in this limited sense, is one game ahead of From Software: the iteration stage of a winning formula. In 2017, Breath of the Wild was a gift from the future; in 2023, its sequel is the pinnacle of the present.