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listen i'm trying to think of a dumb joke review but for whatever reason i think this one broke me. i should start playing good games again
Every Castle has its Vania
A few hours into my playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, I made a comparison in my mind to another Nintendo sequel. Similarly to Tears of the Kingdom, it was the sequel to one of my favourite games. They both reuse the same basic game engine and mechanics, but set out to give players a new experience, without dismissing fans of the original. And both, while not entirely bad, missed the mark in ways. That's not to say that I think Super Mario Galaxy 2 is bad; far from it. I love Galaxy 2! I just had a few complaints with it that slightly lowered my opinion of it, and I still prefer the original. And for the first few hours, I expected Tears of the Kingdom to follow a similar path. I was hooked. While I was still in the first area of the game, it was setting up the new ideas perfectly. I was ready for the rest of the game to hit me with its best shot.
However, that shot never seemed to come. Where Galaxy 2 sought to soar higher than its predecessor, Tears of the Kingdom came crashing down.
I would like to note before going on with my long rambling that I haven't seen 100% of the content of this game, and it's likely that I got something wrong. But a lot of my opinions were inferred to me by the direction the game was going. Remember what I said earlier? How the game had perfectly set up its new ideas? Well, sadly, it set them up, but never aimed to go further.
To put it simply, every new idea introduced in Tears of the Kingdom feels undercooked. During my playthrough, I kept wondering and brainstorming ideas that could help flesh out each mechanic more, but the game feels like it was made in a way that undermines itself. My biggest issue with these comes from the creation mechanic. This is clearly the main thing Nintendo wants customers to take away from this game. It's all over the marketing: "You can use Link's fancy new arm to put together and build pretty much anything! There are endless possibilities!" And technically, the marketing isn't lying. You can build basically anything. Want to build a flying machine that can fly across Hyrule? You can! Want to build a car filled with explosives that can decimate enemies immediately? You can! Want to light a Korok on fire and crucify them? You can! In terms of options, this is an incredibly fleshed-out mechanic. However - and this feels extremely weird to say as someone who has been learning to work as a creative for the past three years - I just could not bring myself to care about the Ultra Hand.
My big issue comes from how the Ultra Hand is actually developed in the required quests for completing the story. And, well, it just isn't. The puzzles in Tears of the Kingdom are some of the most basic, uninteresting, and bland puzzles I've played in a while. Granted, I haven't actually cleared every shrine or every challenge in the game, but out of the 50 or so shrines I completed, I never once felt the difficulty rise at all since the very first tutorial. Most of them just boil down to "Stick this object onto this other object, activate it, and watch it play the game for you". Maybe you'll be putting a fan onto a minecart and watching it push you through a track. That's the whole shrine! It isn't like the game expects players to be purposefully experimental with clearing the shrines either, since each one happens to give you the exact amount of tools you need to go through the intended path, limiting the player more than encouraging them. You can still get away with some interesting stuff, but 30 shrines in I was already so checked out that I couldn't really be bothered. The dungeons do fare better than the shrines in this regard, seeing as how they take place in much more open areas and allow more exploration, but the puzzles in the dungeons actually made me miss the Divine Beasts from the first game. Say what you want about those, but I'd rather take a dungeon that actually requires me to think. The only dungeon that even comes close to the mechanical depth that I want is the one on Death Mountain, seeing as it requires you to use a flying machine in tandem with another (INSERT SPOILER ABILITY HERE) ability, but even then, you don't actually build the machine; it just happens to be lying around when you get there.
As for the shrines that don't utilise the Ultra Hand, those don't fare much better. The time reversal and ascension mechanics are cool ideas, but I can literally count the number of times I found them useful on two hands. In a way, you could argue that the shrines act more like miniature tutorials. Heck, some of them literally only exist to teach players about basic mechanics like shooting your bow and arrows or throwing your weapon - literally using text boxes to explain how each of them works. But I never really felt motivated to build anything in the overworld, either, not only because you can literally only collect the tools in your inventory by using a makeshift gacha mechanic. The Ultra Hand is perfect for players who want to spend hours creating cool vehicles or whatever, but for someone like me? I don't want to spend that much time on a game when I have so many more in my backlog to play. Whenever I walked by a pile of wooden planks and wheels left there by the developers, I just thought, "Why, though? I've already travelled around Hyrule perfectly fine on my own in Breath of the Wild. I could probably just walk to my destination faster than it takes me to build this shitty wooden car."
And therein lies my other huge issue; This game just feels too much like Breath of the Wild. Not enough is different. That might seem like a dumb statement. Like, of course it feels the same. It's a sequel using the same engine. But when this game kept getting delayed for four years straight, I kept thinking, "Woah, if this is taking just as much time to develop as the original game, they must be creating a huge new world for us to explore, alongside the updated Hyrule!". And while I was sort of correct, the new areas in the game are anything but interesting. Going back to what I said earlier, Tears of the Kingdom feels like it's undermining itself. I was so excited when I saw that the game would (supposedly) take place on these vast floating islands in the sky. That's one of my favourite types of settings ever! And the problem isn't that Tears of the Kingdom doesn't execute the idea of floating islands well; it's that it's barely utilised at all. I don't know the exact measurements for this, but from a quick glance at the map, the sky islands look like they take up literally around a 10th of the size of Hyrule. After the tutorial, that's pretty much it. I barely got to spend time on them outside of looking for the shrines they contained, which wasn't that fun either considering what I've already said about the shrines. Despite a gorgeous visual style, I unfortunately didn't get much out of the sky islands, which sucks considering it was probably the setting I was looking forward to most.
The other brand new area does fit into what I'd want a bit better, but also manages to miss the mark. I won't go on for too long about this since I don't actually think it was shown that much pre-release, but while it does have an amazing visual style and also gets to the type of size I'd want for a sequel (it's actually around the same size as Hyrule!), the game, once again, barely utilises it. Maybe I just missed something, but I never saw a reason to even go there after discovering it for the first time. It feels like it just exists to waste your resources by using them to light up the area, as the whole place is completely dark. (Don't you love it when games do that? Make it so you can't see anything and have to slowly make your way through an area? Definitely not aggravating at all.) It only felt necessary to go there close to the very end of the game, a point at which it is far too late for what could have been an amazing new setting.
I'm not entirely sure how to explain this last point. But despite how much I've talked on and on about the issues with gameplay, what killed it for me was the difference in atmosphere and tone. One of my favourite parts of Breath of the Wild was the feeling of solitude. At the start of the original game, when Link wakes up, he is completely alone with no memories in a devastated world. No one really knows him. Everyone from his previous life is either dead or close to it. The only human he sees for the first few hours of gameplay is a mysterious old man. He's thrown into a conflict of which he has no idea he was supposed to be a part of. This melancholy dread stirs all throughout Breath of the Wild, complimented by a minimal musical score as Link traverses through Hyrule. These moments in Breath of the Wild helped to completely sell me on the atmosphere, despite the slightly weak story the game plays out.
Meanwhile, how does Tears of the Kingdom start? With a 15-minute info dump as you slowly walk alongside Zelda as she gives you the exposition for the plot. Practically everyone in Hyrule knows about Link and his heroism, and the events of the first game are barely addressed from what I've seen. There isn't really a good frame for how much time has passed either, since characters like Purah have grown up a lot, while characters like Impa and Paya look the exact same. You revisit the same areas from the original, and the characters automatically agree to help you because you've already saved the world before. Link doesn't feel "alone" to me anymore. The developers have not changed Hyrule enough to accommodate this change in tone, which, in my eyes, ultimately undermines the moments when Link is exploring Hyrule.
This completely represents what Tears of the Kingdom is to me. It's clear the folks at Nintendo knew how successful Breath of the Wild was but didn't really realise why. So when it came time to make the sequel, they threw in ideas without wondering how they would change the original. The tightly designed mechanics from the original have been removed and replaced with what amounts to godmode tools that don't really mesh well with the puzzles they've designed. I haven't talked much about the overall plot, as I don't want to spoil a game that most people are enjoying much more than me. But it feels similarly weak to the original's, and this time, there's no masterfully crafted atmosphere to save it. Breath of the Wild wowed me. Dare I say, it was a breath of fresh air. But Tears of the Kingdom just leaves me feeling nothing. It's not awful; despite my ranting, there are still elements to appreciate. The visual style, as I've said, is phenomenal, Hyrule itself is still slightly fun to explore despite it's lack of a distinct tone, and the soundtrack can be incredible during the endgame. The creativity of the ideas and concepts shown here is fantastic, but that simply isn't enough when the rest of the game doesn't feel interested in expanding on them.
Sometime soon, I want to play through more Zelda games. Not only because I admittedly haven't played that many, but because I want to see what everyone else sees. I want to see how this series became one of the most iconic in history. When I started Tears of the Kingdom, I went in thinking I would get to see it. But when I look at this game, I unfortunately cannot give it the title of "Legend".