The fact that Nintendo is carrying characters and franchises nostalgic to four generations of gamers, in addition to appealing to a current generation of children pushes them, like most longrunning broad appeal companies, to try and thread the needle between such wide ranges of different people, age demographics, and different investment in mastering video games. While there’s certainly a host of Nintendo titles that lack that appeal amongst older gamers or are too difficult to get a lasting experience out of for those more inexperienced with games, that balance between easy to comprehend design and absolutely fanatical skill curving has led to games like Super Mario 64, Super Smash Bros Melee and sure enough, Breath of the Wild to be both nostalgic and accessible for kids of their era, while having all kinds of insane potential to crack with their game systems.
The Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom feels like this philosophy at its absolute apex. In equal turn I can see people make their way through with the bare necessities for strength boosts and paragliding, while you can look online and see the insane mechanical contraptions possible for optimizing combat and traversal to an incredibly efficient degree.
Once again, the ability to trade for Hearts or Stamina throughout the game can allow for a certain level of difficulty modulation, but also tying attack options to weapons, rather than grinding out Link’s character stats, puts more pressure on your ability in the action and less on accidentally outfitting yourself the wrong way. It provides enough extrinsic motivation for a plot that gets you thinking with more involved stops along that narrative, while also intrinsically offering the world as the massive playground for experimentation via a vast assortment of utilitarian approaches. Extrinsic motivators like the Shrines, (even when puzzle ones are often easier than BotW’s) further encourage the possibility to take their ideas further intrinsically using the overworld. Plus of course, elements you would expect from a sequel, like improved enemy variety and more specialized combat scenarios (a sixth of the shrines are no longer one miniboss repeated 20 times over at various difficulties).
Breath of the Wild was a game that made a statement. Its focus was on emergent gameplay and player discovery over an involved narrative and a designated route to setpieces meant to be shown in a specific way. Completing every dungeon gave you powers to make the finale easier, but every payoff was segregated. I would argue though, that Breath of the Wild was so thoroughly committed to this idea that it wasn’t worth trying to top it in this department. We already have the more minimalist take on the thinly populated world with an obvious, straightforward final confrontation but the journey being wholly devoted to what you make of it. Tears of the Kingdom opts not to push this further, and instead to respec itself while simultaneously being both more plot driven AND more free at the same time in different areas. It is absolutely worth noting that in place of the minimal storytelling which predominantly served to justify why Link exists to travel the world at all, Tears presents itself as more story-driven from the jump with the short but more guided preamble. It’s a choice that won’t be for everyone who preferred BotW’s deliberately simple approach in the name of player freedom, but I think it’s one that makes sense with where it was heading and a means to allow this game to stand out as a sequel in other ways.
This is also apparent in game design decisions like having a main central hub of named characters to converse with, and particularly the new spread of the memories.
In BotW, the memories were hidden in very small specific spots in the overworld with little indication of where without a guide, in the hope that you’d run into them while exploring, but not that they played a substantial part in the Defeat Ganon quest. In this game, they ABSOLUTELY want you to get those memories, not only by making it a main quest but also putting them in giant Geoglyphs (marked inside a chamber) that can be seen no matter how high above the ground Link is. Which is good, because the plot contained within those memories is less building your own background as much as a parallel plot involving Zelda and the choices she makes in further understanding herself and considering what’s necessary to help your journey along. For a game series entitled The Legend of Zelda, this installment really presents just how much sway Zelda has upon the entire world while you, in contrast, are the fixer guy. You are the way forward, but not the influence. There are many questlines I discovered over my 120 hours of play devoted to every which way most of the world was very carefully ruined in your absence and your ability to be a problem solver in any which place you choose to.
Back in Ocarina of Time, a seven-year timeskip allowed Ganondorf to turn the entire world on its head through a permanently blackened sky and the world’s central hub being turned abandoned, populated by zombies instead of people. In this game, in far shorter a timeframe he played things more crypto in your absence by outright ruining Hyrule’s infrastructure in numerous smaller ways less obviously noticeable even in a more populated land, but that goes further and further the more you chose to engage with the world. It’s a smart villain move on his end that has a shockingly effective payoff conveyed through story and gameplay together after pursuing the main dungeon tasks.
Reconciling with your past was a main driving force in Breath of the Wild if you chose to pursue story, but just as Link can build all kinds of crazy tech magic machines and bizarre powerful weapons, you’re actively building a more settled world up to a brighter future. In taking a cue from the second half of Wind Waker, you’re guiding partner characters through the dungeons to grow them into who they are. Their abilities are substantially less broken than those from Breath of the Wild, but that ties into the story, since the BotW Champions were experienced, top warriors employed by the castle guard, while the Sages here are being grown into them, made stronger by the concept of exploration in the world they no doubt helped you with. It’s one of several examples of the game willing to respect and not replicate elements when it feels like it would help its own vision. The Divine Beast assault sequences, while formulaic and scripted, could feel very intense in the moment and tiring if repeated too closely in this game, so instead, dungeon buildup is an extension of normal gameplay but varied by region. While one area involved a lot of high-flying platforming, another took on more of a base assault format and this, alongside more distinctive temples and boss fights, helped to make its main story tasks stand apart despite the repeated song and dance upon finishing a dungeon. The ending as well, despite similarities in form to the previous game’s, is given a more distinct function in relation to what makes this game stand out and, in my opinion, greater emotional resonance.
And all this is just in the main intended plot goals! Rarely have I played a game where it’s so easy to constantly be distracted from just HOW MUCH you are able to interact with at any one time. It’s incredibly impressive that for a map so large, almost everywhere you go has optional engagements both present, and out in the visible distance, whether they be character based, combat based, or puzzle based. This is a game where even components that would seem like copy and paste tasks in any other open world game can vary wildly in terms of how you accomplish them. Sign Guy is probably the prime example of this creative thinking on display. Everywhere you see him trying to spread the good word about his boss, trying his best to arrange signs in totally different ways. Usually, you’re given enough tools around his area, but it inspires an incredible creativity to make even tries at a repeated task stand out with your weird creative standing fused structures. Another element that greatly helps with this discovery is the delineation of quest lines, where the instant a quest is started, you’re made aware of whether or not it’s a brief more simplistic quest for a basic reward, or a multi-tiered quest with more story added to it. The repopulation of Hyrule after stopping Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild provides the perfect in-universe opportunity for so many more people to exist for sidequests that are more memorable than BotW’s, even if I don’t think any hit the high of the Anju/Kafei quest from Majora’s Mask.
The Depths is admittedly less curated on the whole, but it’s a meaningful venture, providing some of the easiest access to mechanical creation tools, enhancing long term use of these tools, as well as some of the strongest weapons and enemy encounters in the game. It’s a distinct take on the classic Dark World concept from A Link to the Past combined with the Nether from Minecraft. And of course, the Lightroots. These beacons deliberately standout amidst the pitch-black landscapes, but the fact that they mirror Shrine positions is incredibly intuitive for exploration. Once you find a Lightroot where you don’t have a Shrine, or vice versa, it provides another opportunity to say “there’s something on this spot, but how will I find out what it is, how will I reach it, and what on my path would provide the next distraction?”
As sentimental as it may seem saying this, Tears of the Kingdom is also an immaculate representation of gaming as a universal experience where numerous approaches can be lovingly shared. No two players will experience everything the game has to offer in the same way, and the sense of experimentation you could see from the more dedicated Breath of the Wild players is further spread to even casual players, while the insane crowd creating all kinds of mecha and war crime devices is given the opportunity to indulge with a much higher creation ceiling. From something as simple as using a rock weapon to fill a hole when finding a Korok, shield surfing as a means to avoid a rail balancing act, creating a barely held together tower of objects in place of understanding how to work a rowboat, or having fully decked flying death machines to quickly slay the indomitable Gleeoks, there’s an impressive array of possibilities Nintendo allowed for in their massive sandboxes.
There will always be quibbles. I wish you could create your own favorites list when selecting materials. The dungeons, while greatly improved over BotW to the point of being slightly above Wind Waker’s now, are still well open to be made more extensive like the other past 3D Zeldas. I wish the Sage Awakening cutscenes were made distinct for each dungeon, the means to acquire Autobuild made more upfront during the main quest, Mineru’s role in the story a bit more, the cutscenes lip synced to the English dub (although you can switch to original Japanese, so mostly moot point) and it would REALLY help if this game wasn’t limited by 8-year-old hardware regarding occasional performance dips, but the overall vision that this game accomplishes is sublime. It’s rare a video game sequel can be such a monumentally meaningful iteration on what already presented an incredibly robust path forward for explorative freedom and system creation in AAA gaming, but director Hidemaro Fujibayashi, his team, and Monolith Soft managed to top themselves in ways we didn’t even know we wanted. Trying to follow this up will be an incredibly difficult venture I fear for, but I hope that with the promise of improved hardware on the horizon, this team can continue to show that next-gen is more than just graphical leaps, but using mechanics, talent and budget to let the story told from strong design ethos meet the story every player uses the game to create for themselves.

Reviewed on Jun 03, 2023