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Tears of the Kingdom initial thoughts: Better… and yet…

·6 mins
65 hours of futzing around.

WARNING: This post contains some minor spoilers about what’s in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

I’m about 65 hours into Tears of the Kingdom. I was very hyped when I started it, and I’m still hyped about it – I have no intention of putting it down. It is a better game in most (but not all) aspects than Breath of the Wild. However, it doesn’t feel as satisfying, at least not yet.

The first Zelda game I finished was the original, many years ago at a friend’s house. The second was Breath of the Wild. I wasn’t anti-Zelda, but we didn’t have a Nintendo console until we got a Wii for the kids, and it just never came up as something to play.

Breath of the Wild was a revelation to me; a simple starting point that let you explore and do you want you want. For me, that meant just wandering around and searching to discover what’s over that next hill. The fun was in just poking around every nook and cranny to see what was there, and come across all the corners of the game organically.

This led to a number of surprises. On the initial plateau, shortly after getting waxed by a giant rock, I walked into some rubble to discover that there are robots, with lasers, in the game. I randomly stumbled across a Hinox, and spent 15 minutes very slowly killing it by dropping bombs on it from a cliff. I looked up at the sky randomly, and there was a dragon flying by. There was labyrinths. (Why were there labyrinths?) It was great. Eventually I would follow the plot to the end and finish the game, but all the exploring led to 180 (!) hours of playtime.

Alas, there are limits.

Tears of the Kingdom is a better game in most ways.

The new abilities you work with allow for more varied combinations of what you can do (and more interesting Shrine tests) than just using the same 4 abilities over and over. The addition of the depths, the caves, and the sky islands literally makes the game 2½ times bigger. There’s more variety in monsters, more variety in challenges, quality of life improvements in the controls. It’s more smooth, more polished, more expansive, and with more gameplay options. (as you’d expect 6 years later).

But you note all that “more”. Because it’s a sequel, set in the same area and milieu, running on the same console, it has to do more. It can’t do significantly different, and where it does different, it’s sometimes to its detriment.

Breath of the Wild was careful to structure it so that the plateau gave you everything you needed to finish the game. Outside of needing extra stamina to climb/swim somewhere, if you had the skills, there was nothing you couldn’t go and do from the beginning, especially since monster difficulty scaled as you did more plot. It was a truly open sandbox.

Tears of the Kingdom is a little less flexible. TotK drops more minibosses, and bigger combos of regular opponents (Battle Taluses!) right in from the beginning. If you look online, you see people building assault dropships, autonomous mecha, and other fantastic creations to deal with these harder opponents. But you can’t do that from the beginning - you don’t have the materials, and you’ll run out of battery immediately. Outside of the grinding needed for some battles, more of the quests are also locked on completing parts of the plot as well.

Even so, it’s not the somewhat-more-guided progression of TotK that makes it less satisfying, for me.

Judge him by his size, she does.

Since TotK is a direct sequel to BotW, it builds on the familiarity players have with a great game. It builds on the vast open world of Hyrule that people want to explore. It gives you more to do in more places, with the addition of vertical expansion of the map.

Unfortunately, all that familiarity means you lose that sense of wonder, and it changes how you play the game. Even without the map, I know where all the regions are, what the different monsters are, where the stables are, what geographical features are where.

I’ve noticed that, since I know the world, I skip chunks of that deep exploration, in favor of functionally grinding the mechanics of the game to make the play easier. A small sampling of how this works:

  • I spent one multi-hour play chunk fairly early on zooming over Hyrule to unlock the Great Fairies

  • Rather than it being a thing I just did along the way of exploring, I prioritized getting all the Towers, and as many Lightroots and shrines, as soon as possible

  • Upon seeing the dragons, I make an effort to collect parts off of them, because I know I’ll need that later

  • Every few hours of play I take a break to travel to a couple different places to grind some Zonaite

  • I finally gave into looking something up online, googling “where the hell is Hestu?”

It’s not a wrong way to play the game, and it’s not unenjoyable. But it does feel like it’s sucking some of the soul of the game to just grind some progression.

What Tears of the Kingdom says about undervalued jobs under capitalism: In this essay I will…

This doesn’t make the game bad, by any stretch. And there’s still plenty of joy to be had in discovery, and rediscovery.

There’s intentionally building silly things just to see what will happen.

There’s the moment you come across a suspicious looking (and named) NPC, and you realize “ha, these fuckers again.”

There’s the “aha!” moment where you realize the mechanics of how the depths are laid out.

There’s still the fun of new monsters and the “what’s that flying above the snow, maybe it’s a large Aeroc… oh no I’m dead.”

There’s poking your way through side quests, as Link takes on the job of rideshare driver/roadie, newspaper reporter, and teacher.

As I said, I’m 65 hours in, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the plot. I have been to exactly zero of the Zora/Goron/Rito/Gerudo cities, and I have no idea what the endgame will be. It’s great, and I will be playing it for quite a while still. But I still do miss that initial sense of wonder that Breath of the Wild had.