Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom early impressions – a feast fit for a short king

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom has only been out in the wild for a few days at this point, marking a mere sliver of the time players will spend unfolding Hyrule’s fresh secrets in the coming months — and even years, if Breath of the Wild is any indication.

For anyone avoiding full-game reviews and spoilers, here are some early thoughts on the expansive elf survival simulator’s first 20 hours or so. This serves as a warning for spoilers about Tears of the Kingdom from here on out. I won't get into much that's plot-related here, mostly gameplay, map and mechanics stuff. But if you've yet to play, some of the world's surprises are really, really worth saving. Do yourself a favor!

Out of the gate, the starter area this time around is big. Everything still looks very Breath of the Wild, which is to say the game’s cel-shaded vibes and lush natural setting remain, but Tears of the Kingdom kicks off on an interconnected series of mysterious floating sky islands dotted with esoteric devices and elaborate, crumbling ruins. Getting out of this area took me at least five hours, including a bit of side exploration but mostly sticking to the objectives: Trek to shrines, unlock new abilities, chill with the inexplicably sexy androgynous goat guy giving me spiritual guidance.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's opening hours.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's opening hours.

Image Credits: Nintendo

Tears of the Kingdom establishes a few key things in these early sequences, introducing players to the sky islands that comprise the upper layer of the map and making it clear that almost every aspect of gameplay from the last game remains intact, right down to me repeatedly throwing my weapons by accident and dying left and right while panic-crouching before getting the hang of the combat controls again.

The tutorial is fun, right from Link’s inevitable dramatic dive into the sky — a moment that moved to tears more than a few Zelda players I know. That grand skydive sets the tone for the equally grand adventure to follow: Jumping off that first cliff is a trustfall right into Nintendo’s arms, a theme that Breath of the Wild’s successor repeats again and again. Trust the game, trust in Nintendo’s astonishing trust in the player, and Tears of the Kingdom will reward you again and again.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's Rauru
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's Rauru

The G.O.A.T. Image Credits: Nintendo

Even more so than in 2017’s Breath of the Wild, Tears is incredibly confident that the player is not only clever enough to carve a unique path through Hyrule but inventive enough to outsmart even the game’s creators themselves. It’s a minor miracle, but somehow all of this clever chaos works within the parameters of the game’s physics engine, only reinforcing bigger, bolder and often dumber ideas. At every turn, Tears of the Kingdom rewards creative thinking and incentivizes hijinks, gifting players a deep toolkit of abilities that are as much for mischief as they are for saving the kingdom or whatever it was we were doing before we followed our curiosity right over a cliff, down a well or into the clouds.

Back to the clouds. Once you’re out of them, you’ll be powered up with four new abilities that shape the gameplay in Tears, opening up a world of possibilities for navigation and problem solving that somehow manages to make Breath of the Wild’s own options look narrow by comparison.

Link crosses an expanse of grass in a sketchy contraption.
Link crosses an expanse of grass in a sketchy contraption.

They see me rollin'. Image Credits: Nintendo

Tears of the Kingdom grants Link four new special powers: Recall, Ascend, Fuse and Ultrahand. Recall rewinds an object’s path through time, while Ascend lets you swim upward through mountains and buildings (hard to explain, very cool in practice). Fuse and Ultrahand are adjacent powers; the former invites players to transform weapons by combining them with other objects and the latter is a powered-up version of Magnesis from the last game, letting players pick up objects, manipulate them in space and glue them to each other and things in the world. On top of that, there’s a whole system of ancient technology now (dispensed in hilariously literal gacha machines) that introduces devices like fans, wheels and rockets to Hyrule, imbuing the game with big Wile E. Coyote energy. It’s a lot!

Players get all of these abilities early and picking a favorite is tough — they all bring a ton to the game. I won’t spoil one cool use for recall here but… even if it’s the only good way to use that power it’s still very cool. I only started remembering to use Ascend more in my last few hours playing and it’s already been a huge boon for exploration. Clear a cave and don’t feel like backtracking to get out? Use Ascend. Want to get up a mountain without making Link sweat it out? Scout a way into its interior and swim up through some geologic liminal space to the summit.

Fuse and Ultrahand sort of go together, but ultimately bring different vibes into the game. If you, like me, were disappointed to hear that weapons would again fall apart over time like they did in Breath of the Wild, you’ll be happy to know that Fuse somehow manages to make this process not only less annoying but actually extremely fun. In Tears of the Kingdom, you can attach everything from giant boulders to mushrooms and monster horns to a stick or a sword, changing a weapon’s properties in the process. In practice, Fuse solves the scarcity mindset that prevailed in Breath of the Wild, where players hoard their best weapons just in case.

In Tears, you can stockpile moblin horns or other miscellaneous pointy items instead, effectively hoarding (yes, we're still hoarding) a ton of powerful stuff for later while doing incredibly stupid and fun experiments with whatever you find laying around Hyrule.

Fuse underlines Tears of the Kingdom’s general emphasis on a silly, worry-free experimental world that players should have a blast exploring. You’ll still be collecting, cooking, sweating and freezing, but the last game’s more tedious survival elements (managing your stamina while scaling huge peaks, farming new weapons, etc.) are leavened by the additional freedoms that the new Tears abilities bring to the table. And the weapons you come across even in the game’s early hours do tend to last longer than in Breath of the Wild, though they’ll still hilariously smash into a million pieces the second you’re about to deal a killing blow to some terrible, guffawing one-eyed demon, just like last time around.

That leaves Ultrahand, which in most ways is Tears of the Kingdom’s centerpiece. If you’ve caught any content from the new Zelda game so far, you’ve probably seen some wild Flintstones-looking contraptions rolling through Hyrule’s vast meadows spewing flames (possibly with a Korok hood ornament). Ultrahand basically turns Tears of the Kingdom’s world into a giant set of K’nex, adding a deep layer of Minecraft-like building that will keep committed players busy for years to come.

Personally, I am not this kind of player — I barely have the patience to put a crude cart together before I want to go back to whacking bokoblins. But Ultrahand does make even relative dumb-dumbs like me feel like geniuses when solving shrines and getting around. Most importantly, Ultrahand is already being used to torture Koroks, who absolutely deserve everything they have coming to them (yahaha, bitch!).

If Tears of the Kingdom’s new abilities reward players who live to construct Rube Goldberg-level solutions to the game’s challenges, the rewards look just as handsome for players who prefer the exploration side of the game. Personally I’m in that camp; spending hours filling in Breath of the Wild’s map was an all-consuming, enchanting experience, but my new relationship energy with Hyrule tapered off eventually, giving way to so many Koroks. Based on my early hours in the new game, spent largely off the beaten path far from the beginner area, Tears of the Kingdom seems to serve up a richer stew of discoveries, from new cave systems and mystical creatures to more compelling side quests and a better variety of mobs to tangle with. Oh yeah, and there’s a whole new map under the map. Wait, what?

Tears of the Kingdom’s immense promise became clear to me when, on a lovely mid-afternoon hike out of Lookout Landing, the new encampment just south of Hyrule castle, I came across an ominous, wound-like hole in the ground (as one does). Hopping into that curiously deep hellmouth whisked me down into a thrilling, pitch-dark subterranean zone a world away from the bucolic rolling hills of Hyrule.

The biggest revelation in the game’s early hours is that Nintendo’s previews for Tears of the Kingdom’s contained some clever misdirection: Keeping Zelda fans looking up at the game's new sky-high realm meant we weren’t considering what might be down. And it’s not just a new area but a new plane entirely, one that stretches on in the dark in every direction, begging to be explored. To that I can only say: absolutely hell yes.

I’ve only spent a handful of hours down in the new zone known as “the Depths,” but it’s equal parts deadly and difficult to navigate, conjuring the tense, exciting vibes of survival/horror games where managing resources while making forward progress is a balance teetering on a razor's edge. The Depths introduces a fresh gameplay loop, giving players a rewarding groove: gather Brightbloom seeds above ground (mostly in normal caves — those are great too) in order to push further into the depths of the real wilderness below. Tears of the Kingdom’s subterranean realm is a surprise we saw before in Elden Ring’s impossible, sparkling underground and such an exciting gift for players who love nothing more than a long journey to the dark corners of a map that goes on and on.

All of this verticality is wonderful, and a perfect way to add literal depth to a game that revisits Breath of the Wild’s same map (plot-related tectonic events and other shakeups notwithstanding). As a huge Xenoblade fan, I do wonder how much of the layered design is influenced by Monolith Soft, a Nintendo-owned studio that helped craft both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. Monolith Soft has explored stacked, open-world-level designs with as much up and down as over there since all the way back in 2010, and the Xenoblade Chronicles series’ maps have the same grand beauty of the last two open world Zelda games.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's skydiving.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's skydiving.

Image Credits: Nintendo

After 20 hours in the game I can safely say that Nintendo is giving Breath of the Wild fans more of what they loved last time around in every possible way. So far, the result is exciting rather than indulgent, mostly thanks to a handful of new abilities and one very cool surprise that Nintendo managed to keep under wraps. All of the changes so far are for the better, including swapping the Divine Beast mini-bosses for mind-blowingly well-designed elemental dungeons that somehow manage to impress, even after everything we’ve seen before. (I've only done one of these so far, the Wind Temple, but rather than dreading pushing the story forward this time around, I'm looking forward to the next one.)

All told, unfolding the first 20 hours of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom revealed a triumph of game design. Breath of the Wild’s sequel is bigger and bolder in every imaginable way — and in many ways that were impossible to imagine because no game has ever pulled them off before. Like Link plopping an armful of ingredients down into his cooking pot, Nintendo’s recipe here is overflowing with fun ideas and fresh flavors. Now, to sit down to eat.

Other gameplay notes from my first 20 hours:

  • Link’s swan dives combined with the ancient visuals in the starting area give off an Assassin’s Creed Odyssey vibe and I am here for it.

  • Hyrule appears to have a New Deal-like series of public works projects. Is everyone on board with the monarchy? What’s the taxation system? I can only imagine this will be addressed in DLC.

  • The Zonai ancient civilization stuff infuses Tears with some cool new archaeology/mythology mysteries to explore. I don't remember the Sheikah stuff being as interesting.

  • Beedle, our bug-loving nonbinary retail icon returns!

  • The only truly sinister creature in Hyrule is the Korok. I wish they'd at least changed the sound effects for finding one, then maybe we wouldn't have to launch those little dudes into Hyrule's lower atmosphere.

  • It's pretty early to say for sure, but the world feels more alive than it did in BotW, which is really important if you want players to enjoy running around in it for hundreds of hours.

  • Loving Purah and Josha’s whole femme hacker genius thing.

  • You know, I’m starting to feel kind of bad killing all of the goblins. Most of them just seem to be peacefully enjoying their various weird meats. Maybe I should leave them to that?