The long-awaited followup to Breath of the Wild ultimately took six years to be released, blending in numerous new gameplay elements and vastly expanding the size of its world and the scale of its narrative over its already huge predecessor. But was this heavily anticipated sequel worth the wait, or does it just bring a tear to the eyes of fans?
Despite being a cross-platform release, Breath of the Wild was the breakout title for the Switch, and really affirmed Nintendo's commitment to the platform after the very lackluster reception (and sales) of the Wii U. The game ultimately sold over 25 million copies and was very strongly received by new fans, but had a more mixed reception among long-timers, who criticized its lack of traditional Zelda dungeons and boss battles, comparatively bland overworld and constantly-breaking weapons, among other things. I had somewhat mixed feelings about it myself; while I commended Nintendo for a noble first attempt at something they'd never really attempted before - an open world RPG with a focus on emergent gameplay - the lack of tangible reward for most quests (unlike a good Elder Scrolls or Fallout) and the overworld lacking a lot of the hidden side areas and secrets of earlier Zeldas ensured that while I enjoyed the experience overall, I didn't love it. I've compared it unfavorably to Skyrim on several occasions - another game with some very prominent shortcomings and a lot of missing elements compared to its predecessors, but having a much more well-crafted world and rewarding gameplay loop than Breath of the Wild ensured it was a game I played a fair bit more.
Tears of the Kingdom was announced not long after the original game's release, and though they were tight-lipped about it for a long time, it still generated a considerable amount of fan interest. They seemed to have taken fan criticisms into account in a big way - in addition to heavily retooling the original overworld from BotW (now with many more caves, wells and hidden areas to discover, major changes to existing locales, as well as a whole new set of temples to earn upgrades from), there's floating ruins in the sky and even a vast, dark underground world to explore that you gradually light up by activating giant roots. Essentially, there are now three different worlds to explore, so the game is absolutely dense with content before you even get into the quests and storyline.
The core gameplay remains essentially unchanged - weapons still break after a few good whacks, and it's easy to stumble into powerful foes who can take you out in one or two hits - but the powers you're given to improvise solutions to these problems are much different (and far more versatile) than they were before. Right away you're given the "Ultrahand", which can be used to pick up and manipulate heavy objects, and even attach them together with supernatural "glue" to create structures. This lends itself to a heavy focus on building things; both from pre-fab parts like gliders, planks, wheels and even weapons like flamethrowers and beam cannons - but also plays heavily into problem solving, allowing you to improvise creative means of crossing over obstacles, reaching out-of-reach objects, and so forth. Basically Zelda now has a touch of Garry's Mod to it, which as you can imagine has already led to all sorts of bizarre and amazing player creations to deal with enemies and solve puzzles (or just getting laughs on social media). As the game progresses you'll also unlock more battery capacity, letting you power more complex creations for a longer period of time, and even unlock the ability to save your creations and recreate them instantly later (either from raw ore or available parts).
Other powers include being able to Rewind time for specific objects, leaping upwards through ceilings to reach new areas (so long as the ceiling is fairly close and the surface relatively flat), and Fusion - the ability to combine weapons, shields and objects together into new forms. This lends an entirely new dynamic to your arsenal and the gameplay as a whole, as for story reasons most metallic weapons in the land have decayed and become near-useless in battle. But if you take, say, a rusted Claymore and fuse it with a heavy piece of wood, or a metal spiked ball, or a Lizalfo horn, or even another claymore, you not only combine their offensive properties to make a more powerful weapon, but you get something with greater reach to boot. Shields can also be Fused in similar fashion, allowing you to weaponize them or bolster their defense, and you can plop nearly any object on the game onto the end of an arrow - from bombs that explode on impact to flame fruits that ignite things to mushrooms that bounce whatever they hit a fair distance backwards, or even Keese eyeballs to give arrows homing properties, the possibilities are vast and great fun to experiment with. One can also freehand throw any object, so unless you're incredibly wasteful, you're never caught without at least something to defend yourself or create a means of escape with. Weapons also have a considerably wider variety of bonus effects now too, such as more energy-efficient usage when fused with building components or added durability or elemental effects, so while there are still essentially only a small handful of weapon types (thrusting, slashing and two-handed blades), they manage to feel distinct nonetheless.
Tears of the Kingdom also addresses my major complaints with its predecessor, giving it that heavy focus on secrets that earlier Zeldas had and making the exploration element feel much more rewarding. As mentioned, there are effectively three different maps to explore now, all of which are ridiculously dense; packed with hidden caves, alcoves, wells and miniature dungeons, and all have a surprisingly unique feel to them and give some useful rewards for your trouble. Whether it's a new piece of armor, a few potions and food items, some leads on a new quest or just some rare crafting materials, they all do their best to make it worth your while to explore them. Hunting down specific crafting components is made easier with the addition of a compendium for all of Hyrule's sights, which you add to by snapping photos, and can set your radar (which normally homes in on shrines) to detect anything else you fancy as long as it's in there. Rain is much less of a momentum-killer than it was before, as you can create potions and equip armor that makes you slip less frequently on wet surfaces in addition to the vehicle-building element. The worlds as a whole also feel much more dynamic and alive, with nice touches like NPCs traveling between towns and even fighting monsters on occasion, talking you up and giving hints on potential item locations, and even occasionally taking part in quests with you. Dungeons are once again distinctly themed and feel more like proper Zelda, focusing on puzzle solving, battling monsters and having large-scale, amazing boss battles. Even the story scenes are cinematic, wonderfully acted and amazingly staged, making it feel like your (and Zelda's) actions are having a tangible impact on wresting Hyrule from the grip of a looming evil.
While the game is a massive improvement in just about every respect - music, visuals, gameplay, physics and features - it's not without some minor technical issues. The framerate does get a bit choppy at times, particularly in some of the busier locations (like towns) and during some of the more chaotic fights. There is also a slight delay to the controls that takes a bit of getting used to, but the game in general moves at a fairly leisurely pace, so it's not as much of a problem as it would be in something based more around intense action like Ghost of Tsushima. Still, the fact that it's such a massive, complex game with a very robust physics engine, keeps track of dynamic events going on for miles around, yet runs as smoothly as it does on a handheld system that's over six years old at this point, is nothing short of incredible. It also manages to do all of this without making my Switch's fan run at full blast constantly, unlike some games (*COUGHShinMegamiTenseiV*). It also doesn't have some QoL you'd hope it would (being able to favorite items or outfits for quick access), but that's a minor concern.
In closing, Nintendo's second attempt at an immersive sim style game (with their own brand of off-beat creativity blended in) hits all the notes its predecessor missed, taking the experimental elements the series has tinkered with going all the way back to Ocarina of Time and melding them together with what works into a brilliant and cohesive whole. The fact that it has so much content, so many added features on top of highly polished core mechanics, and such amazing worldbuilding and storytelling, all polished to virtual perfection, is nothing short of breathtaking, and that it's all happening on a six-year-old handheld system and runs as well as it does stands as proof positive that the hardware it's on ultimately has little to no bearing on a game's quality. Tears of the Kingdom is a massively deep new well for the genre, to the point where it makes Breath of the Wild look almost like an unfinished beta in comparison. A wonderfully addictive, ingeniously executed and highly entertaining game that deserves every bit of praise it's gotten; Nintendo once again proves they're the true kings of gaming.