james debate
james debate

Friday 7 July 2023

Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Genre Action-Advenutre
Platform Switch

legend zelda tears of the kingdom breath wild nintendo switch 2023 sequel game

"How do you follow up one of the best videogames ever made" is not a question that most developers will ever need to answer, but for Nintendo this is familiar ground. 

When The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released in 1998 it built the foundations of 3D gaming that developers still follow to this day. Widely considered among the greatest games of all time, following it up seemed an impossible task at the time. Yet somehow Nintendo not only managed to build and release a sequel in two years, but that sequel, Majora's Mask, was considered by many to be even better.

How did they do it? Nintendo realised they would never be able to top the scale of its landmark predecessor on the available hardware, so instead they looked to other ways they could innovate the formula. The result remains one of the most unique and brilliantly designed games ever made.

So in crafting a follow up to 2017's Breath of the Wild, a groundbreaking masterpiece of open-world game design considered by many to be the very greatest of all games, can Nintendo do it again?

There will be some gameplay spoilers here, and very mild story spoilers (nothing beyond the opening section).

One thing that struck me in the build up to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is just how little we have seen of the game pre-release. Ordinarily for such a big release the publisher would blitz the media with advertising and previews, yet in this case we saw little more than a few cryptic teaser trailers until just the last few days prior to release, and practically nothing in the way of story or gameplay details.

What we did know was that Tears of the Kingdom began life as a DLC expansion for Breath of the Wild, before growing in scope to the point where it was ultimately broken out as its own standalone project. This fact, combined with the lack of pre-release information, had given way to some concern among the fanbase. Fears abound that this would amount to little more than a glorified expansion pack, reusing assets and setting with only meager additions. I am pleased to say that this is very much not the case.

It is true that Tears of the Kingdom "reuses" the same world map as Breath of the Wild (more on that later) and reuses many of the same graphics and other assets. This might lead you to wonder what they have spent the better part of the last six years doing. As with Majora's Mask, it seems that much of Nintendo's focus in this case has gone towards gameplay innovation. 

One of the things that made Breath of the Wild great was its complex physics system which managed to seamlessly combine many granular mechanics in ways that were conducive to very clever puzzle design, but equally could be exploited by creative players in ways that the game developers could never have imagined. Attaching leaves to logs to create a makeshift boat. Using inflatable monster parts to create a hot air balloon, or even just something as daft as a catapult to launch players across the map. Even now, six years after release, players are still coming up with new ways to use these physics systems to achieve weird and wonderful things. With Tears of the Kingdom, Nintendo clearly looked at what players were having fun doing and said "yeah, let's have more of that." 

Fuse is a new power that allows Link to attach items to weapons, shields and arrows. This includes just about any item in the game world. You can attach rocks and monster parts, gemstones, even food items. This serves a few purposes. Fusing items increases their durability, which is essential in Tears of the Kingdom as the game opens with an event that "decays" all weapons in the world to the point where they will break after just a few uses. Different items will also confer certain attributes or bonuses. This may be something as simple as increased damage, or defense. Fusing certain items may give you increased temperature resistance, or allow you to set fire to or freeze things. Attach a "puffshroom" to a shield to create a cloud of smoke. Attach a fan or spring to a shield to send enemies flying. Attaching spikes, horns and certain stones to a shield allows you to effectively dual wield weapons. Attach a Keese eye to an arrow and it will home in on enemies. Those are the obvious examples, then there's the less obvious. Attach a minecart to a shield and you have a skateboard. Attach a spear to another spear and you have a stupidly long weapon that can attack enemies from great distance. There are hundreds of items in this game, each with their own properties and benefits. The possibilities are staggering. 

Then there's ultra-hand. Ultra-hand takes essentially the same concept as Fuse but expands it to the entire world. So instead of attaching items to your equipment, you can now attach different objects to each other. This might be useful to create a platform, or ramp, or a makeshift boat. Or you can attach them to one of the myriad of new "Zonai devices". There are dozens of different types of these devices, ranging from fans, to wheels, to balloons, gliders, cannons, springs and much more. By combining these devices with the objects around you, the game opens up truly endless possibilities. You can build just about anything you can imagine. For the purposes of gameplay, the idea is you can build yourself cars, boats, even aircraft. But already there are some truly creative people out there putting together all manner of contraptions, combining wheels and springs to create a functioning suspension system for all-terrain vehicles, fashioning giant walking mech-robots or automated flying laser drones. I saw one Reddit user create an automated egg farm that worked by attracting and then trapping chickens. Another figured out that frozen meat is simultaneously quite durable and has zero friction, making it an excellent contact point for a hovercraft. And this is just the beginning. The game has only been out a matter of weeks and I can only imagine what people will be building a year from now. 

Even before we get onto the rest of the game, what Nintendo have built here is incredible. To have crafted such a rich, complex system of physics and mechanics, complete with a very direct element of player agency, in all its unpredictability, is hugely impressive. There's little else like it. The fact that they did this and that it is so seamless, so polished, so bug free, is really nothing short of a miracle. Nintendo allegedly delayed this game by a year just to add polish, and it shows. Other developers would do well to take note.

But of course this is not Garry's Mod, or some kind of physics sandbox. This is still a Zelda game, and just because Nintendo have devoted a massive effort to these kinds of features does not mean that the rest of the game has been neglected. 

Tears of the Kingdom is very much a full-blooded Zelda adventure, complete with an epic story, colorful cast of characters, and a sweeping array of different locations to explore. In fact, while I expect most of the attention will be on the new powers, it is here where I feel Nintendo have most improved on Breath of the Wild. As brilliant as that game was, it did have a fairly simplistic story, with a cast of characters who barely featured, and disappointingly slight dungeons to explore. It was quite a lonely experience that was very much focused on its sandbox qualities and puzzles.

Tears of the Kingdom has a much more ambitious story, more thrillingly presented. It has characters that are actually present throughout the story and play a major role in your adventuring. In fact, in a first for the franchise, Tears of the Kingdom actually features "companions" to a limited degree, who will accompany you through dungeons and fight alongside you. The dungeons are also bigger, more numerous, and feature actual unique bosses rather than just the same one reskinned with a different coat of paint. The world itself is much livelier. There are more people out and about doing things, more side quests, more characters.

Then there is the world itself. This was, for me, the true star of Breath of the Wild. This incredible open world rich with hand-crafted detail, every inch of which could be explored. It was a treat simply to load up the game, pick a direction at random, and go explore. Very few games before or since have managed to achieve what that game did. As I have previously mentioned, Tears of the Kingdom reuses the overworld from Breath of the Wild, and pre-release this had me worried that the game might feel stale, or a rehash of what came before. If so much of the joy of the first game was exploring this world, then how could this game possibly recreate that feeling using a world that I've already explored?

It turns out I needn't have worried. Yes, this is the same Hyrule that we have previously explored, and yet, somehow, it feels fresh. It's clearly been remixed to a fair degree, ensuring that just about everything is new or changed from what you will remember.  Nintendo have also been clever in guiding players (through quests and world design) to spend more time in areas that you won't have explored as much in Breath of the Wild (eg Hyrule field), and less time in areas that were used extensively (eg the Great Plateau). Perhaps it is a testament to just how impressive the original design was, but I was quite surprised by the extent to which this felt like exploring a new world.

Pre-release much has been made of the addition of a new "layer" of sky islands, effectively a new overworld above the old one. These I actually found a little disappointing. The sky islands are fun enough to explore, but they're mostly quite small and lacking in depth, and since they are only dotted sporadically around the world they don't come even close to matching the scale of the surface level world.

But Nintendo had one final trick up its sleeve. The underground layer, a whole new layer of world to explore that was never even mentioned in the pre-release trailers. That's right, Tears of the Kingdom effectively features three over-worlds: the sky level, the surface level, and the underground. This underground layer covers the entirety of this giant world of Hyrule and it is absolutely massive. It is just unfortunate that more isn't made of this underground layer. The amount of space here is huge, but for the most part it is used mainly for farming crafting materials, boss fights, and the occasional side quest.

Perhaps my biggest issue with this game is how the "companions" have been implemented. To be clear, I like the idea of companions in Zelda, it's a good idea, but it has been used poorly here. Companions function essentially as surrogate equipment. Whereas in a previous game you might have had an item that allowed you to get a speed boost, or electrically charge your weapons, in this game you "activate" your companions in order to do so. This in itself is not a terrible concept, the problem is that these abilities aren't tied to a particular button or menu, rather you need to actively chase down your companion and activate the power physically while standing right next to them. This is incredibly tedious, especially as companions are coded to always stand behind the player so as to not block the camera, meaning that while you're chasing them down, they're often running away. Imagine having to do this in the middle of combat. It's surprising, considering how polished and well thought out the rest of the game is, that this one mechanic is so janky and poorly conceived. A rare example of poor game design.

But, this aside, my other criticisms with this game are very minor.

As mentioned above, while the surface layer of the world has been impressively reused, more could have been done to make the other layers as compelling to explore. 

Some of the menus and interfaces remain a bit too fiddly, especially when trying to fuse an item to an arrow, for example, which requires you to scroll through a list of potentially hundreds of items and gets tedious quickly.

While most of the puzzles and shrines are great fun, occasionally you will find one that is either poorly or unfairly designed, or poorly explained, in a way that causes frustration rather than enjoyment. In particular, the puzzles that rely on "platforming" style gameplay tend to feel a bit weak. Zelda has never been a platformer, and the controls simply aren't responsive or precise enough to make that kind of gameplay feel anything other than an irritation.

Minor annoyances aside, you'd have to say that Nintendo have somehow done it again. They've followed up a landmark game with yet another landmark game, one that expands and objectively improves upon just about every element of its predecessor. Tears of the Kingdom is simply brilliant, and there's really no other way to describe it.

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