Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was one of the biggest games of 2017. Not only did it sell like gangbusters, but its influence on the gaming landscape cannot be understated. So when the direct sequel to BotW was announced, the needle on the collective gamer hype meter flew right off. Yet, there were some naysayers out there. “A sequel? Like Final Fantasy, Zelda sequels aren’t good.” “It’s the same map, Nintendo’s scamming us.” “Just adding a sky map is lazy.” Oh, my sweet summer child. You don’t know just how mistaken you are. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is not only an amazing game on its own, but it is also a masterclass in how to properly make a sequel.
Tears of the Kingdom: A Truly Lived-In World
While there were some doubters, many of us knew Nintendo could be trusted. Sequels aren’t new to the Zelda franchise from The Legend of Zelda II to Majora’s Mask and quite a few others. Majora’s Mask was actually my first Zelda game that got me into the franchise. Something it and Tears of the Kingdom have in common is that they work perfectly fine as standalone titles. You don’t have to play the originals if you want to just jump into it, but you get so much more if you have. Tears of the Kingdom‘s world is just so alive and lived in. With Breath of the Wild, the world had many mysteries as to the history of the world, and you, as Link who was sleeping for a hundred years and is surely not a historian, just didn’t know. The people around might have vague ideas, but many times it was just an unknown. And those mysteries get fleshed out here in satisfying ways. And that’s how you reuse assets. Plant seeds in the first game for the payoff in the second. Other games stumble at this, but the Zelda team has always known how to implement this.
I think of something like Far Cry New Dawn, a direct sequel to Far Cry 5 that also uses the same world and a lot of the same assets while adding new mechanics and story. Far Cry 5 was a positively received game, and players were looking forward to it and jumping back into this world, especially to see the fallout of its bonkers canonical ending. But what did it actually add to entice players to come back? Actually, not that much. Yes, it looks nice, the story is less up it’s own ass, but at the end of the day, it was boring and a lot of game sequels fall into this trap. Yes, in the past when we had good games we wanted more of the same, more of that. But games have evolved, and we don’t just want more, we want better. Zelda makes sure to give you better. It updates the surface environments to show how time has passed, it tweaks the game mechanics that make it almost entirely new, and the story is more interesting and fuller than its previous iterations.
This also expands to the characters of Tears of the Kingdom. The familiar faces you will rediscover have grown and developed which really comes through in the story. They have their different challenges and wants and you, just as in the first game, can decide how much you want to invest in it. If you want, you can (mostly) B line it straight to the final boss just like the first game. But the many secondary and side quest flesh out a lot of the world lore, and it’s worth the effort. Especially learning the history of this Hyrule (timeline be damned). I’m not going to lie; I enjoyed Nintendo’s middle finger to the Zelda timeline many of us obsess over. Maybe a bit deserved, but the approach here is a straight up chef’s kiss. And it’s not just the story that Nintendo nailed, but they nail the locations and map as well. I SpongeBob meme anyone saying, “LaMe SkY iSlaNdS iS a LaZy AdDiTiOn.” Y’all literally have no clue what you’re talking about. Don’t just look up, look down.
As Above, So Below
After the first trailer, my hype meter was already maxed out. So I began to stay away from further trailers and promotional releases. So I didn’t know, I had no idea… The moment a quest led me to jump into a giant hole I thought it would put me in a cave or something. But as I jumped, and Link fell for what seemed like forever and that musical score kicked in, my mind was blown. This was The Depths. Nintendo wasn’t content with just adding some admittedly small islands in the sky. No, they made an entire underground area the size of the already giant surface map with its own quests, collectibles, and ecosystem. It’s like a prehistoric forest with giant ancient trees and fungus completely different from the surface. To traverse The Depths, you have to find ancient roots called lightroots. This acts as the underground sky towers to fill in the map. Until you find them though, it’s complete darkness. The only thing you’ll see are small blue flames of Poes and the soft red glow of the gloom. Malice that will drain the life from Link and decreasing his hearts until cured.
There are plenty of games, good games even, that will reuse its maps in some way. Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a fully reused map, GTA: San Andreas lets you revisit Liberty City, Saints Row 3 and 4, etc. These are good to great games, but Tears of the Kingdom not only gives you a refreshed map, but The Depths which is the same size as the surface PLUS the sky islands. (Slaps the hood of the Switch) This baby is getting you over twice the map as the original without it feeling over bloated. Not every game needs a huge map; in fact, it can actually worsen a game. A common complaint about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is just how bloated its map was and how filled it was with busy work and collectibles. Tears of the Kingdom side quest feel like they all have a purpose of fleshing out the world. Not all but most, side-eyeing those Korok seeds… But 98% serves some purpose other than just giving you busy work, and that’s the trap a lot of games fall into.
Can We Build It? Yes, We Can!
Nintendo really did listen to a lot of the feedback for Breath of the Wild and applied it beautifully in Tears of the Kingdom. A divisive mechanic from the first came was the weapon degradation. It seemed like every other fight Link got into would cause the weapons to shatter. Nintendo had an interesting solution by incorporating it into the story and giving you the ability to upgrade and make your own weapons. Put a Keese eye on an arrow and it becomes a homing arrow. Add a Lizalfos horn to a rusted sword and you upped its damage power tenfold. It’s crazy the amount a variety Nintendo was able to come up with. And they still added more to the creative sandbox. With the Zonai artifacts, you can make almost anything your mind can conceive. A quick search will show you the utterly insane concepts some players were able to come up with. Put a rocket on your shield to fly up in the sky or make a Sentai-style battle robot. It’s pretty much only limited by your imagination and ingenuity.
Take to the Sky
Developers can use The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom as the blueprint for nailing a sequel game. It started with a masterpiece of a game and somehow found a way to top itself. The gameplay is fun, the environments are beautiful, and the story is captivating. I didn’t talk much about the story – the return of Ganondorf proper, the first king and queen of Hyrule, the Seven Sages – because it’s best experienced for yourself. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this game has early Game of the Year considerations. So go out, buy this game, and experience it for yourself. Because if you don’t, you’re missing out on one of the best games in years.