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Tears of the Kingdom refines Zelda's open world approach, it just took me time to see it


This piece contains spoilers for the approach to the first dungeon in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

I can see now that I came to Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom excited but slightly nervous. I think I was unable to easily put into words exactly what I hoped for from it. This is because I loved Breath of the Wild, but I didn't always like it. I knew Zelda had to change and I really admired the way this ingenious, generous, agenda-shifting game rethought the basic template. I would play it for hours on end. But maybe there weren't quite enough of those hours where I genuinely felt I was playing a Zelda game.

Five or six hours into Tears of the Kingdom, though, something happened. I suddenly realised that, while I was clearly playing a game built on the foundation of Breath of the Wild, I was also playing a game that was starting to feel like Zelda. Easy to say, but hard to actually explain. I still don't have the words easily to hand. So instead, I'll return to the point at which I started to feel this way, and we'll see what happens.

Actually, let's start a little bit before that. Those first five or six hours of Tears of the Kingdom were fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes genuinely thrilling. Exploring the initial sky islands offered both a tutorial in new powers but also a seriess of epiphanies as the sheer potential of those powers became clear. There was comedy: I slowly pieced together a bridge with Ultrahand and immediately dropped it into the abyss. There was actual wonder: I steadily worked out that, if in doubt, I should fire up Ascend and try swimming through a bit of rock. There was more comedy: I used Fuse to make a weapon so devastatingly heavy that when I used it, the centrifugal force spun me into space.

10 Things We Wish We Knew Before Starting The Legend of Zelda Tears of the KingdomWatch on YouTube

This stuff was great, but it felt like Breath of the Wild with a bit of a makeover. It felt like Nintendo's sublime sandbox, providing space for the imagination and a gentle, all but concealed nudge to get the imagination moving. When I got down to Hyrule, this feeling continued. I spent the next few hours happily sandboxing: unlocking towers, completing shrines, just moving the camera and picking points on the horizon.

Then stuff started to happen. I can't be totally sure, but I feel like one of the micro-tweaks Tears of the Kingdom has made is with the quest design stuff. The central thread that pulls you through the adventure is not any more insistent, perhaps, but it feels like if you do start to drift that way, the quests have a bit more attention for you. They feel broken down into smaller parts, filled with more tension points. This may purely be the opinion of someone who did not spend as much time on the central quest of Breath of the Wild as they should have, but even that's because whenever I tried, the main quest line always felt like a shirt that was slightly too big for me. Too much room inside there. Too easy to lose my way in the material without my arms finding the right sleeves to fit into.

Tears of the Kingdom - gliding
Tears of the Kingdom.

Poor analogy, but hopefully you know what I mean. I realise now that I was slightly overwhelmed by the sheer sandbox potential of Breath of the Wild. Tears of the Kingdom only ups that potential, but I do think it also provides a bit more satisfaction, a bit more wayfinding, when it comes to the main storyline too.

Now we're getting to the point where everything clicks for me. I have done an early bit of main questing and discovered an early hub town. And I've got to the point where a handful of different objectives lay before me, with one of them closer than the others and a little more insistently underlined. I head off to see what it's all about and quickly find myself...

...In winter. And Zelda in winter is a magical thing indeed. Just think of that one special dungeon from Twilight Princess where there is warmth in the kitchen and icicles on the windows and soup bubbling on the stove. This is even better now: I'm lost in the blizzard, stalking around a frozen lake, and trying to get to a snowed in town at the centre of it all.

It's a sandbox sequence, in other words, but it's got just enough direction to orient me. I eventually get to the town I'm after, swooping in through a heavy fall of snow, and I'm sent off again to a nearby mountain. The first dungeon? Not quite. The approach to the first dungeon. And I think this is the heart of why, for me, Tears of the Kingdom is giving me more of that Zelda-ish feel.

Dungeon approaches are a classic bit of Zeldas, and looking back it turns out they're often my favourite bits. Dragon Roost Island in Wind Waker. I love that. Not the dungeon itself, which I can barely remember, but the route to the dungeon, moving off the beach and up these spindly towers of rock, moving from ledge to rope swing, busting out the telescope to see what lay ahead, turning, turning, always moving upwards, exploring, but also being drawn to the point that I knew must lay ahead.

Tears of the Kingdom - tower
Tears of the Kingdom - mapping
Tears of the Kingdom - falling
Tears of the Kingdom.

And here, in Tears of the Kingdom, I'm working my way through the snow and up a mountain. And then I'm leaving the mountain behind and moving across floating tracks and buckles and loops of ancient rock. Progress still feels sandboxy, or rather it has texture as I move from combat to a bit of puzzling, a bit of traversal, a chance to use the beloved Ascend along with moments where I take a risk with a long parachute flight. Is this a sandbox? No. It's actually linear. I'm solving problems to get to a higher point, to twist higher through this floating gauntlet of stone and air, moving back and forth and round, but always upwards, past spots to rest, helpful Shrines to mark the journey, new elements like flying boats I can bounce from to get huge air, always headed up to that storm ahead. And in that storm? The dungeon that, as with Dragon Roost, I know is there. The dungeon that is almost drawing it to me magnetically.

What to make of all this? The secret, for me at least, is the careful deployment of linearity inside a sandbox world. It's about a moment, in fact, where you leave the sandbox behind and are on a track. I remember moments like this from Breath of the Wild - the route to the first dungeon in that game, in fact. But the feeling was somehow different, and I think it's as simple as understanding that I never felt, during that trip across the grassy gradients of a hill, that I had truly left the sandbox behind. I still felt at any moment I could break away and go back to the great Breath of the Wild tradition of just forgetting the main adventure and screwing around with magic for a while. (I want to point out: I love all that! I love it. And yet...)

Tears of the Kingdom - overlook
Tears of the Kingdom.

Here, though, in Tears of the Kingdom, I was almost in an instance, high above Hyrule in a twisting corridor of floating rock paths. The linearity was not just comforting, it was energising, the same way it's always energising, at the very climax of a Zelda, to find yourself climbing one of those terrifying foreboding staircases that just goes up and up and up. Somehow this is not the same linearity I get in a lot of cinematic action games, which either makes me feel like I should sit back and applaud the developers' craft or just check out because I'm not really needed anyway. Here, it has enough width to give me things to do, and to allow me expression. But it's linearity in this special way, providing a force that urges me forward and makes moving forward thrilling.

I see now that I didn't play enough of Breath of the Wild to truly judge if this stuff is new for Tears of the Kingdom. Or rather, the hundred or so hours I put into that game were all spent sandboxing about, opening up the map, doing whatever I pleased. I know in the hundred hours ahead of me in Tears of the Kingdom I will do a lot of that stuff too. But here, working through the storm, something held me tightly in its grip. And it was, undoubtedly, the Legend of Zelda.

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