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Modified Image. Original by Khoshhat, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
Tears of the Kingdom Retrospective
Posted On: 29 May 2023

Caution: SPOILERS (duh)
This post was edited on 2023-06-14 to add additional thoughts.

Like a lot of people, I picked up a copy of the new Zelda game, Tears of the Kingdom and promptly disappeared from the Internet until I had beaten it. After all, it's either that or run the risk of seeing a "TEARS OF THE KINGDOM ALL SECRETS" video on YouTube with a pogging Link face and spoiler imagery in the thumbnail 37 minutes after the game comes out. Such is content creation, I guess.

Last night, I did officially (and rather inadvertently) beat the game. Though I still have a lot left to do, I thought I would write up an initial retrospective with my thoughts. What else am I going to use this log for at this rate? Anyway, onwards to the meat and potatoes:

The Good

Tears of the Kingdom (TotK) is, in my opinion, a perfection of what Breath of the Wild (BotW) set out to establish --so much so that it now makes me see the previous game as more of a sandbox tech demo than a game proper. (Given that developers spoke of not being able to do all the things they wanted to with the first game, that might be more accurate than I'll ever know.)

The Hyrule of TotK feels so much more vibrant and lively and lived-in than the world of BotW. The amount of significant population centers hasn't changed much (barring obvious additions like Lookout Landing), but the amount of people in and about and between them feels significantly greater. Moreover, these characters have lives. They aren't just set pieces for the remnants of civilization post-Calamity. They're real people who are doing real things --monster hunting groups, researchers, explorers, horse-and-wagon transports, etc. Not only that, but often enough you can be a part of that. You can fight alongside the hunters. You can take photos to present to researchers. You can help ferry people to their destinations. Point being: Link's interactions are so much more dynamic than just talking to somebody and getting a little sidequest [ding] in his log.

The weapon system of TotK is really quite a marvel. It's still more of the same from BotW in that weapons still have limited durability and break, but TotK supersedes its predecessor by making that system interesting. Thinking back, what made the weapon system so abysmal in BotW was that it was repetitive in the wrong way. You find a sword, you break the sword, you find a new sword, rinse and repeat. Ultimately, at least for me, it just turned into a game of hoarding and periodically replenishing the same couple of weapons from, say, a cache in Hyrule Castle that regenerates after every Blood Moon. That's not fun in the long term. In TotK, however, it's not about finding weapons, but thinking through how to craft them with the game's fusing mechanic. You still need to pick up a base weapon, but those are everything and everywhere. The crafting process itself is purely a product of your own adventure. Maybe you use that moblin horn you picked up earlier in a scuffle. Maybe you just glue on that nearby boulder. The possibilities are numerous and the results are beautifully (and sometimes hilariously) diverse. It's still a shame to see a nice weapon have to break, but that excitable little thrill of deciding what to make next never gets old for me.

The hand powers --TotK's successor to BotW's Sheikah Slate runes-- are exceptionally well-designed for the game. Back in BotW, the Runes largely felt "eh, optional". You needed them to solve puzzles and the infinite Rune bombs made for useful weapons in a pinch, but overall they felt a bit like those items you got in older Zelda games where they had a use in their native dungeon and then not much after. If you could beat BotW without collecting them, I don't think you would miss them. The hand powers in TotK however... So much of everything is built around clever and cheeky applications of Ultra Hand, Ascend, and Recall. They're not just tools for solving puzzles, but for navigating terrain and even fighting battles. I use them constantly, and I'm always amazed at all the neat things I can do. (Or sometimes disturbed as is the case of Ascending through a live Talus....) It probably helps that Ultra Hand can manipulate all of the things, unlike the ferrous limitation of BotW's Magnesis. I don't necessarily abuse the Zonai Device building mechanic as much as the game intends me to, but I have done a fair bit of ludicrous MacGyvering.

Saving best for last, what really seals the deal for me with TotK is the reintroduction of genuine story and progression. BotW didn't exactly have a direction proper. You were given scant few things to do in the form of an arbitrary checklist, and any motivation to even do them largely came at the discretion of the player alone. So much of the story is presented in an egregiously optional way, and omissible to little ill effect mechanically. Even the final boss Calamity Ganon is presented in such a nebulous way that there's not much dissuading the player from grabbing a handful of sticks and attempting to Leeroy Jenkins their way to victory. While TotK retains the same ability to ignore everything with similar results, it makes a very strong effort to convince the player otherwise. There is an actual complex multifaceted story presented in realtime that provides plenty of curiosity and motivation for the player to follow along. And there's plenty of intimidating fanfare around Ganondorf which can make a casual player hesitant to confront him until assured by the game that it is indeed time. Or maybe I'm just a scared-y-cat, ah?

[Added 2023-06-14] Despite TotK having more shrines than BotW (152 vs 120), TotK introduces an interesting QOL-esque mechanic that makes the hunt so much less of a slog: every single Lightroot in the Depths correlates with a shrine on the surface. If you know where a Lightroot is, you know approximately where on the surface to find a shrine. Finding Lightroots, though tedious, is significantly more straightforward due to being visible in the darkness (and darkness itself being spelled out on the map) and rarely obscured in those chagrining "you've got to earn your shrine" ways. It's a far less obnoxious tool than inferring educated guesses from existing shrine locations and running around like a maniac hoping the Shrine Sensor goes boop. I wonder how many of us gave up and used a guide for the BotW shrines?

The Bad

Of course, no game is perfect. And I have my (un)fair share of criticisms about the game. There are a lot of things that TotK gets plain wrong per my own opinion and it's a bit of a shame in the grand scheme. Not enough to warrant any sort of outrageous response, but enough to make me wonder given how willing Nintendo was to delay the launch for finishing touch purposes.

I think my biggest disappointment upfront is that while the game did add two entirely new Hyrule-wide regions to explore --the sky and the depths--, TotK fails to make them particularly meaningful. While, yes, two of the game's important Temples are in the sky and the final boss is buried deep in the depths, that's about the extent of the merit. The sky and depths are both largely fluff. They're something to explore and there are rewards for doing so, but very little of it is relevant to the plot of the game as a whole. I think what frustrates me is that it wouldn't have taken much to remedy these grievances. If more things in the sky moved (like the Light Dragon), then there'd be more incentive to explore the sky. If Ganondorf was literally anywhere other than right below Hyrule Castle, then there'd be all the incentive in the world to explore the depths thoroughly.

Another issue I have with the game is that it doesn't always reconcile the whole "story progression" and "dungeon completion" parts with the BotW "go anywhere and do anything" part well. It's entirely possible that I am just stupid. In fact, much of the issue is precisely because I am irredeemably stupid. On one side of the spectrum, I spent probably an hour or more failing to solve the Water Temple because I overlooked the part where I was supposed to talk to Sidon to get him to join me in it. On the other side I ended up ignoring all the rail puzzles in the Fire Temple and climbing my way to victory because it was easier. It's kind of frustrating when the game decides on order but allows you chaos and simply prevents your progress until you behave. It's a bit unfulfilling to realize it's easier to cheese something actually important than do it the right way.

And I guess my final nitpick about the game is that the Sage companions (real and summoned avatar) feel more like a burden in combat than a help. Granted, the game would be too easy if they fought seriously, but it really does feel like they're better distractions than support. When one or more of them come in clutch, it's usually more of an accident or stroke of RNG than anything. Your odds improve when you have all of them out at once, but it's still kind of dumb to see how often they just kind of idle.

Last Bits

Some smaller parts of the game I'd like to touch on briefly as well:
  • I feel like there are a lot more feminine(-ish) and androgynous clothing items. I mean yes please but I honestly didn't expect that. That Frostbite outfit? Chef's kiss.
  • The game seems to just completely disavow all the Sheikah tech from the first game. Kind of disappointing, honestly, but I get it.
  • Pretty cool that the Master Sword can apparently just rebuild itself over time when exposed to sacred power. Though it's disappointing that it doesn't seem to look different despite being roided up on that holy juice.
  • That Ganondorf can not only inflict Gloom damage but straight up yeet heart containers out of existence is an excellent nod to continuity with the start of the game.
  • Riju's lightning AOE makes for a pretty decent LIDAR-RADAR type thing in the depths if you run out of those lightbloom seed things.
  • Clever flip-flop that retrieving the Master Sword requires stamina this time around instead of heart containers. I think it actually takes fewer maguffin orbs this time around, too.
  • Is it just me, or does the game seem to make it harder to cook dishes that give lots of bonus yellow hearts?
  • It's weird that you start with 30 hearts across 2 rows but in progressing through the game, I've ended up with 20 hearts in a single row. Do... do I get 40 hearts in this game? [Added 2023-06-14] You can indeed have up to 40 hearts, but similar to BotW there are only enough Lights of Blessing to fully upgrade either hearts or stamina. So either 38 hearts and 2 extra stamina wheels, or 40 hearts and 1.6 extra stamina wheels.
  • [Added 2023-06-14] When the game confirms the Zelda spotted around Hyrule is merely a puppet controlled by Ganondorf, the Zelda dialog during the Blood Moon cutscene disappears. Another neat continuity nod since it was the puppet speaking those lines the entire time.
  • [Added 2023-06-14] Originally, I would say that Midna's Helmet is the best piece of armor in the game. And it is indeed great for the Depths. Truly, however, the Mystic Armor set headpiece is the greatest. Dye it yellow and it's like Link is walking around as a Super Saiyan 3. You can also get some fun Naruto character vibes with the armor set. Plus, it's rupee-powered Magic Armor.
  • [Added 2023-06-14] Never in a million years would I have predicted the Ancient Hero Aspect or that Nintendo would graduate past Wolf Link to full-on Furry Zonai Link. Is it a worthy reward for completing 152 shrines? No idea. But it's amazing nonetheless.

And that pretty much wraps up my retrospective. It's a game definitely worth the money and I really hope to see a healthy amount of DLC added in the coming months/years. Nintendo did a damn fine job and I'm going to get quite a lot of mileage out of Tears of the Kingdom for a while to come.

... Hey, wait a minute. Where the hell does this game put BotW and TotK on the timeline? Are they their own timeline now? Or is this technically just a retelling of Skyward Sword?

Also, if much of the game is about restoring strength lost to gloom and finding Princess Zelda, does that mean Link is technically a Tarnished and Maidenless? Is this game secretly also Elden Ring? (Kidding.)