Nintendo is just daring us to break The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
I had many questions going into a recent hands-on demo with the upcoming open-world adventure — How much has Hyrule changed? What role will the Zonai tribe play? Where the hell has Tingle been? — but my prevailing curiosity was this: What did Nintendo itself learn from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Which tenets did it credit with the game’s runaway success, and which ones did it build upon in the sequel? As it turns out, based on 90 minutes with what promises to be a massive game, Nintendo really enjoyed Breath of the Wild’s propensity for spiraling joyously out of control. And the company is even happier to abide chaos in Tears of the Kingdom.
Fusing new weapons
A quick note about me: I can be a bit of a goblin. If a game allows me to peek behind its curtain, I will do so immediately. If a game is promising me freedom of choice, I will exploit that freedom as soon as I can. If a game challenges me to take advantage of its interlocking systems, I will find the spaces in which those systems don’t quite coalesce, and do my best to emphasize the inconsistency. Simply put: I like to cause mischief.
So it was with little hesitation that I fused an explosive barrel to my shield within the first 10 seconds of my demo last week. Once a Bokoblin obliterated himself and five of his friends with an errant swing of his club, I nocked an arrow, opened my inventory, fused a bomb flower to the tip of the projectile, and promptly shot a Hinox in the pupil with my makeshift grenade launcher. He didn’t die, so I stuck an ancient flamethrower to the tip of a rusty sword, and lashed him from afar with my newfound flame whip. His health was dwindling, and all it would have taken to finish him off was one normal arrow, but that’s super boring, so I tossed a gob of yellow Chuchu jelly at his feet and caused a localized lightning storm.
The storm killed me as well.
It took dying to pull me out of my experimental fever dream, at which point I realized that Tears of the Kingdom had yet to tell me, You can’t do that. Link’s new Fuse ability allowed me to combine my arsenal of clubs, sticks, and rudimentary swords with virtually anything that wasn’t structurally integral to the Bokoblin camp where I found myself. Link can also throw most items in his inventory as improvised grenades, whether it be an apple to momentarily stun foes, or a fire flower to, well, start a fire. I stumbled upon a plant whose leaves had “blinding” qualities, so of course I chucked one at an enemy before closing the distance to knock him over the edge of a floating island. I even stuck a rocket to the tip of a spear, threw it like a javelin, and watched a Bokoblin careen off into the distance. Can I still call myself an agent of chaos if Tears of the Kingdom seems so delighted by all the chaos I’m causing?
Ultrahand, Ascend, and Recall
And all of this only touches on combat. What about Link’s new Ultrahand ability, which allows him to engineer vehicles out of the resources, natural and otherwise, strewn about Hyrule and the floating archipelago above it? What about Recall, which rewinds an item along the path it just traveled? What about the Ascend power, which sucks Link up to a ceiling above him, at which point he gracefully swims through the surface and emerges, Danny DeVito-like, from the ground on the other side?
My general objective during the demo — and it’s a testament to the engrossing nature of Tears of the Kingdom’s experimentation that I’m only just now touching on what I was supposed to be doing — was to reach an island in the sky above me, by using several other islands as stepping stones. As we saw in longtime producer Eiji Aonuma’s gameplay presentation in March, Link can reach floating islands by standing on top of falling rocks, casting Recall on them, and riding them upward like elevators. In my demo, I discovered another way to access the sky realm, but I won’t spoil it here. (Per Nintendo’s embargo restrictions, I’m also not allowed to do so.) Needless to say, getting to the first island was simple enough.
From there, my options opened up: I chose to use Ultrahand to connect several Zonai fans and rockets (which Nintendo graciously included in my starting inventory) to a giant floating block. By striking one of the fans, every Zonai item in the vicinity activated, sending my ad hoc barge gracefully toward the next island. I hopped off, placed my Travel Medallion (which is making its return from Breath of the Wild’s Master Trials DLC) on the ground in case I fell back to Hyrule at any point, and glanced over at the next island, confident in my engineering skills.
At this point, I hit a snag: The next island was about 300 feet higher than my current elevation. I could create another barge, with its rockets and fans rotated to account for the steep angle, but the Zonai items might have run out of battery (a meter that can be increased throughout a playthrough) on the way up.
Instead, I decided to aim my second barge (which I Ultrahand-ed using items scattered around the new island) straight ahead, at a giant stalactite-esque tower of rock hanging from the bottom of the elevated island. My plan was to climb it to the top, if my stamina allowed, and scale the outer edge to reach the surface.
However, as my ship hurtled toward the stalactite, I had an epiphany: Use Ascend, you moron! In my rush to equip the ability, I overshot the island, and continued rocketing into Hyrule’s great blue expanse. At this point, I could have opened my map to fast-travel back to the medallion I had placed on the previous island. Instead, though, opting for the flashier method, I cast Recall on the barge. It paused in its trajectory, then rewound itself along its flight path; midway through, nerves steeled, I equipped Ascend, aimed at the bottom of the massive spire, and sucked Link up into its interior. He swam the entire length of it in real time, giving me a chance to catch my breath and marvel at the ways that all went wrong.
Airplanes, catapults, and experimentation
This is the kind of game where you have such a useful array of game-breaking superpowers that you regularly forget to use one or two of them for long stretches of time. At one point, a duo of Bokoblins rolled a spiked ball down a ramp toward me, à la Indiana Jones. Emboldened, I ran toward the hazard, fused it with one of my spears, and beat the living hell out of the perpetrators with the very weapon they had tried to use against me. Hours later, over dinner, or maybe in bed, I realized that I could have cast Recall on the ball and sent it back up the ramp and into those Bokoblins’ faces. I imagine we’ll lose a lot of sleep to retroactive revelations like this once Tears of the Kingdom is released.
I won’t detail how I got to the final island in the demo, because the experimentation process is the game, and to go on at length about my trial-and-error hijinks would be to spoil the joy of discovery in Tears of the Kingdom. Suffice it to say, the method I found — which may or may not be the one you stumble upon — involved a catapult, a rickety airplane, and the realization that there was a far simpler solution in front of me the whole time. But no matter; I got there somehow.
It’s this freedom to toy with a game’s systems that first drew me to immersive sims in the early aughts, and sparked my interest in games made by Arkane Studios, IO Interactive, and the late Looking Glass Studios, which helped popularize the genre in the first place. Breath of the Wild, by most accounts, was an immersive sim itself: Its alchemical brew of crafting, cooking, weather effects, and stealth, all surrounded by its nuanced physics system, still results in new Rube Goldberg-ian discoveries seemingly every week.
As I write this, thinking back on my brief time with Tears of the Kingdom, my mind is racing with the things I didn’t try. Few games have met my goblin tendencies with their own goblin tendencies so confidently. My looming concern is whether the bounty of tools Tears of the Kingdom provides might be overwhelming in the long run. Furthermore, just how much sustained prodding can it take? At what point might I peer behind the curtain to see something Nintendo didn’t intend on me discovering? Tears of the Kingdom seems intent on allowing chaos to thrive, and that’s a dangerous game to play.