The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom feels like a giant playpen where players can run around like a bunch of kids causing chaos in the best way possible. Thanks to a new set of powers and items, Link can build anything from skateboards to twisted devices that torture Koroks. Pair that with a sprawling world, and Tears of the Kingdom gives players ample opportunity to experience its world in different ways. This freedom, however, comes with certain strings attached: Players need to complete dungeon-like shrines to upgrade Link, and it restricts how people play the game — for better or worse.
Link has two main stats in Tears of the Kingdom: hearts (which dictate how much damage he can take) and stamina (which determines how long Link can run, climb, swim, or glide). Together, these two stats play an integral role in how each person experiences the game. More hearts, or a larger stamina wheel, make routine activities like fighting and exploring more manageable. It can make the difference between being killed in one hit or surviving, or enable you to glide or climb enough to reach a destination. Although there are ways to budge around these constraints — upgraded armor can up Link’s defenses and Zonai devices can help Link explore — by and large, these two stats deeply impact a player’s ability to get up and around Hyrule.
With the exception of some hearts that you can get by playing through the main quest line, the only way you can upgrade these traits is by completing miniature dungeons called shrines. Beating a shrine rewards you with a Light of Blessing, and you can spend four of them on either a heart container or a portion of stamina wheel. Each shrine functions like a tiny dungeon with a small puzzle — or series of puzzles — to solve. While some shrines can have tricky puzzle solutions, none of them stretch out to the length of a temple.
There’s much to love about this particular system. Some of the shrines act as tutorials that teach players ways they can interact with the world. Instead of infodumping about how to use every single Zonai device at the beginning of the game, players gradually integrate knowledge after completing dozens of shrines. This is especially important in Tears of the Kingdom because you don’t start out knowing how to use all the items or how to make complicated machines using Zonai devices. On top of its functionality, it’s also flexible. If you struggle with a particular shrine, you can simply skip it. There are so many shrines that skipping some here and there won’t break your stats.
However — given you aren’t some sort of tricked-out speedrunner — this system also restricts how you can play this open-world adventure. Two of Link’s vital stats are tied to completing shrines, which can feel inflexible for players who are more motivated by exploration. Upon starting Tears of the Kingdom, the cavernous darkness of the Depths area absolutely enthralled me. I liked how challenging the exploration was and I felt the excitement of big, bad creatures looming in the dark. And while I found myself just really loving my time there, I eventually had to discipline myself and force myself to do shrines. Link’s health just wasn’t cutting it, especially given that the gloom found in the Depths can temporarily steal hearts.
I don’t think the developers should get rid of shrines, or that shrines are bad. But the current shrine system restricts how people can enjoy the game because it’s a de facto requirement for anyone who wants to add to Link’s hearts or stamina wheel. When players aren’t given the same kinds of rewards for activities like exploring the overworld, it makes it harder to play the game with only exploration in mind. Similarly, if someone is more interested in building cool Zonai machines or just wants to turn Hyrule into a horse simulator game — or isn’t interested in shrines for any other reason — they’re out of luck.
Previous Zelda games rewarded additional exploration by allowing players to collect heart pieces in chests throughout the overworld — a feature absent from Tears of the Kingdom. Other adventure games also offer no-die or no-damage modes where players can purely run around the world. On the other hand, Nintendo developers seem dead-set on having all of its players go through and solve the shrines.
Critics of this idea might rightfully point out that dungeons are a defining feature of the Legend of Zelda games. This only issue is that the vastness and openness of Tears of the Kingdom has already eclipsed this idea. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and now Tears of the Kingdom and its new sandbox mechanics, dramatically grew what Zelda could be. Zelda is exploring. Zelda is building ridiculous robots. Zelda is collecting and cooking. It’s dressing Link up in cute outfits and taking photos. And for some, Zelda might not be completing dozens of shrines.