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Link charging into battle on a horse in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. He’s waving a large two-handed weapon above his head.

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Elden Ring completely changed how I played Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

I used to run away from combat. Now I run toward it

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

I didn’t expect to get sucked into The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom so quickly. I’ve spent the majority of my 50 hours plowing through the Depths and taking out the Yiga Clan, tearing through Bokoblin camps as I explore the game’s overworld, and refusing to shy away from any Frox or Flux Construct I find. It’s a completely different approach from the way I played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a play style so different it initially surprised me.

My newfound confidence is at least partially thanks to Link’s new skills, particularly Fuse, which lets me combine items and weapons, like adding bomb flowers to arrows or sticking elemental crystals onto swords. But the truer culprit might be the hours I spent with Elden Ring last year, and how that game completely changed my outlook on open-world games with fearsome enemies.

I initially delayed playing Breath of the Wild until 2018, saving it for a 14-hour flight to see family in Taiwan — at which point it had been declared 2017’s game of the year at numerous outlets, including Polygon. The game was also, evidently, accessible to newcomers — a statement that foolishly made me think it would be easy. I was actually intimidated, unable to use the same strategies I’d historically relied on when playing open-world games, because I’d historically mostly played RPGs: I typically avoid head-on combat, preferring to rely on stealth traits instead. I choose thief or ranger classes — ones that let me backstab and steal, or shoot from a safe vantage point. In Skyrim, I max out sneak, pickpocket, archery, and conjuration. I loot, pilfer, let Atronachs do my dirty work, and then I sell the stolen goods for profit. In Divinity: Original Sin 2, I play as two characters, one classed as a ranger and the other as a rogue.

After the years I spent acting like a scummy rat in the bowels of various fantasy cities, Breath of the Wild felt vast and empty, and yet full of random and unexpected threats. I would run across a field only to encounter Chuchus or an encampment of Bokoblins. When I confronted them, my weapons broke, and I was hesitant to use my bow and burn through the five arrows I ever managed to keep on hand. Nightfall was even worse, bringing with it skeletal enemies, some of whom put themselves back together after I had scattered their bones to the breeze. It felt like I was running nowhere, fighting random creatures with sticks that kept breaking. Every time I got comfortable with the weapon I was using, I’d suddenly have to find a new one.

Thankfully, I powered through those first few hours, collected my paraglider, left the Great Plateau, and made my way into the game’s massive open world. This is when Breath of the Wild clicked a bit more for me, becoming the kind of adventure that I could easily dump hundreds of hours into. I scaled mountains, leapt off ledges, and found hidden passageways. But even as I became hopelessly sucked into the game, I still only really fought enemies when it was required, and even then, I sometimes simply gave up. Bokoblins repeatedly frustrated me. I stopped talking to strangers on footpaths because I kept running into the Yiga Clan.

I kept expecting the game to get easier — and yes, exploration got easier as I grew my stamina wheel — but even with more hearts, combat continued to be difficult, verging on inscrutable. I’d try to sneak past enemies, but I’d panic when groups of them ran toward me, and fast travel somewhere else just to get out of fights. And though I made my way through a some of the Divine Beast temples, I noped out at the boss fights. I didn’t feel much incentive to mess with them; the entire game’s map was available regardless, and I could spend countless hours unpacking its mysteries. Sure, beating bosses would reward me with powers and story information, but I could live without either of those things.

Link and Sidon fight a Construct together in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

Suffice it to say, while I loved much of Breath of the Wild, I did not replay it in the lead-up to Tears of the Kingdom. I went into Tears of the Kingdom assuming I’d enjoy it as much as Breath of the Wild, which is to say, to a point, and then I’d call it a day — I was ready to live vicariously through others’ stories of taking down Lynels or Stone Taluses. Instead, I sunk hours into Tears of the Kingdom immediately; it finally just clicked. About 20 hours in, and my weapons cache was filled with lethal Zonai-powered swords and shields, along with ungodly combinations of various devices. Far from fearing the Depths, I dove headfirst into every chasm I could find, sometimes running around in pure darkness because I didn’t feel like wasting brightbloom seeds.

I contemplated the several hundred hours I spent with Elden Ring, and how much it influenced my approach to open-world games with challenging combat systems. Some of it was pure exposure to certain aesthetics and textures: I already loved a silent protagonist, but Elden Ring’s vast open spaces and varied climates helped me love the solitude of such exploration. But Elden Ring also ultimately made me into a video game player who runs headfirst toward danger, instead of someone who shies away from it or creeps along in the background.

Part of this is thanks to boss placement on the game’s world map. Though Elden Ring’s map is also quite open, many of the game’s bosses were at key chokepoints — and it was obvious what advantages I’d gain in slaying them. I wanted that payload of runes in a quantity otherwise hard to come by. More than that, Elden Ring gave me what I jokingly call “video game nihilism,” which is to say that it made me embrace my character dying repeatedly. Elden Ring bosses are so difficult that you have to be OK with it, and more than that, you have to accept that some (many) of your attempts are purely instructional, more fact-finding than grasps at victory.

Dying, in Elden Ring, is also incredibly funny. The minute your maidenless ass tastes death, “You Died” floats across the screen, as you enjoy watching your character getting mauled by knights, or an enormous lobster, or a pack of wolves, or some birds with knives on their feet. Elden Ring furnished my appreciation for weird little dudes who want you dead. And Tears of the Kingdom is absolutely overflowing with weird little dudes, including Yiga Clan members who I now call “those bitches who want to kick your ass clan”— notably Master Kohga and his many vehicles — and who I now love fighting.

Thanks to this paradigm shift, I’ve been more willing to throw myself at bosses in Tears of the Kingdom just to figure out what their deal is. I’m less frustrated when a boss absolutely reams me because I know each attempt teaches me something new — a new attack pattern to exploit, a new material to attach using Fuse. Sometimes it just teaches me that I’m not strong enough yet, and that’s useful, too. (Or, if I’ve wasted a precious material in a boss fight and determined it wasn’t worth it, I can just accept death and restart the fight.) It’s been an absolute delight finally getting to see, firsthand, the silly attack formations that boss Bokoblins and their cronies take on, or the cool phases of a tough Flux Construct battle, or to stumble on Evermeans and take them out with a nice thwack of an ax.

I’ve also found failure so much funnier when playing Tears of the Kingdom. My Zonai device experiments have exploded, flung me to unfortunate places, or simply not worked at all. There’s a bleak comedy to Link dying in Tears of the Kingdom. Sometimes I glimpse a Wizzrobe cheering over his corpse, or watch his body tumble down a cliffside as he shouts his signature aaAAhhaAahh falling death yelp. A “Game Over” screen comes up, and when I return to the game, the map marks where I died with a red X labeled “RIP.” Lol. Lmao.

Because I’m finally taking on these bosses, I have stronger weapons, more arrows, and better armor. I’ve also expanded my stamina wheel and added more hearts by completing shrines — but I finally have the kit that makes me feel more powerful as I fight my way through Hyrule, whether in the sky, the surface, or the Depths. I took on Colgera and was rewarded with a new power. It feels incredibly, mind-numbingly stupid in hindsight. Of course I never gained good tools in Breath of the Wild. I ran away from any enemy who might drop them. And I have Elden Ring to thank for finally making me realize I could simply face these threats head-on.


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