For all of its inquisitive mascots and alchemical mixtures of play, Nintendo has governed most of its games with a controlling hand.
Yes, Mario explores open worlds now, as opposed to the discrete levels in Mushroom Kingdoms of old. And sure, Metroid games now recognize “sequence breaking” and reward players for bending the normal progression rules — but only because Nintendo allowed for it; only because Nintendo said so. 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was remarkable, among many reasons, for how sharply it deviated from this philosophy of “controlled fun.” It upended a deceptively rigid series, allowing the hero Link to go almost anywhere, climb almost anything, and toy with the physics of a vast and unpredictable world. Nintendo was still in control, of course — but for once, it felt like the game’s creators were easing up. For once, it felt as if we could drive off the rails.
Breath of the Wild was a design watershed, an engineering marvel, and an encouraging sign that Nintendo was beginning to loosen its grip. It was also, it turns out, just an overture.
With The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Nintendo has receded even further into the background. Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi, producer Eiji Aonuma, and their team have crafted a layered world in which self-driven experimentation is paramount in traversal, combat, and discovery. If we interacted with Breath of the Wild on a micro level (scaling cliff sides, setting fire to the brush outside an enemy camp, collecting arrows that were embedded in our shield, to name a few examples), Tears of the Kingdom goes even deeper; after nearly 70 hours, I feel as if I can control its very molecules.
As one of the few direct sequels in the Zelda series, Tears of the Kingdom opens not long after the end of Breath of the Wild. Link and Princess Zelda, having dispatched Calamity Ganon from Hyrule Castle, are investigating the source of an ethereal red substance (later dubbed “gloom”) that’s been seeping up from below said structure. One accident leads to another, and suddenly, they’ve freed the paralyzed body of the demon king Ganondorf from his tomb, igniting another apocalypse. Large pieces of debris rain down across the landscape while chunks of Hyrule rise into the sky. Link awakens, once again, in little more than his underwear.
From there, you set about searching for Zelda (who went missing during the Upheaval, as survivors of this world-altering event call it), gathering the fabled Sages who might be able to defeat Ganondorf, and helping the inhabitants of Tears of the Kingdom’s gargantuan world.
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In true Breath of the Wild fashion, you learn the fundamentals of Link’s new abilities in a contained environment: in this case, a sky archipelago populated by the remaining robot helpers of an ancient civilization known as the Zonai. These sky dwellers utilize technology that Link, Zelda, and most Hyruleans might consider magic. To you and me, though, they’re basically cheat codes — ones that Nintendo hands you 10 minutes into the game.
One of those abilities, Ascend, lets Link swim upward through rock, concrete, soil, and other solid geometry before popping up through the ground. Essentially, he no clips. At one point, after searching a cave for a coveted piece of armor, I cast Ascend on the ceiling — and four seconds later, I found myself atop a mountain. As you may suspect, this became my preferred way to climb mountains.
Another ability, Recall, lets you reverse a projectile along its flight path until it settles to a stop at its original launch point. In the case of explosives or elemental vessels, Recalled objects erupt in the face of the very enemy who sent them your way. The ability’s uses outside of combat are even more numerous: I created countless makeshift elevators by dropping a platform from a ledge above me, stepping onto it, then casting Recall near my feet.
Then there’s Fuse, which allows you to connect every expendable item in your inventory to your sword, spear, shield, stick, or arrows. Because the aforementioned gloom has corroded almost every weapon in Hyrule (Nintendo explains this phenomenon later), you’re forced to craft your arsenal ad hoc with Zonai blades, elemental stones, boulders, or monster parts. One of my go-to combos was making a Castlevania-esque whip out of a sword hilt and Lizalfos tail. I will also admit to Fusing bomb flowers to my arrowheads as often as I could — the resulting explosions were too tantalizing to pass up.
Lastly, there’s Ultrahand. If each Zelda game can be said to have a core mechanical conceit — Wind Waker’s sailing, the time loop in Majora’s Mask, or Oracle of Seasons’ weather manipulation — then this ability, with which Nintendo has ceded the most control to the player, is undoubtedly Tears of the Kingdom’s calling card. By connecting a litany of different Zonai items and natural objects, you can create wagons, defensive structures, scaffolding, elevators, catapults, bridges, ramps, hot air balloons, flame turrets, fighter planes, or gondolas. At one point, rather than renting a Sand Seal to traverse Gerudo Desert, I made a fan-propelled desert skiff. Shortly afterward, I came across a Molduga, whose hulking, hungry body slithered toward me beneath the sand.
Fortunately, I had also attached a cannon to the front of my ride.
I won’t drone on about the many ways in which I used these abilities, or the countless jury-rigged weapons I crafted during my playthrough — although I strongly recommend Fusing Hylian shrooms to the end of a wooden stick — because it would read like the dream journal of a mad scientist. After playing for 70 hours, my brain is still awash with possible stunts, schematics, and concoctions that I haven’t tried. I’ve rushed to my Switch no fewer than four times while writing this review, metaphorical lightbulb shining brightly above my head, to test my suspicion that I might be able to accomplish Z by doing Y after setting up X. In every case, my Doc Brown-esque hypotheses proved correct.
Experimenting with each of these powers, and discovering how they interact, is the game. Sometimes you create weapons out of pure necessity. Other times, you craft a vehicle to make traversal less of a chore. And in Tears of the Kingdom’s finest moments, you exploit these powers to cause chaos for its own sake. This new incarnation of Link is Aragorn, Imperator Furiosa, and MacGyver combined.
At first, this level of freedom was fairly overwhelming. I’ve been playing “immersive sims” my whole life, and I enjoy when a developer lets me solve problems with an array of possible solutions. But I’ve never seen this sort of agency on this kind of scale, and with this general level of polish. In this sprawling world, everything is a tutorial for something else. It took me dozens of hours to learn how to use certain Zonai items, but if you stumble on the right shrine, you might become an expert early on. Hours into my playthrough, I had to give up on the idea that there was a “correct” way to play this game, and just revel in the absurdity and exhilaration of it all.
Soon afterward, it became easier to gawk at the marvels of Tears of the Kingdom’s singular world. We often talk about verticality in level design — how well a first-person shooter facilitates attacks from above, or, in open worlds, how exciting it is to travel between mountain peaks and water-logged swamps. Here, Nintendo has broken through to another interpretation of verticality: Tears of the Kingdom comprises not just one open world, but three layered atop one another, ranging from the Sky Islands above Hyrule to the subterranean Depths — a dark, eerie, unsettling world with monsters of its own, encompassing almost as much square mileage as the surface above it.
In itself, this structure is impressive, but not wholly unique. 2011’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has its own floating islands, from which Link can also skydive down to Hyrule. Likewise, 2022’s Elden Ring features an underground realm that developer FromSoftware doesn’t reveal until midway through the game.
But Skyward Sword’s Hyrule is a smattering of isolated pockets in which Link explores a dungeon before returning to the sky. Elden Ring’s underground region is a similarly fractured collection of zones, connected to the surface by elevators, wells, and waygates, no less.
Putting these tiers in place is one thing; weaving their connective tissue is another. What makes Tears of the Kingdom unique is the ease and joy with which you travel between its three layers. It’s not just a game in which you can climb a mountain and float down the opposite side on a stiff breeze. It’s one in which you leap from a floating chunk of tundra, plummet into a lake 5,000 feet below, climb out of the water, cross a verdant field, step up to yet another yawning chasm, and skydive into the earth.
Nintendo cleverly uses Tears of the Kingdom’s vast web of materials, currencies, and resources to encourage hopping between the three layers. In order to illuminate the impenetrable darkness in the Depths, you need glowing Brightbloom seeds, which you can toss by hand or Fuse to the end of your arrows. The catch? These seeds only grow in caves on the surface. Similarly, you may discover treasure maps in Zonai chests on the Sky Islands — but the “X” that marks the spot appears in the Depths. It’s a fluid loop of necessity, revelation, invention, and reward. There are also numerous geographical correlations between each of the three realms, but I won’t spoil them here; that discovery process is better felt organically, like recognizing the leitmotifs across an orchestra’s symphony.
If, as with music, movies, TV, or books, we can look at Tears of the Kingdom as a dialogue between creator and audience, then Nintendo has effectively changed the conversation. Historically, when Zelda players asked Nintendo, “Can I do this?” the answer was usually “no” or “not yet.” Breath of the Wild often answered in the affirmative, but Tears of the Kingdom takes that response one step further: When pressed as to whether something is possible in this enormous, absurd, mysterious world, Nintendo doesn’t just try to say “yes.” It strains to say “yes, but also...”
There are plenty of moments where the artifice becomes obvious. Unsurprisingly, the Switch continues to show its age. Tears of the Kingdom fares no better than Breath of the Wild did in both handheld and docked modes — the frame rate can still be abysmal, especially in dense forests or areas with busy water effects. Loading times are unpredictable, ranging from two seconds to 10.
But it’s in the scenarios where Nintendo forgoes its usual subtle nudges in favor of a viselike grip that I heave the heaviest sighs. The central story quest, which brings Link to the four “main” dungeons, leads you to some of Tears of the Kingdom’s worst sequences, where the developers interrupt the organic experimentation process to reassert a guiding hand. Immediately after one cutscene that presented me with the spectacle of a towering boss, a companion shouted, “How are we going to take that thing down?” before the camera panned over to show the exact vehicle (which had not been there before) that I would need to take that thing down. Furthermore, my Sage companions can’t help but overexplain my objective each time I start a new temple.
These are moments where I’m gently reminded that true player freedom is, of course, a fallacy. Nintendo created this world, and I inhabit it. Weeks, months, or years from now, I may affect it in ways its creators didn’t intend, but still — I will be using the tools they provided. The brilliance of Tears of the Kingdom lies in how well it imparts the fantasy of player freedom. Sure, Nintendo shakes me out of the daydream every now and then, and in those moments, I see flashes of its old rigid self. But no matter: At some point, I’ll fully escape its watchful gaze.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom will be released May 12 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.