‘The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’ Is Designed to Break Your Brain
After six excruciating years, the wait for the next Zelda title is nearly over. To fans’ dismay, the creative sadists at Nintendo opted to withhold practically all information about the game, entitled The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, outside of its basic premise and setting until roughly a month and a half before the game’s May 12 release. Initially satiated with a brief 10-minute gameplay demo led by series producer Eiji Aonuma, the floodgates fully opened for fans with the release of the game’s suitably epic final trailer.
Densely packed with information, the trailer teased a slew of new story details including the introduction of new and returning champions, mysterious figures whose origins sparked debate, and of course straight up Megazord battles courtesy of the game’s new crafting mechanics. All of that before the surprise reveal of its devastatingly handsome villain: a resurrected Ganondorf, whose newly “hydrated” zaddy form has the internet very thirsty.
Sex appeal aside, the biggest lingering questions surrounding the game remain, including the most important: “How does it play?” Rolling Stone recently had a chance to attend an exclusive press event in New York City to be among the first outside of Nintendo to experience the game hands-on and get a feel for what’s been inside the mystery box.
The event, held high up in skyscraping event venue Glasshouse Chelsea, offered sweeping vista views of the Manhattan and New Jersey skylines meant to evoke the game’s new empyrean setting. Here, members of the press met with Nintendo staffers to walk through a series of guided tutorials, hands-off at first, followed by two separate hands-on sections — the first of which lasted exactly 20 minutes, and the second, meatier section lasting 50 minutes. Here’s what each entailed:
Part 1: Great Sky Island
Before being given controllers, a Nintendo staffer walked through four basic mechanics previously revealed: Ultrahand, Fuse, Recall, and Ascend. These tools completely replace the slate abilities from Breath of the Wild and can be accessed quickly using a radial menu. Everything shown here was from very early in the game and was the same section of gameplay shown in Aonuma’s video that initially introduced the new abilities. The island functioned similarly to the previous game’s Great Plateau, providing a walled garden for players to familiarize themselves with the new abilities, terrain, enemies, and especially controls.
There were, however, some new areas to explore once we were given the reins. Although asked to stay within a small section of the island, the area was densely packed with caves, ruins, and hilltops to explore, and littered with puzzles that both helped Link traverse between elevated spaces and smaller micro-islands as well as (you guessed it) summoned agonizingly cute Koroks to reward players for their studiousness.
Beginning with the section first shown by Aonuma, we were tasked with assembling a raft to cross a small river. Using Ultrahand, it was easy enough to combine three logs and two Zonai fans to create something familiar and effective. The surprising part came when we were instructed by our guides to use the Recall skill to send the raft back in time, rewinding along the path it came to the starting position across the water in case “someone else wanted to use it.” While it didn’t have any bearing on this puzzle, our guides were sneakily training our brains to begin seeing the potential of Recall.
One particularly interesting and previously unseen section was a massive cave that Link can stumble into. Pitch black at its core, it was illuminated only by brightly lit pods called “brightbloom seeds.” New to the game, the effects of darkness have a major impact as the recesses of the cave were completely shrouded, requiring Link to target and strike brightbloom seeds with weapons or arrows. The seeds themselves could be collected and tossed (by hand or arrow fusion) to light the path forward.
Part 2: Into the Sky
The larger of the two experiences, the second hands-on portion functioned as a proving ground wherein the guides tasked journalists with infiltrating an enemy encampment that housed a surprising (and spoilery) path into the sky. From there, an archipelago of sky islands was marked on our maps directing us to a pre-determined final destination. Equipped with a small arsenal, stocked inventory, and pre-made meals — as well a nearly half of the maximum heart containers available — Nintendo staffers had provided some safety net, but noted that this section is still early in the game, so we were essentially boosted beyond where players would naturally be at this point in actual gameplay.
With that, we were dropped right in.
The enemy encampment was similar, in concept, to the ones scattered around the world of Breath of the Wild but larger in scope, akin to camps in other open-world games like Horizon, with winding stairs leading to a gate that served as the primary entryway. Enclosed by siege walls, it was difficult to tell how many bokoblins may be inside, and after mowing down half a dozen or so to breach the camp, I was met promptly by a towering boss bokoblin that would require a complete tactical recalibration to take down using both the Fuse and Ultrahand abilities.
With my thirst for bokoblin blood quenched, I took to the sky-lands for the remaining playtime to island-hop between four parts of the archipelago, all of which floated at different altitudes and required minor puzzle solving and Ultrahand-built machinations to scale. A handful of Zonai enemy types populated the islands and packed a serious punch, requiring creative use of Fuse tactics to empower arrows or items to strike at a distance.
The ultimate destination was a large region that housed the first outright puzzle section, aside from smaller traversal puzzles or minor Korok tests. Comprised of two islands separated by a giant circular walkway, we were tasked with manipulating the walkway to cross and return with a glowing crystal that served as a key for something (best kept secret).
It’s here that the breadth and depth of the abilities shone through as, out of five simultaneous demos happening in the room, absolutely none of the press solved the puzzle the same way. After utilizing both Ultrahand and Recall to rotating the platform like a ticking clock to obtain the crystal, I ended up stuck across the chasm experimenting with various rocket propelled Ultrahand builds attempting to Wile E. Coyote my way back with the key, much to the delight of my handlers, who coined the phrase “When in doubt, rockets” as my puzzle-brained mantra.
And with that our time came to an end, but even with just 70-ish minutes of hands-on time, my mind raced for days on what I had seen and specifically, what I could’ve done differently. With that, here are the biggest takeaways:
Since the first trailer dropped in September 2022, keyboard critics have spent a lot of time decrying the game as “glorified DLC” due to the perception that the game, a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, merely reused the same assets and world map. And while the game does seemingly have the entire overworld from the previous game accessible, it cannot be understated just how different and new the sky islands feel.
Far from contained micro-regions like the shrines of Breath of the Wild, the island populate the sky as far as the eye can see and even just the handful explored in the demonstration were densely packed with things to discover. NPC Zonai populated the spaces, alongside new wildlife (that I won’t spoil), chests and puzzles, and of course dozens of Koroks. It would have been easy to stay on Great Sky Island for hours delving into every nook and cranny, or even just experimenting with the array of items to Fuse or machines to build with the local materials using Ultrahand.
The game is also stunning and, despite adding layers of new mechanics and regions to explore, feels stable and smooth, at least in these introductory regions. By stepping to the edge of any sky-land, the silhouettes of dozens of others can be seen in the distance, implying that the entire plane above the ground is accessible for those creative enough to discover them. Even if the final game ends up foregoing traditional dungeons, the daisy-chaining of archipelago-like islands in the sky create pseudo closed arenas that function similarly. Except, of course, you can leap off any ledge and barrel down toward the earth like a bullet, guiding Link like a skydiver to cover massive swaths of land.
In Tears of the Kingdom, the sky isn’t the limit, it’s a fully formed playground whose depths (and heights) feel like an entirely new overworld hovering directly above the one we already know.
Although jarring at first, the loss of the Sheikah Slate abilities from the previous game is quickly made up for with the introduction of the new skills. There are direct parallels in their stead, like how bombs can now be found as finite items for the inventory, ripe for fusing to swords, shields, and arrows.
Recall functions similarly to Breath of the Wild’s Stasis, except instead of freezing enemies in place, it sends them back in time retracing their own paths, which can not just buy players even more time to strategize but opens layers of area control previously unknown.
Ascend also utilizes tactical manipulation of time as any time players burrow through ceilings to the levels above, time stops fully as they’re given the ability to scout their immediate area, before picking back up and exiting the ground. While players could always open menus to pause time and plot their next move, having this a dedicated and unlimited time freeze really pushes forward the amount thinking players can do before jumping headfirst into battle, and they’ll need it.
The Fuse ability is quite possibly the game’s most straight, yet perplexing mechanic. While players will need to train themselves to think with time manipulation and building mechanics, Fuse is the one that will see the most real-time experimentation in the heat of battle. Overwhelmed by bokoblins? Time to open that inventory menu and just stick shit to the end of a spear. Often, it will lead to surprising and effective outcomes.
One of Breath of the Wild’s most controversial mechanics was weapon durability; people still are still bemoaning it six years later. And while it still exists, the ability to craft new weapons on the fly and change their makeup and stats mitigates most of the issue. Stuck with just a handful of weak traveler swords or sticks? Just grab literally any rock and slap it on the end. It would combine the strength stat of each item in basic addition, but also add new passive capabilities. Some of which are clear, as weapons can gain statistical, elemental, or situational perks like fasting charging or decreased stamina use. These perks can be seen in the inventory menu alongside stats, but there’s also more elusive perk types that comes from trial and error and isn’t noted in menu.
For example, combining sticks and rocks creates a makeshift hammer and hammers can break through cracked walls or piles of rocks. Much like Aonuma’s demo showed that keese eyeballs can turn arrows into homing arrows, adding a keese wing to an axe or spear can greatly increase the distance it’s thrown. There are seemingly endless variations on how weapons can be Frankensteined together to bolster passive and active perks.
The final ability is Ultrahand, which in some ways could end up being the mechanic the breaks the most minds. Much of it can be straightforward, like seeing a handful of logs around a river and instantly thinking “raft.” But much like how I ended up marooned on a sky island jury rigging rockets to planks of wood in a desperate attempt for salvation, the necessary builds — or even the possibilities of a build — aren’t always apparent.
Thankfully, there are some ways to streamline the building process, although these details are under embargo. You’re also not limited to what materials are around you. Collecting any item or Zonai relic adds to the inventory so that crafting can happen on the fly, anywhere. Although the possibilities are daunting, there are a multitude of ways in which the process is made manageable and useless in real-time, although in the end, it may still be too much for some.
Puzzling and Combat
Ultimately, all abilities are in service of the core elements of a Zelda game: puzzle-solving and combat. The most satisfying part of any encounter is digging into the toolkit and pulling out a shocking solution to any given problem, and given what’s available, there is potential here for practically any situation to have an undetermined outcome.
As mentioned before, one of the most hilarious experiences during my time playing the game was that across the room, no two people were managing our tasks the same way. “I didn’t know you could do that” became a frequent note from the guides and Nintendo staff, most of whom have spent tons of time with the game, but are still discovering new weapon combinations, perks, machines, and solutions just by watching gameplay through fresh eyes. “Write that down!” they’d shout.
Here’s how many tools you can use in a single encounter: In my siege of the bokoblin encampment, I approached from below then used Ascend to surprise attack some scouts. Instantly overwhelmed by their forces when a giant spiked ball rolled through the front gate, I quickly used Recall to send the death sphere back their way. Sprinting into the camp only to be swarmed by enemies, including a massive tank of an elite bokobin, I alternated between Fusing explosive rocks to arrows for propulsive headshots and using Ultrahand to lift red barrels and rain fire from above (similarly to how Magnesis worked previously). Drained of firepower, I turned to the environment to arm myself against the elite foe, Fusing the previously used spike ball to the end of a spear and a giant metal crate to my shield. Those fused items could withstand a bokoblin-sized beating and dealt massive damage for me to win the day.
Within the span of five minutes encompassing a single encounter, I had utilized practically every one of the new abilities, and this was after just 20 minutes of gameplay and testing, being thrown into the deep end. Through the game’s natural progression, players are going to be extremely well equipped to manage any situation, limited only by their imagination.
Even another dozen hours of the game would only amount to the tip of the iceberg. The genius of Breath of the Wild was its unparalleled sense of freedom in its world, and the massive toolkit at players’ disposal through which to navigate it. Six years later, players are still discovering new ways to bend its world to their will.
What Tears of the Kingdom offers is that same sense of freedom amplified and applied to every aspect of the game. The world is bigger, operating in spaces previously accessible only by game breaking and physics manipulation. The combat is bolstered by a crafting system whose scope will require every individual to create a mental wiki for their improvised inventory. Every situation begets seemingly infinite possibilities. It’s daunting to think about, but impossible not to get sucked into, endlessly noodling on potential combinations and machinations to try.
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In 2017, Breath of the Wild changed the industry with its approach. After playing Tears of the Kingdom, it’s clear that gamers are about to experience the leap from coloring with crayons to an oil painting palette. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is designed to break you. It’s your job to break it back.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom releases on May 12 for the Nintendo Switch.