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Same Hyrule, new rules: A look at 'Tears of the Kingdom'

Link is above the clouds of Hyrule in a skydive.
'Tears of the Kingdom' takes Hyrule to new heights — and Depths.

If Breath of the Wild was Nintendo learning how to make an open-world game their way, Tears of the Kingdom is a celebration of everything they learned the first time around.

When Nintendo first showed off the latest entry in the Zelda series, it looked a lot likeBreath of the Wild. Nearly four years later Tears of the Kingdom is here, and the biggest question on most gamer’s minds has been: “Is this game just Breath of the Wild 1.5?”

The answer is kind of! But also… no. Not at all.

Tears takes place in the same Kingdom of Hyrule as Breath. Events pick up shortly after the conclusion of the prior game, making it the most direct sequel we’ve seen in the Zelda franchise.

The story starts out with Link and the titular Zelda exploring beneath castle Hyrule, searching for the source of a mysterious corrupting fog that is seeping into the kingdom from underground. Ancient runes are discovered, massive murals and hieroglyphs point to a long-hidden secret, an ancient evil stirs (as it tends to do in these situations) and BOOM! Gannon returns! Zelda goes missing! The Master Sword is lost! Link’s health goes from eleventy-billion hearts to the same measly 3 hearts he starts every game with! Link must regain his powers, stop Gannon and save the princess!

Sounds like a Zelda game, right?

Link and Zelda falling.
Jason Burns
"You had one job, Link"

Well, Tears has been out for over a week now, and while the game does look similar to Breath — and features all of the trappings you’d expect in a new Zelda game — this one feels very different.

How? Well for starters: The internet is now chock full of… uh… interesting creations players have cobbled together in-game. Is it possible to learn this power? Read on.

Ultrahand immediately changes the game

One of the biggest reasons why Tears feels radically different from Breath can be summed up in one word: ULTRAHAND.

Ultrahand is one of the first powers you get. It’s clear from both the early marketing for the game, and how quickly you gain access to this ability, that Nintendo intended this to be a core part of the Tears experience.

Ultrahand, quite simply, allows you to pick up and move around most objects in the game. But wait, there’s more: You can also stick that object to another object with mystery magic goo. Once you learn how to control Ultrahand, you can do anything and everything, from building a simple bridge out of a bunch of logs to building a fully functional hovercraft.

People online have already taken to creating some wild builds using this feature — some more helpful than others. I’m sure that pure, innocent Nintendo envisioned this as a way to bring the joys of Minecraft to the Zelda universe. And it does! Unfortunately, when you encourage players to “let their imaginations run wild” you have to be prepared for how unhinged some people’s imaginations are.

I’m not certain “Korok pain and suffering” was in the original design docs...

Link drives a wagon with a Korok tied down.
Jason Burns
“Always look on the Bright Side of Life!” Gamers have quickly found several imaginative ways to interact with the game's NPCs.

Fuse is... exactly what it sounds like.

In the same way that the Ultrahand ability has shaken up the world and the way you interact with it, Fuse blows the doors wide open for the weapon and item system in this game.

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: Yes, almost all of your weapons and items in the game are “breakable,” just like in Breath of the Wild. It’s been a big complaint about the previous game, but the developers said “deal with it.”

And dealing with it is a lot easier this time around, largely thanks to Fuse. Fuse is similar to Ultrahand in that it allows you to combine things. But where Ultrahand focuses on objects in the world, Fuse works with your bread-and-butter attack and defense items. It allows you to fuse select items in the game to your weapon or your shield, making a whole new unique creation. If you pick up a stick and you fuse an enemy horn to it: Huzzah, you’ve just made a primitive sword! If you pick up a rusty sword and you fuse an ancient soldier blade to it, you’ve strengthened that sword and made it a much more effective fighting tool. If you fuse a long stick to another stick, you’ve made a Stick Stick! You can do anything at Zombo.com with Fuse. The only limitation is you!

The system is surprisingly deep and creates a whole game in itself trying to figure out what combinations are possible.

Link holds a stick attached to another stick. It's a long stick.
Jason Burns
Behold, the mighty stick-stick!

Hyrule has changed

There are many more abilities, items, weapons and shinies to discover in Tears. I won’t spoil them all here, but maybe the most important update and change in Tears is the kingdom of Hyrule itself.

Yes, the borders of the kingdom remain unchanged from what we saw in Breath of the Wild in 2017, but somehow the “big N” has taken a kingdom that most of us got to know as well as our own hometowns and changed it just enough to have it be both familiar and completely unknown.

There are new cities that have sprung up, Hyrule Castle is now floating in the air, and the map itself now has three levels (The Sky, The Surface and The Depths).

Whereas 2017 Hyrule felt very zen and empty, Hyrule in 2023 feels like a kingdom teeming with danger, mystery and excitement. The map is much more dense than it was last time around. There are secret caves to spelunk, sky islands to investigate, hidden depths to explore, puzzle shrines to solve and — oh yeah — I think we’re supposed to go find a princess or something? I can’t remember, I was trying to collect Korok seeds and got distracted by the debris falling from the sky, which I’m going to use my time rewind power on so I can fly up into the clouds. SEE I DIDN’T EVEN TALK ABOUT THE TIME REWIND POWER!

Link uses rewind abilit.
Jason Burns
It's rewind time.

Breath of the Wild was Nintendo showing the world how to make an open-world game that was free of clutter, but still open and inviting enough to allow players to explore it how they wanted to. And if Breath was Nintendo learning how to make an open-world game their way, Tears of the Kingdom is a celebration of everything they learned the first time around.

It’s the type of video game I could only dream of in 1992 when I first played A Link to the Past. It’s a celebration of what happens when you curate an incredible game world… and then hand over a massive amount of — maybe too much? — control of that world to the player. It’s vast, it’s engaging, it’s entertaining and to quote my 5-year-old son: “Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is ACTUALLY a good game!"

If that’s not high praise, I’m not sure what is.

Jason Burns is the Operations & Facilities Manager at Iowa Public Radio. He’s also a big gamer, sci-fi fan, self-described geek dad and occasional podcaster. When he’s not making sure everything is running smoothly at IPR, or guest hosting Talk of Iowa, you can find him playing games with wife Hiliary on Twitch, where she makes the story choices and he just runs with it. His son would also like you to know he’s actually 5-and-a-half years old, not just 5. 

Contact Jason at jburns@iowapublicradio.org.