Lowered Expectations – The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

On the cusp of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s launch, I find myself reflective of the series and where it’s led to today.  Like many others, the structural departure from the series’ tried-but-true series of complex dungeons along a streamlined set of overworlds became long in the tooth by the time we reached the motion-controlled centric Skyward Sword.  The first trailer of Breath of the Wild from e3 2016 expanded the idea of what a Zelda game could be, showcasing a post-ruin Hyrule and a vast, open wilderness to explore.  The final release was heralded as a revolutionary shift for the franchise that became for many their favorite in the series, if not their new self-proclaimed greatest of all time.

My introduction to the Zelda series was blessed by the one-two punch of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time.   Raised on Sega, I envied my relatives with the Super Nintendo after getting my hands on the controller and squeezing every drop I could of that colorful, expansive top-down experience.  I was in awe the first time Ocarina of Time hit our Electronics Boutique kiosk, the first in-person look of a 3D landscape that seemed huge and characters that had genuine reactions to the world around them.  I again was pining for a console out of reach, save for the occasional sleep over at family or friends.  Both are relatively linear experiences that tricked me into seeing an expansive land.

Breath of the Wild was a true system seller in our home, with the palpable anticipation not often felt with these tired bones and jaded eyes from decades of controllers in-hand.  For months it was the only cartridge in my Switch and occupied nearly every moment on our television.  Even as someone who saw the trailers, that first step out overlooking the broken lands of Hyrule was breathtaking.  The expansive view made me feel small.  Link’s modest garb and sticks as weapons felt more vulnerable than I had ever experienced, and made any approach to felling bokoblins perilous at best.  The slow progression of gathering better gear was stymied by breakable weapons, a fantastic mechanic that forced mindful usage of what’s been scavenged.  The moment you get ones bearing, a new monster would oppress in an entirely different way.

The land itself is also a harsh mistress.  I was fooled into thinking I could climb any landscape and explore, but was quickly humbled by a tiny stamina bar for climbing, frostbitten tundra, broad waterways, and searing deserts.  Potions and food cooked from meager scraps could get me by briefly, but the temporary salve’s hard limitations made every step harrowing until discovering environment-appropriate garments.  Beyond being an ancient future tech iPad, the Sheika Slate’s bevy of tools (bombs, magnetism, time freezing, and frozen platforms) were helpful crutches and necessary tools to get by, only limited by my imagination.  It only took moments watching YouTube videos to see what fantastical feats could be pulled with thought put behind it and a bit of courage.

The restricted tools and big playground is the secret sauce of what made Breath of the Wild so special.  The tight shackles weighing me down made every small movement forward a victory.  My joy reaching the peak of a snowy mountain after a harrowing mix of monsters and stamina-taxing climbs was only equaled by gliding all the way back down to the valley.  Hearing the trickle of ivory keys, that warning of impending doom, raised the hair on my neck and made frantically dodging laser beams and thwacking its legs one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in video games.  Upgrades and abilities obtained from the four champions ease the tension, but never eliminated the foundational risk of destruction.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s biggest risk in loosening those restrictions is an expansion so wide and deep that it undermines that gratifying challenge inherent in its exploration.  In one of the latest Nintendo Directs led by Eiji Aonuma, director of the Legend of Zelda series, new abilities were featured that could risk just that.  One is a tool that grants Link an option to shift through a mountain or other spaces to the top of its peak.  Verticality has been emphasized this time with the sky islands hanging over the ground, also including elevators in different spots.  Does that ability work anywhere?  How much does it eliminate the user’s need to climb every mountain?  

Another ability featured is mating items in the world to assemble unique weapons, defensive items, and building complex contraptions.  Beyond the internet wondering whether Link can combine a steak with an arrow, the community is abuzz with concepts of makeshift tanks, boats, and flying machines.  It’s an ability that invites potential for fantastical experiences and broadens the means we can cross the landscape.  It’ll only be a matter of time until a genius assembles a mech and shreds guardians to pieces with rock arms, which’ll be a cool spectacle to say the least.  Both this and the “anywhere elevator” are hopefully a doorway for those who like the idea of Breath of the Wild more than they actually liked the game, and I know at least one co-host whose biggest barrier entry to run was crossing rough terrain.

I worry from my experience that these tools will be too permissive and game breaking for the journey I want, and it will all depend on how they’re balanced.  Revali’s Gale in Breath of the Wild was a powerful ability that boosted Link high in the air both as a good way to survey an area as well as travel great lengths via the glider.  It was also a limited number tool that took time to recharge.  It was special because of its limitations, a breath of air if fleeing in a moment of panic.  Letting me use something repeatedly makes it less special because it no longer becomes an event when available.  I hunger for that scavenger experience that pits me against the world and forces me to contend with the situations I’ve put myself in, and have some reservations on how those new tools could impact the skeletal structure.

That said, it is unsurprising Nintendo felt the need to add new dimensions in this sequel, especially given how it is repurposing that similar landscape.  We’re days away from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s release, undoubtedly the most anticipated Nintendo game since god knows when.  Without question, it will rank as highly as Breath of the Wild with its similar skeletal structure,  new features and a whole new layer to Hyrule.  I’m hungry for the next adventure of Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf, even if it won’t reach the same heights for me.  It’s okay if it doesn’t.


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