I feel like I need to defend myself from the outset on this one, and so at the very least, I'm including a disclaimer: I wanted to love this game. I genuinely did. I thoroughly enjoyed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and this was to be its sequel. I wanted to like it. I wanted to find some glimmer of hope, some aspect of good in the emerging quagmire of suck. But this game makes finding that glimmer near-impossible with all the Gloom it spews forth.
Initially, upon booting up the game, my fundamental issue with it was its narrative structure. It immediately begins by committing what I consider one of the Cardinal Sins of visual media: Assuming in the sequel that the consumer has experienced the previous volume(s).
The game opens with Link and Zelda venturing down into a dark cave, plenty of what this game calls Gloom seeping up from below. Zelda informs us we're down here to find the source of this Gloom, and that this cavern is beneath Hyrule Castle.
That's about all the information we're given. There's no recap of the previous game—within which, Link DEFEATED GANON. Link just HAS the Master Sword, which again, makes sense if you'd played Breath of the Wild, but for Zelda veterans who might not have, it's a bit jarring. (And, keep in mind, you can absolutely play through Breath of the Wild WITHOUT picking up, or even FINDING, the Master Sword. It is, in no way, required. In fact, this openness of the first title makes this all the more egregious an offense: It's possible to miss EVERY story beat in BotW, many of which this game simply assumes you know. The fact that Zelda is a studious history nerd, that Link had working relationships with many of the characters we see in this game... But I digress, I'll be getting to more of this later.)
The scene is basically exactly the first trailer we got for the game. And for the most part, it makes sense for Zelda and Link to be baffled by what they find there; it'd make more sense for we the players to be baffled too, except, we kinda already know what we're seeing here, purely on the merit of HAVING PLAYED PREVIOUS ENTRIES. Like the game EXPECTS you to have done.
Long story short, red-haired mummy shatters the Master Sword (which he recognizes), destroys Link's right arm, immediately recognizes Link and Zelda, then explodes in Gloom and causes an event known in the story as the Upheaval, sending Hyrule Castle into the sky and dropping ancient ruins from OUT of the sky. Zelda falls into a chasm before disappearing in a flash of light, Link is rescued by blue glow-y hand that had been holding that mummy in place, and fast-forward to... some time later.
You'll notice, not once have we seen a recap. In Breath of the Wild, this worked, because Link had total retrograde amnesia; he DOES NOT here. He's been living happily alongside Zelda for several years now. He KNOWS what happened in the previous game. We the players MAY NOT.
And even with the excuse of, "Well, you should've known, this is obviously a sequel, you should've played the first game," which, it wasn't really marketed as such but granted: The first game came out 3 March 2017. That's over six years ago. Someone could've easily breezed through the first game when it came out, missed some of those story beats I was talking about, and subsequently forgot much of everything else because it's been six freaking years.
But anyway, the game then dumps you onto what I not-so-lovingly refer to as Tutorial Island, a big floating island in the sky above Hyrule. Here, we meet Rauru, the first king of Hyrule, a member of the Zonai people, and the owner of the blue glow-y hand which has now replaced Link's own right hand. In order to get off Tutorial Island, Link must traverse this expansive landscape in the sky to all the different tutorial points, each introducing you to a new power contained in that hand.
Each of these powers is EXTREMELY clunky, particularly Ultrahand, a power that lets you move items around and stick them to other moveable items. These tutorials are, unfortunately, quite necessary. They're also incredibly poor as tutorials, as later puzzles are actually INCREDIBLY esoteric. Some of them aren't required in order to progress, but quite a few are.
In addition to this, as you traverse from one tutorial to the next (in an extremely linear fashion, because the traversal is part of the tutorial), you're occasionally attacked by Zonai constructs. This wouldn't really be a problem, except the game hasn't given us any sort of combat tutorial at all. (We'll get to this.) Also, all the weapons are either extremely weak, or extremely brittle; turns out, as we find out later, the Upheaval brought with it a total decay of all bladed weapons, making them effectively useless. This all combines to make combat a slough, and by the end of Tutorial Island, I was simply running away from encounters because they weren't worth the trouble. Also by the end, every time the game presented me with a puzzle, I was groaning. "Ugh. UGGGH." Because I knew I'd have to put up with those shitty controls again.
Once you get through all the tutorials on Tutorial Island, Zelda gives you a magatama (presumably one of the titular "Tears of the Kingdom"), disappears again, and we jump off the island to Hyrule below. Here, we're directed toward Purah, where the story is located, but this is where the game opens up; you can literally go just about anywhere. But, going to Purah—a character from the first game who plays an important role in the overall story, but can absolutely be missed in a standard playthrough because you kinda have to go WAY out of your way to find her—you recap the events of THIS game thus far.
So, that's strike three for the narrative structure. Even if you say, "Well, but starting the game off with a recap of the previous game would grind the narrative to a screeching halt," the game has now done this for ITSELF. Recapping events we literally just fucking played, and absolutely nothing fucking else. (Also, what is an entire Tutorial Island if not the narrative grinding to a screeching halt for the sake of making sure the players can actually fucking play your game?)
The truly fun part? That combat tutorial I'd mentioned would be super-helpful? Yeah, you can find it after talking to Purah, if you take her quest to go find someone else; it's right on the way. You know, after you've already been running away from enemies because fuck all this.
The game then directs you to the Rito village first, which when you get there you meet Teba, another important character from the first game who's easily missable if you don't go to the Divine Beasts and who's introduced like you already know him because Link does. And it just continues on like this.
This isn't even what made me angry the first night I booted it up. No, that was an entirely-optional puzzle. In this puzzle, you have to use the clunky-as-fuck Ultrahand to craft a cable basket for a ball, so it can ride a short cable over to where it needs to go. In hooking the basket to the cable, the game thought I was trying to disengage having put the silly thing together, because the control for doing that is shaking the same thumbstick used to position things. So, the basket, ball, and everything plummeted into a bottomless pit. This wasn't SO bad, as the ball respawns right there on the same platform, except the materials you HAVE to use to create the basket do NOT respawn. You have to leave, reset the entire goddamn puzzle you've already solved 3/4 of in order to even get to that point, just to recover those items. That was like 20 minutes of progress—because everything in this game is just a slough—right down the drain because the game devs recognized the need to recover the key item, but not the need to recover the materials. Nothing pisses me off quite like a monumental waste of time like that. (And people were PISSED when FNAF Security Breach did similar things, punishing you with wasted time for relatively minor mistakes! Why is THIS okay!?)
It's ironic that I bring up Security Breach, because I believe Tears of the Kingdom's ultimate fundamental problem is actually quite similar to that game's. We'll get to that, but there have already been hints to it thus far.
The shrines are pretty bullshit. I understand putting challenging puzzles in your game and making them optional; that's more than fine. What's not fine is having a game where health management is paramount, and putting these puzzles in as roadblocks to increased health. Outside of Tutorial Island, there have been two shrines I've encountered—and I've encountered a total of nine off the island—where I didn't need to look up a walkthrough on how to progress. Those two were the aforementioned combat tutorial, and the progress shrine at the top of the Rising Island Chain.
I spent upwards of half an hour trying to beat the "first" boss last night, the boss of the Wind Temple, in quotes because you can probably go to any of the dungeons in any order. A big part of that time-sink was trying to find any goddamn arrows at all, because I started the fight with 12 and they are REQUIRED to beat the boss. There were no warnings leading up to the fight that arrows would be required; there are no reliable spawns of arrows, like you'd see in other arrow-centric boss fights in Zelda (including the fight in Breath of the Wild that is extremely similar in gameplay). You appear to be locked into this fight until you manage to succeed. Also, if you don't manage to deal enough damage to its weak points to cause ACTUAL damage to it, it auto-heals, meaning those arrows were wasted and you might as well die and start over.
Said boss fight wouldn't be quite so bad if literally everything weren't a one-hit KO. And this is where we get to the meatus of the problem with Tears of the Kingdom, its fundamental flaw that illustrates just how poorly it was conceived.
Earlier today, I had a thought that the game devs must have recognized the extreme strength of the enemies as a problem, and that's why they spread them out so much; you really don't encounter any enemies while out exploring the world unless you truly want to (outside Tutorial Island), and even in the Wind Temple, there are only like five enemies, not counting the boss—certainly a single-digit number.
But then I realized the truth is the opposite: They doubled down on weapon durability as a mechanic by making everything break after like three hits, a design choice that I believe most everyone agrees was made poorly. As a result of this limitation, they HAD to limit the number of enemies overall so you could actually beat the game, since you can't attack anything without a weapon (and the bow and arrow are ridiculously imprecise, and rather weak to boot). And, as a result, they had to up the difficulty of the enemies that were included, to try to balance that out. Simplest way to do that without making the game frustratingly difficult—because you could just have them become walls of attacks—is to make them physically stronger. They take longer to kill—unfortunately exacerbating the problem with the dramatically-decreased weapon durability—and can almost always kill you in one hit at four hearts.
The only incentive I've seen to actually engaging enemies at this point is, they usually carry weapons that have higher durability. The Zonai construct weapons in particular last for a good while—not nearly as long as they should last, but certainly longer than the decayed weapons you might find elsewhere. To me, that trade-off simply isn't worth it.
Security Breach attempted to fix a fundamentally-broken gameplay scheme by introducing new elements to balance it out, which resulted in a messy, near-unplayable kludge. Tears of the Kingdom has some good ideas, but in shoehorning in clunky-as-fuck "mechanics" masquerading as new powers, and doubling down on the weapon durability problem, they've fallen into the exact same trap. It's just that in this case, it's Nintendo who made that mistake.
The one positive I can give this game is, exploration in the game is actually fun. It'd be more so if there were enemies you could actually safely approach. Getting from point A to point B, if you can stand how slowly Link moves in general, is actually pretty fun. Discovering new things is fun.