Emergent Gameplay is a term that you don’t see thrown around that often these days. The idea that the player can create their own solutions to problems that they face rather than following the strict, linear path or using the series of rules that the developers thought of is almost unheard of. Many games have the capacity to give an open experience, but not many can boast having truly emergent gameplay. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom looks to build upon the open structure and incredible shake-up of Breath of the Wild for the Zelda franchise and creates a truly interesting world that made me excited to just wander around and explore again. Many games I try to get from A to B in order to get to the end as quick as possible so I can write a review, but I took my time here, because I just wanted to. And here, my friends, is my review.
The Zelda franchise has not been known for a complex and thought provoking story, at many times it’s usually one step up from save the princess and beat the bad guy. However at times it dabbles in the more interesting side of this dynamic and that is most certainly the case here. I feel this game is best experienced as blind as possible so to sum up as briefly as I can Zelda and Link, following their adventures from Breath of the Wild, hear rumours of a mysterious substance known as ‘Gloom’ emanating from underneath Hyrule Castle that causes people to become sick as soon as they touch it. As you may imagine they decide to travel to the underground area of Hyrule to investigate this and upon doing so discover an ancient evil that plunges the world back into chaos. It’s then up to the duo to save the day and discover how to defeat the powerful evil that was lurking underground. Not exactly super compelling stuff but the mystery is intriguing enough and the story had a few twists and turns that honestly shocked and surprised me which in a Zelda game is relatively rare. Ultimately the story is about themes of unification, pre-disposed destiny and the bonds that you share with others that was compelling enough that I kept wanting to learn more about the world and its history so that I could determine what was going on here and how to fix things. It’s perhaps, second to Majora’s Mask, one of the best narratives in a Zelda game and is a massive step up from the very hands-off approach given in Breath of the Wild.
Presentation-wise this game is very similar to Breath of the Wild, as is to be expected from it being a sequel on the same engine. It once again goes for a very nice looking cel-shaded look that will give the game a timeless feel while maintaining a really nice visual style that fits well into the world. It nicely blends together realism and a more cartooney feel to make it look very nice. And I must say, some of the new areas (especially the underground) are absolutely gorgeous and I had to stop in my tracks at times just to admire how nice the environment design was. The music, just like it’s previous entry, is mostly consistence of quiet, ambient tracks that give a sense of calm or dread depending on the area you are in, but I was also surprised at how much more active music was included for things such as boss fights and other action-packed areas. It blends together both in a nice mix that really works well. I felt that most of the voice acting was fine, even if some of it felt a bit too ‘Anime’ for me, and I liked plenty of the new character designs. The antagonist in particularly worked really well for me and I hope we see them in this style more often. In total then it looks and sounds just a bit better than Breath of the Wild, and that’s always a good thing!
Gameplay is where this really shakes it up as while most of the mechanics are carried over from the previous game such as the large variety of items and weapons, durability, open-world exploration etc it also contains various new things that give this an entirely different feel. There’s a much larger emphasis on interacting with the environment as you are given new powers that let you do things such as glue items together, combine weapons and environmental objects to create new versions of weapons, reversing singular object timeframes and others that give a larger variety of things to do. For example, using some of the more ancient, advanced technology in this game it’s entirely possible to create your very own drivable vehicles which for a Zelda game is complete lunacy. This is especially true in the mini-dungeons which are carried over from Breath of the Wild but have a larger emphasis on using the tools you have available to reach the goal rather than having a stringent set of abilities and objectives. For example, at one point I had to climb up a water-filled area which wouldn’t let me just climb the walls and instead use multiple pillars around the place to get to the centre. However, after noticing the large amount of wooden panels in the area I decided to instead just glue them all together and create a very long bridge that I moved to each upper pillar to progress. This absolutely was not the intended way to beat this area, but I still did it and I felt really accomplished knowing that I did so purely with the tools I had available and my own brain.
I also need to emphasis just how much bigger this game is. Not only does it have an entirely new skyland area that spans the entirety of the original Hyrule but it also contains an entirely new underground area that also is just as large, making the game almost three times as large as the first game. Not only that but is also fills it up with interesting things, collectables, sights to see and enemies to fight meaning that it’s fun to just explore these new places and find what the next thing is. This is especially true in the underground area as the dark atmosphere really kicks in there and creates a real sense of fear in me that few games manage to achieve. This also works with the new environmental tools you have available such as using the reversing time ability to pull rocks back into the sky so you can explore more of the floating islands or using vehicles to traverse the dangerous environments of the underground. It all combines together to make for a really compelling experience that actively encourages you to experiment and awards you for exploring new places. The fact I could beat one of the new big temple dungeons by just climbing the walls and making complicated movement jumps instead of using the intended minecart mechanics in the dungeon just shows that it lets you play your own way, and that truly is where the emergent gameplay comes in.
There are however a couple of issues I found, though admittedly they were quite small. The first is that at times this game really pushes the hardware of the Switch as at various points in busy scenarios I tended to experience frame drops and lagging movements which was a real problem if I was in the middle of a busy combat experience. Luckily it wasn’t too detrimental but it was worth noting and the game certainly could have done with some additional optimisations to make it as smooth as possible. Secondly there was a huge missed opportunity in this game as you are unable to properly swim underwater and explore those areas. I feel as though because of the environmental exploration emphasis of this game that the ability to swim underwater and explore those areas would have been perfect, but alas this game does not have that. In fact Link has a tendency to drown if he stays in water too long which I felt rather frustrated by at times. Finally, and this is entirely dependent on the person, this is absolutely not an easy game. Enemies will kill you very quickly, some of them take a lot of hits to kill and while many of them telegraph their attacks enough if you don’t actively go seek and find certain upgrades and side quests you will find yourself struggling in combat fairly often. This also, of course, is compounded by the equipment degradation system but that’s very much a love it or hate it type of gameplay mechanic that I for one felt was alright. Some of course may view this as a pure positive and that’s absolutely fine, but it must be noted before you jump into this game that you better be prepared to die.
In conclusion then I was very impressed with Tears of the Kingdom. It built upon everything Breath of the Wild laid out and created, in my opinion, the better experience. The world feels more alive and interesting to explore, the new tools allow for greater gameplay opportunities, the story was superior and I adored all the new areas added. This absolutely was not just an expansion pack, this is a full new game that transcends its prequel to achieve greater heights and remind me just how much I love playing video games. I would highly recommend it for those who have a Switch and could certainly see this as a game of the year contender. It’s nice to just play a good game with nothing else to be worried or concerned for, as that’s truly what gaming is all about.