Let’s get this out of the way at the top: I think Breath of the Wild is a good game; maybe even a great game depending on what day you ask me. But I don’t think it’s a good Zelda game. At times, BotW feels like an open-world game with a coating of Zelda slathered on it. I’m not opposed to the numerous gameplay changes that BotW introduces to the Zelda franchise, although some definitely work better than others (weapons breaking is just the worst, no matter what game it’s in). But Zelda’s gameplay has always been interwoven with its narrative. The core mechanics of past games reinforce and push each game’s story forward- think The King of Red Lions from Wind Waker or the three day mechanic from Majora’s Mask.
BotW did this too, but in a negative way. The core mechanic of BotW is wandering aimlessly, discovering the wonder of the new Hyrule at your own pace. This offers its own reward, but the story wanders aimlessly as well to accomodate the player traversing the map as they please. I admit, the first time I randomly encountered Farosh rising out of a pool of water, it was a spectacular moment. But nothing happened- no story beat, no plot progression, no flashback, nothing to embue the moment with more meaning or connect it to the broader world. It was a cool moment, and that was it. Zelda is its story just as much as its gameplay (it is called “The Legend of Zelda,” after all), and BotW ignored that in favor of player freedom. That’s a choice that works for some people, but it didn’t for me.
All of these feelings had begun to set in by the time Tears of the Kingdom was officially revealed at E3 2019. I was excited by a new Zelda game because it’s my favorite videogame series of all time, but I was skeptical. Would TotK correct the issues of BotW, and give the series’ new gameplay direction a story worthy of a Zelda game? With only four months to go, we have literally no idea what’s going on with the game.
Development for TotK began in 2017. In six years – SIX YEARS- we’ve seen six total minutes of gameplay footage. We have no information about plot or characters. No confirmed information about the core gameplay gimmick. We don’t even know if we’ll still have access to the Hyrule map from BotW or if we’re exploring an entire new area. No magazine covers or spreads. No developer interviews. No Treehouse presentations. Absolutely nothing.
It’s true that Nintendo is known for being secretive regarding its projects, but this is beyond keeping a secret. I’m starting to think there there’s no “there” there- that the reason we haven’t seen the game yet or learned anything about it is because the game is underwhelming. The first clue that things are not going well is the absurd development cycle for the game. Development started in 2017, based on ideas that couldn’t be used for BotW’s DLC. TotK is reusing the same assets and engine from BotW as well. So with the ideas and assets already in place, what has taken six years of development? By way of comparison, do you know what game also began development in 2017, was announced in 2019, and released last year? None other than 2022’s consensus Game of the Year, Eldin Ring.
The second clue has been the performance issues which have plagued the Switch’s other ambitious titles. The struggles of Age of Calamity and Pokemon Scarlet/Violet have been well documented. BotW suffered from some slowdown as well, although it wasn’t as bad as later Switch titles. It’s not a stretch to imagine that TotK has the same performance challenges, and Nintendo is keeping the game under wraps to avoid advertising those problems before release.
The final concern is that there’s no hints about the story. It’s easy enough to hide the gameplay from scrutinizing eyes. But we haven’t even had a plot synopsis yet. There’s no indication when the game takes place in the history of Hyrule. Not only does this reinforce the uneasy silence around the game in general, but it makes me specifically concerned about TotK as a game that will repeat the mistake of BotW having no story. This worries me the most. I enjoy replaying past Zelda games to relive the moments when the story and gameplay combine to form the indelible moments that the franchise is known for. I didn’t experience any of those during BotW. Instead of a greedy, charismatic wizard whose lust for power served as a foil for the heroes, Ganon was an ugly, mindless beast. Most of the characters were dead, always bad news for a story that’s not about ghosts. There was nothing to push me through the game except for filling in the map. I replayed BotW once, and it felt like a chore. I need more from TotK before I drop $60 and hundreds of hours on it.
Of course, this could all change tomorrow. Nintendo will undoubtedly do a Nintendo Direct before May (hopefully) and all of my negative speculation could be swept away. If that day comes, I will eat crow in writing for your reading pleasure. But with the days counting down to the release of the Switch’s presumed swan song, and the relative dearth of new first party Nintendo games on the console, I have almost no confidence that Tears of the Kingdom will be much more than a BotW rehash with the novelty gone.