I was in Puerto Rico last year when I met the living legend Rita Moreno. I had just started a new job as an arts reviewer, and I told her my philosophy behind reviewing things.
“I try to always be positive, because I know how hard it is to create something and how easy it is for others to tear it down, and I don’t want to do that.”
“That’s fine,” she said, “but you still have to be a critic.”
I’m telling this story because even though I don’t want to be critical of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, I have to be. The only way that things improve is to point out the flaws. I’m writing this because I want a good Zelda game again.
This is going to be a series of essays where I break down the three major areas where I think that TotK fails, in the hopes that these shortcomings will be addressed in future Zelda games. There will definitely be spoilers. So if you want the tl;dr version, here it is: I feel that TotK is not a good game. In fact, while it’s not exactly bad, I’m going to argue that TotK is alot closer to a bad game than a good one. Its gameplay is boring, its story is nonexistent, and there’s a shocking dearth of content. It masks its glaring shortcomings behind the admittedly impressive technical achievement of ultrahand/recall, but when I stopped being impressed and asked myself if I was having fun, the answer was unfortunately no.
Zelda is my favorite videogame franchise, but it is being completely outclassed by other top tier action/adventure games. My hope is that somehow this essay either reaches someone who will work on the next Zelda, or it inspires others to speak honestly about TotK so that their essay/video/tweet/etc. reaches someone. Let’s get to it.
PART I: TotK is Boring
I’m starting here because this is by far the biggest problem. As Nintendo themselves always says regarding Zelda, gameplay comes first. In the case of TotK (and Breath of the Wild if I’m being honest), it feels like gameplay was the secondary concern, and the map came first. I’ll come back to the map, but I want to start first with the game’s speed.
The game is frustratingly slow
At every turn, Tears of the Kingdom goes out of its way to slow down the player with a series of conscious decisions. These decisions existed in BotW as well, but their continued presence in TotK is baffling. Let’s take a few of them and examine them:
- The stamina wheel- TotK is not the only game that does this, but I will never understand why the game limits how fast you can move. Increasing stamina is a very simple way to “reward” the player for completing a task, but it’s not a reward at all. It’s a system that literally makes you slow down. You either slow down when you run out of stamina, slow down to conserve your stamina, or slow down to craft a stamina potion (and slow down to find the materials). You can’t climb, swim or fly at all when you’re exhausted. The game is designed to make it slower to explore this massive map, for no real apparent reason. Stamina isn’t even implemented in the one place it would make sense, attacking! If ToTK had a Souls-style stamina meter that prevented you from swinging your weapons all willy nilly, then fine. But it doesn’t. Stamina only exists to retard your progress across the map.
Do you know what happens in Nier: Automata when you sprint for a while? YOU START RUNNING FASTER. I didn’t appreciate what a brilliant subversion of stamina this decision was until I played BotW, and experienced the plodding speed of Link. Now I want every game to do the same, or at least not limit sprinting. ToTK goes in the exact opposite direction.
- Perfect Parry/Flutter Rush- Again, TotK is not the only game that slows down during a perfect dodge, but the slowdown from flutter rush is egregiously long, and makes TotK’s less-than-stellar combat even more tedious. The final fight with Ganondorf is a slog if for no other reason than it forces the player to watch Link and Gdorf flutter rush each other. Perfect parry’s slowdown isn’t as bad, but exists for no reason other than dramatic effect. It wouldn’t be so bad, but it compounds with every other way TotK reinforces its speed limits.
I don’t even have to leave the franchise for a better example of implementing reaction-based gameplay in combat. Both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess had counters and parries that didn’t slow down gameplay at all. TP’s extensive combat system has never been revisited in Zelda, which is a real shame because it made combat fun and fluid (for Zelda at least) and offered a real reward for completing tasks.
- Dialogue- How many times does Link’s interactions with a character go like this:
*Link walks up*
*Character mutters something to themselves without realizing Link is there*
“Oh Link! I didn’t see you there!”
*Character repeats the same thing they just said, but to Link*
It happens so often that I noticed it happening. This might seem nitpicky, but it’s another small thing that’s actually not small at all. Every time TotK repeats dialogue and exaggerated expressions for non-vocal characters, it costs the player time. This kind of time-wasting happens so much that I stopped talking to non-critical NPCs. I’m normally the kind of person who talks to NPCs multiple times because I enjoy how dialogue changes throughout games. But TotK turns one of my favorite aspects of games into a chore with constant repetition.
There’s so much more to say about how TotK is a slow game (I didn’t even get into Link’s abysmal movement speed or the frame rate), but suffice to say that when compared to other modern action/adventure games, Zelda feels like it’s moving at a snail’s pace.
BotW/TotK’s biggest selling point has been the massive map of Hyrule that the player can explore however they want. As I mentioned briefly above, designing the map seems to be what Zelda’s developers spent the most time on. But the map in these games are yet another example of how a positive first impression gives way to tedium.
- It’s the same map, but worse- Hyrule is massive and empty in BotW, but the story explains this as being a result of the Calamity basically destroying the world. That doesn’t justify the fact that much of BotW was Link running across vast nothingness, but there was at least one thing that made it interesting: Guardians. With potential death lurking everywhere, there was at least a sense of tension that made traversing Hyrule somewhat interesting. Guardians are gone in TotK though, and really weren’t replaced with anything. There’s a handful of Gleeoks, but they don’t move and menace the player like how the Guardians did.
I’m sure all players remember the feeling they had when they found the Forgotten Temple in BotW, and half a dozen Guardians locked onto them. When the player returns there in TotK, there’s a few easily avoided bokoblins and that’s it. The Forgotten Temple is still huge and empty, so it takes forever to traverse and the player gets nothing worthwhile (shrines are not worthwhile; see below). At least BotW added an element of danger to the area, but TotK can’t even do that. There’s not enough new stuff on the overworld to justify rediscovering the same map again, and the absence of Guardians really reveals just how empty the map is.
Six years passed between the release of BotW and TotK. That’s more time than passed between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. Compare the maps of those two games. Or heck, even Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. It’s kind of unbelievable that Hyrule is exactly the same, but worse when you look back at other games in the franchise.
“But wait!” the reader might say. “We did get a new map!” And they’d be right, which leads me to…
- WHY ARE THE DEPTHS DARK?!?!?!?- I honestly can’t think of a gameplay decision in any other Zelda game that frustrates me as much as this one. What was the thinking behind this? Zelda is not Resident Evil, a game which benefits from darkness and visual obscurity. I can’t believe that this game shipped in a state where you can’t even see a third of the map unless you go collect a bunch of materials. We’ve been lighting torches/rooms in Zelda for decades now, but lighting an entire map is several steps beyond that. Activating Light Roots and hurling light seeds around is another layer of tedium added to a game that seems to revel in boredom. Lighting the Depths seems like a decision made because, like the massive and empty overworld above, there’s not much to actually do in the Depths.
On top of that, it’s not even consistently applied. You don’t have to light the Hyrule Castle chasm to get to Ganondorf. So before the inevitable “Well duh the Depths are dark, it’s underground” response, what’s the difference here? Maybe the developers realized it was silly to make the player look for Ganondorf in the dark. Why didn’t they realize that for the rest of the Depths?
- Shrines and Divine Beasts, again- I didn’t like shrines in BotW. I didn’t like looking for them, completing them (for the most part), and I thought the reward was mediocre. Mostly I didn’t like them because they felt like an inadequate stand-in for traditional Zelda dungeons. Between the shrines and the Divine Beasts, I never got the feeling I’ve had in pretty much every other Zelda game. Yes, things change, but this felt like a bad change.
Fortunately I wasn’t alone, and this was one of the most common criticisms of BotW. Yet the developers responded to this broad-based criticism with even more shrines. I don’t think collecting things is fun gameplay, and that’s essentially what shrines boil down to: collecting shrines for their own sake. Then you brute force the shrine (as my son showed me, Ultrahand/Recall is the solution to everything), and get the spirit orb. There’s no cool music or interesting theme or item or lore implications to any of the shrines like dungeons provide, just a puzzle to solve.
The temples too are completely underwhelming, and while they may have a passing resemblance to Zelda dungeons from the past, in practice they function as Divine Beasts that don’t move. There are barely any enemies and you go around flipping switches until the boss shows up. Like so much else in TotK, they felt like chores to complete, not special areas to experience. Zelda has had some truly memorable dungeons, but I don’t think the Divine Beasts/Temples are going to make anyone’s top ten lists.
Crafting is Not Fun
Crafting/material gathering is one of the worst developments to hit gaming. It is not fun to collect random stuff. It is not fun to sift through menus to make stuff. It is not fun to have to skip the same cutscene ad nauseum as you make stuff. It’s not fun in Horizon; it’s not fun in No Man’s Sky; it’s not fun in Zelda. It wasn’t fun when it was introduced in Skyward Sword, yet BotW quadrupled down on it, and then TotK doubled down on that with Fuse. Now we have an utterly massive menu of stuff to manage. And the worst part is, in the case of Fuse, you have to collect rare items over and over because after you fuse a powerful weapon, it breaks. I could write a whole essay about how bonkers the weapon degradation system is (not even Fire Emblem still has weapon destruction), but combining it with the Fuse system in TotK somehow made it even worse.
Collecting things is a particularly insidious element of modern day game design, because as much as I intellectually understand how much I hate gathering mushrooms, I can’t help the tiny hit of dopamine I feel when I get “more of the thing”. But once I have “more of the thing,” then what? I cook them? Cooking is another tedious subsystem that functionally replaces cutting grass to find hearts or buying a potion with menu navigation and cutscenes. It just makes the game slower, and as I’ve already pointed out, that’s a major problem for TotK.
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I’m writing this because I don’t think anyone is telling Aonuma and the Zelda development team the truth. I’ve read and watched at least a dozen reviews, and they are almost universally rapturous about the game. I can understand why: when Gamestop gave Twilight Princess a 7.2 score many moons ago, the writer of that review literally received death threats. So I get it: don’t hit the beehive.
But it goes beyond that. Aonuma said in an interview that he’s seen “many people saying that they don’t want to go to the ending of the game because they don’t want it to end”. I believe that he saw that, but I also think that many people get bored with the game and stop. I confess that I did. When the secret fifth shrine was revealed, I stopped playing the game. I was just tired of the same old monotonous gameplay. After a couple of weeks I dragged myself back because I knew then I wanted to write these essays, but I felt I should at least finish the game before I judged it. I’m glad I finished it so that I could fully understand my own feelings about the game in their full context, but I need Aonuma to understand that a not insignificant portion of the player base was so bored they didn’t beat the game.
In my next essay, I plan to tackle TotK’s story, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Thank you for reading this.