This review contains spoilers
Like its predecessor, Tears of the Kingdom’s central conceit is traversing and engaging with its open-world sandbox. Therefore, your opinion of this game likely hinges on how enjoyable you find, well, traversing and engaging with its open-world sandbox. TotK’s central design philosophy and core mechanics run clearly though the strong majority of its content–from exploration, to dungeons, to Koroks, to side quests.
Luckily, Link’s suite of abilities are much more interesting this time around. While Breath of the Wild Link’s abilities ("Runes") were, with the exception of Stasis (and maybe bombs), so straightforward in their application and limited in their usefulness that puzzle solutions were often highly telegraphed, TotK Link’s abilities are appreciably deeper and more nuanced. Ultrahand alone gives TotK more creative possibilities than all of BotW's Runes combined. Recall similarly has staggering potential. Fuse expands the usefulness of the vast majority of interactable items and objects, both adding further depth and further rewarding exploration. And Ascend, while certainly the most straightforward in its application, allows for more vertical level design and expands Link’s potential approaches to traversal.
In fact, verticality is a focus of TotK, which adds a Sky and Depths map in addition to the base Hyrule map. Towers are no longer boring Ubibox climbing set-pieces. They now act as launch pads that give Link access to the Sky map, and enable Link to traverse the Hyrule and Depths maps by positioning him to glide large distances to reach locations in Hyrule or chasms to the Depths. Combine Link’s vertical mobility from Towers and Ascend with Link’s horizontal (and vertical) mobility from assembling and using vehicles with Ultrahand (and, additionally, Link’s horizontal mobility from Tulin’s Sage ability) and you get a Link whose movement makes Revali’s Gale look remarkably tame.
Because of what I’ve described above, I’d argue that BotW’s biggest strength–its open-world sandbox (and the joys of traversing and engaging with it)–is even more pronounced this time around. I’d also argue that BotW's biggest weaknesses are generally less pronounced in TotK, which I will discuss below.
BotW’s dungeons served as a sort of microcosm for that game. They provided open spaces to explore and complete primarily physics and traversal-oriented challenges in an order mostly determined by the player. I think that’s a perfectly valid way to design dungeons. The issue there, however, was three-fold: (1) the challenges generally failed to deeply engage; (2) near-identical aesthetics; and (3) near-identical bosses. In TotK, bosses and aesthetics are now unique. Far from perfect, but unique. Further, while the challenges are, again, far from perfect, they tend to engage more than what BotW was doing.
However, considering the (generally) complete lack of connective tissue between the challenges in TotK’s dungeons, I still find myself wanting more from each individual challenge (I know a hard mode for puzzles is a tall ask, but, please?). Overall, while I still believe TotK’s dungeons to be a sore spot, they’re much more enjoyable than those of its predecessor. And if we’re willing to factor in the dungeon-like activities in the lead-up to each dungeon as part of it, then I’d be willing to call TotK’s dungeons pretty good in the context of the series. Otherwise… they’re alright! Not only are they more varied in aesthetics, but they also manage stronger gameplay identities. SPOILERS The Wind Temple is about traversal with Tulin, the Fire Temple is about vehicles (mainly minecarts) and creating terrain for Yunobo, the Water Temple emphasizes Recall, the Lightning Temple is mostly about manipulating light between rooms, and the lead-up to the Spirit Temple is about, well, everything. I also love how the dungeons are directly integrated with the world this time around.
I found BotW’s story and worldbuilding too shallow for my tastes. Unfortunately, while TotK does these things better in my opinion… it’s not much better, and even has some of its own frustrations. Worldbuilding is something the vast majority of Zelda games have struggled with and/or neglected–and the Switch Zeldas definitely fall in that camp. None of the races/factions feel particularly fleshed out here. It’s particularly frustrating for the Gerudo, given the plot’s focus on Ganondorf. And given the verticality of TotK, the Rito's lack of development feels like a pretty big missed opportunity as well.
And the plot… is fine. I actually like all of the stuff with Rauru in the past. It’s the present that’s a bit frustrating. SPOILERS The Zelda seen around Hyrule being a puppet (only real gamers will get that reference!!) is so obvious that I was reeling from the dissonance. You’re telling me that Zelda told you no one could go there? What if I told you that was actually Ganondorf?! I’ve seen Scooby-Doo, Aonuma! I also found TotK’s story lacking in thematic depth (the only theme I could really glean from it is the vague idea of heroism). In short, like with BotW, you’re not playing TotK for the story. Granted, that can be said of almost every Zelda game, but it’s a shame that it’s not different here.
I found the difficulty frustrating in BotW, and not because the game was too hard. The issue was how hard the difficulty fell off after getting armor upgrades and an inventory full of healing items. What the game needed was a proper hard mode (and the mode we eventually got was not proper). TotK currently lacks a hard mode altogether, and it retains the difficulty issues of its predecessor. However, it does fare a bit better overall. There’s larger number of optional difficult combat encounters this time around (Gleeoks are great!). Gloom is a cool mechanic (lowering Link’s max health is a clever way of addressing potentially limitless, no-drawback heals). And completing the dungeons no longer robs you of a proper final boss (in fact, the way the finale implements the Sages actually enhances it).
Detrimental repetition is seemingly an inevitability of open-world games of TotK’s scale. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating, however. When I first beat TotK I capital-L Loved it. After completing a majority of its content, I now lowercase-L love it, largely because of how repetitive its Sky and Depths maps are. Seriously–after exploring about a third of each, it truly felt that I’d seen almost all they had to offer. I still enjoyed exploring them, just not to the extent I expected. The Hyrule map is fortunately much more varied in scenarios and locales. And if you approach exploration (likely) how the designers intended–i.e., exploring each map a bit at a time rather than all at once–then the repetition will certainly be less monotonous. As an aside, the optional boss re-fights, while appreciated, feel rather lazy given their lack of variation. It's also worth noting that, despite my criticism here, TotK does a respectable job not making Shrines the ultimate end-point of seemingly all exploration as they were in BotW. Caves and other points-of-interest add some much needed variety.
One last criticism I’ll throw at TotK involves loot. Specifically, what I will call “legacy items”–weapons and armor pieces referencing past Zelda games. I already found these cheap when they were introduced as BotW DLC (Majora’s Mask being equipable with no drawbacks felt particularly lame). And now you’re telling me they’re some of TotK’s major loot? That’s honestly one of the things that disappointed me the most. I don’t mind being served as a fan, but it sucks that I don’t really care to treasure hunt in TotK because I know what I find may very well bore me (and probably not be very useful anyway). Beyond legacy items, however, the loot generally rewards exploration well and feeds into TotK's gameplay-loop nicely (as it should in an open-world RPG).
It may seem from parts of this review that I dislike this game. Rather, as I’ve said, I lowercase-L love it. I found myself nodding in agreement with the vast majority of its game-design solutions (and, in defense of Aonuma and crew, open-world RPGs present some of the most difficult design problems in the medium). There's also a lot great about the game that's taken for granted and I've yet to mention (game feel, sound design, visibility of points of interest, etc.). However, I can't help but feel frustrated by its missed potential. Tears of the Kingdom does better what Breath of the Wild did well, and does less poorly what Breath of the Wild did poorly. The result is probably my second favorite open-world game (behind Elden Ring). If you enjoy Tears of the Kingdom’s sandbox as much as I do, then you may very well align with me. If you find the game’s world and systems lacking, however, then the game’s shortcomings and significant overlap with its predecessor may leave you wanting more.