There's so much I love about this game and at the same time so many little things that I'm frustrated weren't done better. I'm a huge fan of this franchise and this game in particular, which makes the negative parts sting much more. That said, I'm writing this review merely a week after I finished playing, and with time I expect to forget the bad parts and remember all my fun experiences vividly for years to come.

Even more than its predecessor, Tears of the Kingdom excels at world design and giving the player a desire to explore. I believe the game sits above other open world games due to the drive to explore mostly coming from the player and the intrigue of the world rather than objective markers (but there are still plenty of those). I keep coming back to the Minecraft comparison, not because of the sandboxy building mechanics, but because the world is truly free and often the geography is interesting by itself. For not being randomly generated, the world is impressively huge and varied, and unlike Minecraft it's packed with things to do and full of NPC's with unique dialogue and quests. The developers definitely re-used templated design elements all over the place (especially in the sky), and although many elements are the same type of puzzle or challenge, it's still a different solution each time.

Complementing the natural drive to explore are hundreds of NPCs and quests and treasure maps and more directed exploration experiences. These are some of the best side quests I've seen in any game, and many of them are reminiscent of the excellent interpersonal stories told in Majora's Mask. Sometimes the rewards are poor (seriously, all that work for one opal?), but usually the journey is compelling enough on its own. The storytelling through characters and side quests is often better than the main story itself, and it's certainly worth taking the time to do all the side adventures. I also want to highlight the sheer amount of dialogue and attention to detail for the NPCs: they all have different behaviors at night or day, rain or shine, and many will even comment on Link's outfit (or lack thereof). Several of them also move around Hyrule, and will remember you if you helped them with a quest. Because of this, the whole world feels more alive and dynamic this time.

The overall plot of the game revolves around uncovering a mystery relating to Zelda's disappearance and the "upheaval" of Hyrule. I don't have a problem with the story itself, and I actually thought it has a nice mix of beautiful, heartwarming, and epic moments. The developers weren't afraid to try something new with the entire lore of the Zelda universe, and I applaud them for keeping things fresh and interesting. My issue is that the bulk of the story was told through memories like the first game, and these memories can be found and viewed out-of-order. It's surprisingly easy to find the later memories or cutscenes relatively early in the game, which can spoil the rest of the them. In addition, the main quest itself doesn't explicitly direct you towards the master sword until right before the final boss, which is strange for a series where getting the sword is usually an awesome mid-point climax. The master sword sequence itself is probably the most emotional and beautiful it's ever been, I simply wish it was delivered in a more prescriptive and linear way, and came earlier in the main story. These pacing issues are especially frustrating to me because I think they easily could have been remedied with a slight refactor to how memories worked or the order in which main quests unlock (for example, the quest for finding memories could only unlock after the four disturbances are complete, or the memories could always play the next in chronological order regardless of where on the map you found them).

Otherwise, I liked the story and think it will be remembered as one of the better Zelda stories. There was some annoying handwaving at times, and a weird lack of continuity with Breath of the Wild (no explanation is offered for the disappearance of the Divine Beasts or other Sheikah technology for example). For new players, I would highly recommend following the correct memory order (as seen on the walls of the Forgotten Temple), and maybe even only doing the memories after the four disturbances are complete.

I need to spend some time in this review talking about my new favorite Zelda ability, ever: ascend. If the next Zelda game doesn't have ascend, I will be seriously disappointed. Each of Link's four new abilities are robust enough to build an entire Zelda game around, but ascend is easily my favorite and is both a great puzzle solving tool and quality of life feature. It changes the way you think about the world, makes cave exploration fun because you often only need to make a one-way trip, and combos well with Ultrahand when you need to figure out a way to create a ledge you can ascend through. It's fun and easy to understand, and hopefully it doesn't ruin other open world games for me too much (kind of like climbing/paragliding did in Breath of the Wild).

There's so much more I could talk about here but to keep this shorter I simply want to shout-out the following things:
1. There's about double the new enemy variety (I love horriblins), and several new mini-bosses to fight.
2. There are so many fun fusion options with monster parts and new materials
3. Control sticks being able to steer almost any ungodly contraption is a marvel of game and physics programming.
4. I love what they did with Master Kohga and the Yiga clan in this game
5. I like that you get companions to fight alongside you (it feels much more like you are building a team in this game), but I wish their abilities had a better, less-accident prone activation method.
6. There's not as many new musical tracks as I would have liked in a brand-new Zelda game, but the new tracks we did get are excellent. No game has more dynamism in its soundtrack and audio design than this game, and it's something I really miss when going back to older titles.

Despite my criticisms of the story and some missing quality of life features, I put 185 hours into this game. I completed all the quests, all the caves, all the shrines/lightroots, and the compendium. As soon as I finished the story, I immediately wanted to start a new save file and play again but had to stop myself so I could move on to other things. There's so much good and the bad is not bad enough to be off-putting. I can't wait to play again when master mode inevitably comes out.

Reviewed on Jun 19, 2023