In all likelihood, the fact that I’m talking about this game twice in a row should probably disqualify me from criticizing it. And so here we are, with another post… moderating my criticism.
Since my initial thoughts, I’ve had a few changes of heart. None of which really change the basic core of my dissatisfaction, but changes nonetheless. Because as my wife has played through the game, I’ve come to a realization.
The story is fine, they just really needed to remember what “open world” means.
As before – this will contain spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Even my wife will not be reading this just yet because she hasn’t beaten the game yet. She’s much better at it than I am, and thus more meticulous about side quests than I am.
And less likely to get distracted building a sick motorcycle I found online.
Last Time On…
When we last talked about Tears of the Kingdom literally two weeks ago, I had three central complaints. Namely…
- That the game didn’t elaborate enough on its backstory or worldbuilding (and is weirdly hesitant to admit to being a sequel).
- That the game failed to keep “open-world game” as a concept in mind when pacing the plot.
- That the game treated me and most of the other characters like absolute morons.
Of those points, I would actually drop #1 for the most part. I stand behind what I said, but I now realize that I was expecting a little much from what is, after all, a Nintendo game. They don’t exactly follow through on narrative matters – in fact, they almost never do.
Am I still disappointed that the Zonai, the Sages, and Ganondorf himself are all basically plot devices with no depth? Yes, yes I am. Should I have ever expected more from this game to begin with? Not really, no.
You have to judge things by their contexts.
As to the other two points… I’ve begun to embrace the idea that these failings are not ones of narrative writing, but rather of game design. Allow me to elaborate.
Just Skip the Geoglyphs, Seriously
My wife has seen everything in Tears of the Kingdom except for the final confrontation, which I luckily was able to play through while she wasn’t here. Which is good – it’s a killer sequence and quite possibly the strongest narrative moment of the entire game.
In any case, when beginning her playthrough my wife decided to go about things the “right” way. She had watched with me as I had explored the geoglyphs, learning about Zelda’s fate and then refusing to tell anyone about it. We both disliked this immensely.
And so she decided to go about the game in the progression it seems to want you to play it in, namely:
I think the “ideal form” of this plot was simple. You go and tackle the four main Sage questlines (specifically Rito -> Goron -> Zora -> Gerudo) before doing literally anything else. You go straight to each quest marker, no diversions, no getting sidetracked, no passing Go and collecting Korok seeds. As you play through the Sage quests, you slowly come to believe that the “Zelda” you’ve seen isn’t the real Zelda, but you have no proof until you confront the illusion at Hyrule Castle and the Demon King appears.
Then, presumably, you go back to all these geoglyphs (gigantic glowing line art on the ground that simply screams “come look at me!”) that you passed by earlier in your single-minded pursuit of the quest objective tracker. You watch the various cutscenes and learn that, –gasp!-, Princess Zelda actually turned into the light dragon and Ganondorf made an illusionary puppet of her.
I actually reverse-engineered the “proper” order of Sages from the game’s end credits, which show scenes from the various Sage questlines in a set order and not in the order you specifically experienced them. My wife, meanwhile, simply guessed and got it right.
This has meant that, as she’s played the game, she’s deliberately avoided the giant, glowing geoglyphs in order to not “spoil” Link by allowing him to learn the truth earlier than the game wants him to learn it. And man does the game not like that.
You’re prompted to begin the geoglyph questline when you run into Impa at the first geogylph, which is luckily right on the preferred path to Rito Village (the first of the Sage questlines). My wife skipped it. And now Impa’s assistant, Cado, is essentially stalking Link across the continent just to bring up these geoglyphs repeatedly.
Alright, alright. So the game clearly wants you to see the first geoglyph quite early on. That creates a small problem, given that cutscene makes it fairly clear that Zelda has traveled back in time. But fine, whatever. You can safely view each geoglyph as you come across it, and the plot is fine.
Except for one – the Master Sword. That geoglyph is in Eldin and is fairly easy to reach. It isn’t directly near any specific Sage questline, but it’s part of what I’d expect you’d explore while traversing the top of the map.
This cutscene takes some inference, but it doesn’t really hide anything. While it doesn’t actually show Zelda becoming the Light Dragon, it shows flashbacks to 1) Mineru describing how people can turn into dragons, and 2) the Deku Tree explaining how the Master Sword absorbs holy energy over time.
It really isn’t that much of a leap to guess at what’s going to happen.
Personally, I feel that if you can “accidentally” invalidate a story’s plot half way through, it isn’t a good narrative. Also, this set-up means that the game doesn’t anticipate you getting the Master Sword until just before the second-to-last dungeon (the Sage Temple, which might just qualify as the last dungeon considering the run up to the Demon King fight isn’t a traditional dungeon and is a bit short). And one in which you’re encouraged to not use your own weapons against the boss.
What I’ve really noticed, though, is just how little effort was put into making sure this narrative worked in an open-world game. Despite easily having the ability to track the player’s progress and adjust dialogue accordingly (see “the Master Sword in BotW“), the game essentially never does this.
It just doesn’t seem like it should be this hard to adjust.
Nintendo’s Extremely Dim View of Child Intelligence
When making games, Nintendo has been known to prioritize accessibility over all other concerns. And no matter what some people will say, that approach has worked wonders for them. I just really wish they’d update their assessment of how intelligent the average eight-year-old is.
Essentially, it isn’t that the writing is bad and thus the characters are all morons. It’s that the writers believe that their extremely simplistic story is utterly incomprehensible to children.
That’s why they show you the exact same “Imprisoning War” cutscene four times in a row. It’s why they auto-summon every new Sage you get, because obviously you must’ve forgotten how to do it. And it’s why characters like Impa, Purah, the modern Sages, and so-on never seem to guess anything – they don’t want the NPCs to ruin the suspense.
For something that they’ve already directly shown fourteen times.
I know, I said that this approach had served Nintendo well – so why should I expect them to change? And that’s a good point. It’s another case where, sadly, I was just expecting (or hoping for) too much out of what is, in the end, a Nintendo game. If I show up to a Marvel movie expecting rich characterization (or a DC movie expecting to enjoy myself) then of course I’m going to be disappointed.
All the same, I just don’t know how much longer this strategy is going to work at the level where it is now. As a concept, making things accessible is brilliant. The issue is that their definition of “accessible” seems in danger of slowly becoming unrealistic. I’d argue it’s already pretty delusional, since it often assumes kids can’t remember things longer than about five minutes, but that’s only going to get worse over time.
Basically, I fear Nintendo is becoming out-of-touch.
Also I should add – I could be overestimating the ability of children to understand narratives. I don’t think I am (kids are smarter than they get credit for), but still. However, even if I am overestimating… this game isn’t for little kids.
I can see ultra-simplifying a Mario game, since some kids play that stuff before they can even read. But TotK just… isn’t really for kids. It isn’t a “mature” game, but it isn’t really childish. Talking about Imprisoning Wars and Sages and Secret Stones and so on… if little kids really were so bad at retaining info, they just wouldn’t pay attention anyway.
Plus the Demon King is actually scary. And his gloom hands are downright terrifying. The gloom hands encounters alone should qualify TotK as Not For Little Kids – that stuff scared the crap out of me. Though I am, admittedly, a wuss when it comes to scary stuff.
The point is that either Nintendo is drastically underestimating the intelligence of little kids, or drastically misunderstanding what types of games kids play. Either option leads to them treating all players of TotK like morons, which feels bad.
Theory of Everything (Wrong with this Game)
Watching my wife play through Tears of the Kingdom, I’ve formulated a rough theory as to “what went wrong” when it comes to the game’s implementation of its narrative. And what I think happened is that someone more “senior” at Nintendo got involved – much to the detriment of the game.
Breath of the Wild was a huge departure for Zelda. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the “old guard” at Nintendo scoffed at it and expected it to fail. But it didn’t, and it instead went on to become one of their best performing games ever.
I wonder if those theoretical old guard individuals wanted “in” on the success train, and so leveraged their seniority to give “suggestions” for the game which ultimately ended up being all the things I dislike about it.
All of this is just speculation, of course – I have literally no way of verifying any of this. And so I don’t really believe this is exactly what happened. It’s just interesting to me how well it fits.
Another minor thing I noted while playing was the somewhat… forced inclusion of Yona, the fiancée of Prince Sidon who was conveniently never mentioned even in passing as a potential until just now. And I can’t help but wonder if that has anything to do with the sheer overabundance of fanart and fanfiction shipping Sidon and Link.
(Personally, I feel a bit bad for Yona. I think her visual design is cool, and as a character she’s not that bad. But oh man, rarely do you see a fictional character get created with such an obvious target on their back. But hey, at least the memes are funny.)
Then there’s the weird reluctance of the game to reference BotW. Revali was wiped from history or something, and Daruk too (though they missed bits of his giant mountain-sized statue). Urbosa is, essentially, a turn-of-phrase and no more. And then Mipha has her statue banished to “No One Cares” Point – can you even imagine how annoying it would be to move that thing all the way up there?
It just really feels like someone wanted to get rid of existing work done by people they said were doing a crappy job (who then got innumerable accolades for the work) and replace it with their own superior work which is actually much worse.
I Still Really Love This Game
To balance things out, I’d like to end by talking about things I really like about this game. I’ve already mentioned the inclusion of caverns as a huge improvement, and of course the fuse system is also very fun. But there’s other stuff too.
One is the Depths, which might well be my absolute favorite part of the game. Apart from the bizarre mole people statues that are never fully explained, I loved the Depths – I got every lightroot passively simply because I couldn’t stop screwing around down there.
It’s perfect. For one, it expands the “explorable space” of the game by 100%, flat doubling the size of the continent. And seeing as BotW‘s biggest strength was how fun exploration was… doubling the amount of available exploration is brilliant.
I also liked the gloom mechanic a lot. Losing access to hearts is a phenomenal way to make the Depths feel dangerous in a way the surface doesn’t. I feel like it was perhaps a little weaker than I’d like, but that’s a nitpick of a complaint.
You still had to sort of prepare before going to the Depths – if you wanted to stay down there for any significant length of time. And the abundance of Zonai device caches for making various Depths-traversing vehicles actively encourages you to stay down longer and to have fun doing it.
Another impressive bit of TotK is its dungeon and boss design. It’s not really controversial to say that BotW’s dungeons (the Divine Beasts) and boss fights (the various Ganons) were one of the game’s weaker points. I don’t actually dislike either, but they didn’t really stand out much.
How times change. The dungeons in TotK are phenomenal, and the boss fights are fun as hell (with one exception each). They’re much more varied than in BotW as well, which was one of the main issues. Every BotW dungeon and boss looks basically the same as all the others.
The weak link here is the Spirit Temple, which is hampered by how useless and slow the Sage’s ability is. Mineru’s construct is worthless, and being guided to pilot the thing from the dungeon’s “start” (the Construct Factory) to the boss fight at the Temple is a chore. But just the fact that the “dungeon” has many of its puzzles just out in the world (IE at the Construct Factory) is revolutionary.
And all the others? Fantastic, every one of them. I particularly love the Lightning Temple. It feels just like what exploring Zelda dungeons felt like as a kid. That one in particular recaptured my childlike feeling of exploration in a way no other game has since… well, Elden Ring last year but still. It’s a rarity to have dungeons that cool.
And the bosses of TotK are wonderful. They aren’t Soulsborne level good, of course (thankfully, to be honest) but still. They’re all such massive improvements over Zelda’s normal “use item > hit glowing eyeball > repeat” formula.
The best boss (with one notable exception) is either Colgera or Marbled Gohma. But all of them are great – even the boss of the otherwise mediocre Spirit Temple is a blast, though it’s still the weakest of them.
Colgera just feels good. It feels climatic and fun and awesome. It has an inventive arena design, given there’s no real floor, and it’s mechanics are fairly standard. But it felt great. It felt epic and dramatic.
Marbled Gohma, meanwhile, is what solidified my high opinion of the boss design in TotK. When I fought it, I used Yunobo to break the boss’s legs, causing its main body to fall to the floor where I could wail on its eye with my sword. Very standard.
When my wife fought it, she… went underneath, used Ascension, and popped up through the boss right next to its eye. I hadn’t even thought of that. She then used Yunobo during the second phase since the boss moves to the ceiling. The fact that there are multiple options for tactics is stellar for a Zelda game.
Finally, there’s the grand finale. I didn’t write about it too much last time, since I only saw it after most of the article was finished. But that finale sequence… it’s incredible.
I was a bit concerned when I got there at first, since it begins with a fairly standard “fight waves of enemies” type thing. Having all the Sages with you was cool, of course, so it was fine. Then you move on to fight Ganondorf in his human form, and again – I worried this segment was going to suck.
And then you finally fight the Demon King and everything goes out the window. For one, his health bar literally almost goes off the screen – it’s a simple trick, but it felt really cool at the time. But what made it so good was how much this felt like what every other Ganon promised and failed to deliver – a swordfight.
The Demon King can dodge your flurry hits just like you dodge his hit to start the flurry rush in the first place. And that felt killer. That was a definite “sit up straighter on the couch” moment. He’s genuinely challenging and, thanks to how much he switches weapons, really varied and fun to fight.
He also has attacks which flat-out break heart containers. The gloom still locks up hearts – the Demon King literally breaks your heart containers. That was incredible! It added a real sense of urgency, since I was literally going to run out of hearts if I didn’t kill him fast enough. But it also solved the basic problem of BotW, namely that anything’s possible with enough food.
Since even that encounter can’t be his final form, there’s then the fight against him as a dragon. A not unexpected twist (though it sort of begs the question of how he knew to do that since we’re never shown him being told about it), but the sequence was cool.
And then you go up into the sky to fight the climatic battle with the Demon King Dragon, using the Light Dragon, Zelda, to maneuver up and down. And that… that was incredible. It wasn’t hard, really, but it felt amazing nonetheless. The music and the breadth of Hyrule below you… Zelda, even as a dragon, rushing to save you and help you defeat the Demon King… The Demon King’s dragon form and the sort of gross evil pustules you have to break to hurt him…
It was perfect.
And the cutscenes after were great too. They made me want to forgive the game for all of its slip-ups. I felt satisfied when previously I had thought nothing could soothe the irritation of accidentally spoiling the story for myself through gameplay (and the fury at being derided for not doing things the game literally wouldn’t let me do).
There was a bit of deus ex machina, of course, but there almost always is. Impa’s promise to find a way to turn Zelda back turned out to not mean anything since Rauru and Sonia’s ghosts can apparently just do that. And of course Link has to get his original arm back too… somehow.
But the moment of falling through the sky, literally chasing after Zelda as she falls? Perfection. The narrative mirroring with the beginning of the game, when Link barely can’t grab Zelda in time when she falls underneath the castle, is fantastic. Like the entire game was just Link falling, desperately trying to reach Zelda and grab her hand. It was beautiful.
The later bit, with Zelda and the Sages and Mineru dying, was a bit corny but I didn’t care. I didn’t mind the corniness or that so many of my questions were unanswered. I was in the moment and did not care.
(Though slightly later I did begin to wonder if Mineru was originally planned to be a Navi or Fi-like guidance character – she’s specifically stated to have put her spirit in the Purah Pad despite this fact never becoming important, and her death scene greatly reminded me of Navi’s departure scene at the end of Ocarina of Time. Just idle speculation.)
In Conclusion, More Lords of Darkness Bashing
When writing the original article, I was reminded of my review of Lords of Darkness, but I didn’t want to bring it up. Essentially, I had commented on Lords of Darkness by saying that if a work’s two high points were its introduction and then one chapter at the end, it isn’t a very good work.
And I stand by that. Though a well-crafted ending can make you forget many sins, if all TotK had going for it was its intro cutscenes and the final boss… that would be a crappy game.
But that isn’t all that TotK has to offer. The entire game is fun, for one. Playing it is a joy pretty much all the way through. And it’s long-lived too – I am still playing this game.
What’s changed is my opinion of whether or not TotK’s story was good or bad. If it was only good at the beginning and in the end, then I’d have to say it just wasn’t good. And when I wrote my first post on this, I was leaning towards that view.
After beating the game, though… my opinion began to shift. And seeing my wife play through in the “correct” order has completed that metamorphosis.
Tears of the Kingdom is, ultimately, a good story. It doesn’t feel as coherent as Breath of the Wild, but it also tries so much more than BotW did. And it has issues – the time travel creates a near infinite number of plot holes and continuity issues, and the game’s refusal to elaborate on its otherwise enthralling world building is a huge missed opportunity.
But it’s a good story at heart. The primary failing of TotK‘s story is that the game’s mechanics allow you to learn too much too early. If they had just locked the appearance of the Master Sword and Dagger geoglyphs behind the completion of one or more sage questlines, then we’d be fine. Likewise if they had just accounted for this possibility and provided alternate dialogue and options accordingly, then it would still be fine.
The biggest failing of the story in Tears of the Kingdom isn’t a narrative one – it’s a game mechanics and design problem.
There should be no “right” or “wrong” way to go through an open-world game’s narrative. But viewed and experienced in the “correct” order… the story is actually really good and I enjoyed myself.
At the end of the day, what more should you want?
Next time, a return to actual D&D and tabletop RPG stuff. And that’s a Lawful Good Rogue promise, a solemn vow which is worth… something, presumably. To someone who doesn’t know me.
Oh, and as always – let me know what you think!