Playing Tears of the Kingdom is like riding a tricked-out bike you built with your Ultrahand

Back when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild first launched in 2017, no one fully understood just how passionate many fans would become about experimenting with the game’s physics and mechanics in search of creative ways to explore Hyrule that almost felt like cheating. Incredible as it was to see players pulling off seemingly impossible trick shots with scary precision, it was difficult to imagine Nintendo ever intending for people to become enamored with the game’s glitches. It was even harder to envision the publisher recognizing the Zelda community’s tinkering as an opportunity to capitalize on.

From the moment we all first saw gameplay footage from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, though, it became crystal clear that Nintendo was paying very close attention to what people unexpectedly loved about its predecessor. And as soon as I took out my first moblin with a homing arrow during a recent hands-on preview event, I got the strong sense that Tears of the Kingdom is going to have gamers, hardcore and casual alike, losing their minds in the best ways possible.

During the couple of hours I had to spend exploring two small (relative to the rest of the map) but still sizable chunks of Tears of the Kingdom’s overworld, the game felt more cleverly evolutionary than boldly revolutionary. Anyone who’s been playing Breath of the Wild in preparation for Tears of the Kingdom will be at home with most of the game’s controls and the basic aspects of getting around the world — burning through stamina wheels to run, climb, and glide will feel comfortably familiar. But once you start really using Link’s new abilities to interact with the things around him — the monsters, the weapons, the bushes full of bomb flowers — Tears of the Kingdom reveals itself to be a much more technically complex and imaginative game than its predecessor, which is saying something.

While you could use the original Sheikah Slate to pull off all sorts of incredible tricks, Breath of the Wild didn’t always feel like it was designed with the intention of pushing players to use the gadget to its full potential. At first, some of the new runes loaded into Tears of the Kingdom’s refreshed techno-magical tablet, like Recall and the ominously named Ultrahand, seem like souped-up versions of classics like Stasis and Magnesis. But unlike Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom actively encourages you not just to use each of Link’s new powers with a surprising frequency but also to think about all the different ways you could potentially deploy them to solve puzzles and slay monsters.

Whereas Stasis gave you the power to freeze enemies and objects in space and launch them by charging them up with kinetic energy, Recall switches things up by instead sending objects backward through space along trajectories they began moving along at earlier points in time — hitting anything in their way as they go. Magnesis allowed you to detect and manipulate metallic objects like blocks and swords and fancy treasure chests. But using Ultrahand, Link can move basically any free-standing object that isn’t bolted down and merge it with another to make… well, whatever you can fashion out of the old scrap and new tech you find around Hyrule — all of which is meant to be used for building.

Out of all of Link’s new powers, Ascend — a riff on Revali’s Gale that sends you flying upward toward ceilings before you then swim / phase through them like Kate Pryde — is the most straightforward in how it’s designed to get you thinking more expansively (and vertically) about how you can move through Tears of the Kingdom’s Hyrule. But along with Ultrahand, it’s Link’s Fuse ability — the simple combining of two things to make a different stronger thing — that feels most emblematic of the “yes, and…” ethos Nintendo described as being a core part of the game’s identity.

As someone who has spent more hours ambushing moblin bases than I care to admit, what struck me most about taking on a small squad of them using mainly a bow and arrow was just how much of Tears of the Kingdom’s enjoyability is going to depend on people becoming very comfortable with its twitchy controls.

Because my regular arrows were weak, the Master Sword’s in bad shape at the beginning of the game, and I was very outnumbered, I briefly thought that luring them all down the steps from their perches to then outrun them back to the top might be a solid way of getting past them. And hey, it was. But after accidentally triggering Recall and catching sight of how it could be used on a massive spiked ball sent rolling to crush me to death, it clicked into place how the game was presenting me with multiple options for defeating my enemies.

The first time I encountered the spiked ball, I wasn’t ready for it and couldn’t fire off Recall before it knocked me over the ledge to my doom. Outrunning the moblins or fighting them off with sticks the old-fashioned way were always options that could have worked. But the more comfortable I got hot swapping between the new runes, it became easier to recognize instances where they could be used for battle. With the ball, there was definitely a bit of a learning curve when it came to using Recall as a weapon. But the effort made it that much more satisfying when I was able to send the ball hurtling back into the moblins that released it and then merge it with my shield using Fuse to create a ridiculous battering weapon perfect for smashing the monsters until they poofed.

Obviously, Ultrahand works very differently than Recall and doesn’t lend itself to fighting quite like Magnesis could. But the way the new power uses glowing bits of adhesive-like energy to suggest how various objects can fit together is downright delightful and, again, satisfying — almost as much as it was to see my ideas for jury-rigged contraptions come together.

Ultrahand, which you use both to build all of Tears of the Kingdom’s spiffy new vehicles and to manipulate things like massive switches, stands out as the flashiest of Link’s abilities because of how significantly it can affect the world around you and because of how largely it factors into exploring the game’s new floating islands in this sky. But during my time playing the game, it was Fuse, which lets you instantly create fused weapons like homing, bomb, and light (as in creating sources of light) arrows on the fly, that felt like Tears of the Kingdom’s most promising and well-thought-out innovation.

In many ways, Fuse feels like Nintendo’s way of acknowledging some Zelda fans’ complaints about Breath of the Wild’s durability mechanic and answering them by cleverly doubling down on the idea in a new way. Most of the weak melee weapons and shields I saw in Tears of the Kingdom were still quite breakable after just a few uses. By fusing things like mushrooms (or spiked balls or mining carts) to shields, however, they became immensely more durable, and the same was true of weapons, which became capable of taking and receiving much more damage.

Tears of the Kingdom isn’t the first Zelda game to prominently feature the crafting of new items from farmable resources, and after Breath of the Wild’s emphasis on recipes, it’s not at all surprising to see that specific mechanic return. But in addition to making for good elixirs, many of the gnarly body parts that Tears of the Kingdom’s monsters drop when you slay them can also be used to upgrade weapons using Fuse, which gives you an entirely new reason to spend time hunting them. This also goes for many of the flowering fruit-bearing plants and trees growing all across Hyrule waiting for you to harvest them either to be fused with arrows or simply thrown like the explosive, light-emitting, and sometimes smoke-creating grenades they can be.

In the same way that it took me a while to get the hang of weaponizing Recall, using Fuse — especially while trying to fend off attacks — was an intriguing, twitchy exercise in trial and error. Technically speaking, creating fused arrows is as “simple” as nocking regular arrows with the right trigger, pulling up a carousel of fusible items in your inventory with the left directional pad, selecting the one you want, and letting the rune work its magic. Correctly pulling up all of the right menus and selecting the items you want to fuse while enemies are trying to hit you is easier said than done, though, and the mechanic isn’t exactly the most intuitive, which might put some people off from using it initially.

Players are going to have a ball figuring out all the different ways that Fuse can be used to turn familiar monster drops like Chuchu jellies into exciting new tools. What’s likely going to light people’s imaginations up most, though, are instances where runes like Fuse and Ultrahand’s more obvious applications invite you to think about how they might work if you fiddled with them a bit just because you can.

There are plenty of opportunities for you to use all of the runes down on the ground level of Tears of the Kingdom’s overworld map, but it’s up in the sky with the clouds and islands where you really start to get a sense of just how integral Ultrahand is to this game’s approach to exploration and puzzle-solving.

As many helpful natural resources as there are scattered throughout Tears of the Kingdom, there are also a variety of mechanical ones like rockets, fans, and portable stoves that you can find and, in some cases, create on your own using a new material called Zonaite. The game’s new robotic class of enemy that drop Zonaite after you destroy them are every bit as cool as Breath of the Wild’s Guardian enemies that coughed up the necessary parts to make powerful Guardian-killing arrows and upgrade your armor. But the sheer number of Zonai Devices you can make with Zonaite eclipses the handful of uses there were for Ancient Screws and Cores, and they’re all tools that have been carefully designed with playful experimentation in mind.

Which Zonai Devices and vehicles end up being your favorites to get from point A to point B will likely depend on how much time you spend upgrading your Zonai Energy Cell, a new item that stores the energy charges necessary to power the constructs you build. Similar to the way Link needs stamina to cling to things, his constructs need adequate battery power to function. But unlike Link’s stamina wheel, which automatically begins to refill when he’s at rest, the Zonai Energy Cell’s charge can only be restored in small amounts at certain locations, which forces you to think strategically about what kind of things you want to build and how you want to use them.

In the grand scheme of The Legend of Zelda’s game-specific, gimmicky powers, building with Ultrahand in Tears of the Kingdom is going to go down as being one of Nintendo’s boldest attempts at challenging people to rethink what a Zelda title can be. It’s undeniably cool to see Link flying hot air balloons and Green Goblin-like gliders through the sky. What genuinely took me by surprise, though, was realizing that when you strap a rocket to a shield, the rocket / shield combo becomes an arm-mounted jet pack capable of pulling you straight up into the sky — a ridiculous idea that makes just the right amount of sense to be fun.

Based just on what I’ve seen of Tears of the Kingdom, it’s hard to tell how the game will stack up to Breath of the Wild, which was still exceedingly accessible despite being one of the most radical refreshes in the franchise’s history. Tears of the Kingdom’s definitely a sequel built on many of the same principles as its predecessor, but it also sometimes handles a lot like a game for people who never stopped playing Breath of the Wild, which is easy to imagine overwhelming someone coming to all of this for the first time.

That said, there are plenty of people who’ve kept honing their Lynel-hunting skills over the years, and Nintendo knows we’ve been itching for something new to challenge us in ways that recapture the magic that originally made Breath of the Wild so special. Tears of the Kingdom felt like a lot of what I’ve personally wanted from the next chapter of Link, Zelda, and Ganon’s never-ending cycle of magical drama. Something tells me that a lot of people are going to feel something similar in just a few weeks’ time.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom debuts on the Nintendo Switch on May 12th.

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