Spoiler Warning: This post discusses the stories of both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom.
Like many great fairy tales, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild started with an amnesiac.
After being mortally wounded in a battle against the evil Ganon, Link (the series' perpetual protagonist) was placed in a healing temple to rest and recover for a century. He wakes up to find his strength gone and many of his past memories erased. The core of the game is exploring the world to reclaim your abilities and remember your past.
The remembering portion largely plays out by tracking down and collecting “Captured Memories.” Every time you find one, you learn more about Link's story– especially his relationship with Princess Zelda.
Breath of the Wild’s take on the titular Princess is one of the franchise's most interesting. She isn't just some magical beauty supporting you quietly from a distant castle. She's a scholar and an intellect. She can have a bit of a haughty attitude and even resented Link’s role as her chosen protector.
Zelda in Breath of the Wild is also flawed. She can’t tap into the holy powers that are the gift/burden of her bloodline. All the time Link spends with her is on a trip to shrines and prayer sites where it’s hoped she’ll finally unlock her goddess-given magic. Magic the good guys absolutely needed to beat Ganon.
She fails, however, and when Ganon finally shows up he thrashes Hyrule’s defenders and destroys the kingdom. It’s her fault they lose and she knows it. It makes her eventual triumph all the more affecting.
Setting aside the fact that I’m a sucker for a good “failures rise up for one last battle” yarn, Breath of the Wild just does a great job of weaving its story into the fabric of the game world itself.
The Hyrule you’re exploring is practically post-apocalyptic. The wilderness is colorful and beautiful but it’s also full of relics from the world that was destroyed. The iconic Hyrule Castle is a shattered ruin at the game map's center. The road to Hateno Village -one of the few remaining pockets of isolated civilization- leads you through an ancient battlefield filled with broken battle machines.
The game gives you the freedom to engage with the story as much or as little as you want – but it’s never not telling its story. Breath of the Wild stands out as a crowning achievement of open-world storytelling in video games. I can’t think of another game of its sort that does what it did better.
This is the part where a chorus of Zelda fans shout: “But what about Tears of the Kingdom?”
Released just a few months ago, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild. It received immediate and well-deserved acclaim, with many critics declaring it to be a vast improvement over its predecessor.
It's a sentiment with which I must politely disagree.
I just finished a (50ish hour) playthrough, including all of its major story content, and can agree that Tears is a top-notch open-world action-adventure game. As much as I enjoyed it, however, I left Tears of the Kingdom feeling like I had played a lesser version of Breath of the Wild.
To be sure, there are things that Tears does better. A lot of people loathed the breakable weapons in Breath of the Wild. Tears of the Kingdom provides options that mitigate a lot of that mechanic’s more frustrating issues. It's also a much better game if you're the type that likes to tinker and experiment. It adds in new powers that give Link the ability to craft his out of nearly any obstacle. “Attach a rocket to it” is a viable solution for a lot of the game's puzzles.
Tears of the Kingdom also has a much bigger game world than its predecessor. While it does reuse a (slightly modified) version of the world that existed in Breath of the Wild, it adds in a robust network of sky islands, and the vastness of “The Depths.”
The problem I have with Tears is that these fresh elements, as good as they might be, don’t connect together into as much of a cohesive whole. The game's story isn't integrated into its world as well as it was in Breath of the Wild, and many of the new environments are a honestly kind of shallow once you really spend time with them.
The Depths are alien and unsettling at first, but they become rote and routine once you get a handle on how to navigate them. There isn’t enough reward or variety in Hyrule’s dark places to warrant the many hours it would take to explore their every nook and cranny.
More importantly for me, its story feels like a downgraded repeat of the “last desperate chance” narrative of Breath of the Wild.
At the beginning of Tears of the Kingdom, you encounter a new (but old) foe – the rotting husk of a sorcerer named Ganondorf. Zelda disappears at the end of the fight, Link is injured, and after some more time spent in a magical healing place, he awakens to a changed world and a missing princess.
Much like the “Captured Memories” of Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom has “Dragon Tears” that litter the landscape. Finding the Tears will tell you the story of what happened to Zelda after her disappearance and reveal what ultimately happened to her.
The story that’s revealed is actually fairly decent. The problem is that it’s also leagues more interesting than the mysteries that you, as the player, are actually tasked with resolving. Several times, throughout my playthrough, I would encounter a new Tear, watch the next chapter of Zelda’s story, and think “Why can’t Link be there and involved in that?”
Its story is far more interested in lore than feelings. It's the sort of story that relies on you already caring about the established characters so it can tell you about stuff, as opposed to giving you new more personal reasons to get invested in their struggles. There are moments of Breath of the Wild I just randomly think about sometimes because they're humanly relatable. I haven't thought much about Tears of the Kingdom since I put it down.
A major problem is that its world is more of a playground for its crafting mechanics than one built for organic narrative. The gameplay is great, but you really have to enjoy that style of play to appreciate it. I'm more a fan of straightforward adventure and I preferred the powers and abilities Link had in Breath of the Wild to the ones he has in Tears. They were more restricted in some ways, but sometimes less is more.
It also doesn't help that Tears of the Kingdom's story is generally poorly paced. All the major story quests felt like they involved just one too many steps. Worse yet, there's a late-in-the-game point where it feels like the plot is reaching a natural climax, only to pull the rug out and demand that you go on playing for another ten hours.
That's not a good thing when your game is already a touch too tedious at times. Tears relies way too heavily on the player just redoing a lot of the same work they did in Breath of the Wild. Did you find all the shrines in the first game? Upgrade all the armor? Well, you better get ready to do it all again! It's tiring and, after a point, I just didn't have the patience to do more than get to the end.
None of which is to say that The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is bad. Any video game you can sink fifty enjoyable hours into is doing something right. Tears of the Kingdom is excellent! It's easily one of the best releases of 2023 and one of the best titles on the Nintendo Switch. I felt satisfied when the credits finally rolled.
At the end of the day though, it's definitely a video game and feels like one. Breath of the Wild, for me, was an experience. That's a fine (and subjective) line that Tears of the Kingdom never quite manages to cross.