The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom may have the highest expectations put on any Nintendo game in years. Not only is it the latest release in the storied Zelda franchise, but it's also a direct sequel to Breath of the Wild, regarded by many to be one of the best games of all time. Recent trailers have revealed an emphasis on building amazing machines with a new suite of tools, a seeming nod to the network of Zelda fans who have pulled off amazing feats in Breath of the Wild. And while Nintendo is still maintaining the mystery around much of the game, our extensive hands-on with the new tools showed an incredible amount of creative problem-solving and thrilling traversal in this ambitious sequel.
My hands-on demonstration was composed of two parts. First, I began with a short segment on the ground, with the simple objective of getting past some enemies and into a tower. This was mostly just for the sake of testing the waters with the array of new tools before preparing to dive into the deep end. While the most obvious path was to go up a ramp structure through a handful of enemies, there were much easier ways. And while there were fairly strict limitations on where I could go throughout the demo session, there were almost no restrictions on what I could do within the spaces provided.
My first approach was the straightforward one: Stride into the enemy base with my sword and challenge the enemies to combat. This was destined to fail and I knew it, not least because I'm severely out of practice in Breath of the Wild's combat, but I thought it was worthwhile to try regardless. I was handling myself fine against a Bokoblin, but his nearby Moblin friend took notice of the scuffle and came to help, and I was caught off-guard. That was the end of that life.
For my second attempt, I decided to use the new building tools to circumvent the enemies altogether. The Ultrahand ability--the new marquee building tool that lets you create complex structures and machines--can grab just about anything that isn't connected to the ground, but I didn't happen to have any flying implements around me. Rather than needing to build everything from scratch each time, there is a streamlined option for building with Ultrahand, so for the sake of expediency and getting to know the tools, I used that to build a small, simple, but functional hot-air balloon. A dragon-headed machine part faced upward into the balloon and breathed fire when struck, taking me on a straight vertical ascent. Once I had gained enough height over the enemy base, I simply hopped off the balloon and hang-glided my way past them to the goal.
Then I was ushered into the second, much more expansive part of the hands-on demo. This one took place in the Sky Islands, with more open-ended goals and a massive amount of space to explore. I was given an objective--try to island-hop your way over to a distant floating landmass--and very few limitations. I wasn't allowed to dive back to the ground, and a few select islands were off-limits, but other than that, I was just given some tools and told to explore.
The same streamlined building tool was still available, and I also had access to a Zonai parts distributor that Nintendo cheerfully nicknamed the "gumball machine." It's easy to see why, as it both looks and acts like a candy dispenser. You insert some cores, and you get a random assortment of Zonai machine components in return. The Ultrahand can stick together anything from the world like felled trees or rocks, along with any of the machine-like Zonai parts. Those include fans, the aforementioned fire-breathing dragon head machine, a piston that launches objects (or you) on a regular rhythm, and most entertainingly, rockets. They look and act exactly like rockets, which includes launching you into the atmosphere with massive propulsive force. There's also a control yoke Zonai part, which not only lets you steer vehicles but also activates whatever engine-type you've attached automatically.
The Ultrahand is remarkably easy to use once you get used to it. You can stick parts together in just about any configuration you can imagine, and the tool lets you snap to certain angled degrees. Since it's all physics-based, symmetry equals stability. The game understands this and gives you a little help locking, for example, a second rocket at the same angle as you placed the first. It only took a few minutes of toying with the feature before I felt like I completely understood how to use it. And while my designs weren't anything too impressive, they were often perfectly functional, with minimal control-fussing.
Sometimes the island-hopping solution was obvious--a couple of fans and a flat surface can obviously be put together to make a floating platform and reach new heights, for example. Other times I would need to summon an airplane design to cross a longer stretch of ground. Each time I made a little progress, I was encouraged to use a travel medallion to mark my progress. This handy returning feature lets you make one fast-travel point anywhere in the overworld, and you can recall it remotely to make a new one. This is especially useful for challenges like the one I was presented with, to cross several islands, since I could mark my progress as I went.
By far my favorite moment of the demo, though, came from seeing how these tools could be used to solve puzzles. While I enjoyed Breath of the Wild and its sandbox model, I missed the clockwork precision of classic Zelda puzzles and their intricately tailored solutions. I enjoy the feeling of finding the correct answer, which is slightly different than simply finding a clever way to exploit a physics system. To my surprise, Tears of the Kingdom bridged that gap by presenting open-ended physics-based puzzles, but with solutions that felt so intuitive that I still got the satisfaction of finding my own complicated but "correct" way.
At one point, I had to cross a wide chasm to another island on my left side, with a large structure as the pivot point between the two islands. I could move the structure by manipulating and turning a small model of the structure with the Ultrahand. I found I could turn the structure so that a bridge extended to me, which would let me cross onto the structure itself--but then there was no way to get from there to the other island. Or I could turn the bridge towards the structure, but couldn't get onto it. Either way, I was stuck, and my glider wasn't enough to cross the chasm. I needed to figure out how to cross onto the structure, then move it to serve as a bridge onto the next island.
After some tinkering, my solution was to make use of the new Recall ability, which rewinds objects to a prior state. I moved the structure into position as a bridge onto the second island, then moved it back to meet me on the first island. I started to cross, then hit it with Recall, rewinding time so that it would move backwards and become a moving platform. I felt very clever for this, but at the moment, it simply felt like the right way to solve the puzzle. I needed a moving platform, so I made one.
It was only afterward that a Nintendo rep told me I could have simply flipped the entire structure upside-down and it would have made a normal bridge. Or, I realized, I could have moved it into either of the positions and used a hot air balloon to gain some height so I could glide over. I didn't actually have to MacGyver my way into making it a moving platform at all, but I instinctively read that as the goal, and the tools were flexible enough to let me solve it that way.
I had a similar experience building my own aircraft to cross the final chasm to my goal. There was a metallic structure with a divot that served as a resting place for one of the plane parts, which had a fin that slotted in perfectly to act as a runway. I placed two fans atop the plane, then another identical plane piece on top, for a sort of Zonai version of the Wright Brothers biplane. I placed the control yoke on top, but it occurred to me that the lower deck would have been a good way to transport any items across large distances.
How long that distance can be, though, is an open question. The Zonai machines appeared with battery icons, like the one on your cell phone. For the purposes of this demo, I had three large bars of battery, which was plenty to cross the gaps needed for our island-hopping excursion. But I was also pre-equipped with a very full stamina bar for climbing, so Nintendo was definitely giving the press a leg-up in that regard. I suspect that, like stamina, you'll progressively unlock more battery power for your Zonai devices. If that's the case, it's hard to say just how far you'll be able to go when the game begins, and whether you can ultimately build your way up to vehicles that can cross the entire map.
Upon reaching my goal, I still had a few minutes left and decided to devote them to searching the large island for combat encounters so I could experiment with Fuse and other abilities. Fuse will be mostly associated with combat, but it has applications for exploring the world, too. Fusing a sword with a rock certainly looks funny, and it makes your weapon more powerful and more durable, but the new DIY sledgehammer can also break open cracked walls and floors. I have to imagine there will be more applications of the Fuse ability itself unlocking secret areas.
Combat is as engaging as you would expect from a sequel to Breath of the Wild, but the Fuse ability adds a new dimension of experimentation. A quick-menu option lets you Fuse items from your inventory to your currently equipped weapon, which I found slightly difficult to get a hang of in the heat of combat with an enemy bearing down on me. I also had to remember, for example, to switch to my bow before hitting the quick menu to try Fusing something to an arrow, which led to more than a few mistakes on my part. There's definitely a learning curve, which feels like it will make mastering combat and Fusing on the fly that much more rewarding.
That said, even mistakes are enjoyable. Like the Ultrahand, Fuse is a massive toy box, and you're encouraged to try different combinations just to see what happens. I tried attaching a bomb to a sword to see if hitting something with it would just blow me up, and sure enough, yes. I attached a Keese Eyeball to a stick to see if it would heat-seek like an arrow when I threw the weapon--no luck. I was told later that attaching a wing to a weapon does, however, give it more airtime. Like the Ultrahand building tools, the sheer number of different possible combinations and applications for Fuse is mind-boggling.
I was hopelessly outmatched, however, as the nearest enemy was a massive golem-like creature. Even my best attacks barely dented it, and like my earlier encounter with the Moblin, I was too out of practice to stand a chance with the odds so stacked against me. But as the old saying goes: If at first you don't succeed, go back with a bomb-sword and blow yourself up. I didn't win, but I was grinning the entire time.
While the demo showed off the massive scope and versatility in just a few small areas, it feels like I've barely scratched the surface. My demo included absolutely no story content, I didn't explore any shrines, and I'm no closer to answering the question of whether Tears of the Kingdom will include more traditional Zelda dungeons. There's a lot of mystery left to uncover, even after receiving a much better sense of the new building tools.
That mystery, like the brain-bending amount of customization and creativity that will surely extend from these tools, will be something players will have to explore together when the game launches on May 12. Starting then, just like the first game and perhaps even more so, the community of Zelda fans will get to plumb its depths together. Tears of the Kingdom looks to be Nintendo inspired by its own fans' creativity, and next month, that cycle will start all over again.
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