Open-world games are a difficult balancing act. Crafting a large world for gamers to explore is completely detached from creating a world worth exploring. If a game’s world is devoid of content, then it doesn’t matter how much digital square footage the developers crammed into the title. In fact, a lack of worthwhile side adventures and activities can make open-world design a detriment. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom doesn’t have to worry about any such problem since wasting time in its open world is actually one of its greatest strengths.
If you have played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, you should be fairly familiar with Tears of the Kingdom‘s basic premise and design. Unlike older Zelda games, Tears drops players in a sprawling open world and gives them a few basic waypoints. That’s about it. From there, players receive little direction. They have to scrounge for supplies, manage basic survival mechanics such as heat and cold, and solve puzzles. Tears of the Kingdom utilizes this system but ups the ante so much that you might forget to continue the main story. As it turns out, that’s not really an issue.
The world of Tears of the Kingdom is designed around emergent gameplay. More so than ever, players can expect to encounter random spawns, events, and other activities while wandering around. Those events include Hylian militia members who offer side quests to wipe out Bokoblin encampments, random encounters with boss and miniboss enemies, and falling chunks of floating islands that can be ridden into the sky.
Each non-essential distraction sticks out just enough to pique players’ interests. Sometimes, they even combine to form unique events. For instance, during my first Battle Talus fight, I was able to cheese the encounter by abusing Recall on a piece of sky debris, which let me continually glide onto the rock golem’s back. On the one hand, this tactic made the fight trivial. On the other hand, it was only available in the first place as a result of quick thinking and experimentation. This same emergent gameplay extends into the skies above Hyrule, as well as the underground caverns below.
Arguably the best aspect of these side activities (and what makes them so addicting) is how they string to form together an experience that feels just as (if not more) substantial than the main storyline elements of the game. Every time I think I know what I will do when I start a Tears of the Kingdom session, I find another Shrine or Korok challenge to complete, usually back to back. Heck, the second time I delved into the Depths, I originally planned to hunt down Zonaite. Instead, I got distracted by Poe gatherings, which organically led to discovering an underground Yiga base, followed by a surprise boss fight against a Flux Construct. The adrenaline rushes those moments offered made them feel like discoveries rather than distractions from whatever I was supposed to be doing. Besides, you can’t always experience those kinds of adventures by walking Tears of the Kingdom’s main story paths.
As much as I hate to say it, the dungeons of Tears of the Kingdom are largely disappointing. While these puzzle tombs are still a step up from Breath of the Wild’s uniform Divine Beasts, they lack the liveliness found in the rest of the game. In many other Zelda games, they would serve as standout moments. That’s just not the case in Tears of the Kingdom. Unlike the overworld of Hyrule, these areas are more self-contained, which means they don’t always support the same levels of emergent gameplay.
Sure, you can use and abuse systems and mechanics to solve puzzles in ways dungeon designers didn’t intend, but these options are far more limited when compared to what you can do outside of the dungeons. During my last trip into the Depths, Naydra popped in to provide a hauntingly beautiful photo opportunity. When was the last time Naydra randomly buzzed a Tears of the Kingdom dungeon? Never. Granted, the dragon only served as a backdrop for my spelunking through the Depths because I couldn’t reach the creature, but it was still a welcome surprise, as well as an excuse to put the controller down and just soak in the dragon’s ethereal majesty. Since nothing like that happens in Tears of the Kingdom’s dungeons, I am left wanting.
Another problem with the dungeons in Tears of the Kingdom is they don’t quite stack up to other dungeons in the franchise. Granted, the franchise is full of bad dungeons (many of which are water-themed), but even lesser The Legend of Zelda games feature highlight dungeons. Nothing in Tears of the Kingdom’s dungeons makes your jaw drop quite like all the gravity-flipping puzzles of the Stone Tower Temple or the underground portion of the Ancient Cistern. Those comparisons might sound unfair, but Nintendo has set a high bar for Zelda dungeons that Tears of the Kingdom‘s take on that concept just can’t match.
Much like some of Tears of the Kingdom‘s other main story elements (which sometimes struggle to bring structure to a game defined by possibilities), Tears of the Kingdom‘s dungeons simply pale in comparison to all the activities found in the world. Not only have I spent most of my play sessions out in the wilds of Hyrule taking in these distractions, but I have started putting off story elements as long as I can because they don’t stack up compared to the rest of the game’s offerings. It’s an incredible feeling to waste time in Tears of the Kingdom (in relation to how you’re supposed to “progress” through the game, that is).
Yet, for as long as those more traditional progression elements are part of the experience, they should be executed in a way that matches the brilliance of simply finding your own fun in the world. Maybe if Nintendo were to study Elden Ring’s dungeon design philosophy and create larger, multi-tiered dungeons (perhaps with their own sub-dungeons) that support emergent gameplay, it would be more tempting to pull yourself away from wasting time and experience that part of the game. As it is, Tears of the Kingdom‘s side activities often overshadow the main campaign.