The launch of a blockbuster video game is a little like the premiere of a TV series that drops a season all at once. The hype has built for months, if not years, and peaks on the appointed debut day. Almost in unison, millions start downloading or streaming the long-awaited title. From there, the audience’s experiences splinter. Some consumers rush to the end. Others take their time, by choice or necessity. For safety’s sake, every conversation among fans for weeks after the release starts with a status check: Have you finished yet?
All of that goes triple when the video game in question is The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, a title too big to be binged and too loosely structured for any two people to play it the same way. One month after the highly anticipated and highly lucrative launch, countless Koroks have been tortured, tanks and bombers built, and items duplicated. But most players’ journeys through Hyrule haven’t ended: Judging by the counts on game-logging sites such as Backloggd, Grouvee, and How Long to Beat?, more people appear to be still playing Tears of the Kingdom than have completed their playthroughs. And in this case, completing a playthrough is much different than completing the game. Many will beat Tears of the Kingdom, but few will finish it, which is a testament both to its scale and to its philosophy of not pushing the player to see and do everything. Few games are as massive or as crammed with content, yet few make playing feel less like crossing off items on a digital to-do list.
With some regret—and some urgency to make room in my life for the likes of Street Fighter 6 and Diablo IV—I recently defeated Tears of the Kingdom’s final boss. As the credits rolled, I commended myself not just on beating the game, but on not having rushed through it. Like its pioneering predecessor, Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom is an open-world odyssey designed to be savored at length and leisure. I beat Breath of the Wild’s story in a fairly typical 50-ish hours, but with Tears of the Kingdom, I decided to do things differently: This time, I really explored the studio space. And so, rather than merely touring the temples, rounding up the sages and the Master Sword, and facing down the Demon King as quickly as I could, I took a roundabout route across Hyrule.
Whenever I set out to travel somewhere or do something, I stayed open to detours—if you can call them detours, given that the game entices you to take them. I never went anywhere without wandering off course: sometimes to support one of Mr. Hudson’s signs, sometimes to investigate the telltale neon halo of a distant shrine, sometimes to descend into a cave or a well, or visit a stable, or open a chest, or pursue a side quest, or … well, you can get sidetracked just describing all the sidetracks. All of those diversions took time. My Switch said I played Tears of the Kingdom for 90-plus hours before beating it, which is a lot to lavish on one game in a few weeks when you also have adulting to do.
It was humbling, then, to boot up the game again after the last cutscene concluded, only to learn just how little I’d discovered even playing at a leisurely pace. Although I completed the 23 main quests, I checked off only 11 of the 60 “side adventures” and 22 of the 139 “side quests.” Every time I saw a shrine, no matter how distant, I marked it on my map and soon accessed and solved it. Yet somehow I found only 81 of the 152 total shrines in the game. I kept an eye out for Koroks wherever I went—not to torture them, but because my daughter is obsessed with the sound they make (Ya-ha-ha!)—but I tracked down only 66 of 1,000. I ascended all 15 Skyview Towers on the surface, but I activated only 29 of 120 lightroots in the Depths. I maxed out my stamina wheel, but I collected only 19 of 40 possible hearts. I never stood face-to-face with a great fairy, or fought a Gleeok. I never traded in my Bubbul gems or visited a bargainer statue. I never completed a single set of armor, or rode a horse. I was open to anything that crossed my path, yet the list of things I did is shorter than the list of things I never got around to or never knew about.
Speaking of paths: Tears of the Kingdom has an unlockable “Hero’s Path” mode that traces your steps across the game’s three levels—Sky Islands, Surface, and Depths. The GIF below shows what mine looked like after beating the game.
What stands out to me is how many regions I never visited or merely passed through, as if I’d only been there to catch a connecting flight. No wonder Hero’s Path mode records up to 256 hours of Link’s travels. It might take at least that long to go everywhere.
Breath of the Wild is big even by open-world standards, but Tears of the Kingdom is at least twice as vast in terms of sheer surface area—and in these games, almost every square inch is explorable, whether above or below ground. Some open-world franchises have gradually become too big and bloated; the next Assassin’s Creed, for instance, will return to a “more intimate” scale in response to fan frustrations about its increasingly sprawling predecessors. According to some measurements, Tears features an even more ample playable area than the most immense Assassin’s Creed games, but its size doesn’t seem excessive, for a few reasons.
First, the activities in Tears aren’t tedious or repetitive. Yes, there’s always something to do, but quests and secrets are distributed and hidden across Hyrule so artfully that they feel less like assigned tasks than organic opportunities. Nor is their presence advertised so plainly that all mystery and surprise are stripped from finding them. (Although you can illuminate darkened portions of the map via various towers, à la many other open-world games, those illuminated areas won’t become cluttered with icons that start to seem like chores.) Second, the game doesn’t encourage a completionist mindset. Tears doesn’t even display a completion percentage until you beat the game, at which point a tiny, unobtrusive number materializes on the map. (When my percentage appeared, it sat at a lowly 38.2.) Even that figure can’t capture the entirety of Tears of the Kingdom: There’s plenty in the game that doesn’t count toward “completion.”
The most devoted and/or compulsive players can scour the landscape for the game’s hundreds of caves, Korok seeds, and Hyrule Compendium entries (with the aid of an online walkthrough or with inexhaustible patience). However, those hidden objects and critters exist in such quantities primarily so that most players can casually stumble across a smattering of them in their travels, not so that a small subset of players can catch ’em all. Thus, they can safely be skipped by anyone who’s on a tight schedule or who doesn’t respond to a particular place or activity. The Depths, for example, are preposterously large: Though the game’s marketing highlighted its aerial regions, its new subterranean spaces dwarf the Sky Islands and nearly rival the Surface in size. But Tears lets players largely give the Depths a pass, if they want to: Between the gloom (literal and figurative), the monotonous terrain, and the relative lack of NPCs to talk to and settlements to see, I spent a lot less time down there than I did above.
For better or for worse, depending on one’s preferred play style, the laissez-faire Tears hardly dictates what to do beyond its introductory island. As in Breath of the Wild, even most of the main quest—including clearing the temples and obtaining the Master Sword—is optional, and speedrunners can try their luck against the final boss without much preamble. Beating the game is itself a secondary reason to play. I won’t spoil the story, but if you’ve played any other Legend of Zelda game, you can probably guess how it’s going to go. That’s not to say it isn’t worth seeing the story through—the resolution is more satisfying than Breath of the Wild’s—but from a gameplay perspective, it’s kind of a cul-de-sac: There’s no New Game+ mode, and you can’t continue to jaunt around Hyrule after the closing confrontation.
As in Breath of the Wild, beating the game makes a star appear on your save file, but that cosmetic signifier is the only indication of your accomplishment. The end is a dead end: If you want to keep playing (and you probably will), you have to pick up from before the final quest is complete, which suggests that completion was never really the point. In both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, beating the boss can be the end, but it can also be one more memory made on an ongoing, gigantic journey.
There’s a learning curve to Link’s new abilities in Tears of the Kingdom. Although Ultrahand, Fuse, and Ascend eventually became so second nature that I caught myself wanting to use them in real life, my brain had to rewire itself as I learned to think along with (and, at times, ahead of) Nintendo’s designers while solving puzzles and navigating the newfound verticality of Link’s surroundings. And yes, the number of items in the inventory, and the number of ways they can be cooked and combined, could be daunting, too. At no time, though, did I find the game’s world overwhelming. Its hugeness was hugely exciting, partly because I knew that though I would never see all of it, Tears would never make me feel bad about being a dilettante who had only 90 hours to give to the game.
Despite importing much of its map and mechanical underpinnings from Breath of the Wild, one of the most celebrated titles of all time, Tears has established a legacy of its own. A few legacies, really: First, there’s the fact that it’s so stable and functional despite its size and complexity, which have awed rival developers. Second, there’s the level of interaction it enables: If Breath of the Wild was the game that let players go anywhere, Tears is the game that lets them go anywhere and do anything. (Well, a lot of things.) Third, there’s the way it makes the most of, and works around, the Switch’s more-than-six-year-old hardware: The frame rate and resolution may be modest compared to the latest and greatest releases on more powerful platforms, but technical constraints sometimes spur creativity, and what Tears lacks in bells and whistles, it more than makes up for in art design and interactive innovation. All of these qualities are, to some extent, attributable to Nintendo’s resources, institutional knowledge, and commitment to polish and quality control.
What I may treasure most about Tears of the Kingdom, though, and what bodes well for future Zelda games in a similar mold, is the way it provides what players typically want from sequels—generally, more—without falling prey to open-world overload. In a year when a wave of delayed Triple-A releases has crested (with more massive titles to come), Tears will wind up as one of the biggest. But despite a boundless scope that belies its compact file size, Tears never seems to be bragging about how big it is or trying to pad its playtime to justify its $70 price tag. (No one likes a price hike, however long in the works, but few entertainment products deliver more value per dollar than this one.) It’s a single-player game whose breadth, depth, and replayability would be the envy of a lot of live-service games, yet its expansive sandbox still seems bespoke and inviting. It’s a low-pressure playground that’s there for you as long as you find it fun. Beat it or don’t; try to finish or accept that it can’t be completed. Tears of the Kingdom will welcome you either way.