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Zelda Tears of the Kingdom, Reviewed: The Switch's Swan Song

Six years later, The Legend of Zelda -- and the Nintendo Switch -- have still got it. And this infinite-feeling new adventure may be the best the Switch ever gets.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
7 min read
Link is skydiving in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Yes, it's vast.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

I remember the feeling, back in March 2017. The Nintendo Switch was an amazing, new piece of gaming hardware, and its killer app was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Breath of the Wild is now recognized as maybe the best game of all time. Back then, it was also just a marvel that something so epic could fit in a handheld game system. It was jaw-dropping stuff.

Six years later, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom arrives without new hardware to advance its magic further… and there's no new Nintendo Switch in sight. That's OK. Settle back, dive in and let the magic unfold. This new Zelda game is like a new novel in the great fantasy series you've been waiting for. Twenty hours in, it feels insanely vast.

I wish I had played more hours, but I will. What I can tell you so far is that the world of Zelda this time makes Breath of the Wild feel almost tiny in comparison.

All the way up, all the way down

Tears of the Kingdom takes place after Breath of the Wild, and adds an entirely new overlay onto the massive Hyrule map with a series of floating Sky Islands that you have to figure out how to navigate (and get to). But that's not all. Tears of the Kingdom also goes all the way down, to a subterranean map of Lovecraftian depths where other weird things lurk. There are wells. There are caves. This is a spelunker's Zelda game.

Link in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, standing in the dark with plants around him

The Depths are full of darkness, strange life and who knows what else.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

I didn't expect all the underground surprises, and so far there are even more of those than sky islands. I'm sure it'll be a wild mix. But you'll find yourself navigating three maps (at least): the Hyrule world, the sky world and the underworld.

At first, the sense of scale and depths and heights made me almost feel terrified. I let loose and explored and got lost, and realized it would be fine. Nintendo's game design is brilliant in how it lets you mess around, yet also find a way back again.

A world of crafting and experiments

During my initial 90-minute playthrough demo several weeks ago, I was wowed by how many things you could build and tinker with. New abilities include the Ultrahand, which can stick things together with magical tech-powered machine pieces, and Fuse, which sticks items to your weapons to improve them. Along with cooking, it's a lot of things to play and craft with. There's an improvisational feeling everywhere.

Link on a fan-equipped mine cart in the game Zelda Tears of the Kingdom

Just riding my motorized mine cart around.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

I compared it to Minecraft, but it's not quite that open-ended. Still, there are so many ways to solve puzzles and reach destinations that your solutions will probably not be what mine were. Sharing ideas online will be inevitable. Expect weird viral videos galore.

Eventually, I gave up on crafting all the time and started diligently following the main story. Without spoilers, I'll say: Something evil lurks under Hyrule, and new mysteries are slowly revealed. The Zonai, an ancient race of technological tinkerers, weigh heavily on the story. But many familiar faces pop up everywhere. I've still never completely finished Breath of the Wild (I'm sorry!), but you can still enjoy Tears of the Kingdom even if you're me. That being said, those who played that game all the way through will get more out of the story wrinkles.

Initially, I thought the controls in Tears of the Kingdom felt weird during my first hour of play a few weeks ago. Forget that: I got used to crafting and manipulating objects in 3D. But I'd still say it's got a learning curve, and this game definitely leans on most of the Switch controls. I'd have preferred more analog object manipulation, but pop-up control reminders are always available.

I'm sure I missed out on a ton already, and piles of raw materials are sprinkled everywhere. What I like is that even these open creative pathways are optional. It's a sandbox that still has story structure.

All that crafting freedom reminds me of the way my kids already tinker in Minecraft, Roblox and elsewhere. It's natural to them. Also, it's in Nintendo's DNA. I think of Super Mario Maker. There's also something of Nintendo Labo in all of this: how I ingeniously make new things to try out. Labo did it with cardboard in the real world, but Tears of the Kingdom does it with pixels. Is this the dawn of the CraftRPG?

Link skydiving in the video game Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, with grass below and crop circles

Crop circles? Yes, sort of.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

Patience pays off

I tried to explain to my 14-year-old son, who's already beaten Elden Ring several times, that Zelda games are quiet, contemplative. It's not his style, entirely. I love getting lost and just being in new spaces, a feeling that Breath of the Wild pioneered with its ambient soundtracks and silent splendor. Tears of the Kingdom is almost too infused with new things to feel as epically sparse as Breath of the Wild did, but that quiet freedom remains. The first hours, spent in a ghostly, empty world amid old Construct robots, reminded me of the silent magic moments of games like Myst or Jonathan Blow's The Witness. The opening location I wandered in for hours felt big enough to be a full game on its own.

I felt myself accumulating experience and knowledge as I went. Now that I'm more comfortable, the world seems a bit smaller. Tears of the Kingdom feels like a game about mastering the possibilities, collapsing distances. I don't know. There's a lot more still for me to do. But expect some parallel collectible challenges here: Korok seeds and shrines. You can still find horses and ride them and bring them to stables, or also outfit the horses with carts you build. I won't say anything more. Still, the level of surprise this time around isn't always as great as it was with Breath of the Wild. The interface is familiar, the navigation is the same. OK, there are towers that catapult you into the sky this time, so you can scan new areas. Some things are different. Again, spoilers.

But I've tried to talk to people hunting down stories for a local newspaper, seen a man hanging signs for some political candidate, looked for weird wells, and found some odd pictograms painted on meadows.

A sunset in a video game, with Link looking out at a meadow

The views are amazing, but the map and territory have shifted.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

Familiar, but different

Zelda games have a tradition of zagging when you expect a zig: many follow-up games are vastly different even in concept than games directly before. Tears of the Kingdom is clearly built on Breath of the Wild's bones; this is as direct a Zelda sequel as maybe we've ever had. 

But a slightly less surprising game is not necessarily a bad thing. This is like Super Mario Galaxy 2 after Super Mario Galaxy, or Majora's Mask after Ocarina of Time. It's a second great game in one console generation, which doesn't always happen with Nintendo. And whatever you thought you knew about Hyrule last time can basically be turned upside down here, story and map-wise.

This time, a weird miasma is everywhere that can injure people. Hyrule castle is a wasteland. Parts of bizarre artifacts have fallen everywhere. And, Link has an infected hand that can also power his new abilities. A new type of post-apocalypse vibe is everywhere, something recent as opposed to the long-gone feeling of rebuild that Breath of the Wild had. The dangers are immediate. And of course, you're looking for Zelda again. It all feels like Zelda, or classic Hayao Miyazaki movies, or even at times my life during the pandemic.

Tears of the Kingdom is an amazing reminder of Nintendo's excellence in immersive design. Nintendo now has a real-life theme park in Super Nintendo World, but here is a tremendous, living, breathing, meticulously crafted world waiting to reveal its hidden stories and secrets. I feel like I've been granted an infinite ticket to Nintendo's Everlasting Gaming Gobstopper Part 2.

Link on a log boat on a pond in Zelda Tears of the Kingdom

So much detail deserves a bigger screen. Here's a boat I made.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

Which Switch to play on? OLED, if you can

Zelda looks fantastic, but its details and large amount of text really shine on the vivid OLED Switch's 7-inch screen, slightly larger than the original Switch's. That's what I played on. I played in handheld mode a lot, but a game like this is made to enjoy on a big screen, too.

Does the Switch show its age? Yes, quite a bit, but Tears of the Kingdom hides these weaknesses extremely well. It feels as fluid and well-optimized for the Switch as Breath of the Wild did. But, also, not really any more. You'll come to Tears of the Kingdom for the gameplay and the brilliant ideas, not for the massive graphics upgrade. That's standard Nintendo, by the way: Mario Kart 8, one of the Switch's biggest games, was a port of a Wii U game. Tears of the Kingdom feels like a new game built on Breath of the Wild's engine and interface, not a whole new graphical leap. 

That's absolutely fine by me, but I dream of a Switch with better analog triggers that thump with haptics when Link stretches his bow, like the PlayStation 5 controller can do. Or jumping and moving with better Joy-Con buttons and controls. 

A glowing rock with a green portal in it, in the video game Zelda Tears of the Kingdom

Strange shrines, a little different this time around.

Nintendo/Screenshot by CNET

Would I like to see Hyrule in even more detail, something that could maybe rival Elden Ring's graphics? Sure. A true Switch 2 would make a new Zelda game something amazing. Then again, many of Nintendo's Zelda games debuted right across generational leaps. Twilight Princess was released on the GameCube and the Wii. Breath of the Wild was also a Wii U game. Maybe Tears of the Kingdom wouldn't be that strikingly different on an upgraded Switch 2 after all.

Don't regret. Tears of the Kingdom shows how great Switch games can still look, how epic they can be. It runs better than some of the most recent Pokemon games. But I feel like this is the best the current Switch can get. We may be looking at the hardware's swan song, as an inevitable Switch 2 arrives sometime in the next couple of years. I mean, there's still Pikmin 4, but I'm ready for this to be the top of the Switch gaming mountain.

For the next hundred hours of my gaming life, I'll be living here in Hyrule. I'm sure you will too. I'd say I'll see you there, but this is a solo journey. Enjoy the ride, and maybe we'll share notes.