Like most people, I have been playing The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom non-stop since it came out! The game is a total blast, building off what made it’s predecessor, Breath of the Wild, so great by giving players even more freedom and a bigger map to explore and enjoy. It’s honestly amazing to me that they managed to make Tears of the Kingdom this good after Breath of the Wild was already so good to begin with! However, if there was one thing Breath of the Wild was criticized about it was the game’s Dungeons. A lot of people didn’t feel like they lived up to the Dungeons of past games in the series. So with all the improvements it made to Breath of the Wild, does Tears of the Kingdom have bad Dungeons…?
Before we answer that question, let’s back up a little and talk about the Zelda series and it’s Dungeons. First, I should clarify what I mean by Dungeons. While Dungeons in Zelda games can be literal dungeons, that’s not exactly what I mean. When I say ‘Dungeons’ I’m referring to what are basically levels. They are areas of Zelda games with a start and end point, with that end point normally being a boss and completing each Dungeon is generally required to finish the game. So that means that Dungeons can be temples or castles or anything like that! They aren’t limited to literal dungeons. So just keep that in mind when I refer to Dungeons from now on!
As I was saying before, Dungeons are a staple of every Zelda game, all the way back in the original NES game to Tears of the Kingdom now. Each Zelda game has them in one way or another, and they are generally big highlights of each game! So it really was upsetting when Breath of the Wild, an amazing game that really showed what open world games could be while also being a much needed turn for Zelda games as a whole, didn’t have the best Dungeons around. There were really only five in the whole game, one for each of the Divine Beasts and for Hyrule Castle, which is pretty lacking compared to other Zelda games. And on top of that, they really didn’t grip many players like past Dungeons, myself included. And it wasn’t until playing Tears of the Kingdom and trying out it’s Dungeons that I realized why they weren’t gripping me. There is too much freedom in them.
Now that might sound a bit odd, mainly since Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are all about giving much more freedom to players. Which I think is a great thing and was honestly needed given past Zelda games. You see, Zelda games have always been rather linear. Even the NES original which gave you quite a bit of freedom still nudged you in the right direction for the Dungeons. After all, each Dungeon had a number showing you which order you should be doing them in! And while there is nothing wrong with them being linear, it was very clear that Zelda needed to change. Mainly because Zelda games kind of fell into a formula after awhile. From the start of your adventure in each game you are pointed in the direction of a Dungeon. And after finishing that Dungeon you are often times pointed to another Dungeon or a place that would point you in the right direction. You are always welcome to explore around in the world however you wanted, but if you tried to get to a place that was a little too far ahead in the game, you’d often find a roadblock of some kind that could only be moved by an item you’d get from a Dungeon. So while you weren’t technically going down a straight line and could deviate a little here and there, getting an extra heart piece or bottle, you could never get too far off that line. This also extended to how you dealt with each Dungeon as well. How Dungeons tended to go was like this, you’d enter into the place, explore around finding the map and compass but there would always be parts of the Dungeon you couldn’t access. That is until you find a particular item, which could be a bow, hookshot, bomb, or boomerang, that then lets you explore the rest of the Dungeon and would often be needed to beat the boss of the place! And while that might sound bored and limiting on paper, it really wasn’t that bad.
Each Dungeon was built like this where the developers knew exactly what you’d be working with inside of the place, they could structure the Dungeon and it’s puzzles around that. Each puzzle has one solution but it’s a well thought out solution at least. And given just how many Zelda games worked like this, it’s hard to argue that it was a boring and bad way to do Dungeons. While it certainly made them all feel kind of familiar, it was a good familiar. Regardless of how linear each Dungeon was, it always felt good to solve the puzzles and beat the boss! There’s no denying that. But if that’s the case, you’re probably wondering why exactly did Nintendo feel the need to change things up so dramatically for Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom? Well it wasn’t because the Dungeons were too linear, it was because the worlds outside the Dungeons were becoming too linear.
After lots of great, successful and well received Zelda games came out, Nintendo released one that was a bit polarizing. That game being The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Now while Skyward Sword sold well and reviewed well, fans of the series weren’t all too happy with it. And that was mainly because of how linear the game felt as a whole. Well that and the forced motion controls that didn’t work for some people, but Nintendo only took the complaints about the game being linear to heart. As I was saying before, Zelda games have always been somewhat linear, but the more modern Zelda games at the time were much more linear compared to the old NES original and Link to the Past on SNES. While the Dungeons of each game had always been linear, the world around them always had some semblance of freedom. That is until Skyward Sword. That game really dialed in the linear feeling with the world of the game itself. No longer did it feel like you could explore until being blocked off from an area because you need a specific item to get there, now it just felt like the world itself were levels leading to each of the game’s Dungeons. And while you could honestly argue that’s how it always was with the recent Zelda games, it was just more obvious now and people did not like it. Luckily, Nintendo decided to actually address those complaints with the next game in the series, A Link Between Worlds!
Being a game for the 3DS, A Link Between Worlds was a much smaller game compared to Skyward Sword and I imagine that’s what gave the developers the feeling they could experiment with the Zelda formula this time around instead of playing it safe. For A Link Between Worlds, you no longer got those items you always found in Dungeons like bows, bombs, and hookshots. Instead, you would buy these items from a store, or rather you’d rent them and lose them on death! Meaning that you could have every critical item in the game right from the start or have none at all throughout most of it. Now while you did need some of those items to progress, most of them really weren’t needed. Not only did this really change the world as you could do lots of exploring right from the start, it also affected how Dungeons work. Dungeons were no longer built around one specific item. While a specific item would help a lot in certain Dungeons, such as the Ice Rod for Turtle Rock, you could still progress through a lot of the Dungeon without it, and you could certainly beat the boss without it too! This meant that Dungeons were much more free and far less restrictive. Though not too freeing just yet, there were still very much right ways to solve the puzzles. However, this approach and the very positive response from fans is what led the developers to try and be more open and change the Zelda formula that much more for the next big Zelda game! And as you probably guessed, that game was Breath of the Wild!
With Breath of the Wild, it’s clear that the developers really ran with the idea of freedom from A Link Between Worlds! After all, if you really want to, you can run straight over to Ganon after finishing the tutorial. And not only that, the key items of the past Zelda games weren’t even key items this time around! Instead, you had a few key abilities. Those being the ability to pick up metal objects, stopping time, freezing water, and making a bomb. These would be the only things you truly needed to get through the game. Everything else was just extra! As you can imagine, this made Breath of the Wild the most open and free Zelda game by far! It was up to the player now to pick how much or how little of the game they wanted to play. It also meant that just about every puzzle in the game could be solved in multiple ways. All of this is pretty great! But it did affect one aspect of the game in a way I don’t think most people were expecting.
As I mentioned at the very start of this post, Breath of the Wild‘s Dungeons were consider something of a low point for the game. They didn’t feel as tight or rewarding as past Dungeons in the series, and why that is should be obvious at this point. Breath of the Wild‘s Dungeons were a bit too free. When you build a game around multiple solutions to every problem, it means that actually working through specifically designed puzzles doesn’t really feel as good. It can kind of give you the feeling of, “Did I really do that right?” which in most cases can be a fun feeling if you managed to beat a puzzle in a way that it wasn’t designed for but you do lose that “Ah ha!” moment of getting a puzzle just right. People want to feel like they are completing and progressing through the Dungeons just like they did in the older games when the Dungeons were designed around one gimmick or item. Now you can’t really get that feeling. Breath of the Wild, and by extension Tears of the Kingdom, gives you a bit too much freedom. But the real question is, is that really a bad thing? …Not really, no.
Now I’m not going to lie, when I first thought about this topic my original answer was ‘yes’, but as I thought about it more and looked back at the Dungeons of the series, I changed my mind. Rather than saying the Dungeons of Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom are bad I’d say they are just different. Like I’ve been saying, these games really changed the Zelda formula and by that extent the Dungeons had to change too. Not only in how they are structured but also in the role they play in the game design.
To me, Dungeons have always been the meat of Zelda games. They are what you look forward to and what you’re playing for. Sure it’s always fun to explore and find little secrets here and there, but the Dungeons were always where the most fun was. However, that all changed with Breath of the Wild.
The freedom given to plays was turned up to the max with Breath of the Wild compared to A Link Between Worlds. It really felt like you could go anywhere and do anything. And that’s because you really could! You were given everything you needed right at the start of the game, the world was yours to explore. And because of that, exploring became the main attraction, it’s what you play Breath of the Wild and now Tears of the Kingdom for. As such, it might feel like the Dungeons are less satisfying but in reality I think it’s just that everything else is far more satisfying! And like I was saying before, because the player has all of their core abilities right from the start of the game you can’t build Dungeons around one or two items. Granted, they could structure the Dungeons around one of each of your abilities but that would really fly in the face of the free design the rest of the game follows. It would feel really out of place and probably turn people away from doing the Dungeons at all since they are optional now.
To try and wrap things up, I feel like Tears of the Kingdom and Breath of the Wild‘s Dungeons fit those games perfectly and are designed to be that way. Are they very different in both design and feel from past games? For sure! But you can say the same thing for Tears of the Kingdom and Breath of the Wild themselves compared to the rest of the series too. And I will say, they are improved much more in Tears of the Kingdom over Breath of the Wild! Despite everything still having tons of solutions on how to get through them, they have a bit more structure this time around especially since they are based on the Sage of the area you’re in and their ability. But they are still different compared to the rest of the series and I like that. It gives these games that much more of their own identity!
So in the end, Tears of the Kingdom doesn’t have bad dungeons, it just has Dungeons that fit it’s style of game. And that’s exactly how it should be!
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Have you played Tears of the Kingdom yet? If you have, what do you think of the Dungeons? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!
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