A sequel is a dangerous thing. How do you give fans more of what they loved, improve on what came before, and avoid compromising what made it great? It’s a tightrope walk that Nintendo has excelled at since 1988’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link—the follow-up to The Legend of Zelda—and the first entry of a franchise that would later include one of the highest-selling video games of all time. You might’ve heard of it: 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Esquire, along with just about every gamer on Earth, named Breath of the Wild the best Nintendo Switch title ever made. The open-world adventure, which follows a young hero tasked with saving a princess from a tyrannical warlock (classic!) was so jam-packed with places to explore and mechanics to abuse that longtime players are still discovering new quirks. So how could such a well-loved, near-perfect video game surprise audiences with its sequel—which is easily one of the most anticipated titles of the past decade?
Well, gamers, that’s what I’m here to find out. Earlier this month, Nintendo invited Esquire to try Tears of the Kingdom for about two hours. First, I must state that playing a video game in front of about a couple dozen Nintendo employees was a little daunting. But I’m a brave boy—just like our protagonist, Link—and I would’ve charged headfirst into a bokoblin horde with the game’s least-durable wooden stick just to get my hands on Tears of the Kingdom. Because if Breath of the Wild made your personal “Best Video Games of All Time” list—get ready for Tears of the Kingdom. The game developers over at Nintendo spent six years working through this one for a reason—and the sequel’s new-and-improved mechanics fix any qualms you had with the original.
Once I got around to awkwardly relearning the controls under the watchful eyes of my Nintendo handlers, I stuck a mushroom onto my shield—a fresh feature that Nintendo teased in the title’s first gameplay trailer—and went to town. A big part of Tears of the Kingdom seems to be the ability to fuse things together, whether that be weapons or vehicles (see: boats), opening the game’s realm of possibilities even wider. But some experiments are barred. Regretfully, a fish-sword was not allowed. Still, you can weld just about any object to your sword or shield for an added effect in battle. For example, attaching a keese eyeball to an arrow turns it into a homing device, which will greatly help players who don’t want The Legend of Zelda to be all about aiming correctly. Same goes for combining special machine parts strewn around the map to construct boats, planes, carts, and just about any method of transportation you can dream up. The hot air balloon—a personal favorite of mine—made traversing the sky quite easy.
And you’re going to be in the sky quite a lot. Exactly how big is Tears of the Kingdom‘s open-world playground? Imagine another map on top of Breath of the Wild‘s terrain. Tears of the Kingdom introduces groups of sky islands called Archipelagos—and traversing them is a blast. From my short demo, at least, reaching one sky island from another can be a whole puzzle itself. The transition from ground to sky (and sky to ground) is seamless, by the way. For those thinking that they’ll spend the entire game falling from the sky, Nintendo was smart enough to think up something for that as well. There’s a new ability that reverses time. I’ve been sworn to secrecy on a few other incredible new inventions, lest the evil Ganondorf wipe me from Hyrule. But what I can say is that if you’re asking yourself if something is possible in this game, there’s a high chance that it is. Just like Breath of the Wild. Look no further than the handheld rockets I attached to just about anything—from mine carts to my shield—to traverse Tears of the Kingdom‘s map like a madman.
At this point, you may be thinking: Hold on a second. So, there’s more to explore in Tears of the Kingdom than Breath of the Wild, more ways to traverse the world, and more options for fighting and puzzle solving? Yup. If the full game is anything like my early playthrough, Tears of the Kingdom will compete with its predecessor in many a best-of-all-time list. Tears of the Kingdom is like a version of Elden Ring that’s actually nice to me—and I can’t wait to get my hands on it for real. The long-awaited sequel arrives on Nintendo Switch on May 12, 2023.
Josh Rosenberg is an Assistant Editor at Esquire, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day. His past work can be found at Spin, CBR, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.