Playing Tears of the Kingdom is rewiring my brain
Anyone who has managed to clock in hundreds of hours on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild since its 2017 release will understand well how, over time, you can't help but develop a constellation of habits and preferences that end up defining your individual playstyle. In the same way that there was no one "right" way to progress through Breath of the Wild's story, the game gave you the freedom to figure out how you wanted to move through the world, and those two things alone made it unlike any other Zelda title in the franchise.
The same can be said of Tears of the Kingdom for a variety of reasons, ranging from how much bigger the game's Hyrule is to all the new weapons and vehicles Link has at his disposal. But after years of ripping and running through Breath of the Wild, one of the most fascinating things I've experienced playing Tears of the Kingdom is having the distinct feeling that the game's developers know exactly how I've been playing in the past -- and they want me to change my ways.
As comfortable as I eventually grew with Breath of the Wild on the Switch, those early days of playing it for the first time on the Wii U and being taken aback by how vulnerable its vast, open world made me feel informed a lot about how I dove into the game. Breath of the Wild's Hyrule is a beautiful, magical place but also a very dangerous one for Link when he first wakes up from his century-long slumber armor-free and armed only with the Sheikah Slate.
Playing now, it can be fun to take down groups of Bokoblins and Moblins using flimsy tree branches made deadly by the experience that comes with spending countless hours learning how to dodge and parry with just the right timing. When I was first starting to play, though, everything about Breath of the Wild, from its controls to the way running felt, was so new and unfamiliar that I often found myself reflexively pressing the plus button to give myself a chance to get my bearings -- especially during fights with monsters.
Like Tears of the Kingdom, Breath of the Wild made it possible for you to equip new swords, shields, bows, and arrows using only a combination of the left and right directional and ZR buttons. I really didn't have to open up the full inventory menu every time one of my boomerangs broke or the Master Sword ran out of energy. But in the heat of battle, that's what I liked to do because it always felt like the best way to make the best choice about which weapon to draw next -- and because trying to switch items on the fly with the directional buttons tended to end with me making silly mistakes shortly before being killed.
Breath of the Wild didn't always encourage me to use all the directional buttons, so I didn't
Even long after I'd started playing in Pro mode and got used to wearing armor strong enough to keep me from immediately crumpling whenever a monster landed a solid hit, I often forgot what the left and right directional buttons could do because pulling up the inventory mid-fight had become such a deeply ingrained habit. Aside from the upward directional, which pulls up the Sheikah Slate's carousel of runes, Breath of the Wild didn't exactly encourage me to use those other buttons, so I didn't, and at first, I assumed that playing Tears of the Kingdom would be a relatively similar experience.
But the key to getting the hang of Tears of the Kingdom, which feels strangely fiddly when you first pick it up, is building a new set of muscle memories for the Switch's buttons that activate all of Link's new powers like Fuse. What's been interesting for me is feeling in real time how Tears of the Kingdom's emphasis on quickly pulling up small menus has slowly but surely been changing how I interact with a world I felt I already knew pretty well.
It isn't just that Tears of the Kingdom basically requires you to frequently pull up the Purah Pad's new, improved carousel of powers because they're vital tools for tackling Hyrule's obstacles. It's also the fact that the game's fusing mechanic gives you an immediate and delightful sense of achievement whenever you use it -- all while encouraging you to use your weapons, eventually having them break, and then starting the whole process again. Though Fuse isn't quite the innovation that Breath of the Wild's durability haters were hoping for, it does provide a way for you to make your most treasured Tears of the Kingdom weapons last longer, which ultimately led to me feeling far less precious about them.
So much of Tears of the Kingdom's appeal lies in the way Link's new powers turn Hyrule into a kind of DIY toy store where combining random objects results in the creation of a wide variety of playful, silly, and sometimes very cool weapons rated E10-plus for fantasy violence. It's still fun whenever you come across a particularly powerful or nifty-looking proper sword while you're digging through ruins. But it's often just as, if not more so, delightful when you take a chance at fusing two random things together only to find that the end result is as deadly as it is cleverly designed.
In my experience, that last bit is one of the bigger reasons that I don't find myself trying to hold onto powerful weapons as much as I did in Breath of the Wild -- because I can always make more. And because I can almost always just make more of something in the middle of battle so long as I have one unfused item and there are useful monster parts of the ground, I don't really find myself pressing the plus button on my Joy-Cons anywhere near as frequently as I did with Breath of the Wild.
Initially, it wasn't all that clear to me just how significantly Tears of the Kingdom's new mechanics were influencing my behavior in the game. But right around when I cleared my first dungeon, it dawned on me that I wasn't using the inventory to pause and overthink my way through fights all that much because Tears of the Kingdom was doing an excellent job of pulling me outside of my head and into the action unfolding in the moment.
That said, I've also found myself dying way, way more than I remember doing while first learning Breath of the Wild -- not just at the hands of monsters but by way of all sorts of accidental, self-inflicted injuries. Even that doesn't quite rankle me the way it used to, though, because of how thoroughly and deftly Tears of the Kingdom's been pushing me to switch things up by easing out of my comfort zone.
When I really get to thinking about how Tears of the Kingdom has me forging weapons out of sticks and body parts mid-battle or compulsively cooking up food just because I have an embarrassment of portable stoves in my pocket, it sometimes feels like, bit by bit, the game's been rewiring my brain to better understand how to get the most out of it. And as wildly unsettled as I could feel about that, I also can't deny that it's making Tears of the Kingdom harder and harder to put down, which is exactly what I want out of a game that I plan to be playing the hell out of for the foreseeable future.