Tears of the Kingdom’s Best New Mechanic Could Change the Series Forever
Link and company.
Tears of the Kingdom brings some huge innovations to the Zelda formula, letting players construct wild creations like hulking mechs and rocket ships. The construction elements are, obviously, what has drawn the most attention, but it’s actually a different mechanic that could have the longest-lasting effect on the franchise at large. Link’s Sage companions in Tears of the Kingdom integrally change the way you play Zelda, functioning like an emergent difficulty setting while also teasing the possibilities of what a party-based Zelda experience could be.
Over the years Link has had a number of companions, from Midna to the King of Red Lions, but the core of each game has still been a solitary experience. Despite their presence, companions are still mostly hands-off, leaving the bulk of combat and puzzle-solving to Link himself. That feeling of Link being the “lone hero” has been integral to most of the Zelda franchise, titles like Four Swords Adventure notwithstanding.
Tears of the Kingdom brings a fascinating spin on that, as a huge part of the experience is the five Sages that inherit the power of their ancestors. As you complete each of the Temples throughout the story, you unlock items called “Vows” that let you summon the spirit of that specific Sage.
Unlike other companions, these Sage spirits accompany Link at all times, except in towns. The Sages actively help Link in combat, and each one has a special ability that can be activated by interacting with them. The entire Sage mechanic was something Nintendo kept completely hidden up until launch, and it’s honestly amazing how much the whole system makes it feel like you have a party.
Combat encounters suddenly aren’t just about your own abilities, but learning how to take advantage of each Sage ability as well. Once you’ve collected all five Vows and have five people helping in battles, the entire dynamic of combat completely changes.
In many ways, the Sage system feels like it could be an early test for a party-based system, one that could give you even more control over members. The Sage’s abilities have interesting effects, like Sidon granting Link a watery shield or Mineru giving you an entire mech you can customize and pilot. It’s easy to imagine a situation where these members have even larger movesets that feel more dynamic, like one party member totally focusing on ranged combat, another assuming the role of a tank soaking up the damage, with a third giving buffs and shields. This could also be a good way to finally introduce a playable Zelda to the mainline series.
The other interesting piece to all this is how the Sages function as a dynamic difficulty slider for combat. If you want things to be as tough as possible, you can completely turn off all the Sages and solely rely on Link’s abilities. You can turn that difficulty down just a bit by adding in just one or two Sages, or you can enable everyone to give you even more of a fighting chance. Most players will likely just turn the Sages on and leave them on, which Tears of the Kingdom accounts for by slowly ramping up the strength and HP of higher-tier enemies. It’s legitimately a brilliant way of handling difficulty that also provides one of the most unique spins we’ve seen on Zelda’s core gameplay.
The building mechanics in Tears of the Kingdom are admittedly very innovative, but it’s hard to see a way Nintendo could really iterate on it, and it’s possible the next game shifts in another direction entirely. On the other hand, it’s easy to see the Sage system as the foundation of something bigger, a mechanic that Nintendo can iterate and improve in not just the next game, but the next few games. Zelda has gone through leaps and bounds of change on the Nintendo Switch, and there’s every indication the series will continue to do so moving forward.