The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom scares me. It’s not because players are using Link’s powers to torture poor Koroks or build war machines to raze enemy settlements to the ground. It’s because the entire land of Hyrule has experienced an earth-shattering event called the Upheaval, and the once-pastoral land now oozes a viscous goop that looks like a fiery blood-and-poison cocktail. In this Hyrule, not even the trees are safe, as they can uproot themselves and murder Link. Tears of the Kingdom isn’t just a sweeping fantasy adventure; it’s also a horror game.
In Tears of the Kingdom, Zelda is gone and the vibes are off. It’s not just that Link can’t find her. It’s that she keeps appearing in random places throughout Hyrule and then shooting off into the ether — but also, she’s not herself, instead acting like a doll or some sort of possessed corpse. Once the blood moon rises — a routine event in both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom wherein the monsters that Link has killed get revived — players will be treated to one of the creepiest cutscenes in Zelda history. In Breath of the Wild, Zelda meekly calls out to Link and tells him to be on his guard. In the new one, Patricia Summersett performs a very creepy version of Zelda’s voice narrating the revival of the monsters. All Link can do is observe the blood-red-stained sky helplessly as the ritual passes and evil springs forth.
Again, the larger land has undergone an event known as the Upheaval, and it’s now covered with red-and-black goop that the characters call “gloom.” As Link descends down from the Sky Islands, he’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the gaping holes in the surface of the land, each one lined with a ring of the substance. If you dare to venture into one of these holes — and it took me a while to work up the guts — you’ll explore a horrifying underworld called the Depths.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
From the moment I passed from the Surface into the Depths, a sense of unease undermined my every move. I jumped down into pitch-darkness. I didn’t know how far away the ground was, or what was around me when I landed. I fluttered my glider by taking it in and out because I couldn’t be too sure of where anything began or ended. I did reach the ground safely, but even solid ground didn’t bring me all that much security. It’s still pitch-black. Link must light up the area with one orb of light at a time, using items like brightbloom seeds. Their light only extends so far, though, and the threat of unseen enemies always lurks just a stone’s throw away.
The enemies in the Depths are even more unusual than their counterparts on the Surface; they glow with a red demonic aura. If you spend too much time touching gloom (or if you get hit by Gloom Hands), Link’s max health will be temporarily lowered. If you lose two hearts, for example, those hearts are gone — and you have to take specific steps, like cooking a special meal or returning to the surface, to get them back. Link is alone in the dark, and if he’s not careful enough, he can come away from a fight severely weakened. It’s a thrilling but dire experience.
Even routine activities in Tears of the Kingdom can take on a tinge of creepiness. Random trees called Evermeans will animate themselves, violently chase down Link, and attack him. Or Link might be running around a mountain only to find a pack of vicious and shrieking Gloom Hands enveloping everything in their wake as they claw toward him. They’re strong, but the panic they induce is their most debilitating power — enough to scramble a seasoned Zelda player’s senses, as they come in fast and hot.
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon
And while it all feels very scary and overwhelming at the moment, the spookiness of Tears of the Kingdom runs true to form for the Zelda franchise as a whole. Take the Gloom Hands, for example. Creepy hands that maybe need to learn what a sink is have been a feature of Zelda games for decades. Some examples include the purple patrolling Floormasters from Wind Waker, the creepy dangling infinite hands from Ocarina of Time, or Zant’s hands in Twilight Princess. Even the cartoony Wind Waker pitted its Link against shrieking corpses that latched onto him and ate him.
All this to say, the gloom all over Hyrule feels very true to the spirit of Zelda, and I for one am glad (even if I’m also a little bit scared) that Tears of the Kingdom is leaning into horror once again after Breath of the Wild.