Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom Thunderhead Isles
Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Jim sings the praises of one of Tears of the Kingdom's later-game areas...

I will preface all of this with a thank you to every Zelda fan on social media. As I worked my way through The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's 'Regional Phenomena' quest, I had no idea where the game might take me next, nor that what would come would introduce me to one of my favourite new areas in this all-too-familiar Hyrule. This would have been an easy thing to spoil online, especially in the game's early weeks, so thank you, fellow Hylian explorers, for keeping it under your (Minish) caps.

With that in mind, let me stress the following: if you have not been told to visit the Thunderhead Isles, started the 'Secret of the Ring Ruins' quest, or battled your way through a heavy storm to find out what's inside that perilous-looking cloud that swirls over the Faron region, do not read on. The content of this questline is a real treat to experience first-hand, so take it on for yourself before reading the following article because, yes, there are spoilers ahead.

Now that is out of the way, I'll say it: the Thunderhead Isles are awesome. This late-game area — like most things in Tears of the Kingdom — is technically accessible from the second you touch down in Hyrule and get your Paraglider. But, if you play like me, then the intimidating swirl of clouds was enough to make you think "That looks cool, I bet I'm going to be told to head into it later on". I didn't want to spoil the surprise for myself and I am glad that I made this call.

Yes, the Isles are cool in and of themselves because of how they show just how much of the game you still have to go after the 'Regional Phenomena' quest — as confirmed by 'dehydrated' Phantom Ganondorf in Hyrule Castle — but they were cooler for me because they served as something of a victory lap to the game's main questline. This is continued into the ensuing Construct Factory and Spirit Temple, yes, but it's on the Thunderhead Isles that I really felt like the game was saying "Let's see what you have learned since the Great Sky Island, then".

I had a great time putting these skills to the test, and I don't reference the game's opening area by mere coincidence. Thunderhead Isles plays similarly to Link's Rauru-led tutorial, but with the difficulty dialled up a couple of notches. The Constructs are much stronger (assuming you have put in a good ~40 hours of playtime by this point), the puzzles to get from one island to the next don't hold your hand nearly as much as before, and all hopes of climbing any walls to bypass the Isle's challenges are made futile by a painfully inconvenient but beautifully atmospheric thunderstorm. Seems fitting, given the name, really.

The puzzles still have similar solutions to the Great Sky Island but there's an extra element of challenge brought on by the environment which serves to create a series of throwbacks to everything that you have had to work out up until this point. One section presents you with two identical railings, one of which has a ready-made 'cart' on it for you to use but the metal materials that it's made from mean that Link will be struck by lightning if he stands on it. So, what do you do? You copy the design with some nearby planks of wood and glide on by, unscathed. Sure, there's probably some way that you could Ascend through a nearby roof and render the puzzle irrelevant, but I wasn't about to walk past some glorious game design like that for the purposes of smugness now, was I?

The throwbacks are not limited only to earlier Tears of the Kingdom moments either. All of the switch flipping and wall breaking felt like a more traditional Zelda dungeon, where the solution was clear, but how to achieve it was a challenge. Sure, modern-era dungeons have a certain charm, but working out how to trigger a switch so that Link can use a nearby moving platform (or giant catapult-like device in this case) is a sure-fire way to hit this Zelda fan right in the feels.

And so I trekked on across the thundery islands, building a bridge here, triggering a switch there, all the while painfully aware that if I took a tumble off the edge, there was no way that I was going to be able to climb back up in all that rain. No, I didn't have the Froggy Armour by this point and yes, I too judge myself for it.

The Thunderhead Isles are punishing like this, but... in a good way? Even though it was here that the game's size really began to take its toll on my little old Switch — using Ultrahand in amongst that weather system leads to some pretty significant frame drops — I still found myself enjoying each and every little puzzle. Using Ascend and Ultrahand were hardly the most revolutionary solutions at this point in the game, but the fact that the environment made me rely on them so much brought a new-found love for some of TOTK's most basic features.

But all of this would be no more than a cool journey from point A to B was it not for the final (if you have done it the right way round) dive down to Dragonhead Island. If the jump point on the Great Sky Island was a way of dropping you into the true beginning of your Hylian adventure, the one at the end of the Thunderhead Isles is lining you up for its final chapter. Landing in the water below to realise that the storm had finally stopped was bliss — and don't even get me started on regaining the ability to climb for more than two seconds without slipping down the wall.

Part of me was surprised to see that Dragonhead Island was not the final dungeon itself — it had certainly been a Wind Temple-esque journey getting to that point — but as I picked up Mineru's Mask and began the glide down to the Construct Factory, my respect for the area that I had just explored grew even greater. It wasn't some dungeon, it was just a path; did it need to go that hard? No way, but I loved it all the same.

By calling back to everything that the game had taught me earlier on and dialling up the difficulty enough for me to think that I was doing something intelligent (I really wasn't), the Thunderhead Isles became a victory lap for TOTK's first ~40 hours in my mind. There are certainly more memorable moments on offer in this Hyrule, but few of them had me quite as nostalgic as one.

When did you first take on the Thunderhead Isles? Let us know in the following poll:

When did you first visit TOTK's Thunderhead Isles?

Did you enjoy the islands as much as Jim? Zap your thoughts in the comments below.