Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Review

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity walks a fine line. On the one hand, it’s being marketed to be a prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the Nintendo Switch’s blockbuster launch game that remains a top-selling title. On the other hand, it’s a hack-and-slash Dynasty Warriors spin-off, making it part of a series that’s generally considered hard to approach for casual audiences. Age of Calamity balances this out, making it a stellar entry-level Dynasty Warriors game for Zelda fans in particular, but its niche may not work for everyone.

It’s hard to talk about this game without comparing it to its predecessor. Breath of the Wild garnered immediate critical and fan praise for reinventing Nintendo’s fantasy-adventure franchise. However, a more under-sung strength of the game is the way it mixes elements of the conventional series with a new aesthetic. One really appreciates how iconic Hyrule has become in such a short time with the distinctly nostalgic feeling of seeing it in the new context that Age of Calamity provides.

The premise behind Age of Calamity tells the backstory of the Great Calamity 100 years before Breath of the Wild which was previously teased through disconnected flashbacks. Advertisements to this effect are clearly shocking, as Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is the best-selling Warriors game.

December 2020 nintendo switch review

To this end, each battlefield is a slice of the open world of Breath of the Wild. It makes it fun for fans to get to know the nooks and crannies they’ve come into contact with in other genres, and one of the best things about Age of Calamity is that it maintains a very Zelda feel of exploration through hiding chests, Korok seeds, and more in every map. The feeling of being in a living world is maintained through the level of detail, and there are enough changes to sell the return to the past. For example, structures were built around the once desolate, dark teaching grounds of the Great Plateau.

However, it’s not entirely accurate to call the game a prequel. Anyone who played the Age of Calamity demo, which contained its first levels, knows that the story revolves around a traveling Guardian who shows prominent people to their inevitable fate. Time is a common Zelda motif, but this idea makes sense, especially with a villainous force that aims to preserve Hyrule’s fate (like a blander take on this year’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake). The results are confusing, and make it hard to recommend the game for those unfamiliar with Breath of the Wild.

However, while this established conceit makes the middle stretch of Age of Calamity difficult, its third act is enjoyable for those who have played Breath of the Wild, and should not be spoiled. Legwork helps a lot with character development for the four Champions of Hyrule and characters like Impa. While much of this was previously relegated to flashbacks, now much of the script and entire cutscenes focus on the budding relationships of these allies, creating a strong presence for new fans and retroactively which enhances the emotional impact of Breath of the Wild.

December 2020 nintendo switch review

Character moments and world building are where Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity knocks it out of the park, especially in how it interacts with its gameplay loop. Those who haven’t played Warriors-style hack-and-slash might see it as button mashing, but it’s more like a delicate dance.

The cast of playable characters is powerful to an extreme degree, able to cut through hundreds of monsters with fancy attacks activated via two button combinations. The care taken to vary them with conventions from Breath of the Wild is impressive. For example, Zora Champion Mipha’s special attack, a mechanic that charges while characters take damage, can heal her teammates. He also creates water spouts to climb like Breath of the Wild’s waterfalls so he can access air moves.

Also building on this variation in characterization are the Sheikah Slate runes (Magnesis, Remote Bombs, Stasis, and Cryonis). They can all be used, and they all add their own spin: Rito Champion Revali will drop multiple bombs like a stealth plane, while Gerudo Champion Urbosa jumps from a grounded firecracker. Few characters don’t have redeeming qualities, and it’s clear that each playstyle can be someone’s favorite.

Boss monsters, from Moblins to giant Hinox, have large health pools that are primarily dealt with by special attacks or weak strikes. A meter will appear when the boss performs a grueling combo or when the player dodges with perfect timing, counters with a rune, or applies status effects (especially effective against the new elemental bosses). If this meter depletes, a weak strike serves as a free special attack, and its repeated damage system encourages a rhythmic transition between offense and defense.

December 2020 nintendo switch review

The Divine Beasts piloted by each Champion offer the only gameplay break from this formula, but it’s hard to call some missions more than a distraction. That said, it’s fun to mow down thousands with gigantic machines that offer unique mechanics, such as Vah Naboris’ twin-stick shooter layout or Vah Ruta’s lock-on missile strikes.

More typical battlefields, hectic and punctuated by pulse-pounding music, are a far cry from the quiet exploration of Breath of the Wild. However, Age of Calamity blazing its own trail creates a sense of community for a world all but abandoned by its predecessor. Players choose one to four characters in each battle, dictate where they go like a military commander, and switch controls at will.

Beyond the main story missions, there are hundreds of battles and collectible-based objectives unlocked throughout the cleverly repurposed map of Hyrule. All include flavor text telling hundreds of vignettes, especially dealing with civilian problems: Tasks like lending Rupees to a Gerudo girl for her lipstick boutique or copying Mipha’s training for the Zora kids .

Like Breath of the Wild, dozens of monster parts, fungi, fruits, raw ores and more can be gathered in each area, and using these items to complete tasks brings hope to people. Each one also unlocks new things for the player, be it recipes for battle bonuses, shops to buy items, sensors for finding specific items, or buff characters.

December 2020 nintendo switch review

Completing the game’s objectives sometimes grants a purely cosmetic outfit for Link (without the Breath of the Wild bonuses), but players will want to help people for their stories and to earn more health and combos for each fighter. The player gradually unlocks facilities such as the blacksmith which adds a deep, RNG-based weapon customization system to further specialize characters. The game rewards those who put in the time with dividends, becoming more engaging as it goes on.

The main campaign can run upwards of 45 hours if players do every side objective when it’s unlocked – and even then they’ll probably only reach about 75 percent completion. Combat is ultimately the same song and dance over and over again, but the steadily increasing complexity makes it easier for players to master all its facets, leading to hours melting away as the each action contributes to incremental goals.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is worth the investment for this gameplay loop, more so than other Koei Tecmo and Nintendo crossovers like Fire Emblem Warriors. It is satisfying both mechanically and for the world building that enriches its universe. The narrative may not appeal to everyone despite its wonderful moments, but getting to know Hyrule and its defenders is very doable. After that, Breath of the Wild 2 won’t make it.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is now available on Nintendo Switch.

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