|Publisher||Koei Tecmo (Japan)/Nintendo (Internationally)|
|Genre||Hack and Slash, Action|
|Release Date||November 20, 2020|
2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a meditative masterpiece of open-world gaming. It took a subtle approach to world building and storytelling that let players live in the world and, well…breathe. So when it comes to a game that tells the backstory to that game, you’d expect something similar, right? Well, allow me to introduce you to Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, which is to Breath of the Wild what death metal is to Elvis Presley.
Violent Content: This game is all about laying waste to massive hordes of enemies. You’ll hack and slash your way through hundreds of troops, and it’s not just monsters this time around. You’ll be facing off against human troops, as well as other Hylian races. There’s no blood, but soldiers and monsters go flying before they eventually disappear, and while the game insists on calling them “KO’s,” I have a hard time believing that moniker.
Enemies make direct threats to the player, like “prepare to die” and “crush these pests.”
Spiritual Content: Calamity Ganon is the most demonic the series’ longtime villain has gotten, save for possibly the actual demon Demise. Ganon’s influence pours out in the form of a substance called Malice, possessing enemies, absorbing souls, and absorbing a human character at one point. A major plot point in the game revolves around a character seeking to awaken a divine power by visiting shrines and praying to the goddess Hylia. The main villain is described as a “seer” and is obsessed with fulfilling the prophecy of Ganon’s awakening.
Sexual Content: The Gerudo, this universe’s version of the Amazons, wear torso-revealing armor (essentially battle sports bras) and skirts with high slits in the sides (essentially wrap-arounds for the lower body.) The Great Fairies wear much the same outfit, though their lower body is never shown.
Positive Content: Many of the side missions in the game revolve around the royal family going out of their way to provide for the less fortunate in Hyrule. Various missions involve defending innocents and building lasting partnerships between the various races of Hyrule. The entire game places an enormous emphasis on strength through cooperation and strong friendships.
Rating: T for Teen
The Hyrule Warriors spin-off franchise has always been an oddball, mostly because it’s a spin-off of two franchises simultaneously: Dynasty Warriors and, of course, The Legend of Zelda. And while the Zelda series has always been focused more on adventure game tropes and puzzle-solving, the Dynasty Warrior games have been all about absolutely demolishing entire armies as one overpowered superhero. It’s the complete opposite of subtle and thoughtful, and that’s not a bad thing. But it was rather puzzling to see Omega Force try to bring the two together in 2014’s Hyrule Warriors. I never played it, but from what I’ve seen, the combo worked fairly well. But to try to bring that kind of gameplay to the world of Breath of the Wild? Is that even possible without creating some kind of time rift?
Turns out, not really.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity —which I will refer to as AOC from here on out— seeks to tell the story of the Great Calamity that took place 100 years before Breath of the Wild’s story. Or at least, that’s what I thought when I first heard the announcement. Getting to play through the ruin of Hyrule sounded amazing and heart-wrenching.
Turns out, however, that Omega Force had a different direction in mind when they drafted the story. The game begins in the midst of the Great Calamity. Ganon has taken over, and Hyrule Castle stands as a monument of his conquest, covered in Malice as Castle Town burns beneath it. Hundreds of Guardians, machines built to protect Hyrule that ultimately became tools of Ganon, swarm the walls of the castle-like enormous arachnids. In the midst of the chaos, a small Guardian, affectionately termed the Egg Guardian by the Zelda fanbase, awakens. Seeing the destruction around it, it plays a little tune, and a portal opens before it. Before it can jump in, however, a possessed Guardian smashes through the door and aims its laser at the Egg Guardian. In a panic, our friend jumps through the portal, though not without being followed by a few tendrils of Malice from the larger Guardian.
Our next view is of Hyrule shortly before the Calamity occurred. The Hylian army is preparing for an assault by a massive troop of monsters, and King Rhoam gives a rousing speech before the army takes on the incoming force. After dispatching them — with a healthy dose of acrobatics and overall superhuman swordplay from our hero Link — we see our little Guardian friend lying in a field, seemingly deactivated. However, when Princess Zelda approaches, the little guy springs to life, beeping and chirping to get the Princess’ attention.
Yes, you read that right. We’re not even an hour into the game and we’re dealing with time travel. That’s AOC’s main story arc: defying the prophecy of the Calamity with help from a Guardian from the future. This immediately made me throw out any expectations I had for the ending. We’re traveling through time; we’re in the storytelling version of the Wild West. There are no rules anymore! So as I entered the next mission, I prepared myself to expect the unexpected.
And I have to say, I was not disappointed with what I got. In many ways, AOC does indeed tell the same story that we got retroactively in BOTW, but it does so with all the characters’ knowledge that they failed once, and they can’t afford to again. It’s all presented with an urgency and seriousness that I really bought, and it made all the relationships between the characters feel that much more important.
Speaking of which, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of characterization we get for our heroes. I’d always loved the Champions in BOTW, but in that game, we never got more than a couple of cutscenes involving them. Here, they’re front and center, and their personalities come into full play. It’s wonderful seeing these characters come to life like this, though I will say that some — *cough*Mipha*cough* — come across a bit angsty and weak-sounding in their voice acting. They all fit with their character, and it never distracted from the experience. It was always a joy to watch every cutscene and interaction, especially since the Zelda franchise has rather famously avoided much characterization, especially of the famous duo of Link and Zelda. Here, Zelda comes into her own in the best way, and even Link manages to build some character despite never saying more than his iconic “HYAHHH!”
And I know I said the game presents this all with a sense of urgency, but that’s not entirely true. The game certainly has a dark premise, but it doesn’t shy away from the Dynasty Warriors series penchant for the over-the-top and even ridiculous. The comic relief characters are rendered all the more charming by their contrast with the dark story, and that’s ignoring the fact that you’re playing a game where one swordsman can send literally dozens of monsters flying by spinning around really fast. The contrast of ridiculous and serious could have easily flopped, but I found a weird sense of synergy with it all.
Something to note here is that aforementioned dark story. This game does not shy away from presenting evil as a powerful and malevolent force. That’s nothing new to Zelda, but even I was a little taken aback by just how ominous things get, especially near the end of the game. Some parents may be thinking about purchasing this for their children, and I’d urge them to do some real research before letting a younger child play this. Depending on what they’re used to, things could get a little disturbing. Still, the game never lets evil overpower good or hope, and it doesn’t give the powers of evil more credit than they deserve, which is a nice breath of fresh air.
But of course, this isn’t a movie, and as much as I enjoyed the story, that’s not much without good gameplay. Like I said, I haven’t touched the original Hyrule Warriors, and I’d played a grand total of maybe an hour of one of the Dynasty Warriors games. I had a basic idea of what I was going into: play as a hero and take on an army, do a bunch of cool flippy moves, profit. What I found present here had more depth than I ever expected.
You have two basic attack buttons, a weak and strong attack. However, depending on how you string your button presses, you can pull off any number of combos, and you unlock more combos as the game goes on. What’s more, through the power of the Egg Guardian, all characters are able to use the four Sheikah Runes from BOTW: Magnesis, Cryonis, Statis, and Remote Bombs. These runes are used for regular offense, but more often, they’re used to counter particular special attacks launched by stronger foes. Pull it off well enough, and you’ll stun your foe long enough to do some real damage.
When it comes to those larger foes, you can just hack and slash at them until they’re down, but the game’s preferred way to take them down is called the Weak Point Smash. When you stun a strong foe, a circular meter oddly reminiscent of Super Mario 64’s health meter appears. Empty this meter, and you’re able to pull off a super-powerful Weak Point Smash, which deals a ton of damage and sends your enemy flying back so you can both regroup and go at it again.
Combine these mechanics with a total of 18 playable characters, including Zelda herself — something Nintendo has seemed hesitant to do in the past — each with differing strengths, weaknesses, and tactics, and you get a game that’s far more than a simple hack and slash. I was surprised by just how much control I had over what attacks I pulled off and when, and how much finesse went into learning when to dodge and block and when to go in for the kill. And don’t think all this talk means that the game is easy. If you don’t nail these mechanics down, you’ll find yourself outclassed and beaten silly pretty quickly on the later missions.
Interestingly, the combat shares some common ground with BOTW. I’ve already mentioned the runes, but the perfect dodge and flurry rush make a return as well. Even though I’d never played a game like this before, I was able to pick it up really well because it blended its gameplay with a game I know very well. The developers knew their target audience, and they nailed that blend.
In fact, the DNA of BOTW goes deeper than just the combat. One look at the game will tell you it shares its predecessor’s art style, but what really struck me was the music. I’m not one of the players who thought that BOTW’s music was bad, though I will readily admit it’s not something I’ll just sit down and listen to. It’s not particularly memorable, but that’s kind of the point. And yet, somehow, AOC takes some of BOTW’s tracks, like the four themes of the Champions, and reworks them into some absolutely phenomenal battle tracks. I never thought Revali or Mipha’s themes would make good battle music, but here they are, weaving in and out of the soundtrack seamlessly, and it’s a treat to catchphrases here and there that I recognize as I’m absolutely demolishing some Bokoblins.
One of my main worries as I anticipated the game’s release was whether or not the gameplay would grow stale. After all, the entire game revolves around one type of mission: kill all the enemies. How long does that stay fresh? Well, while AOC really does make its best effort to keep things from getting too tired, I found myself unable to keep playing for more than an hour at a time. That amounts to about two main story missions, which each average around 20 to 30 minutes, though later in the game that could easily stretch to almost 40. And as much depth as there is to pull off combos and special moves, the game does still feel like a button-masher at times, especially when you’re fighting multiple strong enemies that gang up on you. This isn’t really a game to binge play, at least in my experience, as I found myself ending up more easily frustrated the longer I played. Still, in short bursts, it’s a blast to wreck a few armies and call it a day.
I think one way that burnout feeling could have been avoided is by the inclusion of some alternate modes. There are side missions, but those either involve — guess what — more monster-smashing, or simply providing ingredients to fulfill a mission, which amounts to nothing more than a short fanfare, a reward, and a blue icon on the map screen. Perhaps there could have been a few side missions that focused more on some less used gameplay mechanics like dodging, blocking, and using runes. Even something like a mission mode or Super Smash Brothers’ event matches, where you have to complete a mission with specific requirements, would have been nice, just to break up the monotony of the main gameplay.
There are some missions that focus on piloting vehicles and eliminating an even larger amount of enemies, and these are fun diversions, but they amount to very little of the 20-hour campaign. What’s more, these missions, by default, focus on motion controls. Motion controls are a mixed bag for me; they can be done well, but often, they’re more of a hindrance than anything. This is a case of the latter. Thankfully, you can turn them off and use a more traditional dual-stick control setup. Once that’s done, these missions are a lot of fun; they really take the feeling of being an invincible superhero and ratchet it up a notch even further.
Another issue I ran into was in the later missions. Earlier, I mentioned the stronger enemies you have to fight. As the game progresses, it’s common to find yourself up against two or even three mini-bosses at once. And since you can only focus on one at a time, you’ll be getting blasted and sent flying by attacks you couldn’t see coming because you were focusing on the giant cyclops about to body-slam you. It wasn’t fun to be knocked back and forth like a ping-pong ball by Guardians firing their lasers absolutely non-stop.
There’s also split-screen co-op, which I was not expecting. Sharing this experience of taking on a huge enemy force with a friend is actually a lot of fun. However, sharing with a friend does take a bit of the tactical side of sending your heroes where they’re most needed out, but that’s an okay price to pay for some fun couch co-op. Keep in mind, though, that double the players means double the work for the console to do, and…well, the Switch doesn’t like doing extra work. The frame rate took some heavy hits when I was playing co-op, way beyond what even a casual player would notice. In fact, even in single-player, in high-intensity battles, the frame rate was chugging a bit. It’s never enough to seriously impact the experience, and with the sheer amount of characters onscreen, it’s completely understandable. Still, if that’s something that bugs you, bear in mind that it’s pretty much unavoidable.
So…with all that, is Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity a fitting follow-up to Breath of the Wild? More importantly, is it a good game to pick up in general? My answer to the first question is…no. It doesn’t fit Breath of the Wild’s understated storytelling and agency, and it certainly doesn’t tell the story I thought or hoped it would. Instead, it intentionally departs from the identity of its predecessor, choosing instead to forge its own path; one of stubborn hope in the face of insurmountable odds, courage and wisdom facing off against incredibly evil power, and a dancing tree with maracas taking on a centaur monster with the power of all the elements. And it’s amazing. It didn’t need to be Breath of the Wild 2; we’re getting that…hopefully. Instead, AOC chose its own identity, and more importantly, ran with it. It borrowed elements of its inspiration, but reworked them to fit its particular blend of ridiculous and serious.
As for the second question, like most games, that depends on who you are as a player. But as someone who loved Breath of the Wild’s quiet exploration and do-it-yourself adventuring, I can say I had a blast with Age of Calamity, and it wasn’t just because I was invested in the story. The core gameplay of mowing through enemies and pulling off combos is inherently satisfying and fun, and the sheer amount of playable characters kept me experimenting and trying new things to, quite literally, the last level. It’s not perfect; the difficulty spike near the end was particularly frustrating for me. But for what it is, Age of Calamity is absolutely a fun experience and a must-play for any Zelda fan.
The Bottom Line
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is a polished hack-and-slash that nails a satisfying blend of strategy and action, straying from its inspiration in many great ways.