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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

'Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity' Is an Uneasy Mix of Two Very Different Worlds

So much about Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is like bowling in a run-down alley. Not just in the way Princess Zelda rolls her magic bomb into a horde of Bokoblins, sending them flying like pins, or in the way Daruk curls into himself and barrels into a huddled cluster of Lizalfos. No, it’s the way it feels: You might line up the kids’ ramp and let gravity do the work for you, or you might hook a well-greased bowling ball with calculated wrist torque. Given enough time, either way, you can knock all the pins down eventually. But since the alley’s janked up, there isn’t much satisfaction to be had by trying.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is an uneasy mix of smart and stupid. Out November 20, the hack-and-slash crossover melts Dynasty Warriors’ horde-mashing into Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s world, characters, and aesthetic. The former is a decades-old franchise about mowing down canon-fodder armies of assailants; the latter, a dazzling 2017 fantasy role-playing game with thinky puzzles and boundless opportunities to explore. From that medley of influences, it plucks out the “canon fodder” and “fantasy” and adds in just a whiff of “thinky,” making for a fun but thin Zelda spin-off.

The game opens 100 years before the events in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You start out as Link, and over time collect more playable fighters, including Zelda, Impa, Daruk, Revali, Mipha, and Urbosa, all rendered with loving fidelity to the original game. In various battlegrounds around Hyrule—lava-filled Death Mountain, the green fields outside Hyrule Castle—you encounter mob after mob of monsters. In Dynasty Warriors fashion, most take only a couple hits before becoming dust. Fighting your way through the scenarios’ winding maps, you ramp up to larger and larger bosses before completing the objective. At any point, including mid-battle, you can switch from one character over to another who’s better-placed on the map or has a more relevant combat toolkit. After a successful mission, you have the opportunity to level up weapons, craft food, upgrade into cooler combos, and mess with other systems before jumping into another scenario.


A little like a Soulcalibur-style fighting game, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’s combat relies on these combos. Also like Soulcalibur, you can basically just button-mash. Link has a light sword attack (x) and a heavy sword attack (y). If you hit x, x, y, Link propels himself forward, sliding along the ground and knocking a line of enemies into the sky. If you hit x, y, and b, he slashes upwards before opening up his paraglider, from which he can drop down for a big attack from above. These combos balloon in complexity as the game goes on, and are decidedly fun to execute just right. They also help charge characters’ unique specials for cinematic, big-boy blowout attacks.

Every fighter has access to Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s runes: Cryosis, Magnesis, Stasis, and remote bombs, which manifest for each in exciting, different ways. Where Revali rains down neat lines of bombs, Daruk haphazardly tosses a cluster somewhere into the distance. Their unique animations are delightful, and for Zelda: Breath of the Wild fans they might momentarily transport you back into the original game’s magic.

Most of the fun I’ve had so far with Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity has been within the first few minutes of unlocking a new character. It’s rewarding to optimize loyal nursemaid Impa’s battalions of Impa clones, or knock mobs into Daruk’s molten rocks, which explode into fiery lava. After those first few moments, the gameplay experience went downhill. I didn’t get out of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’s fights what I put into them. One-two-three combos might level wave upon wave of Bokoblins with the bombasity of a WWE superstar, but a lot of the time I could have just hit x a dozen times. It’s a common complaint about these musou games, but here the combat’s shortcomings aren’t easily attributed to differences in taste.

There’s a jarring messiness to fights in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity that undermines the satisfaction you might get out of perfectly timed combos. The canon-fodder encounters are kind venues for experimentation, but when it comes to higher-stakes battles, the game does not broadcast itself well enough for combo school to pay off. Lasers strike even when you’re hiding behind a rock. Bosses’ incoming attacks can be visually indecipherable, making dodge timing inconsistent from fight to fight. A boss’s whole torso might disappear from sight when you fly a paraglider around its head, rendering you incapable of seeing their sword coming towards you.

At the end of a boss fight, as a treat for being good, you’re given the option to do a “weak point smash”—a flashy killing blow after you’ve depleted most of an enemy’s health. But sometimes the offer appears after it looks like you’ve already won the fight, delaying the satisfaction of the kill. Or it comes when the fight seems halfway over. A cutscene might begin mid-slash.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity regularly cuts off its own momentum. A couple of times throughout the game, after some big plot moments, players can pilot Divine Beasts, titan-like magical robots each with their own unique pilot. The Divine Beasts hold the promise of every Gundam-lover’s dreams: to control a giant, city-stomping mecha with grace and dignity. Unfortunately, piloting them feels like balancing a heavy metal vase on your head. This is where the game chooses to bring in motion controls, which add nothing but lopsidedness to their gait.

The best mentality for enjoying any Dynasty Warriors-esque game is stringing together the most absurd and wonderful attacks into balletic action, but Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is also designed to capture some of what made Zelda: Breath of the Wild a masterpiece. Unlike BotW, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity doesn’t reward players for trying. And that extends to outside combat, too: The terrain is rigid, not allowing for climbing, falling, or long paraglides. You can’t even really run unless the game decides you’re in the right spot to.

If after 200 hours, Zelda: Breath of the Wild began to feel like home, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity may feel like a return after college. Cutscenes and familiar geographies will tug lightly at your heartstrings. And if you’re already a fan of Dynasty Warriors games, you may forgive Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’s less-than-stellar combat and focus on what it’s good at: making characters you love do epic shit.

It’s hard not to want something smarter, more expansive, more wonderful. At the very least, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity could tickle my rat brain more.

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