Games

'Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity' Presents a Bloody, Zelda-Focused Epic

The world of 'Breath of the Wild' gets an expertly made Dynasty Warriors-style treatment.
November 18, 2020, 2:00pm
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Screenshots courtesy of Nintendo

The Japanese name for Dynasty Warriors 2, the oldest and first "Warriors" game, is "Shin Sangokumusou" (真 三國無双). That last word in the title, "musou" (無双) means "without equal," and thus "Musou game" is another term for the genre, one so pervasive that online Japanese dictionary Denshi Jisho gives "mowing down the enemy in a video game" as an alternate slang definition of the term.

"Musou" as a term is the perfect encapsulation of the genre's approach. In a Musou game, the player controls a warrior who is intended to be a one-person army, standing above all others with no equals. It's the power fantasy of power fantasies: the ability to stride alone onto a battlefield and wade through enemies until there's nobody left and you stand victorious. It's no surprise that the genre's roots are a game about the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese historical novel and period thick with heroes with larger-than-life personalities and deeds to fuel the game's playable cast.

If you look for reviews of other Musou games, you will also often find some variation on the term "button-mashing;" the popular conception of the titles is that all you need to do to win is hammer that attack button over and over again. Those same reviews will often say "but that's fine, because it feels good to just kill people over and over again," too.

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These supposedly opposed concepts—that Musou games are enjoyable action games but are mindless and simplistic to control—don't actually interact that way, however. It's not that a Musou game's controls are built to be mindless. The truth is they're built to be unobtrusive. Rather than build a combat game full of precise timing decisions and fiddly controls, the best Musou games have gameplay mechanics built to get out of the way, so that the player can focus on the important bit: whirling through the battlefield like some sort of murderous tornado. 

In those terms, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is largely a success. Viewed in relationship to its licensed Nintendo Musou game ancestors, Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors, Age of Calamity is a good step forward on the "smoothly get out of the way so I can double-backflip-murder mooks in peace" front. It's got its kinks, flaws, and drawbacks to be sure, but if what you're looking for is the affective payoff—that feeling of "oh god this is rad" as you dance across the map and scythe your way through enemy armies—then Age of Calamity delivers.

The original Hyrule Warriors was a bit of a "dream crossover" of various Zelda properties. It took place in a Hyrule unconnected to the mainline titles and prominently featured a combination of time and dimensional travel that brought heroes and villains from all across the franchise together to fight (or be) the forces of darkness. Age of Calamity, on the other hand, sets itself directly in the world of Breath of the Wild, exploring events in the past that are only hinted at by the various "forgotten memories" Link encounters throughout BotW's world.

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It's easy to see the skeleton of the first Hyrule Warriors undergirding this game. Most of the key systems from the first game endured to this new one. You still get weapon drops from finishing maps that can be enhanced, reforged, sold, or fitted with additional special effects. You still collect a seemingly infinite array of raw material from battlefields that can be traded for incremental upgrades to your characters. There's still pre-battle consumables that give you temporary bonuses.

Age of Calamity simply gives these things a Breath of the Wild-oriented spin. The weapons you pick up are all taken from BotW, meaning Link in particular can waltz into combat wielding everything from a giant gleaming claymore to a rusty soup ladle. Rather than the bits and bobs dropped by bosses in the original Hyrule Warriors, in Age of Calamity the list of upgrade-providing materials is taken directly out of Breath of the Wild's item book. Rather than chugging potions for temporary battle buffs, you turn some of those materials into the same recipes you'd scarf down as Breath of the Wild's Link.

Drawing on Breath of the Wild as source material also provides Age of Calamity with some really fun and enjoyable characters. Being able to finally play as lightning oneesama Urbosa is a real treat, for me, and her fighting style involving big, loopy scimitar sweeps that erupt in green-white lightning feels exactly like what I expected from her. Character movesets in general are exceptionally well done; every character feels distinct from the others, with a different approach and different abilities. Even the Sheikah Slate runes differ slightly between each character. While vanilla hero boy Link just tosses Remote Bombs one after the other, Mipha makes bombs drop from the sky like a hailstorm and Sheikah ninja Impa causes them to burst up from the ground into fireworks.

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Every character's range of moves is huge, colorful, and kinetic. Even Link, the game's representative "boring main character" type, can and does go completely ham with his various moves (a strong recommendation to try out the two-handed weapon moveset for him in this regard). The far and away winner of the "using their stuff just feels incredible" sweepstakes, however, is Princess Zelda. Being the nerd that she is in Breath of the Wild, her moveset is based entirely on using the Sheikah Slate runes to attack. This means everything from conjuring a gigantic Remote Bomb that she rolls into the crowd before detonating it on command, to using Magnesis to dredge a metal boat out of the ground before riding into the enemy hordes like a chariot. Her gauge-dependent special attack involves her quite literally taking a picture with the Slate's camera and then tearing it off to delete it, damaging everything she photographed in the process. How can you not stan a princess whose weapon is an iPad and its various apps?!

Capping off this aesthetic of excessive might are the few missions where the player can directly control Breath of the Wild's four Divine Beasts. Compared to a typical Musou game stage, the closest analog to the Divine Beast stages is the type of World of Warcraft quest where you're put in a tank and told to blow up 900 enemies, since that is very much what one literally does in these stages. They are a nice change from the typical game flow, and if you're looking for that power trip thrill, controlling a four-story elephant that fires homing ice lasers is hard to top.

These stages aren't perfect in execution; while the weapon controls for each Divine Beast are sharp, the movement controls can be stiff and clunky. These missions are also usually timed, and the sluggish movement can make finishing them in the allotted time difficult. Thankfully, these missions are infrequent, and half of them are purely optional, so players looking for a different kind of mass murder can saddle up a lightning-blasting sandstone camel mecha, while those who are less into that aren't forced to unduly.

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Rather than the Divine Beast pilots, however, it's Princess Zelda that's at the center of Age of Calamity in numerous ways, particularly its story, another legacy it has inherited from the first Hyrule Warriors. Rather than being the center of the narrative, Link is a viewpoint character, silently serving as Zelda's bodyguard as she attempts to master her powers and prepare for the coming Calamity. As events unfold, it's Zelda's actions, her point of view and her emotional journey, that form the core of the story.

Age of Calamity is about Zelda coming to grips with her self-doubt and the potentially catastrophic consequences of not fulfilling her potential. This is a welcome direction, one that promises to fill-in a lot of the gaps left by Breath of the Wild's flashbacks and that game's focus on Link. Sadly, Age of Calamity tends to short-change its character and narrative. Most story content comes in the form of cutscenes before and after battles, or—much as it was in Hyrule Warriors—in narration over image stills.

This means that the game's lively and interesting characters don't often have much chance to interact in more than incidental ways, which is a shame. The four Divine Beast champions have a cute, ragtag team dynamic that emerges now and then: Daruk as the dumb but cheerful jock, big sister Urbosa, quiet and supportive Mipha, and Revali, who I can only describe as "that guy everyone in the friend group is telling to shut up but they love him anyway." A young version of Breath of the Wild's Impa consistently serves as a supportive and encouraging voice for Zelda, even providing a bit of tough love when it's called for.

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Aesthetically, the game is nice to look at, drawing as it does on Breath of the Wild's various art assets. The game's world is colorful and striking, visually, though at times its similarity to Breath of the Wild works against it, because unlike BotW, the frame rate in Age of Calamity is pretty choppy. On some level this is unavoidable in a game where so much is happening on screen at any one time, an albatross of the Musou genre, but while playing the game docked it can often feel jarring, even taking that into account. In handheld mode, this is less of an issue; the few times I played that way, the choppiness was less noticeable, but that's not the same as "not there."

These problems are made worse by the camera, which routinely has big issues when fighting a large enemy you need to lock on to. In those situations things often go to hell, with the camera rotating around into solid objects that block your view of everything, or coming absurdly close to your controlled character and obscuring your view of everything but Link's (or Daruk's, we don't judge) finely sculpted ass. This isn't always the case, but it seemed to happen an awful lot, and these types of fight are both a very frequent occurrence, and represent the times you most need to pay attention to both what you're doing in combat, and on the state of the battlefield around you. If the goal of the mechanics is to get out of your way in a Musou game, the camera is definitely letting you down in these instances, and as the game progresses, fighting multiple large enemies simultaneously becomes more common, exacerbating the issue further.

More than the visuals, though, I really appreciated the game's soundtrack. Some of its tunes are drawn directly from Breath of the Wild, but many are new compositions in that same style. This is a sharp departure from MASA and co.'s soundtrack for the original Hyrule Warriors, which remixed classic Zelda tracks with MASA's typical "let's add some rock guitar" approach, as seen in other Musou titles. The use of Breath of the Wild's soundscape for the game's soundtrack gives it a very distinct feel in the genre and was a nice change of pace, and a few of the tracks were just great fun; I'm a big fan of the music used in most missions taking place in Gerudo territory.

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Wrapping this all up is the game's actual gameplay flow, which is markedly different from Hyrule Warriors. The original game had a relatively short and to the point story mode following the main narrative, but then opened up a truly nonsense level of additional gameplay that was shifted into the game's "Adventure Mode." Adventure Mode is where Hyrule Warriors put all the "side content:" unlocking new characters that weren't in the main story, acquiring more powerful weapons, bonus stats, and the like.

Comparatively, Age of Calamity throws it all at you in one mode. The game is navigated through a zoomed out version of Breath of the Wild's Sheikah Slate map of Hyrule, which becomes increasingly peppered with icons as you progress through the story's chapters. There are larger icons for story missions, and then there's smaller ones for everything else: material turn-ins to power up your characters, combat side missions to provide tutorials or experience and materials, and services like the weapon-forging blacksmith or the military training field where you can pay to level up characters that are lagging behind. Every new story mission completion or new character recruitment then adds more icons to the map, providing more power ups, more side missions, and so forth.

On the one hand, I like this approach a little better than Hyrule Warriors slamming everything all at once into the complicated and sometimes messy Adventure Mode. Each little "quest" to turn in for new character abilities comes with its own short text story, which was a nice (if minor) narrative touch. It would be easy to say "Impa turned in these macguffins and learned a new move" without ruffling player feathers, but Age of Calamity took the time to craft a little story about how she was inspired after helping a homesick Kakariko Village girl be reminded of home. Many of these little micro narratives feature familiar faces and names from Breath of the Wild, as well, making them a pleasant callback to that game for those who've played it.

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That being said… by the time I had reached the endgame, my Hyrule map had full-on Ubisoft Syndrome: there were almost more icons than there was map, at that point, which doesn't sound like a big deal, but anxiety about a map full of unexplored icons was the reason I stopped playing The Witcher 3. Thankfully, the game does sort the icons into a series of text-based lists you can access which group them into categories, so accessing various quests doesn't always require sifting through an increasingly icon-choked map.

Age of Calamity's other strict improvements on mechanics it inherits from Hyrule Warriors are more unqualified successes. Hyrule Warriors' set of standard Zelda dungeon tools (the boomerang, hookshot, etc.) were largely used on the game's various mid-bosses and bosses to open up weak spots and provide openings to attack them. Breath of the Wild's Sheikah Slate runes serve the same purpose in Age of Calamity, but their ease of use compared to the tools in Hyrule Warriors is magnitudes greater

Hitting the R or L buttons in Age of Calamity brings up a sub-menu corresponding to the A/B/X/Y face buttons on the joycon, and immediately puts the game in a temporary "slow time" mode, similar to aiming an arrow mid-jump in Breath of the Wild. From those menus, the player can then select and aim the right Rune (R button) or consumable items (L button) without the rushed panic of using them in real time, as Hyrule Warriors asked players to.

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By the time I had reached the game's final hours, I felt… sated. Everything I had more or less wanted from Age of Calamity going into it, the game had provided. I'd enjoyed unlocking characters and trying their new movesets out, waded into battlefields full of expendable mooks and run them down repeatedly. Many of the more enjoyable things I found as the game wore on I can't discuss in this review, except to say that there are fun surprises in store for players who keep up with the side missions and upgrade quests. Even in the game's latest stages, there was a relatively constant stream of new things that kept me interested.

It's hard to recommend a Musou game or not, really, because it's often a genre where you either get it, or you don't. I wouldn't say Age of Calamity is going to win over someone who's never played a Musou game before, and I'm not sure that a Breath of the Wild fan who's never played a Musou game will completely get the Zelda experience they might be expecting from it.

What Age of Calamity does provide is a largely smooth and flashy Musou experience, one that will be familiar to players of Hyrule Warriors but is perfectly accessible to those who have not. My "dude, that was sweet" moments of mass digital murder were frequent and overall, my moments of wanting to hurl my Switch out a window were few and far between. While I wish Age of Calamity had spent more time and care with its narrative content, it still provides a broader look at Hyrulian history that Breath of the Wild only hinted at, while providing the chance to spend some time with characters that many players of BotW fell in love that were largely incidental in that game. 

For a player who's interested in seeing a Zelda take on the Musou approach and is willing to meet the game on the genre's own terms, Age of Calamity offers plenty to meet their needs.