The Riddle Of 'Hyrule Warriors' and Its Wii U Responsibilities
It's a new Zelda game – but it's not the one anybody really wanted.
A shot from "Hyrule Warriors"
On the 19th of September in Europe, and the 26th in the US, Wii U owners will finally get to play a new Zelda game. Sure, Nintendo's latest box of tricks has its Mario releases – both the platforming and Kart varieties – and some of its more bankable characters have made their system bows: Pikmin 3 was delightful, we've seen Donkey Kong in Tropical Freeze, and Link and company have already appeared in an HD update of The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker. But here, at last, is a vision of the Kingdom of Hyrule built from the ground up, specifically for the platform.
Except, the forthcoming Hyrule Warriors – already out in Japan – isn't quite the game that many will have been anticipating over a more conventional Zelda adventure. That game is coming – announced during E3 earlier this year, it promises to be a grand, open-world affair quite unlike any previous entry in the Zelda franchise, and since being posted in early June, the YouTube trailer for Wii U Zelda has attracted almost two and a half million views. Yet published on the same day, on the same channel (IGN's), the Hyrule Warriors trailer has been watched just 322,000 times. Suffice to say, one of these is rather more in demand than the other.
Which places Hyrule Warriors – ostensibly a collision of publisher Koei Tecmo's popular (out East) Dynasty Warriors series and its hack-and-slash mechanics, with Zelda-themed locations and characters spanning a range of iterations – in a curious position. It's the awkward appetiser, a dish nobody set out to order but that's come as part of a set-menu deal, a necessary distraction prior to what will surely be a sumptuous main course when the "proper" Zelda arrives on Wii U. That won't be until sometime in 2015, with a playable build likely to be previewed at next year's E3 in Los Angeles. So, for now, we're left with this oddity to chew on: a game that's far from a pure Zelda, carried on button-mashing gameplay that began to feel stale in the PlayStation 2 era.
Whether or not you'll enjoy Hyrule Warriors comes down to two things. Do you really, really like Zelda? If so, you'll get through – this game, while an all-action, crowd-management experience unlikely to test those schooled in puzzle-dripping dungeons, is a love letter to the series, with characters excellently realised and plucked from almost 30 years of its history. Impa appears roughly as she did in 2011's Skyward Sword, likewise the sword spirit Fi, while Sheik dates back to 1998's Ocarina Of Time. Our hero Link has never looked better, and it's an early thrill to see him carve through enemy ranks, racking up hundreds of kills in minutes. Factor in the nostalgia-rush of its musical melodies and alert chimes and Hyrule Warriors evidently has its heart in the right place.
Secondly, fans of Dynasty Warriors – at a premium though they might be outside of Japan – will slip immediately into the rhythms of this offshoot entry in a franchise that began, in this guise, in 2000. Developed by Omega Force, these games challenge the player to cooperate with friendly NPCs to overcome huge swathes of enemies, across expansive battlefields. It has seen spin-offs before: 2011's Legends Of Troy moved the setting from Three Kingdoms-era China to the Trojan War, and One Piece: Pirate Warriors was a 2012 game marking the 15th anniversary of the popular One Piece manga. Like these branches from the same trunk, Hyrule Warriors has deep roots to rely upon. If the traditional Dynasty Warriors gameplay does it for you, you'll feel right at home.
With the usual Triforce this and missing-princess that going on, Hyrule Warriors hits some predictable but nonetheless effective story beats, to go beside its raw but shallow gameplay – and it's this tried-and-tested set-up, of dark forces threatening good souls, that keeps one plugging away at it. Because, personally, while stages play out in 20-minute bursts, with new abilities, perks and weapon upgrades available between them, I found repetition a problem as early as an hour in. (Although, I confess, I am yet to explore the game's Adventure mode properly.) I've now finished four of its story stages, and my route has split three ways: each direction ready for attack by one of the unlocked player characters (you don't stay as Link throughout, and can monitor the heath of your colleagues via the GamePad). To say anything more of the story would comprise spoilers, but I'm compelled enough by it to see these paths through to convergence.
I'm old, though, and I like spending time with Link. He's an OK guy, and we've been on some amazing journeys together in the past – up mountains to awaken a Wind Fish (more of a Wind Whale, if you ask me), across the endless blue of the Great Sea, and all the way to the Pyramid Of Power. I'm not sure how those raised on the previous generation's cavalcade of cacophonous shooters and bloody beat 'em ups will respond to a game that, while violent, is so over-the-top in its action – and completely bloodless (so far) – that it's never anything but slapstick with swords, and boomerangs, and spell-book pages, and harps (obviously). But then, those gamers probably own PlayStations.
Unless, of course, they're yet to buy a "new" console at all – in which case, maybe family-friendly slaughter is just the ticket. In its Japanese week of release, Hyrule Warriors did help shift considerably more Wii U units, in percentage terms, than the week before: from 13,598 to 18,161. That can't be ignored: clearly there's support for the game in the East, even if its own sales aren't magnificent, coming in at 69,090 for week one, 57 percent of its overall shipment.
Its month-later release in the US and Europe might be to allow for its positive reception in Japan to sufficiently pique Western attentions. But whatever the reason for the staggered arrival, Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aime will hope that the Wii U user base in the US – over three million, compared to less than two in Japan – will translate to better sales on his side of the Pacific. Because, with all the good will in the world, Nintendo's not having the easiest time of it compared to its competitors.
The Wii U needs more heavy hitters in its library, as Mario can't continue to carry the amazing weight of so much expectation alone. News that some great-looking DLC is coming to Mario Kart 8, featuring both new tracks and characters (including Link), is fantastic for existing owners – but it's genuinely exciting new games that are going to properly turn around the fortunes of a still-creaking console.
With great power comes great responsibility, wrote some guy once. In Hyrule Warriors, the player can feel invincible, decimating the opposition with a range of stylish attacks. But what of the greater good? How does this game further, or even adversely affect, the Wii U's reputation? Can Koei Tecmo's partnership with Nintendo grease the wheels for more productive third-party agreements? Truthfully, probably not. Hyrule Warriors is bright and bombastic but a niche attraction at best, at a time where a Zelda proper, or commercial-clout equivalent, is desperately needed. I won't be surprised if it's picked at more than picked up, pushed around the plate for a bit while hunger grows for a real Hyrulian adventure.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @MikeDiver
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