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Stakes Are High in ‘Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’

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There is something about the recent spate of Koei Tecmo/Nintendo Warriors crossovers that I just can’t get enough of. When you combine the epic world-building of some of my favorite franchises (like Fire Emblem and The Legend of Zelda) with the visceral battlefield combat of Dynasty Warriors, the results are, in a word, magical.

Still, there’s often an odd sloppiness to the proceedings that reduces the overall experience to a blunt-force, button-mashing bloodbath with little of the nuance you’d expect from the more proper entries. While I can personally excuse these shortcomings, it sometimes feels as if this broad-strokes approach to gameplay—and, just as often, plot—is an impediment to those gamers with more refined palates.

This week sees the release of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, another enjoyable entry in this strange splinter series, but seemingly having learned a lot from work on previous Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors releases, developer Omega Force has managed to smooth out the rough edges, making Age of Calamity a much more satisfying and, dare I say, refined game sure to please Switch owners, Zelda fans, and us hardcore Warriors fanboys alike.

A New Look

The first thing fans will notice about Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is its impeccable art style. The game goes to great lengths to ape the iconic cell-shaded-meets-watercolor aesthetic of Breath of the Wild, and it certainly succeeds.

At times gauzy but always perfectly defined, from character models to landscapes, Age of Calamity ably returns players to this instantly recognizable take on Hyrule. A returning cast of characters—including Link, Zelda, Impa, the Four Champions, and even some cleverly hidden Koroks—sets the stage for an epic battle against the forces of Calamity Ganon.

Age of Calamity Revali
With friends like these… image: NOA

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Age of Calamity is afraid to try new things, most notably the addition of a new character, the mini-Guardian. Blending the charm of baby Yoda with the danger and mystery of its larger, more lethal brethren, this adorable automaton is the star of the show.

For those who may have missed out on the game’s free demo—in which case, shame on you—this tiny Guardian is like a masterful mélange of R2-D2, a slide whistle, and a Sheikah Fabergé egg. Moreover, its arrival kicks off the story in a grand fashion.

A Place in Time

While previous Warriors crossovers were a slapdash collection of characters and story elements—the greatest warriors from across time and/or dimensions have assembled to fight a great evil… for reasons— Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity paints itself as a cohesive, canonical chapter in Hyrule history. Set 100 years before The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it depicts the time of the Great Calamity, the oncoming war between the Champions of Hyrule and the forces of Calamity Ganon.

Age of Calamity Daruk
Daruk plays for keeps! image: NOA

While prequels don’t always have the best of track records, this narrative shorthand serves the gameplay by adding context to your adventure and setting the stakes for your eventual success or failure. The very fate of Hyrule hangs in the balance, and while that is, admittedly, always the case in The Legend of Zelda, this time the anticipated outcome is palpable.

Thanks to the mini-Guardian, who traveled back in time from the darker days ahead, Link and Zelda understand those stakes too. This instantly makes all that classic Warriors action, all that otherwise mindless, over-the-top hacking and/or slashing, feel important.

Genuinely Gripping Gameplay

Normally I like to start a review talking about gameplay, so apologies to anyone not already familiar with Dynasty Warriors proper (or its various spinoff flavors). In short, Warriors games are large-scale battlefield brawlers. You control a single unit at a time cutting through literal armies of enemies, with the option to quickly switch between other deployed ally units to which you can also issue commands—typically to rally to a specific location.

In previous titles, your primary concern was alternating between the X and Y buttons, stringing them together in rapid succession to execute spectacular combos, eventually filling a requisite meter, which primes a special sweeping attack unleashed by pressing A. While this is half the fun of Warriors-style combat it also tends to make your playable character feel, regardless of their size or armament or combat style, a little too same-y.

Age of Calamity Urbosa
The true queen of Hyrule. image: NOA

Thankfully, while they were also injecting some much-needed plot and character motivation into Age of Calamity, the team at Omega Force also elected to fix this lingering problem.

From the jump, Link, Princess Zelda, and Impa feel like wonderfully different fighters. Link can wield swords, spears, and clubs, each altering his move set accordingly, and can even launch a motion-enabled volley of arrows at distant enemies. Zelda commands the might of the Sheikah Slate, while Impa Naruto-runs around unleashing the power of Sheikah runes and generating an army of ghostly doppelgangers.

And things only heat up with the introduction of the Champions. Mipha is unbelievably agile and Revali, with his bow and his flying ability, is the king of crowd control. Daruk, obviously, is the tank—slow and powerful—but even he pales in comparison to Urbosa, whose blend of speed and might rivals even Link himself.

A Better Way

Unlike the bulk of the Warriors games to come before, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity isn’t just about the pitched combat. An overworld map provides myriad opportunities for growth through completing quests.

Special character missions, identified by an icon of the head of the relevant warrior, allow you to level up your fighters and unlock additional combos, while support missions can help you find trading posts, open up the Blacksmiths Guild and Kochi Dye Shop (for upgrading/customizing gear), and even let you discover new recipes used to buff your fighter roster by doing nothing more than cashing in on the collectibles acquired in battle.

This goes a long way to break up the monotony of slaying wave after wave of Bokoblins, Lizalfos, Wizzrobes, and the like. The same can be said for the interstitial story missions piloting the Divine Beasts.

Considerably slower in pace and on much more restrictive maps, these play an awful lot like integrated mech missions, pitting each Beast against scores of smaller, spryer enemy units.

Where Do We Go Now?

For me, though, of all the superb new tweaks afforded by this latest release, the best is simply a more competent ally AI.

Historically, just because you can command an ally to move toward a checkpoint on the mission map doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually go there. And in the case of Age of Calamity, a game where ramparts slam shut while environmental obstacles literally materialize out of nowhere, I had already steeled myself for no small amount of frustration.

Age of Calamity Zelda
Zelda can hold her own. image: NOA

To my surprise, I found my cohorts perfectly competent! In fact, on multiple occasions, I have followed them through tricky and circuitous paths to our next mission waypoint rather than fruitlessly trying to shepherd them behind me.

This reversal of fortune, while likely imperceptible to new Warriors players, really drove home for an old warhorse like me exactly how far this series has come.

Simply the Best

Look, there are certainly flashier Switch releases vying for your holiday dollars: Pikmin 3 Deluxe, Mario Kart Live, Harmonix’s Fuser (which is spectacular and I’ll be covering in our upcoming game gift guide). By the same token, hardcore Zelda-heads doubtlessly already have their eyes on the forthcoming sequel to Breath of the Wild in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. 

At a distance, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity may seem like a lark, a throwaway distraction that pales in comparison to a more traditional LoZ game. But it is so, so much more.

By combining a story steeped in Zelda canon, a highly-polished combat system that learned from the mistakes of previous entries, and a cast of characters that each feel like powerful, flexible allies, Age of Calamity is not an adventure to be missed.

Age of Calamity Link
And Link’s no slouch himself. image: NOA

Even if other Warriors games have left you cold, even if Zelda spin-offs just aren’t your bag, even if you already have a spectacular hack-and-slash experience on the Nintendo Switch—I’m looking at you, my beloved Diablo III—don’t let Age of Calamity pass you by.

The best Warriors game yet and a true jewel of a chapter in the Legend of Zelda saga, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is a fierce fighter with the heart of a poet. And, like Link himself, you underestimate its power and importance at your own peril.

Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post contains affiliate links. Urbosa is my homegirl.

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2 thoughts on “Stakes Are High in ‘Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’

  1. I’ve never played a Warriors game before, so I have nothing to compare to, but I love this game. I’ve played through the demo and can’t wait for my pre-order to finally hit my Switch! The controls took a bit of getting used to, and I’m still trying to get the hang of skillfully switching characters and ordering them around the map, but eventually I was planning out and stringing together intentional attacks and combos rather than running around button-mashing and hacking-and-slashing my way through the hordes.

    1. Warriors games are definitely their own thing, Jason, but once you get a feel for them, they’re crazy satisfying. The combo system, since it’s mostly just the two-button interface, ins’t overly complex; a lot of it comes down to timing and figuring out your go-to moves. Really glad you’re enjoying the demo, and I’m excited for you to get to explore all HW: AoC has to offer!

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