When, three years ago, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released as a launch game for the Nintendo Switch, it was immediately apparent that it was game about the past. Not least, it was a game that reflected on the past of the Zelda franchise itself. The development team were very vocal about how they had questioned every series convention in their initial meetings – from progression systems to dungeons design. They produced, in the end, a masterpiece that broke with series history at a gameplay level, and also with its already broken timelines. Enter, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity.
Breath of the Wild also constantly looked backwards in its story too. The game was set in a Hyrule devastated by an event that happened 100 years before the beginning of the action. This event was called the Great Calamity. The narrative of the game was built around the idea of finding out precisely ‘what happened’.
Time Out of Joint
Now, over three years later, we are able, with the release of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity for Nintendo Switch, to find out ‘what happened 100 years ago’. This is a game has been developed by Koei Tecmo working with Nintendo’s own Zelda team and is set before and during the tumultuous calamity. As such, it works as an in-canon prequel to the original game. Sort of. For here, in this version of Hyrule, time is a little out of joint.
Let’s be clear about this at the start, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is not Breath of the Wild Zero. Instead, this is a ‘Warriors’ game, with all that entails. This game, like all the others in the ‘Warriors’ series (including the first Hyrule Warriors), is focused not on exploration but on fast-flowing, continuous combat in which the player hacks and slashes their way through literally thousands of enemies, sending dozens flying with each attack. Whereas at the beginning of Breath of the Wild, Link feels vulnerable and every monster is a threat, at the beginning of Age of Calamity Link is already able to ‘hee-yah’ his way through horde after horde. It’s all ridiculously silly. It’s also outrageously fun!
The game’s producer, Yosuke Hayashi, has spoken about how the Zelda series producer, Eiji Aonuma, approached Koei Tecmo and suggested that they make a game telling the story of the great calamity, and how he felt that that story would be suited to the musou style of gameplay. He was absolutely correct and the resulting mesh of action and narrative is very effective. I’ll return to the story later, but suffice it to say that the frantic ‘Warriors’ style is the perfect medium for it.
The Return to Hyrule
The team at Koei Tecmo have done a wonderful job integrating their gameplay into the world of the Zelda classic. Initially, this is seen in the game’s UI, which mirrors that of the original game exactly. The icons, buttons and sound design are all lifted directly from Breath of the Wild, making this strange new ‘Zelda game’ instantly familiar. More importantly, the Hyrule here will be recognisable to anyone who has played the earlier instalment. It is genuinely thrilling to be able to play through scenarios in locations like the Breach of Demise (itself a call back to Skyward Sword) and the incredible Akkala Citadel. These are all lovingly rendered in the Breath of the Wild engine and have never looked better. To see them in their pre-calamity state is simultaneously magnificent and moving.
If the world of Age of Calamity is familiar then so too are the people that live in it. This game is populated with a cast of characters that players will recognise, from Link and Zelda through to Impa, the four champions and more, although I won’t spoil exactly who here. These are all voiced by the original voice actors too. The game does a great job of developing this large cast both in-game and in the extensive cut scenes, which look lovely and provide real momentum to the developing story.
Whilst I’m thinking about the design of the game, it’s worth noting that the visual and sound design are both superb. So too is the music, which also makes use of familiar pieces – for instance, the creepy music from the Lost Woods, the panic-inducing music for the guardians and other bosses, and even Zelda’s Lullaby. The mood of the music is always in sync with the scenario, forming a fabric against which the action unfolds. Like the cutscenes, the music tracks can all be enjoyed again in the Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity's gallery.
The world-building would be for nought if the gameplay wasn’t fun. And I’m happy to report that it’s a blast. If you’re not a fan of the musou-style action this game probably won’t change your mind. However, this is a fast-flowing and slick experience with a surprisingly large amount of variety within the restricted hack-and-slash formula. Partly, this comes from the scenarios themselves and the extent to which the levels advance the plot. Shifting objectives, bosses and terrain all impact upon play. The variety also comes from the number of move sets on offer.
There is, it is true, an element of unsophisticated button mashing at work, and the attack combo patterns, once learnt, translate across the characters. But, Link plays very differently and uses different moves to Zelda, Impa or any of the other playable characters. Moreover, Link plays very differently when wielding a one-handed weapon as to when he’s holding a two-handed blade or spear. The attack animations are also unique. The sheer number of available move sets means that it will be possible for any player to find a style that they prefer. For me, here as in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it’s the faster, more mobile characters towards which I gravitate – which means Mipha, not Daruk.
It’s possible to execute normal attacks in chains, with each step in the sequence being different to the last. At any point in this sequence, it is then possible to activate a strong attack. Characters can also launch unique special attacks, use the elemental rods familiar from Breath of the Wild, and use Sheikah Slate runes to activate bombs, stasis, magnesis and cryonis. There are also weak-point smashes, which are often hilarious to watch. Finally, each character has a unique action mapped to ZR – for Link, it’s firing arrows. For Impa, it’s applying runes to characters to create clones, and so on. Again, every character’s implementation of these is different.
It's a relatively complex system that can take a while to get used to. It is, though, massively rewarding when you begin to execute killer combos. This is easier to achieve when playing with the pro controller, where the button layout is better. When playing this game in handheld mode, the joy-con button placement makes some moves more awkward – for instance, instigating attacks with runes. Of course, if all else fails, button-mashing remains a legitimate strategy.
Divine and Frustrating
The player never feels more powerful than when piloting the Divine Beasts, the great mechanical creatures that formed the only large dungeons in Breath of the Wild. Here, we take control of them and rampage across the landscape, shoot lasers, call down lightning and charge through obstacles. These sequences are more restricted, both in terms of movement and objectives. They are also let down by awkward controls. The machines are supposed to be huge but here they feel cumbersome. They’re heavy and sluggish, lacking the responsive that makes the rest of the gameplay so satisfying.
Not that the normal hack-and-slash levels are free from frustrations. The camera can make things difficult. This is especially true when fighting flying creatures like wizzrobes or when executing a wall jump in a confined indoor space. At such moments, it is common not to be able to see either your player-character or the monster, even when locked onto them. There are also problems with the frame rate at times – as was noted when the game’s demo was first launched. These frame drops do almost stop the game at times but never stop it being fun. They are never game-breaking.
Lore and Order
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is driven by its story. It is this that gives meaning to the otherwise meaningless hack-and-slash. And it is undoubtedly the most contentious aspect of the game. Age of Calamity is ostensibly an in-canon prequel to Breath of the Wild that reveals ‘what happened 100 years ago’. But this is only sort of true. I won’t spoil the story for anyone here. Suffice it to say, I was engaged with the narrative throughout. I was always keen to start the next mission to find out what would happen next. There were plenty of surprises and some laugh-out-loud moments too. The introduction of a new villain, revealed in the trailers, was an excellent idea as it keeps things fresh for even the most experienced Zelda series veterans. If you are a fan of the lore you will find much here to love.
The story is told not just in the large-scale story missions but also in the smaller-scale side quests and landmarks that fill the map. These each involve micro-narratives that add little in themselves but work together to create a wider world. There are merchants at stables and items that must be found on missions. There are townspeople that need help and monsters that need battling.
The game is of moderate length – there are 20 main story missions that will take a decent amount of time to play through. In general, the difficulty curve is fairly good. I played on normal, but you can choose between Easy, Normal, Hard and Very Hard. There can be some grinding to get your preferred characters to the recommended levels for the next mission. However, it’s possible to buy levels with rupees at the Military Training Camp. The main story missions are supplemented by a whole host of other missions of varying difficulty. Then there is a heap of weapons, abilities and playable characters to unlock. There’s much to keep completionists happy in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Final Thoughts
Now, almost four years since it was released, I still like to spend time in the world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ll still boot up the game just to run around in the hills, visit the monuments and watch the sunrise over the ocean.
In Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, the world is a space of war, not peace. The pace, wherever you turn, is frantic, and there’s barely time to admire the view. There is, though, much to admire in this game. The decision to use the Warriors franchise to tell the story of the Great Calamity was inspired. Moreover, the integration of that gameplay style into the existing world of Hyrule is superb. The action is slick and exciting, and always works to further the new narrative. This story itself will divide fans for sure but is never less than fun. It’s also rich in lore. The game looks and sounds lovely, barring some frame drops that slow things down when the action speeds up. And there’s much to keep coming back to. I’m sure that I’ll be spending much more time in this enchanted and imperilled land.