It’s been a quiet year for Nintendo Switch owners, with Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Paper Mario: The Origami King serving as the console’s only major, first-party releases in 2020. Fortunately, Nintendo may have an ace up its sleeve with Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity.
Like its Wii U predecessor, Age of Calamity is a Zelda-themed hack-and-slash game modeled after the Dynasty Warriors franchise (commonly referred to as a Musou game). On paper, it’s tempting to write it off as a novel side game meant to fill some dead air until the long-awaited Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sequel comes out. After all, the original Hyrule Warriors is a fun but inconsequential game that offers little more than entertaining fan service.
But after playing the newly released demo, it’s clear that Age of Calamity is not just filler. In fact, it feels every bit as polished and substantial as a mainline Zelda game. Here’s why Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is much more exciting than an average spinoff.
The first Hyrule Warriors featured a story mode, but one that wasn’t officially part of franchise canon. Instead, it was basically fan fiction that provided a narrative reason for characters from the series’ past to come together in one game. It was fun, but also felt trivial, which took away from any impact the story might have had.
Age of Calamity, on the other hand, is an official prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It provides a more focused narrative, set 100 years before Breath of the Wild begins. For lore-hungry fans, the demo teases a detail-rich game that will fill in some holes about Hyrule’s history.
Fans are particularly eager because Breath of the Wild’s own narrative was sparse. Instead of a dense, cinematic story, the game famously left players to explore the world at their own pace, encountering characters and storylines in small chunks. It worked for the game’s theme of exploration, but it did little to explain the world’s backstory, leaving fans desperate for more. Age of Calamity looks set to indulge them.
Developer Koei-Tecmo worked closely with the Zelda team on the game, and that’s immediately apparent in the game’s cinematics. The demo, which covers the game’s first two missions, features cutscenes that are just as exciting as the ones in any mainline Zelda game. There’s a big-budget feel to the game, as the camera dramatically swoops over fiery battlefields, and characters come to life with the feel of a Disney film (Link even gets a time-traveling guardian companion who feels like the series’ own BB-8).
Musou games are all about action, letting players slice through hundreds of enemies with larger-than-life attacks. Like the first game, Age of Calamity delivers on that idea by turning well-known Zelda tools into weapons capable of taking down a field full of enemies in one fell swoop.
The difference here is that combat feels more varied in the demo, making encounters less of a button-mashing trial. Each character can deliver light and heavy attacks, plus a powerful special attack once a yellow bar fills up. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, as the game also integrates Breath of the Wild’s rune abilities. By pressing the right bumper, players can chuck bombs at enemies, freeze them in place with stasis, create ice blocks that shield against charging enemies, and pick up metal objects to use as a tool of destruction.
The characters play completely different from one another, adding another layer of diversity. For instance, Impa can absorb runes during battle to create multiple clones of herself to fight in a wider area. The demo features only three characters from the final game (Link, Impa, and Zelda) and all of them felt unique.
The revamped combat goes a long way toward making the game feel less like a B game and more like a main attraction. The original Hyrule Warriors came off as a “what if” scenario, reimagining how Zelda would work in a different genre. Despite having all the recognizable staples of a Zelda game, it still felt like a Dynasty Warriors game with a different coat of paint. There was noticeable repetition between characters, and similarities to previous Dynasty Warriors games.
Fighting in Age of Calamity is more closely aligned with the feel of Breath of the Wild, finding inventive ways to utilize characters and tools. By the end of the demo, I found myself wishing I could keep playing, which speaks volumes considering the genre’s penchant for excess and repetition.
Aside from fighting, the game will give players plenty of reasons to explore maps. Early on in the demo’s first mission, I smashed a box open only to find one of Breath of the Wild’s Koroks hanging out inside. Rather than bouncing from fight to fight, that immediately made me take more time to explore each map and hunt for secrets.
It’s not just Koroks that are new. The hourlong demo is rich with details that give the game a life of its own. Most notable is the game’s new navigation system. Between each mission, Link returns to a tower and can select a new mission from the overworld map, which is pulled directly from Breath of the Wild.
In addition to being how you jump into battles, it’s how you’ll learn new moves, get more hearts, or level up equipment. It’s an all-in-one hub that finds a place for Breath of the Wild mechanics like cooking, blacksmiths, and horse stables. These details add another layer to the game, making it feel like there’s more to do than grind through battle after battle.
They’re also an improvement over the original Hyrule Warriors, which relied heavily on complex menu systems that could be difficult to navigate and didn’t feel tied to the theme.
That extra attention might be what the budding series needs to become a must-play piece of Nintendo’s catalogue. So far, Age of Calamity feels like a more complete experience, and one that makes a more compelling case for Hyrule Warriors to become its own franchise.
The Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity demo is now available on the Nintendo Switch eShop. Any progression made in the demo will carry over when the game launches on November 20.
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