Nintendo’s 2020 flagship is Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity – a Dynasty Warriors and Legend of Zelda crossover that’s a sort-of-prequel to 2016’s phenomenal Breath of the Wild, despite the drastically different style of play. There is no climbing or exploration, no communion with magic and nature. Instead, it’s all about the action, as Link and his compatriots slice up thousands of baddies with swords, magic, bows, hammers and, occasionally, soup ladles.
While the original Hyrule Warriors was more of a love letter to Zelda as a whole, Age of Calamity lifts its smooth, stylish art direction and visual language straight from Breath of the Wild. Menus, sound effects, in-game models and the overall look and feel are a flattering imitation that’s also appealing in it own right. Returnees to this specific Hyrule will thrill as familiar locations, characters, objects and musical motifs are redeployed in this new action-packed context.
This game is about the war that led to Hyrule’s fall 100 years before the start of Breath of the Wild, and Dynasty Warriors’ hack-and-slash gameplay is a perfect fit. You’ll bash up hundreds of hapless minions as you race across the map trying to take down jacked-up enemies or capture outposts. Higher-tier foes present more of a challenge as you chip away at their health bars, aiming to either break their defences in vulnerable moments or counter attacks with magical flourishes.
It sounds (and is) simplistic, but it’s incredibly fun to charge into full-scale battles with you and your allies wreaking havoc, enemies flying through the air as you plough through the game’s lengthy brawls. A surprisingly large roster of playable characters is waiting to be unlocked, each of them boasting enough combat variety and visual flair to reduce repetition among the endless hordes.
While minor tactical concerns do arise in battle – you can order ally characters to various points in the battlefield, taking control of them as needed – strategy takes a back seat. From Breath of the Wild’s familiar world map, you deploy into either one of the full-on battles that build the story, or into a smaller mission that will earn you the loot you need to boost characters’ arsenals and abilities. It’s a simple but effective loop that kept me playing long after the credits rolled, or at least until my thumb began aching from button-mashing.
Equally enjoyable is the game’s Avengers-style ensemble story, a standalone tale that expands on character moments merely hinted at in Breath of the Wild – Reddit scholars will have a field day analysing every subtle dimension of the game’s cutscenes and arguing over how canonical everything is. Less entertaining are turret-shooter segments where you control the colossal (and sluggish) Divine Beasts. Although good for a bit of variety, they’re relatively simplistic and also don’t look especially good: it’s occasionally difficult to see what you’re shooting at.
Age of Calamity falters a little graphically: scenery pops suddenly into view and there are noticeably low-quality textures everywhere, though this is mitigated by the impressionistic art style. Performance-wise, it’s admirable considering the sheer quantity of stuff on screen, but can get distractingly sluggish when it starts throwing visual special effects into the mix, especially in the functional but creaky two-player mode. More annoying is the camera’s tendency to get jammed up against walls and other objects in smaller environments, which can be disastrous when fighting huge enemies, and the snooze-inducing load times.
But Age of Calamity is a bizarre, enjoyable beast that pays homage to an incredible game, while merrily doing its own thing. Scything through thousands of identical baddies might not be the most sophisticated power fantasy, but the compelling rhythm of intense battles and constantly achievable microgoals ensures it’s certainly a fun one – to the point where only thumb pain was preventing me from playing even more.