Though The Legend of Zelda series includes some of the most beloved games of all time, Hyrulean protagonist Link has seen some less than stellar adventures in the hands of developers not named Nintendo. Capcom's Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages Game Boy games were excellent, but both relied on gameplay elements and graphics borrowed from Nintendo's own The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. More notorious are the three CD-i games which transplanted Link into a wholly new gameplay style that's best described as a hybrid of the sidescrolling stages of the second Legend of Zelda game and an unending litany of poor design decisions. The less said about the games' baffling take on Nintendo character design, the better.
Despite this disappointing history, Nintendo has now granted Koei Tecmo – more specifically, its most notable developers, Omega Force and Team Ninja – the rights to craft their own Legend of Zelda entry, a melee-focused Wii U spin-off dubbed Hyrule Warriors. It would be difficult to match the depressing legacy left by the CD-i entries, but it seems an even more daunting task to match Nintendo's pedigree of sterling high-fantasy adventures. Fortunately for fans of both The Legend of Zelda and Koei Tecmo's flagship musou brawlers, Hyrule Warriors is successful on nearly every level.
Like all of Link's best adventures, Hyrule Warriors' plot centers on the Triforce. An evil sorceress named Cia is attempting to unite the three pieces of the legendary relic in her quest for world domination, and standing in her way are Link, a whole posse of famous Hyrulean faces and Cia's better behaved counterpart, the sorceress Lana. Cia and Lana are characters created specifically for this game, but beyond those two, Hyrule Warriors is populated entirely by characters made famous in the Legend of Zelda franchise. There's Link and Zelda, of course, Ruto, Princess of the Zoras, Goron King Darunia and even more sinister characters like Ganondorf and Wizzro, among others.
The story's not Shakespeare, but it's solid enough to please fans of The Legend of Zelda while also setting up the core of the game: mass melee combat. If you've ever played any of the Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors or Warriors Orochi games, you know exactly what you're getting into here. Hyrule's heroes (and villains) battle through thousands of troops in a third-person beat 'em up where each sword swing is capable of killing dozens and combos regularly wipe out 50 goons at a time. While Hyrule Warriors lends itself well to button mashing – or, to put it another way, it's very easy for new players to pick up and immediately enjoy – the game's combo system is surprisingly deep. An in-depth understanding of each character's tricks isn't necessary to save Hyrule, but those who hope to beat the game's more challenging quests can rest assured that there's more to combat than rapidly tapping the A button.
Combat in Hyrule Warriors is largely based on the Dynasty Warriors gameplay model, but Koei Tecmo also added a few wrinkles familiar to Legend of Zelda fans. Not only are Link's most iconic items like the Hookshot, Boomerang and Bombs available as subweapons, but at certain points players will be asked to fight boss characters especially vulnerable to one item – appropriately, it's usually the item you most recently discovered. King Dodongo, for instance, hates having bombs thrown into his mouth [Does anyone like that? -Ed.], and doing so will drop him into a stunned state where players can strike freely. If he's hit enough times, and quickly enough, the attacking character will launch into an impressive finishing move that will either do a huge amount of damage or outright kill the boss. Beyond utility in boss fights, items also allow characters to reach areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Bombs explode certain rocks, while the Hookshot can be used to launch a character up cliff faces.
Like combat, the game's various modes are deceptively complex. Story missions only take ten to fifteen minutes if you rush from objective to objective, but players who take their time and explore each stage will be rewarded with secret bonuses. Spend enough time on any given stage and one of 100 Gold Skulltulas will appear somewhere on the battlefield. In proper Legend of Zelda fashion, players are granted a bonus for collecting each of the gilded skull spiders, but as they're placed randomly – and usually in hard to find places – most players will have to replay the game's stages several times before finding them all.
Hyrule Warriors seamlessly blends gameplay elements from two disparate series into a delicious virtual peanut butter cup, but it's not without its failings. It's not surprising given the number of enemies Hyrule Warriors packs onto the screen at once, but it's not uncommon to see the game slow pretty drastically in moments of intense combat. In the developer's defense, the slowdown is smooth and the design of the branching combat system ensures that the brief slow motion moments won't impact gameplay too dramatically, but it's an issue that is impossible not to notice. Further, Hyrule Warriors often gives players an objective without properly explaining how to accomplish the task or where it might be located. Too often I found myself with no idea where to go, and no clear on-screen indicator of where to head next. Usually that's my fault, as I've missed what seemed like a throwaway line of dialogue during combat – note to Koei Tecmo: displaying text bubbles on screen for a few seconds while I'm busy hacking apart a thousand Moblins is not the best way to impart information – but in a game where chaotic melee battles are the norm it would be nice if strategic objectives were at least visible on the UI.
Still, I can't knock what Omega Force has crafted here. The developer could've taken the easy route and attached Legend of Zelda characters to its existing gameplay concepts, but some additional gameplay wrinkles and an obvious reverence for Legend of Zelda history elevates Hyrule Warriors to something both more engaging and more accessible than any prior musou brawler. Not only is Hyrule Warriors the best entry point to Koei Tecmo's other musou games, it's also a solid Legend of Zelda entry in its own right. Like another delicious mashup, the Cadbury Creme Egg, Hyrule Warriors is superficially dead simple, but for those willing to unwrap its foil lining and bite through the chocolate shell, there lies a wealth of cleverly designed gameplay mechanics, charming references to fan-favorite characters and locations and a whole lot of tasty, sugary goo.
This review is based on a pre-release retail copy of Hyrule Warriors, provided by Nintendo. Images: Nintendo
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