Coinciding with the Japanese release of Skyward Sword in 2011, Nintendo released the Hyrule Historia, a nearly 300-page book detailing the internal and external workings of the Legend of Zelda series. Included within was the long-awaited timeline of the then-25 year old series, specifying the relations between each of the Zelda games from the NES to the Wii, both firmly connecting and officially separating each story from the others. One of the intended effects of the Historia was to solidify the internal chronology of the series. One of the side effects, realized three years later, was to allow the Zelda series to become what may be the first video game franchise to crossover with itself.
Hyrule Warriors is a hack-and-slash action game in the style of the long-running Dynasty Warriors series, featuring a brand new story within the Legend of Zelda timeline. The story, as usual, focuses on Link, this time a recruit within Hyrule’s army. A horde of well-organized monsters pour into Hyrule without warning, and in the ensuing chaos, Princess Zelda goes missing. With the army at his back, Link teams up with Zelda’s bodyguard Impa and a mysterious magician named Lana to push back the evil tide, find Zelda, and eventually restore the timeline as a whole – with the help of some familiar faces.
For those unfamiliar with Dynasty Warriors, the combat is fairly simple. The Y button is your light attack, and offers a simple attack combo when repeatedly pressed. The X button is the heavy attack; when pressed first, it performs a unique command depending on the character you’re playing, usually either a strong attack or a buff of some kind. In addition, pressing X while in the middle of a combo makes your character perform a finisher move, with different properties depending on when in the combo you activated it. For Link, pressing X after a single Y attack makes him perform a short-range launching slash, while X after two Y attacks has him shoot a beam of energy.
Your two defensive options are a quick dodge, which offers invincibility and lets your character sprint when held down, and a block, which defends against enemies in front of you but harder to counterattack from. Defeating enemies fills your special attack gauge; upon activation, time freezes as your warrior performs a powerful, wide-ranged attack. There is also a magic bar, filled with bottles dropped from stronger enemies, that makes your character much stronger and faster when used. Finally, there are Zelda-themed sub-weapons, such as bombs or the hookshot, available for use at any time, which are used mostly for utility or for revealing boss character weak points.
In general, each mission involves either taking the enemy’s keeps by defeating enemies within or routing the enemy’s generals, while protecting your own strongholds and allies. For the most part, the game pits you against simple cannon fodder that pose little if any threat. Most of these groups are led by a stronger monster from the Zelda series, such as Lizalfos or ReDeads, which offer a greater challenge. Bosses take the form of the AI-controlled playable roster, who attack you with the same moveset you use while playing as them, and giant monsters like King Dodongo and Gohma, who are only vulnerable to a specific sub-weapon after attacking. Baiting these stronger foes into attacking will reveal their “weak point gauge”, a white circle above their heads that depletes when attacked. Fully depleting this gauge will allow for a “weak point smash”, an extremely powerful attack that is usually your best, and occasionally your only, option for victory. These bosses rarely fight alone in later stages of the game, so spatial awareness is key to survival. The enemy variety, together with the game’s quick pace and intuitive controls, form a solid, entertaining foundation that the rest of the game builds on.
The playable roster in this game is a thing of beauty. Series mainstays Link, Zelda, Impa, and Ganondorf return, tailored to Hyrule Warriors’ visual style and story. Lana represents the base game’s sole playable original character, but DLC opens up the main villain trio of Cia, Volga, and Wizzro for use as well. The game, for both its story and its roster, pulls the major supporting cast from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword into the fray: Sheik, Darunia, Ruto, Midna, Agitha, Zant, Fi and Ghirahim all make an appearance. The DLC adds even more characters from even more games to the mix, from Majora’s Mask’s Young Link to Wind Waker’s Medli to the ever-popular Tingle. If that wasn’t enough, Link, Zelda, Impa, and Lana have different, entirely unique movesets available: Zelda, for instance, has access to the quick, close-ranged rapier or the slower, long-ranged Wind Waker-styled baton. No two weapon sets play alike, and the sheer amount of movesets can keep the game fresh for a long time.
Outside of the story mode, Hyrule Warriors contains an “adventure mode”, a series of battles with their own win conditions set on the full map from the original Legend of Zelda. This mode contains most of the unlockables: different weapons, stronger versions of those weapons, character costumes, and heart containers. Some of these are hidden, and require searching the relevant sectors of the map with items won from these missions – you might need to burn a random tree with a candle to open the chance to win the unlockable for that battle. If you remember the original Zelda game, you’re in luck, because each “puzzle” on the adventure map coincides with secrets from the NES classic; otherwise, special “compass” items reveal the location of the hidden item. The unfortunate side effect is that you will eventually have to replay stages just to get these map items, which adds a layer of repetition and grind on top of an otherwise novel mode.
Still, though there is a limited pool of mission types available – you’ll see four of five “defeat the giant bosses within the time limit” missions, for example – the variety in character choice, map type, and enemy makeup alleviate the issues. The DLC maps add their own twists, both in the main gameplay and overworld puzzles, so there is certainly plenty of variety to keep you interested. There are even hunts for gold skulltulas, which appear when special conditions are met, and unlock even more, fully unique missions along with some artwork, so some missions offer something new even on replays.
Some adventure mode maps will lock you to a character and weapon, and with the entire roster to choose from, inevitably you’ll be forced to use an underleveled warrior. There is also the extensive character upgrade system, which unlocks combos, a bigger special meter, stronger defenses, and the like using dropped materials and rupees from enemies, with three upgrade trees for each warrior. While there is a way to advance a character’s level using rupees, you will have to grind at some point, usually with a character you don’t like to use. For the likes of Link, it’s a little easier; with seven weapons to choose from, you can level him using a weapon you like to prepare for a challenge using one you don’t. For most, however, you’re stuck grinding for either money or experience, which can turn the game into a bit of a slog. This isn’t so bad in the base game, but with the DLCs and their three new, higher-level adventure maps, getting each character to the base level cap of 100 alone is a chore, and getting them all to the DLC cap of 255 can take weeks.
Sadly, this is necessary to get A ranks on every mission, as the final two DLC adventure maps balloon the damage you take to ridiculous amounts; if even one common monster gets a whack in, prepare to lose four hearts worth of health, and most A ranks limit you to 8 hearts of damage total. Since A ranks are required for unlocking parts of the map as well as new items, this is less optional than you might think. Don’t expect your AI allies to help you, either – both the foot soldiers and the generals on your side are functionally useless, even when you stick around to babysit them. The enemy AI has no such problem, and will attack key points on the map with fervor; without your intervention, your side will lose almost every time. There is the rare treat when one of your allies does something useful, but 99% of the time it’s all up to you to do everything.
Beyond the level system, you collect weapons as you play the game; each base weapon type has three varieties with ascending levels of power. Weapons also come with anywhere from one to eight slots, in which passive abilities can be placed. These range from making specific combo attacks stronger to a flat damage boost for your special attack to making your warrior attack faster. While a neat system, this does add one more layer of grind, as getting the strongest weapon with the most slots, along with filling those slots with useful abilities, can take a while. In addition, some abilities only unlock after defeating a certain amount of enemies – anywhere from 1,000 to 25,000. It’s barely noticeable if you’re playing with your favorite character, but again, the grind will likely be with a neglected one.
The upside to this is that you can obtain levels, money, and weapons all at the same time, and the game offers an “apothecary” menu to buff experience, money, weapon drops, weapon slot numbers, and so on using materials. Unfortunately, there is no potion that makes your least favorite warrior fun to play. While no warrior is useless, there is a wide gap in power between the best and worst characters that only gets worse the longer you play. If your least favorite character happens to be one of the weaker ones as well, you’re in for a long grind.
That said, combat as a whole is flashy and smooth, and effortlessly tearing apart an enemy army never truly gets old. The story mode eases you into the different characters, and has four difficulty modes to choose from – the final one is tailored for high-level characters, so you can replay the story and still face a challenge. Voices are mostly limited to the classic Zelda grunts and shouts, though the story missions are fully narrated by a somewhat bored-sounding woman. The many playable maps invoke the older games nicely, from the red rocks of Death Mountain to the bright darkness of the Twilight Realm; the smooth graphics and pleasing art style go a long way in making each area look its best. The music is mostly remixes of familiar songs, and all are very nicely done – though there is one song that is essentially a short loop of a single note repeated over and over that can grate on your ears after a while.
The game runs at 720p and 60fps; the latter is surprisingly resilient to drops even with lots of enemies displayed, but once you fill the screen with particle-heavy attacks, you’ll see the framerate dip well below 30. A well-designed user interface and snappy load times ensure that you’ll spend far more time playing the game than looking at menus. The game is filled to the brim with traditional Zelda series details, from the treasure chest opening sequences to items coming out of cut grass. Overall, the presentation of the game is clean and polished, and the audio and visual feedback it gives you goes a long way to making combat feel fun even after dozens of hours.
There is a significant amount of downloadable content for the game, but not all of it is created equal. The three main packs, themed on Master Quest, Twilight Princess, and Majora’s Mask, unlock a few characters, costumes, and a full adventure map each; there’s also a season pass to get all of them for a lower price. That season pass does not include the later DLC, which only contain new characters and costumes. Additionally, one of Link’s weapons, the spinner, is only available through connecting his amiibo with the game, which in practice makes it the most expensive DLC in the game if you don’t plan to use the amiibo for anything else. Zelda series amiibo will give you character-specific weapons once a day when paired; others will give you random weapons, materials, or rupees. Overall, the season pass gets you the most value for your money, with the other packs being of lesser importance.
Morally, Hyrule Warriors stands up as well as any other action game. Bloodless violence is the main feature, but every enemy is “defeated” rather than killed, and either visually retreat or disappear in a puff of smoke and rupees. Other than the violence, a few characters wear revealing and/or tight clothing; the main villain, Cia, is the worst offender, and generally carries herself in a sexually suggestive way throughout the game. A few characters have access to standard fantasy magic, and one of the possible army types is comprised of skeletons and zombies, but the game doesn’t place any specific focus on either of them.
In the end, Hyrule Warriors’ positives greatly outweigh its negatives. With a fast, fluid, and fun combat system and plenty to do with or without its DLC, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth well before the grind sets in. While the repetitious gameplay may turn some people away, fans of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors alike will find it a worthy addition to their respective series; for fans of both, this is a must-have. Just don’t ask where this game falls on the Zelda timeline – you’ll have to wait for the series’ 50th anniversary like everyone else.