Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

When Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity was announced, I didn’t expect much. While the first Hyrule Warriors had been a stand-out among Omega Force’s many battlefield action titles, it still cleaved very close to the familiar. It was a Dynasty Warriors or a Samurai Warriors game in a Legend of Zelda wrapper, enhanced by the hollow nature of its blank-slate plot. Through this, it justified pulling in characters and locations from established and beloved entries in the main Zelda series’ history. It came off as a love letter to the franchise as a whole.

But Age of Calamity? That was slated to be a direct prequel to one of the Switch’s most popular and enduring launch titles, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

This seemed like a stark limitation, implying a narrower and more focused experience. No more whacky Zant to pit against Princess Ruto, no Cia or the like to bring that distinctly Tecmo Koei feel to the proceedings. And, given the plot of Breath of the Wild, no happy ending to expect at the end of the journey.

In that initial announcement, Nintendo also informed us that they were taking a heavier hand in the game’s development this time out. While the original Hyrule Warriors had been successful both commercially and critically, Nintendo had provided little more than the license and some guidance aimed squarely at protecting their IP, rather than at shaping the course of development. Now, they would have a direct say in the gameplay design and narrative of the title. This could have turned out poorly, given the potential to pull in less favored Breath of the Wild elements (like its weapon durability mechanic; anathema in a large-scale beat’em up), but it was also the first thing to catch my attention and pique my curiosity.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

And now, after playing the demo, I’m actively excited for the most unique and refined-feeling Warriors game I’ve ever touched.

Those who demand a certain core experience from Warriors titles needn’t fret — the DNA is still there — but this game has a certain spark, a special something, that elevates it above its fellows. While you’ll still be slicing and dicing your way through nigh-endless hordes of foes, there’s a mechanical variety on display that may be a first for Omega Force.

Characters have unique abilities, separate from their attack combos, but that might interact with them. Their movement options have been expanded, with dodges that can become wall jumps that can transition into paragliding. They have additional defensive options, with refined blocking mechanics and the aforementioned dodge, the Flurry Rush mechanic from Breath of the Wild rewarding a perfectly timed evasion.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

And beyond even that, the Sheikah Slate is present and powered up, offering enhanced and combative versions of the quartet of abilities it had in Breath of the Wild (kept in check by a global cooldown). These, along with the previously mentioned Flurry Rush and the shield parry, are critical in exposing the weak-point gauges of captain-class foes.

But that’s not what makes Age of Calamity special. It isn’t in the improved variety, the visuals and interface that seem ripped directly from Breath of the Wild, or even the time-travel elements in the plot that revive that kernel of hope that maybe we can prevent the inevitable, this time. No, it’s the feel.

Movement and combat are weightier and more satisfying than in the original Hyrule Warriors, or in other Omega Force games. Attacks still strike groups of foes at once, but they have a sense of impact that the series had previously struggled to convey. At once, the comprehensive defensive options and more deliberate movement intertwine, mixing with the crunchy and diverse combat to transform the gameplay from a repetitive mashing spree into an ebbing and flowing danse macabre on a grand scale.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

In truth, this feels less like an Omega Force licensed title and more like a true blue Nintendo game, an official spinoff of the Legend of Zelda franchise with all the attention and care that implies, but with the large-scale action chops Tecmo Koei’s most prolific team brings to the table.

The story is still taking a risk by aiming to flesh out events that have thrived in players’ imaginations due to their implications alone, but what’s in the demo thus far hints that the team may be able to pull this off. It was also nice to see the option to switch the voice acting over to languages other than English.

My only real complaint is that the game’s overall performance seems sluggish, as though running at under 30 frames per second. But it’s stable and playable in both docked and handheld mode, so that’s a minor quibble at worst, especially with the rumors of a more powerful version of the Switch on the horizon.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

After two main missions, including a perilous and extended struggle with a possessed Guardian (a battle that feels more fraught and dangerous than any individual Guardian encounter in Breath of the Wild), the demo informs you that you’ve taken it as far as it can go, enticing you to carry your progress forward into the full game. Come November 20, I intend to do exactly that.

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