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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity isn’t subtle, but it’s still Zelda

A prequel that goes in a different direction

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At the outset of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the fantasy realm of Hyrule is in a bad place.

Monsters rule the land and once-great cities lie in ruins, all because of a devastating event known as the Great Calamity. It was something players heard about constantly as they ventured across Hyrule but didn’t actually get to witness firsthand. That’s where Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity comes in. The new game for the Nintendo Switch is a prequel that explores that very important moment that created the ruined world. The twist? It does so with a game that’s almost entirely unlike Breath of the Wild.

To understand what Age of Calamity is, you first need to understand a long-running franchise called Dynasty Warriors. It’s a hack-and-slash series that defines itself on scale: you aren’t fighting just a few foes but literally hundreds at the same time. It can be mindless at times, but it’s also incredibly thrilling; you’re an all-powerful hero turning the tide of a massive battle. Over the last few years, the series has expanded with spinoffs based on popular game franchises like Dragon Quest, Persona, Fire Emblem, and, in 2014, The Legend of Zelda. The original Hyrule Warriors was essentially a huge dose of fan service, mashing together an iconic world with straightforward action. The sequel is a little more ambitious.

What makes Age of Calamity so interesting, aside from the narrative possibilities, is the fact that, philosophically speaking, Breath of the Wild is about as far away from Dynasty Warriors as is possible. It was a game built on subtlety and restraint, rethinking what an open-world adventure could be with a focus on quiet, purposeful exploration. Dynasty Warriors has none of those qualities. It’s brash, loud, and straight to the point. If Breath of the Wild had notes of Studio Ghibli, Dynasty Warriors is more like a Dreamworks blockbuster.

And yet, it works. For the most part.

The core of what you’re doing in Age of Calamity is roughly the same as in its contemporaries. That’s to say you’ll be running around fairly large maps, slashing your way through hundreds, and occasionally thousands, of enemies. The bad guys are almost comically dumb. With the exception of bosses and other powerful characters — which are obvious because they’re physically huge — most of your opponents stand around in large groups, just waiting to get walloped. The strategy comes from fighting those bosses and managing the chaos. In addition to being a soldier, you’re also essentially a general directing powerful hero characters to important skirmishes so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Occasionally, there are twists like time limits or the dreaded escort mission, but this isn’t the kind of game where you’ll get confused about what to do next or where to go.

Age of Calamity plays with this formula in a few ways. The most obvious is the combat. Breath of the Wild introduced physics-based action to the series, with powerful runes that could fire remote bombs or put enemies in temporary stasis. Age of Calamity’s system isn’t quite as robust, but it’s still a lot of fun. Certain enemies are more susceptible to different rune abilities, sort of like in a roleplaying game, so there’s a nice bit of strategy. Plus, it’s just entertaining to put a gang of bokoblins in stasis, smack them a few times, and watch them fly. There’s a lot of spectacle to enjoy, from the sheer scale of battles to elaborate, screen-filling special attacks.

Even better, though, is that you play as multiple characters. Though Link remains the main hero, the early chapters of Age of Calamity are all about assembling a team of champions, and as you do so you’ll unlock them as playable characters. Each one has their own distinct feel. Link is a traditional Dynasty Warriors-style melee fighter, but Revali can fly and rain down arrows from above, while Urbosa has powerful electric attacks. Princess Zelda is perhaps the strangest of all: she doesn’t fight directly but instead uses the Sheikah Slate to attack remotely using runes. The varied cast goes a long way toward making an otherwise repetitive game feel interesting for the many hours it lasts.

Not all of the changes are for the better. Age of Calamity also lets players pilot the Divine Beasts — towering, mechanical creatures that played a pivotal role in Breath of the Wild — which sounds cool, but generally boils down to some generic turret missions with cumbersome controls. Similarly, most of the side missions are painfully straightforward; usually you simply have to kill a certain amount of enemies within a specific window of time. Thankfully, you don’t have to grind levels too much, so these missions are mostly optional.

But the thing missing most from Age of Calamity is any sense of adventure or exploration. The levels can be large, but most maps are a series of interconnected corridors which you’ll follow in a straightforward manner. And while you’ll visit plenty of beautiful and memorable locations, you get there by simply choosing options from a menu. It’s hard not to miss the wide open spaces of Breath of the Wild and that feeling of not knowing what’s around the corner.

I should also note that there are a few technical issues. While the game runs fairly well when your Switch is docked, playing in handheld mode kind of feels like you’re pushing the device to its limits. There’s lots of slowdown and blurry visuals, particularly when there’s a lot happening on screen, which, given the premise of Age of Calamity, is a very common occurrence. It was never unplayable for me, but it was definitely noticeable.

Of course, the other reason to play this game is for the story. Nintendo sneakily put important Zelda lore in this spinoff, and there’s a lot to dig into. Again, things are much more straightforward compared to Breath of the Wild — there are lots of voiced cutscenes and narrated moments — but I really enjoyed learning more about the world and characters. There are even some delightful twists that I won’t spoil here, along with an adorable little guardian character that feels like a long-lost Star Wars droid. As soon as its Amiibo goes on sale, I will be buying it.

For such a conflicted experience, it’s remarkable how well Age of Calamity works. No, it’s not a new Breath of the Wild, and fans coming to it from that perspective will likely be disappointed. (Luckily, a real sequel is in the works.) Despite some largely superficial similarities, the two games play completely differently. But some of those elements that made Breath of the Wild so beloved — a beautiful world, memorable characters, varied combat — help make an otherwise straightforward experience feel fresh and interesting. It’s not subtle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t Zelda.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is available on the Nintendo Switch on November 20th.