I’m notorious for starting and never finishing games in The Legend of Zelda series, mostly because either I get to a dungeon that frustrates me or I simply don’t know where to go, though recent entries have largely addressed this. A Link Between Worlds was fantastic and I like telling people that the first time I ever beat Ocarina of Time took place on Nintendo 3DS in 3D. That's way more dimensions than the original 64-bit version, right? I admit that it feels silly to hold some position of power as a game critic and still lack so much background in the franchise.
Thankfully, Koei Tecmo and Nintendo have the perfect refresher course for anyone looking to re-familiarize themselves with the characters that drive action and drama throughout Hyrule. Perhaps more notably, Hyrule Warriors represents the first instance where Zelda might actually kick more ass than the green tunicked hero and where the points don’t matter because you end up “knocking-out” thousands of enemies in each level.
It’s not that Hyrule Warriors is a bad game. In fact, I would contest the opposite with particular emphasis for anyone who has successfully completed a Dynasty Warriors title in the past. There’s virtually no distinction between the gameplay in that series and the gameplay present in Hyrule Warriors. You’ll run around battlefields, liberating fortresses filled with enemies and replacing mini-bosses with your own captains and grunts. You’ll stave off enemy forces by capturing waypoints and more often than not you’ll be directed to take down a powerful boss by the end.
Still, I have to continue my honesty as a hero of light and wielder of the Triforce of Internet Courage and say that I hate this style of gameplay and it only feels more and more dated as I play. There’s a moment in almost every level of Legend Mode, which presents a totally new and totally non-canon story, where players will likely find themselves mindlessly mashing the Y and X buttons just to clear a mob and move on. That is one of the worst feelings to have in modern gaming.
On the one hand, it represents a relatively threadbare method of seduction into either Zelda or Dynasty Warriors franchises and I honestly can’t tell which has the bigger pull here. Having played a Gundam Musou game, I’d wager a million rupees that Zelda fans will get far more out of this than a standard Dynasty Warriors game. On the other hand, Dynasty Warriors has been around forever and you’ve likely played some version of it so you should already know if this Wii U exclusive is a buy or not.
That said, Hyrule Warriors goes above and beyond the dutiful princess rescuing to present players with a totally original Zelda experience. In truth, you might miss some of the puzzle solving. You might want to slow the pace of battle down and figure out exactly what the objective is as ignoring in-game alerts will often pull players way off track and send them flying towards failure. I did this while engaged with one mid-boss and while I’d take blame for such a rookie gamer mistake, there is an overwhelming myriad of in-game messages that only makes it difficult to pay proper attention while grinding away in combat.
In one level, you might have to clear every castle keep, take over the map, and then move on to a boss battle. Half way through the boss battle, Link and company may have to separate. There may be two key objectives on opposing sides of the battlefield and unfortunately the game’s artificial intelligence won’t cut you slack. You’ll have to run to one, run to the other, and hopefully maintain both bases long enough to move on to the next objective.
Regardless, Hyrule Warriors offers a wealth of different options, modes, and items to collect. You can head to the Bazaar to upgrade all of your weapons, craft new badges that add to your combos or overall combat strength, and you can even engage in mini-missions via Adventure Mode and Free Mode. Free Mode lets you pick any character and use them in any battle scenario you’ve already completed, making leaderboards and high score competitions a divisive effort where you’ll likely discover one hero you want to use more than any other. Impa’s powerful broadsword or Lana’s magic books can pack quite a punch and learning a few of the more intricate combos makes crowd control entertaining.
I particularly like Adventure Mode which offers players a Weapon Master-esque opportunity to dig really deep into Hyrule Warriors mechanics. You’ll remember Weapon Master mode presenting a story of the souls trapped in Soul Calibur II’s universe with plenty of unlockable items and a lengthy if unintuitive story mode. Koei Tecmo doesn’t stretch itself too thin here. The fun is in discovering some of the more unique challenges via each 8-bit block where certain goals offer better rewards than others.
The map itself is wide and some of the challenges require a lot less time than the 30-60 minute Legend Mode levels, which altogether shortens the investment in button-mashing and increases the entertainment in combining weapons to carry unique traits over for your hero. The Bazaar’s Weapon Badge and Smithy options don’t seem all that deep on the surface but adding new abilities and unlocking everything for every character will take a ton of time. With Adventure Mode and this wealth of options, Hyrule Warriors may carry the Dynasty Warriors banner further into my heart than any other game before it.
It’s up to you how easily the veneer of action-oriented gameplay wears off when many other games featuring creep-type enemies and powerful heroes have captured so much attention by focusing on competition and multiplayer. If anything, that’s my biggest complaint now that I’m not seeing the game surrounded by cosplaying Links and Zeldas in a Seattle hotel ballroom at PAX. When you slay the thousandth enemy for the tenth time, you figure it might be better to say “Well, excuuuuse me, Princess!" and call it day.
Of course, Nintendo’s dogged determination to become more inclusive defuses that line with more playable female characters than male. I think it’s a welcome sight and even without finishing the game, the variety does add to the score it receives below. I’d hope that more major franchises, especially those that have leaned on gaming tropes, like saving a princess from a tall castle, take notice. Hyrule Warriors benefits from allowing the Zelda series to take some big risks. Even if the graphics and gameplay feel like a generation late and a few stellar dungeon designs short, I’d like more third-party developers to pitch projects like this as each leaves me more hopeful that Nintendo consoles won’t have rely on strictly first-party wares.
Download code provided by publisher. Exclusive to Wii U.