The first Hyrule Warriors was a real surprise. I never would have expected Nintendo and Koei Tecmo to join forces, much less on an Omega Force-developed Musou project. But the studio behind Dynasty Warriors has only grown better on what it does, and crossover project after crossover project has bolstered that reputation. But Hyrule Warriors was different, getting that extra spitshine afforded from Nintendo. Obviously that went well, because a sequel of sorts is on the way in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. And after playing the recent demo, I’m hoping this partnership lasts forever.
Age of Calamity is a totally different kind of Musou crossover. While the first Hyrule Warriors was very much a Musou experience with its original visual style and wacky “elseworld” style, this is more. It’s a seemingly canon part of the Zelda universe, albeit some goofy time travel stuff. But more importantly it’s a direct connection to Breath of the Wild, one of Nintendo’s most successful and important games ever. And with such a crucial premise, it’s only natural that Nintendo is much more hands-on. And it shows.
I wasn’t joking with that headline – Age of Calamity is perhaps the first Musou I’ve played that has a real big-budget feel. The battlefields are massive, full of lush detail ripped straight out of the original Breath of the Wild. The visual style is repeated here, with full voice acting and tons of cutscenes. Even the work on animations feels more deliberate and elaborate, with the game often sacrificing the speed you’d expect from a Warriors title in favor of finesse or weight. If you take Link from Hyrule Warriors and Link from Age of Calamity for example, while there are similarities the way they physically handle is tangibly different.
That doesn’t mean we’ve all of a sudden left the Musou style behind, though. The controls are as familiar as ever, with strings of weak attacks and heavy attacks that will produce different moves based on how long you wait. However, there is a ton of added complexity as not only does Age of Calamity want to adapt Breath of the Wild’s systems, it adds its own as well. You can access different abilities with the shoulder buttons, from the Skeikah Slate’s physics-oriented powers (which are super impressively adapted here) to a unique character action that’s different for everyone. There’s also wild stuff I never would have expected, such as a wall jump ability and Link’s access to the Paraglider.
With all of these extra techniques, that expands the range of physicality happening in Age of Calamity compared to other Musou games. For example, using the ice platform on a charging enemy will stun them at the same time Link goes airborne. You can then use the Paraglider to stay on top of that enemy, or move over to a different group and start an air combo. Then, after your button sequence you can use Link’s unique action for a volley of arrows, which will prompt a slow motion effect just like in the original game. And if you do it right, you can follow up with a combo-ender for style’s sake. And that’s just one example.
The other big thing I noticed right away was that Age of Calamity doesn’t shy away from punching you right in the mouth. Musou games are often known for their low difficulty, unless you bring it on yourself with the higher settings. This is still a Musou, but there’s an increased emphasis on timing, and damage if you mess up. Named units are extremely powerful, and a modified version of Hyrule Warriors’ weak point system. Instead of enemies lowering their guard after certain attacks, you’ll now need to rely on getting a Flurry Rush to expose a weak point.
And doing that isn’t easy. Even the first level’s Moblins will slap the crap out of you if your timing is off, taking out half of your hearts or more with one hit. To compensate, you’re able to eat various healing items on command, which fill up as you find resources from enemies and breaking things. So as long as you’re paying attention you can get by just fine, but that… Dark Souls-inspired meaty combat and dodging that Breath of the Wild was interested in is smartly incorporated in a Musou-friendly way.
The demo only allows two story missions, but it does give you a peek at the map. There’s no open world here ala Dragon Quest Heroes 2, but Age of Calamity finds a way to make playing with the map fascinating and worthwhile. Instead of a screen of upgrade menus like in most other Musou titles, Age of Calamity presents the Breath of the Wild map with its different regions and landmarks. Each landmark contains something interesting, from character-specific upgrades and challenge missions to feature unlocks such as shops, a blacksmith, and new recipes. Really it’s just a different kind of menu, but since everything is all on the map and separated by regions along with icons slowly filling up the space when you clear them, it feels authentic.
There is a major issue with Age of Calamity, and of course that’s performance. This is perhaps the most visually intense Musou on the Switch, and it definitely pushes the thing to its limits. This is not a game with a steady frame rate, and while it never tanks and is always solidly playable, you’ll notice the drops nonetheless. I’m hoping the final game will come with a performance option like Fire Emblem Heroes did, or at least be patched some after launch. Hyrules Warriors: Definitive Edition had similar issues, but it certainly runs a bit better today.
From its big-budget feel to its expanded combat options, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is definitely a bigger deal in the overall Legend of Zelda picture. It’s just as visually arresting as Breath of the Wild, albeit in a totally different context. I’m super interested in where the story goes, as well as how all the new characters fit into the gameplay. I just hope there’s enough time for those performance snags to get ironed out!