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Hyrule Warriors Review: A Lesser Art of War
Hyrule Warriors is often best when its demands are simplest. An eclectic ensemble of Zelda characters performing on the frantic stage of Dynasty Warriors, Nintendo’s colorful crossover of magic, spectacle, and mass mayhem lives up to its odd-couple parentage with a commendable zeal infrequently lost to humdrum routine. Where depth and scope fail it, gratifying gameplay and impeccable fan-service craft Hyrule Warriors into a guiltless pleasure still worthy of a charming tribute to its legendary namesake.
On the surface, Hyrule Warriors checks off all the Zelda tropes required of it: the weaponry, the classic enemies, the dungeons, the quirky side characters and races. As tradition dictates, Hyrule is yet again at the mercy of a no-good doer, a particularly flirtatious Cia, but it’s not Link alone that answers the call to duty. This time it’s the damsels who cause the distress on the enemy’s forces, namely Impa, Zelda, and Sheik. Wildcards like Twilight Princess‘s Midna are along for the ride along with one newcomer, Lana, a spell caster extraordinaire and all around girly girl with an infectious giggle. The familiar Zelda melodies soar amidst Dynasty Warriors’s endearing fusion of techno and rock and the game’s vivid palette of color and character design can’t help but generate a knowing smile amidst the explosive spectacle of Goron hordes falling before your blade.
The initial joy that comes from mashing buttons and watching Link and his cohorts slash down mindless scores of imps, goblins, wizards, and dragons does give way to a lethargy midway through, primary among them being Dynasty Warriors‘s age-old nemesis of brain-dead AI. Stand still long enough and you start to notice most of your allies and enemies are mannequins only telepathically engaging one another. Larger enemies like Lizalfos and Big Poes, as well as Manhandla and the infernal Volga, offer some vestiges of strategy and reflexive challenge. Prompts for shooting out eyes, toes, and other obvious weak points are a release from enemy mobs, but for most of your playtime, you’ll burn through the 11-13 campaign without much in the way of elegance.
It’s ultimately the universe in play rather than any real narrative that sets Hyrule Warriors apart in style. In the manner of Lord of the Rings and China’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the game’s sprawling display of Zelda worlds is breathtaking in size if not actual scope. More familiar territory like Hyrule Fields and Gerudo Desert give way to such spectacular settings as Faron Woods and Skyloft against a meaty backdrop of hundreds of onscreen AI and, of course, you. While all the above amount to little more than an arena for sharpening your blade, the cutscenes interspersed between battles are a treat in what amounts to the game’s story. Though no one might walk away feeling changed, several “twists” of sorts make a few good-natured winks reminiscent of fan-fiction towards Zelda lore.
Capturing enemy outposts, killing captains, and opening chests can all amount to a tired affair of escort missions and defending the fort if not for the characters by your side. Link and Impa feel near-invincible, sword at the ready, twirling like Jedi Knights more than Hylian Knights overhead to the sight of dozens of moblins before their feet. Zelda, meanwhile, dances more like a fencer; Darunia like a walrus hilariously swinging a whack-a-mole hammer; Fi’s more an ice-skater; and Shiek dishes out some fancy footwork coupled with ninja jabs and a mean harp to boot. Midna and Darunia are a mess to control short of their comical nature while Ganon barrels through the battlefield like a tank with Kratos leveling behemoths in short strokes. Their respective finishers are likewise delightfully destructively and true to character, only occasionally threatening the game’s stable frame-rate offscreen or on. Bringing the moon down on Argorok? That never gets old.
It’s this seemingly perfect marriage of arcade simplicities and smart aesthetics that imperfectly communicates its better halves. Neither Nintendo, Koei Tecmo, nor Team Ninja appear to know how to make its accessible brand of beast slaying something more, despite both masters being served here–mindless melee slaughter and light, fluffy fantasy–seem to want that exact thing. What tricks Hyrule Warriors has up its sleeve beyond the main story are a refreshing distraction nonetheless, the best being a delightful “adventure mode” across the game’s maps in bite-sized treasure-hunting missions. For all the pomp and circumstance, the scales tip in the favor of Dynasty Warriors than a more interesting medium in between.
On the upside, characters and weaponry join a rudimentary crafting system allowing players to forge and combine weapons for maximum effectiveness, use item pickups from the field to create badges and potions, or just throw herd-earned rupees at a level meter to bring a new character up to speed. Where previous Dynasty Warriors games allowed you to grind away and let a certain level of experience and spectacular feats enhance characters and weapons, success in Hyrule Warriors is measured by the spoils of war. It’s a trend in character customization in games that’s at best tolerable in most other games, more so in a game in which grinding’s more than welcome to bypass.
Hyrule Warriors is very much a product of two visions so much as its clash of goals result in its surprising allure. Injecting more depth into a franchise where there otherwise no previous demand, Nintendo and Techmo Koei’s lovechild rises to the simple task at hand even while reluctant to test its limits. Thriving in its comfort zone or perhaps abandoning a higher art, the Hylean Knights seem content to defend the homeland even if not out to conquer. In great ways or small, Hyrule Warriors plays the unassuming progeny, full of potential, untapped yet willing.