It’s rare that Nintendo will trust an outside studio to work on entries to their core game series, and even more-so that they’ll listen to an indie developer for a thoroughly unexpected crossover. Clearly someone within Nintendo was a fan of the addictive rhythm action roguelite Crypt of the NecroDancer, handing Brace Yourself Games the privilege of creating a crossover game with the Legend of Zelda series.
Cadence of Hyrule is the perfect mash-up of the two, picking and choosing different elements from NecroDancer and Zelda to create something that sits happily in the middle. This isn’t NecroDancer with a Zelda skin, and thanks to a plethora of gameplay options it could easily be enjoyable if you’re a fan of one and not the other.
The game starts as Cadence from Crypt of the NecroDancer appears in thin air and drops unceremoniously into Hyrule. Luckily for the inhabitants of this cursed land, she’s done so just as the king of Hyrule, Princess Zelda and Link have all been put to sleep by Octavio and his magical tri-force powered lute. With a fairy nudging you through the tutorial to learn the game’s controls, you choose either Link or Zelda to be your first hero in the adventure and can switch between them and Cadence as you get deeper into the adventure. Or not. You can play as Zelda through practically the entire game if you want. Why has it taken an indie crossover for Zelda to be a main protagonist? Not Link in a dress, not Zelda’s spirit in some Phantom Armour, just kicking butt as Zelda herself. Flipping finally!
Each time you start a game, the world is created afresh around a few key landmarks – Hyrule Castle, Kakariko Village and four dungeons – creating a blend of procedurally generated and bespoke areas to battle and puzzle through. It’s styled after the classic top-down Zelda games, with the world made up of a large grid of screens that you move between and more than a few weapons and abilities to unlock as you adventure, though where you’ll find them in the world is randomised. You’ll also be picking up a few items of gear – a shovel to dig through soft walls, a light to extend your view in dungeons, and a ring and boots which can all have various defensive and offensive benefits. Perhaps taking a leaf from Breath of the Wild’s book, these gear items degrade over time or, if made from glass, can simply shatter when you take damage.
The key hook to NecroDancer is that it’s a Mystery Dungeon-style game played out to the beat of the soundtrack. Every step, attack or ability that you take also sees all the enemies and objects in motion act at the same time. If you move in front of an enemy as they’re winding up to attack, you get hit, but likewise you can learn and see their telegraphed actions to react and avoid taking a hit. The twist is that you can only act in time with the music, forcing you to keep moving, to make snap judgements and often leading to mistakes. Thankfully, once you’ve cleared an area, that rule is relaxed and you can move as fast as you like.
The absolute highlight for Legend of Zelda fans will be Danny Baranowsky’s simply sublime musical genre remixes of classic Legend of Zelda melodies. Sure, the main series theme is still pacey and rousing MIDI, though not used as the title music as you might expect, but then there’s a grungy metal number when you head up to Death Mountain, and smooth lounge jazz in the ice dungeon and for Song of Storms in a windmill homage to Ocarina of Time. Every little ditty has been wound into two forms, depending on whether there’s enemies on screen and you need a strong tempo to keep track of, or if you’ve cleared the screen and a more relaxed rendition can be brought out.
A few too many errors could spell the end of your run in Crypt of the NecroDancer, but even as Cadence of Hyrule throws a dozen enemies at you per screen, the game’s not that challenging. Sure, you have to learn a few tricks to each enemy, but pick up a few extra hearts and settle on your favourite weapon – I’m a fan of the rapier – and you won’t be dying that often. If you do fall, you just lose your rupees and gear before respawning back at a Sheikah Stone of your choice via a game-over shop that will let you restock some gear.
Thankfully you’re given a wealth of options to customise the game’s difficulty to your desires. To make the game a touch easier, you can enable Fixed-Beat Mode, which locks the game’s actions to your button presses instead of the music, letting you consider each move more carefully and bringing the game feel closer to a Mystery Dungeon. NecroDancer veterans might prefer to go in the opposite direction, bumping up the difficulty with a Double-Time Mode and permadeath, and with a daily challenge based of a shared randomisation seed.
There’s also two player co-op, which works surprisingly well thanks to the fixed screen views in the overworld, but given how strictly you need to be keeping time to ensure you don’t miss a beat and lose your multiplier, playing with a single Joy-Con and using an analogue stick for movement is less than ideal. There’s a reason why NecroDancer’s excellent latency tuning test has been reused! An option exists to swap movement to the buttons under your right thumb, but you’re better off playing with a pair of Joy-Con or another controller with both D-pad and buttons.
If there’s one real complaint I have of the game, it’s that it’s very much an action-oriented Zelda game intent on spamming you with enemies in place of making you intelligently use items and abilities. Because of the procedural generation, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have a bow or hookshot, meaning that puzzles and enemy designs can’t be built around them. That doesn’t make them useless, but it means that when keeping to the beat and faced with half a dozen enemies coming at you through a gap one square wide, you’re just going to stab away with a spear and occasionally dodge backward. You won’t think “Oh, let’s give the Deku Leaf a try!” or bother trying to use a Scroll of Confusion, simply because time is against you and straightforward combat is typically the easier option.