Let’s all be honest with ourselves, the most interesting part of the story of Breath of the Wild was the Calamity. This unavoidable disaster destroyed the kingdom 100 years ago and left Princess Zelda in a war of magical attrition to stop Calamity Ganon fully claiming the world. It was also an event that was only seen through flashbacks and fragmented information to the point of frustration.
As we patiently wait for the sequel to Breath of the Wild, Nintendo have decided to link us to the past, allowing the player to live through this era with Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. In fact, it literally begins during the build up to the Calamity as Zelda and her chosen knight Link embark from Hyrule Castle to enlist the aid of the four Champions of the Hyrulian tribes, and their Divine Beasts, to defeat the encroaching evil.
You combat the Calamity by hacking your way through familiar enemies across battlefields set in and around recognisable scenes from the original title. All the trimmings from musou genre are here: hordes of foes; an excessive KO counter; long, devastating combos; challenging boss encounters; even a host of challenge missions to test your skills with the game.
Each character has their own play style within the musou framework, so can execute combos combining normal and strong attacks, with a devastating special available when you have the bar filled. The intrigue comes from each character’s unique ability, all of which are pinned to one button, and can be interwoven into the combat or used to utterly change the flow of it.
These range from Impa’s symbol ability, which creates clones to replicate Impa’s attacks to devastating effect, to Revali’s gale ability allowing him to remain in the air and granting the use of an entirely separate combo tree. These make all of the characters feel completely different, unlike the first Hyrule Warriors, but the standardised control set makes switching seamless.
Link is more unique still, with multiple movesets being linked to him depending on the weapon he has equipped. Harking to the source material, Link’s resourcefulness knows no bounds with swords, clubs, spears and even soup ladles all at his disposal. Equipping different weapon types will dramatically change how to use him, and also give different unique abilities.
Returning from Breath of the Wild are the Sheikah runes, which also add an extra dimension to the combat. Unlike that game, where the tools were unwieldy to use, the runes fit into far more seamlessly. Whenever the slate is available, you can use any of the four to affect all enemies around you, or to exploit weaknesses of bosses and captains to make them vulnerable.
The interesting thing is, while the characters all have access to the Sheikah slate, each one will use the abilities in different ways. For instance Link will simply throw a few Remote Bombs, but Zelda will summon a little Remote Bomb tank that the player has skuttle around flinging bombs everywhere. There’s a lot to learn about characters this time around.
Here lies one of the best improvements of Age of Calamity over both Hyrule Warriors and Breath of the Wild. Not only are the main enemies so enjoyable to dispatch, but variety of the combat mechanics makes the stronger foes challenging. It gives you a large amount of options, whether capitalising on their telegraphed weaknesses or simply using your skills strategically.
The flexibility in the combat this time around is astonishing, pulling in the ingenuity of combat in Breath of the Wild but structuring it just enough to not overwhelm the player during the frantic battles. This perfect blend of styles is a testament to how closely the Zelda team worked with the Warriors team on this title, and something that can be seen in every facet of the game.
However, hack and slash isn’t your only option this time around, as the four Divine Beasts are at your disposal in their own encounters. These giant behemoths are exactly as fun to pilot as you could have imagined from their original appearances. Vah Ruta, for instance, can fire ice shards into the thousands of enemies or swing its trunk to destroy all obstacles and scenery around you.
Another improvement in the spin-off series is how you progress and enhance your characters. All of the excessive menus of the first Hyrule Warriors are gone, with everything taking place on the world map instead. Increasing combos, adding hearts, levelling characters and the like is all done through quests on the map and you can complete them simply by gathering resources during gameplay.
This includes cooking! Throughout the world map there will be little missions shaped like pots you need to gather resources to complete. Once completed, you unlock that recipe to whip up before missions, which can then give you such effects as additional damage or elemental resistance. Let me tell you, these are basically essential to success at times.
The map also has one more great little feature in the time-saving Sheikah Sensor. This allows the highlighting of particular missions you’re trying to find the resources for, which will then point out precisely where to find them. Activating it will drop neon green circles around the location and if this is a shop, it even highlights the item in green in the shop menu.
Needless to say this is yet another improvement on the last title, when you had to somehow remember which resources you needed for each Badge or other character upgrade.
If you do fancy a couple of menus though, there’s a few galleries for refreshing the player on practically everything in the game. From here you can rewatch all of the cutscenes again, find character bios, listen to music, or read descriptions of every completed quest. As the cutscenes in particular are breathtaking, this is a great feature.
All of this isn’t to say that the game is flawless, and it does have a few minor issues blocking it from being perfect. The multiplayer is activated through a single button press on the map, but while it’s incredibly easy to start, you might regret it. The otherwise smooth frame rate really tanks in multiplayer. It’s better when your characters are separate but when together the action really slows down. Not ideal.
Then there’s the camera, which falls prey to a lot of the problems that a lot of 3D games do, getting caught on scenery and not adequately locking on to powerful enemies, to give a couple of examples. These are very minor gripes in the grand scheme of things, but really do hamper the enjoyment of what is a frenetic and fun game.
One thing for certain is that Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is absolutely gorgeous. Taking heavy pointers from Breath of the Wild again, all of the flair of the art style has carried over with everything having the ancient stone and neon blue effects thrown in. The character and world design is superb, truly looking and feeling like part of the universe.
The sound design also brings across the quirks from its source material, with all the chimes and noises being reproduced, and the excellent voice acting for all the characters brings some levity to all of the story beats, with Link having his best vocal performance yet. Just kidding folks, it’s just a bunch of “hyahs” again, as it always is.
Finally, the fantastic soundtrack has to be highlighted. Not only does this spin-off title actually have music, unlike large swathes of Breath of the Wild, but every track is absolutely superb. Aesthetically, this is an incredibly strong package, and one that it’s hard to find fault with. All of the slight touches of the game combine to create something simultaneously familiar and refreshing.