Review: Hyrule Warriors

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This is not a traditional Zelda game. Hyrule Warriors borrows many of the themes, names, sounds and designs from the Zelda games that have come out over the years, but it is not a typical mainstream Zelda game. It falls outside of the disjointed, confusing Zelda timeline and is a thing unto itself. Instead of solving puzzles and seeking secrets in dungeons, players will take the role of various heroes–some familiar some not–to conquer a multitude of foes in large scale battles that pit the forces of darkness made up of odd-looking, yet familiar, enemies against the nations of light. It is a fun game that can get repetitive after a while, but is largely an enjoyable experience, particularly for those who have grown tired of the traditional Zelda formula.

The most simplistic way to describe this game is to say that it is a Dynasty Warriors game with Nintendo characters. While very true, that does not help anyone that has not played one of the many Cao Cao hatting games. To be clear, this review is not going to be a highly detailed analysis on how successfully Hyrule Warriors adheres to the Dynasty Warriors formula or does everything right that a Koei fan could ever want from a Romance of the Three Kingdoms inspired murderfest. They have made a lot of these games, including some titles inspired by other properties, like Fist of the North Star and Dynasty Warriors: Gundam. (Full disclosure: I have not played any of those games.)

The last Dynasty Warriors title I played was the second one, which was a PlayStation 2 launch game in North America, and I only remember thinking the following:  the cloth flows nicely, this is sort of repetitive, there are a lot of dudes on the screen. With those three things as the sole criteria to determine whether this is a great Dynasty Warriors game, this game succeeds. The long, skyblue scarf on Link’s default Hero Garb looks sharp and flows. It’s also repetitive, as players will need to basically do the same thing hundreds of times, and there are tons of minions on the screen at once. Beyond that, I can’t tell you how it stacks up to over a decade of refinement on that old sequel to a hack and slash game. Which is probably a good thing, because my enjoyment of this Nintendo game means that one does not have to be a longtime Warriors fan to get something out of this package.

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Players will take control of one hero per mission. Who to select is largely a matter of taste, as all of the heroes have the abilities needed to get the job done: the ability to kill – sorry, “Knock out” – thousands of people on the battlefield. By mashing out a simple series of button combinations of light and area attacks the chosen hero will destroy possibly hundreds of enemies in a minute, if they are close enough together and he or she can manage to avoid the few lazy jabs tossed out by the baddies. For the most part the game is not difficult and the only time there is any challenge is when larger lieutenants or bosses pop out of portals or are found amongst the masses. They have specific attack patterns to avoid and deal with, but are usually easy enough to dispatch. As missions are completed the heroes will level up and can use items dropped by enemies to forge new weapons (which look exactly like the old ones, but their numbers are higher). The flow of a mission generally consists of running from one outpost to the next, knocking out everything in between. Sometimes the mission goals are different, but the main objective is almost universally “go here and kill everything.” It never feels like Link or Zelda or whoever is leading an army to victory, only slaying their way to the enemy captains and taking them out.

The story spins a yarn about a sorceress who becomes obsessed with the hero of legend, who looks like Link, and ends up unleashing armies of darkness upon the land from portals into various times and places in Hyrule and its past. This somehow splits the soul of the evil being Ganondorf across the various eras, and it is up to Link and a new running crew of supporting characters to visit the eras and restore balance. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Gates of Souls to various times is mostly an excuse to visit characters from earlier Zelda games, such as Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time , but these beats will not hit very hard if you have not played these earlier games. Longtime fans may get some service out of this, but everyone else will only have a vague sense of who the bad guys are and that somehow smacking down thousands of enemy soldiers is contributing to the war effort. The story goes from one battlefield to the next, with only a few cinematics thrown in to break up the action. It has a beginning, middle and end, but the story is plainly not the draw.

If you get tired of the story mode, which is easy to do, then you can always tackle Adventure Mode. Here, players will fight in arenas and areas that will look very familiar, as they are recycled from the main game, in a series of challenges to try to unlock various upgrades and weapons. These maps are unlocked in a grid-like menu that resembles the overworld map in the NES original Legend of Zelda, 8-bit sprites and all.  As fun as this throwback look is, it would have been nicer if there was more interactivity than simply looking at old images of bushes and octoroks. Every square of the map represents a battle that must be completed with confinements such as finishing a fight in a certain amount of time or KO 1,200 enemies as quickly as possible. In addition to unlocking new areas on the map and potentially new rewards to use in the other game modes, item cards resembling old Zelda items can be used on the previously unlocked squares. This works a bit like the old Zelda game–bomb cards are used to blow up rocks and candle cards burn bushes–but it is never clear where exactly you can use these items to get the unlocks. Most of the secret places are the same as the original game, so if you remember hidden areas from almost thirty years ago, then you’ll be all set. Everyone else will have to use compass cards which give a vague impression of where the correct spot may be in an area, or you can just look it up online. 

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The limited number of uses for the various items is an annoying gate to progress. Some of the areas have over a dozen places that an item can be used, for example there might be more than ten bushes to burn and it can be a chore to find the right one with only having one burn for each card. The limited means of figuring out what you need to do to get the best gear within the confines of this game, without looking to older titles or online FAQs, is very frustrating and can easily turn what should have been a fun, nostalgic side-mode into a complete pain.

The worst thing about this game is the potential that it can see but fundamentally lacks. When there are hordes of enemies all around and Link is just nuking them by the score with a supped-up fire rod and they all fall to their knees or get thrown about by the sheer force of the explosion, it looks very impressive. But when the fighting dies down and there is no longer a horde to slay, the drab simplicity of the environment textures is painful. If there are no foes, the game world is revealed as an empty lot with nothing interactive and plain backgrounds. 

As the story progresses, Link and his pals will all get access to various classic Zelda tools, but they are all used in very specific ways. One of the earlier items, the bombs, can break up the combat as they can be thrown at a group of enemies, but other than that – which is not as effective as a hero’s regular attacks – they only blow up very specific items which block advancement. There is very little sense of the classic exploration of traditional Zelda games, and the use of tools is more of a hindrance than anything to relish. It also would have been great if there were substantial strategic commands to give friendly troops. They can be seen on the overhead map and run next to you in the field, but they might as well not be there. It never seems like they do anything effective, and they are always waiting for the big hero to come and save them. You never feel like a general, just a prize bull in a sea of Chihuahuas, mindlessly running over them to get to the next china shop.

All this running around and fighting does eventually approach an anti-zen state where it is impossible to think about what you are doing because there is almost constant stimulation due to the hundreds of minions on the maps. There can be, for up to twenty to thirty minutes at a time, always something to do that is right in front of you.  Go capture this outpost, then this base, then deal with this special type of captain, then hit your special and take out 67 enemies at once, then hit this raid leader, which then leads to another outpost, on an on, sometimes accented with story beats driving the battle onwards. It is a barrage of action. Spurring things on is the entire loot element where players can seek out certain types of larger enemies to not only shift the tides of war, but to get the materials necessary to craft badges for passive bonuses or better weapons. It can be very addictive, and I can understand why the Dynasty Warriors franchise has lasted so long.

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With the highs of bloodlust, or whatever stalfos have (marrow?), come the withdrawal that makes one examine what they are doing. The realm of Hyrule for these Warriors is really a series of interconnected empty fields meant to be filled by troops. When there isn’t anything to kill, the game becomes very uninteresting. Aside from the action, the only thing to do on the battlefield is to seek out hidden Golden Skullkas, which do not unlock anything particularly amazing, and run from one location to the next in featureless fields hoping to eventually knock out some more people. When Link et al are not in the thick of it, this is a boring game. Usually the game feeds enemies consistently into your meatgrinder, but some of the missions or the search for crafting materials can require running from one empty side of the map to another. At these times you may start to question what you are doing with your spare time. You’ll ask yourself, “Am I really knocking out the same mass of guys for as long as it takes to have a conversation with a loved one or walk a mile outside on a sunny day? My life’s hourglass’s sand doesn’t go the other way. What is wrong with me?” These troubling, introspective thoughts are chased away the very moment there is another sea of demonic creatures in front of you with rage and challenge in their glowing eyes, but the temporary, boring downtime spent dashing across a dull and featureless map does highlight the shortcomings of this exclusive Wii U experience.

If it’s raining outside and you’re all caught up with friends and family, then this is not a bad way to while away a few hours. Between the main story and the extra modes there is certainly plenty of content in Hyrule Warriors to keep you occupied. As good a first impression as it makes, it will eventually become apparent that there is not any substance to go along with the flash. The various enemy captains and their signature attacks break virtually unopposed “knocking out” fests which are the regular enemies, but these larger encounters will become just as repetitive as stringing out the same combos time after time to the point where they are an extended script to be added to the little ones. After figuring out what special weapon or tool the boss characters are weak to, whatever challenge they may have provided evaporates. The looks and sounds of the game are absolutely nailed in a way that invokes the classic Zelda games and presents them in a fresh manner. The story is certainly more complex than a typical Zelda game, but whether or not that is a good thing may be a matter of taste. It is a fun game to play for a battle or two every couple of days, but after completing the story and adventure mode there is little reason to keep it in your system. If there was more depth to the battles or character development, this would be a memorable classic. As it is, Hyrule Warriors is like a pixie stick, it is brightly colored and tastes nice in the moment, but there isn’t any substance.

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Pros:
+ Impressive looking explosions and enemies
+ Easy to pick up and play

Cons:
– Repetitive
– Lackluster environments

Game Info:
Platform: Wii U
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Omega Force / Team Ninja
Release Date: 9/26/2014
Genre: Hack and slash
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2 (local co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.