Hyrule Warriors Review: Parts Make Sums

When I was a kid, I played games that made me feel things. Final Fantasy, Banjo Kazooie, Ocarina of Time, Silent Hill; these games evoked strong emotions that ran from face-melting awe to never-sleeping-again fear. I’m looking at you, Banjo Kazooie. Between Clanker and Snacker the Shark, I was well into my twenties before I slept a full night again. Through these games, I felt things I never could have dreamed of, before, as a kid living in the suburbs.

Hyrule Warriors doesn’t make me feel anything. That’s pretty cool, too.

Well, maybe that’s stretching it a bit. I didn’t feel nothing. The first time you let loose with a new combo, there is one feeling. Hilarity, as you watch dozens, sometimes hundreds, of enemies pinwheeling away from the crater you just blasted in the floor of the realm’s most sacred temple.

Ridiculous is what it is. Ridiculous in every way, really, which kind of contradicts its roots. It is a fusion of two very serious franchises: Zelda, which has always thought very highly of itself, an elderly poodle of a franchise, running about in circles in its same sailor costume as always; and Dynasty Warriors, whose True Tales of Feudal China are the perfect recipe for me to pass right out in the middle of a monologue. How did these games fuse into something that I would call “ridiculous?”

There’s a third agent at work, here. A catalyst, if you will. Team Ninja.

If you’ve played Dead or Alive, you know how downright brutal a virtual blow can feel, and Ninja Gaiden has showcased Team Ninja’s acumen in 3D, too. Dead or Alive 4 is nearly ten years old, yet I still wince when I think about some of Lisa’s particularly heavy hits, and I will never forget chaining together orbs with the Dabilahro to murder everything as quickly as possible and hopefully make it to the final boss in Ninja Gaiden. No moment in Hyrule Warriors ever quite surpasses the “true” Team Ninja games, and very few even come close, but the feeling is there. The sounds, the visuals, everything about the combat says to your enemies, “This is going to really hurt, man.”

The story is crap. Zelda disappears, Link is probably not that chosen one we heard about in the stories, but he might be a chosen one, friendships are made, bad guys are punched in the junk, same old story as every time since Link to the Past. If you don’t know what a Zelda story is going to be before going into it, you are not the target audience. You might still enjoy it, if you have any idea what the Zelda franchise is at all, or if you only played one or two of the games, but nostalgia is the real selling point, here. Until Nintendo has a serious paradigm shift regarding this franchise (and it is my sincere belief that they are slowly making their way toward it), you are not going to be wowed by the story of a Zelda game. I still stubbornly cling to the franchise and throw my money at it, but I am starting to miss the days when the story of a Zelda game was, “There’s guys out there, here, have a sword before you leave.”

The gameplay is pretty much Dynasty Warriors. If you haven’t played one before, imagine Starcraft with constantly-evolving objectives, but you only control one character instead of satisfying your God complex, you weird sicko. In the main story mode, or “Legendary Mode,” if you can bear to say that to your friends and family, you watch a cutscene explaining why everyone is wherever they are, you fight a large-scale battle on a sizable map, then you watch another cutscene telling you how awesome you were when you murdered those thousands and thousands of enemy troops.

If you’ve played a Dynasty Warriors game in the past, even once, you know exactly how this is going to play out. The first few missions do a great job of teaching you how to use the existing and new mechanics, so no one should have too much trouble figuring out how it works, whether they’ve played a Warriors game before or not. Within an hour, you’ll feel like a professional ethnic cleanser.

This is not exaggeration, in case you aren’t aware. Ethnic cleansing is the name of the game. The battles in this game involve thousands of participants on both sides. There is a counter for kills that only shows itself when you hit multiples of 50. There is that much killing. It’s not gory at all, but if you are such a delicate creature that a bloodless death in a video game bothers you, this one might actually kill you. Battles take about fifteen minutes, for the most part, and you can generally rack up the 1,000 kills you need to unlock the skill on your new sword in that time.

Concerning levels, there are 18 in the main story. Four of these are trips back to places you’ve already been, so we’ll call it 14. These levels appear every so often in the other modes, as well, but not often enough to be annoying, and there are several other smaller maps that I can’t just choose to play from a list, so they’re harder to quantify. I don’t find myself needing any more maps to stay engaged, though. I see them infrequently enough that I still have to navigate mostly with the minimap, and it always feels kind of fresh. Prolonged play would demand additional maps, but this is mostly a game I would play no more than once a week once the initial luster wears off, anyway. Future DLC will expand this stock a bit, but the true draw of the downloadable content for me is the promise of extra game modes and characters.

Ah, the characters. This far in, and this is the first time I mention them. This is because every other facet of the game is just passable. The maps look like Zelda on-screen, but Dynasty Warriors on the minimap. The upgrades are pretty much the same for every character, but you’ll get to grind out the materials thirteen times! Oh, Boy! The weapons are cool to look at, but miserable to farm up. The characters, though? Frickin’ art.

Most of the interaction you’ll have with a character before unlocking them is a little picture of them with text next to it telling you where to go, next. It seems aggravating, at first. They are one-dimensional and boring. But, it’s not called Hyrule Flawed Yet Strong Scholars, it’s called Hyrule Warriors. These characters didn’t come here to learn things about themselves so they can grow as people, they came here to join the army and murder everyone who opposes their nation. The only development they experience is the length of their combo. And hot damn, does it develop.

Combat is the character, here. This video shows something that words just can’t capture:

In case you are at work, or in a waiting room, or are a blind person who for whatever reason likes to have a machine read game reviews to them, this is Lana. She is a sorceress, and was created entirely for Hyrule Warriors. She fights using a… book? She doesn’t hit things with it, though, she’s a sorceress. What Lana does is summon walls. She has a couple combos that have her force-pushing a wall or two through her enemies, but they mostly just stand there. Her strong attack is this weird kick/dash thing, though, that, when aimed at one of her summoned walls, causes her to backflip impossibly high into the air, then blast the wall into shrapnel with her mind powers. No other character I’ve ever played as feels like this. Bayonetta comes close, or maybe using the nunchaku in Ninja Gaiden 2, but neither is quite as bonkers as summoning a cube to balance on top of so you can careen about drunkenly on top of it and roll it all over your foes until you blow it up like everything else you create.

Or, take Princess Ruto, for example. If you aren’t familiar with her character, she’s the Zelda franchise’s resident sexy fish lady. Traditionally, she swims around, looks like a fish person, and makes you feel really weird in a way you aren’t used to. That’s her character. Swimming and unwelcome sexual advances. In Hyrule Warriors, though, she is so much more. She is a dimension-trotting champion diver, using her power to slaughter hordes of enemy soldiers. She’s the sphere from Sphere, a firehose, and a wavepool all rolled into one. She, like all of the other characters, speaks to us with the elegance of her combat.

I’m not kidding. She actually uses portals that go, presumably, to her private diving pool, so she can dive down, leap out somewhere else, and repeat well past the point where a normal person would be sick. It’s absolutely incredible. Watch it:

The fighting in this game feels great. It’s pure, undiluted empowerment. If you only like games that make you earn your power through hours of suffering, keep moving. Or, lighten up. If you don’t you certainly won’t enjoy this one. Fighters begin overpowered, and just creep closer and closer to becoming Greek gods. Team Ninja has a tendency to swing pretty high on the empowerment scale, and Dynasty Warriors is possibly the most empowering action franchise of all time. Put it all together, and you get some of the coolest-looking, hardest-hitting, most fun-to-play combat I’ve seen in a while.

The fanservice in this game runs rampant, but it honestly improved the gameplay in a lot of ways. I had the controls set to “Zelda” mode, which approximates the controls of modern Zelda games, and puts most of the common actions on the same buttons as the main franchise. One of these buttons is a dedicated “item” button, which controls the many items you can cycle through in battle. These are all nods to the Zelda franchise, and they not only reference the franchise in obvious ways, they also add some more unique flair to the combat. The hookshot lets you zip around the battlefield and pull pesky fliers out of the sky, bows shoot arrows at things, like most bows do, and bombs blow up the rocks that hide items while launching baddies into the air. The story is clearly nothing but fanservice, but we already agreed that we would just kind of ignore the story.

Once you complete the main game, it is made abundantly clear to you, if you hadn’t gathered already, that there are four more characters to unlock. These are all found in adventure mode. This mode lays out the map from the first Legend of Zelda and has you slowly open it by completing challenges in the same engine as the story. These play out similarly to the missions in the main game, but with much simpler objectives that are less prone to changing throughout the quest. Some of them place restrictions or buffs on you, like the challenge in which all hits deal exponentially more damage than normal, both yours and the enemies’.

The game also sports a challenge mode, which has missions more comparable in length to the main story, but with the weirdness of the adventure maps. All modes are multiplayer capable, which is nice, but it has no online component, which is not nice. The couch multiplayer puts the player 1 screen on the WiiU’s gamepad, and player 2 gets the TV. The resolution drops for this to be possible, and framerate issues start to pop up, especially on the TV, but the setup is kind of a breath of fresh air. I threw away dozens of hours with a friend in the first weekend, talking smack into the wee hours while trying to rack up the higher kill count. It is purely co-operative gameplay, but a score counter like Super Mario 3D World would have been a welcome addition for the multiplayer, even if all I got was bragging rights. Half the fun of the first Super Smash Bros was trying to set new records for dozens of pointless stats, like top speed (you know, being bludgeoned through the air faster than your friends), most damage without dying, and fastest pitch (of the unfortunate friend who got the prize in being bludgeoned). These did nothing for the game, yet so much for the people playing it. We like numbers. We like it more when we have the biggest numbers. This is science.

All in all, this game fills a niche very close to my heart: bad day stress relief. Like Borderlands and Diablo, it’s hours of gleeful slaughter punctuated with fairly steady upgrades. Level up, upgrade skills, get better clubs to bludgeon bigger things. This one has a little more fanservice than most, but it’s lovingly-crafted fan service that never gets in the way of the gameplay. If anything, the nods to the Zelda franchise’s signature items have spiced up the old Warriors formula, and having Team Ninja around to spice up your combat never hurts, I suppose.

If you aren’t a Zelda fan, you might not enjoy Hyrule Warriors as much as someone like me, but it would still be fun to play for a while. Maybe play it at a friend’s place some night, if you’re really curious. I can, though, recommend it for just about anyone who enjoys Zelda and action games with light combat elements, even if you think you don’t like Dynasty Warriors games. It isn’t redefining genres or changing my worldview, but this Warriors game is just different enough that I don’t find it annoying. There, I said it. Score: “Not annoying” out of 10. If you know me at all, that’s about as glowing as I get.

Fine, 7.5/10. Thumbs up for combat, nostalgia, heart, and friendship, D- for innovation and story (story would have scored even lower if I hadn’t expected to be bored with it). Still better than Skyward Sword, though.