Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity – Hyrule Slaughterhouse
With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild being heralded as one of the greatest games of all time – a deserved recognition – Any game even slightly adjacent to it has a steep mountain to climb.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity comes at this challenge with what it knows best: hack and slash level-based gameplay with a distinctly Zelda flavour. Thankfully, AOC is top of the line at the Warriors tried and true formula, while pulling in all the right notes from its master in delightful ways.
From the jump, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity immediately telegraphs it’s alt-history machinations. In this timeline, Koei’s version of R2D2 jumps back in time during the collapse of Hyrule Castle to warn Zelda and her compadre’s of the dire straits ahead. This butterfly effect sure throws everything that is going to happen into doubt, which is a good thing – you are likely coming into this game knowing the outcomes of this point in time thanks to Breath of the Wild, so to not know what turns this story will take keeps it fresh.
There is of course also the fact that Warriors games are all about having as large a cast of playable characters as possible. Characters were even invented for the first foray into Zelda territory for a Warriors game after all. (Y’all remember Linkle? Where’s she at these days? Bring her back!) Given BOTW’s relatively small slate of loveable lugs, this story – almost by necessity – was limited in possibility.
That’s not to say that the tale being told here is bad. It sure is a bombastic rollercoaster, sometimes swinging a little too wildly from emotional disaster to goofy humour. While it’s not likely to pull on the heartstrings in the way it wants to, it serves as a through-line to explain why you’re travelling all over this recreation Hyrule.
And what a recreation it is. Definitely have to give the people at Koei Tecmo props here – everything down to the tiniest detail is in line with BOTW. The maps feel like they were directly sliced out of the inspirations open world. The models are lovingly crafted. Even the sound effects when scrolling through the menu are spot on. I’m sure a lot of this is literally just straight assets Nintendo provided, but even the parts that are entirely new feel so seamless.
This isn’t just from an aesthetic standpoint, but mechanically as well. Korok’s are hidden throughout the levels, and their seeds are used for upgrades. Recipes for cooking can be found and earned to boost stats for a fight. if you find yourself in the air mid-combat, you can pull out a glider and move through the air before smashing down on top of your foes.
Between missions, the map itself provides oodles of side missions and upgrade nodes with excellent BOTW style flavour text to flesh out the experience. Even things like resources and shops are worked in here, providing compelling upgrade paths for your characters and giving you plenty of side missions to help keep those numbers going up.
Where Warriors games have a (rightly earned) reputation for being button mashers, Age of Calamity does move one step up the ladder in complexity. Aside from your regular combos, there’s plenty of other aspects of a fight to juggle – particularly against boss enemies (of which there are a ton of). After enemies fire off a heavy attack, they are left open for a short window of time to wail on which reduces a type of stamina meter. Pull off a perfect dodge and time dramatically slows – again, just like BOTW – which performs the same.
In your arsenal of tools sits the four main abilities from BOTW – bombs, cryonis, stasis and magnesis. Each of these can be used generally or used to maximum effect during certain telegraphed attacks to open up an enemy for a pounding. On the flip side are each of the elemental rods, extremely helpful during tougher fights – but each with a limited number of uses until they can be charged up again.
Branching out even further, every single playable character has not only their own move set but their own variation on how the main abilities manifest. Link throws four medium-sized bombs in a row for example, whereas Zelda creates a controllable large walking bomb creature that continuously spurts forth small bombs for a limited time. General combat also varies wildly from character to character – there is no “oh, this is a spear user” style similarities. Every character has a move set that fits them. This keeps the combat fresh, and also gives different kinds of players plenty of options to find the character for them.
Most people are likely to play through Age of Calamity solo, and the game is set up to that effect. Most missions give you the ability to swap between 2 to 4 characters on the field at any given time, which usually means the lag time of running from place to place is minimal. That said, AOC does offer co-op the entire way through – and while there are definitely some major frame drops during particularly elemental moments, doing so is an immense amount of fun.
My fiancé Loren has dabbled in games – Wii Fit, Mario, the odd indie title etc – but in our house, gaming is very much my thing. I had a bit of a hunch with this one based off of a once-off level or two in Dynasty Warriors 5 we’d played together, so a few chapters in, I roped Loren in for a few maps to see how she’d go. Turns out, we ended up playing almost all of the main missions together from that point to the very end.
Initially, I was a little worried that the higher complexity in combat options would be somewhat overwhelming, but to my surprise, Loren was able to figure a lot of it out on her own. It’s easy to start with “here’s how you attack, now go toward the bad guys”, then progress from there. Where most of the time we’ve played games together it’s mostly to humour me, here Loren was actively asking questions on what this icon meant or how to perform certain actions. By the end, Loren knew to watch her health and how to heal; what the various special bars meant, how to replenish them and how to use them; how enemies telegraphed attacks, when to get in and get in a few hits and when to get out of the way.
That’s part of the broader appeal of this style of game. While Warriors games are often looked down upon in the games space by the press and The Pro Gamers alike, they give people a space to experiment and find their own groove. You can safely get by with mashing the light and heavy attack buttons – while at the same time, have room to branch out a little, learn a little more, up your ability and understanding of the systems available. You don’t have to know everything, but it’s there if you want it.
The best part of this is that someone like me, who has played way too many hours of games already, can play right alongside someone with comparatively much less experience, and we can both have a great time.
As is par for the course with Warriors games, there’s a ton of abstraction between the actions you are performing – slaughtering thousands upon thousands of enemies – and the reality of what that actually means. It’s not really a rabbit hole to go down here, and there’s definitely plenty of media already tackling the horrors of this type of power fantasy of a power fantasy – see Drakengard on the PS2 for a particularly stomach twisting commentary on that front – but the transferring of that idea into the Zelda franchise still feels… weird.
Through Age of Calamity, there are sections where you get the honour of controlling the divine beasts from time to time. This kicks the slaughter of monsters into overdrive. The idea of being tasked to slaughter 30,000 in a single level using the incredibly destructive power of the divine beasts is… a lot. Rampaging around Death Mountain or raining down laser blasts over Hyrule Forest, tearing giant chunks out of the landscape like tearing apart a slice of bread, feels terrifying in its raw destructive capabilities.
It’s meant to be a further example of a fun time – this games version of a turret or mounted machine gun section, if you will – but it’s hard to not draw queasy conclusions despite the jovial nature with which the champions go about their missions. Maybe any single person having the capability to instantly destroy the lives of tens of thousands is not a great thing, who knows?
By now you’ve probably noticed the nice big watermark staining the lovely screenshots Age of Calamity produces. Like, honestly Koei. Get rid of it. People take screenshots as memories and to share with their friends / on social media. It’s free marketing. No one wants to share memories with great big COPYRIGHT TRADEMARK THIS IS OUR PROPERTY NOT YOURS markings across them.
Pull your heads out. This is why I haven’t played Persona 5 or Dragon Quest XI and is the hill I will die on. No more watermarks on player-created screenshots.
Despite these critical niggles, Age of Calamity sure is a blast to play. I’ve been partial to Warriors games since my teenage years, but mostly from a mindless over-the-top fun perspective when the mood strikes. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity delivers this, but is also a step up. As an introduction to Warriors-style games, this is an easy recommendation; as a hardboiled Warriors vet, you’re still likely to find a lot to like. Combat has a low barrier to entry, yet there’s a potentially high skill ceiling for those who want to thrive.
Compelling gameplay loops, fun combat and a strong setting all add up to an experience worth paying attention to. Age of Calamity is worthy of being part of the Legend of Zelda pantheon. It might not be Breath of the Wild, but it doesn’t need to be; it’s a world all it’s own.
Hyrule Warriors was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code kindly supplied by Nintendo Australia