July 7, 2022

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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is a must-play for Zelda fans

There are two things most people will tell you about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One, that the genre-defining open-world adventure is amazing, if not one of the best games of all time. And two, that they wish they could experience it all over again, fresh.

So far, Nintendo hasn’t yet perfected the mind-erasing tech necessary to make that happen, but Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity might be the next best thing. It’s like discovering the director’s cut of your favorite movie, or finding out that the author of a great book has a lot more where that came from. For dozens of hours, Age of Calamity allows you to spend more time with beloved characters in a world you may not have wanted to leave in the first place. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this is that Age of Calamity pays homage to everything that made Breath of the Wild great while also establishing its own distinct sense of grandeur.

I’m not sure you’ll get nearly as much out of Age of Calamity if you didn’t play Breath of the Wild, or if you are a hardcore “Musou” fan who is hoping that Koei Tecmo pushed its signature hack-and-slash series into new ground. If anything, Age of Calamity seems like a crossover game meant to introduce new people into the genre, which is known for its large-scale battles and flashy combat. In some ways, the game already assumes you’re invested in the characters from its epic story.

Breath of the Wild takes place in a ravaged world a hundred years in the future, with many of its heroes of myth long dead by the time Link wakes up. You go on to save the day, of course, but there was a deep sense of melancholy and pathos in knowing the enormous price that was paid to ensure your eventual victory. Age of Calamity’s proposition as a prequel to that is a juicy one: What if I could play through all the events I heard about in Breath of the Wild?

Link and the Champions in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Image: Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo via Polygon

Age of Calamity starts in that catastrophic future, and then inexplicably throws a mysterious robot into a time time traveling vortex. I was immediately intrigued by that premise, and spent the entire time wondering how — or if — things might deviate from the timeline I played in BOTW.

Everything that I took for granted in Breath of the Wild doesn’t necessarily exist in Age of Calamity, at least not at first. I get to watch as the Sheikah Towers get erected, and how Zelda convinces the Champions to pilot the Divine Beasts. Despite knowing exactly what everything was and where the overarching story was going, I was still thrilled to take part in all of it.

It helps that Koei Tecmo obviously have a deep love for the source material. The Japanese developer found ways to incorporate nearly every element from BOTW into Age of Calamity, from collecting Koroks for power-ups to gathering ingredients for status-affecting cooking. Even minor things, like bespoke animations for every character, are imbued with an undeniable reverence and joy. Link doesn’t just kill his enemies with a sword, y’all. He’ll shield surf on a Lynel’s face, too.

Mostly, though, the combat is sick as hell. Few games make me feel this cool for pulling off even simple combos, which helped encourage me to learn more in-depth techniques. I marveled as I cut down enormous mobs of enemies with the ease and grace inherent to the Hero of Time.

I was especially excited to see how Age of Calamity turned Princess Zelda into a total badass. After spending the entirety of Breath of the Wild watching Zelda bemoan that she couldn’t contribute more to the war effort, I was happy to see Age of Calamity let her take on a more hands-on role. Sure, most of the game still has Zelda second-guessing her ability to awaken the power necessary to defeat Calamity Ganon, but that doesn’t mean Zelda isn’t extremely capable.

Where Breath of the Wild presents a more pinpointed story about one hero’s adventure, Age of Calamity’s scale is much grander. Battles take place across large (and sometimes confusing) maps full of enemies, and it’s your job to consider the entire playing field, not just your immediate field of vision. I would split my attention multiple ways, sending off characters to defend points of interest. With the press of a button, I can swap through different characters depending on the changing objectives or points of interest. The scope was massive enough to reinforce I was leading a war, not an instanced battle.

Playing on the Nintendo Switch Lite, I found that Age of Calamity sometimes buckles under its own weight. There are times when I found myself killing enemies so fast, I had to wait for the game to load more. Sometimes, when the playing field is frenzied with a myriad of abilities and effects, things get choppy and slow. Texture pop-in is constant. The game can’t quite seem to handle the breadth of the war it wants to showcase, at least not in the Nintendo Switch. That said, none of these technical issues were ever bad enough to get in the way of me enjoying the game.

The rune attacks screen in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity Image: Koei Tecmo Games/Nintendo via Polygon

Most of the time, what the game asked me to do was fairly straightforward. You will be spending a lot of time trying to capture points overrun by Bokoblins and other such creatures, or tasked with clearing bigger bosses, like the Stone Talus and Guardians. Every so often, Age of Calamity switches things up by asking you to interact with your environment in a few different ways, like cutting down a tree to block a path. But for the most part, the game gives you a series of playgrounds and lets you go hog wild with Breath of the Wild’s iconic cast of Champions.

And let me tell you: They are called Champions for a reason. There’s a large roster of characters to unlock, and nearly all of them have a unique play style. Daruk, for example, is a slow and steady beast relegated to the ground, while Revali is a swift soldier who can fly through the air. My favorite of the bunch has to be Urbosa, who charges forward with lighting attacks that must be charged up. Watching Urbosa snap her fingers to drown the battlefield with bolts never gets old. There’s a palpable verve to it all — Urbosa turns to the camera and laughs as her enemies get decimated. The raw might and delight are intoxicating. It’s not often that I get to play a brown woman who kicks this much ass.

While the core gameplay loop remains the same throughout Age of Calamity’s extended game time, I never grew tired of it. I found myself switching through characters a lot, making sure that everyone was leveled up and had strong weapons. There’s some good depth to combat prep here, as the game lets you collect a variety of weapons with different strengths. One broad sword might bolster your defense, while another might gift you more rupees after a successful mission. These effects can be mixed and matched as you fuse weapons together and level them up.

Unlocking extra hearts, combos, merchants, and gear requires grinding tons of technically repetitive side quests, but I reveled in it. I found myself constantly finding new depths to the combat, whether it was discovering a more effective combination of Sheikah abilities, or using a different set of equipment and power-ups.

Eventually, it became a game to see how fast I could destroy enemies who used to terrify me. The more perfectly-timed dodges that triggered devastating flurry attacks, the better. The game also poses plenty of novel challenges, like thrusting you into an optional battle where a single hit can kill you. There’s nothing quite like beating a level with a second or two left on the clock, and only half a heart to your name.

The game never fully embraces the potential opportunities of its time-traveling premise, but I was still hooked throughout. Possibly it helped that Breath of the Wild already did such a good job of establishing the stakes. Age of Calamity didn’t have to do much to pull on the same heartstrings. Sometimes, a short cutscene with a pained glance or a wavering voice was all it took to reinvigorate the drama of it all.

Age of Calamity’s mandate is less about saving the world once more, like always, than it is imagining that you are one of those expert Breath of the Wild speedrunners who can slice through Lynels like it’s nothing. And I, for one, am happy to indulge in that power fantasy.

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity was released Nov. 20 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch Lite using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.