For better and for worse, Nintendo has never shied away from taking its first party franchises in unexpected directions. Donkey Kong has been all over the map, from 2D platformers to a Mario 64 wannabe to bongo-controlled GameCube games. Star Fox traded in his pilot’s license for a staff in Star Fox Adventures. Metroid found success in first-person with the Prime series, only to disappoint some fans later on with the Other M experiment.
One franchise that Nintendo has never tinkered with to this degree is The Legend of Zelda. Possibly their most critically revered franchise, the detours the series has taken have focused more on unique gameplay mechanics (sailing in Wind Waker, manipulating time in Majora’s Mask, transforming into a wolf in Twilight Princess, etc.) than on genre-changing sequels. That’s why the announcement of Hyrule Warriors caught almost everyone by surprise. The relatively unsullied name of The Legend of Zelda (we won’t count those CD-i titles) has joined forces with Dynasty Warriors, a series with a less-than-stellar reputation that nonetheless possesses a following that’s warranted sequels in the double digits.
Hyrule Warriors is exactly what most people would envision when asked to conjure up the image of an Omega Force-developed Zelda game. Through and through, this is a Dynasty Warriors game that’s seen the characters and locations of The Legend of Zelda dropped into it.
To be fair, the nonstop barrage of Zelda references isn’t half-baked. Omega Force is clearly a fan of Link’s adventures, and reminders of this are everywhere. Locations from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword make up most of the battlefields, so you can look forward to slaughtering hundreds of enemies at Lake Hylia, Gerudo Desert, Skyloft, Ganon’s Castle, and plenty more. Playable characters run the franchise gauntlet, including mainstays (Link, Zelda), side characters (Impa, Darunia, Midna), and the blue-haired newcomer Lana.
Taking control of these other characters is one of the great novelties of Hyrule Warriors. In a series that’s always forced us to play as various incarnations of Link, taking control of the franchise’s other memorable characters proves to be one of the best elements of the experience. Each of them features a variety of unique special attacks, many of which can take out dozens of enemies in a flashy spectacle. This gonzo approach to combat can be a fun alternative to traditional Zelda gameplay. Whereas the main series has players placing and throwing single bombs in measured, specific fashions to open a door or defeat an enemy, Hyrule Warriors unleashes a barrage of bombs indiscriminately with one button press. It looks like a Zelda game at first glance, but Hyrule Warriors doesn’t take long to establish its wildly different gameplay.
Unfortunately, that’s what brings down the experience as a whole. Dynasty Warriors games have earned their reputation as repetitive, mindless button mashers. There’s certainly a specific audience for this, but Hyrule Warriors does little to appeal to those that don’t already belong in that group. Even as a huge Zelda fan, the novelty of revisiting iconic locations and playing as characters that aren’t named Link wasn’t enough to make me look past the gameplay. Fighting as Zelda is pretty cool at first, but the effect wears off when you’re jamming the Y button for the 500th time as you slash through another castle full of mindless skeletons. A few battles against larger boss characters help to shake things up, but these are few and far between.
Elements of the game attempt to deepen the experience, but they’re mostly of the basic “find new weapons, collect materials to craft items, pay rupees to level up quicker” variety. Taking a trip to the in-game bazaar between missions is a nice way to tweak your weapons before your boots are back on the ground, but it certainly doesn’t distract from the mindless slashing you’re required to do 95 percent of the time.
If you want to tackle these repetitive missions more quickly, a co-op mode is in place that allows a second player to use the GamePad. This does cause the framerate and resolution to take a noticeable dip, however. It’s by no means unplayable, so playing with a friend is a nice alternative if you’re tired of slashing through the hordes solo.
If you’re a Dynasty Warriors fan that has stuck through its countless sequels and spinoffs and still aren’t tired of the formula, then Hyrule Warriors offers plenty more. If you’re a Zelda fan on top of a Dynasty Warriors fan, then it’s an obvious slam dunk. It has a full story mode, a free mode that allows you to play as any character, and even an NES-inspired adventure mode that has you completing challenges and collecting items across a map inspired by the first Zelda title. There’s no shortage of content, assuming the core gameplay is something that’s up your alley to begin with.
Hyrule Warriors is an odd move for Nintendo, but it’s one that will make a specific audience of the gaming world very happy. As someone who loves Zelda and is lukewarm at best on Dynasty Warriors, I appreciated the references to the former while becoming frustrated at the bare-bones gameplay of the latter. This quirky offshoot is better than any Dynasty Warriors game I’ve played, while simultaneously being the worst Zelda game I’ve ever played.