Review by Matt S.
So, here’s a riddle for you; what do you get when a bunch of critics expect a 3DS game to look, play, and behave like something that originally launched on the Wii U? I’ll save you the puzzle; you get a bunch of game critics that are disappointed that they played Hyrule Warriors Legends.
But I’m not disappointed I played it. Oh no. Not in the slightest. Hyrule Warriors is one of my favourite games from Koei Tecmo’s venerable Musou franchise, and having that in portable form is a very good thing indeed. Especially when the game squeezes in all the content that is actually important to the experience.
But due disclaimers first; apparently the game runs terribly on the original 3DS and 2DS models. I couldn’t test it on those (I played on the New 3DS), but what I can say is that the 3DS version is nowhere near as poor as I had heard people suggesting. It’s not perfect as enemy pop-in is significant this time around and on a rare moment the screen would become so busy that the frame rate dropped a few notches. But not once was it unplayable through technical flaws.
Similarly, the game simply doesn’t look as good as it did on the Wii U. Koei Tecmo did an especially good job with the Wii U original, scrubbing the engine to the point where, with the Legend of Zelda’s art aesthetics sitting over the top, the game looked as good as any Warriors game on any other platform. It was more simple, but the clean lines and bold colours really worked to its benefit.
On the 3DS there’s no such luck there. Textures in the envioronments have been reduced to a bare minimum, so they look like messy splotches of colour. Enemies and allies alike have been greatly reduced in polygon count, with bold, deep lines around cel shading colour seeking to conceal this. It doesn’t really work, though the biggest issue of the engine of all is that with fewer enemies on the screen at once, some of the epic battle set pieces lose their cinematic impact and the whole experience becomes an atmospherically more limited game as a consequence.
But putting all of that to one side, the core Hyrule Warriors experience comes across from the Wii U version so remarkably well, and even adds a few new features into the mix that are most welcome indeed.
The most obvious new addition is a bunch of new characters to play with, expanding the already-impressive cast size even further. They’re good ‘uns, too. The highlight for me was female Link (who is meant to be called “Linkle” but damned if I’ll ever call her that. She’s a female Link, and doesn’t need a name other than “Link”). Dual wielding crossbows that pack an absolute punch, and with an affinity for cuccos, female Link is incredibly powerful, if not overpowered, and is a pure joy to play with. Now she needs a game of her own (or, you know, to be the star of an actual Legend of Zelda game). Koei Tecmo has built new levels that were not in the original game and that allow the new characters to excel, which is a nice incentive for existing Hyrule Warriors diehards to dip into their wallets – these levels are good.
On the battlefield there is one really neat feature that Koei Tecmo has brought over from the Samurai Warriors Chronicles series. In Hyrule Warriors you’ll actually be in command of a couple of different heroes in each battle, and using the touch screen you’re able to change between your heroes at will, as well as direct those that you’re not controlling to either target enemy locations, defend weaknesses in the line, or target a particular leader. This feature adds a hugely useful layer of strategy to the overall experience. Though the AI only handles these heroes competently, they are able to shore up a defence or distract an enemy leader for long enough that you’re able to finish an objective with an existing character before zipping over to take control of the battle directly.
Otherwise the game behaves much as it did on the Nintendo Wii U, with every level, story exposition and dramatic moment thrown in for good measure. Hyrule Warriors starts off simply enough; a horde of enemies as summoned by an evil sorceress conquer Hyrule Castle, and Princess Zelda goes missing. Link, Impa, and an increasing stable of allies set out to find the princess and turn back the tide, and in doing so they need to cross dimensions and times to help out key allies in other dimensions and find clues that will lead them back to the princess.
It’s a fairly contrived plot, and holds none of the depth of emotion that a game like Twilight Princess brought to the Zelda franchise. We’ve seen Warriors games offer quality narratives (for example, Arslan), but where Hyrule Warriors struggles in terms of depth, it more than makes up for in being a love letter to the Zelda franchise. Each level is reminscient of Zelda games past and present. Some are quite explicitly set in various titles from the series; the Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess levels are both especially memorable, while others are more subtle nods to beloved classics, but in each case the developers make it quite clear that they are themselves passionate about the Legend of Zelda, and the environments, plot (simple as it is), and respect for the lore and timelines of the Zelda series infuses the entire experience together.
Of course, that means that Hyrule Warriors trades heavily on its ability to tap into a sense of nostalgia, and that has become an increasingly frustrating point of concern that I’ve had with how Nintendo handles its premier series. I’m not saying that newcomers can’t enjoy the game; indeed, Hyrule Warriors acts as a useful primer to those who are fans of Zelda in principle, but haven’t played so many of the games. In working through Hyrule Warriors, they’ll have the context they need to appreciate whatever game they pick up next. But in practice the game has been built for fans looking who will pick up the references and understand the context of each level instantly. Hyrule Warriors relies far less on assumed knowledge than some of Koei Tecmo’s other licensed Warriors titles (hi, Gundam and One Piece), but to again point to Arslan, we’ve also now seen it done better than we have here.
One thing that can’t be questioned about Hyrule Warriors is just how much content there is in it. In addition to the main story mode, there’s a really neat adventure mode, which breaks the map of the original Legend of Zelda into a grid of squares. Starting in one, players need to complete a series of objectives to clear these “squares” and open up new spaces to explore. Along the way it’s possible to pick up items that can reveal special treasures, and any experience gained in this mode carries over to the story as well, which makes it a good place to go to grind up experience in order to take on the more difficult story missions. When they’re done it’s time to head back to the Adventure mode to clear it out. I rarely spend much time in supplemental gameplay modes in Warriors games, but I make an exception for Hyrule Warriors. The Adventure mode is great.
Hyrule Warriors Legends isn’t as technically impressive as the original release on the Wii U, but it stands out as a true highlight among portable Warriors games. Content rich, rich with Zelda lore, and a mechanically-tight brawler, it’s a love letter to the fans, and it’s good to see that Koei Tecmo is still working on this property… it bodes well for what we might see on the NX down the track.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld