Nintendo and Koei Tecmo are on to a good thing as partners. After years of successfully bringing the Musou (Warriors) framework to various anime licensed tie-ins, Koei got the chance to work on one of Nintendo’s most sacred properties, producing Hyrule Warriors. That game delivered in every way imaginable. Then came Fire Emblem, and while it was perhaps a little split in how audiences responded to it, I absolutely loved it (and no, not just because Lyn made a triumphant return, though that certainly helped). Now Koei and Nintendo have teamed up again, and the result, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, is one of the best things you can play on Nintendo Switch.
This game actually represents a scaling up of the trust that Nintendo places in Koei. The previous Hyrule Warriors was a side-event, which took familiar characters from the entire Zelda franchise and threw them together into a game that was familiar and a homage to everything people love about the Zelda series, but it wasn’t canon. There was no risk that it was going to sully the reputation of the “proper” series. Age of Calamity, however, is canon. It’s a formal prequel to events depicted in Breath of the Wild, and while that doesn’t mean too much to me personally (having never found the time to sit down and properly play Breath of the Wild), it is a big-time showing of Nintendo’s faith in Koei to allow them to deliver something canon to the series and further enhance the incredibly valuable Zelda property.
Koei has not squandered that faith, and after playing Age of Calamity I really want to find the time for Breath of the Wild now. While the characters and personalities weren’t familiar to me, I found the eclectic mix of characters to be excellent in design and theme, and each one that is present in the game adds to the whole, both in terms of narrative and mechanically. There aren’t quite as many characters in Age of Calamity as we’ve seen in some other Warriors games, but Koei has polished them all to a brilliant degree, so that each feels different to control, and adds something meaningful to the well-produced and designed cut scenes and narrative segments.
There is an epic scope and brilliant sense of lore to most of the main narrative levels in Age of Calamity, too. The battle maps in the Warriors series have been growing progressively larger as the hardware and engines have allowed, but even then, the flow of a major narrative mission in Age of Calamity moves through what feels like a series of “chapters” in each battle, each with a different set of objectives and flavours that make the pace unrelenting. Sometimes you’ll be tested on your ability to direct your heroes around the map and think quickly to plug holes. You directly control one hero at a time, but can swap between four, and the ones that you’re not controlling you can give commands to, so if a particular area is about to fall while you’re busy tackling another critical objective, you can direct one of the other heroes to hold the line and protect the area until you’re able to personally focus on it. At other times you’ll need to deal with more powerful enemies personally, reach an area quickly, or lure enemies to a certain area. You’ll even get to control hulking beasts of immense power at points. The transitions between these are silky-seamless, too. After so many Warriors games Koei’s mastered the art of creating a dynamic battlefield, and this is in full flight with Age of Calamity.
The boss battles are some of the game’s highlights – and that’s impressive in itself as Koei’s attempts to do these kinds of things in the past have been laboured. Here, though, bosses have a mountain of health and the only way around that is to carefully monitor and learn their movements. Soon enough you’ll learn to jump out of the way at just the right moment, which will give you a precious couple of moments to chip away at “shield” that each boss has. Break that down completely and you’ll get to launch a particularly powerful attack, which will knock a big chunk of the boss’ health off. It’s the only effective way to deal with these monstrosities, and while they’re not quite the same masterpiece set-pieces as a Souls or Goichi Suda title, they are nonetheless memorable, exciting moments.
The main “story” missions are the highlight and focus of Age of Calamity. The stuff that exists around it is less perfect. Between story missions, you’re given a map of Hyrule, covered in little icons that represent shops, points of interest, or side battles. Those side battles are single objective little skirmishes, and though they return loot and other rewards, they come across as grindy padding rather than anything that specifically adds to the whole. Overall, the map system reminds me a lot of what was done in Warriors All-Stars, and while it’s an efficient way to put control of what happens into the hands of the players (you don’t need to do those side quests if you don’t want to), it’s also not the most exciting way of presenting Nintendo’s breathtaking setting. Moreover, Warriors All-Stars isn’t the most celebrated Warriors game, so it was surprising to see Koei crib ideas from it at all.
It’s also undeniable that the original Hyrule Warriors on the Nintendo Switch has more content. Given that it’s a definitive edition with all kinds of DLC and bonuses, it would have been unfair to expect otherwise, but people that loved the wealth of alternate play modes (such as the ability to explore old Zelda maps) might find Age of Calamity to be a bit limited. It’s only limited in comparison, and there’s more than enough to see and do in this game to feel like you got your money’s worth, but I just know that those comparisons are going to come in.
I do think that Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity will mean more to people who have played Breath of the Wild, and that’s fine. For Zelda fans, there’s no way they haven’t played it anyway. For Musou fans coming to Age of Calamity from that angle, the sell’s a little harder. The narrative that it weaves are great. The presentation is impeccable, and each and every one of the characters are fun to play with. It’s just that where the original Hyrule Warriors felt like a love letter to the history and heritage of Zelda, Age of Calamity is more immediate, and that’s just a little less of a celebration, though with the tradeoff being it actually contributes to the lore. For me, that’s a worthwhile tradeoff, and I didn’t even have the assumed knowledge going in.