Let’s start on a positive note. It may sound like a backhanded compliment, but from a combat perspective, Hyrule Warriors might be my favorite Musou game. If you’ve played a Dynasty Warriors since 2, you know the score: regular attacks on one button, flashy combo enders on another. Hyrule Warriors changes things up by giving you a dodge-roll (in lieu of a jump), which lets you cancel out of pretty much everything and keeps transitions speedy from combo to combo.
Add to that a system whereby, if an enemy misses you with one of their bigger attacks, a weak-point gauge will appear. Deplete that, and your character will perform a fancily choreographed special attack that deals a hefty amount of damage. It breaks up the mashing just long enough to feel somewhat strategic, even though some of the enemies with weak-point gauges just feel like damage sponges.
Even though the roster is microscopic by Warriors standards, each character and weapon type feels unique. Link with a magic rod feels a lot more technical in his area control than Link with a sword. Impa’s regular attacks feel hefty and wide, whereas Midna doesn’t shine until you start mashing X at the end of her combos to unleash crazy magic spells. Character-specific meters and modifiers also add to the variety, such as Ganondorf building a meter that allows him to perform an-earth cracking, enemy-annihilating ground pound, or Sheik being able to play songs that surround her with elemental barriers based on the last elemental attack she used.
Once you have a character down (my favorites are Ganondorf, Impa, and Midna, if you’re curious), combat is fast and fluid enough that mowing down thousands upon enemies is fun. Sure, there’s little reason to vary your combos aside from seeing the poor fools in your way you go flying in different ways, but you do it anyway to be flashy or for the way that they move your character through the crowd. There’s something strangely exhilarating about dashing into an enemy base and clearing it out in a single strike. Hyrule Warriors is the first time a war for the sake of Hyrule has felt like a war, and you feel like a godlike hero (or villain) when you just roll up to a group of enemies and annihilate them without a scratch.
Unfortunately, the reason for your seeming immortality isn’t because you’re great, but because the enemy AI is brain-dead. Your allies are even worse, since they’re incapable of defending themselves.
Even on Hard, the challenge isn’t as much fighting through the waves of enemies standing in your way (although Hero mode, unlocked after you beat the game, is more than happy to kill you in two hits), but babysitting your captured bases and teammates as they get overwhelmed by the mere presence of the enemy troops. More than once, I failed my mission because some generic Moblin was beating up Darunia while I was on the other side of the map halfway through tearing a boss apart. At those points, it feels less like you’re on a battlefield and more like you’re some murderous babysitter for an inept army. It’s a lot less fun to clear a base of its enemies when you have to cross the entire map to do so or fail your mission. Yes, it’s very Dynasty Warriors but it kind of ruins the illusion that you’re fighting alongside other heroes when they can’t take care of a single base or tough enemy by themselves.
Speaking of things that your allies can’t handle, for a bit of variety, Hyrule Warriors will occasionally send a classic Zelda monster like King Dodongo and Gohma at you. Much like a Zelda game, you just use the weapon you got most recently when they expose their weak point before or after an attack. Once you figure out their pattern the first time, you’re pretty much rinsing and repeating until the enemy is done. While this is more of a fault of Zelda’s than anything else, I just wish AI could learn to use sub-weapons so they could handle themselves around them.
Humanoid bosses, on the other hand, have a bit more variety. They can range from pushovers, to interesting tests of evasion and skill, to hellish slogs of misery. When you’re the right level and the right character, bosses can make this game feel almost worthy of the Team Ninja logo on the splash screen. Enemies can do just enough damage to make your dodge rolls necessary, your attacks can do enough damage that you feel like you’re making a bit of progress with each successfully landed hit, and victory tastes sweet. However, when you’re the wrong level or a character that doesn’t do effective damage to a single target with most of their combos, bosses can feel like you’re carving away at a mountain with a butterknife.
When I fought Zant with Midna, for instance, I’d figured out his patterns, but got so sick of him after about six minutes of doing my most damaging attack over and over, I decided to go around clearing all the enemy bases on the map for some variety. Somehow, my AI partners had whittled down his health just enough for me to defeat him using the various I’d built up the meters for during my mapwide conquest. It’s frustrating that my enjoyment of a boss felt more dependent on level than skill.
I think my biggest issue with Hyrule Warriors, however, is how much potential it squanders by not being gutsier. For instance, his would have been the perfect Zelda game to experiment with voice acting. The well-presented cutscenes are already animated with lip flaps and the lack of voice acting actively harms the game. Dynasty Warriors games have always thrown text onscreen below all the action, but those lines were voice acted. You’d hear what the game wanted you to hear, even in the midst of combat, and if you had to make your way halfway across the map to solve a problem, you’d know. In Hyrule Warriors, it’s very easy to ignore something important in the heat of battle. I know Zelda’s never had VO outside of the CDi games, but this game feels like it was ripe for it. The only bit of voice acting is narrator who describes character motivations during load screens. It almost feels like Koei Tecmo wanted to try to voice the game, but had to back off.
Similarly, I wish they had the guts to do something interesting with the story. Yes, Hyrule Warriors is a fanservice game, but it would have been cool to see a crossover tell us something we didn’t know about these characters, or even experiment with alternate versions of Link and Zelda meeting each other. Instead, everyone just… gets along. The heroes get along with the heroes and the villains get along with the villains.
It’s frustrating, too, because the game’s at its most interesting when it’s doing things like putting you in the shoes of Ganondorf as a powerful and charismatic leader or taking a look at how hubris could impact a hero who’s slaying thousands of enemies at a time. There’s not enough of that. It could have been something more, but it thought it was okay just to have characters we like onscreen together. I wanted more than the Zelda equivalent of The Expendables. I wanted more than fanservicey brainless fun.
Food for Thought:
1. You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Lana and Cia at all in this playtest. Despite being central to the game’s flimsy story, they were both uninteresting. Cia is obsessed with Link and Lana is little more than bubbly.
2. I’ve never been annoyed by fairies in Zelda before, but I found Proxi, the fairy that speaks for Link, a bit annoying. Her “Hey”s and “Listen”s sound a lot more katakana-y than Navi’s ever were.
3. It’s interesting to see how characters’ heights compare in this game. Zelda is taller than Link, and Ganondorf appears to be about 12 feet tall.