You know the Gerudo Valley theme from Ocarina of Time? It's a kickass tune – probably top five Zelda tracks – and one that's sure to get your blood pumping. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is all Gerudo Valley, a rousing number that'll fire you up for the journey ahead. It's also a tad repetitive and just one part of the symphony of themes and flavours that make up a Zelda adventure. Age of Calamity very successfully co-opts many elements of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and delivers a satisfying, combat-focused spin-off with a whole bunch of content, but you'll likely be left wanting more.

That's not to say that Koei Tecmo – in close partnership with Nintendo on this latest Zelda-flavoured Warriors game – hasn't done its absolute best to blend in other themes from the series into the mix where appropriate. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is positively dripping in references, adapted mechanics and systems, and its attachment to the kingdom and characters of a Hyrule we're intimately familiar with is arguably its greatest strength.

That intrinsic link, though, is a double-edged sword. As a prequel adventure to the celebrated Switch launch title, the developers invite direct comparison to one of the greatest video games ever made. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is a markedly different beast, of course, and the fact that it captures so much of that game's spirit is pretty remarkable considering that this remains a hack-and-slash Dynasty Warriors / Musou title to the very core. That there's no 'Zelda' in the title of this one is no accident.

The love-'em-or-hate-'em nature of developer Omega Force’s epic Musou series is tempered here by Nintendo 'dressing' – much like it was in past crossovers Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors although the Breath of the Wild elements here are far more than skin-deep. They blow life into the worn Musou template and produce the most accessible entry point into the series’ inimitable gameplay you're likely to see. Even Musou haters may find something to enjoy here, although if you've played the free demo and weren't impressed, move right along – this one just isn't for you.

The map, menus and environments here are seemingly ripped directly from Breath of the Wild and bring with them Nintendo's patented spit-polish, perhaps most evident in the story. Told via skippable cutscenes at the start and end of each subchapter, the simple narrative is surprisingly affecting. Plenty of familiar ground is covered, and we found the conclusion (which we wouldn't spoil even if we were permitted to) a tad... unsatisfying, but it provided a better emotional framework for the combat than we expected.

Seeing old characters in their younger days is certainly fun. As we mentioned in our preview, Link's silence stands out all the more amongst this chatty bunch. Master Kohga's voice actor is channelling his best Wallace Shawn, which we particularly enjoyed, although binge-watching The Crown may have soured us on the regal register of Hyrulean princesses. Certain characters begin to grate a bit, and ol' King Rhoam could certainly do with some parental pointers.

On the whole, though, spending more time in the company of this motley crew and the Four Champions solidified our warm feelings for them, impressions only vaguely formed in Breath of the Wild. Daruk is still great company, Revali's still a bit of a prick, and the way the whole cast bounces off each other works well to keep things peppy – you may well find yourself tempted to pick up that Champions amiibo four-pack after playing this. Urbosa FTW.

One question that might crop up is whether you should play this before Breath of the Wild. The answer to that is a 'no' (actually, the answer to that is 'What do you mean you haven't played Breath of the Wild yet?'). Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity relies on your affection for and attachment to the characters for its story to really hit home – to make these endless trials and battles mean something. For anyone remotely interested in the characters, this timey-wimey prequel narrative is designed to be played afterwards.

The basic combat here will be familiar to anyone who's ever touched a Musou game. Regular and Strong attacks sit on the 'Y' and 'X' buttons and following up two, three, four or more regular strikes with a strong version results in a variety of combos. Each of the unlockable characters – some rather unexpected – has entirely unique attacks. You sprint and dodge/jump with 'B' (the latter when locked on to a stronger foe after clicking the right stick), and dispatching crowds of grunt enemies (Bokoblins, Lizalfos and the like) builds up a meter which unleashes a powerful and bespoke Special attack when you hit 'A'.

So far, so Musou. It's a system that works nicely once you get into the flow with your combatant of choice, although it takes time to appreciate the nuances between them. The segmented weak-point gauge from the original Hyrule Warriors is present here, and it's the key to taking down enemies quickly. Parrying (by holding 'ZL' and combining with a well-timed 'Y') is usually the quickest way to expose the gauge, although dodging an attack at just the right moment opens up the familiar slow-motion Flurry Rush window enabling you to chip away at those Trivial Pursuit pie-like segments and initiate a devastating weak-point blast. Again, these differ depending on your character and can be weapon, situation or enemy-dependent.

Characters also have a unique action sitting on the 'ZR' trigger: Link, for example, whips out his bow and fires a flurry of arrows; Revali will take flight; Urbosa will recharge the lightning meter she uses to power strong attacks. Then there are Sheikah Slate rune attacks such as Remote Bombs and Cryosis – again, bespoke to each fighter – which are activated by holding 'R' and hitting the corresponding face button. Enemy weaknesses are signalled when they begin a vulnerable attack, which removes any guesswork. Defeating Wizzrobes around the map also nets you elemental rods (accessible by holding 'L') – another handy way to quickly get at an enemy's weak-point gauge. No prizes for guessing that ice-based enemies won't take kindly to a bombardment of fire blasts from your appropriate rod.

For a game that pretty much asks you to do one thing over and over again, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity offers plenty of variety and options to explore within its limited loop. You're encouraged to experiment with different weapons and play as other characters besides Link, whether through expansive battlefields (which make switching to a faraway fighter more convenient than sprinting across the terrain) or removing the Hyrule's No.1 knight from your character pool altogether for certain missions – you're rarely forced to use someone you really don't get on with, though. Initially, we weren't fans of Revali and went through almost the entire story without touching him, although going back to mop up some of his combat trials, we came to appreciate him much more.

At a certain point, the number of glowing icons that unlock across the map upon completing a subchapter soon becomes comical — you certainly can't accuse Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity of a shortage of things to do or doohickeys to collect. You'll be constantly distracted from the main quest by opportunities popping up like whack-a-moles to boost your characters' move set with new combos, increased health, recipes and more. If you've neglected a particular fighter, they can be levelled-up without battle XP if you're willing to pay for it, reducing the need to grind. Which is nice.

You'll soon be playing 'I Spy' as the map fills up with flashing icons, and you can unlock a Sheikah sensor which indicates where you can acquire the materials you need. Every fighter has associated trials which take the form of combat challenges or requests for the resources (food items, rupees, precious stones, etc) you gain through fighting or purchasing from unlockable merchants. Fulfilling these quests also elevates the morale of each region's residents, resulting in yet more gifts and bonuses. Thankfully, you're able to navigate between individual services, quests and more via the menus on the bumper buttons – a lifesaver when icons overwhelm the map view.

Weapons can be fused together at the Blacksmith's, with buffs and other perks available depending on what you combine. Scanning up to five different amiibo on a daily basis offers seemingly random spoils, too, including the odd weapon. There's also a cookery system – something we ignored almost entirely on our Normal Difficulty playthrough, although the buffs available from crafting and consuming pre-bout dishes become key to success in the later challenges and on the two higher difficulty settings.

And there's even more to do after the credits roll, of course. After completing all the chapters and ploughing through a ton of challenges and quests, we had around twenty-five hours on the game clock and a Death Mountain of things still to do. We're past thirty now, and there's still no end in sight. No, you likely won't be hitting a triple-figure hour count like many of us did with Breath of the Wild, but you'll get your money's worth from Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, even if all those challenges involve more of the same.

In fact, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is at its weakest when Koei Tecmo attempts to broaden its gameplay horizons. In various missions you're given direct control of one of the four Divine Beasts piloted by the champions and, unfortunately, they're the least interesting sections of the game. After the super-slick and rapid combat, plodding around in an ungainly, lumbering leviathan and blasting projectiles at hard-to-see foes – the smallest of which are rendered as tiny sprites that scatter like dust – gets old fast. Routinely getting caught on terrain (except when piloting Revali's airborne Beast, of course) and wrestling unwieldy controls does not a good time make. We appreciate the intention of breaking up regular combat with something different, but these shooter sections simply aren't fun enough and we came to rue the motion-control calibration screen that signals their arrival. Some are definitely better than others, but we wonder if they might have worked better on-rails.

Performance-wise, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is fit for the task, although no more than adequate. In fact, the opening Hyrule Field and rain-heavy Zora's Domain stages highlight some of the game's most problematic areas early on and don't make the best first impression. Urbosa's lightning bolt attacks cause headaches for the system as well as the grunts they connect with, and the camera can struggle to keep up with the action on occasion. However, despite a bunch of dropped frames here and there, we encountered nothing that actually affected our enjoyment of the game. In the course of our review, we went back to Warriors Orochi 4 for a little Musou comparison, and that title certainly looks much sharper on Switch. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is infinitely more ambitious with its art style and environments, though – visually, it's a far more interesting game.

The image is softened in handheld mode, especially when there's a lot going on, but at no point did it have a negative impact on our own performance. Could the framerate be better? Of course, and your tolerance may vary if you're coming from the Musou franchise or expecting buttery smoothness. Approach it from the Breath of the Wild angle (a game which certainly wasn't free of performance issues), though, and you'll be a much happier bunny with Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity's 30fps target. The best we can say is that we almost never thought about the framerate while actually playing.

With the exception being two-player mode, that is. Accessible at any time from the map screen, the screen gets fuzzier and the framerate takes a huge dive in co-op. Heading into a crowded outpost and simultaneously unleashing special attacks grinds things down to single digits – the game simply can't handle the enemies and pyrotechnics in split-screen. There's much room for improvement, then, although we also have to say we still had fun running around Hyrule in co-op.

Revisiting old places and hearing old tunes is great (many tracks from Breath of the Wild return here), although you may find it tough to work out exactly how much of the geography has been adapted and changed here, especially if you haven't played Breath of the Wild for a while. Unless you turn the difficulty down and head into chapters and trials with the specific intention of having a nose around and finding Koroks, you won't have much time for sightseeing. The locations provide atmosphere, a backdrop to the action, and you'll notice details as you race around the map between bouts – hey, there's the Temple of Time!, or I recognise that craggy outcrop! – but most of the time, you'll be too focused on the fight.

And the combat here is quite something, as balletic and spectacular as you'd hope, although it's difficult not to be left jonesing for that sense of discovery that's core to the Zelda series, and evolved to a whole new level with Breath of the Wild. The map screen is tantalising: you want to swoop down and explore the kingdom to see how every nook and cranny was 100 years ago, but that isn't what this game is. It's compartmentalised – almost like Skyward Sword if Skyloft were simply a map screen – and it leaves Zelda fans with an itch that can only be fully scratched by a different game entirely.

However cleverly Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity incorporates Zelda elements, it's still undeniably one-note – an easy and oft-levelled criticism of any Musou game, but perhaps magnified here thanks to that Breath of the Wild comparison. The beauty of the Zelda series is the tapestry of themes and flavours it weaves together: combat, yes, but also a sense of discovery with secrets and surprises, puzzles and playfulness. It's more than 'just' the Gerudo Valley tune; it's a symphony that encompasses the mystery of the Forest Temple, the grandeur of Hyrule Field, the tenderness of Zelda's Lullaby, and much more. Cadence of Hyrule did an incredible job of pulling together those elements and weaving them into something new yet still 'Zelda'; Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity's story may flirt with other elements, but it's still a (well-constructed) one-note experience.

If all this sounds like a massive downer, that's not our intention – the Gerudo Valley theme is, after all, awesome and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity isn't setting out to be a 'proper' Zelda game, despite its presentation. What Koei Tecmo does in this spin-off, it does very well, and if you've got the slightest interest in what you've seen and played in the demo, this is absolutely worth playing. There's lots of enjoyment to be had in its cathartic combat and it makes for a hell of a side dish – an appetiser to set you up for Breath of the Wild 2. It's indicative of how successfully Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity captures the essence of Breath of the Wild that it left us gagging for the real deal.

Conclusion

Approached with the knowledge that this is a full-featured side-dish, you'll have a very good time hacking and slashing your way through Calamity Ganon's minions in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity; just remember that despite its sparkling presentation, it is still not a Zelda game. What it is is a brilliant Zelda-infused Musou experience filled with varied and satisfying combat and Breath of the Wild additions that work beautifully within the boundaries of the Warriors template. The care and attention given to detail here is hugely impressive. We found performance to be adequate and, crucially, it didn't affect our enjoyment throughout — just be prepared for a slideshow once the pyrotechnics start in two-player co-op. In many ways, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity could be exactly the game you need right now. It offers a stop-gap opportunity to revisit a world and characters we adore. In a particularly calamitous year, Animal Crossing's calming alternative life was all well and good for a time, but there's definite catharsis in grabbing the Master Sword, sprinting out there and giving all the prowling nasties a sound thrashing. It's a story of old friends and enemies coming together to triumph over incredible adversity; yep, we'll take one of those now, please.