When Nintendo first unveiled Hyrule Warriors, people didn’t exactly know what to expect. The company had seldom handed over the keys to one of its cornerstone franchises before, and the proposed concept was odd, to say the least. The final product was an enjoyable (if flawed) experience, and over the years since release, it’s accrued quite a collection of post-launch DLC. Now, Nintendo and Koei Tecmo have decided to give it a final release on Nintendo Switch, tying together all of the previous content while adding in some extra improvements with Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition. Though this re-release still doesn’t completely fix the issues present in its past versions, it certainly does prove to be worthy of its title of 'definitive'.
Gameplay in Hyrule Warriors is much closer to the Dynasty Warriors series than it is to Zelda. That’s not to say that gameplay elements from Zelda aren’t present, but the name of the game here is hacking and slashing your way through literally thousands of mook enemies that put up about as much resistance as a wet leaf, and occasionally spending more time hacking and slashing away at slightly stronger enemies that require a little more thought. There’s no grand adventure to be embarked on, no dungeons and puzzles to figure out, but there’s a heck of a lot of evil that needs a firm talking to from the business end of your blade. It’s fun, frantic, and rather shallow, but there’s something endlessly addictive about the sense of empowerment that the game so expertly instills in its players.
The typical stage will see you dropped in a battlefield strewn with keeps and outposts, from which pour a constant stream of enemies. Your primary job is to run to each of these keeps and outposts and kill whatever captain is in charge of them, while also slicing through whatever’s in your way. Once the location is secured, it flips from churning out enemies to churning out allies instead, thus strengthening your side’s hold on the map. As you hop between keeps, new objectives will occasionally arise that grab your attention. Perhaps a captain at one of your keeps requires immediate aid to fend off a fresh onslaught of Stalfos. Or, maybe one of your allies needs you to escort a massive Bombchu to a wall so it can be blown down and create a new pathway. There’s no shortage of objectives over the course of a single battle, although they can all ultimately be boiled down to cutting through things here instead of there.
Alas, this leads to one of the biggest issues that plagues Hyrule Warriors constantly: the repetition. Levels are hardly differentiated by their unique ideas and fascinating new mechanics, because this is ultimately a game of doing the same thing over again in slightly different ways. Every battle is about fending off hordes of virtually useless enemies and taking their keeps, and while there is a rather impressive amount of replayability that can be found in this admittedly simple core concept, it still feels like a game that spins its tires a lot. It’s a little disappointing in this sense, given that this game pulls from the entirety of Zelda’s rich and diverse history, although the repetition is offset largely by tight moment-to-moment gameplay and several interlocking upgrade systems that constantly encourage players to dive back in for another round.
Hyrule Warriors lets you play as dozens of characters from across the series’ history ranging from expected roster participants such as Link and Impa to more obscure characters including Marin and Zant. Regardless of who you pick, every character has a strong attack and heavy attack which can be strung together in myriad ways to produce some bombastic and devastating combos that dole out punishment by the truckloads. Every felled enemy slowly contributes to filling a special attack gauge, which can eventually be triggered for an incredible screen nuke-like attack that destroys just about every enemy surrounding your character. Though most enemies don’t put up much of a fight, it feels endlessly satisfying to carve vast swaths of destruction through enemy lines; the developers do a remarkable job of making you feel like a god among men.
The Zelda elements are few and far between in this moment to moment gameplay, but they sufficiently infuse it with some interesting wrinkles to keep combat from getting too reliant on button mashing. Progressing through the main story will gradually lead to you expanding your existing arsenal of sub-weapons and items, which can act as nice supplements to your main battle strategy. Bombs, for example, can be used for effective crowd control, while the bow and arrow can be used to stun crowds and line them up for a big follow-up attack.
Also, these items are pivotal in your fights against boss characters, which each have a weakness. Whether it be using your Hookshot to pull a dragon out of the sky or tossing a few bombs into the gaping maw of King Dodongo, that same ‘lock and key’ gameplay of Zelda boss fights is present, but adjusted for a faster-paced kind combat. Now, few of these special items have a significant impact on usual combat encounters, but their inclusion is both a clever nod to Zelda’s classic combat while also helping to break up the monotony of pressing two buttons over and over for the same general results.
Character upgrades are handled in several different ways, and while there’s a lot to manage in terms of how to power up your heroes, it feels like things could’ve been streamlined quite a bit. Each character will level up naturally through racking up kills - boosting their damage and sometimes health - but they also each have three skill trees that do things like unlock new combos and increase resistances to certain attack types. Rupees and crafting materials gained from fallen enemies are used to buff these trees, but the problem lies in how many trees there are to upgrade. The roster has over 20 different characters to choose from, each with virtually identical skill trees. It can be tedious, then, when playing a new character, and having to go into their trees to activate the same benefits that you’ve done a dozen times before for other characters.
What’s more is that each character also has several weapons to choose from, differing in elemental output, combos, and attached skills. It’s a lot to decipher - and things are only further complicated when you gain the ability to merge weapons to transfer skills between them - and the end results sometimes feel like they don’t justify the effort that goes into optimising gear. All of this combines to make for characters that feel like they’re a little more customisable than they should be; there’s a lot of bloat that could be cut away without losing much of that sense of control over character growth. Still, there are occasional concessions (like an option to spend rupees to buy levels for weaker characters) which make things more manageable, and the game somehow manages to hand out upgrades at just the right pace to keep you wanting more.
Hyrule Warriors is the kind of game that prides itself on its replayability, and the inclusion of all content from previous versions in this definitive edition makes it a game that is full to bursting with things to do. The core ‘Legend’ mode acts as the central campaign, featuring a shallow plot that somehow manages to explain how so many distinct Zelda characters from different dimensions and timelines are able to exist in one place at one time, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Adventure mode puts a clever spin on things by presenting you with an overworld grid that’s traversed Zelda-style, with each grid space containing a battle that requires special rules for a victory.
Winning these battles rewards you with item cards, which can be used to unlock secrets and rewards on the main map, while also granting you access to more grid spaces. These maps span the full Zelda franchise, each pulling a different gimmick or mechanic from the game that it’s based on. For example, the map based on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has you traversing a map fashioned after The Great Sea, fighting pirates and getting blown about by winds. It’s a clever riff on the gameplay found in the campaign, and finds an interesting equilibrium between the cerebral elements of Zelda exploration and the mindless button mashing of Dynasty Warriors.
In addition to this, there’s also a challenge mode, which puts certain constraints on players and challenges them to go for a high score. Achieving higher ranks in challenges unlocks other, harder challenges which tend to ramp up the difficulty more than you’ll find in other game modes. Also, roaming throughout all the modes mentioned are Golden Skulltulas, which can either be obtained as rewards for beating levels or found hiding in obscure parts of battlefields. Killing a Skulltula yields a piece of an Illustration, which can then be viewed in a gallery along with character and enemy models. It’s a nice way of tying together all the game modes, while giving you a cool visual representation of your overall progress through the game.
From a presentation perspective, Hyrule Warriors manages to wow. This game is very much a love letter to fans of the Zelda series, featuring detailed and faithful representations of characters, concepts, locations, and more. It’s the little things, like the ability to play on an invisible ocarina on loading screens with the same controls as the one from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, that shows the developer really did its homework on the Zelda themes and wanted to make a game that would be worthy of crossing over with the Zelda series. The depth, variety, and detail of all the Zelda references are astounding, and you’ll be hard-pressed to come away from this one saying that Koei Tecmo didn’t understand the source of this game’s themes.
The graphics are surprisingly top-notch, running at 60fps with occasional dips, but the gameplay remains smooth throughout, even when indulging in some split-screen co-op. Colors are bright, textures are detailed, animations are smooth, and there’s a much greater sense of polish to things that seemed to be absent from the previous releases. In handheld mode, the visuals take a more noticeable hit, dropping to 30(ish)fps that only continues to decline if you toss another player into the mix. It’s really not too noticeable a visual decline if you wish to play in single-player, but we’d advise you wait till you get home if you want some co-op action; the screen is too small for two players to reasonably participate in the chaos of battle, and the framerate leaves a lot to be desired.
Of course, we’d be remiss to not mention the soundtrack, featuring a collection of medleys and remixes of classic Zelda songs from many games in the series. Indeed, while we can see the effort that went into this soundtrack, the extreme heavy metal and hard rock elements don’t marry very well with the generally more symphonic pieces of Zelda music, leaving us with a strange list of tracks that suffer something of an identity crisis. It’s not that the music is terrible - the rock music fits rather well with the intensity of the action on screen - but it feels like a bit of a reach to hear Saria’s Song interpreted as a rock ballad.
All told, Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition is a great time-sink game, featuring mindless but fun action gameplay that offers up the potential for dozens - if not hundreds - of hours of content. Though it certainly feels like a game that’s too bloated in places, it manages to balance the Zelda and Dynasty Warriors elements well. Group all of that with stellar presentation and impressive portable gameplay, and you’ve got a game that does a great job of doing something new (and weird) with a classic Nintendo property. We’d give this one a recommendation, especially to fans of the Zelda series who have always wanted there to be some sort of 'anniversary' game. Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition may not have a ton of depth, but it’s way more fun than it has any right to be, and you’d be missing out by not picking up this complete edition.
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