There's a very good reason why Hyrule Warriors is the first major Zelda release not to have the "Z" word in its title. As we've suspected since that surprising reveal in December of last year, this is much more a Warriors (or Musou, if you prefer) outing than it is a Zelda one, and that news will trigger mixed feelings for many Wii U owners. First things first, Hyrule Warriors is not in the same league as its system sibling The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, but it's not a dismal effort like Koei Tecmo's other recent Wii U Warriors spin-off, Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2. Hyrule Warriors is very much a case of one popular series being retrofitted to resemble another, and while the end result isn't the certified blockbuster that many will have been expecting, it's hardly the disaster that a possibly smaller contingent of fans will have been fearing.
Hyrule Warriors shows a flagrant disregard for the overall storyline of the Zelda series, mashing together the characters from multiple entries in the franchise to create the closest thing we're ever likely to get to a "Zelda All-Stars". The pretence for this collision of worlds is that an evil sorceress named Cia — who sports the standard-issue absurd Koei Tecmo cleavage — is attempting to resurrect Ganondorf, and this cataclysmic event has caused gates to other worlds to open. As a result, you'll not only get to crack some skulls as Link, but also as others such as Impa, Sheik and Lana, an entirely new character who shares a special relationship with the villainous Cia. The cross-generational theme means you'll also be fighting enemies from several different Zelda titles, including Twilight Princess' Zant, Skyward Sword's Ghirahim and the Demon Lord himself, Ganondorf.
At the core of the game is the same signature gameplay which has endeared the Warriors series to millions of fans all over the globe. You assume the role of a single fighter on a massive, sprawling battlefield, and your basic objective is to control as much of the map as possible by taking various castles by force. There's a definite tactical element to the proceedings as you consult the lay of the land and rush between the various fortresses, aiding those which are about to fall or nixing the enemy's advance by taking down their own bases and cutting off the supply of fresh troops. However, it's often hard to appreciate this additional depth because of the chaos which often overshadows it; the Warriors franchise is famous for its countless hordes of foes which happily queue up and patiently await their turn to be jettisoned skyward by your blade, and Hyrule Warriors is no different in this regard.
While the enemy commanders are dedicated and resourceful opponents who will not only block your attacks but also unleash unstoppable offensives of their own, the vast majority of the foot soldiers you encounter in Hyrule Warriors are quite literally like cattle to the slaughter, and are simply there to provide you with something to hit — as well as satisfying visual evidence of your physical superiority. Seeing hundreds of enemies scattered by a particularly lethal attack is a definite highlight — but it's a shallow one which ultimately begins to lose its allure over time. Thankfully, the aforementioned commanders put up more of a fight, and after each special attack are vulnerable to devastating counters. A gauge appears which, if successfully depleted by multiple blows, triggers an impressive finishing move which usually slays your opponent instantly.
As well as your combination attacks — which are totally different for each fighter and showcase some surprisingly different results, depending on the string of button presses — you have access to a special super "Musou" move, which is usually handy for crowd control or dealing damage to a boss character. There's also a "Focus" skill which dramatically increases your power and speed, and has the added benefit of allowing you to effortlessly smash through your enemy's blocking move. You're also able to block attacks yourself, and an evade command means you can duck around an incoming blow and pummel your opponent's rear. Commanders and boss characters can be locked onto as well, not only giving you the chance to keep them in your sights when the battle becomes messy, but also allowing you to circle them and strike from behind. You'll also find that secondary weapons are on offer, and take the form of armaments which will be instantly familiar to seasoned Zelda followers — there's the bomb, the boomerang, the bow and the hookshot, and each one is vital during the game's multiple boss encounters.
Much of this will be instantly familiar to those who have followed Koei Tecmo and Omega Force's Warriors lineage, but thankfully Nintendo's influence can be felt in the additional objectives which are presented during each skirmish — many of which feel like fan-service to placate the Zelda faithful. For example, anyone totally new to the series may find themselves wondering why the hulking boss character King Dodongo is impervious to physical attacks, but series veterans will know instinctively that you have to lob a bomb into his gaping maw to stun him and expose his weak spot. Elsewhere, there are stationary weapons on the battlefield which have to be harnessed to take down certain enemies, and while these amount to little more than standing next to an object and pressing the right button at the right time, they at least add a little flavour to the action. One such moment involves stopping a deadly opponent with the menacing, grinning moon from Majora's Mask, and it's hard not to raise a smile during the resultant cut-scene.
There's more fan-service to be had when it comes to the roster of playable characters. While Link is undoubtedly the silent, brooding hero of the piece, the addition of such Zelda luminaries as Darunia and Princess Ruto will please fans which have been around since the earlier days of the series, and getting to step into the massive, blood-soaked boots of Ganondorf himself is sure to go down as one of the most memorable moments in the entire Zelda lineage. As expected, he's a complete and utter monster, and his lumbering movements and powerful, arching attacks only serve to reinforce this impression. While not all of the characters are as satisfying to control, they do all have their own fighting styles, combination attacks and tactics — making each one a challenge to learn and exploit in combat. Add to this the fact that many characters have access to more than one weapon type — which essentially makes them play entirely differently — and it's clear there's actually more replayability on offer than you might otherwise assume.
Success in battle earns you Rupees, meanwhile, and these can be expended to create new badges to unlock combos or access special buffs, such as reducing the amount of time it takes for a base's boss character to materialise or limiting damage from certain types of attack. You can also use Rupees to manually upgrade any character's level — with the proviso that you can't go beyond the level of the most experienced fighter in your ranks — and there's a system for combining weapons of the same type to make them more effective. These back-end mechanics give you a definite feel of progression, but the badge unlocks are the same across all of your fighters. It would have been nice to see each character gain access to unique power-ups and buffs, even if such a system would have made the entire game a lot more complex and possibly trickier to balance. As it stands, you can complete the game's story mode without using every unlocked fighter anyway, so you'll probably focus all of your time upgrading the usual suspects, and turning to other fighters on subsequent playthroughs.
The main quest can be played solo or in co-op with a friend, with one player using the TV and the other playing solely on the GamePad. The lack of online play is a disappointment, but the Wii U's unique asymmetrical gameplay possibilities at least give you a multiplayer experience which is thankfully bereft of split-screen shenanigans. Playing through the entire adventure locally with a friend in tow actually adds a lot to your overall enjoyment of the title, as the tactical choices you make are effectively doubled; you can fight the enemy on two fronts and compose on-the-fly strategies that would otherwise be tricky when playing over the net. The drawback of this method is that the game's already 30 fps frame rate occasionally stutters, presumably because of having to stream two different views of the battlefield simultaneously.
There's a lot of content on display in Hyrule Warriors, but it's clear that Nintendo decreed that something else had to be added to flesh the experience out. That something is Adventure Mode, which harks back to the classic 8-bit original and has the player unlocking tiles on a grid-based map. Each tile contains a battlefield with various objectives — such as beating a certain number of enemies in a strict time limit — and depending on how well you perform you are awarded a rank which then determines which adjacent tiles you can unlock. In another nod to the main Zelda series, special items — such as the compass — can be used to pinpoint special tiles. Adventure Mode can be played in conjunction with the main quest to help level up your characters, and if this wasn't incentive enough, it's only possible to unlock certain characters by participating in this mode.
Hyrule Warriors has been subject to an unnaturally short development time, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its overall presentation. While the 30 fps in-game visuals aren't ugly by any means, the polish one would normally associate with a first-party Nintendo release is absent. Enemy models are somewhat basic, and locations — while vast — are often embarrassingly sparse and lacking in detail. It's painfully clear that Omega Force has used its creaking last-gen Warriors game engine — rather than that used in the latest series entry — as the basis of this release, and there's little here in visual terms that hasn't been seen many times over during the past half-decade. There are a handful of moments of stunning spectacle — the final confrontation being a particular highlight — but this isn't a game that will make your PS4 and Xbox One-owning pals envious.
Elsewhere, there are other presentation problems which are likely to impact your overall enjoyment. While the game engine is good enough to render some of the cinematic sequences in real-time, other cutscenes are inexplicably presented as Full Motion Video — yet they still appear to use the actual game engine, rather than higher-quality CGI models. To make matters worse, these FMV scenes are fuzzy and jerky, and call to mind GameCube-era movie clips. Add to this some low-quality pre-mission narrated segments (whoever was responsible for recording the speech in this game needs to tell the actress in question to not spit so much into the microphone) and Hyrule Warriors starts to feel undeniably like a Koei Tecmo game, with the Nintendo influence of quality increasingly limited. The polish just isn't there.
This sentiment carries over to the music, which is made up of classic Zelda tunes which have been mercilessly butchered by Omega Force's in-house musicians. The repetitive and largely charmless rock guitars which tortured our poor eardrums in Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2 make an unwelcome return, and while the underlying quality of the original tunes just about shines through, it's nevertheless incredibly unsettling to hear such memorable and beloved pieces of music getting put through the obnoxious Heavy Metal blender.
Hyrule Warriors might not be your typical Zelda game, but it's clear that the content, setting and characters have been created very much with Nintendo fans in mind. There are some problems here — many of which can no doubt be laid at the door of the game's short production cycle — and truly dedicated Zelda followers might have their noses put out of joint by the fact that is little more than Omega Force's brand of one-man-army combat with Link and his friends dropped in the middle. Still, there's enough hack-and-slash entertainment on offer to make this a rather enjoyable diversion. While the button-pounding gameplay is unquestionably repetitive, there's still a thrill to be found in dashing around the battlefield taking down enemy bases and turning the tide of the war with some well-timed intervention and carefully planned strikes into hostile territory.
For those that come in expecting a classic Legend of Zelda adventure this could potentially be an underwhelming experience; yet as a fun action game with plenty of content is delivers well. Once the problem of perception — courtesy of the iconic characters at play — is resolved, this is an entertaining addition for action fans.