The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a modern masterpiece whose influence can be felt in several big-name video games that have come in the nearly four years since its release. Its open world, physics-driven sandbox was equal parts scenic, meditative, and full of chaotic wonder. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, the last launch in an unusually quiet holiday season for Nintendo, is none of those things.
It is, however, an extravagant and excessive way to revisit one of the most memorable worlds in recent gaming history. The product of a collaboration between Nintendo and Dynasty Warriors developer Omega Force, Age of Calamity tries to marry the inherent silliness of barreling through thousands of monsters at a time with a serious narrative about attempting to stave off the apocalypse that sets up Breath of the Wild.
While this rare Legend of Zelda spin-off may not always be the most successful in that endeavor, Age of Calamity manages to be a mostly great time in spite of itself.
Musou far, musou good
Instead of following up on the ending of Breath of the Wild, this new spin-off is set 100 years before the 2017 classic. Link is still a run-of-the-mill knight tasked with being the personal bodyguard for Princess Zelda, who is reluctantly trying to fulfill her role as a savior in an end-times prophecy at the insistence of her father. Most importantly, Hyrule is still a functioning kingdom that hasn’t yet been ravaged by Calamity Ganon and turned into the world so many of us thoroughly explored back in 2017.
Thing is, you won’t be exploring it the same way this time. Age of Calamity fits under the “musou” umbrella, the genre popularized by Dynasty Warriors and applied to countless spin-offs for franchises like One Piece, Gundam, and Fire Emblem. These games are all about sweeping through hordes of enemies that don’t put up much resistance because they mostly exist to make you feel cool as you wipe them out by the dozen. There’s an empowering rush to emptying a screen full of enemies in just a few swipes, and that’s what makes musou games work. You’ll find no serene adventuring or puzzle-solving here, just glorious monster murder.
That said, Age of Calamity mixes in some of Breath of the Wild‘s best features to make people who loved that game a little more comfortable with the new format. All four Sheikah Slate powers are present here, so you can stop enemies in their tracks with Stasis, use Magnesis to steal metal weapons out of enemies’ hands, and do plenty of other fun things to give yourself an advantage in boss fights. And just like in Breath of the Wild, grass will catch on fire and water will react to lightning and ice. It’s just that this time it’s in service of mass slaughter instead of puzzle-solving.
If you think the combat that sounds repetitive, you’d be sorta right, but Omega Force always sprinkles in other variables to keep missions fresh. Many levels feature outposts to capture, bosses to take down, and secret treasure to find if you feel like wandering away from objective markers every now and then. You’ll almost always have multiple playable characters to freely switch between during a mission, and you’ll often have to issue commands to the ones you aren’t controlling to take on multiple goals at once.
Speaking of which, the wide variety of playable characters is the spice that transforms Age of Calamity‘s gameplay from edible to delicious. Aside from Link and Zelda, you’ll take control of the nimble ninja Impa as well as the four Divine Beast pilots who were depicted entirely in flashbacks in Breath of the Wild: Daruk the Goron, Revali the Rito, Mipha the Zora, and Urbosa the Gerudo. On top of that, there are several others to unlock that Nintendo would prefer I didn’t tell you about.
Every one of those characters has a totally distinct moveset driven by unique mechanics. True to his Breath of the Wild self, Link can utilize different weapons like one-handed swords and spears, while Impa creates holographic clones of herself to dish out absurd amounts of damage when used properly. Urbosa can infuse her attacks with powerful lightning strikes, Mipha can spawn fountains that heal allies and act as jump pads for aerial attacks, and so on.
It’s an impressive amount of mechanical diversity for a fairly large character roster, and probably Age of Calamity‘s saving grace. This is especially true when it comes to everything other than story missions. Instead of picking missions from a normal menu, your between-mission time is spent staring at the world map from Breath of the Wild, which is now littered with side missions and “quests” that amount to little more than dumping resources collected in battle in exchange for character upgrades.
This is simultaneously my favorite part of Age of Calamity and the place where the repetition can set in for completionists. Even if it’s delivered solely through text blurbs on a map screen, it’s nice to see Breath of the Wild‘s post-apocalyptic setting repurposed as a still-intact world where you can help merchants, military captains, and researchers bolster their operations to enhance the war effort. In Breath of the Wild, this world is fractured and broken. Here, it’s whole and everyone collaborates to make it so.
Unfortunately, you’ll have a hard time getting everything you want without at least occasionally dipping into optional side missions. These are usually pretty short and have simple objectives like killing lots of enemies or capturing outposts within a time limit. They make for decent podcast-listening material, but if you’re the kind of person who needs to check off every icon on video game map screens, they can quickly become overwhelming and frankly a little boring. The upside is these side missions gave me opportunities to try out characters I’d been ignoring because the roster is fairly large; the downside is I felt like I had to do that in order to stave off boredom by the 20-hour mark or so.
Still, you can theoretically stick to the story missions and have a fun time. Age of Calamity‘s gameplay is at its best in those sequences. Unfortunately, the story itself doesn’t quite live up to its great potential.
We don’t always have to win
When Age of Calamity was announced, the most exciting thing about it was the potential of a goofy and stylish action game that nonetheless ends in failure and tragedy. Sorry for spoiling a game from almost four years ago, but the events from a century before Breath of the Wild don’t have a happy ending. A bunch of cool characters die, Link goes into cryo-sleep, and everything generally sucks for the next 100 years.
Nintendo doesn’t want me going into detail about the story and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you anyway, but Age of Calamity takes things in a different direction that didn’t sit right with me. It leans too heavily on fan-service in a way that feels thematically at odds with what Breath of the Wild made explicitly clear: Sometimes, prophecies are wrong and the good guys don’t win.
Despite this (and despite some questionable English voice acting), there are still plenty of moments that work. At its best, this is a coming-of-age story about Princess Zelda, a 16-year-old girl with the weight of the world thrust upon her shoulders who isn’t sure she’s capable of playing her part in this tale.
Recent Legend of Zelda games like Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild have indeed given the titular princess more to do than just be a kidnapping victim, but even those largely keep her adventures offscreen. This time, she gets most of the spotlight and is fully playable in a way I appreciated. Her emotional beats are easily the most effective parts of Age of Calamity‘s narrative efforts.
The end result is a totally fine video game story with some nice moments that could have and should have been a much better one. Age of Calamity‘s story had an opportunity to set itself apart from the triumphant power fantasy of other action games, which would’ve been in keeping with the source material. Instead, Nintendo opted for a different route that’s disappointing even if it manages to succeed on its own merits from time to time.
Even with a couple of major missteps, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is a welcome excuse to return to one of the most beloved video game worlds of the last decade and spend some quality time with characters who were already dead by the time Breath of the Wild started. There’s an irresistible charm to making Mipha annihilate dozens of monsters at once with a cartoonishly large water tornado.
It’s a shame about the story, but hey, at least you’ll never fall to your death because it started raining while you were climbing a mountain in this game.