So much about Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is like bowling in a run-down alley. Not just in the way Princess Zelda rolls her magic bomb into a horde of Bokoblins, sending them flying like pins, or in the way Daruk curls into himself and barrels into a huddled cluster of Lizalfos. No, it’s the way it feels: You might line up the kids’ ramp and let gravity do the work for you, or you might hook a well-greased bowling ball with calculated wrist torque. Given enough time, either way, you can knock all the pins down eventually. But since the alley’s janked up, there isn’t much satisfaction to be had by trying.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is an uneasy mix of smart and stupid. Out November 20, the hack-and-slash crossover melts Dynasty Warriors’ horde-mashing into Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s world, characters, and aesthetic. The former is a decades-old franchise about mowing down canon-fodder armies of assailants; the latter, a dazzling 2017 fantasy role-playing game with thinky puzzles and boundless opportunities to explore. From that medley of influences, it plucks out the “canon fodder” and “fantasy” and adds in just a whiff of “thinky,” making for a fun but thin Zelda spin-off.
The game opens 100 years before the events in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You start out as Link, and over time collect more playable fighters, including Zelda, Impa, Daruk, Revali, Mipha, and Urbosa, all rendered with loving fidelity to the original game. In various battlegrounds around Hyrule—lava-filled Death Mountain, the green fields outside Hyrule Castle—you encounter mob after mob of monsters. In Dynasty Warriors fashion, most take only a couple hits before becoming dust. Fighting your way through the scenarios’ winding maps, you ramp up to larger and larger bosses before completing the objective. At any point, including mid-battle, you can switch from one character over to another who’s better-placed on the map or has a more relevant combat toolkit. After a successful mission, you have the opportunity to level up weapons, craft food, upgrade into cooler combos, and mess with other systems before jumping into another scenario.
A little like a Soulcalibur-style fighting game, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’s combat relies on these combos. Also like Soulcalibur, you can basically just button-mash. Link has a light sword attack (x) and a heavy sword attack (y). If you hit x, x, y, Link propels himself forward, sliding along the ground and knocking a line of enemies into the sky. If you hit x, y, and b, he slashes upwards before opening up his paraglider, from which he can drop down for a big attack from above. These combos balloon in complexity as the game goes on, and are decidedly fun to execute just right. They also help charge characters’ unique specials for cinematic, big-boy blowout attacks.
Every fighter has access to Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s runes: Cryosis, Magnesis, Stasis, and remote bombs, which manifest for each in exciting, different ways. Where Revali rains down neat lines of bombs, Daruk haphazardly tosses a cluster somewhere into the distance. Their unique animations are delightful, and for Zelda: Breath of the Wild fans they might momentarily transport you back into the original game’s magic.
Most of the fun I’ve had so far with Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity has been within the first few minutes of unlocking a new character. It’s rewarding to optimize loyal nursemaid Impa’s battalions of Impa clones, or knock mobs into Daruk’s molten rocks, which explode into fiery lava. After those first few moments, the gameplay experience went downhill. I didn’t get out of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity’s fights what I put into them. One-two-three combos might level wave upon wave of Bokoblins with the bombasity of a WWE superstar, but a lot of the time I could have just hit x a dozen times. It’s a common complaint about these musou games, but here the combat’s shortcomings aren’t easily attributed to differences in taste.
There’s a jarring messiness to fights in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity that undermines the satisfaction you might get out of perfectly timed combos. The canon-fodder encounters are kind venues for experimentation, but when it comes to higher-stakes battles, the game does not broadcast itself well enough for combo school to pay off. Lasers strike even when you’re hiding behind a rock. Bosses’ incoming attacks can be visually indecipherable, making dodge timing inconsistent from fight to fight. A boss’s whole torso might disappear from sight when you fly a paraglider around its head, rendering you incapable of seeing their sword coming towards you.