We’re far too good at this. The Musou (AKA Warriors) series goes out of its way to make you feel powerful, but Omega Force might have gone too far this time; every few minutes, we break Hyrule Warriors. The engine groans beneath the weight of our actions, the framerate tanking as Link charges a few dozen foes towards an arena wall or Ganondorf crushes everything onscreen with a giant demonic hand. We pause in empty arenas, waiting for another set of enemies to load in. The stream of UI text popups runs 30 seconds behind the action because we are just too strong, too fast. Koei Tecmo’s engine has been built specifically to handle an industry-leading level of hackand-slash carnage, but it can’t keep up with us.
This should be ruinous. Instead, it feels like a celebration. Rather than cautiously Z-targeting one enemy at a time on a journey from boyhood innocence to world’s saviour, our Link effortlessly juggles a wave of foes with a jet of fire. Rather than awaiting rescue in the bowels of a temple at the end of the world, we watch Zelda zigzag through a crowd, leaping into the air and obliterating the stragglers with a volley of light arrows. And they’re joined on the character select screen by a host of fellow warriors, the series’ supporting cast and leading lights transformed into an ensemble. Goron chief Darunia wields a hammer and chucks gigantic boulders; Midna slaps foes around with a magic hand made of hair. Sheik fights with a harp; newcomer Lana, a spellbook; bug-obsessed Agitha, a parasol. All have access to Link’s kit bag: the subversive thrill of seeing Zelda loose off the hookshot, or Ganondorf turn from treasure chest to camera with a piece of heart in hand, never really fades. As a work of fan service, Hyrule Warriors is almost without equal.
As a game, though, Hyrule Warriors has plenty of equals – almost 30 of them in the past five years, in fact. It is the latest in Koei Tecmo’s Musou series, and so it comes bound to a certain mechanical template. Here, it involves repetition of a handful of simple decisions: when to use a special move, to activate Focus Spirit for powered-up attacks, or to dodge. And above all, how long would you like to keep mashing the light attack button before you start mashing the strong attack one? Warriors games have always prized spectacle over systems, and even the shortest combo strings here produce dazzling results, but the outcome is always the same: a crowd of dead enemies evaporates in a shower of rupees, and then you move on to the next.
Variety is one substitute for complexity, and while the character select screen affords plenty of it, much of the Legends story mode either limits you to a choice of a few select characters or, worse, gives you no choice at all. As thrilling as it is to lay hands on Ganondorf, by the time you’ve swung his dual blades through three consecutive missions, you’ve seen enough demonic hands to last a lifetime. The crafting system and skill trees, powered by materials found in the field, are a reward for repetition, rather than a solution to it.
At least the missions offer a bit more variety than the mechanics. In one, you need to escort an ally carrying soup to a god who, when fed, creates pathways to new areas. In another, you must stop Bombchus from blowing up and taking a base’s worth of allies with them. All the while comrades are calling for help, characters are chatting about the bigger picture, you’re being warned that a couple of keeps are about to fall into enemy hands, and being urged to press on to the next objective. There is a tremendous amount going on, both on the battlefield and the endless streams of text that frame it, to the point that it’s all too easy to miss a mission-critical SOS that renders the most recent checkpoint unusable. In one mission, we were given three seemingly vital objectives in the space of ten seconds and no indication of which was the most important. We had to restart another level for failing to stop a handful of enemies from taking the allied base because we were focusing instead on the giant dragon gobbing fireballs at it. Hyrule Warriors may make you feel incredibly powerful, but Legends mode frequently makes you feel like quite the inadequate leader. Thankfully, while Legends may take top billing – occupying the first slot on the menu – Adventure mode is bigger, pacier, and more varied. Set on an 8bitstyled world map, it is broken up into briefer missions that tinker with the formula, altering enemy damage, perhaps, or dropping you into a time-limited boss rush. Two enemies will spawn in a closed-off keep and you’ll be given a Zelda lore hint on which one to kill. There are additions to the cast and more powerful weapons for its existing members too, with grading and item systems to encourage replays. Every great Zelda game has been an adventure, so it’s appropriate that the mode of the same name just about rescues Hyrule Warriors.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as just another new Warriors game, but Nintendo has not given the keys to one of the most revered series in gaming to Koei Tecmo and Omega Force just to swell their output further. This is a Zelda game, and the sight of Link and company on the boxart carries with it a certain expectation. It’s one Hyrule Warriors fails to match, but there’s still plenty to admire, not least the way its makers have flouted nearly 30 years of convention, treating one of Nintendo’s most prized assets in ways it would never dare to. The game’s greatest achievement is the way it recasts characters who have long been portrayed as being in need of a young boy’s help. The next time we see Zelda being dragged away by Ganon’s forces, we’ll wonder why she can’t just fight her way out of trouble. After all, we’ve seen her do it hundreds of times before.