On the surface, Hyrule Warriors is clearly a Legend of Zelda game what with its multitude of iconic characters, locations, and items. But just how deep does the influence of the franchise go before you start to get into the generic hack-and-slack adventures of Dynasty Warriors? Not very, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It has been widely reported that the game was originally going to be much more Legend of Zelda-like with missions having you traverse a dungeon similar to past games in the franchise, then be attacked by a horde of enemies like a typical Dynasty Warriors game. It was headed in that direction until Shigeru Miyamoto intervened and told Koei Tecmo to just “do what they do best” – and that’s exactly what they did. You will not find many throwbacks to Legend of Zelda in the mechanics of Hyrule Warriors. It is absolutely a hack-and-slash action RPG through and through. What little exploration there is, is done solely through an overworld map. Otherwise it is mission after guided mission as you cut down waves of familiar Legend of Zelda foes.
Where the game does reference its namesake is in the items and characters you use. The most familiar items like the boomerang, bow, hookshot, bombs, and potion bottles all serve as comically large weapons that you can use in battle. One of the many ways that battles stay fresh and interesting are the power ups for these items that enemies drop after they’ve been the latest victim in a massive KO combo. Every time one of these power-ups drop, they are so overpowered (especially the massive area of effect damage of the upgraded bombs) that it’s almost silly not to use them while they are pumped up. Luckily their time as a super item are limited so it does not throw the game out-of-balance and stays very fun to use when you get the chance. Other than a few times when it’s required for a puzzle or boss, I found myself only using the boomerang, but everything other than the entirely useless hookshot could effectively be used in battle. It gives the game a nice balance and allows you to make your own decisions of how you want to play. Using bombs are a quick and dirty way to clear a way through enemies, for instance, while using a boomerang stuns them to let you pull off bigger combos, or you could just opt to not use items at all and you’d be just fine.
The game itself is split into several modes, all of which become instantly playable after completing a quick tutorial. Legend Mode puts on a guided story-driven quest to save Hyrule from Ganondorf and the mysterious Cia. Free Mode lets you play any level in Legend Mode with all the characters, weapons, and items you have unlocked being usable. Challenge Mode gives you a specific set of challenges to complete. And finally Adventure Mode, which gets rid of a story entirely and just lets you explore a classic Legend of Zelda map. You do this by moving your character around like a chess piece using iconic items to find more weapons and level up your Hyrule Warriors characters.
The story in Hyrule Warriors ranges from ridiculous to annoying and in the way. During the Legend Mode you are served some, thankfully skippable, cutscenes that contain a bunch of useless rambling as a way to connect missions. It is definitely cool seeing iconic Legend of Zelda characters out of their element, but I can’t imagine even the most hardcore of fans really giving two thoughts to the story.
Dialogue in missions is even worse, usually sounding like it was written for elementary-aged kids with its overbearing “we can defeat anything with friendship” tone and generally annoying and pointless characters. Luckily all the dialogue can be more or less ignored, even that which has to do with missions, thanks to some easy-to-recognize markers on the world map and and a quest log constantly on screen. There were definitely some parts of the missions where I was completely lost but, even after playing them through again, it definitely was not because I missed dialogue, but more so because some objectives are just too damn convoluted.
The characters that are brought over from past Legend of Zelda games do a decent enough job retaining their personalities as we have come to know them for, sprinkled in with some generally awful dialogue. The only playable character created especially for Hyrule Warriors, Lana, is a trainwreck story wise. She plays fine, sure, but her backstory is a borderline insult to Legend of Zelda lore and she is not much more than a generic hack-and-slash character that uses a book for magic spells.
Luckily the story gets out of the way entirely in Advenure Mode and you are left to experience the most fun part of Hyrule Warriors – the combat.
Combat is the obvious strength of Hyrule Warriors and the game does not try to hide that fact. While it does start to feel repetitive during particularly long play sessions, the high-speed and constantly shifting combat will never make you regret popping in the game and slaughtering a couple thousand Stalchilds. The mindless hordes of small enemies are mostly ignoble in combat if you do not want to bother with them, though. They are great to up your KO count and count towards a higher score in Adventure Mode matches, but the real enemies come in the form of “commanders” or “anything with a health bar.” This ranges from series staples such as Moblins and Darnkuts (which have a clever way of being defeated just like in past games), Poes, and a few new faces made specifically for Hyrule Warriors. For the most part they are the standard fare of attack, attack, attack, find a weak point, attacking some more until they are dead. It is overly simplistic but, like most of the combat in the game, it just works and manages to still feel satisfying everytime you slip behind a Darknut and take them down with a few swipes.
Every character’s list of combos are accomplished the same way, by hitting Y a certain number of times, then following with X. While they all have the same basic structure, every character manages to feel unique and feature attacks that fit well with their established personalities. Link has his iconic sword slashes and spin slashes and Zelda, fighting for the first time in a Legend of Zelda game, fights with a flurry of quick and deadly strikes. The worst characters are the ones that have too many combos that force them to stop moving, such as Ganondorf and Darunia. Both of these, and a few others, have way too many combos that force them to stop and either leave them open to an obvious counter attack or just waste time sitting in (admittedly cool looking) animations. While they’re certainly annoying to play as because of it, all these differences help each character feel unique and guarantees that there is a character for nearly every play-style and difficulty preference.
Outside of the combat is where the game really suffers. In between genuinely fun battles and challenges, you are forced to slog through the cumbersome “Bazaar” in order to upgrade and manage up to 13 completely separate characters. For whatever insane reason, the decision was made to have skill trees be something you needed to individually purchase and find materials for instead of just naturally happening once you level up. Instead of just leveling up and gaining new abilities, you need to create “badges” through a slow menu system that gives you far too many tooltips on the way. The whole experience is a major drag on the rest of the game and it actively made me want to avoid playing as more characters because I knew I’d have to dedicate an annoyingly large amount of time to upgrading their badges. It’s not like you ever run out of materials or money needed, so the upgrades are essentially linked to their level but you’re forced to do it manually instead of it just happening as it should with every new level.
While combat is certainly satisfying, it all feels kind of pointless in the end. Adventure Mode is almost set up like a traditional RPG or MMO where you have to “grind” through challenges to unlock weapons, item cards, and complete certain objectives, but there really is no end game to it. You will spend countless hours upgrading your warriors and filling out painfully boring skill trees just to have them sit around and look pretty. The best you can hope for is bragging rights with a well placed Miiverse post, but that’s really it. You could say that the upgrading is so you can take on the hero difficulty but, even then, all you are doing is playing through the same Legend Mode you have already completed but at a much higher difficulty. That is not much of an end game or close to worth the time it takes to do the same challenges over and over again to acquire the items you need in Adventure Mode.
Graphics And Sound
The Wii U has already proved with its library of games that is capable of doing some pretty beautiful things with graphics in games. While obviously not on par with the horsepower of its Xbox One and PS4 counterparts, most games on the system can clearly hold their own with creative flourishes and bright color palettes. Unfortunately, Hyrule Warriors is not one of them.
Call it a left over effect from being a skinned Dynasty Warriors game, but all of the textures and color palettes look muddy and uninspired. The Legend of Zelda series is known for its bright colors and creative landscapes, even when the graphics were just 8-bit characters or blocky N64 graphics. Hyrule Warriors looks like a dull PS2 game with smoother textures. Links free moving scarf is a nice creative touch, but other than that everything else about the game is visually pretty boring. Landscapes are drab and repeated far too often and even the levels based off of locations in previous Zelda games don’t feel anything like Hyrule.
Nothing in the battles are particularly special and even some of the over-the-top finishing moves end up being as visually boring as the rest of the combat. It is not a pretty game by any stretch, and I could forgive it for that if it at least did anything creative, but it is a pretty lazy job of just skinning Dynasty Warriors instead of creating rich new worlds.
There were also plenty of times where my Wii U, despite playing a digital copy of Hyrule Warriors, just could not handle the carnage happening on screen and the framerate slowed to a crawl.
Sound design was pretty great, and one of the highlights outside of the series’ trademark combat. Most of the soundtrack were buttrock remixes of classic Legend of Zelda tunes and it worked great. Hearing that iconic theme song in between over-the-top guitar riffs was always a treat. This is a soundtrack I could see myself picking up just for these remixes. Battle sounds are good as well, helping the already satisfying combat feel that much more so when you hear more and more enemies get caught up in your slashes.
The lack of real dialogue is honestly embarassing at this point. I don’t know if Nintendo mandated it or if Koei just didn’t feel right adding in character speech, but hearing characters grunt in empty caves and stare at each other while dialogue is displayed on screen is almost unforgivable in 2014.
Hyrule Warriors is a fine game that does what it does well and not much more. It won’t be a system seller and probably will be forgotten about in a month, but I certainly did not regret playing it, even if it did get very repetitive towards the end of everything. It’s just a shame that Koei could not use the Legend of Zelda license and try and do something at least a little more creative with it, whether it was Miyamoto that told them to make the game “more like Dynasty Warriors” or not, the game still suffers from feeling like the same old thing. Play the game, put up with some terrible dialogue in Legend Mode for a bit then shuffle around in Adventure Mode to collect some cool weapons and call it a day.