Review: Cadence of Hyrule (Switch)

Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer feat. The Legend of Zelda is a bold new direction for Nintendo. This is a company known for being fiercely protective of its intellectual property, but it saw fit to lend one of its most precious franchises to a small indie developer from Vancouver. It’s a bold move that paid off though—it’s both a celebration of the The Legend of Zelda and a fresh new direction, made by people who clearly love the series and know how to do it justice. 

In short, Cadence of Hyrule brings Necrodancer‘s rhythm-based dungeon crawler mechanics to a Zelda world. Instead of freely moving about the map, you’re limited to a grid viewed from above, and—this is the kicker—you can only move from one tile to the next on the beat. Try to take a step off-beat, and your character will just stumble in place. Enemies are similarly restricted to moving on the beat, and tend to follow simple patterns: some will simply follow a set patrol route; some will stay still until you cross their line of sight, sending them charging in a straight line towards you; some will move about haphazardly, but only in diagonals.

You can fight back, of course, but there’s no attack button here—rather, if you try to move into a space already occupied by an enemy, you’ll stay where you are and swing your sword. If you’ve planned right, your foe will unwittingly step into your attack or get caught unawares; if you haven’t, you’ll catch air while they hop into their next space, or your swing will bounce off their shield, or you’ll step face-first into an exploding bomb.

Cadence of Hyrule, then, becomes a game about predicting where each enemy on the map will be based on its movement patterns and the tempo of the music, and positioning yourself appropriately so that you hit your enemies and they don’t hit you. It is, essentially, a turn-based dungeon crawler in the style of the Mystery Dungeon games, only with turns tied to beats in the soundtrack (and enemies who’ll take their turns every beat, regardless of whether or not you take yours!)

It’s a simple idea that works beautifully. There’s enough enemy variety to give every new section of the map its own fresh challenges to overcome, but not so many that you have to try and memorise the movement and attack patterns of a hundred different things. It doesn’t take long before you can figure out the best way to deal with each individual foe, and not long after that before taking them down becomes more instinct than deliberate tactical planning. But Cadence of Hyrule doesn’t shy away from filling each area with a wide assortment of enemies (and plenty in number), and that’s where the challenge lies—figuring out how to deal with the whole horde at once, without your best next step for one for leading you straight into the path of another.

As you explore, you’ll find new weapons and items that can make a big difference. With your basic dagger, you can only attack one space directly in front of you, but a broadsword cuts a wider arc and can hit enemies on your diagonals—something that makes a world of difference. Some weapons reach farther, some have additional effects, and so on. Furthermore, Link and Zelda feel wildly different to play thanks to their unique abilities. Link can deflect projectiles (but not melee attacks) with his shield, and has an spinning slash that hits all around him; Zelda can shield against both projectiles and melee attacks, albeit without reflecting them back, and gets a long-range fire spell partway through the game.

The soundtrack ties it all together. The Legend of Zelda‘s music is so catchy and so iconic, it had to find its way into a rhythm game some day, and Cadence of Hyrule sports fresh remixes of those familiar tunes that are full of energy and momentum. The nature of the game means that you’re not going to be running through the sort of complex beat maps of a more traditional rhythm game, but the wide range of different styles and tempos keeps things interesting the whole way through. 

While the nature of the rhythm-based battle system means combat plays a more central role than is typical of a Zelda game, Cadence of Hyrule isn’t without the series’ trademark puzzles and exploration elements. The ultimate goal is to find and complete four dungeons hidden across the map; to do so requires not only solving the puzzles within each dungeon and beating its boss—each of which is a music-themed riff on a classic Zelda boss, like a maraca-wielding Gohma—but to find the right items and character upgrades that’ll let you get into the dungeon in the first place.

The one big difference, in terms of the exploration side of things, is that Cadence of Hyrule‘s map is randomised at the start of each new game. There are some constants—you’ll always need the same items to get into each dungeon, for instance—but the layouts of each area, the enemies that appear, and the locations of items are rearranged each time. It’s a nice touch that adds another layer to repeat playthroughs; even when you know what items you need and have a sense of the structure of the game, you still have to go about finding them in whatever new map layout the game throws at you.

Thankfully, Cadence of Hyrule isn’t as unforgiving as Crypt of the Necrodancer or your typical roguelike. When you die, you lose all your rupees and some disposable items, but you retain any key tools you’ve found. You also get to respawn from any save point you’ve unlocked, rather than having to start right from the beginning. Given how tied Zelda games are to character progression, it’s a welcome reprieve from the more punishing aspects of traditional roguelikes. (And, for anyone who does want that punishment, there’s an optional permadeath mode.)

But more than anything, Cadence of Hyrule is a celebration of The Legend of Zelda. The familiar characters, monsters, and settings all spring to life in Crypt of the Necrodancer‘s gorgeous pixel art style, and the crossed-worlds story is a fresh take on the timeless tale of Link and Zelda’s adventures. The music is the heart and soul of the game—it’s a rhythm game, after all—and the new arrangements are delightful renditions of the series’ classic tunes. I’m as surprised as anyone that Nintendo licensed out The Legend of Zelda, of all things, to an external developer, but they couldn’t have picked a better one than Brace Yourself Games.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.