Review: Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity (Switch)

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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is, more than any other Legend of Zelda game I’ve played, a game that puts Zelda herself at the front and centre. Link is ostensibly the player-insert protagonist—though with multiple playable characters, you could easily sit Link on the bench for most of the game and treat him as part of the supporting cast—but this is Zelda’s story. It’s about her coming of age, her struggles juggling royal duties with her own desires, her trying to find her own way in a world where all the men around her who assume it’s their right to tell her what to do and who to be.

Taking place 100 years before the events of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Age of Calamity recounts the events of the Great Calamity (as seen in Breath of the Wild‘s flashbacks). The once-peaceful kingdom of Hyrule is under threat by the prophesied return of the primal evil, Calamity Ganon, and the only way to stop it is to awaken four ancient, mechanical Divine Beasts, find Champions to pilot them, find a sword that seals darkness and a brave knight to wield it, and awaken the Princess of Hyrule’s latent power.

For Zelda, that last point is the crucial one. Even if the Divine Beasts can be awoken and the sword found, if she can’t awaken her power, then the whole endeavour is doomed. And yet, despite all her effort and training, she seems unable to do so—much to the disappointment of her father, King Rhoam, who insists on more and more training, at the expense of Zelda’s personal interests, as the day of reckoning draws nearer. 

Zelda is between a rock and a hard place. She takes her duty as Princess seriously, and genuinely wants to be able to play her crucial role in stopping the Calamity, but her efforts to do so are an endless source of frustration. She’s also her own person with her own interests and desires, and would much rather spend her time studying the ancient technology that powers the Divine Beasts (and many other mechanisms like it), but nobody else seems to see that as anything more than a playful hobby best left aside as she performs her royal duties.

This becomes a constant theme throughout Age of Calamity. Zelda is the one leading the efforts to awaken the Divine Beasts and to find Champions to pilot them, to locate the sword that seals darkness for Link—her appointed knight and protector—to wield. She’s a more than capable fighter, and has a knowledge and understanding of ancient technology that’s almost unrivalled. And yet, despite all this, she’s constantly treated by those around her as a delicate flower that needs to be protected at all costs. This is something that Breath of the Wild touched upon, but Age of Calamity makes it the driving force of the whole narrative.

In some ways, it comes across as a sort of meta commentary on The Legend of Zelda as a whole—a series that’s carried Zelda’s name in its title for 35 years, but rarely gives her any sort of agency within that. Age of Calamity sets up a similar premise, but instead shows it from Zelda’s perspective as she tries to manage the weight of the expectations placed upon her while also finding her own way in life. And as the Calamity draws closer and the stakes get higher and higher, Zelda’s ability to be an agent in her own story instead of simply an object to motivate those around her becomes crucial to any hope Hyrule has of salvation—but for the sake of spoilers, I’ll say no more than that.

Zelda isn’t alone in this journey, joined as she is by a supporting cast from all across Hyrule, and it’s here that Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity forges its closest ties with Breath of the Wild. Where the four Champions—warriors representing the different peoples of Hyrule, chosen to pilot the Divine Beasts—had an important but limited role in Breath of the Wild‘s flashbacks, here they’re key members of Zelda’s entourage, and see much deeper characterisation as a result. The same is true of the likes of Impa, now a young woman, whose role as a royal advisor gives her a much more intimate place in the story than the exposition delivery vehicle she played in Breath of the Wild.

Through these fresh takes on familiar characters, Age of Calamity manages to offer a fresh take on a plot whose broad strokes will already be familiar to anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild. Instead of vignettes of key moments, you get to see the full picture of what happened through the Calamity a century prior—how each of the Champions came to be chosen as such, how the Yiga Clan factored into everything that’s going on, how different battles played out. You get a better picture of the quiet moments between those big events, too, and the bonds that formed between these people brought together by fate.

Breath of the Wild‘s influence is all over Age of Calamity‘s combat system, too. It’s a Warriors game at its core, so the bulk of the action follows that formula: button-heavy hack-and-slash action as you carve your way through hundreds of enemies at a time, strategically making your way across the battlefield to capture key points and deal with different threats wherever they erupt. But you can see Breath of the Wild throughout all of this, from the Perfect Dodge / Flurry Rush that now plays an important role in any boss or mini-boss encounter to the use of Sheikah Slate runes that each character possesses.

Right from the outset, every character has access to the Remote Bomb, Cryonis, Magnesis, and Stasis abilities, which are crucial components of any encounter. They all serve as a natural counter to specific types of attacks, stunning them instantly—a block of Cryonis ice is an unpleasant thing for a charging foe to ram into, Magnesis is a great way to turn someone’s metal weapons against them, and so on—with little icons above enemies’ heads showing when you can use them in this way. But they’re also to more creative use outside those prescribed situations; if you stun an enemy through other means, Stasis can be a great way to extend the duration of the stun and squeeze out some extra damage, and Remote Bombs make a great crowd control tool.

Each character has access to all the same Sheikah abilities, but they each have their own unique versions of them. Link’s Remote Bomb has him throw four big bombs in succession that you can aim to a limited extent, for example, while Zelda’s summons a sort of four-legged robot that you can control directly as it constantly throws little bombs in the immediate vicinity.

This is an extension of the wildly different abilities and move sets that each character has—beyond just different weapons and combos, each character has a different unique ability that fundamentally changes how you play them (or at least, how you play them effectively). Zora’s strong attacks leave behind a waterspout that she can immediately teleport to and use to launch herself into the air, both as a way of continuing a combo or quickly moving around; Revali can switch between grounded and flying forms, each with a completely different set of attacks; Urbosa can charge up a lightning gauge and use that to augment her strong attacks; and so on. The playable cast of Age of Calamity is far more diverse in playstyle than any other Warriors game I’ve played before.

Gliding can be useful, too, with each character having different ways of getting airborne. From there, any airborne attack will hit an enemy’s weak-point gauge, which would normally only appear in certain situations (after a Sheikah rune counter, for instance). That said, there’s a missed opportunity to give gliding a more prominent navigational role in Age of Calamity—battlefields tend to be quite flat and segmented, so you can’t really cover any great distance or take shortcuts by gliding the way you could in Breath of the Wild. Having more verticality to the maps, with gliding integrated as a key way of getting around quickly, could have been a unique twist on the space control and outpost protection that’s so fundamental to the Warriors combat loop.

Beyond the regular battles that make up the bulk of the action, Age of Calamity also periodically lets you step into the cockpit of a Divine Beast. These big, lumbering creatures are slow and difficult to maneuver, but can deal hundreds of enemies at a time with a single attack, opening the door to some unique new challenges and mission scenarios. Sometimes they’re big setpiece battles as you carve your way through a path filled with thousands of foes; sometimes they’re a case of trying to protect a base from attacks coming from all sides, despite the beast’s limited agility. They’re the kind of encounters that could become tedious if overused, but Age of Calamity manages to get the balance just right, making them fun deviations from the norm that show up just often enough to remain interesting.

The tradeoff to all this is that, as a decidedly Breath of the Wild-focused game, Age of Calamity isn’t quite the Legend of Zelda celebration that the original Hyrule Warriors was. That game existed for the sole purpose of bringing fan-favourite Zelda characters together for over-the-top action and a playful story whose primary goal was to give everyone their moment in the spotlight. By contrast, Age of Calamity is much more focused and serious, an extension of the Breath of the Wild story rather than fan-service and frivolity. It’s extremely successful in that, but there’s still a part of me wishing there was a little bit more of Hyrule Warriors‘ sense of fun—if not in the main story, at least as some extras that exist beyond the main story’s canon.

But what Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity sets out to do, it achieves wonderfully. Between these Divine Beast battles and the little Breath of the Wild flourishes in the core combat loop, it manages to find its own little niche, both as a Warriors game and as a Legend of Zelda tie-in. The influences from both are clear and abundant, but they’re combined in a way that makes Age of Calamity still feel like its own thing, with plenty of its own new ideas to bring to the table. Most of all, it’s a Zelda game that puts Zelda herself at the centre in a way that few other games have, and after years of her being mostly relegated to a princess patiently awaiting her rescue, that’s a welcome new direction.

Score: 4.5 stars

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Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is developed by Omega Force and published by Nintendo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed).

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

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.