“Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity” – A fun pseudo-prequel in need of better hardware

It’s not perfect, but it is the best Warriors-style game in years

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It’s a story that maybe wasn’t necessary to tell, but “Age of Calamity” tells it enthusiastically, and the actual gameplay feels like the best refinement of “Dynasty Warriors” to date. (Screenshot by Alexander Musa)

Alexander Musa, Staff Writer

“Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity” is the second “Hyrule Warriors” title, and technically a prequel/alternate history to 2017’s “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” As with the preceding “Hyrule Warriors” game, “Age of Calamity” is part of the “Dynasty Warriors” series of games. 

Originally a fantastical homage to the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, “Warriors” games are essentially power fantasies where a lone warrior changes the tides of battles involving literally thousands of troops. These games have a reputation for being mediocre and repetitive, but to its credit, “Age of Calamity” is probably the best refinement of this formula to date. I’d go so far as to say it isn’t just a good “Warriors” game, it’s a good addition to the “Zelda” franchise on its own merits.

“Age of Calamity” focuses on the war that destroyed the kingdom of Hyrule a century before the events of “Breath of the Wild.” It’s a story I didn’t think needed to be told in detail, and to the game’s credit (or detriment, depending on your view of Zelda canon) it doesn’t try to tell exactly what happened. Rather, it changes things up in a strikingly Zelda-ish fashion with an alternate timeline.

The developers took great pains to recreate, or at least reference BotW’s Hyrule in each of the levels you visit. One of my favorite and early examples is how you fight in Hyrule’s castle town and the sprawling fields to its immediate south. You explore these locations in BotW a century after a war was fought and lost, and the developers of “Age of Calamity” give you a glimpse of what it looked like before all that.

Visually, it’s remarkable that the game sticks close to the presentation of BotW. You still see tall grass swaying in the wind and the passage of your weapons. Trees can be knocked over. The characters are all bright, colorful, and stylistically cel-shaded in gameplay and during cutscenes. It’s one of the better looking “Warriors” games to have been released.

The graphics are backed by solid sound design. Each weapon strike audibly conveys power. The soundtrack consists of remixes and re-orchestrations of BotW’s minimalist background pieces that go well with the gameplay. The voice work also does a lot to convey that Hyrule’s champions were actually people who related to one another in different ways, something that the original game struggled to accomplish with its de-emphasis on overt storytelling.

The gameplay itself is another selling point for “Warriors” fans, for “Zelda” fans and maybe just gamers in general. Whether you’re playing as Princess Zelda herself, the heroic Link and his arsenal of different weapons and combos, master ninja Impa, or the R2D2-like Terrako, you’re bound to find a character that clicks with you.

Princess Zelda is playable in “Age of Calamity” once more, and while she starts off with a less directly effective skill set, she eventually becomes one of the most powerful heroes in the game. (Screenshot by Alexander Musa)

Each character has a basic two-button combo system that grows in length and complexity as they level up, and they play differently through that alone. Additionally, they all have a unique special ability, each has their own specialized uses for the Sheikah Runes originally showcased in BotW, a set of elemental magic rods to capitalize on enemy weaknesses, along with sets of weapons they can equip. Larger battles will have you selecting multiple characters to field, ordering them all to different map locations, and switching between them when necessary.

Impressively, “Age of Calamity” reproduces battles with major enemies from BotW, including the dangerous Lynels, the giant Hinoxes, and the titanic Moldugas of the desert. Even standard enemies like Moblins force you to fight smarter so you can quickly accomplish objectives under pressure. These enemies help break up the tedium by encouraging smarter play, and push players to take advantage of openings when they present themselves.

Like the original “Hyrule Warriors”, there is a metric ton of things for players to do from the outset. In addition to the fairly sizable main story missions, there are dozens of side missions and challenges to tackle. The world map in between battles allows you to donate items to unlock vendors, upgrade your characters or unlock new ones, and even craft and improve weapons.

Even with the flaws, this is honestly a very fun game and it’s fanservice for a long-time Zelda player like myself. But as much as I did enjoy playing “Age of Calamity”, it does fall short in two places.

One is the technical side of things. Performance issues are a constant presence, and the game doesn’t maintain a stable frame rate even when it’s not busy. During the more elaborate special attacks from the heroes, performance can suffer immensely. This can affect gameplay, making it difficult to react to dangers or use specific moves. It’s especially noticeable during the underwhelming Divine Beast shooting gallery levels, where you control giant machines that tower over large battlefields. It’s even worse during the split-screen co-op mode.

The game does run better in handheld mode, but it’s not stable. Whether or not performance patches will fix these issues remains to be seen, but I am not hopeful. The Switch is not a powerhouse by design, and that is likely where the fault lies.

Can you tell what is even happening right now? Some characters fill the screen with so many effects in the middle of a fight, you can hear the console begging for mercy as the frame rate collapses. (Screenshot by Alexander Musa)

The other, less significant issue I have with the game is its story and connection to “Breath of the Wild.” Similar to 2010’s “Halo: Reach”, we already knew how “Age of Calamity” was supposed to end: a terrible defeat, a prophecy failed, but a remaining glimmer of hope for the future.

The game we got, however, neatly sidesteps this sad fate altogether thanks to time travel. I’m not gonna fault the game for swerving towards some happiness, especially in 2020, but I think they had the makings of a better story if they’d chosen to stick with the tragedy. However, it’s a lot easier to look past my personal story preferences compared to the performance issues.

That aside, I’m happy that Zelda, with all her struggles and whose name isn’t even in the title of this latest entry of her franchise, is effectively one of the greatest and most important heroes of the story. It was good to see someone who deals with the demand that she live up to a nearly impossible destiny finally get a ‘W’ at long last and on her own terms. It was nice to see all of these characters together again, even if it was wrapped in too neat a bow. It was fun to play “Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity”, despite it’s technical issues trying to make it less fun. If you like “Zelda” games, “Warriors” games, or both, this is an easy recommendation.

“Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity” came out on November 20, 2020 for the Nintendo Switch.