Nintendo’s hilarious inability to deliver a straightforward prequel in the Zelda franchise continues.
Going into Age of Calamity, my expectation, as a fan of Breath of the Wild, and not as much of one of Koei Tecmo’s Warriors games, was that I would greatly enjoy the narrative and the expansion of Breath of the Wild’s tantalizing backstory, while not necessarily enjoying the gameplay as much. To my surprise, then, the story was not the thing I enjoyed the most about this game – in fact, I would argue that the story is one of the things that disappointed me the most about Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity.
Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma promised us a canonical prequel to the events of Nintendo EPD’s groundbreaking and critically acclaimed action adventure game in Age of Calamity. In the strictest definition of the term, he wasn’t wrong. However, it becomes very apparent extremely early on that Age of Calamity is not, in fact, a direct prequel or telling of the story of the events of the Great Calamity War that Breath of the Wild often alludes to. There are divergences big and small that begin to crop up from the very first hour, and what you end up with is something that is still technically canon, and set a hundred years before the main game – but not exactly what you might have had in mind when you were promised a prequel. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, at any rate.
"Age of Calamity is not, in fact, a direct prequel or telling of the story of the events of the Great Calamity War that Breath of the Wild often alludes to. There are divergences big and small that begin to crop up from the very first hour, and what you end up with is something that is still technically canon, and set a hundred years before the main game – but not exactly what you might have had in mind when you were promised a prequel."
It’s really hard to get into the specifics of what exactly makes Age of Calamity’s story feel like a letdown without delving into outright spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that, much like another popular game in a beloved franchise released earlier this year, this game finds itself the license to not be a strict retelling of the roadmap that was already laid down for it, and instead takes a lot of creative liberties. These are not all uniformly bad, and there are some genuinely compelling developments in the story that resonate strongly.
Unlike Breath of the Wild, which was criticized for its sparse storytelling (as well as some ill-received voice acting that further marred that storytelling for many), Age of Calamity emphasizes its story a lot, and by and large, it manages to tell it well. The voice acting is significantly better this time around, and some of the cutscenes look spectacular, and truly sell the epic scope of the events the game is recounting. Allowing for the amount of divergences that the game does also lets it retain an element of unpredictability – there’s always the possibility that something might not go exactly as you thought it would, and when that happens, it’s nice to be surprised by a story you already thought you knew.
In spite of the benefits to this approach to the story, however, on the whole I can’t help but feel letdown. The backstory and lore in Breath of the Wild is probably the strongest in the series, and the prospect of a whole game dedicated to covering and expanding upon that was immensely appealing to me. While what we get is still good enough, if not necessarily anything particularly outstanding or special, it’s not what we were promised, and that dissonance had a constant impact on my experience with the game.
"While the story we get is still good enough, if not necessarily anything particularly outstanding or special, it’s not what we were promised, and that dissonance had a constant impact on my experience with the game."
It falls, then, to the gameplay side of things to do a lot of the heavy lifting fans might have assumed the story would. Now to be clear, this is still Dynasty Warriors – yes, there are changes, and iterations and variations to fit the series’ mechanics better into the context of Breath of the Wild specifically, but in large part, you’re still fighting down hordes upon hordes of sizable mobs of enemies in large scale battles. Age of Calamity, however, does keep things interesting, in large part because of the differentiation across the various characters you get to play as.
The game features a number of playable characters, including Link, Zelda, Impa, and the Four Champions, and each plays remarkably differently from the other – with Link, for example, falling into the archetype of the vanilla Dynasty Warriors character, while Mipha sees her healing powers riff off of her spear-based combat for some deadly combos, and Zelda, the scholar, relies largely on her Sheikah Slate and its runes to pull off some rather esoteric moves on the field of combat. The remarkable thing is that each character feels different from the other – even though mechanically it’s all still coming down to the same few buttons pressed in succession – while still keeping every character viable, and having them feel true to their characterization in the base game. Age of Calamity also throws in some spectacular setpiece moments where you play as the Champions piloting their respective Beasts, mowing down the frightening enemy forces their homes are threatened by. These sequences are thrilling, and among the highlights of the experience, particularly for a fan of Breath of the Wild, delivering the sense, scope, and also the tragedy, that that game hinted at so many times.
There are issues even with the combat, delightfully fun though it can be; the biggest one of these is that, much like Breath of the Wild itself, Age of Calamity does suffer from enemy variety issues. Breath of the Wild could get away with something like that for a variety of reasons – it allowed players the freedom to approach encounters in any number of ways, for example, ensuring that two encounters even against the same enemy type didn’t have to play out the same way. Of course, it wasn’t a combat focused game at all, which meant that the repetition with enemy types wasn’t as centerstage as it is in Age of Calamity, where the combat is very literally the only interaction you have the game (outside of some menus and such). While Age of Calamity finds ways to have interesting spins on its enemy types, it is unfortunate that it doesn’t take the chance to bring in more enemies from the Zelda series’ large repertoire, most of which was underrepresented in Breath of the Wild. By the end of the game’s substantial run time, things can start to feel a bit repetitive, in spite of the wrinkles in combat and encounters the game does keep throwing in to keep things fresh. Age of Calamity is remarkably fun, but it is hurt in some places by a strict adherence to the blueprint laid down by Breath of the Wild.
"While Age of Calamity finds ways to have interesting spins on its enemy types, it is unfortunate that it doesn’t take the chance to bring in more enemies from the Zelda series’ large repertoire, most of which was underrepresented in Breath of the Wild."
It also doesn’t help that Age of Calamity, much like any other Warriors game, runs rather poorly. Now, Dynasty Warriors games, and all their various spin offs and collaborations, always have slowdown and performance issues (at the very least) across all platforms – but Age of Calamity isn’t just a Warriors game, it’s Nintendo’s flagship tentpole game for this Holiday, and the canonical prequel (at least marketed as such) to its biggest critical success in two decades. The severe slowdown that you can experience in combat, then, doesn’t reflect well on the game. Age of Calamity is far from the only Nintendo game to have technical issues on the Switch – last year’s Pokemon Sword and Shield, for example, was famously graphically deficient. However, framerate issues in a turn based game aren’t quite as detrimental to the experience as they can be in a game with real time, frantic combat, such as what Age of Calamity offers. I will say that it didn’t ever negatively impact my experience to an appreciable degree, but I generally do have a higher tolerance for these kinds of shortcomings, and I can easily see others be far more bothered by the random pop in and pervasive slowdown that mars the game.
While there are a lot of issues with Age of Calamity, however, on the whole it does make a compelling case for itself. The game is far more streamlined in terms of mechanics than the original Hyrule Warriors, but at the same time, it is loaded with content. Depending on how much you choose to engage with, you could find yourself playing Age of Calamity into next year. The game also does a great job of contextualizing all of this content really well, even when you’re just selecting options on a map, by giving you nice flavor text setting up whatever the conceit of the quest is, and then more text telling you how your actions helped. Age of Calamity uses this technique to great effect, to paint the picture of a bustling kingdom that is ill prepared to face the impending doom that is headed its way, and just how the lives of even ordinary people are affected by that. It’s the kind of thing I actually wish the main story had more of, because it helps add such weight and rich context to the original game, adding a sense of melancholy to proceedings.
Age of Calamity also goes the extra mile to come off as remarkably authentic. Just at a cursory glance, it would be difficult for one to tell a screenshot of this apart from a similar screenshot of Breath of the Wild. The UI and menus are recreated, with the same fonts, flairs, and sound effects, your home base is a Sheikah Tower, you select missions and quests from a map of Hyrule – the same map of Hyrule that you must have spent hours looking at in Breath of the Wild – populated with the same icons and places that you know and remember from the original game. The enemies, locations, towns, buildings, NPCs, everything looks like it is from the same Hyrule that you remember spending hundreds of hours in, only now that Hyrule is in its prime, rather than being in ruins in the aftermath of the Great Calamity.
"The game looks really pretty, thanks to having the same art style as Breath of the Wild did, and this really comes across especially well in cutscenes."
Being able to tap into Breath of the Wild also means Age of Calamity can dress itself up well. The game looks really pretty, thanks to having the same art style as the base game did, and this really comes across especially well in cutscenes. In action, too, the game looks great, apart from the slowdown mentioned earlier. The strong visual presentation is also backed up by some great music – though this really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The Zelda series has always been known for great music, and while Breath of the Wild’s minimalistic and ambience driven approach to its soundtrack means it wasn’t as bombastic as some previous games in the series, there was still some incredible music there that makes a return in Age of Calamity, apart from other music that draws from the well of the broader franchise, and some new tunes to boot (including the main theme, which builds off of a very specific part of the main theme of Breath of the Wild).
It’s really hard for me to parse my feelings for Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. It plays really well, barring issues with late game repetition, and it manages to add a lot of weight and context to the smaller moments across Hyrule on the eve of a great calamity. It looks, sounds, and feels exactly right, and at its best, it is exactly what we were promised, which is a game full of fanservice serving to expand on the story of the Great Calamity. And yet, almost everything it does well comes with a caveat – it looks great, but suffers from severe slowdown, it plays well, but suffers from repetition later on in the game, it has some excellent contextualization, but it bungles its larger story to a surprising degree. I never expected Age of Calamity to be the kind of home run that mainline Zelda releases are, but I did expect more from it than it turned out to be. As it is, it’s still a good game, chock full of content, and with a lot to appeal to those who were enamored by Breath of the Wild’s reimagining of Nintendo’s decades old prestige franchise – it just could have been so much more.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Multiple characters to play as, each feeling differentiated, viable to play as, and true to their characterization in Breath of the Wild; Looks good; Authentically recreates BotW; Loads of content.
The story, which was advertised as the big selling point, is a letdown; Multiple technical issues such as pervasive slowdown and frame rate drops; Repetition starts to set in towards the end.
Age of Calamity isn’t the compelling addition to Zelda canon that may have been promised, but it does just enough right that it can muster a recommendation for fans of Breath of the Wild.