Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja haven’t exactly set a great precedent for themselves working on Nintendo games, but maybe that’s a good thing. Despite Metroid: Other M’s critical beratement, Nintendo has brought back some of the same teams to work on its golden IP, The Legend of Zelda. Though not a proper Zelda entry, Hyrule Warriors brings the best elements of Dynasty Warriors and Musou in general, and packages them in a thick Zelda wrapping. The results are interesting to say the least, and wander into territory I’d call “fun” surprisingly often.
If you’re new to Dynasty Warriors, here’s the scoop; the player takes control of insanely powerful warriors, guides them on the battlefield, slays literally thousands of enemies in the process, and guides fellow troops and heroes to victory. Territories must be conquered and protected, and despite having an entire army with you, soldiers and fellow heroes will often depend on you for nearly everything. Hyrule Warriors does little to change this, but it’s so entrenched in Zelda lore and presentation that’s it’s easy to forgot this is even a Musou game at all. This, of course, is a good thing.
Hyrule Warriors offers up a bevy of modes, but to start you’ll be spending most of your time with the single player story. If you’re a Zelda fan, the plot here may be tough to swallow, as it’s quite far from being even remotely compelling. An evil witch named Cia (former protector of the Triforce, and of the power that keeps Ganondorf sealed away) becomes infatuated with Link, and makes a deal with the devil so that she may “possess” him. Link, a new recruit in the Hyrulean army, is spotted early on by Zelda and Impa as “the chosen hero,” and thus our journey begins. No coming of age story, no adeptly subtle plot or character development — the story is 10% Zelda and 90% Musou, and that’s being generous. Though we are mercifully spared from terrible voice acting (classic Zelda grunts appear instead), don’t expect much emotion or even faint tugging on your heartstrings. If you wiped away a tear at the end of Skyward Sword or Wind Waker, you’re simply not going to get that here.
Still, there are perks to make up for Hyrule Warriors’ shortcoming — it has fantastic-looking pre-rendered cutscenes, for example. More importantly, the gameplay of the Warriors franchise is fully formed here, and arguably, it’s one of the best and most smartly streamlined entries in the series to date. You’ll pull off devastating combos, conquer enemy territory and slay huge bosses, oftentimes within just a few minutes. Battlefields are large and quite varied, from Hyrule Field and Death Mountain to Eldin Caves or Midna’s Twilight Realm. Midna’s appearance is a real treat by the way — though TK and Omega Force couldn’t quite nail down her voice (she’s known as one of Zelda’s only voice-acted characters, via a fictional anicent language), playing as her once she’s unlocked as an absolute thrill. Clubbing Zant in the face with Midna’s hair-fist is sweet poetic justice (especially if you played Twilight Princess), and is just one example of what’s possible in Hyrule Warriors that simply wouldn’t happen in a regular Zelda.
I tried most of the available characters during my time with the game, and to my surprise they’re quite varied and unique. No two fighters control the same way, and with an abundance of exclusive special moves for each, I found myself enjoying experimentation with combos, as well as the discovery of particular moves that hit for massive damage. Link’s “fire-spray” with the Fire Rod is one example, as is Lana’s awesome ability to summon the Deku Tree himself when equipped with a Deku Wand. Oh, speaking of Lana — Koei Tecmo’s original character is one of the best of the bunch. Not because she’s better than Zelda characters, but because she’s something KT and Omega Force can pull off with flying colors. Link, Mida, or Impa, though a blast to play, are just a bit too complex to be adequately expressed here when it comes to plot and story. Lana, on the other hand, seems right at home.
For more advanced players, Hyrule Warriors offers added depth between fights in the form of Skyward Sword’s Bazaar (complete with its trademark music). Warriors have talent trees that can be fleshed out in exchange for experience and rupees, and weapons themselves can be optimized and merged in an effort to obtain the best stats and unique weapon traits. After a while I went into autopilot when visiting the Bazaar, but some players definitely won’t; if customization is your calling, you’ll find yourself appreciating between-fight preparations immensely.
There are some technical shortcomings in Hyrule Warriors, and they consistently detract more than I would have liked. Though character models are gorgeous in typical KT fashion, background textures and environments in general often look blurry and even bad. This may be a limitation of the Wii U, but how about a more balanced presentation instead? Or better yet, take some cues from Nintendo when it comes to hiding nasty backgrounds. To be fair, the open nature of Hyrule Warriors doesn’t exactly facilitate this, but its levels are still relatively contained. The next Legend of Zelda proper on Wii U is confirmed to be truly open world, and you can bet that its environments will look nice without compromising much when it comes to character models, faces, and animation. Budget, time, and resources are other factors worth considering, but even so — I expected a bit better. There are also distracting glitches that, while not game-breaking, do appear repeatedly. They’re not really worth delving into here, but be ready for occasional technical wonkiness as you progress.
Hyrule Warriors does have a consistent saving grace, and it comes in the form of bosses. Though not as majestic as those of standard Zelda (nor do they require as much strategy), bosses in Hyrule Warriors are fierce and oftentimes terrifying. Usually you need to use a classic Zelda item to defeat them (shoot Gohma’s eye with an arrow, etc.), but there’s usually a twist that can take a brief bit of brainpower to crack. For example, Gohma shields her eye with a retractable metal shield when you fire your bow, and there’s a trick to bypassing it. Though the concept of Link and other Zelda heroes fighting with an entire army feels a bit goofy at times, the idea that lives other than your own are on the line while fighting bosses definitely raises the stakes in a fashion new to the series. This I like, even if execution can miss the mark here and there.
If you somehow managed to whip yourself into a frenzy of excitement over something resembling a new Zelda from Nintendo, take a minute to collect yourself — this ain’t it. It’s not an exaggeration to call the story bad, and things like a voice acted narrator between chapters are so un-Zelda-like that I actually felt shaken and saddened for the first two hours of play. The sooner you accept what Hyrule Warriors isn’t, though, the faster you can enjoy it for what it is, and with the right approach the potential for fun, action, and even laughs is pretty endless.
Additional modes offer more gameplay options, and the Challenge mode is great for when the story has been completed. It’s also perfect for playing as villainous characters like Ganondorf and Zant, whose movesets have been crafted with impressive care and accuracy. Meanwhile, the Adventure mode offers 8-bit charm and a nice distraction, but little else; your mileage will vary greatly here. It’s certainly not detrimental, though, and KT including extra activities is definitely a nice touch.
By and large, Hyrule Warriors is mindless fun like most Musou titles, and the love of Zelda on the part of its creators is clear. I suggest playing the game if you have a Wii U, but make sure you approach it the right way; as a fun, wacky, non-canon tribute to a beloved series. You’ll get your Wii U Zelda title next year, and when that day comes, you’ll likely be glad to have spent time with Hyrule Warriors while waiting.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive, which was provided to us.
Hyrule Warriors is mindless fun, with surprising detail and depth. It's not pure Zelda though, and if that's what you're expecting then you may want to prepare yourself first. Despite ample shortcomings, it's one of the better Musou titles in recent memory.