I vividly remember the first time I laid eyes on a Warriors-branded hack-and-slash game in a college dorm room over a decade ago. Perhaps that setting—the spartan take on 50s mid-modern architecture and the Milkis cans strewn about, promising “a new feeling of soda beverage”—played some part in forming my opinions about that meat-grinder of a game where you cut down dozens of enemies, often human beings, with a single button press. Cards on the table: I didn’t like what I saw then, and I especially don’t like it now, yoked to The Legend of Zelda series in Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition.
Even without that burden of a title, I keep coming back to the word “definitive.” The word was likely meant to designate this particular port as terminal. Yes, Definitive Edition conveniently packages the original 2014 Wii U title and the 2016 3DS update, including all of the downloadable content, for the Nintendo Switch. Yes, it delivers on the Switch’s promise of portability (though the text and battle map are criminally small in handheld mode). Yes, the frame rate is mostly consistent regardless of how you decide to play. Yes, you can play as Linkle, the developers’ fly-by-night, Ms. Male version of Link. Co-op! You can play co-op. If you’re after content and attempts at fan service, you won’t want for either.
I keep thinking about that word “definitive” more literally, however. For better or worse (depending on who you ask), Hyrule Warriors was the white paper thesis of the Musou/Warriors brand, proving that any intellectual property was ripe for a profoundly mindless exercise of button presses and particle effects, no matter how ill-fitting. Up until the release of Hyrule Warriors, the massive warfare franchise focused on mythologized historical battles or anime series sharing the same breezy view of human conflict. If the Warriors tag was the soda water base, feudal Japan or Fist of the North Star were the calorie-laden, artificially-flavored mango and strawberry syrups.
Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition earns its name—this is the definitive Warriors game. Players will juggle, both literally and metaphorically, thousands of Hyrulian enemies and time-sensitive objectives. It’s all here: the overworked camera struggling to keep pace with the action, the arcane skill trees (that somehow a bombardment of tutorials never adequately explain), and the countless combos only the most dedicated Warriors acolytes will bother to learn. Most importantly, the slick “super move” animations provide a much-needed dopamine jolt whenever the killing becomes tedious. Lessons learned and dozens of alterations on the formula of the nearly 50 Warriors games before it come to bear in a loose narrative that ties together disparate worlds and art styles of the mainline Zelda games. My question is why.
It’s not as if The Legend of Zelda hasn’t been miscast before—the Philips CD-i games are the stuff of legend. Link made his way to Mario Kart, and I won’t be the least bit surprised to see him play mixed doubles with Zelda in the forthcoming Mario Tennis Aces. For the longest time, though, this sort of crossover duty was shouldered by Mario, Nintendo’s cultural ambassador and master of ceremonies. So I am a little miffed (but can mostly stomach) any time Zelda and the crew make a jump in support of brand synergy. Let the plumber worry about the quarterly figures as far as I’m concerned.
Dynasty Warriors and Zelda are an especially bad match, however, as the latter stands to gain nothing from the former. For instance, much has been said about The Legend of Zelda series’ approach to dungeon and puzzle design (for good reason). After all, Zelda games reward spatial reasoning and non-linear thinking—neither are exactly strong suits of Warriors games. Less is said about Zelda‘s approach to combat, which, after all, is what Hyrule Warriors should augment.
The truth is, the Zelda series has long been hesitant to innovate on the action part of its core gameplay. It was Ocarina of Time that ushered in a timing-based, battle dance style of combat that lasted right up through Breath of the Wild. For the most part, this approach has worked—it helped identify Link and his friends as scrappy, capable heroes when confronted by much more powerful threats. Nowhere is this more evident than in Breath of the Wild‘s thoughtful sandbox additions to combat—Link is the type of fighter who searches for weak points and opportunities rather than mount an offensive with a war god’s prowess.
Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition relishes the demigod, however, and I can’t shake how terribly it clashes with Zelda‘s design ethos. How much that matters to your appraisal of yet another Warriors game may vary—whether or not Yoda’s lightsaber battle in Attack of the Clones bothered you, for instance, might be a good indicator of whether this game is for you. Personally, I found it tiring and more than a little bit depressing to see Link run around like Odysseus, tossing hundreds of Gorons in the air, only to listen to their mournful cries as their apparitions disappear from the battlefield. Let it not be said I’m against mindless action, but there are better, more stylish games on the Switch to fill that gap—Bayonetta comes to mind. When it comes to Zelda crossovers, however, I think I’ll opt for the tennis match over theaters of war.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided by Nintendo.
Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition is the definitive Warriors game, but The Legend of Zelda gets nothing out of this relationship.