I love The Legend of Zelda games. To me they represent some of the finest examples of game design we've been blessed to enjoy over the years. The adventures of Link have proven time and time again to be some of the most innovative, ambitious, and polished games to have graced this industry. Dynasty Warriors, on the other hand, is a series that's barely changed at all over the years, staying true to its formula of a button-mashing frenzy of smashing up enormous swathes of mindless, characterless AI fodder, punctuated occasionally by the odd absurdly-overpowered mini-boss.
Still, I do have something of a soft spot for Dynasty Warriors.
Hyrule Warriors is not your typical Zelda game at all. It's very much something of a Zelda reskin of traditional Dynasty Warriors gameplay at first glance. I went hands-on with the game at the recent Nintendo E3 showcase and was merrily massacring multitudes of Bokoblins within seconds. The scale is fantastic, and the sense of cathartic empowerment is glorious, helped along by a better draw distance than we've typically seen in the past. One of Dynasty Warriors' foibles over the years has always been an alarming amount of pop-in, but Hyrule Warriors seems to have managed to mitigate that slightly. It's still there, but it's not so offensive to the eyes this time around.
Visually, at least, Hyrule Warriors manages to engage the player to a far greater degree than its spiritual predecessors, eschewing the drab, washed-out palette of previous Warriors games in favour of a brighter, more vibrant colour set and art style that breathes a little more life into proceedings and firmly roots you in Hyrule. There's a distinct lack of detail -- this game won't win any prizes for astonishing beauty -- but generally the game appears to do a decent job of selling the setting. It's actually a little thrilling to feel part of some sort of grand battle for Hyrule, wading into war with Gorons and Hylian guards by your side, as Lizalfos and Moblin generals marshal their troops.
Of course, it wears thin rather quickly, and even over the course of my initial fifteen-minute demo the combat became repetitive. The Warriors games have always been titles that, for me at least, are best enjoyed with a friend by your side, drinking beers, and chatting absolute rubbish. They're the sort of games that you don't really have to focus too much attention on because all you're really doing is mashing the same buttons over and over again. They're a catalyst for conversation, something to be doing in background while you catch-up with a mate you've not seen in some time. Sometimes I don't really want to think when I'm playing a game, and Warriors games are great for that. Hyrule being no exception it would seem.
That said, there are a few tweaks to the formula. Although the basic premise is the same -- two armies vying for control of a battlefield, with you dashing from hotspot to hotspot, helping out allies and overpowering enemy garrisons wherever possible -- secondary items appear to play a much larger role. Our demo saw Link and Zelda crack out some bombs, which came in particularly handy when King Dodongo showed up as an end-of-demo boss. IP-relevant bosses showing up? That's something we absolutely wanted, too, and it appears our prayers have been answered.
The shift from the Ancient Kingdoms to the realm of Hyrule also means that it's now incredibly easy to tell friend from foe. On the foggy battlefields of Ancient China, it was occasionally tricky to determine which nondescript soldiers were on your side from those that weren't, especially when enemy AI squads often wouldn't trigger until you were right on top of them. Now, however, pathfinding and enemy identification seems to be a hell of a lot easier, making things a little more fluid, less confusing when there are hundreds of units onscreen, and ultimately just making visual communication clearer.
One of the biggest draws for Hyrule Warriors, though, is undoubtedly the fact that you can now play as the The Legend of Zelda's eponymous princess, amongst a host of other playable characters that'll include Impa and Midna. Wielding a razor-sharp rapier, and so fairly nifty moves, Zelda is slightly faster on the draw than Link and her combos tend towards magical finishers and a greater degree of crowd control than Link's more close-quarters style of combat. Instead of a Musou mode, though, filling up the special attack bar in this game will allow players to unleash a single devastating attack. For Link, that equates to a super-charged version of his iconic spin attack. As for Zelda, well she charges up her bow, notches a Light Arrow, and blasts everything in front of her to kingdom come.
There are nice little elements of Zelda fan service throughout. Overrunning an enemy outpost opens up a small nearby mine, and after clearing out the welcome party that rushes out of its doors, we trot down some stairs to find a chest full of useful bomb top-ups, complete with four-note musical motif and a classic freeze-frame shot of Zelda with her arm held aloft, item in palm. When playing as Link, you have a choice between the Master Sword and the Fire Rod, with the promise of further iconic weapons to come. Playing as Zelda, meeting up with Impa and Link mid-battle, exchanging some simple dialogue, and fighting back to back is kind of awesome. Although you can see the cracks, and it's clear that this is in many ways just a reskin of pre-existing gameplay that can't really hold a candle to the design we're used to from The Legend of Zelda, there's something ever so slightly satisfying about this game as a fan of both Zelda and Warriors games.
Expectations will be key here. Zelda fans who've never played a Warriors game might find this all to be a bit too shallow and forgettable, and indeed we could see the old accusations of endless repetition and oversimplified combos creeping back in even in our short demo. But there are promising signs. If Omega Force and Team Ninja can make more out of those boss encounters such as King Dodongo, if they can differentiate successfully between battles and give each one a different, meaningful flavour, then this has the potential to be more than just a cheap spin-off. If Hyrule Warriors can manage to borrow as much from Hyrule as it can from the Warriors series, then we might just see a Warriors game that proves to be something a bit special here, rather than a novelty paint job.
I had fun, though; I can say that. Maybe not £40's worth of fun, but fun nonetheless.