Nintendo are usually fairly strict when it comes to their own IPs, especially when it comes to their big hitters. But their slight history of sharing isn't without success stories... along with other, admittedly contentious, results. Take the Metroid series, for instance. Retro Studios' Prime trilogy is still a benchmark in fantastic reimaginings of a yesteryear favourite, even if Other M proved that sometimes there'll be mixed results when a Nintendo IP is loaned out into other creative hands.
Unlike those games, though, Hyrule Warriors is not representative of Nintendo giving another studio relatively free rein with one of their most beloved franchises. Here we find a very specific mashup, and one that tends more towards the latter part of its name than the former. Hyrule provides the sizzle, but Warriors the steak.
It's worth bearing in mind that I like the various Warriors series that have emerged over the years. My favourite is still probably Dynasty Warriors 4, but that has more to do with it being an incredibly cathartic game at a certain point in my life rather than anything that game does especially well over any of its fellows. You generally know what you're getting with a Warriors game: a range of playable heroes, amusingly nonsensical cutscenes, 1-vs-1000s combat stuffed with button mashing and epilepsy-inducing special attacks, taking over enemy keeps and knocking out Outpost Captains.
Hyrule Warriors does all of those things.
But it does them in better fashion than I've ever seen from a Warriors game before.
Hyrule Warriors is basically a Warriors game as modded by the world's biggest Zelda fan. It's a spectacular piece of fan service that manages to frame everything in terms of the various adventures of Link and Zelda over the years, from playable characters and weapon sets to fairly pretty maps based upon locales from a number of different Zelda titles, to an entire adventure mode that plays out on a retro map plucked from the original Legend of Zelda NES game. Rupees burst out of downed enemies, fulfilling certain requirements on the battlefield will cause chests to spawn that tinkle in familiar fashion when they appear, and deliver the same anticipatory music when you take a peek inside. Variations on Koji Kondo's musical themes weave in and out of the wildly-soloing electric guitars that accompany most Warriors titles.
The game looks wonderful, couched in a visual style that's reminiscent of the bold colours of Skyward Sword. There's still pop-in, of course, but it's not quite as offensive as in previous Warriors games. There's something rather thrilling about going into battle alongside Zelda and Impa and Darunia and Sheik, leading troops of Hyrulian soldiers into battle against armies of Bokoblins and Stalchildren. Sub-bosses like Big Poe and Darknut and Lizalfos will crop up frequently, often requiring you to lock on with the L-bumper (yes, the fact that there's a variation on Z-targeting makes me very happy indeed), and forcing you to stop mindlessly spamming the B or Y buttons (light and heavy attacks respectively) and think a little about taking a slightly more careful approach. There's little by way of particularly deep strategy required at all, but they help to vary the pace a little.
That variation is furthered by the appearance of tide-changing actual bosses like King Dodongo, Manhandla, and Gohma, who usually drop into the action near the climax of a particular battle, and whom you fight in amongst a thousand other goons too. Typically, defeating them involves the same sort of items that you'd have used to vanquish them in their respective Zelda games, like throwing bombs into Dodongo's gaping maw, for example. At certain points these enemies will leave themselves vulnerable, perhaps because you've used your items effectively or parried an attack sequence. A glowing, hexagonal meter denoting a weak spot will appear above their heads for a short time, and if you whittle away at it, eventually you'll unleash a powerful attack that'll do some serious damage.
Out on the battlefield, things are very familiar indeed. Run here, defeat them, capture that keep by beating up foes until the commander appears and then beat him up too. But the game does a nice job of shaking things up a bit and keeping you on your toes with new bosses, shifting objectives, and the movements of the enemy war machine. As well as fulfilling your mission parameters, it's important to keep an eye on your adversaries and to advance in methodical fashion. Let the enemy slip in behind and recapture a few keeps, and your base will come under threat more often than you'd like.
Further tweaks to the gameplay can be found in the game's additional modes. Adventure mode sees you uncovering the classic Legend of Zelda map one square chunk at a time, with each square representing a new gameplay challenge. These range from defeating a certain number of enemies in a certain time, to fulfilling specific objectives, defeating specific individuals, or claiming victory under a certain number of specific conditions. There are items to uncover to be used on the map as well, to search for hidden items and events, and the medal you receive at the end of a level determines your reward, and sometimes your progression.
Hyrule Warriors does much to encourage replayability across all of its modes, to be honest. There are 100 Gold Skulltulas to find across the game, and they don't hang around. Usually popping up at seriously inopportune moments, if you can find some time to break away from the melee to hunt for them when they appear (denoted on the map by a vague web) you can nab yourself illustration pieces to go towards Gallery pictures. There are also pieces of heart and full heart canisters to find across both the Legend and Adventure modes, though they're often specific to certain characters for each individual stage. Enemies will drop new materials that can be shaped and stuck together to make potions and buffs at the Apothecary off of the mission menu, and new weapons can be obtained in combat too, with the option of swapping out special abilities from superfluous armaments into the shiny new, super-powerful halberd you just picked up.
This isn't a game that will delight Zelda purists, but then it's not made for them. Hyrule Warriors is representative of an exciting new prospect for Nintendo's best IPs -- dynamic hybrid titles that take the best of two worlds and combine them to make an intriguing mashup. That's certainly what's been done here. It's clear to see the benefit that having Eiji Aonuma supervising things has had: even with the mechanisms of the game rooted firmly in the world of the Warriors games, that everything fits together so well, makes perfect sense (and that's including a dimension-jumping story that pits series friend against series friend -- fighting Gorons felt weird -- and takes us on a historical journey through a number of Zelda titles), and feels fundamentally good to play as both a Warriors and Zelda fan, it's hard not to see Hyrule Warriors as anything but a success.
It would be unfair to compare Hyrule Warriors to the likes of Twilight Princess or Wind Waker or Skyward Sword. Instead it represents the best of the musou genre made better through collaboration with Nintendo. I for one hope that it points towards a more collaborative future between Nintendo and trusted third-parties. There may well be missteps on the way, and Hyrule Warriors itself is far from perfect, but it's cracking fun whether you're playing solo or with a friend.
- It's a cracking piece of Zelda fan service in Warriors-game form
- Wide range of playable characters, weapons and abilities
- Nostalgic story is actually pretty awesome
- Good degree of progression and customisation
- Adventure mode is a hefty timesink that pays brilliant homage to the original Legend of Zelda game
- Cathartic action made less repetitive thanks to bosses and constantly shifting objectives
- If you don't like Warriors titles, you won't like this
- Still too repetitive at times and pop-in gripes with the Warriors series remain
- Would have been nice to perhaps have seen even a few of the puzzle elements make it over
- Noticeable drop in framerate when the Wii U has to process visuals for TV and Game Pad in co-op
The Short Version: Hyrule Warriors doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't. It does exactly what it says on the tin, producing what is probably the best Warriors game to date, and doing so by taking many of the best aspects of The Legend of Zelda and successfully incorporating them into the classic 1-vs-1000 gameplay. The fan service is astonishing, the level of detail very welcome indeed, and the action can be truly satisfying, with the various bosses going a long way to making the repetitive action seem quite refreshing at times. A triumphant mash-up indeed.