If I had to guess, I’d say that those who play and love Zelda don’t exactly look to it for the combat. It’s more about the adventure; exploration, and clearing dungeons, and whatnot. It may seem strange to say that, seeing as how you can’t divorce the canon from collected weapons and magic swords, but fights are just blips on the radar. They’re events you encounter along the way, even with the massive bosses you’re typically pitted against. It really says a lot about the design philosophy when there was no built-in, intentional focus on combat until roughly 2011.
So Hyrule Warriors shows what happens when you let someone else interpret your work (meaningfully and skillfully, at least). Now the focus is almost entirely on the combat, and shows just what happens when Link and Zelda and all the rest get to go all out against the forces of evil. As others have suggested, Hyrule Warriors is when and how we finally get to see some of the big battles and wars of lore unfold before our eyes. I can’t think of a lot of ways to exponentially increase the scale of Zelda’s conflicts, so maybe giving the canon that Musou/Dynasty Warriors twist is the best way to go about it.
That all said, Hyrule Warriors is probably the worst Wii U game I’ve played yet.
That said, even the “worst” Wii U game is still unreasonably good.
It’s LU BU! LU BU has come to destroy us!
Oh, wait. I mean SPOILERS. Not Lu Bu. Jeez, I’m not playing Dynasty Warriors here!
…Or am I? *nightmarish chorus of fallen angels plays*
All right, so let’s pare this non-review down to the basics. Do you like the Musou games? Then you’ll like this game. Do you not like the Musou games? Then you’ll hate this game. Okay, post’s over. Go watch some Two Best Friends Play. They’re great.
…Wait, does everyone here know what a Musou game is? Well then, time to write ten million words to explain it!
The Koei half of Koei Tecmo -- in conjunction with Omega Force -- is famous for putting out, like, at least a dozen Dynasty Warriors games, plus the Samurai Warriors games, plus the Warriors Orochi crossover battles. In a nutshell? You take control of a famous historical(ish) figure -- a key player in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or the Sengoku-era wars -- and fight your way through hordes of enemy soldiers, capturing keeps along the way to give you and your troops an advantage in the stage.
You’ve got your typical suite of light and heavy attacks, the combo strings that result from mixing them, and a super move you can use once your meter is full. There are a couple of mechanics that shift from game-to-game (sometimes you can jump, sometimes you get a dodge move), but they’re pretty similar affairs. Too similar for most -- including me, in a lot of cases.
If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you’ll know that before this point there’s been one exception to the rule: One Piece: Pirate Warriors. That was the one game that proved the devs were willing to break the mold -- and well -- for the very first time. Granted, they slipped into another mold by virtue of pushing Pirate Warriors 3, but the first one was entertaining enough to help any seasoned Musou vet look past some of the constant problems (button-mashy combat, brain-dead AI, an absolute dearth of strategy despite being a battle against armies, etc.).
On one hand, all HW had to do was be as good as PW and it would have been worth a look -- but in some ways, it’s even better. As such, I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said that HW is the best Musou game yet. On the other hand, being the best Musou game shouldn’t be anything worth celebrating. HW needed to do something about the inherent faults in the series, while also making smart use of the Zelda conventions without mindless pandering. Did they succeed? My answer to that is a resounding ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…
But in some respects, it doesn’t even matter. Because this game has no right to be as cool as it is.
I doubt I would have liked PW as much as I did without the cast (well, maybe, thanks to some of the platforming stuff that broke up the fighting). It was one thing to play as guys like Franky or Sanji, but another for them to be able to unleash some OTT attacks at your leisure. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider this: if you’re going to be doing pretty much the same thing over and over again across a campaign mode, then it’d better be able to keep your interest. That was a HUGE problem with the earlier Musou games; once you play as “guy who slashes a bunch with a sword”, you’ve pretty much seen the better part of what those games had to offer.
Basically, the saving grace of any given Musou game is its ability to deliver style.
If it’s not going to be visually/viscerally arresting, then it might as well not even try. And to the devs’ credit, I’d think that they were indeed trying. It’s just that they did so at an incredibly slow pace. The first character I used in the first DW I played had a special attack that basically consisted of spinning a few times with a giant sword. It saved me from some tight spots, yeah, but it didn’t exactly have the staying power it should have. So flashing forward to 2014 and seeing Link’s special attack as “spinning a few times” doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that inspires confidence. In theory at least. In practice…
Every character in this game is like that. Everyone. It’s as if every last member of the canon has been taking lessons from the JoJo universe…which probably isn’t that far off, given how much it’s bled into other products.
You could reasonably call HW “Holy Hell, Did You See What I Just Did: The Game”, and I doubt anybody would fault you for it. Link makes a strong argument for himself and his game, as you’d expect, but he’s just the starting point. Example: you see Impa in official art or screenshots or whatever and you notice she’s got a giant sword. The expectation is something like “Oh, so she’s a heavy character, huh? Well, whatever.” Or “Well, she looks cool, but I doubt I’ll use her unless I have to.” Basic stuff, of course. But then you actually get to use her, and all those thoughts are replaced by “WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOA!”
For one thing, Impa is not a slow character. If anything, she’s as fast as, or faster than Link. She swings that giant sword of hers like it’s nothing -- even as her attacks drive craters into the ground --and her kicks move the sword back into position. One of her basest moves is a dash that not only lets her make her approach in an instant, but execute a slash that wrecks the enemies ahead of her. She’s got water magic that pulls enemies in for another slash, and even more water magic that rains down aquatic blades. And for a number of her moves, she gets to do her best Last Blade impression.
And you know what? She’s not even the coolest character.
Okay, she might be “the coolest character” to somebody out there, but Impa’s just one warrior in a stable full of genuine badasses. You look at Sheik and think “Oh, okay, ninja character. I got it.” But no! She fights with a harp, and you can change her moveset so that you can temporarily put a freaking lightning tornado around her and tear through foes just by running into them! Then you look at Midna and go “Hey, Midna’s back. It’ll be just like Twilight Princess.” But no! She doesn’t just use one wolf, but ALL OF THE WOLVES, on top of her Twili magic. And damn it, HW actually manages to make Fi -- Fi, the worst part of Skyward Sword -- into someone who’s got no right to be as cool as she is.
Like any good fighting game, the coolness -- the quality -- comes from the characters. I haven’t tried everyone (and haven’t used every warrior extensively), but I’d bet that there isn’t a single member of the roster who isn’t fun to play. And beyond that, there isn’t a single member of the roster that doesn’t offer up some visceral thrills. The movesets on display here are the sort of spectacle you’d expect from, say, a Platinum title. But here they are, making every combo into something of a treat -- doubly so because virtually every character has a Blazblue-style special ability. Triply so because some characters have multiple weapon types, and thus completely different move sets. Quadruply so because not only is the roster expanding, but getting new weapons. Link’s getting Epona as DLC, which means, quite possibly, we’ll be getting some horse combos.
It’s just a shame that there’s nothing to use those horse combos -- or any combos, really -- against.
HW may have all the spectacle of a Platinum game, but the resemblance is superficial at best. In Metal Gear Rising, Bayonetta, or The Wonderful 101, you have to learn how to use those moves and develop your skills along the way, lest you get your face punched in by enemy hordes. You either get good, or you die. But that’s not the case in HW. It’s not just possible, but probable that you’ll rack up more than two thousand kills per stage -- and the majority of those kills will come from trash mobs you mow down along the way. They’re not all that different from the grass you cut down in the average Zelda game; they might take a swing at you once or twice, but in my experience? I finished the story without a single game over. From a KO, at least. (Mercifully, your AI partners can take a beating, AND you can heal them by making contact on the field.)
It’s intensely frustrating, because I can feel the systems trying to shine. It’s more than possible to create some extended combos besides just button-mashing the standard strings. You can cancel your attack animations with your dodge move, which you can use offensively or defensively. On top of all that, you’ve still got sub-weapons (bombs, the bow, the hookshot, and the ever-awesome boomerang) that you can use mid-combo to extend your combo in exciting ways. And while it’s true that you can do all of that against enemy elites -- foes you actually have to watch, defend against, and punish when you’ve got your opening -- it feels like such a waste that there’s no drive to do so against the army swarming you 99% of the game.
I don’t know how you’d fix that in the context of a Musou game, in all fairness. Sure, shouting out “Give them better AI!” sounds like the easiest fix, but I’d think that that becomes exponentially harder when you involve hundreds of on-screen enemies at a time. Personally, I’d say that I’d prefer fewer and smarter enemies over ZOMG LOOKIT ALL THE DOODS, but the tradeoff is that you lose the Musou essence. (Then again, Sengoku Basara 4 apparently has its trash mobs assuming special formations to try and hassle you, so maybe it’s not impossible to do something engaging.) As-is, though? I’m left wanting. I want to play the game more, and dearly, but I want a sense of satisfaction from it beyond sights and sounds.
Thankfully, there’s more to the game than just the story mode. (Though it’s worth noting that you can crank up the difficulty at any point in the story.) I haven’t dug far enough into it to be sure, but from what I’ve heard there’s a HUGE amount of content packed away inside “Adventure Mode” -- and more content on the way, it seems. Basically you’re on an 8-bit map of Hyrule, and you clear squares of said map by completing stages with unique challenges/parameters. Clear it, and you not only earn the right to advance elsewhere, but gain classic Zelda items to reveal treasures and pathways. I’d bet -- or at least hope -- that there’s some real challenge in there, because this is a game that begs for some even matches. And I’m willing to look for them, if only because it’ll give me a chance to play as Zelda again.
It’s worth mentioning a couple of the other gameplay facets, so let’s go through those quickly. There’s an argument to be made that this is the best-looking Zelda game to date, and…yeah, that’s pretty much true (depending on how you consider Wind Waker HD). It’s not wanting for color, at the very least, and the character models/animations are the main draw, as they should be. It’s pretty much understood by everyone -- I hope -- that Zelda communicates nonverbally; that remains true here, and you know these people intimately just by watching the way they move.
Still, the game shines when it comes to the audio; there are remixes of plenty of classic tracks, from a rock-laden Skyloft theme to the dinosaur boss theme from Ocarina of time. (Side note: apparently “Gerudo” is pronounced GEH-rudo, not JUH-rudo. Go figure.) And it’s thanks to the sound design that a lot of the attacks feel so satisfying; there’s real weight and impact, especially with some of the heavier-hitting moves. Playing as Ganondorf should be all the proof you need for that.
So how does the GamePad fit into the mix? I can tell you right now that using it feels no different than using a standard pad -- so if you’re afraid it’ll somehow screw up your sick combos, don’t worry. It’s a hundred percent fine. By default, the GamePad’s screen is used to check your allies’ status and the most recent objectives, so at most you’ll only have to glance at it every now and then to avoid breaking the flow -- i.e. by hitting Start and sifting through menus.
That’s for single-player mode, though; when playing locally with a pal, one player HAS to use the GamePad, which means both players get a screen of their own. The framerate does seem to slow down a little, and my brother swears up and down that the graphics get worse for both players/screens. It’s hard to say what the issue is, but given that two-player mode in Pirate Warriors was practically unplayable due to slowdown, I suspect Koei Tecmo hasn’t quite figured out how to do multiplayer army-busting in HD. Or they have, but they’ve reached the limit on the number of trash mobs they can render at once.
But you’re not here to read about me talk about visuals and hardware (at least I hope not). You’re probably wondering how the story is. And yeah, it’s not bad. It’s not reinventing the wheel by any means, but there are some high notes.
As you’d expect, it hinges on the struggle between The Hero and the forces of darkness -- with the obvious wrinkle being the fact that there are other heroes this time, Zelda included. The main baddie this time is Cia, an improbably buxom sorceress who once used her power to guard the light and goodness, but ended up getting corrupted and now commands a dark army to assault Hyrule. It reaches a point where she’s in a position to wreck all of history -- the worlds of OoT, TP, and SS -- and so Link and the gang have to call in help from across the ages to save the day. And then Ganondorf takes over as the bad guy, because of course he does.
To be fair? When he takes over, HE TAKES OVER.
No matter her looks, I kind of like Cia. It’s not that often you get a straight-up villainess in games, so she’s a welcome change of pace. More to the point, her story is pretty interesting. She’s not necessarily out to take over the world; in fact, the reason why she gets corrupted is because she has a crush on Link. Fascination, unrequited love, whatever you want to call it -- she has it, hard. It reaches a point where one level has you exploring her base, and there are paintings of Link everywhere. She’s not much better than an observer, wanting something that she can never have.
It works on a meta-level, in a way; she’s an intruder on the canon, and has no shot as long as Link and Zelda are…you know, Link and Zelda. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind seeing someone like Cia in the next Zelda game. I want to see someone like her explored even further. What’s it like to crush on The Hero of ______, knowing you can never have him? How far is one willing to go to try and reject fate, and lay claim to something no matter how much it distorts the natural order? HW touches on it, but even so, there’s a full story to be had just by exploring what happens when a good and skilled person loses out just because of the “I’m a protagonist, lol!” rule.
…Hold on to that thought. I might come back to it someday.
HW also adds in new heroine Lana, who’s pretty much Koei Tecmo’s take on an idol singer. She seems like the type who’d grate on the nerves based on her appearance alone -- and while she’s got her justifiable detractors, I’m okay with her. (I could be biased, though, seeing as how one of her finishing moves is more or less a Rider Kick.) She has the same issue as Cia, i.e. she’s hungry for some Hero ass but can’t step in because Zelda. But as the light parallel to the sorceress, Lana knows better than to act on her selfish whims. When the fighting’s done, she willingly walks out on the warriors -- so in a way, there’s a fatalistic nature to her underneath her kawaii antics.
It’s worth noting that even if she’s the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to a fanfic insert in the franchise -- even if this is a non-canon offshoot -- she’s not crammed in aggressively. At one point she gets the Triforce of Power (temporarily), but the key distinction is that she doesn’t claim ownership of it the way Ganondorf would/does. In fact, in one cutscene it shows the pieces flying off; Link and Zelda claim it within their hands, but Lana puts it inside a bubble for easy transport. A minor distinction, but an important one all the same. She’s got her place in the plot by way of being a sorceress in her own right -- and thus something of a plot device -- but at no point does it feel like it’s turning into The Legend of Lana. This is still Link and Zelda’s show. And that may be the case here more than any other point in the canon.
Why? Because this might be the first time Link’s had a definitive character flaw.
I’ve argued before that Link has more of a personality besides being a blank slate, but even if there’s evidence to support my claims (and there is, arguably), there’s a difference between interpreting a character and seeing a character’s traits in the nude. Conjecture does not equal confirmation. So yes, while SS Link is a lover scorned by fate and Majora’s Mask Link is a veteran forced to come to grips with power and powerlessness alike, those things can only do so much. There’s still a subset of people who think that “Link needs a voice” -- and I’d bet that a number of those people would prefer for Link to speak or act on his own to prove conclusively what type of person he is. That’s a fair point, in some cases.
But despite his muteness, HW does something that Nintendo should REALLY consider doing in the future. In this game, Link is The Hero. He may start off as a knight in training, but he’s just flat-out better than everyone else, and more fortunate to boot. He’s handsome! He’s strong! He’s chosen by the Triforce, and by extension the goddesses! He draws Zelda’s eye! He gets to skip basic training and go straight to fighting the good fight (even though he’s ostensibly broken every protocol by the end of the first level)! He gets to pal around with a smorgasbord of beautiful women! He gets to use the Master Sword! He gets told by everyone how much of a pretty little snowflake he is!
Given that, it’s no wonder he gets a swelled head.
Once he gets the Master Sword -- and the power that comes with it, in both story and gameplay -- he’s convinced that the Hyrule forces have pretty much won. And on top of that, he can effectively go one-man-army on all of Cia’s forces. There’s even a cutscene showing him with a little swordsman swagger -- as if fighting the good fight is more about being able to show off.
Naturally, he pays for it almost immediately; having a directly-stated character flaw makes him the perfect target for some dark magic -- which is to say, the spawning of a tireless army of Dark Links. Only by keeping his pride and ego under control -- and realizing/accepting the help of his fellow warriors -- does he resolve the situation. It’s cheesy to have the power of friendship pop in, sure, but what do you expect from a game called Hyrule Warriors?
It’s a turn in the story that I really dig. I just wish there was more to it.
Exploring the faults in Link’s character, again, could make for a game in its own right. And it could have happened in HW, but didn’t. Oh, sure, Link gets his character development, but it’s an extremely compressed version of it. I would have loved seeing Link get cockier and cockier from the start of the game to the big turning point, but that doesn’t really happen here. It’s largely contained within the span of a level, two tops. It’s not a flattering thought when the narrator pretty much has to tell you between levels that Link is getting cocky, and then you find yourself saying “Wait, was that a thing?” It’s a real missed opportunity.
That all said, I suspect this is the best possible story we could have gotten. The good bits are there, even if they’re not used to their fullest -- and I’d like to think that counts for something. There is a certain level of glee in knowing that you can bring heroes (and villains!) of Zeldas past into the fray for one big toss-up. And taken as-is? The story isn’t exactly bad. It’s not exactly nuanced, sure, but hey. It does what it’s supposed to do. Besides, this is one of the rare instances where Koei Tecmo can’t just crib off of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for its story. It’s a miracle that HW even came together, given what other stories the company has penned.
I’d think that people decided whether or not they wanted Hyrule Warriors the second they finished reading the title. Do you want Zelda however you can get it? It’s yours. Do you want some Musou action? There you go. Do you hate one, the other, or both? Then stay away. It’s pretty much as simple as that. But for what it’s worth? This isn’t even remotely close to being the best Zelda game ever, but it’s the best Musou game I’ve played yet. And trust me, I’ve played a lot of Musou games.
It’s worth noting, as one last bit, that a huge swath of the playable cast is female -- so if you’re desperate for representation however you can get it, then this game might be worth a look. If nothing else, you can enact a scenario where Princess Zelda saves the day. That’s got to count for something, right?
And that’ll do it for this installment. What’s next?
YEAAAAAAAAAAH! Who’s ready to flock off some feather-faces?!
Yes. I successfully butchered that line. Then again, was it ever un-butchered to begin with?
*nightmarish chorus of fallen angels resumes*