Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is coming soon to Nintendo Switch, where a demo is available now.
This time last week, I didn't think Age of Calamity was a game that ought to exist.
Now I'm less convinced.
Let me back up a tick.
This isn't meant to be me ragging on the Musou genre as a whole. I'm not going to sit here and groan about how games like Pirate Warriors and the original Hyrule Warriors only skate by on fanservice. Or how they manage to reduce widely-varied casts down to a set of different-flavored melee combos. Or how their gameplay as a whole gets mind-numbingly repetitive.
Except for the fact that I just did exactly that.
The thing is,
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is actually fun.
Sure, I have this honeymoon phase with just about any game, especially those built for Hours and Hours of Content™. And the demo is… well, a demo. Like two hours of something that’s meant to span between sixteen and sixty, depending on your meticulousness. It’s enough to get a feel for things, though.
And it’s enough that I really do believe that Age of Calamity could be fun from start to finish despite its genre. To date, I've always found Warriors titles kinda humdrum. Here, if actually feels like a game with substantial variety. What a concept!
For a start, all three characters so far have their own fun, unique tools: Impa constructs a squad of shadow-clones on-the-fly, Zelda digs deep into gadgets and traps, and Link is predictable-but-useful. But they also have a second toolset – the four Runes from Breath of the Wild – that each uses just a little differently.
Take the bombs, for example. Link tosses 'em like you’d expect, because he’s The Hero. But Impa throws little bomb-grendades that draw enemies in before detonating – not unlike one of Sheik’s moves in Smash Bros. And Zelda’s is my favorite: she creates a little bomb-robot that marches across the field, dropping mini-bombs, then finally self-destructing.
And each has a unique action for all four of the Runes.
Even a lean cast of three somehow feels as alive as a line-up of ten self-same characters from the first Hyrule Warriors.
Then there’s the game's structure. Rather than the game punting you from field to field with only item management between levels, you have a map screen to return to. It’s peppered with little challenges, sidequests, and even rotating shops. Turns out that a game feels a lot less repetitive when it has more than one type of activity.
And have I mentioned the levels themselves? Even in just the very second one, the usual Musou “rack up kills, capture bases” pattern is upturned by a superboss that feels mobile, powerful, and threatening. You're not just dodging artillery or facing an enemy commander; you're tactically moving and planning around a threat until you can neutralize it.
That feels like an action-tactics game in a way that no other Musou ever has to me.
So… I may have judged too quickly. To hear Wallace Wells and his new pal Jimmy tell it:
But that's not Age of Calamity‘s only potential problem.
Unlike Austin, I really really don't want to visit Breath of the Wild‘s Hyurule again.
At least, not in this way.
You see, there's a very specific mix of things that made Breath of the Wild special for me. It's something that isn't just in its visual style or characters or open-world-y-ness, and it's something that games like Immortals and Genshin fail to capture.
Breath of the Wild is quiet. It's calm and mysterious.
Age of Calamity could retroactively make it less so.
On its own, in a silo, Age of Calamity could be a super-fun romp. Even a thrilling tale of a war doomed to fail. Nothing wrong with that.
But having it present will inevitably color how I look at the empty, desolate Hyrule of Breath of the Wild when I inevitably go back, either to the first game or to its much-awaited sequel.
Every time I would summit a hill in that game and find a new ruin, my imagination would flit alive. What was this area before Calamity Ganon struck? Did it used to be something larger and more significant? Is this natural decay, or a battle-scar?
I see the bird-people in Rito living so far and sequestered from the Zora in their domain. Were the races always so far apart? Did they used to co-mingle about Mabe Village? What would a multi-species society look like in a Hyrule at the height of its power?
So many possibilities.
But here's the thing:
Not all questions need to be answered.
Just think about why kids love dinosaurs.
We don't know exactly what they looked like. Paleontologists fill in most of the gaps, but there's some fundamentally unknowable things about them. So artists take it the last mile, painting them as giant, ferocious reptiles (despite the fact that they're probably more like pointy birds). We're given just enough to work with for our imaginations to conjure up what we individually would find most compelling.
We don't get excited about modern lizards or even big animals like elephants in quite the same way. We know them. There's no intrigue and little space for interpretation there.
And I fear that Age of Calamity will do the same thing to the world it leaves behind.
The beauty of Breath of the Wild‘s Hyrule is in its ma – its empty space, letting totems and structures stand all the more powerfully. They are their own context, and we can interpret them this way or that. An overgrown world past its prime can mean a dozen things to a dozen players – a tragic fall, nature's healing, or a place to rebuild.
Giving it new context takes some of that magic away from the player.
I don't get to wonder in amazement any more at how the sky-scraping Sheikah Towers came to be. Age of Calamity just showed me in a cutscene.
But it's not just filling in gaps that were previously, purposefully left open.
A New Age
The story of Age of Calamity, to its credit, still leaves some stuff open to the viewer. Sheikah technology is still treated as a mystery, a precursor to even this story. And we can't free-roam Hyrule here, so it's not internet sleuths will be doing compare-and-contrast jobs to totally undo Breath of the Wild‘s glorious sense of mystery, thank goodness.
But it's still making some… strong choices. Skip the next paragraph if you're spoiler-averse.
Being a slice of the game itself, we get a glimpse into Age of Calamity's story. It actually starts during the era of Breath of the Wild, following an R2-D2-like Sheikah robot as he travels back through time. So everybody knows that the war is doomed to fail already? Does casually introducing time travel put this safely in an alternate universe from the world of Breath of the Wild? Or are the writers here just pointlessly complicating the world by introducing a much-maligned pop-sci-fi trope? I'm having a hard time figuring out how this is necessary, but I suppose it at least makes the story a little unique.
Even with that said, Age of Calamity could well prove my pessimism misplaced. It's mostly restrained where it needs to be, and it's consciously avoiding the pitfalls of its predecessor.
All we've got is a couple hours of the game, after all. Its story could absolutely still self-destruct, taking a chunk of Breath of the Wild‘s appeal down with it. And there's little worse than a great experience that's tainted after the fact.
But the core is still there. It's strong enough to convince me – I'll be playing Age of Calamity one way or the other. They got me.
I'm still not sure if it'll totally earn its place as an interjection to an already-complete story.
But I'm certainly more willing to find out now.