Hyrule Warriors is one of those delightful gaming mash-ups that no one knew they wanted, and for better and worse, it entirely lives up to its parentage. It’s exactly as advertised: a massive-scale, Dynasty Warriors-style beat-’em-up set in the Legend of Zelda universe. You take armies of Hylean knights and a random smattering of main characters from the series across vast battlefields, and proceed to unleash all sorts of vicious, free-flowing flash and flair in your arsenal to mow down legions of baddies while taking over forts, protecting VIPs, laying siege to enemy strongholds, and bringing colossal magical beasts to your aid.
All the staples of the Zelda games are present: the weaponry, the classic enemies, the dungeons, the quirky collection of side characters and races. Straight-up fighters like Link, Sheik, and Impa (who finally gets a chance to do more than stand in a cutscene and glower, and may, in fact, be the most badass character in the game) are joined by weird and wild characters like Twilight Princess’s Midna and newly created magical girl Lana, who don’t so much fight as cast a series of spells that almost feel like auditions for the Smash Bros. roster. The familiar melodies soar, amped up at the right moments with a fun injection of Dynasty Warriors’s endearingly dorky fusion of rock and techno. The heightened palette of color and character design has never been more warm and welcoming. From the first minutes of slicing through dozens of goblins in the Hylian fields, it feels like a perfect marriage.
Under closer scrutiny, though, the marriage doesn’t necessarily fall apart as it does show its frayed ends. While there’s never been a weak Zelda game as part of the main series (and, yes, if Nintendo gets to pretend Link: Faces of Evil and Zelda: Wand of Gamelon never happened, so should we all), Dynasty Warriors, from day one, has been a series where you beat one game over the course of a weekend, then sit back while Koei Tecmo continues to make that same game for the next five years. Despite having Romance of the Three Kingdoms, China’s closest equivalent to The Lord of the Rings, as a backdrop, the franchise has been one of diminishing, less engrossing returns since the first game. And by the time the credits roll in Hyrule Warriors, it comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome in the same way.
The initial joy that comes from mashing buttons and watching Link and his cohorts slash down mindless scores of imps, goblins, lizardmen, wizards, and dragons gives way to a steadily increasingly pile of nitpicks when repeated over several hours. Primary among them being Dynasty Warriors’s usual problem with enemy AI. Stand still long enough and you start to notice most of your allies and enemies are there as destructible mannequins. They don’t move, they don’t attack, they just stand there and, apparently, just attack each other telepathically. That does change a bit later, when the big Zelda enemies like bosses, Lizalfos, and Big Poes start showing up, and the button mashing gives way to the vestiges of strategy, planning, and testing the reflexes, but for most of your playtime, you can tiptoe through the tulips with hordes of enemies standing agape around you without ever taking a scratch.
This is fairly normal for the kind of old-school experience one expects when you pick up a Dynasty Warriors title, but on the flipside of the coin, the game attempts to inject depth where none was ever needed when it comes to how to upgrade characters and weaponry. A rudimentary crafting system is in place here, allowing players to forge and combine weapons for maximum effectiveness, use item pickups from the field to create badges and potions, or just plain spend rupees to bring a new character up to the highest level another has achieved. Where previous Dynasty Warriors games allowed you to grind away and let a certain level of experience and spectacular feats enhance characters and weapons, success in Hyrule Warriors is measured a great deal on how much loot you can scrape up from your enemies. It’s a trend in character customization in games that’s barely tolerable in most other games, less so in a game that stops just short of asking players to insert two tokens to continue.
But that’s the nature of the beast. Dynasty Warriors’s joys have always been proudly simplistic and arcade. Zelda’s, of course, aren’t. The perfect marriage is a perfect fit inasmuch as reducing Zelda’s accessible brand of fantasy to killing beasties en masse doesn’t seem like a stretch, but neither Nintendo, Koei Tecmo, nor Team Ninja appear to know how to make it something more, despite the fact that both masters being served here—mindless melee slaughter and light, fluffy fantasy—seem to want that exact thing. The game does have a few tricks up its sleeve beyond the main story (the best being a delightful treasure-hunt mode all over the original Legend of Zelda’s map for new loot), but for all the pomp and circumstance, for all the obvious care and polish poured into freeing Zelda from its stiff, adventure-game shackles, and bringing it to a genre of immediate gratification, is it wrong to want more?
The answer might actually be yes. The greatest praise one can give Hyrule Warriors is that it makes one realize just how ripe Nintendo’s many interpretations of Hyrule are for new kinds of adventure besides their established norm, and they should be encouraged to explore those options. Even if it does make one worry about Nintendo diluting everything special about Zelda, like they have by making Mario do everything from a race around in go karts to teaching spelling, there’s a long way Nintendo has to go to get to that point. If this is the kind of dalliance away from the norm we can expect from letting someone else play in Nintendo’s sandbox once in a while, it’s going to be a long, winding, and absurdly fun journey getting there.