The Legend of Zelda isn't a series that puts story front and center, but Nintendo feeds us unusually large chunks of characterization in 2017's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Since Breath of the Wild revolves around the destruction of Hyrule at Calamity Ganon's evil trotters, it makes sense the game has more to say about its going-ons.
Breath of the Wild's story fuels Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, the latest musou game for the Nintendo Switch from Omega Force and Koei Tecmo. Breath of the Wild is a game about failure and attempting to fix said blunder; Age of Calamity is about the struggle to prevent said disaster before it happens and examining how it all (inevitably) goes wrong. Age of Calamity's journey is fun, fulfilling, and full of neat story twists that sometimes get a little dark.
Age of Calamity takes place 100 years before the events of Breath of the Wild. Its story, which is dished out in between segments where Link and his fellow warriors send wave after wave of enemies to their deaths, fills in some of Breath of the Wild's gaps. Calamity Ganon is on the verge of rising again, and through the early hours of Age of Calamity, the Kingdom of Hyrule scrambles to do what it can to prevent the resurrection. The Sheikah toil with magic-based technology, Princess Zelda sets out to find Champions who can pilot the gigantic Divine Beasts, and everyone keeps an eye out for the legendary knight who is supposed to be able to wield the Sword that Seals the Darkness. (Pssst—it's Link.) It's not a spoiler to say everything eventually goes sideways,but that doesn't keep Age of Calamity from changing the tale in unexpected ways.
For the uninitiated, "musou" is a term that describes an action-heavy game that centers around cutting down enemies by the dozens. It's usually applied to Koei Tecmo's Dynasty Warrior games and its spin-offs, e.g. Dragon Quest Heroes and Persona 5 Scramble. Musou games are engineered to blow off stress by letting players dispatch waves of enemies with a variety of weapons and oft-overblown special attacks. Most fans of Breath of the Wild won't have a problem jumping on Age of Calamity for their Zelda fix—it's going to be a while before we hear any updates about Breath of the Wild 2—but musou games aren't necessarily everyone's cup of red potion because they tend to get repetitive. Mainline 3D Zelda games admittedly share some DNA with musou titles, as both involve a lot of action-based gameplay (the first Hyrule Warriors game had no trouble finding an audience), but Age of Calamity's battle system is necessarily shallower than Breath of the Wild's.
Among other things, Breath of the Wild is famous for its complex physics engine, which lets players pull off crazy stunts with the Magnesis Sheikah rune. As you might expect, those crazy physics-based kills are off the table in Age of Calamity. The Magnesis rune does come into play often, as Link and his entourage can use it to stall rampaging enemies and smack them while they're frozen, but the enemies don't go flying off to the horizon when Magnesis wears off. They simply stagger, which gives Link (or one of his many warrior pals) a chance to jump in and slice chunks from their defenses.
That's not to say Age of Calamity has a bad battle system, it just different from the mechanics that drive Breath of the Wild's fights—and rest assured, it's pure musou. That mostly means clearing out maps that are overrun with brainless foot soldiers and the bigger, nastier monsters that control them. Each map has a main objective that needs to be completed. Some are as easy as clearing a path for someone who needs a safe escort. Others are long hauls that pit you against Age of Calamity's nastiest beasts, like Hinoxes and Lynels.
Link has a large roster of friends who can join him on most missions (and as per the first Hyrule Warriors, he sometimes recruits unexpected company), but I prefer sticking to Link whenever I can. He can wield numerous weapons, but his sword gets the job done just fine, especially when he upgrades to the Master Sword. The Y button executes a light attack, which can be changed with the X button's stronger attacks, then topped off with a special ZR button move. When I encounter mobs as Link, I slash into the horde with a few Y taps, follow up with the X button's spin attack, then sometimes hit ZR to fire a hail of arrows at airborne Bokoblins as they fall back to earth. It's fun as hell. ("Stop! Stop! They're already dead!")
I've said in the past that I'm not the world's biggest musou fan, but I can't deny the simple thrill of driving my enemies before me and hearing the lamentations of their women. It's also deeper than it looks. Whittling down a strong enemy's shield gauge offers up a chance to strike with a "weak point attack," which is easy when the boss of an overrun outpost is a low-level Moblin. Stakes become much more dire when Lynels start lending their immeasurable strength to Ganon's fight. Link and his friends must adjust their attack patterns accordingly and make use of items like Wizzrobe wands, which can halt a relentless attack by burning, freezing, or electrifying their targets.
They also need to take advantage of the myriad resources scattered on Hyrule's map. Sadly, there's no opportunity to walk freely through the realm's rolling fields, but placing the cursor over any of the map icons will reveal a request or a challenge that yields rewards. There are dozens of smaller battle missions that can be completed outside the main story, which yield materials like food, minerals, and Rupees. The spoils of Link's battles can be used to fulfil citizens' requests, which unlocks new moves and upgrades for Link and his friend. These requests are explained via snippets of text that are quite detailed and bring players a little closer to Hyrule's population. Link might supply the ingredients a homesick merchant needs to emulate a dish his mother made, or he might chip in the items an aspiring shopkeeper needs to open up a new stall (which Link can patronize for items, dyes, and more). It's disappointing there's no way to travel Hyrule and speak with these characters face-to-face, but Age of Calamity does a good job bringing life to the static countrywide with its little stories.
In fact, I imagine it's these instances of world-building and storytelling that will draw Breath of the Wild fans to Age of Calamity. Rest assured, there are well-rendered cutscenes that keep in-game events bopping along and arousing your curiosity about what comes next. Most of the story interludes in Age of Calamity feature full voice acting, and there's a Japanese option for anyone who wants it. I'd recommend giving the English voices another try. They were lackluster in Breath of the Wild, but the actors have clearly sunk deeper into their roles for Age of Calamity. Even meek, breathless Zelda sounds stronger and more confident this time, though voice actress Patricia Summersett still sounds like she's trying to find her way with the part. On the other end, Master Kohga, the beer-bellied leader of the deadly Yiga clan, is a riot. His performance and antics made me laugh out loud more than once.
Age of Calamity is a great musou, but it's still a musou. For anyone who's on the fence about the genre, i.e. myself, Age of Calamity's creative selection of characters, strong story, and myriad tasks for Hyrule's citizens really ties together the deep satisfaction of dispatching bosses and their seething mobs.
That said, Age of Calamity still carries some of the problems associated with the genre. Frame rates tend to drop like rocks during heated battles, and the enemy lock-on system offers naught but clipping and up-close chaos when Link is backed into a corner. Like Breath of the Wild, Age of Calamity is very pretty in its distinct way, but it's hard to ignore the occasional chug-a-lug that creeps in, especially with the (otherwise cool) missions that involve piloting the Guardians' kaiju-sized divine beasts and stomping on enemies by the hundreds.
Maybe all the talk about new consoles and their blistering frame rates has tainted my outlook, or maybe the Switch is showing its age and a faster, sleeker Age of Calamity will be a notable mention whenever the fabled Switch Pro arrives.
It's clearly going to be some time before we get to play the real follow-up for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but Age of Calamity is a juicy stopgap that's satisfying to dig into.. It's just a good, fulfilling action game wrapped around a compelling tale. There are certainly worse ways to vent months of pent-up 2020 frustration.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity isn't The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2, but it's a great musou game with a lot of content for starved fans of Breath of the Wild. Even if you're a Zelda fan who can take or leave musou games, Age of Calamity is worth taking. However, occasional slowdown and frame drops, especially in handheld mode on the Switch Lite, make it clear the Switch is aging quickly.